The Basement Theatre Christmas Show in all its glory.

A strap-on covered in peanut butter: An oral history of the Basement Christmas Show

The Basement Theatre Christmas Show is celebrating its tenth year as the most fun you can have in December. To acknowledge the achievement, Basement regular Sam Brooks spoke to the writers, actors and audiences from across the decade.

Jacinda Ardern playing Helen Clark. Rose Matafeo playing Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Chris Parker, for one brilliant night, playing Tilda Swinton. These are the memories of the Basement Christmas Show and its famous revolving door of celebrity guest appearances – one of the most iconic festive events of the season.

For those of you who have never tried to find a park on Grey’s Ave five minutes before a show starts, the Basement Theatre began as a venue in 2008 for emerging and established theatre artists, and has over the years evolved to be one of Auckland’s key performing arts hubs.

The venue has since taken on a risk-share model and caters to audiences of theatre, dance, comedy, live art and spoken word; over 500 shows have been programmed at the space in the past decade. It’s a venue where many of New Zealand’s best performers and artists got their start – if you’ve seen a local actor on television recently, chances are they’ve performed a show for twenty people at the Basement at one point in their career. It’s a key part of not just Auckland’s, but New Zealand’s artistic ecosystem, and the annual Christmas show – now also in its tenth year – is a cornerstone of the venue’s programming.

The format is simple: two of Auckland’s funniest writers write a show that parodies a key part of the Christmas canon. This year it’s written by Rose Matafeo and Alice Snedden, but the writers of previous years include Nic Sampson, Tom Sainsbury, Chris Parker, Natalie Medlock and Dan Musgrove. Basement Theatre’s had its own Christmas Carol, its own Santa Claus, two of its own Jesus Christs (Part II and Christ Almighty) and even one of its own Dotcoms. This year it’s the dreaded Christmas work party.

The brilliant genius of the Christmas show is that unknown factor – what celebrity are you going to see that night, and are they going to fuck it up? I’ve seen Morgana O’Reilly play herself in The Opening Night Before Christmas, I’ve seen Julia Croft descend from trapdoor as Kate Sheppard, and I’ve seen Lily from season three of The Bachelor come dangerously close to making a racist joke in Santa Claus. These provide some of the most memorable moments of the entire theatrical year, ones that can be seen through the haze of quickly drunken prosecco at your stage-side table. I’ll never forget Rhys Mathewson doing a beat-perfect body-percussion dance to ‘Touch It’ in Jesus Christ Part II to a shocked Gareth Williams.

But to many in the community – myself included – it’s not just a silly time. It’s a chance for the community to come together and celebrate the year that’s been. It’s our own month long Christmas party. It’s the one time of year you can pop down to the Basement bar and hang out with the friends you don’t get to see for the rest of the year because you’ve all been busy busting your asses making theatre for little-to-no money.

And it’s a key part of what keeps Basement Theatre – a charitable trust – ticking along and ever upwards; the show acts as the venue’s key annual fundraiser with the funds going right back into the theatre. Since I’ve started being a part of the community, I’ve seen Basement move its box office from behind the bar to its own space. I’ve seen the toilets get renovated twice over. I’ve seen an awning installed and a chairlift put in.

These funds don’t just go into the venue, though – they also go back into the pockets of artists. They fund programmes that actively foster the development of local artists and their work, like the Ideas in Residence programme which supports three emerging makers over the course of a year, and the PlayScience programme which helps workshop a new piece of work. These are just as essential to the community as a month-long Christmas party, if not more so, and cements the show’s importance as a key cornerstone of the community and the industry.

This year’s show, Work Do, celebrates the tenth year of the Basement Christmas Show. In honour of that anniversary – god knows it’s hard enough for anything in theatre to reach 10 years, let alone become a tradition – I’ve asked a few key players from the past decade’s Christmas shows to reflect, comment and dish some scandalous dirt.

Including, yes, a certain Prime Minister herself.



Just some of the celebrities on display in The Basement Christmas Carol, circa 2013.

Michele Hine, actor, former chair of Basement Theatre Trust Board: Initially the Christmas Show was vital as a fundraiser because we desperately needed new toilets, and then dressing rooms. So the money we were raising was to pay for things for the artists themselves. It was only after that the money was used for things the theatre needed to be a better experience for punters, like air conditioning and lights.

