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Theatre - Negotiating the bi-cultural tightrope: thoughts on Bi-cultural theatre practice in Te Waipounamu
DeepSouth v5.n.2 (Summer 1999)
Copyright (c) 1999 by Hilary Halba
|by Hilary Halba - University of Otago, Teaching Fellow Theatre Studies, co-director of Nga Tangata Toa and post-graduate English student|
|Kilimogo Productions was conceived in my living room in 1995 with Rangimoana
Taylor (director, teacher and actor) from Ngati Porou, Kai Tahu director
and actor Cindy Diver, Awatea Edwin, also from Kai Tahu (a teacher of Maori
combat forms, carver, performance innovator and supporter) and I. Our mutual
aim was to create an on-going structure through which quality, innovative
Maori and bi-cultural theatre and performance, informed by local tikanga
and kawa, could be presented in the lower half of Te Waipounamu/South Island.
Continuity of development was paramount. There had been Maori and bi-cultural
theatre performed in Dunedin over a number of years, but fitfully and with
no specific on-going structure, company or group dedicated to that kaupapa.
Local elders were consulted and the name Kilimogo was chosen. We were told that this name, derived from the old language of this area, refers to the physical place, the mountain to the north of Dunedin, now known colloquially by the name of the road leading over it - the Kilmog. This was the place at which a specifically Southern form of Ta Moko was practised - a genuine and unique Southern style. Kilimogo's aim was that our theatre work would reflect some of the mana and energy of this name and tradition.
In 1997, I developed and co-directed a theatre project with Kilimogo Productions that represented a culmination of my developing interest in bi-cultural theatre and was Kilimogo's first production of a full-length play. Together with Rangimoana Taylor, I produced and co-directed Hone Kouka's Nga Tangata Toa, based on Ibsen's The Vikings at Helgeland. In so doing, Rangimoana and I, along with the Kilimogo company, were working toward developing a bi-cultural methodology of performance and theatre practice in the lower half of Te Waipounamu. Rangimoana and I, Maori man and Pakeha woman, were trying to make a performative event embracing both cultures without subsuming either. How could this construct of a justness and equality of mutual input work in practice? I was supported by Anne Salmond's statement in her introduction to Hui. Like her study, mine too,"is an attempt to comprehend, from an unavoidably pakeha viewpoint, some matters that are deeply Maori." Undeniably, what I had to offer as a director came from a pakeha world-view, but Nga Tangata Toa's frame of reference was profoundly Maori.
Obviously theatre is a Western construct, but in saying that it is important to acknowledge the richness and diversity of European/Pakeha theatre forms. Much of what we do as theatre practitioners in New Zealand theatre is informed by the theatrical practices of England, America and Europe. We work with Naturalistic performance methods, techniques of Brechtian-style alienation and with staging influenced by Expressionism, Symbolism and Surrealism - to name but a few. Rangimoana and I identified the necessity of asking why and how we were going to fit Maori, specifically Kai Tahu, tikanga and kawa into these so-called "Western" theatrical constructs and performance practices, many of which are influenced by Stanislavskian-style actor training and Naturalistic performance methodology. Kilimogo's Nga Tangata Toa company discussed this problem at length during the rehearsal process of the play. Often this discussion centred on the fact that histories and whakapapa were traditionally communicated and transmitted verbally, actualising intricate lineages and elucidating complex ideas. Theatre essentially performs the same function. A multiplicity of ideas and themes are actualised performatively for an audience, these ideas and themes being communicated in a mode which is something other than commonplace, a ritualised mode. This mode could be whaikorero, waiata or karakia. It could also be theatre, influenced by the quest for a semblance of realism and emotional honesty in performance yet, at the same time, highly symbolic and stylised.
