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No. 33 (December 1960)
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PRODUCING THE MAORI
IN RADIO DRAMA

Chief Producer, New Zealand Broadcasting Service.

The voice of the Maori has been sadly silent in our theatre. But then, the New Zealand professional theatre is only now finding its feet. A close relative of the living theatre, Radio Drama has grown up in England and elsewhere in the comparatively short period of forty years, and a properly organised Productions Section in the N.Z.B.S. has been in existence for a little over half that time. On the other hand, Maori culture and lore echo over centuries of time; and, indeed, much has been heard from the Maori on the air, in his natural climate of oratory, ceremony and music. But why … and I have been asked the question many times … why has he not been represented more often in Pakeha radio drama?

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Elizabeth Rehu. (Photo Franz, Dunedin).

Putting aside the obvious limited casting opportunities provided in the drama of other countries through colour of voice and skin, I suggest that the whole conception of our dramatic craft, with its blending of emotion and technique, is foreign to the Maori. What he does in ceremony, he does naturally and spontaneously, as night follows day—largely through instinct and emotion. He possibly finds the process whereby a performance is forged through a technique calculated to produce the illusion of spontaneity—confusing and outside his thinking. I wonder if I'm right when I say that it is only by helping him to adapt himself to these methods that we can present him side by side with the Pakeha in our live theatre, and radio drama? I think so.

You see, a vicious circle arises too, because writers, knowing these difficulties, have, I suspect, been diffident about placing the Maori in Pakeha drama. If dramatic writing is to mirror the nature of our New Zealand social structure, then the Maori should be represented in it. It is all so very complex. The mysteries and subtleties of the non-visual medium merely add to the complexity.

I was more than conscious of these difficulties when I began casting for my production of Bruce Mason's “The Pohutukawa Tree.” In this I had sympathetic and willing assistance and advice from many people—the Rev. Kingi Ihaka of the Church of England, and Mr William Ngata of Maori Affairs—to name only two. Later on, the question of the interpretation of the waiata, Sir Eruera Tirikatene willingly and most graciously gave us the benefit of his wide experience and scholarship. Most of the applicants for parts were people who had never appeared on the stage—let alone before a microphone. Auditions were also taken by tape-recording in other centres. It is significant that the successful principals had actually acquired some stage experience. Elizabeth Rehu is President of the Palmerston (North Otago) Drama Club and Hiria Moffatt was with the New Zealand Players. I am convinced that these roles could not have been handled by Maoris who did not possess basic dramatic experience.

However, I entered on the production knowing that a great deal of responsibility rested on my

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shoulders to compensate for their unfamiliarity with the technique of radio. I was mindful, too, that many, many, good Pakeha stage actors never really settle down to Radio technique—even after years at it.

I was lucky! How magnificently these two people “took their coats off” and worked as long and as hard as I wanted! The part of Aroha, particularly, calls for consummate acting skill and sheer hard work. Elizabeth was outstanding in this. There is a point in the play when the staggering truth dawns on Aroha that her daughter is pregnant. This demands—in the non-visual medium—the most delicate timing and shades of vocal intonation. We worked and worked at it to get it right. Elizabeth Rehu felt she couldn't “take any more.” She said—“Just a minute,” and walked quietly out to the little kitchen behind the studio. She was obviously quite suddenly—exhausted. In a few minutes she was facing the microphone—shoulders back, head erect, ready to start again. We laughed about it afterwards, but it was a moment during our work together that I felt the greatest admiration for her.

I have told this story because it shows that it can be done. It may be a slow development, but the more Elizabeth Rehus and Hiria Moffatts we can find, the more, I feel sure, our writers will gradually feel confident in writing for them, as Mr Mason has done, and the more the Maori will be able to take his rightful place in New Zealand radio drama.