Floating Islanders: Pasifika Theatre in Aotearoa
Lisa Warrington and David O’Donnell
“What is a dramaturg?” I overheard that question earlier this year while sitting in a theatre waiting for a show to begin. As it happened, this was a show which listed me in the programme as “dramaturg”, and the couple asking the question were reading my notes. So I quickly said to them, “script advisor”, and left them to get on with their pre-show reading. A few months later, I was reading Fiona Graham’s Performing Dramaturgy, which offers a much richer, contextualised series of answers to the question. It would be egregious to thrust her book into the hands of someone directly waiting for a performance to start, of course, but otherwise it can be safely recommended to a broad range of researchers, students and theatre practitioners. Graham herself prefers the alternative spelling “dramaturge”, because of its use to indicate “an expanded and interdisciplinary practice”, so I’ll use that form here.
I think Graham would accept my capsule definition of “script advisor”, although, in her depiction of the field, the task of giving script advice on a text already set, what she describes, pejoratively, as a “literary text”, is the least of things a dramaturge might accomplish to assist the mounting of dynamic productions. The first chapter surveys the history of dramaturgical practice, from 18th-century Germany to Great Britain, North America and Australia. Key links into contemporary theatre come by way of Brecht’s practice in the Berliner Ensemble and his theorising in his Messingkauf Dialogues, which has had a global impact. A second crucial link, in terms of the strong relationship between New Zealand and English theatre, is Kenneth Tynan, the famous reviewer, who pioneered script advice to the Royal National Theatre under Laurence Olivier. Tynan acted as gatekeeper, fostering new writing talent. In the 1960s and 1970s, when professional theatres were formed across New Zealand, they often adopted the kind of repertoire figures brokered by Tynan.
Graham uses international background as a prelude to a discussion of New Zealand-based dramaturgy. She rightly identifies the 1980 Playwrights Workshop as a crucial event. Famously, this was when, in the staged readings at the end of the workshop, Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament first electrified audiences. Each of the plays workshopped was assisted by a script advisor or dramaturge, thus establishing the notion in New Zealand that workshopping scripts with a dramaturge to assist was a good thing. Graham provides a good case study of Foreskin, narrating the workshop experience and the (still debated) changes McGee was persuaded to make. She uses accounts of the event from McGee as well as the dramaturge, David Carnegie. I am sure she is right to foreground this workshop as a signal event in the development of a New Zealand-based dramaturgy, but her depiction of it runs the risk of Dickensian simplicity, with McGee as the innocent newcomer, and figures like Mervyn Thompson, Raymond Hawthorne and Carnegie as theatre insiders, preying on a newcomer. That might play well if TVNZ made one of their irritating dramatisations of “actual” historical events, but Graham’s perspective does not allow for much nuance and balance between the participants.
Since the triumphant première of Foreskin’s Lament, New Zealand theatre has transformed in every respect, with the rise of solo performance as a major form, playwrights of many different ethnic backgrounds, the focus on devised work and physical theatre and the increasing prominence of Māori, inter- and multi-cultural theatres. Many of these developments have been assisted by the use of sympathetic dramaturgy. For the initial Playwrights Workshop, the dramaturges assisted the development of scripts already in draft, and the drafts themselves were solo efforts. This was especially the case with McGee, who had little working knowledge of the theatre before the workshop, and the subsequent first production of the play, directed by Hawthorne at Theatre Corporate in Auckland. As Graham shows, the mission of the New Zealand dramaturge has now drastically expanded, so that the dramaturge is now, often, one of the co-creators of theatre pieces, positioned, as Graham puts it:
on the creative cusp between theory and practice, collaborating with directors, choreographers, composers, designers, visual artists, community groups, dancers and actors as well as writers. It is a catalysing role that offers multiple opportunities for the development of nuanced performances.
Dramaturges have been especially instrumental in the area of devised and physical work and, further, in framing contexts in which cultural sensitivity is a necessary adjunct, making sure that, for example, the requirements of tikanga are observed before a performance can emerge. There are many instances, such as in the work coming out of Taki Rua, where the dramaturge synergises with the production kaumatua to good effect.
The final sections of Graham’s book deal sensitively with the area of Māori dramaturgy and detail her own New Zealand practice. These final sections are presented in part as a practice manual for dramaturges and production companies. These would be very useful for beginners in the area. However, there are aspects of Graham’s approach it would be good to have expanded.
Firstly, I’d question the impression given that if you summon a dramaturge, like a ghostbuster, your production will fly along. Does dramaturgy always work? What happens when the dramaturge does not “gel” with the rest of the company? What happens when the dramaturge is just wrong, but gets their way?
Secondly: “show me the money”. On the back cover and in their press release, Playmarket describe Graham as a “freelance dramaturge”, and what she describes as “a professional consultant”. Fair enough that, as a dramaturge, Graham will expect to be paid. But Carnegie, for example, was not paid for his work toward Foreskin’s Lament (as he assured me in an email while I was preparing this review). So, exactly when did people decide to pay dramaturges in New Zealand? Do issues about payment cloud at times the working relationship between the dramaturge and the theatre company? These issues aside, there is no question that Performing Dramaturgy, as the first full-length study of the practice of dramaturgy in New Zealand, is an excellent addition to the New Zealand theatre archive.
