Frontiers of Scarfiedom: The Legacy of the Capping Cult

Frontiers of Scarfiedom: The Legacy of the Capping Cult

Now in its 130th year, the Capping Show is a time capsule of the ever-evolving Otago University student culture. To recap Capping – and reuse a joke that Critic has made time and again in our 99 years writing about it – what began as a 19th century flash mob of sorts during graduation ceremonies is now a two hour production of epic proportions. 

The Capping Show follows the structure of a main sketch based on what’s hot in popular culture, supplemented by the now-traditional side sketches of the Selwyn Ballet, Sextet, and the recently formed Sexytet – Otago’s infamous acapella groups whose naughty parody songs aim to shock and delight. ‘Beezie’, this year’s main sketch, is based on Barbie, the Oscar-nominated, proudly pink movie that took the world by storm last year with feminist themes that draw eerie parallels to Capping women’s history.

The legacy of Capping is legendary – sometimes for the wrong reasons. Critic Te Ārohi reflects on the role of Capping as a frontier of Scarfie culture, the evolving role of women in the show, whether Capping is a cult or community, and the legacy of former cappers. To quote a TikTok influencer salivating over a Crumbl cookie: “Let’s get into it.”

Cappers of Yore

Any capper will proudly tell you that Otago’s Capping Show is the longest running student revue in the world. They’ll then sheepishly clarify that it’s the longest continuous show, beating Cambridge University’s Footlights for the sole reason that they didn’t produce shows during the two world wars. Dunedin breeds ‘em tough – and really fucking far from the action. The students of yore who pioneered Capping didn’t have the glitz and glam of the modern theatre kid. They simply donned costumes and poked fun at the Uni’s big wigs with improvised sketches to popular show tunes of the time. 

Its early evolution after the 19th century saw a (rather drunk) procession from the University to Logan Park on the Monday of Capping Week dubbed ‘Procesh’. They had “magnificent floats” manned by dudes dressed as clowns drinking from barrels of beer. Shops and offices closed when thousands of people lined the streets, and students collected money for charity as they worked their way down the street. At the end of a week of festivities rivalling O-Week was the official Capping ceremony (still occasionally disrupted) after which students put on the ‘Capping Carnival’. Traditions such as the Sextet and Selwyn Ballet formed in the early 20th century, and all that remains of Capping Week is the show that we have today. 

Dane Oates is the Otago University Students’ Association event coordinator and producer of the show. He explains that, in its current form, the show is an assemblage of sketches. The main sketch is based on what’s hot in pop culture at the time, using it to platform students’ stories. Past themes have included ‘Back to the Flat’, ‘Larry Thotter and the Chambers of the Bong’, and ‘Flatatouille’ – this year, it's ‘Beezie’. 

This year’s ‘Beezie’ theme was drummed up between Dane and the four student directors (two stage, two video) and written by recent grads Rāhiri Wharerau, Bronson Toghill, and Mila McHardy. “Barbie had a massive cultural impact last year,” explains Dane. “It was very prominent in the public psyche, and the concept that the main sketch writers put forward for it was just a really compelling story and very funny. We thought there were a lot of ways that we could make that really visually interesting. [...] For all those reasons we ended up going with Beezie.”

Mirror of Scarfie Culture

“Capping Show is a mirror into student culture more than a driver of student culture,” says Dane. “As a revue show, it sort of sums up [...] the current state of Dunedin culture. And so there’s a lot of cultural references that maybe wouldn't make any sense to people outside of Dunedin.” Think of the typical blank stares Dunedin-based humour will elicit from hometown friends when you call “buffalo” at pres, or having to explain what “breatha” means after dropping it casually in a family call. 

“There’s always a joke about the Proctor stealing bongs every year, which I’m sure less and less people understand as time goes by,” Dane laughs. The incident Dane refers to is what Critic Te Ārohi affectionately dubbed as ‘BongShell’. In 2018, the Proctor visited a student flat on his annual rounds distributing warnings about holding flat initiations. Spotting “water bongs” on a table in a flat, he went inside and seized them, followed by a whirlwind of media attention and social commentary – spearheaded giddily by yours truly, Critic Te Ārohi. 

