KARENA LETHAM

Henare Waitoa

Ngā Whakaaro Huritāo ō Henare

The sun rises over the urupā in Tikitiki – East Coast, North Island. The grass is covered in dew, the air is cold and Rāhui Marae is slowly being revealed by the sun as a small group gather outside to kick start the day. It’s a Tuesday morning in September and some, not all, of the Henare team are ready for … bootcamp – some turned up late and definitely regretted it.

Like above, the Henare process was not without surprises – cancelled flights, surprise location airport landings, spontaneous road trips, extended periods of wall acting and daily visits from the neighbouring cow to name a few. But ultimately, we delivered a theatre show in many traditional ways. What do I mean by this? We had actors live onstage, we had an audience, we had a script with a story and technical cues – we had all the components that comprise a classic theatre show. And yet, I would say, it was equal parts a standard process mixed with a completely non-standard process. I truly believe that the way in which we created Henare, was what led this to be one of the most fulfilling projects of my career.

In a rehearsal room we often acknowledge our kaitiaki, our whānau and our past experiences as all attributing to who we are right now, how we are right now and why we are right now. With Henare, we didn’t just acknowledge these things, they were the absolute foundation of this work. This was telling a whānau story – one moko set out to tell the story of his Koro. One moko became three and the production Henare V1 was born.

Whilst our time together as a production team was short – only a month all up – of course Henare had been in the making for a long time. We started in Christchurch on the most amazing spring day and we just spent time together. We didn’t do a read through, we didn’t talk about timelines and settings etc. We just spent time together. We talked about what brought each of us to that point in time. We caught up on what each person had been up to recently and then Hōhepa shared why he was presenting this work. I got to sit and listen as stories of Henare Waitoa were shared, as whakapapa and chronology were worked out and as songs were sung – my first glimpse into who this man was, where he came from and what inspired him. It was in these moments that I knew this was going to a unique process and that got me excited. We didn’t have a script in the rehearsal room for the first week. Instead, Hone decided to remove the script and use the waiata as the pou of our story telling. To decide on the songs to be used and the context of them was our “way in” to telling this story and allowed us to achieve a couple of things. Firstly, the story sunk into our bodies without the complication of words – we learnt the arc of the story and the points we had to hit without worrying about the specific text that was going to get us there. Secondly, it allowed for clarity and purpose to remain at the forefront of building the work – it wasn’t about having a script with scenes and words, instead it was about sharing a beloved Koro with the audience in the way that felt the truest and most satisfying to the performers and playwright – and I strongly believe, in turn, to the audience too.

The real gem, the part I treasure the most, of this work was our time in Tikitiki – Rāhui Marae. What an absolute honour and privilege it was to share that time and space – to be on the whenua of Henare, to visit his home and meet more of his relatives. If an outsider was to observe our days there, they could be forgiven for thinking we had gone home for a holiday. I think in some ways we had. We had definitely come to be intentional in a space that was the centre of our story and the centre of the whānau who told it. And whilst our days were filled with visiting relatives in the several urupā, gathering around the kāuta table with extended whānau laughing, sharing stories, learning and solving the world’s problems, watching buffering streams of the Rugby World Cup on a 5-inch screen and a fair amount of eating, we never stopped working. These encounters were so informative to the show we were making, how we wanted to make it and why we wanted to make it.

And the payoff was one of the most spine tingling and emotional experiences of my life – one I am not sure I can do justice with words. It was poignant. And it reminded me that our audiences can teach us and share with us just as much as we do with them – the purest form of collaboration.

The windows are blacked out, the stage is set, the whare kai is filled with perfectly lined chairs, the fluoros are on, the actors are pacing and the smell of fry bread is wafting from the kāuta – it must be show time.

Images Credits by Mīria George & Strike Photography


Henare by Hōhepa Waitoa, World Premiere Season 04 October 2019, Rāhui Marae, Tikitiki, Te Tairāwhiti.

Karena Letham has been a freelance stage manager in Aotearoa since graduating Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School in 2012. She loves being able to travel and work with so many different people when creating epic work with epic humans.