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Cultural Storytellers: Renae Maihi

Renae Maihi
Renee Liang wonders how to gain the skills you need as an emerging artist, puts in a plug fo


Renee Liang wonders how to gain the skills you need as an emerging artist, puts in a plug for the new Emerging Artist’s Forum, and interviews Renae Maihi, an emerging female Maori playwright.

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One of the things I really love about being part of the arts community in Auckland is the access.  It’s small, everyone talks to each other, everyone knows everyone else… so it was only a matter of time before I was introduced to another Renae. And she’s also a playwright!  But before I move onto the main part of this blog (Renee interviewing Renae), I want to indulge myself a little. 

I use the word indulge because chatting with other emerging artists, sharing experiences and tips, really cannot be classed as work.  But it’s an important part of building a career I think.  Depending on how it’s done, it goes beyond the self interest of networking, it’s about finding common strengths and building a real community – exactly what The Big Idea is all about. 

When artists get together and talk, they start examining common ideas – of what it is to be ‘an artist’, how to behave ‘professionally’, how much we are ‘worth’, what our current place in society is.  For emerging artists, there are more basic starting problems, and I’ve noticed they come up no matter what the discipline is.  Things like exposure. Finding an audience. Dealing with agents. Working with producers. Finding funds…. and you begin to see, each of these topics could take days and weeks to nut out, and the ground shifts all the time.  Talking to each other is one way to keep up with the ideas and support each other.  So all those tax deductable coffees and facebooking and online chats... don’t feel guilty, they’re part of your professional development. 

And here is where I put in a small plug for something I’ve recently become part of… a place for emerging artists to discuss all those common ‘issues’, face to face.  It’s called the Emerging Artists Forum, very simply a regular (we’ll try monthly) gathering, with rotating venues and topics to be decided at the previous meeting.  The format is a round table discussion.  No formal speakers, just a few of our peers to lead the discussion and everyone gets to jump in, whatever, whenever.  The exciting part is that it’s across disciplines, so information and ideas get passed from one peer to another, outside of the circle they usually frequent.  Some of those ideas are written down to circulate among the group. And yes.. you got it… the idea is… building common strength. And community.  And since it’s just something some of us put together on a whim there’s no cost involved, just your time. Chuck in a comment or email me if you want to join, or just show up to the Satellite gallery in K’rd at 2 pm on Sunday May 9th, that’s when the next one is.
But anyway. Back to Renae. One very amazing and talented woman determined to tell all the stories she wants to hear (and there are many).  Her play Nga Manurere, amazingly only her first full-length play and already highly praised, opens in a couple of weeks at TAPAC. After we met and spent a couple of (indulgent) hours nerding out as writers, she asked me to introduce her with this Maori proverb:

Ki te hamama popoia te tangata, e kore e mau te ika. 

If a man spends his nights yawning, he will not catch any fish. 

Renee: What inspired you to start writing?

Renae: Writing has always been a part of my life. It was never something that I started, rather something that naturally came to me as soon as I could hold a pen. It was a place where the only things that mattered were me, the page and our maker. A place where I could privately express how I felt about life in the form of poetry, prose and song writing on my faithful guitar.

Stories were all around me. I grew up in a time in South Auckland when life was full of both hardship and joy, kids were growing up well before they should have and the south Auckland rapist was prowling our streets. You needed an escapism. Creativity was that escapism for me. When I was 20 I was fortunate to meet an artist called Serene Tay. With a nearly 2 year old son in tow she encouraged me to join a performing arts degree at Te Wananga o Aotearoa. I wanted to be an actor.

I then spent the next 3 years studying dance, music and majoring in Acting. It was during this time that, due to the limited resources, we acting students had to create our own work. I wrote a few things during my time at "the wa" as we called it and discovered that, along with acting, I had a desire to write.

After I graduated I did a few professional plays as an actress but realised that there was barely any work for Maori actress' in Auckland.

I then decided to write the story, my story, my fellow solo mums story, the story that had been tapping on my shoulder for years. So I did.  And Nga Manurere was born.  It came out of a personal desire to work as an actor and share my experience.

