Bard Behind Bars: An Interview with Miriama McDowell and Jason Te Kare

Prison drama Cellfish returns to Silo with a brand new cast.

Cellfish, created by Miriama McDowell, Jason Te Kare and Rob Mokoraka, was staged by Silo Theatre and Auckland Arts Festival in 2017. It returns next week as part of Silo's 2018 programme with a fresh new cast consisting of Jarod Rawiri and Carrie Green. The play tells the story of Lucy, a tutor with a a program like Shakespeare Behind Bars who enters a prison to introduce the inmates to Shakespeare and perhaps to encounter her own ghosts. Kate Prior sat down with co-writers Miriama and Jason to discuss the process and themes in the work.

Kate Prior: Tell me about how the seed of the idea for Cellfish came about.

Miriama McDowell: [Actor/writer] Rob Mokoraka and I decided we wanted to work together as actors because we never had – we’d sort of been circling each other but had never done anything onstage together – and we couldn’t find a play that we wanted to do, so we said, “well, let’s write something”. So that was the start point.Then I talked about an idea that I’d had since working with [director] Jim Moriarty in a men’s prison. It was my first job when I graduated from Toi Whakaari. Like, two days after finishing, I started this job at Christchurch Men’s Prison. And the characters I met during that time were just so vibrant and rich. I’d kept a lot of notes from that experience, so I’d always wanted to write something about it.This was about three years ago. We got some funding from Creative New Zealand and we spent four weeks developing the idea. Then we got Jason in during the last week.

Jason Te Kare: Yeah, and I was very much in a dramaturg role then, so I was asking questions about what they were creating; talking about structure, what it is they wanted from the work, what is was they’re trying to say, how best to say that, or what was missing. Putting the questions to them about what they had already created.

JTK: And I guess I’d been lucky because I’d also done that a couple of times working at Radio New Zealand, creating radio plays with writers who were trying to look at that genre. I’d had a bit of practice – I’d learnt a few lessons from having a couple of goes at it, so it was nice to bring in what I’d learnt.

KP: So were there formula story ‘anchors’ would you say?

JTK: Yeah as per the genre, it’s about finding the right direction to set sail on right at the start, and keeping those two truths alive at the same time; the truth of what the audience is perceiving from the start and the truth of what the reveal at the end is.

KP: It’s great you use the word 'genre' because when I read the script that’s the first thing that came to me – the genre aspect, and I feel like, in a Māori theatre context, I don’t think I’ve seen that before? Does it feel new territory to you?

JTK: Yeah I think so. And in way we’re playing within the 'Māori theatre genre' at the same time. One of my favourite moments is the very first scene – the haka pōwhiri – because so many Māori theatre pieces start with that kaupapa of welcoming in your audience right at the start, and I guess we kind of poke fun at it while also honouring it, so we’re kind of being a little bit cheeky (actually, we're doing that the whole way through). And that comes from the combination of the three of us – Rob, Miriama and myself.

That’s what I really loved about this project – the potential to take what I’ve learnt in the last 20 or so years working within the Māori theatre industry, and make a step forward.

JTK: The excitement I had when I first came on board with this, was the potential of exploring in that area, of kind of looking to progress Māori theatre hopefully. That’s what I really loved about this project – the potential to take what I’ve learnt in the last 20 or so years working within the Māori theatre industry, and make a step forward.

KP: And then there’s of course the Shakespeare element. Is that something that you had always wanted to play with Miriama?

MM: No not at all, in fact I went and worked with the Pop-Up Globe because we were developing Cellfish and I wanted to understand more about Shakespeare because I don’t have much experience with Shakespeare.

KP: And now you’re having a Shakespeare renaissance!

M: Yeah I looove Shakespeare! But actually, Shakespeare came in quite late too. We wanted a reason for our lead character to go into the prison and we tried lots of different ways that she might do that.

JTK: Yeah we were like, is she a librarian? Is she a kapa haka tutor? Is she a counsellor? And I can’t even remember how we came across Shakespeare. I mean there was a really rigorous discussion around it – you know, is it going to alienate Māori audiences in particular, does it then become to high-brow, but Shakespeare spoke to the lords as well as the groundlings. And I love that challenge, because ideally that’s what we’re doing with Cellfish – we’re talking to those who have never been to theatre before, to kind of give them an entertaining, fun ride that makes them think, but we’re also talking to those people who go to a lot of theatre, and know Shakespeare, and know Māori theatre. So yeah, it was a high bar to set but I like that.

