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Paul Maunder's blog

Notes for a play

A play about the land? It’s a tricky subject. Whenua and Gaia of course, but land is mainly about money and subdivision: DP4/ Lot 78, rates, fences, mortgages, interest, investment, capital, farms, suburbs, factories, roads, warehouses – even google needs land. And then there’s colonisation and the planting of the flag. Most wars are fought over land.

Land’s at the heart of the financial system.

Would it be wiser to treat it scientifically, as a matter of chemistry and geology – planet earth and the accident of life-giving water. All those geological eras: millions of years of plates grinding, heat, pressure, upthrust, erosion, rivers and glaciers…

How do you make a play about all this?

The original impulse was to tackle dairy farming, but that immediately involved the land:  factory production, may as well have the cows in barns except for the clean green image; the Chinese start coming into it, water bottlers as well, mining of course, climate change, too much nitrogen, tangatawhenua and tiriti issues…

And then there are the national parks and the conservation estate. Lock it up and drop poison on predators, let the tourists tramp or bike through taking their photos; be careful about the number of helicopter concessions, freedom campers, adventure tourism… another commodity.

Trying to do a play about the land takes one to the heart of alienation. We’ve detoured to look at Hamlet and Waiting for Godot. And seriously considered Gaza as a location – there’s a land imposed upon. Prisons need land. Mental hospitals as well in the past, but now chemicals do the job of restraining…

The slow plod of the cow off to milking, the farm worker on the quad bike – could be a Filipino (or a Palestinian). And then the latest threat, Mycoplasma virus. Impossible to stop the cows moving around. They move around a lot it seems. Like bees. Nothing’s still. My grandparents had thirty cows which provided a living. It was a time when people stayed still, unless the Great Depression forced you to swag along the back roads in search of tucker.

It’s perhaps ridiculous doing a play about the land? We should do a musical instead, Grease or something with young girls dancing, that drags in the punters. Or cowboys thundering across the prairie.

That first Maori play, Rowley Habib’s Death of the Land. I played the Pakeha judge a couple of times. The awa, the maunga. Identity. DP4 Lot 78. Two worlds.

Now you have to have the soil tested before you build. It usually involves scraping out a metre or so, filling the hole with gravel and compacting it, before the concrete is poured.

When I first went to Europe I was instantly aware of the sheer weight of concrete that has been poured on the land.

Somewhere in here, Grotowski is lurking. Tell the truth: a true gesture, a true sound. Take off the mask.

Anyway, something will hopefully come of it. And the task is the work of performance rather than the performance itself; to grow the whenua rather than bury it.

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Gaza

Gaza bites, Gaza hurts. It’s everywhere and nowhere, in the air, in the land, yell it, shout it: No, Stop, Please, Stop.

So the supermarkets have got facial recognition. It’ll never be quite the same going in there. Aware. Bloody hell. Aware. The sniper’s scope with a cross in it. They don’t need a wooden cross on a hill today. A sniper will do.

Two million imprisoned, kept alive by aid and at the mercy of the jailers – for whom they are animals. I remember while researching a film on madness in the 1970s, spending time at the old Kingseat Hospital in South Auckland. One day, hearing strange cries from the back of the large grounds and investigating, I came across a unit devoted to elderly ‘handicapped’ – the mongoloid, the brain damaged… They were literally confined in a cage. I was told that they were people who had never been socialised, could scarcely feed themselves. It was a shocking image,

Who are the unsocialised ones in Gaza? The Trump ‘mob?’ ‘clan’ – neither of those words will do – mafioso is better. They assume more and more the model of the Hunger Games (perhaps the most political book in a decade). Netanyahu and his henchmen? It is one of those appalling situations to which we assume indifference, forget about for months. The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, an axis of evil to which we bow for reasons of trade. No, best forget it, focus on rugby or the garden, or local shenanigans. There are no drones dispensing tear gas or rockets in the middle of the night, no sniper towers, no occupying army, no border crossings to negotiate. We’re okay, All we have to put up with are some homeless, some kids in poverty and facial recognition cameras in the supermarket. We’re sweet. Except for a conscience that won’t quieten. In frustration. In despair.

What was it like for the townspeople near the death camps? Did they know? Were they aware? Or were they simply minding their own business and watching the grass grow?

Isn’t it time to boycott the US. I’m tired of paying attention to the dysfunctional empire. We are overwhelmed by its culture, its ridiculous foreign policy, its inane leadership, its control of knowledge and information and pharmaceuticals, its media… Time to divest. Time to boycott. Time to seek other friends. We’ll be poorer but we’ll be able to confront the mirror.

