“Emerging from te whare tangata with rage and renaissance on our minds, the first works of Māori theatre spoke of resistance and worked as liberation.” — Dr Nicola Hyland. (Photo: Rebekah de Roo)

Māori theatre has always been about so much more than just putting on a good show, writes Dr Nicola Hyland, in this piece about the state of the contemporary Māori theatre scene.

Nicola (Te Atihaunui-a-Pāpārangi, Ngāti Hauti) is pūkenga mātua (senior lecturer) at the theatre and film school at Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University, Wellington.


“I will not let you colonise my tinana.” — Isaac Martyn (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa) BMI (2023)

Māori performance is an extrasensory experience. In te ao Māori, we feel stories across our senses and beyond the bounds of emotional categorisation. Embodied storytelling offers a bone-deep buzz, king-hit to the chest, thundering puku-roar encounter with time and space and humanity.

I judge an effective performance through these terms: I want to experience something that rushes from the liquid core of my pito, blasting light and spit and fire from my eyes, my nose, my mouth: tīhei mauri ora! I want to feel that energy exchange with my everything. I want to eat the stories.

When I think of the potential of live performance, it is mataora. It is raw life. This is not the same as the idea of “art as truth”, in the western sense, but is the stripping away of artifice itself: the way that feelings look when they aren’t held down inside and bound within with the rites and rights of everyday, acceptable, tow-the-line behaviour.

Having tino rangatiratanga over our performances means we get to stop “performing” in the colonisation show — that daily one where they watch us gently navigate around the things that make them feel slightly sorry for us, but not sorry enough, or angry enough, to react. When I make live performance, it is to pursue the collective experience of ngangahau: to be animated, to be filled with vitality and vigour — to splash the walls with my generational rage and joy.

“In kapa haka, we are constantly communicating secrets that they cannot decipher with their AI spyware.” Pictured: Taumata o Apanui, debuting at the Mātaatua regionals in February this year, led by Te Pāti Māori co-leader, Rawiri Waititi. (Supplied)

In their 2024 budget announcement, the coalition government has proffered $48.7 million to Te Matatini to continue to “deliver kapa haka to New Zealanders” — or to prevent kapa haka from falling down a “fiscal cliff”. Described by the Green Party as a mere sugar hit among paltry funding offerings for Māori overall, the implication is one of “Yes, and”. We cannot live by performance alone. We need pūtea for practical things — basic healthcare, warm houses, access to our own worlds of knowledge and language. And this is true. But performance is a practical thing.

We need to think about emphasising our value as Māori theatre-makers as doing more than just putting on a show. The Empire likes to keep us — watch us — dancing. But we are always doing so much more. We are talented wordsmiths and true poets of the body, but our performance also makes us harbingers and prophets. Stories tell us. Where we came from is where we are going: ka mua, ka muri. In kapa haka, we are constantly communicating secrets that they cannot decipher with their AI spyware. They can’t decode signs they don’t have the Wairua Guide for. They can’t feel feelings their own ancestors have not experienced.

Of course, we don’t live in a utopia where the arts are recognised as having reciprocal benefits. In other words, give pūtea to gain pūtea. As Jessica Palalagi, the general manager of the Arts Foundation, asks in a reflection of the recent All in for Arts hui: ”Would it be too much to ask that our government make genuine investment into a sector that, as we know from recent statistics, contributes $16.3 billion to GDP?”

We should be more than a little hōhā about the lack of real value that the government places on the mahi that ensures our national identity retains its cool-as cottage-core charm to the world. Where would those Air New Zealand safety videos be, without mining our creative quarries? How much longer can we keep supplying nice brown things on demand?

As Jessica Palalagi notes: “Creative New Zealand hasn’t had a meaningful increase in baseline government funding to support our creative sector since 2006.” This is the entire lifetime of rangatahi entering tertiary education, emerging as artists, now. What are their prospects?

Harry Dansey became the first published Māori playwright with his play Te Raukura: the feathers of the albatross (1972). He was the Race Relations Conciliator from 1975 to 1979. Pictured at Otāhuhu College in 1979. He died in November that year. (Auckland Libraries Reference: Footprints 00231 / Fairfax Media)

Our whakapapa guides us forward.

