new zealand electronic poetry centre


Alan Brunton

publications & biography

THE EVENING POST,     4 JUL 2002,    Edition 3,    Page 9.

Theatre revolutionary

Tom Cardy


Alan Mervyn Brunton, poet, editor, publisher, playwright, actor, director, film maker and performance artist: B Christchurch, Oct 14, 1946; m 1975 Sally Rodwell 1d; ed Hamilton BHS, Akld Univ, Vic Univ; ed Freed 1969, co-ed Spleen 1976-77 and Big Smoke 2000, co-fdr Red Mole Theatre 1974, co-dir Eye Of The Tiger 1985 and City Of Night 2000; albums Crossing The Tracks 1978 and 33 Perfumes Of Pleasure 1998; publns incl Messengers In Blackface 1973, Black & White Anthology 1976, Oh Ravachol 1978, And She Said 1984, New Order 1986, A Red Mole Sketchbook and Day For A Daughter 1989, Slow Passes and Romaunt Of Glossa 1991, Ephphatha 1994, Goin' To Djibouti 1996, Years Ago Today 1997, Comrade Savage 2000, Gonne Strange Charity 2000, Ecstasy 2001; d Amsterdam, June 27, 2002.

The Capital's international arts festival and numerous buskers have made Wellington a touch blasé about shows that throw theatre, music, dance, poetry, outlandish costumes and circus-style tricks into the mix. But go back nearly 30 years and Wellington audiences didn't know what had hit them with the Red Mole experimental theatre group.

Alan Brunton, founder with his wife Sally Rodwell, took on a wide variety of artists along the way, including poet Ian Wedde, musician Jan Preston, actor Cathy Downes and musician Midge Marsden. They ignored the usual stuffy boundaries between the performing arts - and equally stuffy venues – and turned theatre, cabaret, music and dance upside down. Brunton's talent and influence as a pioneer performance artist - and mentor - was considerable. Red Mole shows were known for their openness, frenetic energy and – a Brunton trademark - large dollops of humour.

The first show Whimsy And The Seven Spectacles - to Stravinsky's March Of The Elephants - was held at Victoria University's student union in November 1974. Wellington Town Hall and theatre venues were later used, but Red Mole staged shows in the last places people ever expected to see avant garde theatre - James Smith's store, parks, nightclubs, rock concerts, and, in the summer, country halls and motor camps.

A Wellington venue which fitted Red Mole's iconoclastic bent - and one of it's biggest shows - was a late night stint in 1977 at Carmen's transvestite strip club, The Balcony, on the corner of Victoria and Harris streets. The line up for Red Mole's Golden Hits was a Who's Who of Kiwi talent, including Marsden, singer Beaver, Wayne Mason, Barry Saunders, Andy Anderson, Mary Jane O'Reilly, Rick Bryant - and Carmen.

"It was partly a sleazy audience if you like, but it also turned into an audience for their work," Wedde recalls. "People would go there not just to watch the trannies strip, but also to watch the show."

Red Mole had already touched a wider audience the same year, opening shows for Split Enz. They later were in line-ups with Th' Dudes, Citizen Band and The Suburban Reptiles. In 1978 Sam Neill directed a 50-minute documentary film On The Road With Red Mole.

Brunton's inspiration to write started early. At 14 he read Colin Wilson's The Outsider, which detailed the likes of Van Gogh and Nijinsky. "At the same time (at school), I'm being thrashed by sadistic wretches, beaten with rattan canes . . . This is what's going on as I discover I want to write," he said last year. But other teachers, who were Czech refuges, taught him Rilke and he read Shelley and Blake. Brunton contributed poems to student magazines from 1968 while completing a masters degree in English at Victoria. In 1969 he helped found Freed magazine - editing the first two issues of experimental poetry and writing. The same year at an avant garde cabaret in Auckland he hammered bits of wood together to make the word poem.

Brunton spent three years in Europe and Asia from 1970, and had his first book Messengers In Blackface published. When he founded Red Mole in 1974 Brunton would sketch out a scenario and let the actors fill it. It was some time until he was confident to write complete scripts. He ended up writing and performing about 45.

For 10 years from 1978 Red Mole were based in the United States and Europe. In New York their base was the Lower East Side at Avenue C and Ninth St – in the 1980s a rough Puerto Rican neighbourhood. They performed on the streets, with New York-based Kiwi band The Drongos, at a theatre in the then-sleazy Times Square and Riker's Island prison. Washington DC dates included a children's theatre and Thanksgiving Day at the New Zealand Embassy.

Brunton, Rodwell and daughter Ruby - born while in New Mexico - returned to Wellington in 1988. He continued to perform under Red Mole and other guises here and overseas, and to write, edit and collaborate with other artists. He founded publishing company Bumper Books to produce some of his and other writers' works. He was Canterbury University's writer in residence in 1998.

He helped found the Save Erskine College Trust to protect the historic building near his Island Bay home, directed short films, recorded albums, and support young Wellington musicians and performers, particularly The Space venue in Newtown. Much of their work has been inspired or influenced by Red Mole.

Brunton died after suffering heart attack in Amsterdam - one of his favourite cities. He was touring the Red Mole show Grooves Of Glory with Rodwell and young The Space musician Jeff Henderson. The show had already been well-received in Oslo. Red Mole were due to perform in Warsaw and New York.

* Sources: Post library, JAAM 16, Brief 19, I Wedde, M Leggott, M McNamara, M Edmond.

Last updated 08 July, 2002