Hens’ Teeth – The Company – A Short History.
At the end of 1988 the QEII Arts Council gave a grant to Kate JasonSmith to run women’s comedy workshops. These were designed to produce material for an inaugural Season of Women Comedians in the late-night pre-Xmas slot at Wellington’s Circa Theatre. The format was of a comic line-up which changed nightly, with some regulars and some “tryouts”. This was the first Hens’ Teeth.
The response to this season was spectacular. The audience clamoured for more. It broke box-office records at the theatre, and the theatre critics loved it. Praises were doubled for a second season at the Depot Theatre. This surpassed even the first in popularity and spawned a series of comedy workshops for aspiring women comedians; many invitations to perform in the business sector; a few flying visits to out of town theatres; a third short but successful Bats Theatre season; and a flattering rash of imitators.
Before their first year had passed, Hens’ Teeth was contracted by the NZ International Festival of the Arts to create an entirely new show to premiere at the 1990 festival. This show played to over 3000 people in one week.
By this time some of the Hens’ Teeth sketches had become legendary. The company was constantly asked to perform at conferences ranging from Prudential Assurance Over-50’s reunion at the Wellesley Club, to the International Conference on Women’s Health at Massey University, where they received a standing ovation from the international audience.
At the first NZ Festival of the Arts in Taranaki in 1991, seven of the best Hens’ Teeth comedians played to packed houses with a show that was hailed as one of the highlights of the festival. Hens’ Teeth returned to Taranaki with a different line-up for the second NZ Festival of the Arts in 1993, and were greeted with sell-out seasons.
With a grant from the QEII, Hens’ Teeth ran Master Class Comedy Workshops for women in October 1991. These workshops attracted a lot of younger performers into the company, and with a whole new batch of completely untried comedy, Squawk This Way opened late-night at Circa Theatre. This material matured throughout the season, and Circa Theatre invited the company to return for a repeat season in January 1992.
Then in February 1992 the creme of the Hens’ Teeth old guard travelled to the prestigious Adelaide Fringe Festival of the Arts, and in the midst of cut-throat competition, played to full houses and enormous media interest.
At the inaugural Hastings Festival later that year, the Hens’ Teeth season was sold out before they got to town, and going on to their first appearance in Auckland, Hens’ Teeth once again proved their popularity by packing out the large Maidment Theatre. Hens’ Teeth returned to Auckland in 1994 as prime billing at the Watershed Comedy Festival, and incorporating a debut show at the prestigious Aotea Centre.
Further Suffrage Year tours took in sold out seasons in Hamilton, Waipukarau, Masterton, Blenheim and Nelson. And then, for the first time in Wellington, Hens’ Teeth presented for the International Festival of the Arts the best of Hens’ Teeth at Circa Theatre. The public responded with typical delight and enthusiasm: rave reviews and full houses in a festival with over 50 theatre presentations.
In 1995 Hens’ Teeth toured to Gisborne, again to Hastings to open the Blossom Festival, to the Aotea Centre for their 5th birthday celebrations, and mounted a pre-Xmas workshop season at Taki Rua to develop new material for the 96 International Arts Fringe Festival.
That season in Circa Theatre’s main auditorium attracted 2500 people and yet another burst of critical acclaim. The year was highlighted by a core company member, Kate Harcourt, being made a Dame in recognition of her contribution to NZ theatre, and the company winning the inaugural Meryl Yvonne Women’s Comedy Award. The year ended with a highly succesful Creative NZ-sponsored tour of South Island towns – 19 venues in 23 days.
1997 seasons included Laugh! Festivals in Wellington and Christchurch,and a short season in Nelson for their Winterfest. The Hens’ Teeth tenth anniversary year ‘98 saw a season of new acts for the International Arts Festival, and a sold-out season at the inaugural Wanganui Arts Festival.
The legendary women’s comedy group Hens’ Teeth returned to the stage before Xmas 2001 provoking an outburst of enthusiastic criticism:
“They are quite simply superb … the highest praise I can bestow.” Evening Post
“… simultaneously brilliant & disturbing.” Capital Times
“… precisely observed and pleasurable to watch.” Dominion
“The best local comedy seen in Wellington (in 2001) … from the wonderful Hens’ Teeth, who returned with a quiverful of pointed sketches.” The Listener
At 2002 Wellington Arts Festival there was a return of this successful season, in the usual format of a comic line-up which changes nightly. It offered a feast of new comedy seasoned with the odd old favourite. With a new twist, celebrity guests appeared throughout the season. These included Lianne Dalzeil, Marion Hobbs, Sue Kedgley, Caroline Henwood, Annette King, Kerry Prendergast, Gaylene Preston and Fran Wilde.
The performers were: (Dame) Kate Harcourt, Lorae Parry & Carmel McGlone, (“Digger & Nudger”), Lee Hatherly, Sue Alexander, Pinky Agnew, Prue Langbein, (“Cooking with Condoms”), Sue Dunlop, Fiona MacKinnon, Rapai Te Hau & Dale Ferris (“Te Coasties”), Cathie Sheat, Caroline E Waltz, Phylli JasonSmith, Jane Keller and the MC was Kate JasonSmith.