Return

Returning to film making has been a lovely experience. We’d had the filming of our theatrical response to the Pike disaster, Goodnight Irene, on the agenda for some time and finally it was possible. A budget of $2300 is ridiculous, but people’s generosity kicked in: Alun Bollinger, arguably New Zealand’s foremost cinematographer and resident on the Coast, said he’d film it; Patrick McBride, TV stringer, was willing to bring his camera and operate; Natalia, a Colombian migrant who works with Patrick and who had made films in Colombia joined the crew; Francis from the theatre group became boom operator; a Wellington lass, Owlsca, on the Coast for her gap year and the maker of charming short video clips became continuity and clapper; Brian Wood donated his house for the set; the Blackball fire engine and ambulance turned out for a shot; the local caterer arrived with quiche; the cast was nervous, myself included – we’d done little film acting so we rehearsed with a camera … but it’s all turned out. The rushes are great, Alun is a master (modern technology doesn’t require hefty lighting) and as actors we adapted to the construction of a part as opposed to the live-performance-being of a part.

It’s been a community film project par excellence. Tempers never frayed, even on a wet day of exteriors. As Patrick commented, From this sort of project a West Coast film culture might be built. That would be nice.

And it was all so different from film making where money is the bottom line: the sweat of raising the capital, the strings that capital inevitably arrives with, the anxiety of filming when thousands of dollars are spent each day. Maybe I’m a woos, but I preferred this experience.

But money inevitably comes into it. We can manage an edit, but then there’s the sound mix and colour grading. Expensive gear and expertise are involved in order to reach the smooth appearance that the outlets require, even though, for most consumers, the experience is a momentary one. And it’s at this point that the present disappears – it all becomes future or past (whereas theatre is all present, then it becomes definitely past) – threatening to become as forgettable as watching a movie on an aeroplane or a screen in a takeaway outlet as you wait for your order, the wallpaper of modern existence, undisturbing and bland, the chatter of latter day capital as it bombs the shit out of Syria.

We’ll see. Hopefully there’s a way around it. And the eventual screenings will be interesting, as they move from the local context to the national.

Irene

Photo: Jane Wells

Anzac Day

Each year there’s a sweet commemoration in Blackball, with the army, the mayor, the local service people and the church attending. The war memorial is in the school grounds and crosses are placed for each of the Blackball men killed in battle. As part of the wreath laying, children put posies on each cross. There used to be a rifle salute and the sound echoing around the hills was a powerful symbol. That’s been stopped for some reason. But the flag is lowered and the last post played. A crowd of around hundred is normal.

I go as part of the St John presence, but the problem remains: what is this really about? I suspect the problem is felt by others for the speeches subtlely change year by year. It is no longer the simple slogan: These men died fighting for the freedom which we now enjoy. With regard to WW1 the knowledge that this was a slaughtering of working class men because of a European capitalist squabble over markets, colonies and resources is generally accepted, if not articulated quite as bluntly. And the Gallipoli campaign is acknowledged as the military cock up and disaster that it was. It is okay to commemorate men killed by a botchup of the bosses, to feel the mix of anger, sadness and regret that accompanies the realisation of wasted lives – Pike is like that. There is often at least a nod in this direction at Anzac services of late.

But with Gallipoli there is an additional current; that this was the coming of age of the colonial nations of Australia and New Zealand; that it gave birth to a sense of nationhood and pride. It wasn’t that the families involved were aware of the botchup and demanded a thorough investigation and for heads to roll as has happened with Pike, the families thereby coming of age as a group and asserting their need for justice. It would be interesting if this had occurred, after all the Russian revolution had this as one of its inspirations. But in the Anzac tradition there is no national judgement of the Pommy leaders, it is more that the warrior culture came of age, that Kiwis and Aussies proved themselves as warriors as they showed courage, bravery and resilience on the battlefield.

But that in turn cannot be simply stated and celebrated, for the warrior culture is a little suspect after being mediated by feminism. Common sense judges the culture for the damage it has caused and continues to cause – think Sarajevo, think ethnic cleansing – so this impulse has to exist as sub text.

Of course the scope of Anzac widens to include WW11 (more explicable the fight against fascism), except that WW11 evolved from WW1. And then there is Korea and Vietnam, problematic battles against Communism, and certainly in the case of Vietnam a botchup by a new batch of foreign masters.

This year, the army representative introduced a new theme, that of soldiers serving to uphold a fragile world order as embodied by the United Nations and its covenants. This can require participating in a conflict but more often involves restricting conflict by playing a peacekeeping followed by a development role – still dangerous work and sometimes fatal. This ‘line’, this point of view is attractive but if it reaches back to encompass Vietnam and even the two world wars, it begins to be a rewriting of history.

Last year the Turks were brought into it, they were after all also fighting for nationhood and the theme could then be one or reconciliation through mutual national suffering. Another ‘line’.

I would love someone to speak of these ideological problems as part of the service.

There are of course increasing numbers of young people turning out for Anzac Day ceremonies, participating in the solemn performance, exploring their family links with these wars. What does it mean for them? Another coming of age ritual?