Contemporary Māori theatre has the kind of embedded history in Aotearoa that makes other First Nations folk thirsty. Emerging from te whare tangata with rage and renaissance on our minds, the first works of Māori theatre spoke of resistance and worked as liberation. Te Raukura nā Harry Dansey (1972), Death of the Land nā Rore Hapipi (1976), Maranga Mai (1979), In the Wilderness without a Hat (1985) nā Hone Tūwharethese were plays about re-negotiating our experiences with the past.

They were sparked by moments of activated outrage — responding to racist government policies, the disenfranchisement of whānau, the shutting down and shutting up of our ways of speaking and being and healing and educating. They were written during large-scale hīkoi, presented in communities, working from and speaking to mana motuhake. They were provocative and powerful acts of cultural conscience-raising, asking: “Does this spark something in you?”

I guess my wero is, if you want to bring folks together and magic them to feel something, anything, at a time where the government is tūtae-ing on our heads, maybe write a play about it?

We are grateful for the ongoing work of the “Three Ts”: Taki Rua, Tawata, Te Rakau o Te Wao Tapu — the pou of our theatrical whakapapa. We talk a lot (and teach a lot) of that second wave of work in the late 1990s: the epic, spine-shattering works of Briar Grace-Smith — Ngā Pou Wahine (1995), Purapurawhetū (1997) — and Hone Kouka — Ngā Tangata Toa (1994) and Waiora (1996) — as well as Apirana Taylor’s visceral Whaea Kairau–Mother Hundred Eater (1995), the baring of our teeth and souls on stage.

Ngā Pou Wahine by Briar Grace-Smith. Pictured here (far right) with Rachel House and Nancy Brunning. (Photo supplied)

The Depot Theatre in Alpha Street, Wellington, gave us a new way to make work on our terms, with the space imbued with the attributes and practices of marae, mostly because it just made good sense. Our intersections were celebrated. We saw Roma Pōtiki and He Ara Hou’s groundbreaking devised work Whatungārongāro (1991), casting the real stories of the disenfranchisement of urban Māori within an evocative spirit world of guardian manu.

Beyond this period, our tauira continue to also be transported and transformed by works like Strange Resting Places (2007), nā Rob Mokaraka and Paolo Rotundo, and what remains (2006) nā Mīria George, Awhi Tapu(2006) nā Albert Belz, Manawa (2012) nā Jamie McCaskill, and Cellfish (2019) nā Jason Te Kare, Miriama McDowell and Rob Mokaraka.

And it’s not just about teaching our theatrical whakapapa but re-animating it. Toi Whakaari is talking the decolonisation talk by presenting Helen Pearse-Otene and Te Rākau’s iconic Undertow plays, The Ragged and Dog and Bone, with their Rāranga acting cohort and third-year Arts Management and Design collaborators this year. Take that, crusty old canon!

We need to talk about how we are doing.

We should talk more about how we make our work, and if our rehearsal kaupapa are right for the world we live in today. Rangatahi are speaking up and challenging the ways we make our creative mahi, even in Māori theatre spaces. Some might say it’s woke, but the kids say it is wellbeing: it is hauora in practice, keeping our hinengaro, our tinana and our wairua safe.

This means a bit of shaking up of the hierarchies. I challenge our elders to listen to the young folks making mahi in these unsettled times. “This is the way” is not an answer we should continue to give when questioned about why we do things. There must be new ways of making and doing.

Introducing new processes can feel inefficient, but don’t good things take time? I recently created a new role in my production team: ngā whatu, the eyes. Western theatre might call this a “dramaturg”, but I have never liked that term; it sounds like a shit-show maker. For me, this recreated role fits our kaupapa better because we know how to feel with our eyes.

Imagine if our theatre processes were fully indigenised? Imagine if you didn’t have the ghosts of dead Europe breathing down your neck when you stand up to tell your own story? Imagine if we were held by our tūpuna all the time, and not only in the moment that we karakia, before throwing our culture back into the gym bag?

Forget Hamilton. Whakapaupakihi is a “visionary te reo Māori musical” and “the platform that contemporary Māori performance needs”. (Photo: Whakapaupakihi.com)

I want Māori theatre to be future-facing and fighting for it.

I’m excited about Whakapaupakihi, nā Ani-Piki Tuari, Tatana Tuari, Tame-Hoake Tuari, Hamiora Tuari. Whakapaupakihi was created with three intentions: “To remind everyone of how epic our ancestors and their stories are; to create the Māori Marvel for our children; to write and perform a musical work in our First Language, te reo Māori.” Resituating the pūrakau of the founding fathers of the Tairāwhiti iwi, this visionary te reo Māori musical is the platform that contemporary Māori performance needs. Forget Hamilton!

