AMERICAN artist and sometime adventurer Ashley Dixon is busy helping Theatre Whakatane stage their upcoming production to tell the famous story of the Von Trapp family, but her own life makes equally good story.
Arriving in Whakatane four years ago, after meeting her husband-to-be, Simon Charters, on an online karaoke site, Ashley brings with her a seemingly limitless array of expertise, finely-honed skills and a diverse and unusual range of life experiences.
Despite growing up around what she calls “theatre people,” Ashley’s involvement with Theatre Whakatane signals another new direction for her, personally. While bringing her skills to the role of scenic artist and set dresser for the production, she will also be making her debut on-stage performance. But that Ashley is now living in Whakatane, is a story in itself.
On a long and enforced break from her busy life after fracturing a thoracic vertebra and suffering additional back injury, Ashley was laid up for almost a year at her Oregon home.
She received the injury while preparing for a humanitarian trip to a Costa Rican orphanage.
“I was walking down the stairs at home carrying a huge heavy duffle bag of school and art supplies and I tripped and fell down most of the staircase.” She says her back was too sore to fly, so she delayed the trip, but only for one day. “I could walk and everything, so I didn’t think anything was really wrong.”
Ashley spent many months in Costa Rica, all of them plagued with severe back pain.
Spending months masking the pain with steroidal medications, she says it was only once she arrived back in the United States, 37 kilograms heavier, that the fractures were identified.
Ashley avoided surgery, just, but previous knee problems – the result, she suspects, of years of mountain climbing, skiing, scuba diving and ultramarathon cycle racing – combined with her steroidal medications, eventually led to her needing to use a walking frame and undergo a rehabilitation period that spanned almost four years.
Looking for ways to “keep in touch with the world,” Ashley discovered online karaoke. A country singer and choir, oratory singer herself, she says the site was a joy. “You can sing with people all over the world,” but she says one day, she heard a truly exceptional voice.
“It was incredible, and I assumed he was a professional. I just thought ‘Oh my, who on earth are you?’” It later transpired, Simon had also been listening to Ashley, “a phenomenal voice,” he says, and was keen to find out who she was, too.
The voice Ashley was hearing was coming from Whakatane. It was Simon, an Edgecumbe choir member, and former long-time Theatre Whakatane performer who had long since given up the stage after a complication of his short-sightedness led to severe loss of sight.
While Simon retains some peripheral vision, he is classified as legally blind.
The two began corresponding, messaging over many months. “It was very much a friend thing. Rather formal actually,” Ashley says. But later, on a cruise with friends that would dock for a short period in Auckland, Ashley and Simon made plans to meet. Renting a car in Auckland, Ashley and her friends whipped down to Whakatane, meeting Simon and his friends for dinner.
“Neither of us were looking for a relationship. It wasn’t like that at all,” she says. But the dinner in Whakatane would eventually reveal a spark between the two that they couldn’t ignore.
In anticipation of Ashley’s knee surgery, which was later cancelled in lieu of successful stem-cell transplants, Simon moved to the US to take care of her, spending a year with
Ashley in Oregon before the couple returned to Simon’s home in Whakatane.
Clearly delighted to be together, the couple revel in each other’s company. They share an incidental but uncanny expanse of common ground. Ashley is a registered nurse, Simon, a psychiatric nurse. They share a long love of singing, both possessing accomplished voices and a range of oratory skills.
They both grew up in theatrical environments, with both sets of parents having met in theatre; Ashley’s father was an artist, set-designer and professional photographer, and her mother, a classical dancer. The two fell in love while doing a show together in New York.
Simon’s parents were both professional singers with the prestigious D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in England. His mother, a contralto, later directed many Gilbert and Sullivan shows as well as Don Giovanni in Britain and Germany, with the young Simon present during rehearsals. His father is a baritone-bass, as is Simon.
In addition to those commonalities, the two laugh that they both also live with “broken-down bits” of their bodies, though Ashley is revelling in the return of her long-fought for mobility.
“I feel better and better each day,” she says.
But despite Ashley and Simon’s common love of theatre, it is their new-found relationship that has brought Simon back from a long hiatus, and Ashley, to the stage for the first time.
Ashley was born in America but spent much of her childhood on the Caribbean island of St Thomas. When her parents had separated, her father moving to St Thomas, Ashley says her mother, herself and her brother moved as well to be close to their father, her mother buying a powerboat, which the three lived aboard while her father lived at a resort he’d built on the island.
“I think part of my soul is still there,” Ashley says. “The colours, the sounds, the steel drums and reggae. It’s where my roots are.” But prior to secondary school, her mother grew concerned about schools on St Thomas and she moved the children to Florida where they lived aboard a boat moored in a Miami marina.