BongShell is just one example of local gossip that both the Capping Show and Critic Te Ārohi have mercilessly joked about over their histories. “I would say that the Capping Show is the Critic of theatre shows. It’s a similar kind of energy,” says Dane. They’re entwined to the point where when the crew goes on a writer’s retreat to write the show, they’re given old Critic articles to read and find inspiration from – worryingly, Moaningful Confessions are among them. Perhaps that explains the 49 assorted sex, dick and tit jokes Critic counted last year.

“The show is very much about student stories, whether that’s a silly story or something more serious, which is what Critic does as well. There’s an extent to which there’s really serious, quite important journalism. And there’s also, like, really taking the piss and having a lot of fun. And Capping Show does both of those things as well,” Dane tells Critic. “It feels very of its place, which is one of the things that makes it so special. When I was a student here, Critic and Capping Show were by far my two favourite things about OUSA and the University.”

Political Incorrectness

In its current form, the show’s theatricality and lighthearted entertainment counters the glass throwing, bong ripping, and general debauchery often associated with students of the University of Otago. Over the course of its existence, Capping has challenged the views and boundaries of what the audience will find funny. Some have aged like fine wine, such as the (eventual) inclusion of women into the show, while other of-its-time humour has aged like the soured milk in the back of your fridge. “God knows the kind of humour that they were using in those days,” says Dane. “I’ve definitely heard some stories about old Capping Show that wouldn’t fly today.”

Sextet were originally called ‘The C**ns’ in 1903 – an egregious anti-black slur. They caught on quickly, though (thank FUCK) changing their name to Sextet in 1912. They sang racist parodies of popular show tunes, fitting right at home to the controversial but ‘funny-at-the-time’ values of the revue and their audience. We don’t get it, either.

Speaking for Capping Show today, Dane says that there’s a “very strong emphasis on the directionality of our jokes. So no topic is off the table, but the way that those topics are approached is done in a delicate way, to some extent. The important thing is that if you're gonna have a joke that involves, you know, homophobia or sexism or racism, that it's a joke at the expense of the sexist and the racist and the homophobes – then we're punching up rather than punching down. So we really focus on prioritising jokes that, you know, target those in power rather than those who don't have any power.”

Sextet

Sextet is a lot more wholesome these days – well, in comparison. They still almost exclusively sing about sex and drugs, low hanging fruit Critic Te Ārohi is only too familiar. We spoke to Jack Archibald, Sextet member and stage director this year. Jack speaks of the group in glowing terms: “Sextet is so much fun. It's all the fun parts of the show, like writing, but we're entirely self-contained. So we write everything, we arrange everything and we rehearse everything ourselves and perform it. And it's phenomenal. There's nothing like it.”

Capping was Jack’s introduction to Dunedin student culture. After struggling to click with his peers in his residential college, and as the only first-year in the show in 2021, he says, “I was very much taken under everyone’s wing. Almost everyone in their own way wanted to help this little fresher [...] I’ve never felt more accepted and wanted in a show.” 

Jack's been in the main cast of the Capping Show since 2021, but he only became involved with Sextet last year after other musical theatre commitments outside of Capping meant he couldn’t make rehearsals for the show. Two friends convinced him to don the clown costume, and he couldn’t be happier: “Putting on a clown face is one of the most fun things to do.”

The close-knit group of boys all have nicknames that they're only allowed to call each other when they're in costume. Jack's is ‘My Wife’ (a Borat reference, in case you missed it) with others including Spooner, Golden Star,  Scooter Boy, and Spirit Fingers – named after one member’s tendency to wiggle his fingers at people on the piss. “You don't think you're gonna get a nickname and then you do something stupid on a night out and then they go, ‘Cool, you're stuck with that for the rest of the time you're in Sextet,’” Jack says.

