Renee Liang talks to playwright Albert Belz about his writing, his new play Raising the Titanics and about being part of the Maori Playwrights Festival.
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For some reason, when the weather gets cold, the cultural activity in the city heats up. Maybe for poor artists creative energy is the only way to warm up? In any case, I’ve been feasting on an abundance of plays recently – standouts include the beautifully conceived and staged Lorca classic The House of Bernarda Alba at TAPAC (featuring a well-rehearsed chorus of students from Western Springs College) and TAPE, a suspenseful and engaging drama by Stephen Belber presented by new independent theatre company Redmond Barry, which had a successful five-day run at K Rd’s Wine Cellar.
With Matariki rising in the sky, there’s also an exciting renaissance in Maori playwriting happening. A month or so ago I interviewed Renae Maihi – her play Nga Manurere is sure to become a classic – and tonight the Maori Playwrights Festival kicked off, in the unusual location of Hawkins Theatre in Papakura. It’s heartening to see a local theatre stepping up to showcase three Maori plays – one a classic (Purapurawhetu by Briar Grace-Smith), one by an emerging playwright (Te Kaupoi by Whiti Hereaka) and one new release (Raising the Titanics by Albert Belz, which premieres first at TAPAC this month).
Albert Belz (Ngati Porou, Nga Puhi, Ngati Pokai) has been a full time playwright and screenwriter since 2001 – a long time in a country which doesn’t always pay its writers well. He’s also one of the busiest playwrights in the country. At least during the time I’ve been regularly going, there always seems to be an Albert Belz play being read or performed or developed somewhere. I’ve long admired (and envied) Albert ’s work – for its poetic dissections of human nature and for its unflinching examinations of wounds in the NZ psyche, such as the 1981 Springbok tour and Maori-Pakeha relations. I talked to him about playwriting in general, his current role as Writer-in-residence at Waikato University and about Raising the Titanics.
Renee: How did you get the idea for Raising the Titanics?
Albert: Tainui (Tukiwaho), one of the Smackbang producers, turned up to my whare in Papakura and said he wanted to do a project on Billy T James, Prince Tui Teka and Sir Howard. After a lot of talk this evolved into the fictitious showband that is - The Titanics.
Renee: Did you have an interest in Maori showbands before?
Albert: Not a lot. I knew they had existed, and that Billy T, Prince Tui Teka and Sir H got their break in Showbands. I remember seeing old footage of the Sir h Quartet on T.V and that they had been a big deal once. It was only through research that I realised what a big deal they really were.
Renee: Was there a lot of drama surrounding the real-life bands? Diva behaviour and the like?
Albert: A lot of my research came from reading Mahora Peter’s book called "Showband", and from reading that – yes, there was plenty of drama. Probably similar to the stuff that goes on with bands today, less the hard-core drugs.
Renee: There was a bit of the dynastic element going on too wasn't there? Bands being formed with family members.
Albert: Mahora and her husband formed the Volcanics, along with her brother in law. Can't say I'm too familiar with any continuing dynasty going on with them. My feeling is that (with all due respect) it’s more the old fullas not wanting to lose what they love so much and continuing to play on.
Renee: This seems a bit of a departure from your last play, Whero's New Net. How do you choose what topics to tackle?
Albert: First of all I have to be interested in the topic, I'm well aware that projects can take up to three years before hitting the stage, longevity of interest is paramount I guess. Also I get easily bored. So something that is a departure from what I previously wrote and that poses different challenges also ticks the right boxes. But also I really enjoy working with Tainui and Charlie (Unwin) at Smackbang. So to work with old mates with safe producer’s hands is always a great incentive.
Renee: Do you write for particular actors as well?
Albert: I have in the past. But with Titanics this was going to be a little more difficult as we weren't sure whether it was going to be actors who could sing or singers who could act or...whatever. It was something entirely new. So, for this one - no.
Renee: This time you also work with a musical director.... what is that like?
Albert: I've kept quite some distance when it's come to the musical compositions etc. I did write lyrics for one of the songs and rewrote lyrics for another. I also wrote what tunes I thought would go well at different points to give the directors a feel of where I was coming from. But as I say, when it came to the music and the final musical choices, I've had little input. I'm well aware that with Raymond (Hawthorne) and John (Gibson) doing what they do best, the production is in good hands. Saw the run through of the first act last week and was blown away by their work!
Renee: How do you manage that delicate writer-producer-director relationship? Isn't it one of the hardest things to get right when it comes to making a play, especially when they also have "ownership" of the concept?
Albert: When it comes to theatre, I've been incredibly lucky and have had very few problems in this area. I like to think of myself as a reasonable person, though tend to drop out real early if things feel like we're on different planets with two separate visions.
Renee: How are you finding H-town? How's the Waikato residency going?
Albert: Loving Hamilton, loving being in the same town as my daughters, and the residency is going really well. Have been able to really focus on my writing.
Renee: Are you teaching as part of that?
Albert: No, though I have done a couple of guest lecture spots.
Renee: What are your ideal conditions for writing?
Albert: Early morning between 2-6am. No one or nothing about but a lap-top and a bunch of notes.
Renee:...and no internet? or rather, no one who's awake to talk to....
Renee: Same thing happens for me after about 1am…
Albert: The witching hour…..
Renee: ….though I should really just find somewhere with no internet connection.
Albert: That'd make life easier eh?
Renee: How did you start writing? Did you hit on plays immediately or was there a bit of exploring?
Albert: I was an actor, my first gig was on shorty street. I was frustrated by the scripts and writing looked easy, so I gave it a shot. It wasn't easy, but I enjoyed it. Theatre is something I stumbled across soon after that, and we've been bumping into each other ever since.
Renee: Would you say you have a "mission" or a "message" as a writer?
Albert: Not really. I write because I love story-telling. If anything I just want to entertain smart people.
Renee: So theatre is for smart people....
Albert: The theatre I write is for smart people.
Renee: What do you see as the main difference between writing for the stage and writing for the screen?
Albert: The term show more, tell less means a helluva lot more on screen. Otherwise the only other real difference is that the guy who tells the cameraman where to point the camera gets all the credit.
Renee: Hehe. What gives you more satisfaction? Theatre is transient - but the feedback is immediate. Screen can be replayed but it's not as immediately responsive.
Albert: Screen also pays a whoooole lot better, so there's a satisfaction in being able to pay one’s rent AND help pay for the girl’s school uniforms or sporting needs etc. But creatively, I find more satisfaction in theatre because the writer’s voice tends to be the most dominant in the process. With screen there's a lot more fingers in the creative muck right from the get go. There are good reasons for this, mostly financial, but it feels a lot less "owned" I guess.
Renee: Have most of your theatre ideas come from you? I notice you've been working on a lot of commissions in the last few years.
Albert: My last two commissions, Raising the Titanics, and another with capital E were initially ideas seeded by the producers. I was pretty much given total freedom to take that seed and run with it in whatever direction I felt. Other than this all the ideas have pretty much been mine.
Renee: What are your tips for surviving as a professional writer?
Albert: To write, write, rewrite and then write some more. Patience is also a very good thing as good theatre takes time and there can be plenty of downtime between drinks. Film and telly takes even longer!
Renee: Your subject matter has ranged widely, from Jack the Ripper to how the Springbok tour rips a family apart…. Do you identify particularly as a “Maori” playwright?
Albert: I hate labels. But if it'll get me my next commission, why the hell not.
Renee: Hehe… I get that SO well…
Albert: I reckon!
Renee: What are you working on at the moment?
Albert: I'm taking a break from theatre writing to figure out what will challenge me. Let's just say I'm working on a couple of new and fresh projects.