Kia kawea tātou e te rēhia
Let us be taken by the spirit of joy, of entertainment
This whakataukī (saying) indicates that performance-based entertainment was central to Māori society long before the first arrival of Europeans. Whare tapere was the name given to sites used for entertainments such as storytelling, dance, music and games. Sometimes this name referred to a special building, but more often a suitable outdoor location such as the base of a notable tree was designated a whare tapere. A whare mātoro was a form of whare tapere that offered entertainment specifically by and for young people. A travelling troupe of entertainers who staged whare tapere in a succession of communities was called a whare karioi.
In 1868 the missionary Thomas Grace listened to speeches in a Māori village near Whakatāne. ‘One old man attracted my attention more than all the rest … This man’s performance has made an impression on my mind that can never be erased … I could not help thinking at the moment, how infinitely superior it was to all the elaborate, theatrical shams that draw people at Home [England] to crowded theatres. Were this old man to sing his song in London, I believe that [theatre] professionals would have nothing to do until he left.’1
In the late 19th century whare tapere fell into disuse and many of their associated customs were lost. In 2008 Charles Royal formed the Ōrotokare Trust to research whare tapere traditions. The trust aimed to build on these traditions to explore new approaches to Māori performing arts. In 2010 the trust held its first contemporary whare tapere at Waimangō marae, Hauraki. Several others have been held since. They featured traditional Māori instruments and marionette-type puppets known as karetao, but also modern elements such as digital soundscapes.
Early New Zealand stage dramas such as The land of the moa (1895) and Tapu (1903) exploited the dramatic potential of Māori forms such as the haka. Māori occasionally took minor roles in these productions, but were not consulted over the scripts or staging. The earliest New Zealand feature films, such as Hinemoa (1914), also employed Māori actors, but only rarely consulted Māori over the content. Some of Rudall Hayward’s films, such as Rewi’s last stand (1940), were exceptional in incorporating some Māori viewpoints.
Māori themselves formed concert parties to demonstrate action songs, haka and other examples of their culture. More ambitious productions were sometimes attempted, such as the Maori Musical Society's 1941 production of Hinemoa in Rotorua.
In 1957 Bruce Mason’s play The pohutukawa tree, the first New Zealand play to deal with domestic race relations, received its first performance. Director Richard Campion struggled to find experienced Māori to fill the lead roles. However, Hira Tauwhare had performed with concert parties in the Second World War and taken part in amateur theatre. She gave a powerful performance in the lead role of Aroha Mataira, and repeated it for British television. Tauwhare remained in the UK, performing for the stage, screen and radio under the name Hira Talfrey and working with famous British actors such as Sean Connery, Anthony Quayle and Hayley Mills.
In 1971 journalist Harry Dansey wrote Te raukura: the feathers of the albatross, the first play by a Māori playwright. It described the destruction of Te Whiti’s settlement at Parihaka, and was first performed, with George Henare as Te Whiti, at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre in 1972. Two years later Te raukura was performed at Wellington’s Ngāti Pōneke marae by members of Victoria University’s Te Reo Maori Society.
In 1965 the New Zealand Opera Company performed Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin’s opera of African-American life, with Īnia Te Wīata in the lead and 30 other Māori in the chorus. Several of them, such as Don Selwyn, George Henare and Apirana Taylor, went on to have outstanding careers in theatre. This production’s success led to the formation of the Maori Theatre Trust. In 1967 the Trust performed a classical drama, He mana toa, and a comedy of life before European settlement, The golden lover. One reviewer said, ‘Both the plays have opened exciting vistas for Maori theatre.’2
In 1970 the Maori Theatre Trust toured internationally. Its members first contributed to New Zealand’s large-scale pageant at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan, then toured to Hungary and several cities in the Soviet Union. However, a tour of the US was cut short due to falling ticket sales, and financial pressures forced the trust to disband.
Trust member George Henare starred as Hongi Hika in the highly successful musical Mr King Hongi, first produced at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre in 1973.
The rise of Māori political activism from the mid-1970s powered a wave of activity in Māori theatre. The first theatre company set up and run by Māori was Te Ika a Maui Players, formed in 1976, initially to present Rowley Habib’s The death of the land. The play toured nationally for three years, and a television version screened in 1978. Two founding members of Te Ika a Maui, Jim Moriarty and Brian Potiki, soon became prominent theatre practitioners.
