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Festival View: Hone Kouka

Tu - PIC CREDIT Aneta Ruth
Tu - PIC CREDIT Aneta Ruth
In the first of a series of special NZ International Arts Festival previews, Renee Liang interviews playwright Hone Kouka about his newest play Tu.


Renowned playwright Hone Kouka premieres his newest play Tu at the NZ International Arts Festival in March. In the first of a series of special Arts Festival previews, Renee Liang interviews Hone.


Hone Kouka is a giant in the NZ creative industry. As well as his multi award-winning plays which have been showcased at numerous festivals and toured overseas, he’s a short fiction writer, poet, children’s writer and actor, has published five books, and is an influential figure in film and TV, including a recent stint as Development Executive at the New Zealand Film Commission. He’s clearly a very busy man.

Last year Kouka’s first play in nearly seven years, I, George Nepia, premiered to rave reviews as part of the Real NZ Festival. It went on to win a swathe of awards at the prestigious Chapman Tripp theatre awards, including Best Production. Tu, following only a few months later, promises no less. Inspired by the classic Patricia Grace novel of the same name, Tu deals with war, love, redemption and whanau, set in 1940s Wellington, the battlefields of Monte Casino and post-war Te Tairawhiti on the East Coast. I asked Hone about the challenges of writing and staging Tu.

What are the challenges, as well as advantages, of staging a theatre piece in a marae? Why was Pipitea Marae chosen?

There are many challenges - the theatre has to be built. All elements are brought in: stage, seating, masking, truss on which the lighting and sound is rigged - this has created restrictions of its own - which is the major challenge. Our set is being built in Christchurch by Scenic Solutions so needs to be shipped to Wellington. Time is the next factor, since it is a festival there is always limited pack in time for any production.

The Festival suggested the Marae as the play is particularly attune to Pipitea Marae - 'Tu' can whakapapa directly to Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club who have been based at Pipitea Marae since WWII.

When you were adapting the novel, how closely did you work with Patricia Grace?

I didn't work with Pat at all. I sent through my notes of the direction I wanted to take and where I wanted to put the focus. That I was going to change character names and some of the story elements would change as drama needs to be more active than the fiction from the page.

She was invited to the Development Season here in Wellington but wanted to wait until there was a full production.

To have her trust gave me great confidence and she is very aware due to her involvement in the screenplay for another one of her novels Cousins that drama will change some writing structures. I am privileged to have her allow me to work on this piece.

Adapting a novel for the stage would have meant you have to choose one or two story threads to highlight over the others. Was doing this easy? Do you take the 'theatricality' of certain characters or story-lines into account?

This play is "inspired" by the novel and is not an adaptation - as mentioned before there are story and character changes. One of the major changes is that in the novel a major part of it is set in Cassino, the majority of Tu the stage version, is set in Wellington. My focus was set squarely upon the brothers and also I wanted to lift the female characters and give them more space.

I also changed one of the characters from being Pakeha to being Maori, as I wanted an entirely Maori cast.

What was the process of developing the play, from when the idea was first floated?

The play was first sketched out in 2008, with Development Seasons taking place in 2010 and 2011. Cast members of the 2008 sketching still remain in the cast to this day - so there is a depth and maturity in the understanding of our characters and story.

Do you have any future plans for the play?

With Tawata Productions we work to ensure that all of our stage plays have more than one season. We are at present talking and negotiating with potential presenters.

You've had five plays showcased at the International Arts Festival. What in your experience are the main advantages of premiering a new work at the Festival?

The advantage is that it gives us the opportunity to put our work in front of international festival producers and presenters. It also allows us the opportunity to stand our work alongside international productions.

Networking opportunities are key - forming new international relationships and strengthening current relationships are all advantages in a Festival. Waiora is a good example of this – after premiering Waiora in the 1996 festival, it was programmed for the Brighton Festival (UK).

Futher information

Tu is at Pipitea Marae from 1 to 7 March

Art Talk Live Stream: Catch Hone Kouka's art talk on Wednesday 29 February, 1pm, at the TelstraClear Festival Club on Wellington’s Waterfront or watch the live stream on The Big Idea's Facebook via the NZ International Arts Festival.

The 2012 New Zealand International Arts Festival is on in Wellington from 24 February – 18 March.

Written by

Renee Liang

23 Feb 2012

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.

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