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Last year the production ‘All Roads lead to Ngatapa’ by the Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust played to packed houses around the East Coast in the inaugural Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival, and I imagine their follow-up production Tūranga: The Land of Milk and Honey will do the same.

‘Tūranga: The Land of Milk and Honey’ might be described as a contemporised version of ‘All Roads lead to Ngatapa’ with a new chapter and some slam poetry, audio visual components, puppetry, dance, mixed media and youth voices all added into the mix. It carries the weighty description as a piece of theatre aiming to propel our society into an equitable future.

“Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival – here’s a platform, we’re all artists, we’ve all got stories to tell, let’s learn about each other” Teina Moetara

When the team first got together in August last year, there were no preconceptions as to what they were setting out to create. What they did know was the Tuia250 commemorations that were about to take place all around the country, had presented them with a task.  The task, producer Francis Hare says, was to present another side to the dominant narrative of this country’s history. 

The story of the Rongowhakaata Iwi is not well known, except perhaps for certain bits that involve their ancestor, Te Kooti. Moreover, or perhaps because of that, as Director Teina Moetara puts it “we’re an iwi that often comes out as a bit contentious or with a bit of punch” so the group knew that in presenting their side of the story they would need to create something a little bit different, and approach it in a different way.

Teina describes the contradicting, conflicting narratives that besiege every so-called history as both “the power and the beauty of it all”, which seems to me an incredibly gracious starting point for this task they had faced themselves with.  Nevertheless the paramount consideration for all who were to be involved in this sharing of Rongowhakaata’s story was that “people would walk out from the experience with their mana intact”, including themselves.

It was a chance for us to share our story from our perspective.  History has been told to us from another perspective and some things have been left out. They are heavy stories, but they’re beautiful stories as well” Marcia Akroyd

While the Arts are intricately woven into the whakapapa of Rongowhakaata, the group’s quest to find a different way to tell their story led them to the very ‘English’ medium of theatre.  Within this new medium however, the group utilised the ‘devised process’ – a process as old as Theatre itself, which describes a way of working, which is collaborative and improvisatory, and which Teina describes as aligning very closely to “the way we work on the marae.” 

“As artists with our whakapapa in the arts, it’s all about the process – not just the content” Teina Moetara. 

In talking to all of the different members of the crew, it becomes clear that this approach to creating the works has been huge, providing both the starting point – the space from which different members of the group can speak their own truth – as well as the end point – allowing the resulting production to come together in a way that “people will walk out inspired and empowered, rather than belittled and scared by the history that we have learnt before now”

The cast describe the process as enabling them to find greater meaning in what they create, because “so much more of ourselves has gone into the making process”.

Actor Rahera Taukamo-Bidois describes having to prepare herself each morning to find the growth or learning in whatever will occur that day. She describes the process as “a Māori way of making”, where everything is done as a group, through wānanga, co-creating and making.  

“Whatever we make, whether it lands or not, may have triggered something in someone else – everything is a stepping stone.  You have to be brave and build your confidence in yourself, even if you think something is dumb, you still offer it up, because it might draw something out of someone else” Marcia Akroyd

Raiha Te Ata Hapara Moetara, another member of the cast, talks about the “intense moments” but mostly about returning to the room after those intense moments, “the work is juicy” she says, “it’s mean to watch, it tests and challenges you so much”. The upshot of using this kind process Rahera reckons, is that everyone has that “much more connection to the piece, and are able to perform it in a much more impactful way”.

It is the constantly evolving nature of this way of working which has seen more rangatahi brought into the cast this year. Raiha talks about how important it is for her to be showing the next generation that ‘we’re not in that stage anymore, we’re moving through it. Our young people can be proud of our history and not scared of it anymore’. 

“This is about healing intergenerational trauma from the past. It’s important to heal that part of ourselves to be able to move forward in a stronger way” Marcia Akroyd

Everyone involved in ‘Tūranga: The Land of Milk and Honey’ hopes that their work will encourage and inspire other Iwi to tell their own histories. “We are giving this as a koha to our community and if we can be an example to other Iwi, that would be massive” said Marcia.

All of the cast also spoke passionately about the impacts of being involved in something like this in their own lives “through this process, we learn things we can apply in our daily lives, in terms of being resilient, vulnerable and standing up when something doesn’t align with our values”, as well as of knowing now what it feels like to be excited for a day’s work, and to leave at the end of the day fulfilled, “this is how I want to spend the rest of my life” says Rahera.

“I think we are definitely changing the world doing this kind of mahi” said Raiha and I wholeheartedly agree.  Make sure you check out ‘Tūranga: The Land of Milk and Honey’ on October 9, 2pm & 7pm at Lawson Field Theatre, the Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust bringing their stories into the light as a part of Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival 2020.

Story & photos by Sarah Cleave.

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