Auckland University English lecturer Michael Neill wrote that the Northland-based radical theatre company Maranga Mai ‘extends the ephemeral tableaux of 70s street theatre towards genuine popular drama … here radical politics finds a spontaneous theatrical voice.’1
Potiki helped to form the radical theatre company Maranga Mai, which dramatised recent events from the Māori protest movement. In 1979 the company toured schools and marae, and gave an invited performance at Parliament Buildings in Wellington. They drew widespread and mostly adverse comment, especially from politicians and the press, for inciting ‘racial disharmony’. Several of Maranga Mai’s young audience members were inspired to work in theatre themselves, including the Samoan actor Eteuati Ete.
Rawiri Paratene became the first Māori graduate of the QE II Arts Council Drama School (later the NZ Drama School and Toi Whakaari) in 1972. He became an inspiration for a later generation of Māori actors. Rangimoana Taylor graduated in 1975 and several years later formed Te Ohu Whakaari, a Māori theatre cooperative. For 15 years this group toured the country, often to schools and marae, performing stories based on individuals and incidents in Māori history.
Te Ohu Whakaari went on to produce plays written by Rangimoana’s brother Apirana Taylor (Kohanga, Te whanau a Tuanui Jones), and their sister Riwia Brown (Roimata, Te hokinga, Nga wahine). Founding member Briar Grace-Smith, who was 17 when Te Ohu Whakaari was set up, later became a noted playwright.
The Depot Theatre opened in Wellington in 1983 with the aim of producing solely New Zealand work. Founder member Hone Kouka remembered that The Depot ‘welcomed Māori [theatre] practitioners with open arms’.2 The theatre (later renamed Taki Rua) produced a series of influential works by Māori playwrights such as Rowley Habib. His Nga morehu and Tupuna premiered as a double bill at The Depot in 1987, and Fragments of a childhood the following year.
Don Selwyn, who had worked in theatre since the 1960s, formed a training scheme, Tamaki Creative Maori Arts, with Ruth Kapua in 1984. In 1985 Selwyn directed his students in the first production of poet Hone Tuwhare's 1977 play In the wilderness without a hat. In 1990 he and Kapua produced Te tangata whai rawa Weneti – a Māori translation of Shakespeare’s The merchant of Venice. The play had been translated by renowned Māori scholar Pei Te Hurinui Jones in 1945, but waited 45 years for its first performance. A cinema version appeared in 2001.
At the urging of key staff such as Rona Bailey, in the 1980s the NZ Drama School became more welcoming to Māori and Pacific Island students. In 1988 the school added Te Kura Toi Whakaari o Aotearoa (usually shortened to Toi Whakaari) to its name. In that year 50% of new students were Māori. Some later gained international reputations, including Cliff Curtis who starred in several Hollywood movies. Courses in Māori language and customs were later introduced at all levels of the three-year training. These courses were taught by Drama School graduates Rangimoana Taylor and Rawiri Paratene among others.
In 1990 Jim Moriarty’s new company, Te Rakau Hua O Te Wao Tapu, produced Bruce Stewart's Broken arse and John Broughton's Nga puke at The Depot. The company later worked with troubled young people, using theatre to help them come to terms with their past. Moriarty became a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2000.
Roma Potiki, a former member of the group Maranga Mai, formed the theatre collective He Ara Hou in 1990. The group devised the play Whatungarongaro, which toured New Zealand and then appeared at the 1992 Adelaide Festival. Actor and playwright Hone Kouka found this production inspirational. ‘For the first time in a piece of Māori theatre, I saw traditional Māori concepts and Western theatre practice integrate seamlessly and become a healthy theatrical hybrid.’3
By the 1990s Māori actors, writers and companies were consistently delivering many of New Zealand’s most exciting experiences in theatre, and drawing attention from other countries.
In 1991 John Broughton’s searing monologue Michael James Manaia was first performed by Jim Moriarty at the Edinburgh Festival. In that year Hone Kouka’s Nga tangata toa, an epic based on Ibsen’s The Vikings at Helgeland, was developed together with Norwegian theatre worker Halldis Hoaas. The lead character of Rongomai was played by the outstanding actor Nancy Brunning. Nga tangata toa was later performed by Rangimoana Taylor’s group Kilimogo Productions in 1997, and by Taki Rua Productions in 2006.
