Ken Duncum is a dramatic writer, poet and educator. He has written for theatre, television and radio, and had poems published in a number of journals. He is a highly regarded playwright and his plays have toured nationally. Ken Duncum is also an educator, and has been appointed to the position of Michael Hirschfeld Director of Scriptwriting at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University. He has received a number of significant awards for his theatre work.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Duncum, Ken (1959– ), poet and dramatic writer for theatre, television and radio, was born in Napier and educated at Rotorua BHS and University of Waikato (BSocSc, 1981). He then studied at Victoria University in theatre, film and creative writing during the 1980s, and had poetry published in the NZ Listener, Islands, Sport and Scripsi (Australia). He became a full-time writer, and contributed sketches for satirical television comedy shows such as ‘Public Eye’, ‘Away Laughing’ and ‘Skitz’. His recent television work has included writing for series such as ‘Cover Story’, ‘Duggan’ and ‘Mirror, Mirror’.
Duncum’s first short plays ‘Polythene Pam’, ‘Truelove’ and ‘Flybaby’ were co-written with and starred Rebecca Rodden, and performed at Wellington’s fringe Bats Theatre in 1986 and 1987. Their deliberately arbitrary structure, anarchic humour, and Rodden’s punk nihilism attained a minor cult status among street-wise young audiences, reinforced by Duncum’s full-length ‘Jism’ the following year and ‘Panic’ in 1993.
He then reached a much wider audience with two substantial stage plays, which each placing real people from the recent past in an imagined event and exploring the implicit drama. ‘Blue Sky Boys’(1990, subsequently toured nationally several times) had the Everly Brothers performing rock-and-roll numbers which had middle-aged audiences stamping in the aisles, yet also locked in destructive conflict about the value of music, symbolised by their despair over an invitation to meet the Beatles (who really were in Wellington in 1964).
In 'Horseplay’ ‘(1994) Duncum irreverently sets up a hypothetical meeting between the novelist Ronald Hugh Morrieson and the poet James K. Baxter in Hawera in 1972 as death approaches for them both. In the grand tradition of drunken poets, they eventually get stupefyingly sozzled together on beer, whisky, sweet sherry, down-and-out characters, Kiwi storytelling, practical jokes and a unifying hatred of critics.
Morrieson is egged on by Baxter to ‘give poetry a burl’, while Baxter himself complains that the pioneering editors and critics of the 1950s failed to understand him. They just ‘pulled their foreskins up over their heads and cried, "I see a new national literature".’ Any possibility of literary pomposity is further deflated by their sharing the stage with the rear end of a horse—which flatulates as they expire.
Ken Duncum has been appointed to the position of Michael Hirschfeld Director of Scriptwriting at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University (now Te Herenga Waka).
In September 2001 Duncum received the Michael Hirschfeld Memorial Writing Award. The award marks 25 years of Circa Theatre.
Duncum's play Cherish received the award for Best New New Zealand Play in the 2003 Chapman Tripp theatre awards.
Plays 1: Small Towns and Sea (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2005) features three of Duncum's plays: Horseplay, Flipside and Trick of Light. In Flipside four men confront the elements, each other and themselves, during the 119 days adrift in the overturned Rose-Noelle. In Trick of the Light a brother and sister bring their mother's ashes to a motel room that hasn't been opened for three decades.
In 2009, Duncum was awarded the New Zealand Post Mansfield Prize. One of New Zealand's most long-standing and prestigious literary awards, the prize is offered annually to enable a New Zealand writer to work in Menton, France, where the iconic writer Katherine Mansfield lived and wrote.
Updated July 2022.