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Wairarapa stories shine on stage

Juanita McLellan and the cast of Kiwi. From left: Jonte Savage, Isaac Burt, Sarah Pointon, Matthew Edwards, Tobias Wiegman, Katie Taylor and Jordie Newell. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

A political movement captured in traditional song and dance, a “uniquely Wairarapa tale” featuring a local icon, an immersive gothic experience, and deadline stress expressed through creative lighting: when it comes to theatrical storytelling, Wairarapa creatives have proven they can hold their own on the national stage.

Masterton Theatre Company’s [MTC] youth troupe, Wairarapa and Kuranui colleges, and Pasifika cultural group Siva with Varnz all received awards at the national final of this year’s TheatreFest competition, one of the country’s premier events for amateur dramatists – held in Wellington last month.

The MTC and WaiCol teams were among the nine theatre troupes from around New Zealand selected for the final round of the competition, performing for a panel of industry professionals at Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre.

MTC’s performance of Shuddersome, a theatrical interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short fiction, received high praise for its striking [if unsettling] horror-themed aesthetic, taking home the awards for Best Creative Design and Best Use of Soundscape and Sound Effects.

WaiCol student Will Tickner received an Excellence in Acting Award for his performance in Fairy Lights, which he also wrote and directed, incorporating shadow puppetry to reflect the protagonist’s anxiety as she struggles with an assignment.

Also in contention for awards were the original scripts produced by Kuranui and Siva with Varnz, which received acclaim at the TheatreFest Lower North Island Regional Competition, despite not making it to the national final.

Kuranui was a finalist for the Olga E Harding Playwriting award for Kiwi, written by the cast and Head of Drama Juanita McLellan, inspired by the untimely passing of rare white kiwi Manukura – and placed third overall.

Theatre New Zealand president and Masterton theatre director Paul Percy present Melnissa Faumui with the He Pito Aronui Award for her original work Samoa Mo Samoa.

Siva with Varnz received the inaugural He Pito Aronui/The Seeding of Creative Potential Award for Samoa Mo Samoa, written and directed by group founder and co-ordinator Melnissa Faumui.

Faumui’s piece combined scripted theatre with Pasifika music and dance to tell the story of the Mau Movement, which secured Samoa’s liberation from an unsympathetic New Zealand administration in the early 20th century.

The play, narrated by Samoa’s first female prime minister [played by Faumui], chronicles the start of the movement’s passive resistance [spurred by poor working conditions for Samoans and the impact of the 1918 flu pandemic], the “Black Saturday” assassinations of key leaders, and the country’s independence in 1962.

Faumui said she was “extremely humbled” with the recognition the play received, and proud to have showcased “an important part of Pasifika history” for the Wairarapa community.

“It’s a story so many New Zealanders, especially the younger generation, aren’t aware of. After the regionals, people were coming up to me, saying ‘I can’t believe we didn’t know about this. It needs to be in the school curriculum,’” she said.

“With our play, I think we were able to help young people learn history in a fun way.

“To absorb a story through music and performance can be more empowering for a lot of kids than just reading a textbook.

“It was amazing for us to represent our culture on stage. We came away feeling very proud of ourselves, and grateful for this opportunity.”

Faumui said she wrote Samoa Mo Samoa for the Wairarapa Samoan community’s Fia Fia festival, celebrating Samoan Language Week and the 60th anniversary of Samoa’s independence.

With support from Masterton theatre director Paul Percy, Siva with Varnz was able to perform the piece at the Gaiety Theatre, a first for Faumui and her 30-strong cast.

With Percy’s encouragement, Faumui entered the play into TheatreFest, and worked with Porirua writer Sarai Ropati to finesse the script, which eventually won Best New Zealand Play at the regional competition.

Faumui said performing Samoa Mo Samoa in a theatre setting, in a larger venue and for a wider audience, was a “wonderful experience” for Siva with Varnz.

“Young Pasifika people are natural performers, they perform every week in their homes and at church,” Faumui said.

“Coming out of that environment and into a theatre was a step out of their comfort zone, but they loved it. In the theatre, it’s hard to see the people in front of you. So, it gave them the freedom to be themselves without feeling the pressure of seeing their parents in the audience.

“Afterwards, they kept asking me, ‘when can we do that again?’”

Also thrilled with their TheatreFest experience was the cast and crew of Kiwi, one of eight original plays Kuranui College submitted to the competition.

Kiwi, partly inspired by teacher McLellan’s own experiences, is the story of Ted, a young man longing to go to Pukaha and see Manukura, much to his family’s confusion.

“Ted’s into nature and science-y things. But he’s very different from the rest of his family,” McLellan said.

“His sister’s obsessed with her new boyfriend, his Dad’s a typical rugby-loving bloke who can’t understand why his son’s ‘a bit soft’, and his mum is just trying to keep the peace between everyone.

“He keeps asking his dad if they can go and see the kiwi, but he’s always busy. Finally, when his dad makes time for him, it’s too late, Manukura’s dead.

“So it’s a bit of a downer ending!”

McLellan said the cast was “over the moon” with their TheatreFest award, and inspired to write and direct more of their own projects.

“It was exciting. They got to see an idea start growing and taking shape in a classroom in Greytown, realise our vision on stage, and have it read and seen by [industry professionals] in Wellington.

“Events like TheatreFest show them what’s possible, if they’ve got an idea, they can get a group of mates together and bring it to life.”

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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