and what remains by Mīria George
All of us have turning points in our lives, those moments where the beliefs we hold dear are not able to encompass an experience that is sent to change us. In these moments there is sometimes a choice, stick to the belief structure we have optimised for ourselves up until that point, or change.
Rare moments come along that bypass any choice. Working on ‘and what remains’ was one of these moments in my life.
In 2005 I had been working professionally as an actor for five years, playing a range of supporting players in English drawing room dramas, contemporary American plays, the odd Shakespeare, and the rite-of-passage kids shows. I’d evolved a view of myself as a technical actor, using physicality and accents to ‘transform’ myself into whatever the text demanded. At this time playing a New Zealander was more foreign to me than any of the above roles. Amazingly, due to my professional and personal experience up until that point, this felt coherent to me and not unusual in any way.
I met Hone and Mīria while playing Walter Sickert in the first workshop of Albert Belz play Yours Truly, a beautiful piece of writing that has gone on to have several excellent productions around the country. The kaupapa Tawata were progressing at that time appealed to me, a series of workshops of new work one after another, they moved fast and were committed to addressing the gaps they saw not only in the content that was being developed but also in the ways the work was being developed. This instinct was the genesis of Breaking Ground, their now internationally renowned Indigenous development festival.
The Yours Truly experience was a gateway for me into working on New Zealand writing, it was in my wheelhouse and I felt comfortable, I was playing an Englishman in a New Zealand play set in England. To be clear I was less comfortable with the fact the character was a serial killer, but I gave it a go.
On the last day of rehearsals Hone and Mīria gave me a brown envelope containing a script with a lower case ‘a’ leading out a three-word title. A new play written by Mīria and to be directed by Hone. A handwritten note said we’d like you to read ‘P’. The uncapitalized title and the stripped back nature of the text were signals of how specific this work was and the quality of the writing was the first thing that attracted me to the play. I soon learned that the ‘P’ stood for Pākehā. The other characters were Samoan, later Solomon; Gujarati Indian, later Ila; Iban Malaysian, later Anna; Māori, later Mary. Looking back, this was my first and only experience as an actor of being labelled by my ethnicity. As rehearsals progressed, I realised that this wasn’t new to any of the other cast members.
I remember in the first few days Hone got us all to sit in a chair and field questions about our character, as our character. This is a common rehearsal technique but, in this instance, I felt very exposed. This early on I had no choice but to represent myself and trust that it was enough. My character ‘P’ was still words on the page, and while he had a story, there was a much bigger story that we were all symbolising, and I was about to discover that my usual approach would not be adequate to embody this. There was no staying separate in this work. The play spoke of now and in order to get on board with it I needed to represent myself, but before I could do that I had to ask – and more importantly – answer some questions.
Later in the process we discussed our family histories and I soon learned that in this group my family were the most recent immigrants to Aotearoa. My parents came over from England on a boat in 1971. They often spoke with gratitude about the opportunities the move here afforded them. Up until that point I had only thought about this in terms of what they left behind, I knew I was better off being a kiwi and I accepted this uncritically.
After listening to the range of other experiences in this group, some immigrant stories, others from Tangata Whenua I was introduced to my own unexamined entitlement to live in Aotearoa. I knew about the events that drove Mīria to write this work, but they were peripheral to my own felt experience, I had an intellectual choice about whether to engage, that choice was not one others in this group had. In this room I had no choice but to engage deeply, it was expected, it was also unavoidable.
The core of this realisation changed me. I felt embarrassment, shame and bewilderment all at once. The experience was intensely uncomfortable. I was afraid and I wanted to justify myself – to say this isn’t me, I had thought of this, I am not ignorant. But of course, it was me, I hadn’t thought of this, and I was ignorant. I was introduced to a broader understanding of the world difference in that moment.
All of us came into that room with our own experience, we shared them in order to find a way to connect to a story that put forward a future where difference was ignored and actively discouraged. These moments were challenging and painful and this was felt. The magnitude of this feeling was immense, but it was always held with supreme grace by Hone and Mīria.
I remember a conversation I had with Semu Filipo on the way to the rehearsal room the next day, where I tried to apologise; to explain; to not have to feel this discomfort; to get some acknowledgement that it was as simple as I believed it was yesterday; but I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I ended up making zero sense. I remember a look of knowing connection from Semu and that was it, the discomfort was still there.
As rehearsals progressed, I learned to live with this feeling, the most immediate impact it had on me was to make me listen more and think before I spoke. But importantly, I felt trusted and supported to continue to be honest about my experience because in this microcosm of Aotearoa that we were creating, my character was there for a reason. I struggled with impulses to ignore the feeling of discomfort, to deny its existence, but the intensity of the support and the fearlessness of the others I was working with inspired me to stay with it.
This experience from 2005 has helped me navigate many situations in my life and work where it is important to acknowledge my background and place in our country, it doesn’t make these situations any less difficult but it gives me confidence that if I sit with the feelings they bring up and respond with respect it is possible to find a way forward.
The reaction to this play is one I will never forget. The reviews helped me contextualise my experience and begin to integrate it into my updating belief system. Reviewers who looked like me but forty years older attacked the play, its premise, and the writing. They made a choice not to engage, this was an intellectual choice. Had I not been part of the cast I may have reacted in the same way when I saw the play because that is a privilege of the experience some of us have.
I am so glad I was part of the cast.
In 2020 many of the concepts that this experience evokes for me have words that are commonly used every day on social media, in books, news sites, and in conversation. This language frames and holds conversations that are difficult, that require courage. Few of these words were being used in the mainstream media in 2005. I commend Mīria for her clarity of vision in writing this work. It is because of works like and what remains that these words are being used so commonly now, and that this conversation has progressed.
I am glad to be living proof that good writing can change lives.
Image Credit Matt Grace Photography