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The curtain goes up

IT'S been 33 years between curtain calls for New Zealander Dave Earl, and the former naval radio operator has packed a lot into the journey that took him here and on stage, writes Sam Riley.

Sitting in the bowels of a submarine-hunting frigate is a long way from a cross-dressing pantomime role as one of Cinderella's ugly sisters, but a strange life journey has brought New Zealander Dave Earl to Shanghai.

The 55-year-old English teacher is an enthusiastic actor, but prior to treading the boards he was feeling the rolling sea under him during a 22-year career in the New Zealand Navy.

The former radio operator signed up at the tender age of 16, and by the time he was 19 he had seen more than 15 countries and regions in the Far East and the Pacific, traveling to exotic locations including slinging Singapore of the 1970s.

In his one year in Shanghai, the part-time actor has been in a range of productions, including the East-West Theater Company's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and the Depression-era drama "Awake and Sing."

Very recently he took a turn as an ugly sister in new theater group Zuloo Theater Production's popular Cinderella pantomime.

Earl was born in Britain but moved to New Zealand at the age of 14 to the small coastal town of Gisborne.

Growing up in Britain, he acted in small theater productions, but Earl jokes he had to wait another 33 years, after he had left the navy, for the curtain to go up again.

In New Zealand, Earl was a keen member of the amateur radio club in high school, but it was a visit aboard a visiting merchant ship that first made him think of putting to sea.

He stood on the bridge and looked out. "I remember ... thinking to myself it must be fantastic to watch this ship at sea and see it move through the water," recalls Earl. "That stirred an inkling" (of an idea), and when the navy came along he was ready.

With a brown paper bag of sandwiches and a kiss from his mother, Earl was off to join the navy. His first ship was a small frigate that spent 11 months traveling to Australia and Singapore for naval exercises, then headed to Japan, Thailand and the Philippines.

"My poor mother didn't recognize me when I came home - I was certainly different as a person," he says.

Earl remembers they hit Singapore in the old days. "It was a raving city and nothing like the sanitized place you see today, so it was booze, women and song because you are in the navy."

That aside, he says, "the fantastic thing about navy life is the camaraderie that evolves because you look after each other at sea and you look after each other when you are ashore."

During his two-decade naval career, Earl trained other radio operators, managed a station in Irirangi, New Zealand, and traveled to more than 22 countries and regions.

He rates his best navy experience as a five-month posting as a radio operator in Antarctica in 1985. He was working with scientists doing field research and vividly remembers his first glimpse of the ice-covered landscape.

Life outside the navy

"It really is an awesome place. Stepping out of the plane, there was McMurdo Sound laid out in front of you. It was a glorious day with the white ice of the snow, the trans-Antarctic mountains in the distance and an azure blue sky above."

It was minus-20 degrees Celsius and he could see the shades of blues and black in the ice and rocks of the mountains. "It literally takes your breath away."

In a training program in Canberra, Australia, Earl worked part-time in public broadcasting, reading newspapers and books for the visually impaired.

The experience of a life outside the navy spurred him to open a new chapter in his own life.

"I have been out of the navy for the past 13 years and I have never looked back," he says.

In the years that followed, he stripped the bark off posts as a forest contractor and taught computer skills to adults and the long-term unemployed.

While living in Christchurch, New Zealand, Earl became involved in community radio and amateur theater.

"There were obviously a lot of nerves (as I was) standing backstage on that first night, asking myself if I was a complete idiot," he says.

"But when I walked onto that stage, within two minutes I was totally and utterly at home and it was the most wonderful feeling to be under those lights and I thought, 'This is where I want to be.'

"That was 1999 and it was 33 years between curtain calls," he recalls.

Earl turned to teaching English because he wanted to travel and work overseas. But the English-teaching industry encountered difficulties in New Zealand and he was made redundant at his school. Earl sold his house and used the money to complete a Bachelor of Arts in linguistics in just two years.

During his time overseas, he has worked for Microsoft in Bangalore, India, and now in Shanghai he helps the software giant's engineers refine their customer service staff's English-language skills.

A keen runner, Earl is also involved in the local Hash House Harriers as their "religious advisor." A member of the group since 1982, Earl has run with different chapters around the world. In Shanghai they hold regular running and social events and enjoy a cold beer after the run.

Earl is also an accomplished singer, performing in choirs in New Zealand and in the rock band, Rocksuey, in Shanghai, where he and his fellow "aging rockers" perform hits of the 1960s-70s.

Dave Earl

Nationality: New Zealand


Profession: English-language teacher


Description of self:

Humorous, kind, affectionate.

Favorite place in Shanghai:

Taikang Road.

Strangest thing seen in Shanghai:

The local fashion sense.

Worst experience in Shanghai:

Being ramrodded into a crowded Metro during rush hours.

Motto for life:

Treat others as you would have them treat you.

Things that could improve Shanghai:

Metros running later at night, more "green" technologies to improve air quality, enforce measures to reduce pollution, especially in polluting industries; clean up the waterways.

Advice to newcomers:

Accept that the concept of service is different here, take time to adjust before criticizing.


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