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A Seat At The Diversity Table

Last year, after I wrote about the importance of finding our mother tongues, I was invited to kōrero further with the founders of Te Rēhia Theatre Company, Amber Curreen and Tainui Tukiwaho.

They invited me to join them on an ambitious, and rather risky new adventure: an adaptation of a classic European play into Te Reo Māori, Samoan, and Cantonese.

Te Rēhia have been leaders in presenting works in Te Reo Māori, putting into passionate practice their belief that our communities deserve to see their language and their culture on stages and in other media. Now, they wanted to take it one step further and acknowledge some of the other ‘home languages’ of Aotearoa (after all, nearly 20% of NZ’s population now speak more than one language, and on the latest census the number of Te Reo speakers are increasing).

Little did I know that this would spell the beginning of what has now been a year of collaboration, meeting regularly with Amber, Tainui and Edward Peni (helming the Samoan production). True to our cultures there was always food involved, and usually children roaming somewhere in the background. One time we met in a park with Tainui’s kids keeping a watchful eye on my way-too-adventurous three year old and the seagulls trying to steal our picnic.  

Many of our meetings were held at Te Pou Theatre, which started off as a space for Māori theatre practitioners to feel comfortable working in and, typical of their hospitality, quickly started welcoming in other cultural strays. I’ve made much of my work in the last few years in this unlikely location in the middle of a New Lynn industrial warehouse complex, with the stomping of tiny ballerinas from the dance school heard above us and the sound of balls rebounding audible from the Asian sports complex next door. It’s atmospheric and oddly, feels right. I count as whānau now.

Over time, our group of producers developed our whakaaro: to question why the word ‘diversity’ in Aotearoa, as used by organisations and media, is code for ‘not white’. Aren’t we all aspects of the whole? Don’t we all deserve to be seen on our own terms rather than as curious deviations from the norm? This would be an experiment, to see how starting from the same base text could generate different plays. And in line with the kaupapa above, we decided to add Pākehā as a language and culture to stand with us. We applied and were successful in securing funds from Creative New Zealand’s Auckland Diversity Fund to deliver this wero, this challenge to what ‘diversity’ means.

When choosing a play to explore, Les Chaises, the 1952 absurdist masterpiece by Eugène Ionesco, stood out. Firstly, it’s intensely visual and much of the drama and comedy can be transmitted by actions, especially physical comedy.  This was important as all four groups wanted to present work without subtitles. Secondly, it was relatively brief (one act) so this might encourage audiences to step out of their comfort zone and enjoy a night out in an unfamiliar language – or, conversely for those fluent but not used to going to theatre, an unfamiliar environment. Finally, even though most people think of it as a tragedy (I’m not going to reveal the plot twist at the end), it’s a bloody funny and whimsical work. And political. Oh my god is it topical and political.

So, here’s the quick pitch on what it’s about: an Old Man and Old Woman frantically prepare for the arrival of mysterious guests and an important announcement. The location is variously a wharenui, fale tele, ancestral hall and a Kiwi living room; the themes of loneliness, loss of connection and the nostalgia of old age are common to every culture. There are chairs, obviously. Lots of them. It will be challenging but fun, if early rehearsals are anything to go by.

With each production helmed by producers, translations, directors and actors from the relevant culture, this is a watershed moment for theatre in Aotearoa. You might recognise some of the names: Adam Rohe, Chris Martin, Amber Curreen, Antonio Te Maioha, Tainui Tukiwaho, Edward Peni, Aleni Tufuga, Renee Liang, Hweiling Ow, Sam Wang to name a few. We are having a great time. With kai, obviously.

As well as the kai, many of us are discovering our home culture through the creative process of working in our mother tongues. The words and themes become special by hard graft, and there’s the added bonus of being able to talk to our families and communities better.  But it feels like skating on the edge too sometimes. Will we do our languages justice and make our communities proud? Will our mouths, accustomed to rolling English vowels out, form the right tones around our languages? As I said, it’s risky. But it’s worth it. It’s just the start of a new cultural landscape. And you get to watch.  

Where: Te Pou Theatre, 44a Portage Rd (free parking)
Dates: 11-14 July – English; 18-21 July – Te Reo; 25-28 July- Samoan; 1- 4 August – Cantonese.
Tickets:   $12-$22 - discounts for multiple shows
Running time: Approx 60 minutes
School matinees available.
Funded by the CNZ Diversity Fund and a Regional Arts and Culture Grant from Auckland Council.