It sounds like the beginning of a dated joke: four theatre-makers — one Chinese, one Māori, one Pākehā and one Samoan — walk into a theatre …
But that line signals the start of a theatrical experiment which Auckland — indeed the world — hasn't seen before. The Chairs, by Romanian-French playwright Eugène Ionesco, will be performed in English, Te Reo Māori, Cantonese and Samoan in four consecutive seasons.
The theatre-makers, Chris Martin, Amber Curreen, Renee Liang and Edward Peni, want to highlight the diversity of languages spoken in New Zealand and make theatre more accessible to speakers of those languages, community groups and language students.
They're also keen to see what difference language makes to the way a play is performed and, more importantly, to those watching it.
Liang, who's producing the Cantonese-language production, says nearly a fifth of New Zealand's population speak more than one language and that number is on the rise. She describes it as an "evolution of the stories we tell about ourselves".
They chose The Chairs, described as an absurdist tragic farce, because it deals with that most universal of questions — what is the meaning of life? — and translates well into different languages. Throughout the play, an old man and an old woman busily arrange and re-arrange chairs for a series of guests, invisible to the audience, who are joining them to hear an orator make an important announcement.
Te Reo, Samoan and Cantonese productions are new translations, and the Auckland seasons will be world premieres. While The Chairs has been performed in English numerous times, this version is "pākehā English".
They say staging a version in pākehā English lets it stand with other cultures as a distinct voice, unique to New Zealand. Chris Martin, part of the team making that version, says he's more used to making English language theatre which is usually performed with characters speaking in British or United States accents.
"It feels slightly strange to be performing in my own voice."
Te Rēhia Theatre producer Curreen says it's also part of a wider conversation on the place of language in New Zealand.
"Why is English seen as the default language for cultural presentations in Aotearoa?" she says. "Te Reo Māori speakers are on the rise and performing in our language unlocks the beauty of our culture."
She says the cast and crew of the Te Reo version are working as a team with a translator to adapt the play but she's not overly daunted by the challenge because it's a language she feels comfortable working with.
Peni says two translators have worked on the Samoan version; one has a theatre background, the other an academic one. Peni says it's already proved interesting with both coming up with differing versions which emphasise different facets of the play.
"It's great to be part of a wider conversation where, as Aucklanders, we can investigate and analyse what is 'mainstream' when it comes to language and how we, as theatre-makers, can contribute to diversity."
As well as a different language, each version takes places in a different setting: wharenui, fale tele, ancestral hall and fortress.
Liang says in China emigration to towns, cities and other countries has caused the "ghost village" phenomenon where entire villages are abandoned, save for perhaps two or three elder people.
Setting the Cantonese version of The Chairs in an ancestral hall in one of these villages allows for issues about loneliness, loss of connection and the nostalgia of old age to be explored.
Meanwhile, new theatre company Luftmensch has set its sights on producing plays which bridge the gap between dreams and reality. First up is an experimental piece, MEZ: Monolog für eine Frau performed entirely in German. TAPAC, Saturday, July 7.
What: The Chairs
Where & when: Te Pou Theatre, July 11 - 14 — English; July 18 - 21 — Te Reo; July 25 - 28 - Samoan; August 1 - 4 - Cantonese