Sam Snedden, former venue manager of Basement Theatre, director of The Opening Night Before Christmas: People were passing out, literally passing out because it was so hot. Michael Hurst famously dragged an unconscious punter into the bar during the season of The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? (back when Silo was in the venue), got her sorted, and then said “I’m going back in” as he strode back into the theatre.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand, actor, living legend: In Toys one night an actor didn’t turn up – he assumed it wasn’t his night. So at 7:50pm we were sans an important cast member. There was another actor in the foyer who’d already played the role but he was too drunk to perform.

Fortunately the original actor, who’d hot-footed it from home, turned up. Unfortunately, it was 8.20pm by the time the show went up.

Let’s just say that stage management was somewhat ‘loose’ in those days.

Nic Sampson, co-writer of Mega-Christmas and A Basement Christmas Carol: Apart from raising money for fancy shit like ‘toilets’ and ‘air-conditioning’ in the theatres, the shows have always been these big, dumb, loud celebrations.

Sophie Roberts, artistic director of Silo Theatre, director of A Basement Christmas Carol: It’s a really great way for artists to connect with each other. With the big revolving casts [and] entirely new casting combos, the show chemistry is different every night. Performers get to meet [new] people, or work with people they haven’t for a while, or be on stage with their best mates. It’s fun, it’s like a big end of year party.

The cast of Jesus Christ Part II.

Rhys Mathewson, comedian, performer in many Basement Christmas Shows: It’s the only Christmas tradition that’s actually any fun!

Elise Sterback, executive director of Basement Theatre: We’ve always prided ourselves on making the most irreverent Christmas show in town. So much about Christmas is earnest and cheesy, [so] we wanted to offer Auckland something that even the Christmas haters would love – especially the Christmas haters.

Gabrielle Vincent, programming director of Basement Theatre:  The guest cast member has been a way for us to welcome back old friends who might not be making work for Basement any more but still want to support what we do. It’s always been a time to bring the wider acting and theatre community together and reconnect at the end of the year.

Charlie McDermott, founder of Basement Theatre: We worked out that we needed some famous names to sell the show, but they couldn’t commit to huge amounts of rehearsals or performance weeks, so the idea of a rotating celebrity cast was formed. And it worked.

Sam Snedden: The show has a loose, verging on improvisational, tone. The relationships between characters and their relationships with the audience are often more important than the story.

There have been some golden interactions over the years, one that springs to mind is Gareth Williams taking a sip of an audience member’s wine and then deadpanning, “Was that safe? I mean, what’s your history?”

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: I think I’ve done about five or six of them. I love being put totally on the spot to sing a song to rally the elves, do a ribbon dance, and various other hugely fun things. The audience is always totally on your side because they know you know nothing about what’s coming next.

Rose Matafeo, comedian, co-writer of Work-Do: Playing Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (in 2014’s Hauraki Horror) was wild. It was a very melodramatic role, and I think Jennifer Ward-Lealand also played her. Like, come on, don’t fucking put me in the same role as Jennifer Ward-Lealand!

Chris Parker and Tom Sainsbury in 2014’s Hauraki Horror.

Chris Parker, actor/comedian, co-writer of Hauraki Horror and The Opening Night Before Christmas:  I remember being 22 and doing my make up beside JWL!

My very first introduction to the professional industry was through a fundraising show, Toys, where you got to meet the industry and make some wild acting calls. The season is always a blast and really brings the community together.

Nic Sampson: My favourite characters to play were probably the deranged murderous Jack-In-The Box from Natalie Medlock and Dan Musgrove’s Toys, or the super-intelligent genetically modified murderous ear of Corn from the future in A Basement Christmas Carol.

Alex Casey, Spinoff writer, reluctant theatregoer: The most vivid memory I have of the Basement Christmas show is seeing a young Chris Parker dressed up as a giant ear of corn. I don’t know what he was doing or why he was there, but I promise you it was one of the funniest things I have ever seen in my life.

