While Europe and Africa host some of the most recently founded nations in the world, the countries from which they were established are often steeped in thousands of years of political turmoil. As one of the last land masses to be discovered, New Zealand’s much shorter history, while not without its own bloodshed, has resulted in not only a more comparatively moderate political spectrum, but also an arguably less politically-driven theatrical landscape. That’s not to say that New Zealand theatre is without a political punch, simply that there is a lack of cultural resonance when compared to the work of Moscow’s Teatr.doc or Scottish playwright Rona Munro’s The James Plays. Protest, however, is certainly a form of theatre, and from Hōne Heke and the Maori Land March to the Waterfront Dispute and the Springbok Tour, it is action with which New Zealand has an extensive history, most recently seen with the school and tertiary students’ climate change strikes in March and May.
While no specific social or political views or events catalysed the development of Massive Company’s latest work, Like a River, they were inevitably part of the discussion. Director Stef Fink, who joined the company in 2010 as a member of Massive Nui Ensemble and took part in the Director’s Lab 2016-17, notes that “the schools’ march, the Christchurch attacks, and abortion being made illegal in some US states have all been happening while we have been developing the work, and were definitely things that we talked about whether to include or not in the script. Some of them are mentioned, as the work is contemporary and reflects the current world, but some are so huge and began to become about issues not central to the theme of our show that we didn't feel it was right to just give them lip-service in the work.”
In response to creating the script, playwright Jo Randerson was “keen to get in around protest and agreement, which we do so much in New Zealand,” so set provocations for the Massive Nui Ensemble, from which the cast have come. Questions around beliefs, disagreement, communication, change, and freedom. “We were all interested to know how our young people were feeling and acting about protesting and disagreeing, from the big issues to the smaller,” says Sam Scott, founder and artistic director of Massive. “[The ensemble] responded to these initially over a group devising weekend. Jo then went away and began her work. Once she had the cast a few months later, she fine-tuned the characters etc. to reflect some of the casts own ideas and thoughts.”
If protest is about societal progression, and progressive ideas have long fuelled some of the world’s greatest artists, then there’s no ignoring the inherently left-wing, anti-establishment nature of art. But how do such artists accurately portray the perspectives against which they rail? For cast member Francesca Browne, it’s about “engaging with open ears, and the knowledge that the world is filled with different perspectives for a reason. I try not to get too caught up in my head when I'm portraying views I oppose. It's unproductive thinking really. Perpetuating the cycle of negative thinking doesn't achieve anything positive. I remember that stories are told from someone’s truth, that this character is a part of their truth and a vital part of this story.”
So is art a mirror to society, or a hammer for shaping it? “Both,” answers Browne. “I think artists have always been at the forefront of revolutions. By reflecting current events back at society, it can allow people to gain some outside perspective, therefore helping people to change it. But when you're in the middle of really ridiculous situations, it can be a struggle to see that. Igor Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring in 1913 and redefined 20th century music, and at the premiere people literally rioted at how disgusting they thought it was. But not only was he creating a musical revolution, he actually pulled the roots of his ballet from Russian Folk Music. He was just showing the bourgeoisie what their society looked like.”
It’s a sentiment echoed in Massive’s work, with alumni Villa Junior Lemanu recalling post-show forums while touring New Zealand. “Close friends would enter the show not knowing what to expect, laugh and cry in the audience, then later come up and tell me how the show had changed their attitudes towards things. It sparked a bit of hope and a bit of magic for them. I believe all art is capable of creating that magic.” While not as extreme as revolutionary Russia, it’s a result not unexpected. “Massive often works from provocations,” says Browne. “For me, acting and writing served as the perfect outlet to protest, using comedy to spark conversations about change that I indirectly started. By the end of my first year in the company, I was a completely different person. Now, I speak up. Now, I try and engage in discussions and understand why other people think the way they do. Now, I focus writing on making a point.”
Written by Jo Randerson and directed by Stef Fink, Like a River is presented by Massive and is playing at Basement Theatre from July 23 – 27. Starring Francesca Browne, Seto Ierome, Elsie Polosovai, Jasper Putt, and Sherry Zhang. Post-show forums will be held following Thursday and Friday’s performances. Click here for more details