Interview with Penny Ashton (MC Hot Pink)
Dressed in her MC Hot Pink / Busty Rhymes black t-shirt, mini-skirt, pink alligator-skin cowboy hat and pink sunglasses, Penny Ashton stands out as she flits through the beer tent of the Montreal Fringe Festival. We stole a few moments so she could tell us a bit about herself and her show. Her strong New Zealand accent punctuates every word.
“I started doing ballet when I was four; I was going to be a ballerina. But then puberty changed everything, so then I was going to be an actor. I started doing acting all the way through school and I did a drama degree in university, then I went to London for three years, just doing pub work and all that sort of thing. I was going mental as I hadn’t been doing any performance. I came back to New Zealand and immediately got a play. After that I was performing as much as possible, doing a lot of theatre sports – corporate improv, voiceovers, that sort of thing. Then I got really frustrated one day and wrote this poem in 2000. I thought that’s actually not bad, I wrote some more poetry for a couple of years and I did my first open mic in April 2002. I did a comedy gig in 2002, and then just kept going – I did the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004. I’ve never had a salary – I don’t do day-jobs very well – the last day-job I had was in 1999.”
“The fringe is like a double-edged sword; you have so much competition yet people know it’s on. It’s the best time to do things. It’s really hard in Edinburgh – last year there were 2,500 shows. Not many shows make money, because it costs so much to put on a show. The cheapest ad in the program are a thousand pounds. I did the L.A. fringe in 2006 and that’s only 500 shows. And that’s definitely easier. In 2004 I was on the street in Edinburgh talking to Jem Rolls, this poet that I met, and he was like ‘Oh, there’s this great tour in Canada, you go and you get big houses, and you get 100% of the door and it’s amazing.’ And honestly, Canada is a utopia. It’s just so much cheaper and it’s easier – it takes longer, four months across the country, but it’s so much fun, and you make really good friends, you stay in peoples’ houses – Canada’s awesome.”
Penny has seen more of Canada than some Canadians, driving from Edmonton to Vancouver across the Rockies. She noted there are many similarities between Canada and New Zealand. “It’s just like the South Island to me. It was just like being home. But there are different – Montreal’s completely different. I don’t have to worry about my french when I’m speaking in New Zealand. Ma franÃ§ais est tres mauvais. I learned it for two years – what is it, j’ai Ã©tudiÃ© la franÃ§ais a l’Ã©cole pour deux ans. Is it deux ans or deux annÃ©es? Deux ans? Donc? Does that mean therefore? Would you say that? Donc, je suis tres mauvais.”
So will we be seeing some new things on stage? “It will be the first time I’ve done certain pieces, but most of it has been done before in various incarnations. All my shows have the words Hot Pink in them – ‘pink bits’ in New Zealand is slang for genitalia – clever at home, but I got over here and no one got it. And Busty Rhymes, it’s not really a hip-hop show, it’s a spoken-word show – I do a bit some rapping, but it’s a combination of things. It’s a cabaret piece, about my struggles as a single girl in an urban environment. Strangely I’m a single comedian. Whereas my show last year was nothing about me, this one is completely about me. It can be difficult to sell a spoken-word show; there is no worse art form than bad poetry. When it’s bad, it’s so bad, but when it’s good it’s really fabulous.”
Penny’s experiences form the inspiration for her shows. “Everything that I say is what I think. I don’t embellish anything. I hate hip-hop rap videos, they drive me crazy. There’s a piece about that. Someone told me to lose weight once when I was on stage, so one of my favourite poems has come out of that, putting a positive spin on it. And men. Relationships. One-night stands. One person wrote ‘she’s singing my life with her song,’ which I quite liked. The laugh of recognition is sometimes more powerful than the laugh of what the heck?”
The life of a fringe performer can be very rewarding, but it can also test one’s endurance. “Last year my life for two years was all sewn up, I was going to do Canada and L.A. and Melbourne and come back to Canada… and now I’m thinking I would actually like to spend a little time in New Zealand. Because I’ve been on the road six months for this year and last year and the year before, so that’s a long time to be away. And I do feel a little disconnected. I keep getting offered gigs which I can’t do because I’m away – I wasn’t getting gigs which is why I started this whole thing in the first place, and now I’m away. I haven’t had a full winter in New Zealand since 2002. So that doesn’t sound so appealing. Because we don’t get as cold as you, but you have proper heating.”