It’s a Beezie World

As with anything older than the invention of the pill or the notion of women wearing pants, Capping hasn’t always boasted the beezies of campus. Both Sextet and the Selwyn Ballet were formed at the beginning of the 20th century. Women, however, were nowhere to be seen – not in the spotlight, anyway. 

Women were relegated to the audience or the backstage kitchens of Capping Show until 1948 – 54 years after the show began. Critic’s dusty office copy of Ritual Song of Defiance: A Social History of Students at the University of Otago details the struggle for inclusion and the historical moment when the Student Council (old speak for OUSA exec) passed a motion to allow women into “that bastion of male student culture – the Capping concert.” 

Equality between the sexes began to shift after the social upheaval of the First World War – but it wasn’t without pushback. During the 1920s, men began to feel threatened and “undermined by the intrusion of women.” A strongly male culture based around dick-swinging contests in men’s colleges (before residential halls became co-ed) and their initiation ceremonies, Capping, and barrels of beer was strongly enforced. It was during this time that Knox College formed the Misogynists’ Society which “flourished” during the 1930s. The self-proclaimed misogynists were “shaken by the apparent assertion of women’s rights and the decline of the traditional male order” and were “a movement to resist the feminist movement.”

In World War II, government conscription meant an exodus of men from the University grounds (would it be wrong to call this a rare win for the 20th century woman?). Taking the saying “when life gives you lemons” and running with it, women made their move into the previously male-dominated spaces. The proportion of women students grew, and with the growth in number came a growth in status, taking up positions they’d previously been barred from, such as OUSA exec positions. They even began to wear pants, and took up smoking, swearing, and drinking – the OG sheathas. 

Men, in their outrage, sent letters to the (woman) Critic Editor against “feminist cliques and gangs,” urging men to unite and show that “they, and they alone, wear the trousers at the University of Otago.” As the recently appointed editor of the magazine, Diana Shaw used her new platform to respond in turn: “Our ire can no longer be restrained. It is the pettiness and the stupidity and the narrow mindedness of men of your ilk which have caused women to be relegated for so long to the subordinate position from which they are slowly emerging.” 
The Student Council had carried a motion in 1938 allowing women to take part in the Capping Show, but nothing had changed and the motion was forgotten. In March 1947, however, women took action. A petition circulating among women students calling for their inclusion in the concert was signed by 150 women, 40 of whom said they personally wanted to take part. After a kerfuffle over bureaucracy, even more misogynistic comments, and a “tumultuous” special meeting of the council that saw “howls of rage” from both sides, the council approved the inclusion of women in the concert. 
In time, not only was the door to the show finally opened to women, but a female equivalent of the Sextet called Sexytet arrived on the scene at the turn of the century – the culmination of decades of social progress and multiple waves of feminism. 

Sexytet

The Barden Bellas to the Sextet’s Treblemakers, Sexytet are a testament to the efforts of beezies past to nudge their way into the male-dominated spaces on campus. The group of six girls dress as ‘50s housewives and perform cheeky, provocative, and innuendo-based comedic songs in a six-part harmony, much of which “acknowledges that women are sexual beings who deserve orgasms too,” as Critic wrote in 2016. 

Sexytet’s exact origins are contested. Co-convenors Samantha Elliott and Isa de Vries say they’re “trying to work out when it was” based on video footage and news articles pointing to 2000. The first whisperings of a female equivalent to the Sextet, however, was a group of six girls who performed under the name ‘Sextette’ in the ‘60s. 

True to the times, the Otago Daily Times reported of the Sextette, “Year by year the male domination of the Capping Concert has been whittled away. This year comes the final blow to the tradition. The most exclusive of institutions, the all-male Varsity Sextet, has been joined by Sextette. The girls do a good job, but their voices are not strong enough and most of their words are lost.” Commenting on this, Samantha says, “Yeah, they got pretty ridiculed. So technically there was one but then not, which is so sad. But yeah, this is kind of like our 25th year.” Just 88 years later than the boys! 