There is also something wonderful about scenes which have already been written. By a great writer.

MM: There is also something wonderful about scenes which have already been written. By a great writer.

KP: Yeah, and they build depth charges within the work that people instantly connect to.

JTK: And it also allows another layer within our character’s worlds – hinting towards what is really happening for the character through the Shakespeare. What we found in the development season was for those audience members who had been to very little theatre, let alone seeing Shakespeare, it opened up the world of Shakespeare to them. Because the audience are seeing Shakespeare through the lens of these inmates who themselves aren’t familiar with it, so it kind of opened up that world.

KP: And I guess by drawing on Shakespeare it allows us to understand your play in the Shakespearean context of the Epic. So it’s interesting that the play connects to a genre world – a world in which the stakes are unbelievably high. Because so they are in Shakespeare.

JTK: I think that’s what encouraged us to go down that path of a character being involved in something like the the Shakespeare Behind Bars programme – we already had a really epic story line in mind, so by bringing in Shakespeare, it just kind of matched it.

MM: And from my experience working in a prison for nine weeks, it's epic. It is epic. You look at those men and it really is about light and dark. They have had a choice to go to the light and they have gone to the dark. And I found that I would look at them and go, if we were in a time where you could be a warrior, your life would have been sweet – you would have had somewhere to put that energy, whatever that was, but somehow you didn’t find a place to put whatever your powers are in life and you went down this pathway. So it is Shakespearean. Living in a prison is Shakespearean, and the lives that those men lead, like, actually taking lives. The size of that is just huge.

JTK: Another connection for me was that hierarchy of inmates and the connection between that and a Shakespearean world in which everyone has their place. And the danger that comes when that hierarchy is challenged or someone aims to live above their natural position within that hierarchy.

Basically the rates of recidivism for those who do Shakespeare Behind Bars – they just blow the stats out of the water.

KP: Tell me a bit about the Shakespeare Behind Bars program?

MM: Basically the rates of recidivism for those who do Shakespeare Behind Bars, they just blow the stats out of the water. It’s something like 90% of inmates don’t commit crimes after they do that program for some reason. And we were really inspired by the fact that in that program they are asked to discuss the themes that actors discuss. You know, “what would it be like to kill a man”. And as actors we go, “what would that be like?”, but inmates go, “well I’ve been there, this is what it’s like”. But they’re given the words – they’re given a shape to discuss it. It's inspiring.

KP: So tell me about the development of the performance aspect. What do you think having many characters played by only a couple of actors offers the way we read it?

MM: I think there’s a real beauty in the dexterity that actors have to have in order to to do that kind of work, but I also think it would be a great show if all the characters were played by different actors. There’s also something about a woman playing those hardened criminals. You know, how do you communicate size of these men with a female form.

At the heart of this piece there’s compassion...but we didn’t want to shy away from the crimes the inmates have committed – the damage they’ve done and the hurt they’ve caused other people.

JTK: We’ve really worked to define each personality. We’ve thought a lot about the characters’ backgrounds so that the physicalities match this. It’s walking that fine line between what’s a cliché of an inmate or a gang member. It’s something we were really careful of in the creation of the work – reminding ourselves not to make fun of these characters. It’s great having comedy – that really opens up the audience to hear what you’re saying, but at the same time we didn’t want to make fun of these men and the situation that they’re in. Because at the heart of this piece there’s compassion. That said, we also didn’t want to shy away from the crimes that they’ve committed – the damage they’ve done and the hurt they’ve caused other people.

MM: It’s funny that you say that, because actually there was a point where we realised we were making them less and less ‘bad’. We’d have their list of crimes and then we’d fall in love with the characters and we’d go, “oh, let’s say that he didn’t rape anyone, we don’t want him to have raped a woman”, and we had to go back and go “no they have to have these hard histories”, and we love them for their hearts. And that’s what the experience was like for me in the prison too; you get to know the men, you don’t get to know their crimes.

JTK: It’s an integral part of the story. It’s been an incredible wrestle between the three of us, and it’s really useful that there has been three of us because we’ve been able to challenge each other about what we’re saying, about what we’re putting forward, and at times it’s been really tough. Because there’s the question, “what are we saying about Māori when we put this out there?” But what I really hope people get from it is that these characters might be Māori but they don’t speak of all Māori. And they don’t speak necessarily of just Māori as well – there are non-Maori who have had this similar background, who have done similar things. It’s been great to wrestle with those ideas.

