Behind-the-scenes: On the eve of the Auckland Arts Festival and New Zealand Festival in Wellington, the NZ Herald speaks to some of our leading choreographers and dancers, theatre-makers, playwrights and poets, musicians and singers about what makes them tick. Why do they make the art they do and what can we expect to see from them at our biggest arts festivals? Today, we talk to makers of the play Tea.

To duck down the narrow alleyway at 515 Sandringham Rd is to find oneself almost instantaneously transported to another, seemingly more exotic world.

It's too hot for masala tea — although I suppose there are people who would say it's never too hot for a cuppa — so we drink mango lassi and fresh lime soda while eating samosa, bhujia mixes of smashed potatoes, chickpeas, vegetables and spices, dahl and chicken drumsticks marinated in ginger and a secret blend of aromatic spices.

Paper lanterns hang from low-ceilinged and dimly lit dining areas; we are surrounded by tea chests and paraphernalia from faraway places. A fellow diner chugs on a hookah pipe which gurgles in the background.


It takes all of us back to travels in South Asia and Africa where everything seems more mysterious and enticing than the suburban Auckland that surrounds the Satya Chai lounge we're in. That a place like this would exist and be packed with lunchtime diners — who, it must be said, include a fair spattering of European New Zealanders — might have been unthinkable just 18 years ago, at the turn of the millennium.

Then again, theatre-maker Ahi Karunaharan and social practice artist Tiffany Singh say that back then, they couldn't imagine working on a play written, produced and designed in Auckland with an entirely South Asian cast of local actors about a tea plantation in Sri Lanka.

If you want proof of how cosmopolitan Auckland has become, look no further than Tea. Part of the Auckland Arts Festival, it's an epic story — "a luxurious and sweeping saga" — that spans thousands of years from the tea estates of Karunaharan's native Sri Lanka to a distant future.

A tale of legacies, prophecies and love, it weaves together great characters, histories and continents to celebrate family and one of the world's most consumed beverages. That we are talking about the making of this play in a chai lounge in Auckland, New Zealand — a distance of 10,917km from Sri Lanka — seems entirely apt.

Artist Tiffany Singh and theatre-maker Ahi Karunaharan have created at contemporary show about tea, based on a Sri Lankan tea estate. New Zealand Herald photograph by Nick Reed.
Artist Tiffany Singh and theatre-maker Ahi Karunaharan have created at contemporary show about tea, based on a Sri Lankan tea estate. New Zealand Herald photograph by Nick Reed.

Of Sri Lankan descendant, British-born and New Zealand-raised Karunaharan wrote our first full-length Sri Lankan play, The Mourning After, which sold out even before opening night. He's been toying with writing a play about tea for a decade, starting it as a one-person play at Toi Whakaari — the NZ Drama School; he doubts he could have made it the way he wants until now.

"When I was in Sri Lanka recently, I spent about three months on a tea plantation and, as a child, I remember going in and wandering through the forests, so I have a massive affection for tea and tea plantation workers.

"There's a cast of ten — and all south Asian actors. There are all professional actors; we're just lucky that we are in this place now where we have so many graduates who have come out of Toi Whakarei or UNITEC or the Actor's Program and they are all professionals."

Singh, born in NZ and of Indian and Pacific descent, makes art that explores the interplay of culture, society and well-being. She is a pioneer, at least in NZ, of social practice art frequently working with school pupils and community groups.

Like Karunaharan, she sees the timing of Tea as significant.

"At this moment, there are a lot of creative south Asian communities who are finding their strength and finding each other and that's really important that we kind of leverage off of each other and build our own community which is supportive and looks at where we come from and some of the things that are important to us."

But Tea, an AAF commission developed through its Raw programme to help local writers, has wide appeal. As Karunaharan says, it is, after all, one of the world's most popular beverages. He wrote the play partly as a love letter to tea.

"There's something about tea that, every time I sit down to drink it, there's an immense amount of clarity that comes after the consumption of it," he says. "Every family has at least one person who is a tea drinker and I guess I was really fascinated by the different rituals and the different stories around tea.

"Also, the other thing was like when I was doing my research I found out that tea is like the second most consumed beverage in the world, so it seems why not? Why not just forget about this drink that is so intrinsic to my country, to my people and express that through art to Aotearoa?"

Singh has been recruited to design the set; it's the first-time she has ever designed a theatre set but she knows what she wants.

"We're not going to give everything away but, in terms of my practice of work, I think Ahi kind of contacted me because I'm very visceral in my work; the works that I produce are very sensory-focused, so a lot of scent, a lot of spices and a lot of colour which are signatures in my work…"

She's promising audiences will be able to smell the spices and feel they are part of the play; that the relationship between the performance and the audience will slightly dissolve. The show also has an original score influenced by traditional Indian and Sri Lankan music.

So, who should come to see it?

"People should come and see this show because it will be a really beautiful experience," says Singh. "Not only is it very profound and poignant, it's also incredibly educational and I think it will be healing in its modality to bring a community of people together and given them a framework to discuss some of their histories together."

And there's a marker as to why she and Karunaharan are so focused on making art.

"I think art is really essential for wellbeing, I think it really allows you to have…" Karunaharan pauses, re-thinks and gathers his thoughts, "I transcends everything that goes on around you; to really experience something that is unique to what another individual experiences is very special. I think art brings people together, art can heal, there's so many different qualities to it that makes it a really vital, important part of life."

Actors start rehearsals for the play Tea by reading through the script before starting to decide who will be where on stage.
Actors start rehearsals for the play Tea by reading through the script before starting to decide who will be where on stage.

Singh's social practice art is all about the powers of collaboration and the ways in which art can be a conduit between health and education, highlight social issues but work with the community to re-frame some of the contemporary matters of our time and, through different mediums, give people access to try and understand some of these from different perspectives.

"For me, at the moment, the conversation about wellbeing is incredibly important," says Singh. "We're a contemporary country; we're still a developing country and we need to very carefully look at the ways that we're evolving and address some of our issues through looking from the ground up rather than the top down.

"I think art has a really important role to play within that of re-presenting ideas — political and social — through different narratives to give diverse audiences access to thinking about things in other ways. At the moment, I see education, health and arts as very siloed so, for me, the role of contemporary art is bringing those together and looking at how we can work together, with shared measurement and outcomes, to really address some of these ills."

And, both of them will add, to do it in a way that is colourful, provocative but entertaining.

A bit about Tea: In the misty tea estates of Ceylon in 1890, two half-brothers, Ravi, a worker from the tea plantations, and Bala, an office clerk in the offices, have different outlooks on the future and how their actions would impact the generations to come. In the future, as the world is on the brink of collapse, a father teaches his daughter the art of making tea.

Tea plays at the Auckland Arts Festival, Loft at Q Theatre from March 9 — 18.