Contrary to popular belief, the “sex” part of their name means “six”. Their repertoire has evolved with the times, with the group writing new songs each year. Songs have included jokes about anal sex, menstruation, constipation, IBS (cos hot girls have stomach issues), and one recently about a love-crazed person hiding in their ex’s basement. According to Isa, it’s the sort of humour that “let’s say, historically speaking, you wouldn't want women to talk about because it’s very R-rated [...] I feel like our whole idea is that we look really sweet, so you don’t expect when some really foul things come out.” Samantha laughs, adding, “Surprise!” 

The crass content of the show can make for an interesting experience if you’re not the target audience. The girls laugh as they recall the delicacies of inviting relatives along. Samantha originally tried to bar her parents from watching, but her mum came the second year and “loved it”. Regrettably, Isa didn’t boast a similar success story: “My parents came once and they never came again. They’re quite conservative, so when they saw me on stage singing about sex and drugs they were like, ‘What?’” 

For one couple last year, the Sexytet’s so-called “wholesome” anal sex song ‘Here Comes My Bum’ (a ‘Here Comes the Sun’ parody) ruined date night. “It was not the worst joke but they were like, ‘Oh, girls singing about anal, that’s not acceptable,’” Samantha says. But parents aren’t the target audience: it always has been, and always will be, students. “Dunedin targeted, very Dunedin targeted,” says Samantha – from shit student flats to Countdown rats. 

Samantha and Isa agree that Pitch Perfect is a common reference both they and the Sextet have played off since the movie came out. In a classic Pitch Perfect Barden Bella parody last year, the Sexytet began their performance with the iconic ‘The Sign’ – adjusted for the modern situationship:

I got a new guy, and I swear he’s better looking than his pics
Nobody’s perfect (but he’s really really far from it)
Only one pillow, and his mattress is on the floor
Ew ew ew ew ew – is enough enough?

I saw the signs
But I may as well be blind
Cause all his red flags are around me
But they look so pretty!

I saw the signs
Always drinking Billy Mavs, and flats on Hyde!
(No one's gonna tell you but
We also knew that he’s a dick)

I saw the signs
(We know he’s gonna fuck you up
Don’t try to be his therapist)
But I study Psych!

The movie’s parallels extend beyond the fact that it’s about varsity a capella groups, however. For Sexytet, Pitch Perfect’s social commentary on inequality between the Bellas and the Treblemakers hits close to home. Samantha says that they especially relate in moments where the Barden Bellas would need to work harder than the boy group to earn the same recognition. She points to the example of when the judges would talk about the female voices not having the same tone: “Like, they’ll never be as good. And we’re like that’s just not true.” Isa adds, “It’s the same as how we have to work harder to show what we can do.” 

“I feel like the Barden Bellas also got ridiculed or judged based [on] their appearance and the way they sing,” says Isa. “That’s the big one,” says Sam. “No one talks about what the boys look like.” Isa says that no matter how “ugly” the boys can look – something Jack says they’re “self-aware” about in their clown kit – or if they have an off night “it wouldn’t matter ‘cos they’re guys singing on stage so it’s like, super cool [...] So in that sense we completely relate to [the Bellas] ‘cause they also had that with the boys. The boys were so cool and then they had to work so hard to be valued just as much.” 

Although part of the Sexytet’s “bit is housewife spoofing” in an adorable get-up, Sam finds it strange when their costumes can pull more focus than the singing itself: “[You want] to own your costume, you want to own the femininity that you put on stage. So then to have people focus on that more than the singing or like the actual performance is kind of such an anti-feminist thing to do.” Their words echo America Farera’s widely applauded Barbie monologue: “It is literally impossible to be a woman [...] Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we're always doing it wrong.”

The relationship between Sextet and Sexytet apparently had rocky beginnings. “It sounded like it was more of a rivalry to begin with, or like, Sexytet was the counterpart of Sextet,” says Isa. “Like the budget Sextet,” says Sam. Now they’d consider themselves to be “partners”, working together a lot of the time as a “big cohort”. 