I’m excited by the mahi of Isaac Martyn. In his solo show, He Māori (2022), Martyn encapsulates his lived hybridity through fusing comedy and song with a melodic poetic voice. The show reminds us about all the different ways we are Māori, even when we gaslight ourselves that we are never Māori enough.

I was also fortunate to direct his solo piece BMI: Bad. Mōmona. Īhaks as part of the 2024 Ono season at the Tahi Festival of Solo Performance. Martyn makes Bertolt Brecht look like an amateur in the art of irony, but also manages to do that magic thing where we are simultaneously in the past, the present and future, laughing and keening:

When I run through te ngāhere, I imagine my tipuna weaving between the very same trees. On their haerenga from place to place — perhaps they cheer me on now. If they could sail the oceans, then surely I can run 5k at a record pace. But that which motivated my ancestors to navigate te Moana nui a Kiwa is absent in me. I don’t have the drive. They sought te whenua hou, I seek to fulfil the expectations of Crossfit influencers and TikTok deities.

“Maybe we’re just too talented to fit into the boxes?” The fierce whānau of Arawhata, one of the highlights from 2023.

I’m excited about the Kia Mau Festival (May 30 to June 14, 2025) bringing together tangata whenua, tangata moana and our Indigenous whānau from across the globe. This festival gets bigger and hotter every year. It’s both a wairua-exhausting and wairua-refuelling experience to witness the kete of talent on show here. It’s also a signal of our decolonising what “theatre” is that so much of this work transcends disciplinary boundaries. Maybe we’re just too talented to fit into the boxes? Highlights from 2023 included Sherilee Kāhui’s metamorphosising tale Mokomoko and the fierce whānau of Arawhata blitzing the ballrooms.

They’re also doing some really magical things in Tāmaki Makaurau. I’m so heart-full by the mahi being produced at Te Pou Theatre. What mad geniuses conceived Te Tangi a Te Tūī? And the Kōanga Festival — Leshgo! Te Pou are holding a much-needed space for intergenerational mahi, whakawhānaungatanga in action. We thrive in plurality.

“What mad geniuses conceived Te Tangi a te Tūī?”

I’m pretty biased (having supervised her PhD) but if you don’t check out the multiaward-winning mahi of Maraea Rakuraku, then you’ve not truly experienced the full force of mana wahine in performance. Feel the aroha too, for the story-weaving alchemy of Poata Alvie McKree, whose work will break and remake your heart.

I also want to celebrate the beautiful theatre ringawera making shows feel like home — like stage managing queen Parekawa Findlay or production mahi champions like Vanessa Imminck.

I want to shout out to those treading the boards in spaces that still make brown folks feel either like the token or the spiritual adviser. We’ve got your backs!

I want more Māori on the main stages — not just as a Matariki fill-your-cultural-cup-up special or a token box (office) tick. I want us to occupy these spaces and make them our own, not just for a short season, but as part of our daily feed.

And I want to see our whānau at these theatres. Over in Naarm/Melbourne, the Melbourne Theatre Company offers Blaktix: discounted tickets for those who identify as First Nation. That sounds like something we should have already championed here — eh, Circa, Court, Auckland Theatre Company? Those gilded ceilings belong to us too.

I want to see more Māori-devised work. I want to see more wahine toa stories, more stories from tangata irawhiti and tangata whaīkaha, work for tiny tamariki. I want to see more weird-as intermedial work. Work that weaves dance and data. Work that engages with our existing knowledges about climate change, social ecologies, and mental health. Work that delights in how amazing it is to be Māori.

I want to see more work that makes money and builds communities and warns and heals and breaks and rebuilds. We have too many gifts to give. But we invented manaakitanga, so what’s stopping us?

Let’s eat.


Nicola Hyland (Te Atihaunui-a-Pāpārangi and Ngāti Hauiti) is pouakorangi (programme director) at Te Whare Ngangahau–Theatre and Performance Studies at Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington. Nicola’s research investigates contemporary Māori performance and theatre, BIPOC performance and popular culture, and representations of emotion/affect in live and digital storytelling. Nicola has worked as a director, writer and devised performance practitioner in Aotearoa and Ahitereiria (Australia).

© E-Tangata, 2024

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