Thanks to Jenni Heka tapping me on the shoulder and telling me to enter it into the Matariki playwrights 08 my first play was underway with the assistance of the amazing Waimihi Hotere as dramaturge. 

Renee: Who are the writers you most admire?

Renae: Easy. Briar Grace-Smith, Kath Akuhata Brown, Riwia Brown and Tim Balme. I first saw Briars play Purapurawhetu when I was 16 years old. I was a drama student at Epsom girls and our teacher took us along to watch it. I remember thinking, "this is where I want to be, I want to be in the theatre". At the time I was just focused on acting but thank goodness for diversification!

I had the opportunity to work with Briar, Kath and Riwia in 09. They are all such beautiful, humble, talented and caring wahine. Kath took me under her wing and taught me so much about writing for TV. She always came with an open heart and knowledge to boot. She taught me how to story line for tv, a skill that I had no idea of prior to working with her. Riwia always felt so familiar to me. Like an aunty.

I remember thinking at the time, this is the women who wrote Once Were Warriors the screenplay and I am working with her. Thank you universe. What young writer wouldn't have killed (or maybe maimed) to have been in this room. I met Tim Balme through his wife Katie Wolfe who I studied Maori with. The visionary Katie was like a big sister to me and taught me so many things about theatre craft. She is a director who makes beautiful art on stage.

What I admire about Tim is he said to me "A writers instincts are usually right". It is something that has stuck with me. When developing work you often work with many opinions. The trick is to know that you must always serve the kaupapa. It's not about you, or me, it's about the work. You can take opinions but always know that if something doesn't sit right with you, the writer, go with that instinct. 

Renee: What drives you to tell the stories you tell? 

Renae: Life.  

Renee:  Nga Manurere has been through several development processes and seasons.  Does it change from season to season?  How much does audience response change your work?

Renae: Nga Manurere has had one season last year (09) and the initial development was done alongside Waimihi. Once we got funding from Creative NZ Katie and I developed the script and worked hard to make sure the structure was right and the journey served our story, characters, storytellers and audience.

Development is an interesting word for me in terms of story telling. At what point do you say "this is it". Fortunately we have another season, where under the beautiful, inquisitive direction of Rachel House we can further explore the themes, characters and story. We are blessed with more resources, thanks to CNZ, and more time to delve into the relationships and character arcs.

After this season the play will be set in stone and published and no further development from my part will take place. I look forward to seeing the audience response in our upcoming season which is the first season of a play for Ngati Productions run by actor/producer extraordinaire Nicola Kawana. 

Renee:  What new directions would you like to see in the stories being told in NZ (on film, TV and in theatre?)

Renae: I can't really tell people how to tell their stories. I believe that a story from the heart always sings to the people they are singing to. I would like to see more wahine stories. I feel that it is a voice that is not often enough heard. I plan on writing in theatre, tv and film in future and celebrating this unique yet universal korero. 

Renee: How much of yourself do you put into your characters? (and on a related note, how much do they reflect real life?)

Renae: There is always a part of me in every story and character that I create. I don't feel I have the right at my age and level of experience to do otherwise. And why rip off my audience with words that smack false.

In terms of Nga Manurere, I am, know, understand, have lived, breathed, loved, befriended, disagreed, celebrated, questioned and inhaled every one of those women that I have created. The dear old Uncle Rongo who is the Poutokomanawa (look it up) of the play is my uncle and koro. The young Morehu, is my understanding of what it is to be left behind. I would never write what I didn't understand on a heart level. As Stanislavski said "life imitates art". 

Renee: What's next for you?

Renae: One more play on the burner. I am writing it now. It is called Patua. Patua, to strike, to be struck, to strike against those who have struck you. To strike wairua, tinana, hinengaro, whanau. Spirit, body, mind, family. That's all I'll tell you about that. I also have a few acting jobs on offer in theatre and film so will go with that, few writing opportunities on the burn and life at home with my son Dallas so it's all looking good for the 2010. Thank you universe. The struggle is slowly paying off. All in the name of art. Why else would we do it?

Written by

Renee Liang

28 Apr 2010

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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