In the making of our production of Nga Tangata Toa, Rangimoana and I were using a performative model informed by Naturalistic psycho-technique combined with a spare, sparse and symbolic staging and setting. We were using these "Western" rehearsal, production and staging models to communicate ideas and stories influenced by te Ao Maori. Moreover, we were presenting a play written by a Ngati Porou playwright, and set in the area of Ngati Porou, in Te Waipounamu, in the sphere of Kai Tahu. Informed by whakapapa, we found strong links between Ngati Porou and Kai Tahu, signalling to us that not only was Rangimoana was an appropriate directorial mentor for this fledgling undertaking, but also that Nga Tangata Toa was an appropriate play on which to examine and develop a bi-cultural working methodology in the south. According to Kai Tahu history, an ancestor named Paikea was the father of Tahu Potiki, from whom Kai Tahu descend, and also the father of Whatiua Te Ramarama, who in turn was the father of Porourangi, from whom Ngati Porou descend. Furthermore, both Porourangi and Tahu Potiki, at different times, took Hemo Te Raki as a wife. Therefore both tribes descend from the same mother.
The play, the methods and the tribal connections signalled a unification, but where did I, as a pakeha woman, fit into this configuration? Roma Potiki points out in her article A Maori point of view: the journey from anxiety to confidence that there is a driving force in Maori theatre to re-establish cultural identity, to re-assert the mana of the tangata whenua. Why should I presume to feature in this process of self-empowerment? Did I have a role? Discussions with Rangimoana about this dilemma led, inevitably, to Treaty of Waitangi issues. As Treaty partners, it could be seen as apt that as Maori and Pakeha, Rangimoana and I work on this piece in partnership, finding points of intersection and mutuality between theatrical performance and Maoritanga.
However, I became aware that, as a co-director, I should be mindful of letting my pakeha response to the text, and to the art of performance and text analysis, govern the making of this production. I frequently heard myself saying to Rangimoana and the actors "But the text says...", "But surely this means...", "BUT THAT DOESN'T MAKE SENSE!!!" while Rangimoana gently reminded me that, in taha Maori terms, it made perfect sense. For example, most of the text of Nga Tangata Toa is written in English, interspersed with a few passages of te reo Maori. Rangimoana suggested early in the rehearsal process that although the text was written in English, these characters were actually speaking Maori. This made sense of the tangental and slightly poetic tone of many of the characters' speeches, which I had been trying to normify or find logical, rationalised (Pakeha) reasons. They were speaking Maori, which can be a very metaphoric language. They were speaking Maori! I informed my subsequent conceptualisation of the play with this knowledge, carefully treading a line, a tightrope of my own apprehension - the line which turned me from creative collaborator into theatrical colonizer. It was imperative that the characters in the play speak, act and react as Maori from the early 20th century, not as characters colonized by a pakeha director. I often stopped the actors during rehearsal, saying, "I don't understand where this character is coming from, how they feel. Can someone please tell me what is motivating this character?" The answer was often diametrically opposed to my understanding of the character and was rooted in a world-view at variance with my own. We would exchange views until we all felt comfortable with the information. I persevered. As the process?and our working methodology developed, I gained a deeper appreciation of, and insight into aspects of Maoritanga.
As I continued to work on Nga Tangata Toa, I developed a conviction that, in many ways, we were actually moulding "Western" theatre and performance methodology to fit into Maoritanga in general and, in our region, Kai Tahu-taka. Perhaps my qualms that theatre practice was simply another tool of colonization did not have to be the case. Certainly this held true in the rehearsal process. For example, each meeting or rehearsal began and ended with karakia, in which the whole company actively participated. We asked our ancestors, and whatever spiritual guardians people believed they had, to assist us in our endeavours. Initially, I viewed our daily karakia as a focussing device, but later came to see it as a vital and integral part of the process of living and making performance in a Maori context. We are influenced and informed by what has gone before; the past and our ancestors (both personal and theatrical) make us who we are. As theatre practitioners, we trace our lineages back to Stanislavski, Brecht, Grotowski, Hagen, Linklater, Brook and countless other mentor-practitioners. The immediacy of their influence is palpable in much that we do as theatre practitioners, just as the guidance and connection afforded by the ancestral kaitiaki are unmistakable and tangible in their effect.
