AHI KARUNAHARAN

Breaking Ground

My family left Sri Lanka and moved to Aotearoa in 1990. We lived in Newlands, the progressive suburb. Nothing much had really progressed in the years that I lived there except for the sign that welcomed us. A green Mana coach would drive through Ngauranga gorge and take you into the city. We moved here to New Zealand because of the Civil War that broke out in my home country. Our libraries back home were burnt down and much of our literature gone forever. Since moving here, I have always believed that writing was important, it was important for our national identity as we were denied ours.

Tawata had developed and produced my first work The Mourning After as a writer. It was a play that explored the idea of loss as an inheritance. As well as having my debut work developed by the company, I had worked on various Tawata shows and developed my production capacity with them. Our office was situated in a cozy space at Toi Pōneke. Adorned with tapa cloth, carvings, artworks and a shelf filled with some of this country’s extraordinary writers and taonga gifted from Tawata’s international travels. In those early days of Tawata, our office team was just the three of us. Mīria, Hone and myself. The trio. The Three Amigos. In reflection we were Harry, Hermione and Ron. Mīria was definitely the Harry of us three and at times also Hermione. I’d come by on a project by project basis.

When I got the invitation to come work on Tawata’s latest initiative,  Breaking Ground (formerly Matariki Development Festival or MDF as we called it in the office) without hesitation I said yes. A reunion of the Three Musketeers. Hone was going to be one of the writers of the festival and was workshopping his latest new work I, George Nepia, therefore it was just Mīria and I holding the fort. A dynamic double act.  

In subsequent years our production team had to grow as the festival too progressed.

I’m going to focus on 2011. In this second year of the festival we presented three new works from Aotearoa. Taikaha by Hinekaa Mako I, George Nepia by Hone Kouka and Manawa by Jamie McCaskill. We also presented works from First Nation artists The Hours That Remain by Keith Barker and Ham and The Ram by Yvette Nolan. Yvette had come all the way from Canada and her smooth, sultry Canadian accent could even make a parking fine read like poetry. On her last day of the festival with us she gave us all bottles of Maple Syrup. The only other time I felt that much joy is when I would get the go-ahead to save a production schedule as a pdf. It meant that the unknown was now confirmed, it could be locked down. It was fixed but just like the writers of the festival, I too was modifying my plans.

A couple of days before I was due to start working on the festival, my laptop conked out.  My old laptop in storage weighed a tonne, it had a battery life of one hour and would randomly freeze on me. Luckily Tawata had a spare laptop that they loaned me for the gig. It was identical to Hone’s laptop which meant we’d often mistakenly take the wrong laptop. Much like the writing process, the work of a production manager for a festival is very much in solitude.  I wrestled with excel documents. Learned how to turn word docs into pdfs and pdfs into word docs, made schedules, reached out to cast actors, confirmed dramaturgs, sent out contracts, organised kai, stocked up on the Tawata supplies bag, bought coffee (lots of it) and liaised with the venue and prepared the office for the move down to Circa Theatre where we would be based for the week of the festival. Each day our writers would go home to re-write and email through their rewrites to be printed. I set up a cut off time for writers to send in their scripts so that either myself or Mīria could dash across town to print them off ahead of the workshop. Writers would desperately message us requesting additional time (literally minutes) before sending their latest scripts, and like a midwife we’d wait in anticipation to see what gold will appear in the inbox. I’ve seen the wrong file attached, no files attached, no page numbers to some of the greatest plays I’ve read. 

The staff at the Warehouse Stationery and Riegers knew me by name after the first few days of seeing me come in twice a day everyday to do the printing. They probably thought I had a crush on one of the staff members (FYI, I didn’t) and was making excuses to turn up. Some scripts we printed off ourselves from our tiny office printer that we had set up in the restaurant part of Circa Theatre. Some days it would be a mad dash from Circa to across the town with a USB in hand (yes! In those days they let us give them USBs) to get the latest iteration to the hot hands of the actors. The script would still be warm.  

On the first day of the festival, I caught my green Mana coach from Newlands to Courtney Place. Passing the progressive suburb sign, running through my to-do checklist making sure that I hadn’t forgotten everything for the mihi whakatau that kicks off the festival.  As the time approached for the mihi whakatu, one by one writers, dramaturgs, actors started to arrive. I was in awe, I was starstruck but I was also trying to play it cool. Many of the artists that I had studied in uni were in the same theatre as me. I had seen Briar Grace-Smith’s Purapurawhetu with Nancy Brunning three times, Apirana Taylor’s Whaea Kairau: Mother Hundred Eater at Otago Museum, then there was Taungaroa Emile and Jarod Rawiri who I had seen in The Prophet and a whole heap of incredible artists. Whilst the actors and writers go into workshops, Mīria and I would head back to our pop up office. We could see the white capital T from around the corner standing strong like a totara. Taungaroa (also fondly called T by the ‘anau) would always joke that it was his personal signage to indicate his presence in the house (his presence during the festival in those early was invaluable). Mīria and I made him write for the Monologue Season which was part of the festival when he had popped into the office – and that became a thing. We’d shoulder tap newbies to write monologues. Anyone who would pop into our office was a possible writer. In between replying to emails, filling up the coffee plungers for our sleep-deprived writers, scouting for new talent to develop, we three would reflect on how unique this yearly reunion of writers and creatives are.

Many of this country’s multi-award winning plays such as The Prospect by Maraea Rakuraku, Hui by Mitch Tawhi Thomas, I, George Nepia by Hone Kouka, Manawa by Jamie McCaskill, 2080 by Aroha White and Hīkoi by Nancy Brunning to name a few had their first flight at Breaking Ground and as I reflect, its been an honor to stoke those home fires, and be part of this international Indigenous festival.

Image Credits Aneta Pond & Julie Zhu


Breaking Ground (aka Matariki Development Festival) was first presented on 22 June 2010, Circa Theatre, Wellington.

Ahi Karunaharan is a multi-award-winning actor, writer, director, dramaturge and musician for stage and screen. A graduate of Victoria University of Wellington and Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School, he is interested in works that sit outside of the mainstream and amplifying the voices of those we don’t hear often.