When Aroha Awarau wrote a play about 1950s Hollywood actresses, he was surprised people commented on the fact it was written by a Maori playwright.
That play, Luncheon, was about the best supporting actress nominees for the 1957 Academy Awards who included Miyoshi Umeki, the only Asian performer ever to win an Oscar. Why, says Awarau, shouldn't he write a play about an intriguing, but little known story, from entertainment history?
"I thought there was a resistance to the play, that people didn't fully accept Luncheon because they knew who wrote it," he says. "I tried to pitch it to other [theatre] companies but people told me there was a flaw in it because I was not writing what I know, meaning that I was not writing Maori stories.
"But how can anyone know what I know when they've only seen my name and read my play without any openness whatsoever? I am Maori but I am other things, too. I have interests in a lot of other things and situations; my experiences are vast and my imagination is, too."
Awarau says it shows we need to challenge notions of what a "Maori play" is. He believes it comes down more to seeing the world through a specific lens, rather than the subject matter.
"I believe you write what you feel and you write what you want. With Luncheon, we had a Japanese character and I drew on the fact that I know what it's like to be in a room and feel different. Her situation was one I could relate to."
Now he gets another opportunity to confront preconceived ideas by taking part in a ground-breaking programme for Maori playwrights. Te Pou, Auckland's Maori home of theatre, has received Creative New Zealand funding to help four writers - Awarau, Maraea Rakuraku, Krystal Lee Brown and Jason Te Mete - develop new plays.
The scheme is modelled on a successful Australian programme which allows emerging playwrights to take scripts from the page to the stage. Each playwright is paired with a dramaturg, director and professionals actors; after five days of rehearsals, audiences are invited to readings.
Once again, Awarau deals with a wider social issue. Provocation explores a defence strategy where murderers could claim they were provoked into killing and have the charges downgraded to manslaughter. While the defence of provocation was scrapped in 2009, there are calls for it to be brought back.
He is working with Gary Henderson and Jennifer Ward-Lealand on the story which follows two gay men murdered by young lovers who used the provocation defence. As an openly gay man, Awarau says he found the situation frightening.
"Not only could you meet your demise like this, but that you could have your character assassinated in court because, in order for the defendant to get off, they had to paint a picture of you as a depraved individual."
Like Awarau, Rakuraku, Brown and Te Mete also deal with issues which cut across all parts of NZ society. Rakuraku's Papakainga explores the idea that it takes a village to raise a child and the impact this can have when something devastating occurs; Brown has written a bilingual Christmas story, Huia Kaimanawa, and Te Mete, making his playwriting debut, tackles depression and suicide in Little Black Bitch.
LowdownThe Whakarongo Mai - Playwright Development Readings are on Wednesday, September 6 and 13 at 6.30pm with two plays per evening. It is part of Te Pou's Koanga Festival held in association with the Going West Books + Writers Festival. Koanga also sees veteran performer Rawiri Paratene sharing yarns, poetry and songs in his first ever solo show, Peter Paka Paratene, Thursday - Saturday at 7.30pm.