Story: Māori theatre – te whare tapere hōu

Māori theatre flowered in the later 20th century, driven by the Māori cultural renaissance, and the whare tapere – a traditional site for entertainment and performance – was revived.

Story by Mark Derby and Briar Grace-Smith
Main image: Jim Moriarty in Michael James Manaia, 1994

Story summary

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Origins of Māori theatre

In traditional Māori society, the whare tapere was a site for storytelling, dance, music and games. Whare tapere fell into disuse in the late 19th century, but in the 2000s the Ōrotokare Trust was working to revive them.

Some early Pākehā stage productions included Māori forms such as the haka. Māori actors appeared in early films such as Hinemoa (1914), but Māori were not consulted over the content. Māori formed concert parties to perform songs and haka, and in 1941 the Maori Musical Society performed Hinemoa in Rotorua. In 1957 Bruce Mason’s play The pohutukawa tree featured Hira Tauwhare in the lead role, which she later also performed for British television.

A 1965 production of American opera Porgy and Bess featured Īnia Te Wīata in the lead and 30 other Māori in the chorus, including Don Selwyn and George Henare. It led to the formation of the Maori Theatre Trust, which performed in New Zealand and overseas.

Māori theatre companies

From the 1970s Māori activism led to a wave of activity in Māori theatre.

  • Te Ika a Maui Players was set up in 1976, and toured Rowley Habib’s play The death of the land for three years in New Zealand.
  • Rawiri Paratene was the first Māori graduate of the national drama school, in 1972.
  • Te Ohu Whakaari, formed by Rangimoana Taylor, toured New Zealand for 15 years, visiting schools and marae. The group performed plays by Taylor’s brother, Apirana Taylor, and their sister, Riwia Brown. Members included Briar Grace-Smith, later a prominent playwright.
  • The Depot Theatre (later Taki Rua) opened in Wellington in 1983. It only produced New Zealand work, including many Māori productions.
  • Te Rakau Hua O Te Wao Tapu, set up by Jim Moriarty in 1990, was a theatre company that worked with troubled young people.

Consolidation of Māori theatre

By the 1990s Māori were producing some of New Zealand’s most exciting theatre and receiving international attention. In 1991 Jim Moriarty performed the solo play Michael James Manaia at the Edinburgh Festival, and Hone Kouka developed the epic play Nga tangata toa with Norwegian theatre worker Halldis Hoaas.

Marae theatre, where the theatre is treated as a marae, also began in the 1990s. In 1995 Taki Rua began its annual season of plays in te reo Māori (the Māori language). In 1997 Taki Rua ceased to have its own premises and focused on touring.

In the 2000s Māori theatre explored a wider range of topics and genres. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement turned the legends of the demigod Māui into comedy, while playwrights Albert Belz and Whiti Hereaka dealt with a range of issues. A Māori translation of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida was performed at London’s Globe Theatre in 2012.

How to cite this page:

Mark Derby and Briar Grace-Smith, 'Māori theatre – te whare tapere hōu', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 May 2024)

Story by Mark Derby and Briar Grace-Smith, published 22 October 2014