Stories from the heart

Kali Kopae’s powerful performance as domestic violence victims won her the best actress award at the 2015 Wellington Theatre Awards. Photo supplied.
Kali Kopae’s powerful performance as domestic violence victims won her the best actress award at the 2015 Wellington Theatre Awards. Photo supplied.
The scariest moment in Kali Kopae’s life came when she stood on stage portraying the terrible domestic violence stories of three women in front of those women, she tells Rebecca Fox.

Kali Kopae worked as a caretaker at a women's refuge safe house, spoke to the women there and had a cup of tea with them.

But she did not know their stories.

So when she read a play script detailing the reasons they sought help from the refuge, she was shocked.

''The stories were horrible. One in particular was the most horrible that for a few days I didn't know how to talk to her - which was dumb on my behalf.

''The story shocked me so much. I didn't know that could happen to someone.''

Kopae knows she is lucky not to have experienced abuse in her life.

''Before I worked at women's refuge I didn't know anything about it.''

Kopae, an actress and singer with the Beat Girls, was born in Lumsden and went to school in Invercargill.

She was helping out while fiancee Jamie McGaskill, 2013 Bruce Mason Playwriting Award winner, was working with Te Whariki Manawahine O Hauraki (Hauraki Women's Refuge) in Thames.

He had been approached to be an ''arts advocate against violence'' for the refuge and worked there for a year.

From that came the play Not In Our Neighbourhood, based on the lives of women in the refuge. It follows the lives of Sasha Miller, Cat Mihinui and Teresa Cummings, three individuals with very different backgrounds living together at the Women's Refuge safe house. In the play, Maisey Mata, a film-maker, has been invited by the refuge to follow some of its clients in a bid to raise awareness about domestic violence.

The play was to be performed for the refuge's occupants before being performed for a general audience.

''As he was living with a young actress and it was for a good cause, I did it.''

That first performance was ''daunting'', as the women saw for the first time their stories brought to life on stage.

''I was really, really scared. But they were happy, happy that their life experiences had got out there.''

She also noticed the women did not talk to each other about their experiences either, yet that changed after the play.

''I was surprised at their reaction. They heard each other's stories for the first time.''

At the safe house they kept their stories to themselves as they tried to heal in their own ways.

''That night it opened up the conversation. I had never seen them talk so much.''

However, the play did not end there. There have been multiple performances since its inception in 2013 including successful seasons at the Auckland and NZ International Arts Festivals, as well as Kopae winning Best Actress and the play Best New New Zealand Play at the 2015 Wellington Theatre Awards.

''It's had quite a good life around the country. It is eye-opening theatre.''

New Zealand Theatre Review described the play saying ''Jamie McCaskill and Kali Kopae are a dynamic team, using their combined skills to produce theatre that goes to the heart of who we are. In this case they expose dimensions of our communities some may prefer to ignore but they do it in such a winning way it's impossible not to sit up and take notice.''

A Stuff review said ''There is truthfulness in the way this hour-long play unfolds, with its occasional touches of humour in the characterisations, while the violence presented is verbal ... intensely dramatic and powerfully performed.''

The Herald described it simply as ''an absolutely towering performance''.

The play had also stretched Kopae as an actress, as she played all the roles, and as a partner - not only did McGaskill write the play, but he also directs it - in ways she had not imagined.

''I never wanted to do a solo show, the thought of forgetting your lines and there is no-one there to save you ...

''But it's not that bad although it is quite lonely.''

That loneliness is alleviated briefly in the show by the appearance of a lone male - in this show a cameo by Peter Hambleton (The Hobbit).

''He's awesome. He is the sixth actor to do the show and bring another take on the character.''

Playing the three abused women is taxing physically and emotionally, especially when performing night after night, she says.

She admits to having her ''mouth fail'' on occasion and forgetting where she is and who she is, but given her experience in the role is able to ''wrangle'' herself out of it.

''You go through so many emotions as you flip from one character to another. It takes a good half-hour after the show [to wind down].''

Part of the success of her performance was the experience she had at the refuge herself.

''For an actor it's like gold. You do not get that opportunity to study your characters so intensely usually. I was lucky in that respect.''

So each time she agreed to do the play again, it was with trepidation.

''I find myself saying I'll do one more.''

Having her fiancee direct the play was also a challenge on both sides and a first for both of them. She admits to being a bit naughty in rehearsals dealing with his direction.

''But only because we do listen to each other. Our personalities sometimes clash.''

However, she realises how lucky she is to have a partner who creates work with and for her.

The message and awareness the play brings and what it can achieve is highlighted by the forums they sometimes hold after the shows.

''I'm quite surprised by the openness of the audience.''

People, men as well as women speak about their experiences with women's refuge and domestic violence.

''One man in Auckland talked about how he abused a woman, this was in an audience filled with women. He was remorseful. People like to share their stories - the show seems to touch something in people.''

It really touched her when she learnt the show had so affected some people it enabled them to leave abusive relationships.

''It must be a great empowerer to help someone make a decision to walk away.''

She had also performed the show to young adults, discovering they had an amazing openness to the topic.

''They are the most honest and not scared to talk.''

It had also been popular with people in professions such as midwives, general practice nurses and others who deal with people in all sorts of situations.

''They see it as a learning tool they can use when they see a situation in their workplaces.''

This latest tour, in association with the Court Theatre, Christchurch, and Dunedin's Fortune Theatre was also being played in Invercargill.

It was the first time she had been to the city in many years. The tour was allowing her to visit her mum, along with her 2-year-old daughter.

To see
Not In Our Neighbourhood, Fortune Theatre, September 13-17.

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