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SOAPBOX: Words, Worlds and Planetary Boundaries

15 Aug 2018
Writer, director & dramaturge Dione Joseph puts the case for a performative art that challenges and connects us all.

"A true leader makes the best choices, out of none."

Words create worlds.

New Zealand theatre is a world unto our own. A tiny semi-colon of a nation tucked away at the bottom of the globe our world is indeed small. Occasionally, parochial. Insular even. Complacent and irritatingly confused as to the difference between politics and policies. It's not the theatre makers. It's not the artists. It's not even the punters. It's the institutions inherited from another island nation oceans away that has continued to mould and sculpt a way of the world that reeks of complacency.

There are worlds within worlds. Checkboxes. Quotas. Guidelines. Ceilings and lids. How much of this really matters when we step into our little puddle? Our splashes might reach Sydney and Melbourne, London and Edinburgh, New York even - but then what? Our pools of success offer some rope to lasso another funding round, explain the novelty, the collaboration, the difference - but so what?

We peddle in mediocrity and when our waka dares to showcase genuine navigational innovation suddenly the opportunities open to our participation start dwindling.

Start small. Test your success. Failure is not an option. Play it safe: how utterly boring.

This manifesto isn't about a call for cultural theatre. LGBTIQ theatre. This isn't about theatre that adapts modern dramas with a New Zealand spin. This isn't about migrant theatre. Youth theatre.

This is about the challenges that faces any kind of theatre that asks for a re-imagining of  the world - and the huge obstacles in just getting to the stage. Theatre for the people. On our terms. In our languages. Bringing all of ourselves and creating a culture of genuine inclusion and collaboration.

This theatre is simmering away on a back burner. It has been built with the stock of ambition, seasoned with risk and generously and lovingly stirred with hope and confidence. However, the heat just isn't enough to bring it to the boil. There isn't enough gas to go around or we’ve somehow all run out of matches - no matter what extended metaphor you choose: the advice is the same. Start small. Test your success. Failure is not an option. Play it safe: how utterly boring.

We need the opportunity to re-imagine a world with alternatives that have not yet been made.

Theatre is the people’s platform.

New Zealand theatre belongs to all New Zealanders. We are on Indigenous land and our work is irrevocably linked to this whenua and the forces that shape our understanding and perception. But there is always room to stretch and flex. To go deeper and also to grow and move beyond the orbits that have determined older planetary pathways. There is a real and pressing need to look up into Rangi our Sky Father and reach deep down into Papatuanuku, our Earth Mother to connect into a sense of equilibrium and balance - beyond the post colonial, beyond the cosmopolitan and into the cosmos.

Dione Joseph. Photo: Michael Loh.

Let's start talking in terms of pushing planetary boundaries through our art-forms. The world is changing. Refugees. Walls. Borders. Power. Politics. TV Personalities. Cages. Children. Rights. Democracy. Inequity. Privilege. Home. Belonging. Un-belonging. Undoing. Unbecoming. We need the opportunity to re-imagine a world with alternatives that have not yet been made. We need to allow ourselves to be seen, heard, tasted, felt and smelt. We deserve to allow our senses to make sense of the world.

"Luckily, stability is one of the greatest soporifics in history."

This is the world of AMERICA REX.

Written in 2002 by African-American playwright Tom Minter it foreshadowed a world that was sabotaged by power-hungry dictators. A world where refugees were willing to “die, in a plunge to grass - fake or not - than into another, desolate second of life.” A warped place in space and time that fights against inevitable massacre, genocide and indifference.

AMERICA REX is not just the name of a work written sixteen years ago by a prophetic playwright - it is the name of a place in the cosmos where potential and possibility are in constant conflict with the age-old familiar: probability, that masquerading confidence that relies on accuracy and reliability - and leaves nothing to chance.

The Speaker confides: ‘It is important, very important, to please the crowd . . . Luckily, stability is one of the greatest soporifics in history.’

His words imply that power is sustained by constancy.

So, destabilise. Shake the foundations. Rebuild the pillars. Theatre destabilises our assumptions of how bodies on stage are expected to perform, even while making use of conventions and tropes that audiences need to make sense of what they see. This is the theatre of the people. Across age, gender, sexuality, ability and ethnicity; this is our future.

We are not immune to the words of the world and even less so to the pin pricks and barbs within our own community. But we need chances. Second. Third. Fourth. Eleventh. Fifty-sixth. Tom Minter’s play gives us insight to the infinite chances that are within a glimpse of our human sight.

Our future

My twelve year-old step-son, Kupe is a beautiful being. He is a confident young lad who knows a lot about what is happening in the world. growing up in a whare where he is a regular contributor to discussions on art, politics, education - mostly while assisting as a sous chef and regaling us with his own attempts at building structures on Fortnite.  

He describes the current leader of America as a 'selfish orange baby who thinks he can make America great again by building a little fence'. But he then adds, thoughtfully, 'Politics can end the world - but that also means politics can save the world if the right people are pushing the right buttons.'

Our children are intelligent. Our audiences are smart. Our playhouses deserve to brim with challenging, thought-provoking theatre that genuinely moves us. Come to AMERICA REX. Join a cast and crew of twenty one who have brought all of themselves into a shared kōrero.

**My thanks to Ahi Karunaharan and Natascha Diaz, and my beloved step-son Kupe Kouratoras, for enabling me to write this part of our story - together.**

You can see Dione Joseph's challenging ideas played out in America REX, a contemporary political drama dealing with immigration, globalisation and the economics of privilege. 

The short season of three performances runs at Auckland's TAPAC theatre, August 29, 30, 31.