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My Best Dead Friend

A Chat With Anya Tate-Manning

Story by Elissa Blake and published on Audrey Journal

Dunedin, New Zealand. A small city with an international reputation for being friendly, scenic and rugby-mad. Tourists flock to take off-kilter selfies on the world’s steepest street. Dunedin’s University of Otago is world-renowned.

But for actor and writer Anya Tate-Manning, who came of age in Dunedin in the late 1990s and has written a play about the experience in My Best Dead Friend, Dunedin is a place with a dark underbelly.

“I remember it as quite a violent place,” Tate-Manning says. “Dunedin’s a small town that loves its rugby and its beer and there’s a toxic masculinity that goes with all that. When I was at school, that’s what my friends and I were railing against – the boofhead culture.”

On the eve of graduating from high school, Tate-Manning and her small group of friends rebelled against that culture the only way they knew how. In the dead of night, fired by passion, the writings of Karl Marx, Allen Ginsberg Howl, and the idea that they would start a revolution among the citizens of Dunedin, the five friends took to the streets.

“We went through the city from midnight until dawn chalking poetry on the footpaths and roads,” she says. “While we were doing it, we felt awesome.”

Come sunrise, however, it all felt a lot less so – though what exactly happened the morning after is a secret Tate-Manning would like to keep for the show.

“We were so embarrassed by the whole thing afterwards that none of us could even talk about it,” she says.

“As I got older, I wasn’t even sure that what we did was real, or if I had imagined it. And so when I decided to make the show, I talked to all my other friends and they all had different accounts of what happened. I started to connect the stories together to try to figure out what it was like to be 17, with your friends, and ready to change the world.”

Featuring the words of New Zealand’s leading poets and music ranging in tone from Dunedin indie rock legends The Verlaines to the Back Street Boys, My Best Dead Friend celebrates one heady night of teen spirit and those us-against-the-world friendships that bond young adults who feel out of step with the mainstream.

But by 2012, one of those friends was dead. Creating a performance that harked back to the time they were closest and in some ways most alive was a way to process that tragedy, Tate-Manning says.

“I find the sharing of that grief quite joyful. What I wanted to do with My Best Dead Friend was to show people that talking about grief doesn’t have to be something heavy. It can be something celebratory and fun.”

First seen in Perth in 2016, My Best Dead Friend has occupied Tate-Manning for the better part of three years. All of the people it depicts have seen the show. “We’ve played in Dunedin and in Melbourne, where one of them lives now,” Tate-Manning says. “I’ve deliberately taken it to them.”

My Best Dead Friend arrives at Riverside Theatres after a sell-out season in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Much of that fun comes from drawing with chalk on huge blackboards.

“I’m actually not very good at drawing myself so we [director/co-creator Isobel MacKinnon] decided to get the audience to do it,” Tate-Manning says. “So I describe the people in the story and I get people in the audience to draw them for me.”

As a result, each show is different.

“Some people are just really up for it. In Edinburgh, they are just completely up for it. In New Zealand, they really don’t want to. But it’s not that compulsory kind of audience participation. I invite people to draw and they don’t have to come up on the stage or say anything.”

It’s a story of a particular time and place, Tate-Manning says, but it’s one that people from many other places have bonded with as the show has toured.

“Lots of people come and talk to me afterwards and say, I grew up in that kind of town, or I felt like you were talking about my town. There’s something quite universal about the experience of being young and bursting to get out and be free.

“The energy that comes from being young and frustrated and feeling like you’re disconnected from the rest of the world is one of the things under the show.”

My Best Dead Friend plays in the Lennox Theatre at Riverside on October 11 & 12.

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