The 1990s saw the development of ‘marae theatre’. Typically, the audience is called into the theatre space, greeted with waiata, encouraged to vocally support the actors during the performance and in general to treat the theatre as a marae. A predominantly Māori audience might respond to an on-stage haka with one of their own. In this form of theatre a kaumātua is usually seen as essential to the production. Hone Kouka has said that the kaumātua’s name should head the list of cast members.
In 1995 Taki Rua mounted its first annual Te Reo Māori season, of plays fully or largely in the Māori language. In 1996 the season included Briar Grace-Smith's Waitapu, which had earlier toured to Canada with He Ara Hou. Grace-Smith’s next play, Purapurawhetu, was commissioned by Taki Rua and won the Chapman Tripp Theatre Award for Outstanding New Play in 1997. In that year Taki Rua ceased to operate from its own premises in favour of performing more widely. Its Māori-language productions have since toured to kura kaupapa, marae and many other venues.
Wellington’s Taki Rua operated from its own premises in inner-city Alpha Street until 1997. Emerging Māori theatrical talent used it as a gathering place, to talk through and share ideas. Māori writers workshopped their plays at Taki Rua when it was not being used for a production. Kaumātua, Māori and Pakeha, who were part of the theatre’s life, gave them guidance and support. They included Tungia Baker, John Tahuparae, Wi Kuki Kaa, Bob Wiki, Rona Bailey, Keri Kaa and Sunny Amey.
Hone Kouka, whose theatre career began at Taki Rua’s predecessor The Depot, later founded the Wellington independent company Tawata with playwright Miria George. Tawata has held a Matariki Festival annually since 2010, incorporating theatrical voices from Māori and ethnicities. In 2009 Kouka was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to Māori theatre.
In the 21st century, Māori theatre has explored genres much wider than agitprop theatre and marae-based traditional stories. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, also well-known as screen actors and directors, turned legends into irreverent comedy in The untold tales of Maui, which toured nationally in 2003–4. Tawata Productions premiered Miria George’s science fiction-influenced and what remains in Cambridge, UK, in 2006. Playwrights such as Albert Belz (Awhi tapu, Yours truly, Te karakia) and Whiti Hereaka (Fallow, Te kaupoi, Raw men) have dealt with issues not previously seen as intrinsically Māori.
Belz, Hereaka and Briar Grace-Smith saw their work performed by a line-up of leading Māori actors at the first annual Taonga Whakaari – Māori Playwrights Festival in Auckland in 2010. That event also included the 24-Hour Deadline Theatre Challenge, in which five playwrights had 12 hours to write a 15-minute play, which was performed the following night.
In April 2012 six feature-length dramas appeared on television as the series Atamira. Each work had originally been written for the stage by a different Māori playwright. The series was co-produced by Taki Rua as part of an expansion into film and television production.
In the same month Māori theatre arrived on the world’s most famous stage, when Te Haumihiata Mason’s translation of Troilus and Cressida was performed at London’s Globe Theatre. This was the opening production in a festival of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, each performed by a different national culture. It was produced by Rawiri Paratene’s company Ngākau Toa, and he played the role of Pandarus. One British reviewer felt that ‘the sheer strangeness of the event worked its magic, while across the language barrier came hurtling, with ease, the universal aspects of the story and its tragicomic richness’.1
Greenwood, Janinka. History of a bicultural theatre: mapping the terrain. Christchurch: Christchurch College of Education, 2002.
Guest, Bill. Transitions: four decades of Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School. Wellington: Victoria University Press, Toi Whakaari, New Zealand Drama School, 2010.
Maufort, Marc, and David O'Donnell, eds. Performing Aotearoa: New Zealand theatre and drama in an age of transition. Bruxelles; New York: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2007.
McNaughton, Howard. ‘Negotiating marae performance.’ Theatre Research International 26, no. 1 (March 2001): 25–34.
Royal, Te Ahukaramū Charles. ‘Te whare tapere: towards a model for Māori performance art.’ PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 1998.