Whale Rider for a new generation

It took a lot of imagination and effort to bring legend to stage for children

Witi Ihimaera supported the adaption of  Whale Rider .
Witi Ihimaera supported the adaption of Whale Rider .

Two years ago, Tim Bray confessed to a group of colleagues one of his deepest fears about making theatre for children. Here he was in Aotearoa -- a country replete with fabulous myths, legends and stories told from a Maori viewpoint -- but he felt reluctant to adapt any of these for the stage because he was Pakeha.

"I told them I thought I couldn't do it but five of my colleagues, all Maori, said in unison that of course I could because I am a storyteller for children, these are stories that can be for children and what I needed was people alongside me to guide me and to make sure I got the context right."

Reassured and feeling more confident, Bray looked round for a suitable story and decided on The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera.

The story started life as a novel before being adapted into the wildly successful 2002 film, a stage production in 2004, and then a children's picture book. Not only would Bray have to compete with memories of the film, there was the perception it wasn't a story for young children and he faced practical questions like: how do you get a whale on stage?

Now, with Ihimaera's support and help from cultural advisers Tamati Patuwai and Tuirina Wehi, Bray has produced a one-hour version of The Whale Rider entirely suitable for children. It features the elements -- music and songs, dances and action -- which have made his kids' shows so popular while sticking truthfully to the story of a brave little girl who must prove she is destined to lead her people.

Actors Pippiajna Tui Jane, Noa Campbell and Adam Burrell manipulate and voice 14 puppets, designed and made by Ben Anderson, on a beautifully lit and minimally elegant set. It features woven flax mats and the entranceway to a wharenui inspired by the meeting house at Whangara, the East Coast village where The Whale Rider legend comes from. Musician Kristie Addison sits strumming a guitar to accompany waiata that feature throughout the performance.

Jane, Burrell and Addison are Tim Bray Productions regulars and say they love the story as well as the opportunity to act as whales and experiment with puppetry.

Costume designer Chantelle Gerrard says working in children's theatre means there are always new things to create, but this is the first time she has had to dress puppets.

"But in some respects it's easier because there's a lot less laundering and washing because the puppets aren't as hard on their clothes."

Bray says ideas about how to adapt and stage the story came from a wide variety of sources. The inspiration to use puppets was partly because the wharenui at Whangara has a miniature model of Kahutia Te Rangi (Paikea), the first Whale Rider who rode atop a whale from Hawaiki. Bray also saw a Scottish production, The Man Who Planted Trees, at last year's Auckland Arts Festival which used puppets in a similar manner.

"But I was still puzzling about how to do the whale when Witi said the whale could be like the war horses in the play War Horse, so I went to see that when I was in London and it inspired me."

Bray is rightfully proud of the show, which he describes as more of a drama than his company's previous productions.

"What I liked about it was that it is based on a legend but it is a modern story about a young girl who is born to be a chief but initially denied that opportunity. It means there's so much in the story in terms of a strong, positive and intelligent message but it also meant it was a story that required a lot of care.

"I think the main thing to come out of it has been the wonderful collaboration between myself and Witi, Tamati and Tuirina, with support from designers Rachael Walker, Michael Craven and Chantelle Gerrard. It's a culmination of everything we have done in the past. I'm not Maori, but the support and goodwill which has surrounded this production means taking the risk has been well worth it and it's a great journey to have gone on."

Actor Noa Campbell, making her Tim Bray Productions debut, taught fellow cast members rakau (the fighting staff) and says she has been impressed by the lengths Bray has made to ensure protocol and language are honoured.

With funding from the Auckland Arts Regional Trust's ART Venture programme, Bray spent some time earlier this year visiting children's theatre companies in Britain, France and the United States.

He has returned inspired and confident that his company can foot it with the best overseas. He'd like to tour more often and The Whale Rider will be performed in Northland after its Auckland run.

Performance

What: The Whale Rider

Where and when: The PumpHouse, July 5-19

- NZ Herald

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