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Heading to the stage

The Graduate Studio was established in 2008 by NZ playwright and teacher Gary Henderson when he worked in the Department of Performing and Screen Arts at Unitec Institute of Technology.
Cath Harkins
Korina Tuahine
Cath Harkins and Korina Tuahine, members of the Graduate Writing Studio, tell us about its first production, a series of seven plays by six writers, collectively titled 'Out of Our Heads'.


Cath Harkins and Korina Tuahine are members of the Graduate Writing Studio, set up by Gary Henderson to support emerging theatre writers.  The group meets once a month, and have now embarked on their first production together – a series of seven plays by six writers, collectively titled Out of Our Heads.

Renee Liang interviewed Cath and Korina ahead of the show at The Basement in Auckland in early September.

How did you start writing?

Cath Harkins: I remember when I was in Standard 4 (yes, back in the eighties!), my mum was doing her Masters in Education and she came to my class to teach a 'module' she called Written Expression.  We all got to write stories and create books.  It was one of the best things I did at school.  It also helped me to get through the subject of English at high school without doing any work.  I just made up stories during exams and got top marks!! Haha!! Thanks Mum.

Korina Tuahine: I never even thought about writing a play until I sat down to write one. It was for a school assignment and I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed taking all the ideas that were floating around in my head and moulding them into a comprehensive story. At the time I wasn’t the most confident person and the thought of sharing my work scared me to death, but I also really needed people to hear it. I was very grateful when everyone laughed and cried in all the right places.

What's great about writing for the stage?

Cath: It's not great.  It’s hard!  From training as an actor the great thing is that I get to be all the characters, not just one.  And I don't have to do my hair or makeup before I become them. Or get out of my PJs even.

Korina: You may only have five boxes on the stage and yet you can set a story in a dug out in Gallipoli, or in a futuristic world, even a van or a boat. The set might be limited but your imagination can be as big as you want it to be. 

Tell me about the course you did with Gary Henderson. What was the best bit, and the most challenging?

Cath: The best bit was probably the workshops where directors and actors came and brought our work alive.  The most challenging was finding enough time to write, knowing what to write and how to write it.

Korina: Gary was one of my tutors at Unitec and I am very grateful to him for all his support and encouragement during that time. After graduation I joined Gary’s Graduate Writing Studio and without it I would have given up writing a long time ago, because as family and work commitments kick in it takes a lot of discipline to make yourself sit down at the end of a busy day and work through a challenging scene. So having a group of fellow writers coming together and sharing their work gives you inspiration to keep trying.

What tips would you have for other aspiring theatre writers?

Cath: Write, write write. If you want to get anything done, don't have kids. Go watch theatre, films, read. Swim in the sea, breathe, get out in the sun. Exercise. Drink lots of water. Be brave.

Korina: Just write. Sounds easy, but it’s harder than you think. There’s always something that gets in the way, whether it be external or internal, so use every trick you can find. Time management tips, affirmations on the wall, white boards, pictures, treat it like a job and make a ‘writing time’ in your calendar, say dialogue out loud, keep a notebook, record ideas on your phone, writing exercises, whatever it takes to get you to sit down and get that story out of your head and onto paper. Or book a theatre space first and then start writing, deadlines always get you working. 

How did you meet each other?

Cath: I met Korina when I started going to the Graduate Writing Studio which I did after completing Gary's Writing Course at Corbans (Estate Arts Centre) in 2013.  But funnily enough our kids met each other first, at gymnastics.

Korina: Quite a few of us had gone through Unitec over different years, but had all worked with Gary while we were there, while the rest of the group had graduated from Gary’s evening course. Although most of us hadn’t known each other beforehand, we all took the opportunity to join the Graduate Writing studio and take advantage of Gary’s experience and expertise, we couldn’t have asked for a better mentor.

How and why did you decide to do a season of your works?

Cath: It was a decision made at the Graduate Writing Studio. Can't remember if it was Gary's idea or not, but I definitely said yes lets!  I remember when I first started going to the Graduate Studio and seeing Korina Tuahine and Marie Moodle there (the only women I saw in the meetings at that point) and thinking these are great, talented women - they need to get their work on stage! So I'm really glad this season is going on and the world will get to see their work cos they are very talented and lovely. 

