Phil Ormsby and Alex Ellis, founders of Flaxworks theatre company, and director Anna Marbrook are working together for the first time to bring Carol & Nev to the stage, premiering at The Basement theatre in Auckland, from June 15. RENEE LIANG talks to Alex and Phil about creative coupling.

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RENEE: How did you get the idea for Carol and Nev?

ALEX: We were driving on the trips between towns while touring Murder by Chocolate and we just started pretending to be these two characters...Carol & Nev...they just seemed to take on a life of their own with back stories, family... they have changed a bit since then though!

R: So you were devising while on the road? So you were making a play about a road trip while on a road trip...

PHIL: Exactly! They say write about what you know!

R: So Phil, youíre listed as the writer... how much do you write versus devise with Alex?

P: We talk about what we want to do in the play, throw around ideas in a very general way then I go off and write a draft which we both mull over and then I go away and start again and so on until we have agreed or worn each other out.

R: And you guys are partners in real life as well as on stage... so when does the work stop? Do you set boundaries for when you work and when you are normal people?

A: We are never normal people! It is very hard to switch off, you find yourself working 24/7 a lot. And you do have to force yourself to take off your Flaxworks hats and put on your normal people hats.

R: Were your two previous plays (Biscuit & Coffee and Murder by Chocolate) also written using the same devising/writing/feedback technique?

P: Yep, pretty much. And of course both plays changed as we toured and we learned things about the way the productions worked in front of different audiences. For this play of course weíve also done a lot of script work with, initially Conrad Newport during the development stages and quite a major revision with Anna for the Auckland season.

R: So how long has Carol & Nev been in the making?

P: They first turned up in the van in January 2008 but the first draft didnít appear until August. Theyíve been coming and going since then.

R: And how much has it changed since they first apparitioned?

A: For one thing Carol is dead, and she definitely didnít start out like that! They started off like big cartoon New Zealand tourists (tourists in their own country) but itís now become a lot more of a personal journey for them both.

P: For me the story just got a lot more depth and so we didnít have to try so hard for the funny stuff it was in the characters relationship with each other and with us.

R: Is it a comedy?

A: Yes...

P: I hope so, Iíve been laughing at Alex! The nicest thing about the story for us it has a bit of everything.

R: Iím intrigued by how you guys function as a creative couple. If I may ask, how did you first get together and how does the creative relationship work?

A: We met at the theatre! and challenged each other from the start to just get out there, and try and do it ourselves. Which lead to our first play Biscuit & Coffee. We learned a lot about each other through that process Ė mainly that neither of us ever give up! and that we both push/support each other in the right ways. I guess itís like any relationship, you both have your strengths and weaknesses. I guess ours just seem to complement each other.

R: I gather that Phil is mainly the writer and technician and Alex is mainly the producer and publicist... how much do your roles morph into each other and how do you manage this?

A: As a general rule we do try and stick to our particular roles but thereís always crossover... Iím always asking Philís advice on things and to proof read press releases etc and he's very good at designing posters and the artwork for the shows so he does a lot of that side of things. But you do have to try and stick to your own jobs otherwise it becomes a bit of a nightmare.

R: True! Flaxworks is one of the few New Zealand theatre companies set up to tour extensively... can you talk about how you set up your tours?

P: Seriously, it wasnít the master plan, itís just something we did and continue to do because we love it. When we started Alex just grabbed a map and started ringing towns. Wherever people were polite or helpful thatís where we went. We made a few spectacular blunders along the way but the people we meet are all enthusiastic and we count a lot of them as good friends nowadays.

R: Where have you been? Both North and South Islands?

A: It would take too long to write them all! The only major places we havenít been are Gisborne and Christchurch and Invercargill but basically we have been everywhere else. From Oruru in the Far North to Gore. Over 50 different places throughout the country.

R: Wow. And Oz as well... Melbourne festival, did you go to any small towns there?

A: No we just went straight for the big smoke! We were there for the comedy festival this time, with Murder by Chocolate but we would love to tour Australia.

R: Has your work changed much over your three plays so far?

P: Each play gets more ambitious in content and scope. We are trying to learn and move forward simultaneously and each play offers up a whole new set of challenges as the size and scale of projects expand.

R: Phil Ė did you write plays before you met Alex and how has your writing changed since you started collaborating with her?

P: I had one play under my belt when I met Alex, an odd little two hander called Mud. I donít know that Alex has changed how I write so much as given me confidence to write more.

R: Do you see Flaxworks expanding in the future?

A: Definitely. Our long term plan is to go to more places, both here and overseas, to work with more people and to produce some spectacular theatre!

R: Any advice for people trying to set up a touring company? Any lessons learnt from your own experiences?

P: First piece of advice Ė donít do it for the money.

Second Ė donít give up when it looks bloody hopeless. It will get better.

Third Ė do not under any circumstances try to perform in Balclutha on the same night the Crusaders play the Highlanders in the semis especially if itís snowing and door sales only.

R: Any last words?

P: Oh yes, thousands of them...