Sextet are still given more opportunities to perform, according to the girls, but Samantha says they’re “really grateful and quite lucky that now they’re willing to include us or pass along our information if they get asked to do something [...] We very rarely get people coming directly to us, but we’re really glad that the boys are happy to [pass along] opportunities.” In saying that, the girls are “hoping that eventually the group gets to a point where we’re standalone as well.”

Speaking to Critic in the week prior to opening night, the Sexytet girls are “nervous” but feeling “pretty good”. They’ve sought a lot of feedback from past members who the girls were incredibly grateful for: “They’re so eager to come and listen to us and help us and give us feedback.” “It’s easy to overthink about it – like, is it funny?” says Sam. “I know, which is such a girl thing to do,” laughs Isa. “When I feel like guys wouldn’t even blink twice at those things.” 

Cult or Community?

Without fail, the cappers who Critic Te Ārohi spoke to enthused about the intensely tight-knit community of Capping – extending beyond the show itself. In the past, Critic has speculated at the “cultish” aspects of the show, with multiple articles titled as some variation of the ‘Capping Cult’. Naturally, it came up in conversation (we asked). 

As the current producer of the show, Dane has a diplomatic answer prepared. Preparation for the Capping Show happens in quite a short timeframe, according to Dane. Auditions begin after Orientation, giving the crew about four weeks of writing, four evenings a week down at College Auditorium, followed by four weeks of rehearsals before a run of eight shows back to back. 

“It’s a very intense schedule,” says Dane. “So I think if you take any group of 20 somethings and put them in a room four nights a week for an extended period where the focus is being silly and creative, you're gonna end up with some awesome experiences [...] And so I think that naturally lends itself towards a really strong commitment to the show and also like a sort of forming of identity around it to a certain extent.” 

Jack wasn’t such a hard egg to crack: “It’s definitely a cult. People are very passionate about the Capping Show when they’re in it. It kind of becomes your entire life – some people for six months, some people four years” – referring to his long-standing involvement in the show since 2021. “I hate to say it, but the drinking aspect of Capping Show in my first-year really made it [...] When you come to Dunedin you hear all the stories about [how] people are forced to do all these initiations which are so horrible, but Capping has none of that.” 

Unlike Sextet, Sexytet were hesitant to attach the “cult” label to the community of Capping. “I personally wouldn’t call it a cult, but I can see how other people would think that,” says Isa. “It is kind of cool because you make friends with people who you would’ve never met before. Like all the new girls that have come in this year, we wouldn’t have met them if it wasn’t for Sexytet [...] There’s so many talented, amazing, beautiful girls who we wouldn’t have ever crossed paths with [...] We’ve just got singing in common, and now we’re best friends.”

The Legacy of Capping

Cambridge University’s revue show Footlights produced UK stars like Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. Capping Show’s own success stories include legendary playwright Sir Roger Leighton Hall, ex-mayor Aaron Hawkins, and New Zealand comedian and TV writer Sam Smith. While Sam doesn’t have a hyperlink under ‘notable former members’ on the Capping Show’s Wikipedia page, he’s done some pretty cool stuff since his Capping five year tenure from 2006, writing for shows like 7 Days and Taskmaster. 

Sam was more than happy to reminisce on his time as a capper with Critic Te Ārohi. He was involved in Capping Show from 2006, where he played William Shakespeare in the main skit ‘2 Crass 2 Humorous’. “You got to be on all of the posters and things, so it immediately became part of my identity,” he laughs. He moved through the ranks of Capping over his time, progressing from actor, to stage director, and finally writing the main sketch in 2010: ‘Alice in Capping Land’.

While he was technically studying Dentistry, Sam says he was unofficially studying theatre and comedy writing. He would spend “all day in the first half of the year thinking up sketches when I was sitting in lectures to write for Capping Show [...] I lived and breathed it.” His obsession with Capping edged out study, spending most of his time writing sketches for both Capping and the Dent Revue and studying a thick book about Saturday Night Live he’d found. While he completed his degree, Sam says, “I definitely got my comedy training while I was there.” 