Korina: It was a group decision to do a season of works. We wanted to challenge ourselves and have something to work towards. I think at the time we thought that as a group all working together it was going to be relatively easy. Boy, have we learnt a few lessons! I know I’ve shed a few tears and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one, but what’s been really great is that this has truly been a collaboration where we’ve all worked really hard to get our plays off the page and onto the stage. 

Tell me about your play

Cath: It's called The King, The Queen and the Servant.  It's kind of set in Medieval times but the characters talk in modern voice. The town is beset by the Black plague and the Servant 'discovers' why - because of an immoral and corrupt King. I read that when the Black Plague happened, the people of that time thought they were being punished for being naughty, immoral etc. So it contains social class structure ideas and I think it's quite pertinent to our current times and events concerning the National Party and Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics. The rot at the top, so to speak and all that. And it's also a little silly! (I tried to put in some of my silly humour in as well.)  It's short as well, only about 17 minutes. A good play's a fast play!

Korina: I think we’ve put together a really great show. There’s something for everybody – comedy, drama and sci-fi, what more could you need?

Ashes and Mud - by Korina Tuahine
It’s 1915 and England is at war. As the world learns the true cost of glory, four young Maori from rural New Zealand will each pay their own price.

The King, the Queen and the Servant - by Cath Harkins
Something is rotten in the kingdom. The servant is on the look out, the King is ill and the Queen is desperate to reveal her secret.

Farewell to the Master - by Marie Moodie (based on a short story by Harry Bates)
Tortured and imprisoned as a museum exhibition, the alien robot stands guard over his fallen companion. Emily, an ambitious photo journalist, tries to expose the truth behind the story but an unlikely adversary stands in her way.

Rapunzel’s Enormous Problem - by James Russell
High in her designer tower, Rapunzel is utterly bored and fed up with royal life, captivity, day time television and insane rumours about an embarrassing hair growth condition. Now she has an enormous problem – Prince Philip.

Dumped - by Tracey Sharp
Leilani, a young Samoan girl, decides to break with tradition and date an Indian boy she works with – unfortunately she has neglected to tell her ex. The result is a love triangle with cultural complications, and each must decide where their loyalty lies.

The Sum of Us - by Anna Harding
Raised in a world of competitions and moral elitism, Ophelia's most important performance is the one she's least prepared for, as her natural mother and adoptive parents fight to keep hold of their daughter.

Adrift - by Anna Harding
Dragged from the sea, Lulu discovers a world that is twisted out of all recognition. While her delinquent rescuer, Maps, struggles to trust the only human she's encountered since her mother disappeared.

How did you work with the directors and actors to make this a reality?

Cath: I rang them up and asked them if they wanted to do it. They said yes, bless their cotton socks. And then I booked them some rehearsal space and said good luck!

Korina: I’m very grateful that I’ve found some very talented and enthusiastic people who all have the same ambition - to get my story onto the stage.

What are you planning to do next?

Cath: I have another play I'm working on, which is my epic family drama. And I also have another idea I cant wait to start! and then...who knows? Death? Alcoholism? A real job? The choices are endless.

Korina: We aim to make this a yearly show, which is really exciting. Next year we’re going to be that little bit more experienced and in five years’ time we’re going to be experts on collaborative shows!

About the Graduate Studio.

The Graduate Studio was established in 2008 by NZ playwright and teacher Gary Henderson when he worked in the Department of Performing and Screen Arts at Unitec Institute of Technology. It was a monthly meeting held at Unitec after hours, where writing graduates could stay in touch, read new work, and offer each other critiques and encouragement.

In 2012 the Graduate Studio moved to Corban Estate Arts Centre, where Henderson had set up a year long writing course - the Writing Theatre Evening Programme. These days, participants who successfully complete the Evening Programme are invited to join the Studio.

The Studio has evolved into a group of writers motivated to drive their own work on to the stage. Some of the group have been putting their work on independently for a number of years (Sam Brooks, Ben Anderson, Phil Ormsby), so in 2014 a new project has been initiated, where those newer writers who have not had work staged have collaborated to produce Out of our heads, a short season of their plays at the Basement Theatre, Auckland. Out of our heads features seven new plays, with a varied programme of three plays a night.

Participation in the Graduate Studio is by invitation only.

Written by

Renee Liang

3 Sep 2014

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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