Sam Snedden: The idea for the character was that he was a genetically modified ear of corn that had become self aware and launched a corn revolution that wiped out humanity. He kept referring to himself in the third person, and since I played him as the Terminator, it kind of came out as ‘KWARN’.

We had this amazing costume, which designer Charlie Baptist made out of a washing basket and a chopped up pool noodle, that every person playing the ear of corn during the season could slip over their head. You’d be covered except for your arms, face and legs from about the mid thigh.

When I arrived onstage, Gareth Williams – who was playing Scrooge but hadn’t seen me in the costume – just asked, “Are you naked under that?”

The cast of The Opening Night Before Christmas, circa 2016.

Sophie Roberts: The show formula has changed over the years and moved away from the big revolving casts to the special guest with a rehearsed cast. But for the most part it seems to have maintained its slightly hectic energy and the spirit of everyone kind of mucking in and being generous, which is nice to see.

Gabrielle Vincent: For most seasons we’ve approached a duo of comedy writers – Natalie Medlock and Dan Musgrove, Nic Sampson and Barnaby Frederic, Tom Sainsbury and Chris Parker, and now Rose Matafeo and Alice Snedden.

Chris Parker: Basically the first half should be all plot and the second half should be all fun, because 90% of the audience are pissed.

Nic Sampson: When we were brought on to write the 2012 show, there was a bit of a blueprint already: they’d already decided to call it ‘Mega Christmas’ and the success of it hinged almost entirely on whether or not Kim Dotcom would be in it.

We wrote a really bizarre script very fast and then Barnaby and I stalked him at the Franklin Road Christmas lights. We walked up to him and said “Hey we wrote a play for you…” and handed him a script.

We felt like nobodies bothering a strange movie star at a restaurant. But he read it, and loved it, and for one very surreal summer we were all friends with Kim Dotcom. We would go to his mansion and play Halo with him and he would pretty much exclusively order Hell Pizza. We got treated to a listening party for his album.

The Dotcommer himself in MegaChristmas circa 2012.

Alice Snedden, comedian, co-writer of Work Do: I remember there was one weird night where Kim Dotcom showed up with this big car to take everyone back to his Coatesville mansion and everyone was like ‘no, we don’t want to go back to your weird mansion.’ And then I felt genuinely bad for Kim Dotcom because he had no friends.

Nic Sampson: He eventually asked us to help him run his political party, and I knew I was in way over my head.

I miss him.

Michele Hine: The Basement Theatre was beginning to be a ‘home’ for many actors-writers-directors and we were delighted how many people said yes to giving their time to be in these rambunctious, crazy shows.  There was enormous goodwill towards a theatre trying to grow and provide a home for new work and new companies.

Gabrielle Vincent: In the past, the tradition was to give the duos a show two years in a row so that they could apply their learnings to the second show, but now we have a much more robust development process in place so it doesn’t seem as necessary to do this and we want to spread the opportunity around more.

Jesus Christ Part II was a different approach, where we worked with  a large team of devisers including choreographers, musicians and Basement staff. For Santa Claus we partnered with a whole company, Slightly Isolated Dog, who devised the show in the style of their previous productions.

The cast of Santa Claus, circa 2017.

Sophie Roberts: By the time I directed the Basement Christmas show I’d already directed two down in Wellington at BATS, Christ Almighty and Toys, so I knew the drill and the scheduling nightmare that awaited me.

As the director on those shows you aren’t there to craft finely honed performances, there’s no time. Your job is really to elevate whatever strange, wonderful, unique thing each performer has to offer and to make them feel like it’s safe for them to go for it. I think it needs to actually be really technically tight so the performers can ride the chaos but know they’re supported by a well oiled machine that isn’t going to let them down, I think that’s really key to it feeling good scary, not bad scary.

When Jacinda played Helen Clark I only had one rehearsal with her. I was really tired by that point and remember being sort of draped across one of the benches and I think eating a samosa? I really wish I’d had my shit together and sat up straight for the future Prime Minister.

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, occasional DJ: It was my second time in a Christmas show but a cameo as Carmen Sandiego was much less pressure than playing Helen Clark. I remember canvassing around a few other MPs to see whether I had the right tone and inflection. I was terrified she would ask me about the show or that she’d heard about me playing her. Thankfully, we never spoke of it.

