Sunday, March 28, 2010

Witi Ihimaera

I'm writing this in Houston, Texas. I arrived here yesterday, grabbing just a week at home between New Zealand and the States! A very busy week it was too - with a board meeting by conference call, briefings for the publicity designers (Eureka!), and the inevitable work on funding applications. So it's only now I've got a moment to cast my mind back to the flight from New Zealand back to London (with an overnight stopover in Korea, would you believe?), and the Maori texts I was reading.

One of these was The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera. I knew about this novel because of the film - but I had no idea just how brilliant it would be as a piece of writing. The blend of contemporary "reality" (in the conventional, Western sense) with the mythic and spiritual realities of Maori culture is astonishing. It's more than a claim to post-colonial specificity - it's about a whole different way of looking at the world and being in the world, which allows human beings to relate directly to the environment and to an historical and spiritual continuum of being. Really inspiring. So I was very excited that James from Taki Rua had given me a script by Witi Ihimaera to read. It's called Woman far Walking, and it was commissioned by the company, and performed by them some years ago. They are thinking about reviving it, and wondered whether I'd be interested for Origins. Sadly, the greta novelist doesn't always make the great playwright - and this piece seemed to me to lack drama and conflict. It's about a very old Maori woman - the age of the Treaty of Waitangi - which is a quirky idea in itself, but has the effect in this play of turning her into a symbol of the Maori people, with the entire history since the treaty being re-told in the play. It becomes didactic, lecturing.

We saw Cheek by Jowl's Macbeth on Friday night. Nisha and I have a special relationship to the play - we met while working on it together. This production had lots of similarities to the one we did in Mauritius: a very fast pace, with no gaps between scenes, the presence of observers to witness even private moments, the text of the witches echoed by a surrounding ensemble, Duncan played as a blind man.... Of course, there are lots of differences too - but it was exciting to see the play being delivered with the raw energy we identified as its key!

Time to think about the Houston Xerxes now!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Taki Rua

I've been doing some exploratory workshopping with Taki Rua. Very nice to be back in a rehearsal room, working with actors. One of them is Maaka, who I already know from Strange Resting Places. There's also Aaron, who stage managed that show and is now acting in Twain, a terrific Maori woman called Ngapaki, and two other guys, Alan and James.

In the very limited time available to us, we can only really scratch the surface a bit. We manage to create a few intriguing little scenarios, and we also get to talk about Maori theatre and its place in relation to Maori people, New Zealand and the world. It's intriguing that so much Maori theatre is historical - it's to do with the ghosts, I suppose. But Maori film tends to be very contemporary. We talk about the possibility of bringing the ghosts directly into the contemporary world - but we don't really manage to do it practically. It would take some weeks to manage that!

I go to a show called 360, which involves sitting on a swivel chair while the action moves around on a circular stage. Then on to the Festival Club, where I get to meet Lissa, the Festival director, as well as the Chair of her board - a former Minister - and some key decision makers from Perth and Auckland. Very pleasing to hear that they all know about Border Crossings, and are interested in our work. Lots of DVDs to send out when I get home!

Spent the morning at the NZ Film Archive, watching a film called Patu! It's about the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand, the protests against it, and the extreme violence through which they were put down. The film-maker is Maori, but specifically Maori resistance is only a small part of the film - though an important one. It's very interesting to see the links that were made between them and the anti-apartheid struggle. Of course, it was Australia's approach to the Aboriginal people that gave the South Africans the model for apartheid.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Back to Wellington

Some real treats at Womad on Saturday: a bit surprisingly, mostly from Islamic cultures, which for some reason I didn’t expect in New Zealand! Mariem Hassan, the Saharawi singer, whose music brings the plight of her colonised people to a wider audience. Amal Murkus, from Palestine – less need to tell the world what’s going on, but she makes the most wonderful emotional connection. Gochag Askarov from Azerbaijan – a high and powerful meditational voice, like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I’ve no experience at all of this area – and some of the conversations with my fellow international guests fill me with fear about the costs – but I do really want to bring music into the next Origins.

I flew back down to Wellington yesterday morning, but not before snatching a glimpse at New Plymouth’s contemporary art gallery: the Govett-Brewster. They’re showing some work by a Chinese artist called Zhang Peili, who works with video. Catapulted back into the world of the Trilogy. One piece, Actor’s Lines, is particularly resonant for me. It’s made by re-cutting a Maoist film from the early 60s. The original shows a party leader explaining to a younger man how patriotic love is superior to romantic love. Zhang’s version repeats shots and slows the scene, so that you start to see a gay sub-text. Remarkable.

