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Hamilton actress has an eye on Edinburgh Fringe success

posted 25 Apr 2016, 14:43 by Debbie Stevens   [ updated 25 Apr 2016, 14:46 ]
In the past few years, Dio Old Girl Robyn Paterson has endured some traumatic encounters with hordes of zombies, a steel gate and an errant exercise tube.Having overcome those and other challenges - including a potentially career-ending eye injury caused by that rubber tube - the 28-year-old former Hamiltonian is preparing for what may be her biggest challenge yet: a month-long, self-funded and deeply personal solo show called The South Afreakins, that will be staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.

The former Waikato Dio student is a familiar face on TV screens, thanks to her role in the 2014 mini-series Anzac Girls alongside Antonia Prebble and Anna McGahan, as well as earlier stints in Shortland Street, The Blue Rose and Go Girls.

Robyn Paterson, pictured in a publicity shot for The Generation of Z, a zombie-themed thriller that was staged in London in 2015.

However Paterson's acting career was almost brought to a premature end in July that year, following a freak mishap with an exercise resistance tube in Greece - where she was visiting after having moved to London a week earlier - that shredded her retina.

"I was on day four of my three-month venture around Europe and it was the day before my birthday. I was with my best friend in our hotel room and I was exercising with a rubber resistance tube. I wrapped it around my feet and as I pulled it sprung backwards and smacked me in the eye. It took out my vision and ripped my retina in thirteen places.

"Within 48 hours I was back in London and on the operating table at Moorfields Eye Hospital, having it reconstructed before the retina peeled past the ocular nerve and I went blind.

"I had a second operation in September 2014 to remove scar tissue and now I have third operation coming up in a couple of weeks to remove my surgery-induced cataract.

"It's been a complete nightmare ... It took a good two months before I recovered and was able to go back to life normally. I've permanently lost most of my sight in my left eye now, although you wouldn't be able to tell from looking at me. It's something I'm still getting used to." 

Six months after her first surgery, Paterson landed the lead in the theatre show The Generation of Z, a big-budget, New Zealand-produced, zombie-themed immersive theatre show that had a successful six-month run in London.

Directed by Michael Hurst and starring a cavalcade of acting talent - including Out of the Blue's Matthew Sunderland - the show's apocalyptic, Walking Dead-style scenario got audiences involved in the action, including making decisions that affected the direction of the narrative.

For Paterson, having an eye out of action made things tricky.

"I was playing the lead in this million dollar show and had the second surgery a month before I started rehearsals.

"Then to have to go to rehearsals and try do this show, partially blind in one eye was difficult to say the least. Because I've permanently lost my peripheral vision now and my field of sight is narrower, I fell over people's feet, ran into doors and bumped into door frames. By the time the show opened I had learnt where every prop and every doorframe was and knew my route by heart so I didn't run into anything or hurt myself.

"The only time I seriously hurt myself was during one performance when I ran into a steel gate and fractured my arm. I had to do the whole show with my arm hanging completely useless. But apart from that, the show was absolutely brilliant.

"After I finished that, I started my own acting company and now teach 40 students weekly." 

Paterson knows her theatre. She graduated from the Unitec School of Dramatic Art in Auckland in 2009 and then studied at The Neighbourhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York two years later.

Away from the classroom, Paterson still has a lot going on. Her self-written and directed show The South Afreakins has been selected and billed at the Edinburgh Fringe, with her theatre company The Impi Theatre Company producing it.

Paterson performed an abridged 10-minute version of The South Afreakins in the Sydney Short and Sweet Theatre Festival in early 2014, for which she won the accolade of Best Female Newcomer, out of 800 performers.

Now reformatted as an hour-long show, The South Afreakins will be staged at Spotlites, one of Edinburgh's top theatre venues, from August 5 to 29.

"It's a one-woman show based on my parents, Helene and Gordon Paterson, and the story of their immigration from South Africa to New Zealand. I play both of them."

Although primarily a comedy, the show focuses on the loss of identity and other difficulties immigrants experience.

"I've seen my parents struggle with this for years. The prominent African lineage that runs through their veins and the fierce patriotism they hold for their country hasn't lessened in the 24 years they've lived in New Zealand, but they've never really fitted in. They've always been slightly out of step."

Paterson's family has some notable history to draw on. Her great-great-great grandfather was John Paterson, who founded Port Elizabeth in 1840 as well as The Standard Bank, but later died in a shipping accident while making a return journey to Scotland.

"I felt what my parents did too, growing up. I only spent six years in South Africa but when I go home there, I feel like I'm coming home to my clan. People think like me, and talk like me. The rhythms I emanate match that of Africa and this is the story that I'm telling."

Like all good things, this show needs money for it to be a success - especially at the Edinburgh Fringe, one of the most competitive theatrical festivals in the world with more than 3000 performances all trying to attract an audience. 

"I'm self-funding the entire thing but also doing fundraising here in London. We have a crowd-funding page up and running, so if people would like to donate, then they can."


Story by Mike Mathers

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