He’s one of the most recognisable actors in the country. He’s also an award-winning playwright. Sam Brooks sits down with Michael Galvin to talk about the lesser known side of his career.
Every weeknight at 7pm, you can sit down in front of your TV screen and reliably see Michael Galvin as Chris Warner, New Zealand’s most famous pretend doctor. It’s a role he’s played since 1992 – with a little break in the late 1990s to travel – and his face is as synonymous with the 7pm slot as Shortland Street itself.
Or, if you happen to be in Palmerston North at the moment, you can spend your nights getting to know another side of Galvin. While he might be most recognised as an actor, he’s also a celebrated playwright, having won the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award – New Zealand’s most famous award for the craft, recognising an outstanding emerging playwright – back in 2007.
Galvin’s new play, Mannbannd, follows former boyband member Matthew Mann (played by his former Shortland Street castmate Blair Strang) as he looks to rekindle his singing career in a televised talent competition. However, when the judges are more interested in his boyband past – as a member of BoyburNZ – he reforms with his bandmates, and sets out to “redefine music as we know it”.
It’s not unusual for actors to have another life as a playwright, especially in a country where work is scarce. To have a chance at a meaty role, an actor often has to write it for themselves. What is unusual, however, is for an actor to be so prominent yet have a fairly quiet life as a playwright existing alongside that prominence.
When we sit down for our interview at South Pacific Pictures, at first it’s hard to separate Galvin from his Chris Warner persona. Part of that might be because he’s in costume: full scrubs, with a name tag that reads Dr. Warner. It’s only when he starts talking that the character escapes back into the studio, and a quiet, reflective, writer comes to the fore. He mentions that I’m the first interviewer to show interest in his playwriting career, and definitely the first to have read all of his plays (six, as of this interview, five of which have had seasons).
Galvin has actually been writing plays for longer than he’s been Chris Warner, ever since graduating from Toi Whakaari Drama School in 1989. “I started doing it and realised how bad at it I was, but the more you do it, the better at it you get,” he says. “That’s the necessary part of the process, to start and realise you’re not as good as you thought you were, then push through that and keep going.”
Much of Galvin’s material revolves around men, and the ways in which they relate (or fail to relate) to each other. “I find it fascinating, our inabilities to connect, our inabilities to reveal what we need to reveal in order to heal,” he says of his play Ocean Star, which revolves around a father and his two adult sons who live with him, and the shared trauma they have yet to process. They eventually confront it in a moving scene where they all role play as each other, and a family member they’ve lost. “That’s what that play’s about – they need to reveal what they need to each other.”
Another key throughline of his writing is a pretty bawdy sense of humour. When he was writing his first play, New Gold Dream, about an 80s cover group reuniting, he realised that it would be more likely to get performed if it was funny.
He also thought people weren’t going to take him seriously as a writer because he was “that guy off Shortland Street”, and writing humour into his plays was a way to circumvent that. But that desire has dropped away as he’s gotten older. “Now I just want to write something that’s enjoyable,” he says. “You get to a certain stage, when someone invites you to a play and you realise that it’s gonna feel like homework.”
“I just want to write a play where the audience goes, ‘That looks like fun’.”
That was his main aspiration for Mannbannd: to write something enjoyable and funny.
Kate Louise Elliott, the general manager and artistic director of Palmerston North’s Centrepoint Theatre, came across Mannbannd a few years ago. “I’m always on the lookout for something that will appeal to our audience who love New Zealand shows,” she says. “I loved the idea, the humour, the characters.”
She also has praise for Galvin’s practice as a playwright, as much as his craft, appreciating that he’s always available to answer questions, and discuss everything. “He is an actor’s writer and a director’s writer, solving problems through his writing rather than telling us to ‘make it work’.”
While he hasn’t seen the show yet himself, the feedback he’s received is that people are enjoying it. “I feel for the actors, because I’ve been in comedies that weren’t funny and it’s… it’s such a long night,” he says, with the kind of resignation that comes from someone who has pushed some heavy rocks up some steep hills.
“But when you’re in a comedy that’s working, it’s just a delight. You can ride off the script, ride off the laughter… it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Unsurprisingly, he thinks that his practice as an actor has helped him as a playwright. He has, in all likelihood, had more dialogue go into his brain and out of his mouth than any actor in the country, thanks to Shortland Street. Five scripts a week for over two decades is, at a loose mathematical guess, a lot of words. “Hopefully that has given me a sense of what works and what doesn’t! It’s almost always about saying more with fewer words.”
When asked if there’s anything more that he wants to explore as a playwright, he answers with an emphatic no, before backtracking a little bit. “I just don’t have those voices in my head the way I used to,” he says. “I’ve become a lot calmer as a person, and like someone in the play, I’m starting to realise I know less than I thought I did.”
After a silence, he explains how when you go to write a play, especially a drama, the playwright usually has the answers. “You can say that you’re just posing questions or examining problems,” he says. “But really? You probably wouldn’t have attacked the problem if you didn’t think you had a few answers.”
“And I just have less faith that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to the big questions.”
Mannbannd runs at Centrepoint Theatre until December 16.