Behind the scenes: As the Auckland Arts Festival and New Zealand Festival in Wellington begin, the Herald speaks to some of our leading choreographers and dancers, theatre-makers, playwrights and poets, musicians and singers about what makes them tick and what can we expect to see from them at our biggest arts festivals.
Video by Two One One Three Creatives
Hone Kouka is making the most of a summer's day in Wellington. As he walks to Parliament to visit an old school friend — who has recently come into possession of a larger office — he talks about the kind of issues more commonly discussed in the debating chamber than the theatre.
Kouka's talk is of poverty and class, violence and child abuse but he's not a social worker, a policy-maker or politician. Kouka is one of our most successful playwrights and, with director Miria George, co-founder of theatre company Tawata Productions.
It's a Māori and Cook Islands company based in Wellington that specialises in making new theatre. One of its best-known plays was I, George Nepia, about one of our most famous All Blacks. Kouka's other plays include Waiora, The Prophet and Tu.
Several of these have been performed around the globe. Kouka's plays have been performed more often at the New Zealand Festival in Wellington than any other playwright's, bar a certain William Shakespeare.
In 2009, he was named a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Contemporary Māori Theatre and his latest play, Bless the Child, won awards even before it has been performed (the 2015 Adam Play Award, which recognises new New Zealand playwriting).
Now it's about to premiere at the NZ Festival and the Auckland Arts Festival. Eyebrows may be raised and there could be debate about the subject matter. Described as an urban thriller and unflinching social commentary, Bless the Child scrutinises violence against children in contemporary New Zealand and tells the story through a Māori lens.
The story goes like this: A child has died and Shardae, its mother, is held guilty until proven otherwise. A power-hungry lawyer reluctantly agrees to defend her as the whānau closes ranks. Rumbling beneath everything is Rūaumoko, god of earthquakes and unborn children. Now the mother, the lawyer and the wayward ones are all in search of an answer — who took the life of baby Ara?
There's a mystery to be solved that drives the story along with its political, social and cultural elements. Kouka credits his late mother, who worked as a cleaner, for challenging him to write about child abuse.
"She said, 'Our people and our whānau are hurting our babies' and threw down a wero [challenge] to me when she said, 'You're a playwright. People listen to you so you've got to write something about this'."
He says Bless the Child is an opportunity for a kōrero (talk) not just about the issue of child abuse but its more deep-rooted causes. Kouka stresses the characters run the gamut of the social spectrum, allowing the production to play on the word "kind".
"We talk about kind in relation to kindness, and there are characters here that may not appear to show much of that, but we also say kind in reference to a type of person or social group — 'what kind of people were they?' The way we put people into a category, that's a turning point in the play."
Is he expecting a backlash? No, says Kouka, because he's expressing, without attributing guilt or blame, a point of view he hopes those who most often go to the theatre will take time to consider.
"I think Bless the Child will appeal to people who like great theatre — those who like really strong, emotive and kicking narrative as well — and I think Māori. It's for us to look at. But let's be very honest. Theatre is a middle class art form and the people we're talking to, in the majority, will be middle class and primarily Pākehā.
"That's a good thing because there is a need for us to be putting this kōrero out there — and there's no blame or anything like that — but it's getting an understanding of and recognising, 'That's why you're like that, or that's why those sorts of things are happening'."
Kouka acknowledges it's a "tough kaupapa [principal]" to put out into the world but he wants to take it on. He has always seen that as part of his job as a playwright and theatre-maker.
It's a sentiment shared by Miria George, who directs Bless the Child. The first Cook Islands artist to receive the Fulbright Creative NZ Pacific Writer's Residency at the University of Hawaii, George says she's grateful to be working in the arts.
"I always knew growing up that I enjoyed the creative process — I enjoyed writing or painting or drawing — but it didn't occur to me until I got a bit older that that joy of creativity could also be woven with things that I really wanted to say," she says.
"There is so much in the world that we can be talking and thinking about that we aren't necessarily talking and thinking about and, with my art form, this is something that I can do."
She thinks Bless the Child has benefited from a lengthy development process, which involved making an early version of it at the Sydney Festival with an aboriginal cast. In turn, Kouka says having the backing of arts festivals allows more time and resources to be devoted to telling the stories he writes.
That's helped him, George and Tawata build a reputation for making quality New Zealand theatre, vital in terms of attracting an audience, especially when the play is about a highly charged and challenging subject.
"It starts with getting the audience into the theatre in the first place," says Kouka. "And, luckily, we've been able to build a strong reputation for work of a high standard that's also original. I like to think people like what I've written previously."
George, too, hopes people will want to hear what one of most senior playwrights has to say and, if that's not enough, she points to an "incredible cast" of emerging and experienced Māori actors who are part of a process pushing Māori theatre, and our perceptions of it, into a new realm.
That cast includes award-winning actor Carrie Green, Fly My Pretties singer/songwriter Moana Ete, Regan Taylor, who has been playing Othello at the Pop-up Globe in Melbourne and Massive Company's Scotty Cotter. Shortland Street's Lionel Wellington and recent high school graduate Shania Bailey-Edmonds take on their first theatre roles.
A bit about Bless the Child: Eight lives and three worlds collide in thought-provoking piece of theatre by one of New Zealand's most well-regarded playwrights, Hone Kouka. After another child is found dead, a high-flying lawyer is dragged into the case to defend the demonised mother. The question of who killed the baby — and whose prejudice is exposed — is brought provocatively to the surface. See Bless the Child at the Hannah Playhouse as part of the NZ Festival in Wellington, February 28-March 4 and at Q Theatre as part of the Auckland Arts Festival, March 7-12.