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Erin Hunter - Surfing The Holyland Interview

Erin Hunter's Surfing The Holyland sees a wide-eyed American move to Tel Aviv learning how to navigate the wild waters of the Middle East. How does she do it? She learns to surf!

Surfing The Holyland is heading to Brighton Fringe this June with the promise of colourful characters, ukulele anthems and one woman’s search for chutzpah, this classic fish-out-of-water tale blends bighearted comedy, electrifying storytelling and bold physicality.

Ahead of the Brighton Fringe, I spoke with Erin about the show.

The show is based on your own experiences in Tel Aviv but what inspired you to turn those experiences into Surfing the Holyland?

When the decision was made to move to Tel Aviv, I sobbed into my pillow that it would be the end of my acting career. But it had always been on my bucket list to write a one-woman show (if only I could find the courage and the time), so a move to the Middle East seemed like the perfect opportunity! Although I still didn’t know what it would be about. I remember sitting in front of my computer staring at a blank page entitled ‘One Woman Show Ideas’ trying to force the magic to happen with very little luck. Meanwhile, in what felt like a totally separate experience, I was casually writing down all the wild things that we experienced living in Tel Aviv: from big Jewish weddings to the beach cafes pumping house music all day with the rudest, sassiest waiters alive, to wine-tasting on the Syrian border. And I finally fulfilled a lifetime dream of learning how to surf. I mean, I grew up in Malibu, California, so I certainly never expected to learn in a conflict zone! Plus, having converted to Judaism for my hubby, I felt like even more of a fish-out-of-water than your average immigrant to Israel. And with such unique experiences, I knew I had to bring them to life on stage!

How did those experiences shape your life?

Learning to surf has been a transformative experience, and in some ways, the show is a love letter to surfing. Although I grew up on the sunny beaches of Los Angeles, after living in London for over a decade, that part of me was kind of dormant! So, I credit our time in Tel Aviv with reconnecting me to the sea. I’m now a proper surf junkie who checks surf app Magic Seaweed most days and forces her husband to make sure all holidays are near a surfable beach (nightmare!) I was very wary about moving to Israel, and don’t get me wrong, it is a complicated place, but there were so many surprising and delightful things I discovered there — from the beaches to the food, to the history, the friends I made, and it was a huge opportunity for growth. Because Israelis have a reputation, rightly so, for being tough, and for speaking their mind. And there’s no such thing as a queue in Israel! So, I really had to learn how to assert myself and channel my inner chutzpah in a way I never had before. In fact, I had to dial it back down when we moved back to London!

How did you go about creating and crafting the piece?

It all started as frenzied journal entries anytime I’d have an interesting experience or a notable surf lesson (like the one where my surf teacher told me ‘Surfing is better than sex’). There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind, so I put together a casual reading for an audience of friends at a kombucha bar (!) in Tel Aviv and it had a really positive reaction (phew!) Then I floated the idea to the theatre programmer at JW3 and she said, ‘Sounds great. Let’s book you in for a slot.’ And I had 9 months to turn a few rough-as-sandpaper scenes into a polished play! Although I’d written lots of material with my comedy duo, I’d never written solo, so it felt like a monumental challenge. But I was lucky enough to have an excellent team to help me shape the play. My dramaturg, Sarah Sigal, did a lot of handholding, reading every draft and giving super insightful notes. My director, Adam Lenson (British musical theatre impresario) really supported me with the songs (or ‘ukulele anthems’ as my producer insists, I call them!) and developing the play’s structure (the surf lessons anchor each scene, but it’s non-linear). Everything else fell into place in the rehearsal room. And the benefit of being the writer as well as the performer means that every time I perform at a new venue (ten so far!) I edit, I refine, I punch up jokes. After all, an artist's work is never finished!

How do you go about staging a show involving surfing onto the stage?

It was quite a tough nut to crack in the rehearsal room. We knew we couldn’t go the supernaturalistic route as that would be very expensive and probably involve a tank of water on stage! So we went in the opposite direction, relying on physicality, the audience’s imagination, and a beautifully rich soundscape to simulate the splashes and crashes of the ocean. However, I still needed something to ‘pop up’ onto and ‘surf’ on that was both practical and theatrical. My brilliant director came up with the idea of using three large plastic containers that, when lined up, are the length of a surfboard, and stable enough to leap around on. They also ended up being crucial set pieces to delineate different spaces. And with the abundance of scenes, I had to practice the ‘boxeography’ A LOT to remember how to arrange them. Conveniently, they also provided great prop storage!

You play a variety of characters throughout the piece; did you have a favourite character to write or to play?

Oooh, good question! Udi, the surf teacher is probably my favourite to play. As a petite, friendly woman, it’s very satisfying playing and parodying a macho surfer dude. And the role was a dream to write because I had a lot of excellent raw material. A lot of the characters are based on real people, but Udi is a mishmash of all the surf teachers I had while living there (at least 10!), which meant I was able to cherry-pick the most interesting characteristics, the funniest phrases and body language. For example, one very serious surf teacher used to get very upset when I’d paddle for a wave and would forget to look back at the oncoming wave and would shout “You’re surfing blind!!!” So that’s made it into the script. And one of my favourite lines of the whole play came — stage ready — out of another teacher’s mouth. When I asked if there were sharks in Tel Aviv’s waters, without missing a beat, he replied “Oh we have sharks but they’re not in the water.” You can’t make this stuff up!

What do you want an audience member to take away from seeing Surfing the Holyland?

I believe theatre should entertain, but more importantly, it should spark debate and foster optimism. And for me, this is done most effectively with comedy (cue Erin stepping off her soapbox). I hope to tick all those boxes!  I think this audience member from Edinburgh Fringe summed it up best, “I laughed, I cried and left the theatre to seek my own life-changing experience.” And, of course, any audience member who loves the show and tells all their friends is a bonus!

Can you describe Surfing the Holyland in 3 words?

Empowering surf comedy.

Surfing The Holyland plays at Brighton Fringe from Thursday 1st to Sunday 4th June 2023. Tickets are available from

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