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From its launch in 1993 Auckland Theatre Company's founding director Simon Prast, was determined to bring New Zealand stories to the stage. Eschewing the easier audience-builders of international plays with established cachet, he presented Lovelock’s Dream Run and Daughters of Heaven for the company’s first season.
"We were making it up as we went along, the new theatre had to be new,” he says. “We were very pragmatic: what were we capable of".
Richard Knowles and Tiare Tawera in The Pohutukawa Tree
By 2000, as the company became artistically and financially better-positioned, Prast wanted to bring Māori voices, as well as young, female, Pasifika to stage. Briar Grace-Smith’s Haruru Mai which had just premiered at the Wellington International Arts Festival, was the story he was looking for. The play had been directed by Colin McColl, one of the co-founders of Wellington’s Taki Rua, which was dedicated to developing theatre with a distinctively Māori voice. Prast re-worked the play with Grace-Smith, adding music by Gareth Farr and modifying it. Despite a cast that included George Henare, Nancy Brunning and Taita Waititi, the changes he pushed, right up until opening night, were not without challenges for the playwright.
Rena Owen and Tiare Tawera in The Pohutukawa Tree
Miriama Smith in Paniora!
"He creates a spiritually safe environment for Māori theatre practitioners, meaning that actors have an open place to explore, mining the text in a way that he, and they, find exhilarating."
“In some ways the play moved forward and in other ways it became something different,” she recalls. If I were doing it today, I would have gotten myself more support. We all got better at understanding what a Māori writer needs, the importance that the cast feels safe, they know the protocols. Now on opening night we have a karakia and a prayer to acknowledge the work and what’s happening. ATC has grown from that point of view, the pressure is not on the actors.”
Grace-Smith says she would have loved the support provided now by the company’s manu whenua advisor. Actors and crew, who have always embraced rituals as part of theatre, not surprisingly take naturally to Māori protocol. As a young actor at Mercury Theatre, Rawiri Paratene had to create his own private ritual around Māori practices of prayer and cleansing. Now he shares those with everyone in the company of what he calls ‘theatricians', to include stage managers and crew. Starting from the first day of rehearsals, he creates a spiritually safe environment for Māori theatre practitioners. The actors have an open place to explore, mining the text in a way that he, and they, find exhilarating.
George Henare and Geraldine Brophy in Awatea
“In the last 20 years contemporary Māori theatre has grown, we’ve developed some tremendously exciting writers and well-respected directors. We have a depth of actors that we didn’t have, a fantastic pool,” he says. “But I am not sure that there is a growth in Māori going to Māori theatre, even plays in Te Reo. Growing an audience of the future, it’s an investment.”
“You should take a risk with your audience, and bring them to something they wouldn’t journey to usually” says Prast. “Challenges, not a mono-cultural, experience. If we were to be the foremost company in New Zealand, then the responsibility was ours.”
"You should take a risk with your audience, and bring them to something they wouldn’t journey to usually."
Joe Dekkers-Reihana in When Sun and Moon Collide
Danielle Cormack in The Bellbird
By the time Colin McColl joined ATC as creative director in 2003, the interest in such distinctly New Zealand works had grown.
“I was always interested in telling our stories, Māori stories are always going to be part of that,” he says. “The politics of it all was that Māori didn’t want Pākēha directors telling their stories, they wanted to take ownership. I was happy about it. I went in a different direction: what does it mean to be Pākēha in New Zealand, we’re different from Europeans. And now we look at more Māori works in our season, directed by Māori directors.”
McColl selected from playwrights from the classics of Bruce Mason, to Peter Hawes’ and Arthur Meeks’ examinations of early colonial people’s relationship with Māori (Goldie, Upside Down at the End of the World).
“Everything is ephemeral in this business. I like to find the forgotten gems that didn’t have much exposure and bring them to the stage,” says McColl. “We need to keep the canon alive. We're in a position that we can invite on to our stage Māori stories, as well as Pacifica and Asian and all the other nationalities of Auckland.”