By GILBERT WONG



Director Simon Prast eats a pie slathered with tomato sauce. Actor George Henare swigs on a waterbottle, and co-star Nancy Brunning looks for somewhere to put her chewing-gum.



Over a table scattered with the debris of lunch and crumpled copies of scripts, a group of actors is in the midst of a read-through for the first production of the year by the Auckland Theatre Company, Haruru Mai.



With them is playwright Briar Grace-Smith. Prast and the actors minutely examine what the characters are doing and why. Snatches of dialogue are discarded. There's a short debate about whether the use of the word "cool" is an anachronism in the early 60s when the play is set.

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For those around the table this is what theatre is about as much as what we see on stage. By the end of the day Grace-Smith will return home to Paekakariki with a script heavy with scrawlings and a new end to find for the play first commissioned for last year's International Festival of Arts.



For many writers this might be an ego-quashing exercise, but the read-through and questions come from actors and a director who show respect for the text and intentions of the writer. It's a collaborative rather than a competitive process and, if there are any egos, respect for the text and its intent comes first.



For Grace-Smith this is not threatening. Judging from her bright laughter, it is as much fun for her as for the company of actors.



"I've become used to having a lot of feedback, because theatre is such a human medium," she says. "The actors, director bring things up constantly, about how characters might behave. I'm open to that."



She also knows that a second production of a New Zealand play is rare. "Often plays only have one life and this is great. It's in the second that you can work on what could have been stronger."



In Wellington Haruru Mai was a story of the redemption of Maori Battalion veteran Silas (Henare), who returns to his homeland haunted by his role in the death of a fellow Northlander during the Second World War campaign in Italy. Seeking atonement for some unknown wrong, he returns to his birthplace and strikes up a relationship with his fallen comrade's daughter, Paloma (Brunning).



Feedback from the play's first version, and now from Prast, is that Silas does not deserve redemption. The second version becomes a tragedy and the intent is to raise the dramatic stakes.



This fits in with Grace-Smith's original idea. "In my head, it was going to be a tragedy, a tale of greed. I don't know what was going through my head, but that was my aim. I wanted to see how far I could take the characters." In this version the passions signalled by the title Haruru Mai, a term which refers to the threatening rumbling of distant thunder, will result in tragic violence.

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Last year, Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington reviewed Haruru Mai for Arts On Monday. As an outsider he was impressed by what he saw as a clash of Pakeha and Maori values faced by Silas.



Grace-Smith laughs. Billington is right, but at the same time the need to analyse the issue of Maori cultural identity is the last place she would choose to start from in her writing.



"I start with a story. I write about what I want to write about. I'd heard lots of stories about the Maori Battalion. Now that the play's there, there seem to be a few projects about the battalion. Sure, one thread is the clash of Pakeha and Maori values, but that's subconscious and emerges in your work anyway."



Any writer can feel smothered by the weight of expectation. For Grace-Smith, one of a handful of Maori playwrights, success and recognition came quickly. Last year she was named as one of the country's arts laureates, but the mantle of "great brown hope" is not one she wishes to shoulder.



"There is that pressure of being a Maori playwright," she says. "There just aren't that many of us. But there are people coming through. It will be good to see more works and different faces and different stories about Maori because there are stories I can't tell." Nor is anything going to change the churning of expectation and fear that comes with opening night.



Few would question that the rise and rise of Maori theatre this decade has injected fresh energy into the artform. "Sure," Grace-Smith says, "we're going for it. Maori theatre is taking off. In the 70s and 80s there was a lot of issues-based theatre. It was an educational tool. Now that this has been done, writers like me feel freer to tell our stories. There was pressure in the past to get those issues - land rights, alcohol abuse - out from under the carpet."



Grace-Smith's upbringing and decision to live in a beachside community are reflected in the locale of her works - small coastal communities where the natural environment can seem larger than life, as do characters in small-town New Zealand.



Grace-Smith was brought up in Edgecumbe and at Pukerua Bay near Wellington. Her mother, Miriam, was a pre-school adviser who wrote children's books, and her father, Alan, was a teacher. Both were keen members of the Taihape Repertory Company and often took the young Briar to Wellington to see theatre. Her first theatre memory is of a Downstage production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. "Sure, a lot went over my head, but I enjoyed the way it was staged," Grace-Smith says. "I had lots of stories read to me, went to the theatre. I was privileged in that way."



With that in mind, her story of how she first entered theatre professionally sounds more inevitable than serendipitous.



At 17 she was at the Evening Post for work experience. She was sent to interview the theatre group Te Ohu Whakaari, which specialised in Maori theatre. They assumed she was there to audition. In the confusion, Grace-Smith went along with it and within a day she was cast for an 18-week tour.



"I had no hesitation," she says. "I had stood around and there was a real energy and excitement there. I just thought, 'This is it'." The company was small and issues-based. She eventually found herself more comfortable with writing and, at 34, has yet to look back.



Like her parents, Grace-Smith has made her home in a small coastal community. She is of Nga Puhi and Ngati Wai descent and has strong links to Whangaruru in the north, but her house in Paekakariki, 100m from the beach, suits her fine.



With husband Himiona Grace, an archivist with the National Film Archive, she is bringing up Himiona, aged 8, and daughters Meriama and Waipuna, both 12. For now, the great change in her life will be the addition the family have built for her to write in. She will finally be able to shut the door to sit before her computer in quiet and not have to fight for space at the kitchen table, where until now she has written her plays.



Grace-Smith likes the idea of a play set in urban New Zealand, but is unlikely to live there.



"There's something about small-town New Zealand," she says. "The elements are bigger, the sky is bigger. There's the coast, the sea and the stars. In urban New Zealand you lose those natural elements. My writing is not just about the people, it's the environment, a big part of my work."



* Haruru Mai, Auckland Theatre Company, director Simon Prast, opening Friday, Maidment Theatre.