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Backstage story: A malaria proposal

28 May 2021

Queenstown musician Margaret O’Hanlon recently won a Kiwibank Local Hero medal for her many roles in the performing arts arena. She talks to Style about her disastrous first time on stage and why she was not of ‘sound mind’ when she married.

If I rattled off all the groups you are part of, I would be out of breath. How did it all begin?
[Laughs] So, 30 years ago I came up with an idea that what we needed here [in Queenstown] was a performing arts centre. We took over a sporadically used council building and converted it to four large studio spaces that were purpose-built with ballet barres, grand pianos, you name it. Having the proper facilities can’t be underestimated. I try to impress on people the analogy of sport. Like, you would never ever dream of developing a netball team by just giving them a living room to work in. And that is the kind of attitude so many people have of the arts.

What was your first on-stage moment?
It was a production of The Wizard of Oz and I was a munchkin – and I wanted to be the most amazing munchkin possible. I remember being told off by the teacher for being too loud or bouncing around too much! They told me I just had to stand there and I was devastated! From then I was very, very shy [but] I went to the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts [in New York] and I was a vocal major. I have no idea how I made it through the audition. But I couldn’t do my exams. So, I took a drama class and the first assignment we were given was to read a biography and do a monologue.
I read the biography of Judy Garland. She resonated with me because she was extremely shy. What she used to do is do her interviews in clown makeup. When I presented the monologue, I did it in clown makeup. I got all this attention in terms of my acting, which I found very difficult because I didn’t actually know how to talk to people very well. So, I gave up singing for seven years because I really didn’t think I was good enough and got a film degree. And I didn’t like the pressure. When you live in a place like New York City there is tremendous pressure to succeed.

What drew you to New Zealand?
When I worked in New York, the minimum wage was $3.45. I thought about how many hours I would have to work to make tiny little savings to maybe afford to rent. At that point, I said nope. I’m going to save money, and travel.
I met people from Australia, New Zealand and Europe and they were so cool. They didn’t care about politics; they didn’t care about making a living. They were like, ‘I’m having an OE.’ That concept is so not American.

And you met your husband in New Zealand?
Yes, in those five months, I met Nigel. But I had the rest of the trip to do. It was quite heartbreaking. I was in a bind.

But he lured you back?
Well, it’s a really weird story. I got malaria in Lombok [Indonesia] and I didn’t realise it. By the time I got to Singapore, I was thinking I had better fly home. My father wanted me to come home, and then I called Nigel and he said, ‘No, you should come here because I want to marry you.’

He proposed to you while you were suffering from malaria?!
[Laughs] Yeah, he did! We went to Auckland to meet his mother and she wanted us to get married in New Zealand because she was terrified that if we didn’t, they would not let me back in. We decided to get married in her living room. But once again, good old malaria reared its ugly head. This time I ended up in Auckland hospital.
When I was most delirious, I was standing there, you know, saying my vows, saying ‘I do’ and signing the papers! I’ve always teased Nigel and said ‘I wasn’t of clear, sound mind’ [laughs].

Why is it important to you that the Queenstown arts scene continues to rise up?
I love the entrepreneurial spirit here. Queenstown is open to new ideas and they [the people] don’t dig their heels in – this is a moving-forward community. On a greater level, to me the most pressing issue we face is mental health. And as our population increases, the separation between the haves and have-nots becomes wider, which is very unfortunate. That sense of community gets fragmented. The performing arts bring people together. That’s where, to me, the performing arts are most important. While we scratch our heads about what to do about mental health, well, we should bring people together because that is really it.

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