The process of living was inextricably woven into the making of this performance. I remembered reading Michael King's comments regarding Maori society in his book Moko. King notes that this traditionally Maori milieu was: "...a social environment in which art, religion, war, food-gathering, lovemaking were an integrated part of the fabric of life." Our theatre practice became similarly integrated. For example, a notable member of the local Maori community died about two-thirds of the way through the rehearsal process. Some of us knew her, others did not, but rehearsals were suspended as the cast and crew attended her tangihanga. For those rehearsal and performance weeks, the entire company of Nga Tangata Toa were immersed within a vigorous, living Maori culture.
Nga Tangata Toa's author, Hone Kouka, favours a close working association with a kaumatua, viewing the kaumatua as a vital element of the production. This person is involved in all aspects of the rehearsal and performance process. In Maori terms, the function of the kaumatua in such a process is one of imparting knowledge and experience in terms of Maoritanga, tikanga and kawa, but not necessarily as a theatre expert. In a sense, Rangimoana fulfilled this function, in that, although he has not yet attained kaumatua status, by his own admission, he is certainly a senior member of the theatre community in this country as well as being experienced and erudite in aspects and features of tikanga Maori. However, the function of the kaumatau also encompasses the spiritual (and psychological) safety of the company. Indeed, in advocating working with a kaumatua, Hone Kouka stressed, "He keeps us safe". The spiritual safety of the company members, in Western theatre, is one of the numerous functions of the director. However, endowing Rangimoana with such a function in our company was one of the least considered of our choices. The director is inseparably involved with the process of making the performance, whereas the kauamtua's function is exogenous from the performance itself. The kaumatua presides over the performance event and all its participants, including the audience. This ill-considered deed placed an enormous strain on Rangimoana and he became ill. In the one area, our building of a mutuality of work process had failed. The pakeha theatrical construct of subsuming of spiritual well-being of the participants into the, apparently, more important making of a piece of theatre had surmounted this area of our evolving bi-cultural process.
Rangimoana advocated a Noho Marae (a marae-style, intensive work period and sleepover) as part of the rehearsal process. About ten days before the opening night of Nga Tangata Toa, we all slept over in Allen Hall Theatre's rehearsal room. The following morning, I had my only almost-fight with Rangimoana. He insisted that the actors ready themselves for a dawn run of the play, at 6.30am, before breakfast. This was preposterous, I grumbled, this is going against all the physical and mental instincts of the actor! The actor's day is structured so that she or he physically and mentally peaks at night (or at least in the afternoon) for a performance. Their bodies and voices are not even warmed up in the morning. I added that the actors (and me!) hadn't even had breakfast; their blood-sugar will be low - how can they possibly be expected to give a performance of any kind? I sat back, churlish and smug, waiting for a disaster and ignoring Rangimoana as he gently told me that the wairua of the characters being portrayed would take over and that this wairua was at its zenith at the dawn. It did and it was. The performance was immediate and intense - the best run the actors had done thus far. I examined my doubts, realising they originated from a pakeha concept of a performance, which I had viewed as an event which generally takes place at night (or, at the very least, in the afternoon), in which the actors need to use thought and reason in addition to, or rather than, instinct. Until then I had viewed the craft of the actor as deriving from the temporal plane rather than being a spiritual experience. To me an actor had been a craftsperson with whom a character is invented and from whom a character is coaxed, rather than a conductor of spirituality.
After our season in Dunedin, Kilimogo Productions took Nga Tangata Toa to Timaru for a short 3-day season. A dearth of pre-show publicity in that city meant that the actors had to perform impromptu haka and waiata in the city streets during foot-traffic rush-hours, while the production crew distributed fliers and told as many people as possible about the forthcoming production. Responses were mixed. Members of local iwi, as well as matawaka and tauiwi individuals and supporters came to tautoko us and korero with the actors. A number of passers-by, however, were mistrustful. Actors in costume were told to "Piss off ni**ers", and one actor was told "We don't like Maoris in Timaru". My mind reeled; this can't be happening, I kept telling myself, this is New Zealand in the '90s! When I had done this kind of publicity for other shows in the past, the most I had ever encountered was a snooty "No thank you...I'm not interested." In undertaking such exposing publicity for the play, the actors' bodies became a tangible site for targeted mistrust and fear. Examining what we were doing more comprehensively, I questioned how haka be read as anything but confrontational. The play's title was printed on posters and fliers in te reo Maori, with no translation into English being offered. Many could not understand te reo. To some pakeha, facial moko such as our actors were wearing and such as was depicted on our posters and fliers, meant gang warfare and thugs. In a town where racial tension had run high in the past, groups of Maori standing in facial moko signified an image of hostility. Here was another function of Kilimogo's bi-cultural theatre model: not only to bridge perceptions of cultural mistrust, and to work alongside Maori in reclaiming a right to freely express a living, developing culture.