I don’t actually remember the audience reaction. I do remember going to watch on another night where someone else was playing Helen though. They forgot their lines and so I, without even thinking, yelled the next one from the audience. Not a very subtle move on my part.

Michele Hine: Older more experienced artists pitch in too. They remembered fondly their early days in small theatres and very much wanted to assist in the creation and growth of a home for emerging artists or a place for new work by more experienced ones.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: There’s a wonderful freedom for us performers. It’s rare to not have to prepare and a real treat to just go with what’s thrown at you. You can’t even get nervous because you don’t know what to be nervous about.

Hayley Sproull, Great Kiwi Bake-Off host, performer in Jesus Christ Part II and Santa Claus: There was this moment during Jesus Christ Part II where I said to the celeb guest, who didn’t know anything about what was happening, ‘Kiss me like you did the first time we ever kissed’.

Lots of celebs have me a good ol’ fake one, some have me polite little pecks, but not Lucy Lawless. She literally grabs me by the face and planted a big old pash on me and made all my dreams come true.

Xena Warrior Princess pashed me hard on the mouth , and it was, and will remain, a career highlight.

Rose Matafeo: Dame Kiri Te Kanawa was super fun, but I think I liked playing Kate Sheppard even more because I actually got to come through a hole in the ceiling.

Sophie Roberts: Chris Parker did a one night only stint as Tilda Swinton in a really short monologue that we hadn’t had time to rehearse properly. It was deeply weird and the audience were far too drunk to know what was going on or appreciate it. It remains to this day one of the greatest pieces of performance art I have ever seen.

Chris Parker: I was originally playing the piece of corn for The Basement Christmas Carol but Sophie Roberts really wanted me to perform on the opening night. They had all these extra monologues for celebrities to do – I was not a celebrity – and Sophie gave me the monologue as a challenge to learn.

I bought some tights and a weird shirt and went full Cindy Sherman on the make-up. I just came out on stage blasted it out and left and never did it again! But it has for some reason gone down in the Basement Theatre hall of fame.

Sam Snedden: This was before Chris was well known, and he came onstage and did the most amazing three minutes of performance art. Fuck it was bizarre, he kept intoning, “My bones, my bones” and shivering like someone was walking over his grave.

You could feel that everyone in the room knew they were seeing something really special.

Chris Parker and Tom Sainsbury in Hauraki Horror.

Elise Sterback: The show hasn’t always been a commercial success. In fact some years you could barely call it a fundraiser. When the New Zealand Herald dubbed us a festive tradition alongside the Santa Parade and the Franklin Road lights, I knew we’d finally made it.

Michele Hine: The audience knows they’ll see an irreverent, naughty, fun celebration performed by excellent actors, and celebrities who will fly by the seat of their pants to produce a side splitting and silly evening. They return each year and it cements their relationship with Basement Theatre. It’s a gift back to them too. They feel they own it and are supporting the development of Basement Theatre by going – it’s win-win.

Sam Snedden: The audience is not a regular theatre audience, and for the most part they are taaaaaanked. The year that I directed, in the middle of the show, someone decided that he’d had enough and walked out to have a smoke, right through the middle of the scene.

Charlie McDermott: What we quickly realised was that this was a celebration of the community that Basement Theatre had fostered. It was fun for the artists, crew, sponsors and celebrities involved and a real hoot for the audiences who came. There were some audiences that only came to the Christmas shows, but over time it was a Trojan horse for those audiences & sponsors to start taking a risk on the rest of the work that Basement was housing during the year.

Rose Matafeo: I remember one night as Kiri and there was a huge Auckland Transport Christmas outing that basically filled the seats. It was the same night that my brother and my sister came along, but it was basically this Auckland Transport group.

The person who’d organised it was clearly furious that they were there, so she went over and asked them if they were meant to be there. My brother and sister left halfway through, because they were like edged out of the event. The even weirder thing was that they did like a work speech before the show, like about the year they had. So if you’re going to come to this play with a work party, just know that my brother and sister might be there and they are very welcome.

To be honest, those types of people influenced the characters in the show. It was that idea of being so wound up about your work Christmas party that you actually lose your mind.

