Today marks the start of the first New Zealand Theatre Month, started by playwright Roger Hall to "celebrate and elevate" local plays and playwriting.

It sees some 600 performances and 100 events staged by more than 70 organisations including professional theatre companies, community theatre groups, schools and other institutions.

Weekend talks to those involved with three plays about their contributions to NZ Theatre Month and how the stories we tell are changing.

What: Orientation
Where & when: Loft at Q Theatre, September 5-15


"You're pretty hot — for an Asian."
It was a first date and drinks were going well — until Chye-Ling Huang's date uttered those six words loaded with generations of social conditioning, racist attitudes and pre-conceived ideas.

Huang, who cofounded Auckland-based Proudly Asian Theatre with comedian James Roque, admits to feeling confused. After all, the person blurting out the back-handed compliment was herself bi-racial with Asian heritage but had just said she only ever dated white people.

"I said, 'If you were white, I probably would have thrown my drink at you and just left,'" Huang says.

"It would have been game over but because they were Chinese, I was so conflicted because I've been there with this internalised racism toward your own people.

"I just felt a huge empathy toward her because I know that, as diaspora, you do grow up learning that white people are the goal, white people are the prize. I stayed to talk about what she said but, in the end, I decided I didn't have time to be anyone's learning curve."

The timing of the experience was uncanny given Huang has written and is directing the play Orientation. It's a social satire that follows a young Chinese-Pākehā woman, Mei, in a brazen "sexploration" of Asian love and sexuality in contemporary New Zealand.

With an all-Asian cast, Orientation digs deep at social attitudes towards Asian people as lovers and considers what part race plays in decisions made around love and sex. Natasha Bunkall plays Mei, a young woman working through some identity issues.

"She feels that she's only ever dated white men in the past; she's working out why that is, her personal and identity issues around being bi-racial, so she's decided to date Asian men and see how she goes to get to a point that she's not seeing race."


Huang says many of us think attraction is inherently biological but she believes it comes down to socialisation: "If you're raised to think white people are better than your own race … and let's not forget there are white men who fetishise Asian women. No one is born thinking like that."

Huang and Proudly Asian Theatre's work centres round identity politics but she acknowledges its last play, Call of the Sparrows, was far removed from modern-day New Zealand. She says Orientation is "close to the bone" because it's set in the here and now and she wanted it to reflect the Auckland diaspora experience in 2018.

Ask Bunkall and fellow actor Mayen Mehta if Huang's script rings true and they'll tell you they recognise the characters and the situations they find themselves in. They're both familiar with the term "no rice, no spice" on dating websites, which indicates no one Asian or Indian should bother "swiping right".

They're quick to add that it's only one Asian story in a region teeming with tales waiting to be told, but they're pleased Huang and PAT are challenging stereotypes and moving Asian voices into the mainstream.

Sisters Amanda and Donogh Rees in Albert Belz' new play, Cradle Songs.
Sisters Amanda and Donogh Rees in Albert Belz' new play, Cradle Songs.

What: Cradle Song
Where & when: The Church, Corban Estate Arts Centre, Henderson, Wednesday, September 5 to Saturday, September 8; Loft at Q Theatre, Thursday, September 18 to Saturday, September 22

"I don't want to be pigeon-holed".

Playwright Albert Belz, who's written about everything from life in a village at the foot of the Urewera Ranges, a Māori showband touring during the Vietnam War and Jack the Ripper, is reflecting on his latest play.

Called Cradle Song, it's produced by Te Rēhia Theatre and will continue re-defining what we think of as "New Zealand plays", in particular work by Māori playwrights. Belz won the 2018 Adam Award for Best Play by a Māori Playwright for the story, which is set in the south-west of Ireland in 1999, at a nunnery near the fictitious village of Sibeal (County Kerry). Here, two young women — one Māori, one Australian — are on their big OE when they come face-to-face with the super-natural force of Briar Faith.

Belz says it's a horror which follows Yours Truly, his thriller about Jack the Ripper. Partly inspired by seeing the production Horror at last year's Auckland Arts Festival, he and Cradle Songs director Tainui Tukiwaho have taken some of the tricks and tropes they saw to create a story about a vengeful spirit seeking utu.

"Getting to explore the horror and thriller genres of this show on the stage is something I'm really looking forward to," says Belz. "I want to put up a damn good ghost story that is both intriguing in the real world setting and has real moments of fear and tension for our audiences."

Playwright Albert Belz
Playwright Albert Belz

The story has its genesis in a real-life tragedy. He was so saddened and angry when he found out about the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Ireland's Tuam, County Galway that he wanted to write about it.

The home, run by Roman Catholic nuns, ran from 1925-61 ostensibly to care for unmarried mothers and their children. It offered anything but care. In 2012, it was revealed that up to 1000 children had, without their mothers' consent, been illegally adopted and sent to the United States while amateur historians published evidence about widespread infanticide at Bon Secours. The Irish Government responded by setting up the ongoing Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. It's now believed at least 800 babies and toddlers died there.