A love for the sea, and sailing, would weave a thread through Ashley’s life. In later years, married and with three of their four children, Ashley, now a certified scuba instructor and boat captain, and her husband, purchased a 14-metre ketch spending the following two years sailing and living aboard with their seven, nine and 13-year-old children, along with
Ashley’s best friend, her teenage daughter, and, eventually, a deckhand her friend had fallen in love with and later married.
Home-schooling the children along the way, the family and friends set off on a 10,000-nautical-mile voyage from Mexico that took them down Central America to Panama, to South America, through the Caribbean, and back again. “They were some of the best years of my life.”
But sailing is not her only recurring theme. An earlier student of the University of Arizona’s Fine Arts and Scientific Illustration department with experience in private art restoration as well as creating scientific illustrations for books, Ashley also undertook further study in marine science, leading to a role as director of education and outreach programmes at the Sonoran Sea Aquarium in Tuscan.
Within that role, she designed and created realistic and scientifically accurate exhibits for the aquarium and a museum, later leading to additional studies in public aquarium and zoo exhibit design and construction. Her work has been used in aquarium programmes, oceanographic research centres, museums and schools in both Arizona and Mexico.
“I had four parents for the majority of my young life,” Ashley says by way of explaining the vast range of skills she has acquired in life. “A mother and father, and a stepmother and stepfather. They were all very talented in their fields and they were all passionate about teaching me and my brother.
My mother and stepfather designed and built custom solar homes in Colorado, so I’ve got a pretty solid background in construction and design as well. None of my parents differentiated between sexes and I often worked in company when I was young and learnt a lot.”
Through all her many work arenas, Ashley also became deeply involved with humanitarian work, beginning with a year-long stint in a convent in preparation for a posting to Kampala in Uganda as a medical missionary. In recent years she has worked as a private consultant for non-profit organisations. “My role was to help organisations become more publicly visible, to effectively reach their target population and create successful fundraising, I also taught organisations how to care for, value, and retain their volunteers,” she says.
It all adds up to a lot of skills that Ashley has now brought to her new life in New Zealand, and to Theatre Whakatane. But of her work to date, including the set of recent production Mamma Mia, and for the upcoming Sound of Music, Ashley emphasises that she’s just a small part of a large team.
“I’m the newbie in the workshop. The guys there are so talented, beyond dedicated, and do incredible, often unrecognised work. I’m just there to do what I can.” She concedes that perhaps growing a team of volunteers – as she has done – is her forte.
There’s little doubt the “small player” will be bringing to the fore an eclectic range of skills.
“Dad always called me Baskin-Robins,” Ashley says, referring to the popular American ice cream company that produces a vast range of flavours. “He’d say that, just as I do in life, I always wanted to try them all.”
On reflection, she says, she didn’t want to just try them all. “I wanted to create even more.”
Check your garage
THEATRE Whakatane is sending out a call for people to take a look at what unwanted things might be lurking around their homes or hidden in the recesses of a garage.
“We’re a non-profit organisation and funding set designs for our productions is costly no matter how hard we try,” says theatre set-dresser Ashley Willock Dixon. “If people have things lying about at home or in their garages that they don’t want, and think we might be able to use them, we’d be grateful to hear from them.”
She says timber off-cuts or building materials, old tins of paint in any colour, art and craft related items such as glue guns, old bits of furniture that might serve as a period piece, and lamps or items that specifically relate to certain eras, are all things they would be potentially interested in.
But there is a small hiccup, Ashley adds. “We only have small premises and we don’t have space to store very much, so we’d like to ask people who have items they think we may be interested in to contact us so we can see if we would be able to use it.”
Contact can be made with Theatre Whakatane by posting to their dedicated Facebook page @theatrewhakatanedropoff.
Storm at the beach
THIS poem comes from Christina Ferens’ book, Where the Wind Wills, which, along with
“The Country Diary of a New Zealand Lady”, is on the shelf at Whakatane library. It was written while she was living in Ohope.
Storm-spangled garden greets break of day,
Scattered stars of frangipani blossom
Along the path in yellow disarray
While boughs blow wet with scent above them,
Brightening the sky and the mist-rain
From the sea.
Invasion of sound and hurtling foam,
Eternity in breaking waves
Ruthlessly thunders at dunes of sand,
And with Samson’s strength
Hurls logs full-sized as tree trunks,
Gnarled but sea-smooth –
Giant jetsam – on the beach.
Teased through the cloud-pall by the wind,
Pale shafts of sunlight sparkle the spray
And inshore warm a garden flora
Yielding in complicity,
Finding in elements of disparate kind