Behind the scenes: As the Auckland Arts Festival and New Zealand Festival in Wellington begin, the Herald speaks to some of our leading choreographers and dancers, theatre-makers, playwrights and poets, musicians and singers about what makes them tick and what can we expect to see from them at our biggest arts festivals.
Six months pregnant, Tusiata Avia dances on to the stage at the Musgrove Theatre in Auckland. Looking glorious in a coral-coloured dress, which matches artfully draped fabric sailcloth at the back of the stage, Avia addresses her audience in honeyed tones which match the mood lighting.
But her words have a hard edge as she discusses her desire to have her legs tattooed:
I want to sit opposite the tufuga
and know he means me pain.
I want him to bring out his chisel
and strike my thighs
the whole circumference of them
like walking right round the world
like paddling across the whole Pacific
in a log
knowing that once you've pushed off
loaded the dogs on board
there's no looking back now, Bingo.*
She finishes; the audience applauds.
That was 11 years ago; the Musgrove Theatre is no more, Avia's baby bump is a near-teenaged daughter and her one-woman show, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, now has a new life as a play for six Pacific actresses.
This year, Avia will sit with audiences at the New Zealand Festival in Wellington to watch it. She's seen it before in 2016 after her cousin, playwright Victor Rodger, first adapted Wild Dogs for the stage.
She'll talk with Rodger, too, at an NZ Festival Writers & Readers Week event, about family, growing up as Polynesian Cantabrians and creative pursuits. It will be their first ever onstage conversation and, no doubt, will include much about how and why Rodger adapted his cousin's debut poetry collection.
Why did he?
Three years ago, Rodger started FCC (Flow, Create, Connect) so Pacific theatre-makers could work with complex and well-written texts that mostly hadn't been produced locally at the time. Looking for plays to present in a series of readings, he took Avia's collection and had six actresses read the various parts rather than doing it as she had done by portraying all the characters herself. Friend and colleague Anapela Polata'ivao directed.
"Wild Dogs was hands down the play that we got the strongest reaction to that year and at the time I thought, 'wow, if Anapela can do that with six actresses after one read through, we have to see what she can do it we put it on for real'," says Rodger. "Another thing, I was really stoked that Tusiata's text hasn't dated; it's still relevant, still confronting, still brave."
Wild Dogs deserves its own conversation; it is a piece of local literature which has had a journey like no other.
Avia launched it into the world in 2002 as a spoken word piece at the Dunedin Fringe Festival (the collection wasn't published until 2004). Born and raised in Christchurch's Aranui, she hadn't acted before and was midway through completing the MA Creative Writing Programme at Victoria University's much-lauded International Institute of Modern Letters.
Back then, Wild Dogs was one of the first poetry collections to explore what it meant to be a young Pacific Island woman in NZ. It's been much quoted but writer Sia Figiel, the first Samoan woman to have a novel published, described it as revolutionary " ... in the sense that, not only does it define the face of Pacific literature in New Zealand, but it redefines the face of New Zealand literature itself."
Avia had long been a traveller, leaving Christchurch after university to live in Auckland and overseas, spending time in Samoa, Europe, Australia, the Middle East and Africa before returning to study writing.
But once her debut performance was over and her MA complete, she hit the road again taking Wild Dogs to places she'd never imagined visiting. In seven years, she appeared and performed all over NZ, Brisbane, Honolulu, Hamburg, Moscow, Vienna and Africa, accumulating awards and accolades as she went: a 2005 Fulbright-Creative NZ Pacific Writer's Residency, a shortlisting for the 2006 Prize in Modern Letters.
For years, Avia and Rodger were never in the same country or city at the same time. He had to fly to Brisbane to see her perform there.
"There's a list of unusual places where it's been performed," Avia says. "I've performed it in an olive grove in Nazareth which rates quite high on the unusual list; I've performed it in a heavy metal club in Moscow and in Morocco under Corinthian pillars.
"In the very early days, I kind of bought into that thing of 'it's about Pacific things' but I learnt very quickly that it's really just a window to a wider world. It speaks about things like love and sex and particularly domestic violence and violence toward children.
"Those are really universal and speak across cultures. I think, in New Zealand, it's very easy to compartmentalise this play as a Pacific play whereas I think it's really proven itself, particularly overseas, as something that really crosses the borders."
Any fears that those outside of NZ or the Pacific — many of whom did not speak English — wouldn't understand the points she was making were unfounded: "I think there is something about the spirit of the piece that rings true," Avia says. "It's the old 'specific, but also universal' and deals with the big human issues we all face."
Since those heady days, other collections have followed Wild Dogs but none she felt lent themselves to performance. There have been more awards — the University of Canterbury's Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence award and the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award — and overseas trips; Avia took part in the Cultural Olympiad in the run-up to the 2012 London games. She's lived in Auckland and returned to Christchurch, taught creative writing and continues to watch Sepela grow.
When Rodger asked for permission to adapt Wild Dogs, Avia was stoked.
"It was a play anyway but it was just me playing all six parts, so to have a different woman embody each part was really great and to have Anapela direct the piece was really amazing. She is a real visionary and understands the piece almost in a way that I don't even.
"She comes to it with such a depth of craft and deep knowledge and deep intuition as a director and an actor herself. She is incredibly skilled but she also has a deep kind of intuition that she works from, which I have huge respect for."
When interviewed about the adaptation in 2016, Avia told the Herald she wasn't saddened that the issues she wrote about are still with us.
"These are big issues and they take time to deal with, but I am pleased we speak more openly about them now and that there is a much greater awareness about things like domestic violence, women's roles and how violence is not acceptable.
"I'm not here to criticise for the sake of being critical; I make the comments that I do because there are things that need to be looked at and it's not good enough to say, 'that's just part of the culture and that's just what we do', and brush them away."
She and Rodger hope Wild Dogs, as a play for six, will have as long a life as it did as a one-woman show.
"There's nothing quite like it out there," Says Rodger. "I love that it features six, strong Pacific women who stand boldly and unapologetically in their sensuality and that can be confronting for some audiences which is exactly why I think it needs to keep being seen."
Meanwhile, Avia will keep writing.
"It's a necessity; I would probably go insane if I didn't do it," she says. "I think I would be a much less happier, less balanced person if I didn't. It is an actual necessity, I think, and it's also my form of political expression. There are so many reasons why I make art, I think, and Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is personal, it's political, it's social — like art should be, I feel. That's kind of my manifesto of art: art should work on all those levels."
•From Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, pgs 65-66
A bit about Wild Dogs Under My Skirt: Samoan New Zealander Tusiata Avia's poetry examines and celebrates what it is to be a Samoan woman, painting a deeply personal view of Pacific Island life and its sometimes uneasy collisions with the Kiwi way. Here, director Anapela Polata'ivao and a cast of six powerful Pasifika actresses breathe provocative new life into the much-loved piece. Wild Dogs Under My Skirt plays at the Hannah Playhouse in Wellington as part of the NZ Festival, today — Sunday. Cousins Talk it Out, part of the NZ Writers & Readers Festival, Circa One, Friday.