What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks? It may be the east but it looks a great deal like Wellington harbour as I try and not topple over walking down a very steep path in Highbury.
“This must be terrible when you’re drunk coming home!” I say to my host, Minnie, making small talk and skidding on some moss. She shrugs and says a little awkwardly “Yeah, I guess it would be” as though maybe drinking is not at the forefront of her mind right now. Whether it is or not, I’ll never know, but one thing is for sure. Minnie and her friends have been staying up late lots over the last 4 years, “Wasting candles” to quote both the name of their Web Series Collective and inspiration, Shakespeare. Long hard nights have gone into producing some of New Zealand's most successful series, gaining an audience world-wide. Yet you'd never think that what created an internet sensation, resulting in over 5 million views on YouTube and now funded by NZ On Air and YouTube itself, was housed down the path of a narrow path in the hills of Wellington.
WHO ARE THE CANDLE WASTERS?
I am told, over Earl Grey tea in where The Candle Wasters and I gather, that the name ‘The Candle Wasters’ is derived from a quote from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’; They are Claris Jacobs, Elsie Bollinger, Minnie Grace, and Sally Bollinger, plus also Robbie Nicol (aka White Man Behind a Desk, who wasn’t there when I interviewed them but is still an integral part of the collective). Together they adapted, wrote, filmed, and edited Nothing Much To Do. They also produced Lovely Little Losers and Bright Summer Night and now a brand new series, the first not based on Shakespeare, Happy Playland. "Leonato says it in Act V, Scene I," Claris says, speaking of Shakespeare's characters like they were her old Uni friends.
WHAT MAKES THEM DIFFERENT?
“We are four women, writing about women,” says Elsie. “Our latest series also stars women only. It has gender fluid actors and immigrant characters. Some of the actresses are queer and they play characters who are queer.”
HOW DID THEY GET TO DO THIS?
The collective was born in a mix of Wellington and Auckland, finding each other at school. They grew up “loving making things,” says Minnie. “My love of drama I put down entirely to my drama teacher, Rita Stone at Western Springs College. She made it be something really interesting, showing us we could do behind the scenes, including writing.”
“I had the same drama teacher,” says Sally. “She treated us with a level of professionalism, like grown-ups, not children,” Claris admits that she wanted to be an actress originally, but found the pull of behind the scenes stronger the more she worked on film. “I started doing 48 Hour Film Festival when I was 11,” Claris says. Now between 23 - 24, except Elsie who is almost 21, The Candle Wasters are a strong force to be reckoned with.
HOW DID THEY START?
The Candle Wasters grew from inspiration and friendship. “We watched something on YouTube called ‘The Lizzie Bennett Diaries’ and really loved the idea of a show based on classic literature. We’d recently watched ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ with Catherine Tate and David Tennant - so because we wanted to do a comedy that was the inspiration we made Nothing Much To Do, an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing told Vlog style” says Minnie.
Elsie and Claris were still at School, Claris about to start University. Through the Summer Holidays and Google Docs, the group ended up moving from ‘what if’ to ‘let’s do it’. There words and ideas merged to the point where no-one Candle Waster could pull their own work from a script. “The crew was us and the sound person. We had a lot of actors - 14 - we didn’t cull any” says Claris. “No we culled Francis” says Sally. “One character” Claris laughs, rolling her eyes.
The world of YouTube was looking for something to watch after having finished The Lizzie Bennett Diaries. “We arrived at a good time” admits Minnie. People fell in love with their characters in Nothing Much To Do, their writing, and direction, telling them vocally so. Memes were created, fan letters and many, many YouTube Comments. “People from America saw it and told us it helped them through their depression. It is amazing to be able to reach people around the world, rather than just a few people in a theatre!” says Claris. The series is in total 4 hours long and has 80 episodes. “By episode 50 people were really into it!” Minnie says.
HOW HAS THE INTERNET INDFLUENCED THEIR WORK?
The Candle Wasters arrived at a good time when there were relatively few Web Series based on literature being told online. “We were watching lots of Vlogs, but there were relatively few web-series like ours,” says Sally. They followed up with Lovely Little Losers, an adaptation of Love Labours Lost. “To Shakespeare scholars Loves Labours Loss is a prequel to Much Ado About Nothing, we just swapped it around and made a sequel” Sally explains, a self-professed Shakespeare nerd. “We asked for $4000 to make it via Kickstarter and ended up receiving $22,000. It was insane! That was just from our audience from Nothing Much To Do, really liking what we do.”
“We’re on Tumblr and Instagram. People communicate these days through that language, via hashtags. Our parents don’t really understand what it is. But actually, it is just language. One reason that Shakespeare works well told like a Vlog is because he used Soliloquies, where the actor addresses the audience for a long time. That isn’t a traditional theatre technique. So the medium can actually refresh a story told thousands of times” says Sally.
When it came to making their next series, The Candle Wasters changed up the formula, filming Bright Summer Night. “We tried to be more slick and cinematic. But by doing that, you’re suddenly putting yourself against all of cinema and all of TV and Netflix, as opposed to just vlogs. It is challenging and much more expensive to make.”
WHAT IS THEIR NEW SERIES AND HOW IS IT DIFFERENT?
The first series not based on Shakespeare. It is an original creation by The Candle Wasters, set in a children's playground where one of the characters, an aspiring actress works before it is closed down. Like all great stories, she also falls in love. “We went away for a weekend to try and nut out what the series should be. We wanted women, we wanted a lesbian love story. All our other series had background lesbians” they laugh. “We had all these elements, like a character with anxiety, which we wanted to include. We also decided to just use three characters.”
Happy Playland is also told through song. Max Apse, Dylan Kelly and Jen Smith (who also plays Cris in the series) were the song writers. “It was weird handing over a scene to them, not knowing what our characters were going to say.”
The series received funding from New Zealand On Air and YouTube through the inaugural Skip Ahead initiative and produced in collaboration with Thomas Coppell of Tomorrow, Rain. “We needed to figure out how to pay people properly, otherwise it isn’t sustainable,” says Claris, although she admits they need to work towards making it even more sustainable for them as the creators. All of The Candle Wasters work part time or flexible jobs to make ends meet. “I recently worked at a school library,” says Sally “which was most excellent.” They need to be able to go and start working on their web series.
HOW IS THEIR WORK LINKED?
“If we have a theme, it is ‘To be kind is a brave act’. People believe that you can be ‘too nice’ or ‘not tough enough’” says Minnie. Anxiety also features, and the girls feel proud that they’ve changed how people who work on their set regard the stigma around labelling yourself as having anxiety.
“There’s part of it that feels like MY city,” says Claris. “I escaped and it belongs to me.” “You never bump into people in Auckland” says Elsie. “Its a good community.” “We’ve built a community here around our work” says Minnie.