One of the best things about Capping, according to Sam, is the legacy of former cappers – as well as OUSA associated people in general. Sam reckons OUSA is a “great training ground” for creatives: “Comedy for me. Journalism for [Critic] [...] we slowly take over the world without bragging about it.” While he was working at TV3, Sam found common ground with anchor woman Samantha Hayes who used to work for Radio One. “We had that connection of working in the same building and sort of reminiscing about that [...] her eyes lit up just reminiscing about it.” 

The legacy of Capping is something Jack, Samantha, and Isa mention as well. Jack tells Critic that he loves automatically becoming part of the network spanning back over a century. Sextet will regularly perform shows outside of Capping throughout the year, such as a 50th Law School reunion last year. At these events, he says that they'll have alumni approaching them to share stories of when they were part of the group. “It's a really cool feeling,” says Jack. “Especially seeing how much it's impacted other people in their lives.” 

Both Samantha and Isa are incredibly passionate about continuing the legacy of Sexytet. They had a woman reach out to them, after seeing a video of the girls performing, who’d been involved with Sexytet over 20 years ago and was “stoked” to see that it was still going. “She said that [they] had such a rough time when they started it with people not respecting them.” The original Sexytets even struggled to gain the respect of their boyfriends who told them they weren’t funny, this woman told the girls. “So she was really happy that it was still going,” Samantha says. Just like cellulite can’t stop Margot Robbie’s Barbie, misogynistic comments can’t stop the Sexytets.

 

Spanning over a century, the legacy of the Capping Show has undoubtedly woven itself into the fabric of the University’s culture, seeping into the far reaches of the creative world. Historical change has shaped the evolution of the show over its course, most prominently in this year’s show with the spotlighting of women’s role. In ‘Beezie’, Dane says, “Our story is definitely a very empowering story for the Beezies of Scarfieland and definitely touches on those [feminist] narratives in the same way that the Barbie movie does [...] of the oppression that women have faced over the last couple of thousand years of human history.” Dane said that it also celebrates women like the first women to study at Otago Uni. Unlike the Barbie movie, however, Dane said that there was “no fake tan budget”. 

The popularity of Capping has ebbed and flowed over its history. In 1929, it was said to be the most important event in the University calendar (a title that’s been replaced by Hyde St Party and St Paddy’s Day). Critic wrote in 1966: “Capping is a glorious time. It is a sort of annually recurring twenty-first birthday, when you feel like drinking a thousand beers and kissing a thousand girls and laughing a thousand times a day.” In 1922, tickets for the show were going to be sold on a Monday morning, so students wanting tickets arrived at 2pm on the Sunday to camp overnight at the venue. At 8am, the tickets began selling and the performances were sold out by the afternoon. 

But while the Capping Show was huge 50 years ago, at one point being the largest source of income for OUSA – with profits funding the construction of buildings, they've been lucky to break even since the pandemic. Dane says that, much like other OUSA events such as the Hyde Street Party, the success of the show is driven by word of mouth. “We took a really massive hit over Covid,” says Dane. “We still managed to do a show every year and somehow managed to squeeze around lockdowns – which was amazing so we can keep that continuous title, and we’ve been slowly regrowing since Covid.”
Given his enduring passion for the show, it comes as no surprise that Sam would enthusiastically encourage anyone to go to Capping. “It's literally about your everyday life in North Dunedin and making lots of fun of other people [...] It’s just watching yourself be reflected a lot more than randos you see on TikTok who are from all around the world. It's a proper local comedy about your everyday life.” 

Whether you identify as a sheatha, breatha, or beezy, there’s sure to be something for any and all North Dunedin dwelling students. Pay tribute to a legacy that only we can call ours by taking your frozen, fabulous asses to Capping Show. This Barbie will be. 

This article first appeared in Issue 11, 2024.
Posted 4:33pm Saturday 11th May 2024 by Nina Brown.