"I think any sane person who's heard about this will feel angry," says Belz. "I think there's something very human about wanting to take those emotions and tell a story. While I want my story to be entertaining, I don't want to step on anybody's dignity when I do that. It's about acknowledging that these things happened and starting to tell the stories."

He says Cradle Song asks questions about blame and responsibility and reckons it would be extremely boring and limiting if, as a Māori playwright, he was expected to stick to the script of telling stories set in New Zealand, of New Zealand and about New Zealand.

The production itself is led by a Māori theatre company, director and writer who are dedicated to embedding tikanga Māori into the way they work.

"The diversity of the voices that the man [Belz] puts out there is good for New Zealand writers but also for audiences to see the breadth of some of the storytelling," says Tukiwaho, who believes Cradle Song will break new ground in our thriller and horror theatre.

It's the first premiere of the year for Belz, who also debuts Astroman later this year with simultaneous productions by the Melbourne Theatre Company and The Court Theatre, featuring full indigenous casts on both sides of the Tasman.

The Cradle Song cast includes sisters Donogh and Amanda Rees, Nicol Munro, Briar Collard, Anna-Maree Thomas and newcomer Ariaana Osborne. Belz says getting the tone of his story right, devising the special effects and starting rehearsals went well but the most challenging aspect was finding a young Māori actress to play one of the lead roles.

"They were all busy! Everyone had something else on, which is a great thing because it shows there's work out there."

Cradle Song is presented in association with Kōanga Festival and Going West at Corban Estate Arts Centre from Tuesday, September 5- Saturday, September 8, and in collaboration Q Theatre from Tuesday, September 18 - Saturday, September 22. Te Pou Theatre's Kōanga Festival is a fortnight long celebration which also marks the theatre's move to bigger premises at the Corban Estate Arts Centre. As its contribution to NZ Theatre Month, Te Pou continues its focus on new works in development.

Chelsea McEwan Millar plays acclaimed New Zealand astronomer Beatrice Tinsley in Bright Star.
Chelsea McEwan Millar plays acclaimed New Zealand astronomer Beatrice Tinsley in Bright Star.

What: Bright Star
Where & when: Aotea Centre, Herald Theatre; Tuesday, September 4 — Sunday, September 16

"If you've heard of Ernest Rutherford, you should have heard of Beatrice Tinsley."

Actress Chelsea McEwan Millar sips a cup of tea, shakes her head and then admits she hadn't heard of scientific trail-blazer Beatrice Tinsley before she was cast as the acclaimed astronomer in the play Bright Star.

"And I don't how or why I hadn't heard of her because she was a brilliant scientist, a game-changer. It's mind-boggling that she's had so little recognition."

The reprisal of Stuart Hoar's play Bright Star might change that. First performed at Circa Theatre in 2005, it's been re-worked in recent years to become a story of "an extraordinary woman fighting for recognition in an era where the fairer sex were best kept at home, looking after the kids and getting dinner ready".

That's an accurate summary of a tale that, no doubt, still rings all too true today. Tinsley, the first female astronomy professor at Yale University, was an expert on the ageing of galaxies and led ground-breaking research into the fate of the universe but to do so, she was forced to choose between family and career.

Born Beatrice Muriel Hill in England in 1941, she was the middle daughter of Jean and Edward Hill and arrived in New Zealand when she was a toddler. Always interested in maths and music, Tinsley studied at the University of Canterbury, where she met and married classmate Brian Tinsley. Because she was married, she was not allowed to work at the university nor could she work when the couple moved to Dallas, Texas.

Bored, Tinsley enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin where she was the only woman in its astronomy programme. Despite doing acclaimed research work, she couldn't find a permanent academic position until the late 1970s — and that meant leaving her children with their physicist father. She died of melanoma aged 40 in 1981 and reportedly told friends and colleagues she wondered if the cancer was a punishment for being a bad mother.

McEwan Millar and Bright Star producer Stacey Henderson say the issues thrown up in Hoar's drama remain relevant today. So does the fact that Tinsley should be a Kiwi icon but still flies under the radar.

Director Paul Gittins has wanted to stage Bright Star for several years. He says 2018 being the 125th anniversary of New Zealand women's suffrage meant funding and opportunity were available and he hopes the play stimulates more discussion about Tinsley as well as the choices women still face.

Gittins likens the play to Ibsen's The Doll's House, saying it's not just a biopic but a good drama focused on the relationships Tinsley had with her husband, conservative father, professors and best friend.

"It really is a very good little drama about an absolutely astonishing woman," he says.

"What I really like about her is that she was unapologetic about her intelligence and what she knew she could achieve. She was so tenacious, commuting to university while raising children. Because she couldn't get a university position, much of the work she did was done at the kitchen table."