Two performances in the Festival in Wellington. The first is called The Arrival, and is based on the picture book by Shaun Tan. Lots of puppetry and big visuals. The second piece is Taki Rua’s new creation, Mark Twain and Me in Maoriland. Maaka Pohatu, the gentle giant from Strange Resting Places, is in it, as is Aaron Cortesi, who came to London as their Stage Manager. The other Maori actor is Ngapaki Emery, who I saw in Vula at the Barbican. The play is based on Twain’s visit to Whanganui in 1895, and his remarks about a statue which commemorated Maori who had fought against their compatriots on the side of the colonisers. Twain condemned the statue, and sided with the rebellious Maori. The difficulty is that the play wants to explore the issue of being written about, inscribed, by the foreigner – but since Twain was sympathetic, it’s tricky to use him as a way in. The piece looks beautiful, and there are moments of magic: it’s at an early stage of development, and has a bit of a way to go! But then, that’s what these new approaches to making theatre are all about. We need to be able to experiment and to grow – and sometimes that happens in front of an audience.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Yesterday and today are my days at New Zealand's Womad, in a big park in Taranaki. Lots of Glastonbury-like standing around in vast open-air crowds, with big bands on big stages, and more esoteric fare in smaller spaces. Lots of the management-type people here still seem to be under the impression that Origins is a rock festival on similar lines - and that I'm here as a "buyer". I've been trying to explain that it's more specific, vaguer, and that, while there will be definite outcomes from this trip, we won't know exactly what they are for some time. I do very much want to increase the music element in the next festival - but we need to sort out venues and scale before we can be clear what we book. One thing I'm sure about is that the rock music, which may be in Maori but sounds like rock anywhere in the world, is not for us. On the other hand, there are some really interesting bands who are bringing the traditions of First Nations into a more contemporary medium, and dialoguing with the globalised world. One such, who I heard last night, is Pacific Curls - one Maori, one Scot, one Rotuman - who achieve a level of "fusion" I've not encountered before, and still retain clear integrity. They also sing about things that matter.

OK - off to the party I go....

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sounds Aotearoa

I saw Miria George's new play, He Reo Aroha, in Wellington on Tuesday night, with Hone directing. It's a big change after her intensely political And what remains?. This play is a love story and a comedy, with lots of Maori song. It's very charming, particularly for the large Maori audience at Te Papa, who got all the jokes about their community, and joined in the well-known songs. Great to be in the theatre and have a sense of celebration.

During the day, CNZ had given us a showcase of some work in development, both theatre and dance. I always find it tricky to work out what a show is like from an extract performed out of context, but at least I got the chance to see Atamira Dance Company, and to have lunch with Moss and Dolina, who run it. Dolina is pregnant - and tells me about Richard Nunns playing traditional instruments onto the bump. Music is very much related to healing and nurturing in Maori culture.

Wednesday morning saw me get on the plane to Taranaki, in the West. Incredible views of the volcano as we came in to New Plymouth, where Sounds Aotearoa is happening for two days, followed by Womad. Sounds is a combination of more showcasing - this time for music - with a conference about how to develop the NZ music industry. My interest in it is the indigenous work, of course. Richard Nunns played again last night, this time with a singer called Whirimako Black. The dialogue between her voice, singing traditional songs, and his solo instruments, was wonderful. It's also great to be here because there are so many other Festival directors and the like around. It's especially great to see Rhoda Roberts, who until very recently ran The Dreaming. I'm able to give her a copy of the Origins programme, with the article I wrote about her, the festival, and her film. She says it made her cry. I tell her that she'd done the same for me.

I was asked to speak on a panel about touring music to the UK and Europe. Of course, I know nothing about this, so instead I speak about Origins, about the need to hear First Nations cultures in London, and about what music can do in the global space. It seems to go down very well, if only as a break from all the "get your marketing plan right" sessions. As the conference closes, we are taken to a powhiri, where we, and all the artists who've come for Womad, are welcomed onto the marae. It's even more moving than in Wellington, particularly because so many of the international artists reply to the Maori speeches with their own words and songs. Especially, I love what one young black American performer says. His people lost their past in the time of slavery, and could not use their language or sing their songs. Meeting the Maori, and being welcomed to the marae, he felt for the first time in his life that he had a real connection to an ancestry. That he was in a sense, at home.