Lisa Warrington’s and David O’Donnell’s Floating Islanders: Pasifika Theatre in Aotearoa is another first, the only book-length study yet of Pasifika theatre. This, too, is a phenomenon of the last 30-40 years, and this book will be essential reading for all those studying this area. The authors acknowledge their status as Pākehā or Palagi scholars, sympathetic outsiders, though they have directed, taught and encouraged many of the practitioners whose works they describe. The field would look very different if a critic of Samoan, Tongan or Niuean descent, for example, were to tackle the same subject. Warrington and O’Donnell acknowledge their relationship to the material, though, and begin by thanking a long roll call of Pasifika practitioners. A substantial part of the book’s impact is the series of interviews Warrington and O’Donnell conducted with theatre-makers, recollecting key moments in the development of Pasifika theatre. The authors describe this as a version, in print, of talanoa, a Tongan/Fijian/Samoan concept, “a conversation, a talk, an exchange of ideas”. They summarise and quote from many of the interviews they conducted, and an appendix lists Pasifika productions from 1981 to 2016. This continues the approach Warrington pioneered with her invaluable Theatre Aotearoa Database. Along with the in-depth notes and extensive bibliography, the book provides the basis, not of a definitive statement, but of a launching point from which future discussions can build.
Pasifika theatre is defined as work produced by “artists of Pacific Island descent” working in New Zealand. Many Pasifika theatre-makers came to New Zealand as young children (as Oscar Kightley did), or came here to study (as Albert Wendt did a generation earlier). Auckland, in terms of population, is the largest Pasifika city in the world, but there are substantial groups of Pasifika peoples in Wellington and Christchurch, which underpinned the development of groups such as Taki Rua/Depot and Pacific Underground. In turn, these groups fostered the script writing and production skills of important playwrights such as Kightley and Victor Rodger.
Pasifika theatre, effectively, is a local variant of the waves of post-colonial and intercultural theatre-making that have transformed theatre practice in recent generations. Pasifika artists have responded to issues of cultural alienation and racism, of economic exploitation and despair. They have foregrounded the twin demands of describing the new world of Niu Sila, as Kightley and Dave Armstrong’s heartfelt and hilarious play puts it, and evoking the call of island homelands and fidelity to family and custom. Those demands ring out in hits like Toa Fraser’s Number Two (both on stage and screen) and Fraser’s underrated 2001 play Paradise.
Elements of Pasifika theatre now often reach mainstream audiences, especially through modern adaptations of the Samoan fale aitu (house of spirits), where the living can be visited by ghosts, launching scathing critique of contemporary practices. Humour and, at times, uproariously physical satire engages the audience while serious points are made. That strain is evident in much Pasifika-based television and film-making, from Skitz through Bro-town to Sione’s Wedding. Inevitably, those pieces are script-driven, and the book generously covers the performances that have allowed prominent playwrights like Kightley and Rodger to emerge.
Yet Pasifika theatre is far from being trapped inside wordy, untheatrical scripts. Physical theatre has added a strong dimension to Pasifika performances, most notably in Lemi Ponifasio’s Mau theatre productions and in the dreamy, compelling sound and lightscapes of Conch theatre. A lazy cliché would claim that all Pasifika peoples are musical, and yet riffing on popular music provides an essential base for so many Pasifika performances. There is a lot to cover, and the authors do a good job of concisely summarising the development of small cells of theatre in the 1980s, moving on to mainstream (that is, Pākehā) stages in the 1990s and through to 2016. At times, though, the pace is breathless, and I found myself more engaged when the authors pause in their survey and, drawing on their own observations, evoke the richness of a specific performance. Further studies, I hope, will deepen analysis in these ways.
Meanwhile, O’Donnell, in his other role as editor of Playmarket’s New Zealand Play Series, continues to be exemplary. If you need a New Zealand playscript to perform, you can consult the Playmarket database. For wider audiences, the full publication of selected plays makes them available in bookshops, libraries and classrooms. The plays can then be taught and studied. The new edition of Kightley’s Dawn Raids is a welcome addition to the series, as it will make possible further discussion of the many issues Floating Islanders raises. The play premièred in 1997, before the secondary or tertiary students who might use it were born. So the edition comes with contextual notes and study prompts, a foreword from O’Donnell and an introduction by Kightley himself, a fiercely articulate explainer of his craft.
I wish the play were not still so relevant. The dawn raids of the early 1970s, forcefully expelling overstayers, grossly breaching civil rights, are a lasting bitterness from Robert Muldoon’s regime. In one short scene, two Samoan university students are pulled over by a traffic officer, who demands to see their id: “You both don’t look like Kiwis.” He recommends they get passports to show they are “Kiwis”. With the New Zealand First proposed “values” test in the offing, we can imagine similar, arbitrary demands being made in the near future.
Through his Auckland-based cast of Pasifika characters, Kightley shows the effect of the dawn raids on a range of people. There’s Sione, a factory-worker by day and “Hawai’ian” lounge-singer by night, as people would rather hear songs from Hawai’i than Samoa; and Fuarosa, his fiancé, who really is an overstayer; and there’s Steve, a Samoan policeman, torn between Pasifika loyalty and just doing his job. The dilemmas of these people are alive in the play, and Kightley has used his research skills to good effect. Fuarosa cannot leave the house, lest she be arrested. So she is deprived of the joys of Auckland, 1970s style. She cannot eat a burger at the Uncles takeaway bar at the top of Karangahape Road late at night. She cannot drive along Broadway and marvel at the old neon sign of the lasso-wielding, jeans-promoting cowboy, now long gone. Kightley’s skill lies in using these vivid details to bring the past to life. The issues are trenchantly placed, but the play comes to the audience with charm and colour, making sure we stay around to get the message.
Mark Houlahan teaches Shakespeare and his contemporaries and literary theory at the University of Waikato.