KP: And do you think that that wrestling also came out of the rub of the formula of the genre – the psychological thriller – against the New Zealand naturalism? I ask that purely because you were talking about shying away from stereotypes, but often what defines genre are these stereotypical characters.

MM: No, I think the rub comes from constantly challenging ourselves to define the kaupapa of the work. That is a daily thing: “What are we saying? What are we saying? What are we saying in the bigger picture?” There’s a line that we battled over – me and Rob battled over – and I really wanted it in the show and he did not want it in the show, where one of the characters says, “The world’s full of arseholes miss, and most of them are your relations”. And he was like, “I do not want Māori to come to this play and hear that line”. And I’m like, “I do”. I do want people to hear that line and think about it, you know; this sadness that exists within our whānau where we hurt each other.

KP: So I noticed that in rehearsals you worked with Ross McCormack, who’s a contemporary dancer and choreographer – how did that come about?

JT: I’ve worked with Ross on a theatre work before and he was just amazing to work with, and he really loved working with actors. I remember him saying, “I love it, because actors don’t have to move to feel”. Quite often he felt with some dancers, they have to be moving, they have to be doing something in order to feel like they’re 'feeling' something, whereas with the actors, they could suspend an emotion, a feeling, within the movement and not have to move, and just hold that feeling. And he really loved that.There's a big dance sequence in this piece so of course when they asked me who I wanted to work with I was like, no question, Ross McCormack.

The dance thing comes out the fact that we realised early on that our characters were inarticulate. They have to be inarticulate, so then the question was how do we get them to speak.

MM: The dance thing comes out the fact that we realised early on that our characters were inarticulate. They have to be inarticulate, so then the question was how do we get them to speak. So that’s when we landed on those fantasy worlds they each have. Within their fantasy worlds they can be whoever we need them to be in terms of storytellers.

KP: That releases them.

MM: Yeah, and they can talk, they don’t have to keep secrets – they can express themselves in a different way.

We’ve moved on from the idea of seeing ourselves in relation to to Pākehā. It’s now about seeing ourselves within ourselves.

KP: From where you are now, what defines Māori theatre for you?

JTK: Perspective. If anything, what the current world is reminding us is that different perspectives still exist. You know, so often there are things – political speeches like the Orewa speech for example, which remind us that not everyone has come on the ride, not everyone can see things from the Māori perspective. And you don’t need to Māori to be able to – I know a lot of non-Māori who understand our perspective.

KP: Do you feel like your priority in a Māori theatre context is for Māori to speak to Māori?

Yeah, I think it’s about being able to fulfil the whole gambit. But we’ve moved on from the idea of seeing ourselves in relation to to Pākehā, to the dominant culture – this happened before even our era. It’s now about seeing ourselves within ourselves. We don’t have a Pākehā character in the play. We no longer need to see ourselves within the Pākeha context – there are now things to explore within the Māori context; of those who have grown up on the marae who have their reo, who understand tikanga, and those who don’t, and how that connection is either being made or not being made.Things are changing, and that’s where I’m hoping the work, like I said earlier, is about building on what has gone before and moving things forward. You’ve just got to look at the Treaty settlement process and how quickly we’re moving towards a post-settlement era, if there is such a thing. The discussion around what happens post-settlement is a whole new ball game. It’s fraught with danger – that whole idea that we all become equal, what does that then mean for tangata whenua? Do we lose our place? And again, just as there are so many Māori perspectives, there are so many non-Māori perspectives. So the meeting of those worlds holds potential for more discussion, more work. As the world changes, the kōrero changes with it, and the potential for more work to speak to that.It’s one of the things with this work. You know, Māori are growing to be in different classes – an upper class, a middle class, and the lower class – and as we move towards a post-settlement era, what does that mean for Māori who have lost the connection with their iwi? This work speaks a lot to that. We can’t leave those people behind, we can’t leave our own whānau behind. They may have lost the connection with some of us, but we need to remind ourselves that in order to be healthy as a people, we have to look after those people who are at the bottom.

MM: I think what we hope our play is doing is asking middle-class Māori to have compassion for the people who are being left behind.

JTK: Yeah. Let’s not write them off.

MM: Let’s not hate them. Let’s not be ashamed of them. Let’s understand. And figure out what we do next.

Cellfish runs from 13-24 June at Q Theatre Rangatira Tickets available here.

This piece is presented as part of a partnership with Silo Theatre, who cover the costs of paying our writers while we retain all editorial control.

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