Story: Māori theatre – te whare tapere hōu

Page 2. First Māori theatre companies, 1970–1990

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Te Ika a Maui Players

The rise of Māori political activism from the mid-1970s powered a wave of activity in Māori theatre. The first theatre company set up and run by Māori was Te Ika a Maui Players, formed in 1976, initially to present Rowley Habib’s The death of the land. The play toured nationally for three years, and a television version screened in 1978. Two founding members of Te Ika a Maui, Jim Moriarty and Brian Potiki, soon became prominent theatre practitioners.

Political theatre

Auckland University English lecturer Michael Neill wrote that the Northland-based radical theatre company Maranga Mai ‘extends the ephemeral tableaux of 70s street theatre towards genuine popular drama … here radical politics finds a spontaneous theatrical voice.’1

Maranga Mai

Potiki helped to form the radical theatre company Maranga Mai, which dramatised recent events from the Māori protest movement. In 1979 the company toured schools and marae, and gave an invited performance at Parliament Buildings in Wellington. They drew widespread and mostly adverse comment, especially from politicians and the press, for inciting ‘racial disharmony’. Several of Maranga Mai’s young audience members were inspired to work in theatre themselves, including the Samoan actor Eteuati Ete.

First Māori theatre graduates

Rawiri Paratene became the first Māori graduate of the QE II Arts Council Drama School (later the NZ Drama School and Toi Whakaari) in 1972. He became an inspiration for a later generation of Māori actors. Rangimoana Taylor graduated in 1975 and several years later formed Te Ohu Whakaari, a Māori theatre cooperative. For 15 years this group toured the country, often to schools and marae, performing stories based on individuals and incidents in Māori history.

Te Ohu Whakaari went on to produce plays written by Rangimoana’s brother Apirana Taylor (Kohanga, Te whanau a Tuanui Jones), and their sister Riwia Brown (Roimata, Te hokinga, Nga wahine). Founding member Briar Grace-Smith, who was 17 when Te Ohu Whakaari was set up, later became a noted playwright.

Taki Rua

The Depot Theatre opened in Wellington in 1983 with the aim of producing solely New Zealand work. Founder member Hone Kouka remembered that The Depot ‘welcomed Māori [theatre] practitioners with open arms’.2 The theatre (later renamed Taki Rua) produced a series of influential works by Māori playwrights such as Rowley Habib. His Nga morehu and Tupuna premiered as a double bill at The Depot in 1987, and Fragments of a childhood the following year.

Don Selwyn

Don Selwyn, who had worked in theatre since the 1960s, formed a training scheme, Tamaki Creative Maori Arts, with Ruth Kapua in 1984. In 1985 Selwyn directed his students in the first production of poet Hone Tuwhare's 1977 play In the wilderness without a hat. In 1990 he and Kapua produced Te tangata whai rawa Weneti – a Māori translation of Shakespeare’s The merchant of Venice. The play had been translated by renowned Māori scholar Pei Te Hurinui Jones in 1945, but waited 45 years for its first performance. A cinema version appeared in 2001.

Becoming Toi Whakaari

At the urging of key staff such as Rona Bailey, in the 1980s the NZ Drama School became more welcoming to Māori and Pacific Island students. In 1988 the school added Te Kura Toi Whakaari o Aotearoa (usually shortened to Toi Whakaari) to its name. In that year 50% of new students were Māori. Some later gained international reputations, including Cliff Curtis who starred in several Hollywood movies. Courses in Māori language and customs were later introduced at all levels of the three-year training. These courses were taught by Drama School graduates Rangimoana Taylor and Rawiri Paratene among others.

Te Rakau Hua O Te Wao Tapu

In 1990 Jim Moriarty’s new company, Te Rakau Hua O Te Wao Tapu, produced Bruce Stewart's Broken arse and John Broughton's Nga puke at The Depot. The company later worked with troubled young people, using theatre to help them come to terms with their past. Moriarty became a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2000.

He Ara Hou

Roma Potiki, a former member of the group Maranga Mai, formed the theatre collective He Ara Hou in 1990. The group devised the play Whatungarongaro, which toured New Zealand and then appeared at the 1992 Adelaide Festival. Actor and playwright Hone Kouka found this production inspirational. ‘For the first time in a piece of Māori theatre, I saw traditional Māori concepts and Western theatre practice integrate seamlessly and become a healthy theatrical hybrid.’3

  1. Michael Neill, ‘Maranga Mai: theatre as war party’, NZ Listener, 31 May 1980, p. 23. Back
  2. Hone Kouka, ‘The state of contemporary Māori theatre.’ In Performing Aotearoa: New Zealand theatre and drama in an age of transition, edited by Marc Maufort and David O’Donnell. Bruxelles; New York: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2007, p. 239. Back
  3. ‘The state of contemporary Māori theatre,’ p. 240. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby and Briar Grace-Smith, 'Māori theatre – te whare tapere hōu - First Māori theatre companies, 1970–1990', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

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