During the tour the cast and crew were essentially a whanau, supporting each other through adversity. Together we cooked, ate, slept, talked, played and worked at the Whare Poutama at the Aoraki Polytechnic. Staff and students of the Maori Studies department were our hosts. Nga Tangata Toa became an extension of our communal lifestyle and its all-encompassing focus. The show was enlivened to an extraordinary extent by fact that the group was a whanau, living as a communal unit. Inter-personal relationships had become keener and were thrown into sharper relief, and this was, then, re-presented on-stage. The immediacy and vicissitude of theatrical performance is like no other art-form, in that it develops and is re-created in every performance of a season, each being similar to the other yet subtly changing, evolving and living in each re-performance.
After each performance of Nga Tangata Toa in both Dunedin and Timaru, the audience, in keeping with Kilimogo's kawa, were offered the chance to respond to the performance. In Timaru, our audiences, Maori and Pakeha, without exception, gave us heart-felt and moving responses in speech and song. They spoke of how characters from a past way of life, a way of life which is no longer overtly lived but still existent, were actualised by the actors on-stage and how this drew them back to a past detailed in whakapapa and waiata. Both Maori and pakeha, audience members spoke of aroha and whanaukataka as being concepts which two cultures had in common, and which they saw depicted on stage. These concepts, in turn, became more than just the themes of a play, but became part of the living kawa of the theatrical practice of the company through our shared experiences and working methods.
In re-rehearsing the play for the Timaru season without Rangimoana's collaboration, I trod the tight-rope once again. With the company, I rediscovered the stage images that evolved during our initial rehearsals, but I also allowed the production to be informed by my observations of the culture from which this play derived. I considered speakers I have watched on the paepae. Anne Salmond uses the metaphor of theatrical performance to discuss the skill of these great orators in Hui. These kaikorero were, with their words, evoking the images of their tipuna from the past onto that piece of ground before the eyes of their viewers and listeners. Surely this concept could be applied and honoured in a theatrical context. I visualised our second production of Nga Tangata Toa as embodying the potent force and effects of whaikorero.
The bare stage symbolised the paepae onto which the images of these characters are summoned. The short scenes in the play represented snippets of memory called forth through storytelling and anecdotes from whaikorero. Tipuna invoked from the past by whaikorero inhabit memory-spaces in the hearer's imagination, therefore the ancestors are perceived to be close the living. I wanted to express this concept in stage images. The actors entered and exited from the space using formalised traditional martial footwork to reflect their formal invocation as if in whaikorero. Scenes melded into each other, as characters from previous scenes briefly shared the space with those of the next scene during transitions, although in the world of the play, they would never have met in the same space. The carvings, which stood around the performance space, were characters in the performance as substantially as the actors themselves. The physical forms of these carvings were as concretely representative as actors playing roles. Each took a position appropriate to their personal relevance: Takaroa stood at stage left in the place of the sea and Aoraki, who stands in the centre of Te Waka o Aoraki - this island on which we live and perform - stood as a sentinel downstage centre.
The greatest gift of the production and performance period of Nga
Tangata Toa was a visit to the final performance in Dunedin by the
playwright. Hone Kouka was gracious, stressing strongly to us that he wanted
to support our efforts at making an on-going bi-cultural theatre collective
in the South and, most humblingly, applauding my work towards this. Although
flattered, I knew that the mutuality necessary to make our performative
endeavours a fair and just bi-cultural collaboration meant on-going development,
and more importantly, the ability to interrogate not only our theatrical
practices and traditions, but the cultural values on which those practices
and traditions are constructed.
 Anne Salmond, Hui: A Study
of Maori Ceremonial Gatherings (Wellington: Reed/Methuen, 975)