Actor Rawiri Paratene is back in the director's chair for the Matariki season of Briar Grace Smith's When Sun & Moon Collide. The former activist and father of Green MP Marama Davidson hopes to see te reo taught in primary schools during his lifetime.
1. What was your childhood like?
I grew up in a secure and happy family. When I was 7 we moved from Northland to Otara where Dad got a job as a process worker. We were part of the urban drift. Otara was very different in 1961. There was a wide mix of migrants; Dutch and English who came on an assisted package scheme. People didn't call themselves Pacific Islanders or Maori - they were Rarotongan, Niuean, Tainui, Nga Puhi. We didn't have much income but we weren't poor. I don't think anyone was back then. My parents bought their own house with a State Advance mortgage. I loved school. I wasn't academic but I was bright.
2. You were the first Maori graduate of Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School. What was that like?
I was 17 when I went to Wellington for the audition. I told my parents I was going to my friend's house for the weekend and took the overnight train. My history teacher Warren Lindberg, who went on to lead the NZ Aids Foundation, arranged for me to stay with his friends in Tinakori Rd - exciting, eloquent theatre people like Max Cryer and Dicky Johnson who was directing Aida at the time. It was fabulous. The audition letter said to wear warm-up gear so I walked into the room in my rugby gear only to find everyone else was in leotards and tights. I said, "Oh well, at least they'll know who I am." It was a totally foreign world but I had a ball. My attitude to being a performing artist has never really changed. It's all just a wonderful adventure.
3. You recently spent two years touring Hamlet around the world with the UK's Globe Theatre. Why perform the same play 200 times in a row?
Because it's Hamlet! It's full of themes that are relevant in different parts of the world for different reasons. Performing the last speech of Horatio on a stage littered with dead bodies in Bosnia, you knew people in the audience had living memory of that exact scene. At the play's centre is a young man from a new world battling an old world, which spoke to young audiences in the Pacific very well.
4. What was your favourite country to perform in?
Caribbean audiences are the most Elizabethan in the sense they feel free to offer their opinion during the play. I remember one strangely quiet performance in Antigua. We thought they must hate us but right after the interval when Pelonius got killed a matriarchal figure at the front said, "Finally! Somebody dying!" Everyone collapsed with laughter. Then when Hamlet got a bit rough with his Mum, another woman stood up at the back and shouted, "That's no way to be talking to your mother!"
5. How did you keep up with the relentless schedule?
The toughest part was the travel. We probably shouldn't have gone sight-seeing as much as we did, but if you're in Tel Aviv it would be silly not to go to the Dead Sea. I ended up getting really sick. I had a stroke in Oman. The tour manager asked if I was drunk when I got on the bus one night. A cardiologist in Palestine confirmed it was a mini-stroke caused by a heart condition. My heart doesn't like to beat in iambic so I take medication now to keep the rhythm regular.
6. You're 63 now. Have you taken the doctors' advice to slow down a bit?
I have. Since coming home a year ago, I did Purapurawhetu and then didn't work for a long time. Well, I did write a draft stage play and a treatment for a feature film and I went down to Wellington to do Tuwhare with Charlotte Yates and I did the Pop Up Globe in Auckland. I do plan to retire at some stage.
7. You're directing Briar Grace-Smith's classic When Sun and Moon Collide for the Auckland Theatre Company. Who will the play appeal to?
It's a thriller set in a small town in the middle of nowhere. It will appeal to young people because it's got a fabulous young cast. It's quite funny too. People who don't like long plays should come. It's really tightly written and a lot happens in a short time.
8. This week marks the start of Mataraki, the Maori New Year. What do you know about it?
I don't know a lot because it's only been revived in the last decade or so but like everyone, I'm learning. I like that it's in the middle of the year. It's just such a natural thing that as the days get longer we refresh and renew, acknowledge blessings and move on to the next year. I look forward to when the whole country embraces it.
9. When did you become involved in Maori activism?
I was awakened politically when I was at Hillary College by young irreverent teachers like Warren Lindberg and Ian Kahurangi Mitchell. I went to the Young Maori Leaders Conference and heard people like Ranginui Walker, Patu Hohepa and Sid Jackson. I carried their influence to Wellington, which in 1972 was a very politicised city with mobilisation against the Vietnam War. Tama Poata became a huge influence.
10. How did you become president of the Wellington branch of Maori activist group Nga Tamatoa?
I founded the branch in 1972. There were four of us at our first hui in my Tasman St flat. At the next meeting there were eight so I sent out a press release saying our membership had doubled. We decided to have a Maori Language Day. Together with the Maori students group we managed to have it held all over the country on 14 September 1972. We were all young kids but we convinced the TV news and weather presenters to say some words in te reo, just things like kia ora which the viewing public found really offensive. The highlight was presenting the Maori Language Petition to Parliament with 30,000 signatures calling for te reo to be offered in schools.
11. Your daughter Marama Davidson is now a Green MP. How did you meet her mum, Hana Te Hemara?
In the run up to the 1972 election, Nga Tamatoa's objective was to lift the profile of Maori issues so we set up a tent embassy on the grounds of Parliament. Hana was one of the many that joined us in support. So we met, literally, on the steps of Parliament and now our baby's up there walking those steps every day. I'm very proud of Marama.
12. Has New Zealand progressed with bilingualism as much as you'd hoped back in the 70s?
No, I would've hoped that Maori was a core subject in primary schools along with English and maths. I still hope that New Zealand will become truly bilingual and I think we can before I cark it.
When Sun & Moon Collide, ASB Waterfront Theatre, June 20 to July 6.