Some of the celebrities in Work Do, 2018.

Rhys Mathewson: I think it brings people who would not normally come to the Basement, and it is important to lure those people in with hilarious, easy-to-enjoy shows like these, in the hopes that they will come back for the shows that require a bit more effort but are deeply rewarding.

Nic Sampson: Everyone works so hard making theatre, everyone is so poor and tired by the end of the year. But at the Christmas Show you can get up in front of a very drunk audience and do a very dumb monologue as Bjork, or The Mad Butcher, or Kelly Tarlton and just go absolutely insane with it.

Chris Parker: It’s so brilliant for emerging actors. Get in there get your hands dirty and channel Tilda!

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: We get to see first hand the results of the fund-raising (eg: air con). Having performed in that building in the old days where both performers and audiences melted in the summer months, it’s very rewarding to see practical change in the venue.

Elise Sterback: In the early years, there was a lot of basic venue upgrades that needed to happen that profits from the show made possible. These days our venue is still a shit-hole but we have other priorities. Now that we have a chairlift at the front entrance we want to do a whole lot more accessibility initiatives. We want more people to access the shit-hole!

Sam Snedden: The income from those shows has transformed the space into what it is now: air conditioning in the main theatre space, making the rehearsal studio into a performance space, putting in a toilet and shower for performers, revamping the bar and sound proofing the main theatre, constructing actual dressing rooms…

Sophie Roberts: It paid for the upstairs bathroom so actors no longer had to come up with creative/revolting solutions to that problem backstage.

Gabrielle Vincent: In recent years, the money has supported running a variety of artist development programmes. Last year’s show has helped support some of the costs for our inaugural Ideas in Residence programme which supports three emerging writers and makers to create a new work with the assistance of a dramaturg over a six month period. This is a project that I’m super excited by and adore working on.

Elise Sterback: This is the only show in our programme that we personally produce – it’s an important event to us not just for the new audiences it attracts, and that it’s a really fun way to see the year out. Also because it’s our only opportunity to commission new work and support writers in this way. As an annual fundraising event it allows us to improve the venue and scale up our artist development programmes, and it acts as a final project for our Producer in Residence, who takes the lead on everything with the show.

Our producer this year, Vanessa Crofskey, was a poet who ran a small but successful monthly poetry event before she joined us, and now she’s hustling sponsors and papering the town with posters and billboards. We’re very proud.

The team on Work Do, circa 2018.

Sam Snedden: I think what’s really surprised us over the years is what the show means to our community. We had an AGM where we floated the idea that we would stop doing the show as it was outside of what we usually do (ie: it was creating work rather than hosting it) and there was kind of an uproar, with people really upset at the prospect of its cancellation. I think the community look at the show as their Christmas Party and a way to celebrate the year that’s been.

Jacinda Ardern: I love the Basement Christmas Show. Like the annual screening of Love Actually on TV, it doesn’t quite feel like Christmas has arrived until I’ve been to the Basement Theatre.

Nic Sampson: It was opening night of Mega Christmas. I remember being so nervous that the show wasn’t going to be funny, or it was going to fall apart, or that Kim Dotcom wouldn’t even show up for his bit at the end.

Yvette Parsons was opening the show as ‘Mrs Claus’, dishevelled from the night before. She came to show me her costume, and she was wearing Christmas lingerie and smudged makeup. She’d poured a tin of corn soup down her front like vomit, and was wearing a strap-on dildo covered in peanut butter. I freaked out and said ‘please Yvette, you’re the first person people are going to see. You’re going to set the tone for the whole show. Please don’t go out there with a strap-on covered in peanut butter.”

And she said, extremely politely, “But you can’t stop me.”

And I couldn’t.


The Spinoff is the media partner for the Basement Theatre’s 2018 Christmas Show Work Do

This year marks is the tenth annual Christmas Show, the theatre’s only current public fundraiser. Profits raised from tickets sold help maintain development opportunities for artists and keep the venue a safe space for community. Book tickets to Work Do, written by Alice Snedden and Rose Matafeo, here.

The Basement Theatre are charitable trust and Auckland’s culture-defining powerhouse. To hear more about the awesome shows and mahi they do, sign up to the mailing list!

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