He Reo Aroha by Jamie McCaskill & Mīria George
I got noticed by Tawata Productions as a lighting designer during a show written by Sopa Enari called Who’s Poppin? where I played with using minimal light sources. I was ‘green’ as far as a lighting designer and I didn’t have the technical nouse but I was trying new things, honing an aesthetic and learning to use lights to enhance a story.
In 2009 I was emailed by Tawata asking if I’d be interested in designing and operating lights for a two-hander musical love story called ‘He Reo Aroha’, co-written by Mīria George and Jamie McCaskill, as part of Planet IndigenUS Festival, Toronto. I rubbed my eyes, re-read the email… twice, logged out, logged back in and realised I wasn’t dreaming.
This offer came because the previous lighting designer was unable to make the Toronto tour. Was I sad for him… yes… and no. This designer had worked on ‘He Reo Aroha’ in the early stages and his reputation made me a little nervous to say yes. I think of replacing a practitioner a little like a tattoo redo. They have initiated their design and presence on the show and then you have to come in, make relationships they have already forged and try to make your own mark, not better but different.
That’s what amazed me about these creatives, they didn’t ask me to generate the same or similar design, none of that all too familiar ‘call for innovation’ that belies ‘what we really want is exactly the same but by somebody else.’ They were interested in me, what I had to say, my ideas, and it came from such a place of trust because I was an emerging artist searching for mentorship, I didn’t have a massive portfolio to display. They just took my hand and said “let’s go share our story, our values, our culture and meet some Indigenous artists in Toronto.” Wow!
He Reo Aroha was so many firsts for me:
- Attending an Indigenous theatre festival
- Working internationally
- Designing a show that had been previously lit by another designer
- Having writers present on tour
- Actors playing multiple roles including cross-gender acting
- A simplistic set that converted into a multitude of props
- Meeting Jamie McCaskill and Kali Kopae
Working in Toronto was an eye-opening experience, I had not been exposed to such efficiency and adherence to Health and Safety. The festival artists and patrons were so warm and welcoming a part of me actually felt at home. The Harbourfront Centre’s theatre inventory was impressive, including a cyclorama and the technical support was incredible. When you are someone like me that tries hard to understand technical stuff but your mind just doesn’t go there, you have an insane amount of freedom to create, make mistakes and breathe, when you have technical support who are kind and open to your failings because hey they got it covered.
I was not a big fan of colour in my lighting designs, I loved using open white, full CT blue and half CT orange. I didn’t like doing washes, I preferred light skimming the body rather than fully lit. I liked shadow, I liked the dark spaces. But He Reo Aroha called out for colour. I didn’t have a set to carve up the stage, to bounce light off, incorporate my go-to splashes and slashes of light. The set consisted of two wooden chairs, a ukulele, two guitars on stands and a mic. I had nowhere to hide.
Touring taught me to work efficiently because you don’t have the luxury of time on tour. You have to build actor confidence very quickly, especially with lights because they never get a chance to see themselves lit or what mood you are trying to create around their performances.
I got the opportunity to watch two real life lovers play long lost lovers. I admired their comedic timing and musicality. Hearing any musician live is an experience you will never find on a recording. Jamie and Kali taught me to appreciate the natural ability actors have to draw you in to their characters’ world, even when they are using seats as a boat and a guitar as an outboard motor.
From Toronto He Reo Aroha continued to tour. Special mention to the Dreaming Festival in Queensland where I learnt that being asked “What mob you from?” was not an insult but a genuine question of whakapapa. That festival patrons coming and going in the middle of your show is just how it is, as is being offered pizza while you are sitting at the operating desk. That festival taught me to chill out and be more free flowing.
We performed in Christchurch post-Earthquake and during a show we experienced an aftershock which came at the precise time Kali delivered the line “Whoa that was freaky bro!” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and looked at Mīria operating sound, and we both decided that if the locals ain’t vacating then we should be all good. It was humbling to be in Christchurch at that time.
We also toured He Reo Aroha with Maisey Rika and her band. She gave me my first autographed CD. Her talented band spoke so highly of her vocal ability and I was in awe of her voice.
There is something special about a diverse group of creatives that truly want to collaborate, want you to succeed and set you up for that success, have a faith and respect for you that in the early stages not yet earned, who challenge your decisions not to second guess you but to elicit honesty, who give you the freedom to express yourself and become friends for life. That was what He Reo Aroha did for me. I will be forever grateful and hold the fondest memories of a time, early in my theatre career, that was unexpected, came to me when I had lost my way, had a kaupapa that was so refreshing, and people jam packed with aroha.
Image by Matt Grace Photography