Genesis and generations

Emere Leitch-Munro rehearses Tatai in the Smith Gallery at Toitu Otago Settlers Museum. Photo by...
Emere Leitch-Munro rehearses Tatai in the Smith Gallery at Toitu Otago Settlers Museum. Photo by Christine O'Connor.
Dunedin playwright Rua McCallum
Dunedin playwright Rua McCallum

Dunedin woman Rua McCallum has contributed two pieces of Maori theatre for the Puaka Matariki Festival. Shane Gilchrist reports. 

From traversing generations of Maori women to pondering quantum physics, Dunedin playwright Rua McCallum is juggling a pair of quite different theatrical productions.

Both Tatai and Wai=Rua: A=Line=Near will be staged as part of the Puaka Matariki Festival in Dunedin later this month, the wildly contrasting pieces serving to illustrate the artistic breadth of McCallum.

Having penned several productions over the past decade, McCallum has collaborated with others in a range of roles, including serving as kaitiaki (Maori adviser), establishing her own production company, writing waiata and haka, and pursuing an academic career.

A solo theatrical piece, Tatai explores the ways in which the handing down of knowledge may have been affected by colonisation; it does this by portraying the experiences of three key characters, examining how the women have changed through time and how their use of Maori language has changed, too.

In contrast, Wai=Rua: A=Line=Near fuses a Maori creation narrative and quantum physics, using technical effects, including lighting, to create an interpretive experience.

Think of it as less script, more sensation.

"Last year I was involved in Farley's Arcade, which was very immersive theatre,'' McCallum explains.

"Also, I'm close friends with Martin Roberts, who did Dark Matter for the Dunedin Fringe Festival. Marty and I had been meaning to do a piece together so we decided we'd do a piece for Matariki.

"Without giving too much away - because we want to get an audience there - Wai=Rua has a few echoes of Dark Matter in it. Yet some of these elements might not even be recognisable to those who have seen Dark Matter.

"Dark Matter was purely a show of light, but even that light was hard to perceive. It was like being in a room where the lights have just gone out and your eyes take a while to adjust ... it deals with the unknown, including the idea of quantum energy.

"Wai=Rua is also the next step on from a production I did called Rarotimu, which was about a southern genealogical cosmology, about how planet Earth came into being and went through an evolution before humans were a reality.

"Marty and I wanted to produce a performance piece that had structure, created an experience for the audience, did not follow a traditional theatre script, and took audience members on a journey the moment they entered the theatre.

"Wai=Rua is a performance installation; it's not really theatre.

"It is a collaboration between Marty and me. We are taking the idea of quantum physics energy, depicted through the use of light, and merging it with a creation narrative, albeit in a non-structured way. It is very interpretive.''

Given Wai=Rua will have its premiere later this month, McCallum is more involved with that production than she is with Tatai, which was first performed in 2003 at the Globe Theatre.

"Richard Huber has directed Tatai through each of its three incarnations. I trust him entirely. I have worked with him in other productions.

"Tatai is about a whakapapa of women across time, from pre-colonisation, to post-contact, to today. It looks at how knowledge has been passed on but also how the women have changed through time.

"Three different languages are used in the current production, from a very old-style southern dialect, to a more standard Maori that represents the post-colonial time, to [a limited amount of] English, because one of the characters has lost the language and all sense of who she is, really.''

Tatai is being staged at Toitu Settlers Museum rather than a theatre, meaning director Huber has to replace typical devices such as sets and lights with other elements.

"Because I don't have any lighting, I have got three musicians on board, who will add to the vocal structure of the piece, as well as play traditional Maori instruments,'' Huber explains.

"Tatai is being held in the Smith Gallery at Toitu. Essentially, we are using that space unchanged; we are just putting people in it.

"The central idea of the play is dealing with the notion of whakapapa from a Maori perspective. Of course, the space itself has a lot to do with ancestry, albeit from a Pakeha perspective,'' he says of the Smith Gallery, the walls of which are festooned with portraits of Otago's colonial founders.

"I approached Rua to do the play again this year. I wanted to have a version of the text that was mostly in te reo, because I'd only directed an English-language version and I knew a Maori version existed.''


Playwright Rua McCallum explains the connection between her two productions and Matariki ...

Tatai is a story about whakapapa, albeit a human whakapapa.

In the Maori world-view, humans are linked to the atua (god) through whakapapa and thus to creation including the stars.

There is a Ngai Tahu waiata by Hateatea that talks about Tane, Hinetitama and "nga tatai whetu'' (a whakapapa of stars) and how after separation Tane clothes his parents; his mother with trees and plants and his father with stars after attaching a cloak to him on which to place the stars.

Tatai is also about new beginnings, because one of the characters is about to give birth.

Both Puaka (Rigel) and Matariki (Pleaides) are stars that appear in the heavens that signal the Maori new year; a time of new beginnings.

Wai=rua: A=line=near is also about creation and has a strong focus on light and the elements, predominantly water and air.

Stars are seen by us as light in the heavens or in the air.

The heavens are often viewed as being a sea or an ocean, and in Maori mythology several constellations were given the same name as our southern canoes (eg, Te Waka o Tamareriti, Uruao and Araiteuru).

Stars were essential to navigating the ocean.

Wai=rua: A=line=near transits from the hidden, from darkness to seen and then hidden again, thus representing transformation as represented in the rising of the stars that signal the new year.


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