“Some people think that acting is indulgent, but since time began, people have yearned for stories,” muses Yvette Parsons. “It’s what brings us together. Every story reflects your own experiences, so then you can then empathise with them. What would we do without actors? We need them.”
You likely recognise the actor and playwright from her role as Minerva McCaskill in Shortland Street, or maybe you’ve caught one of her award-winning stage shows such as the humorous, yet poignant, Silent Night, or the satirical Janeece Gunton: Herstory, co-written with Thomas Sainsbury. Current projects include roles in TVNZ OnDemand’s Educators and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog starring Kirsten Dunst and Benedict Cumberbatch. I ask Yvette if she has preference between acting on stage or the screen.
“I think stage,” she says. “It’s more exciting. It has the stops and starts of real life. It’s hard to explain. It’s a nebulous sort of thing, you’re in a theatre and there are invisible things going on between the actors and the audience. There’s a connection there, an electricity, and it spreads around.”
A scene in Herstory sees Yvette’s character enter the stage on a mobility scooter, and her entrance one night brought down the whole set. “But I didn’t stop,” she giggles. “I kept the show going! Tom and I still laugh about it all the time.”
Yvette’s infectious giggle makes many a welcome appearance throughout the interview—she clearly loves to chat almost as much as she loves to act, and, hilariously, often ends a tale with, “But don’t print that!” The actor is an engaging raconteur. Her forest of curls is tied into pigtails, that, coupled with a t-shirt emblazoned with the band Kiss hints at her sense of mischief; though her eyes, even when wide, sparking and smiling, occasionally betray a certain pathos. Yvette has spoken before about always having felt like an old soul, and I ask her more about this.
“I grew up in a rest home,” she says. “So, I was surrounded by old ladies and men since the day I was born. It had an effect upon me, witnessing them in different levels of decline. I developed a feeling for older people.”
Did they spoil you?
“No, it wasn’t like that. It was a medical hospital, so they were in various stages of dementia.”
Holidays were spent helping out around the rest home, and Yvette later worked there after finishing school—and is now, incidentally, the primary carer for her sick elderly mother.
That’s certainly an intense childhood.
“Yes, it was really. I remember crying about it as a child. But still, it’s good to care about people. I definitely drew on that experience when writing Silent Night.”
Her solo show, Silent Night, was voted best play by the Herald in 2010, and centres around an old lady spending Christmas Day, in a unit, alone. “She’s invited people around for sherry and mince pies, and she tell the story of her life to the audience as she gets everything ready,” says Yvette. “But no-one turns up. It’s a sad story, but beautiful and funny.”
The actor is drawn to fragile characters, she admits. Vulnerable characters. She’s fascinated with people’s foibles, with the psychology of it all. She became a mature student aged 38, studying sociology and film at television at Auckland University, where she met the then 18-year-old Thomas Sainsbury. “We just got on so well and have maintained a great friendship and working relationship ever since,” says Yvette. “I don’t use the word ‘proud’ very often, but I am very proud of doing that degree, especially as a solo mum.”
She dreamt of treading the boards for as long as she can remember, but never attended drama school. In her early 20s, Yvette ventured to London where she took comedy classes and “did a bit of theatre”, as well as played keyboards for the band Dead Can Dance. “They’re pretty huge now but were just starting out in those days,” she recalls. “We did a tour of Europe, then I got married, had a baby son and soon decided to return to New Zealand.”
Still, she played in a few punk bands around Auckland upon her return.
“It’s just what you did back then, it was exciting. Everyone was making their own music and making their own clothes. I had a great time. We were so anti-fashion and it was freeing. Everything is so sanitised now.”
You still hold that punk philosophy?
“It’s still a big part of me, but it’s hard to even run away anywhere anymore—there are cameras everywhere! I don’t know. Do all generations just get older and say, ‘Things were better in my day’? There are so many amazing things about the digital world, but it does feel like you have to fight harder to find something that is real.”
Another of her recent endeavours was a starring role in the play Lust Island, a send-up of the television show, Love Island. I ask about her thoughts on reality TV.
“I find it fascinating and boring. I do feel sorry for the generation growing up under that fame-seeking cloud. The best reaction is to send it up, so that people can look beyond it.”
Yvette credits her “trickster” mum for her “dark sense of humour”.
“The arts are so important. You can comment on society through comedy and theatre in a special way. It’s like being the joker in the old days, parodying the king in court and getting away with it. That’s power.”
She compares being on stage to being on a train journey that’s not going to stop, no matter how many lines are missed or messed up, which can be both scary and exhilarating all at once.
“It takes a great deal of energy, love, commitment and support to put on a theatre show. It’s not an easy thing to do and you don’t make nearly enough money. It’s a labour of love, which is fine, and it feels good in some ways to do it like that, but it’s hard. Artist have to live as well.”
She certainly wouldn’t do anything any differently though, for we are, after all, a product of our lives lived.
“Maybe I’d try to have been more confident,” she admits, “as that holds you back, being too scared to put your hand up. But most people are like that, and it’s a terrible waste of time. I’m more confident in a costume than I am being me.”
Yvette considers it an honour, “getting paid to be silly or to be someone else”, there’s nothing else she’d rather do.