Monday, March 08, 2010


I had Sunday brunch with James from Taki Rua. The first of many old friendships to be rekindled here (and new ones to be made). James got married last week - so I feel a bit guilty at bringing him out on a Sunday morning, until I listen in on the rush of phone calls he gets. Taki Rua have a new show opening at the Festival, which I'm seeing on the 14th. It's called Mark Twain and Me in Maoriland. James is very open about it being at a comparatively early stage of its development- and that's certainly something I know about! Work which is created collectively - and that can include work with a writer - inevitably takes longer than work which is "finished", at least in terms of script, before rehearsals begin. We started Orientations in 2003, and I still wouldn't call it anywhere near "finished". But who wants a show to be finished anyway? That just means it's dead - and in theatre, the liveness is the point! I'm happy to say that Carla from Creative New Zealand is in total agreement. A rare thing from a funder...!

Today, with CNZ's other international guests, I was welcomed onto the marae at Victoria University. This welcoming ceremony, or powhiri, was familiar to me from the Opening Ceremony at Origins - but no less moving for that. Indeed, to be welcomed into a magnificent Maori house on the land itself with some knowledge of the protocols made it doubly moving.

After the ceremony, we were given lunch (a crucial part of the welcome), and then a series of talks about the meaning of Maori art in relation to its cultural context. Good to see the "buyers" being given a bit of context. If we just export the work without a sense of where its roots are, then it's just exotica. My old chums Hone Kouka and Miria George are there, and Hone talks about Maori theatre. I also get to meet Moss Patterson from Atamira, whose work I'll finally see in the flesh tomorrow, and the legendary Richard Nunns, who has almost single-handedly rediscovered the traditions of Maori music. Te Papa has some of his instruments on display, as well as an incredible sound installation to accompany its exhibition of green-stone carving. Today Richard performed a piece for traditional Maori instruments and string quartet. The NZ Quartet played music which was influenced by the sound of whales - while Richard played a series of instruments carved from whale-bone. In the marae, this was an incredible experience.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Festival Days

Wellington is tiny for a capital city - you can walk everywhere. And you bump into people you know - like in Hereford or something. I was passing the Te Papa museum, and saw Helen, who used to be the NZ Cultural Attache in London. We reminisced about our House of Commons lunch, and she told me that my comparative lack of jet lag was a sign that I was meant to stay here... I suspect it's got more to do with Melatonin, which you can't buy over the counter in England or New Zealand (not sure why), but which is freely available when changing planes in South Korea!

Creative New Zealand have booked me in to see lots of home-grown work. The most extraordinary so far is a play called Apollo 13: Mission Control, in which the audience sit at the ranks of 70s computer desks remembered from the lunar era, and participate in a cleverly constructed comic recreation of the crisis. It's all engineered so that the audience are actually just vehicles to relay information - but it's managed in such a way that it all feels very spontaneous. At one point, the phone on my desk went.

Me: Hello.
Voice: This is President Nixon. Can I speak with Gene Kranz, please?
Gene Kranz actor: Who is it?
Me: It's the President.
Gene: I'm not here....
Me: Sorry - he's just popped out....
Voice: I'm the President of the United States, and I demand to speak with him!
Me: It's President Nixon on the phone!
(Gene writes "Hang up" on the blackboard. I hang up. Laughter all around)

You get the idea.

I also saw a solo show with music called Ship Songs, with an actor called Ian Hughes telling the story of how his parents met (amongst other things). It sounds sentimental, but it wasn't. This afternoon I was at a concert by the NZ Trio. Alongside some extraordinary premieres of Piano Trios with video enhancement (close-ups of golf balls being rolled across the piano strings), they played Beethoven's Trio "The Ghost", which we use in Re-Orientations. Except they only played the first movement - which isn't very ghostly at all. We use the second.

It's actually been an eventful couple of days on the Trilogy project too, even though I'm out here. Funding confirmed from the Commonwealth Foundation and from the Swedish Consulate in China. Very festive....

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Land of the Long White Cloud

I arrived in Aotearoa / New Zealand yesterday: I'm a guest of Creative New Zealand at the International Arts Festival in Wellington. The flight into the city was amazing: a clear summer's day, with a view over the South Island, complete with the Southern Alps stretching into the distance. The city doesn't feel like a capital - it's a sunny, relaxed space by a harbour, with virtually everything within walking distance. The perfect Festival city, in fact.

I'm typing this at the Te Papa Museum, where I've just met up with the Maori Director Arapata Hakiwai. He's very excited about Origins, and we talk about ways of collaborating in the future. This museum is built on Maori ideas - there's a marae, which is used very frequently, with ceremony being integrated into the use of the building. Some of the artists I already know, like Lisa, have their own contemporary readings of traditional architecture built into the fabric of the space. It even has holy stones buried in its foundations, and is lined up to the sea in an appropriate way for welcoming guests and the dawn ceremony of Matariki. Arapata tells me he's been in Chicago recently, advising on the placing of a marae in the museum there, and that this space is now being used for tribal councils by Native American groups!