I was perhaps the only one there bothered by this complexity. For the rest the military ritual sufficed, a sort of solemn sharing of ‘something’ before the routine of meeting mates over a beer.

Neat and tidy

I remember visiting a farm in the Hakataramea Valley during the crisis of the 1980s, when farming subsidies were dropped. The valley had experienced a drought and a Greenie renegade had sold his sheep after the first year because the land needed a breather. He’d  invested the money in the booming share market, then sold his shares just before the 1987 crash and returned to sheep. Smart cookie. He didn’t bother with weed control. Sheep will eat weeds, he told me. He was of the belief that the average Kiwi farmer had a suburban neat-and-tidy outlook. A lot of farming was about having everything looking under control. It’s a continuation of the need-to-conquer-nature attitude of the colonist.

Blackball has a high rainfall and back in the day, the miners dug drainage ditches along each street in order to get rid of excess water.  The network of ditches flows into the creek systems below the plateau and they work remarkably well. Sometimes they need cleaning of debris. Kids love them, for there’ll be crawlies and there’s mud. Occasionally some watercress grows. Backing out of driveways requires some caution and ‘ditch parking’ as it is colloquially referred to, has been known to occur, especially with visitors. Drunks have also had an intimate relationship with a ditch. So there is history and stories attached.

But now, with the approaching Paparoa Great Walk, the Council has decided the ditches are untidy and archaic. Visitors need to be greeted with something more upbeat as they arrive along the main entrance road, something smooth and tidy. Ranginui’s excessive tears need to be hidden. Accordingly, a team of workers have been digging out the ditches and inserting pipes and manholes. Layers of fill and gravel are compacted by diggers, graders, rollers and trucks working in a sort of frenzy to eradicate detail and story. I’m not criticising the work crew, they’re doing their job efficiently and in good heart – it’s the ethos behind this endeavour: to make it neat and tidy, to put things underground and lay the surface with tarseal and concrete, to conquer the earth so that human beings feel untouched and omnipotent.

Luckily, the exercise is expensive, $100,000 or thereabouts and will be reserved for the main road and the tourists. The rest of us will continue to enjoy our ditches and the stories of a bygone era.

On not meeting Barack Obama

I saw a French film a long time ago about the Sun King, Louis XIV, also known as Louis the God-Given or Louis the Great. There was a scene of Louis as a child being told sternly to never touch his face. The incident has stayed with me. Here was a boy and then a man who never touched his face in public. Touching of the face is usually a childish act of reassurance, to make contact with the oral centre. A king doesn’t require reassurance. There would be other behavioural matters of speech, dress and so on, and to be king required Louis to learn this public image.

Obama became, and remains, a public image, that of the first Afro-American (albeit a recent migrant) to become president. This required him to be extra presidential, to stay calm, to never, no matter what the provocation, no matter what the failures, to show grief or anger. And the provocations and the failures were huge: Netanyahu humiliating him, the Republicans refusing to be reasonable, Palestine remaining a mess, Guantanamo not closing, having to bail out the bankers rather than the mortgagees, Syria erupting, Afghanistan remaining problematic, Medicare scraping through in diluted form, gun control failing… And he killed a lot of people through drone strikes and expelled more illegal immigrants than his predecessor. But he stayed cool. He never touched his face. He was obedient to the system. (His successor, Trump, is a disobedient lunatic, losing the plot on every occasion.)

Now Obama has become a charismatic figure. He can’t speak about politics or judge his replacement. Instead, he has become royalty, above it all.  The playing of golf by these leaders, is, it is reported, a chance to escape the immediate presence of their security people, who, given the spaciousness of the golf course, have to resort to hanging out in trees and other possible places of concealment.

Obama and John Key seem to genuinely get on. They were both brought up by their mothers and both have a migrant parent. John Key as well, never got angry or sad, never touched his face as it were. He’d learned not to need reassurance. Obama has written two books and is a literate man. Both books are explorations of the migrant child. In the first he searches for his Kenyan father and details the struggles of the white solo mother with a coloured child. The other book is a study of senate politics and I was impressed by the migrant boy’s willingness to learn the ropes and play the game. Key’s mother was a Jewish refugee and he in turn learned to play the broker game, then the political game. I suspect that neither, in fact, had a particular ideology to push, neither had  a passion. They suspected such extremity. Obama, as writer, enjoyed the oratorical and oratory plays a role in US politics far more than it does in NZ. Key never indulged in verbal flights of fancy.

But having done their stint they now stand, like royalty, above the fray. Earning big bucks is easy: $400,000 an appearance for the orator; the broker can sit on boards. Not touching the face has its rewards.

It’s interesting to compare this with the experience of the Cuban revolutionaries who earned their mana though fighting in the mountains, through long marches in rain and mud, tormented by mosquitoes and asthma, depending on the peasantry for a meagre diet, wounded and exhausted but finally victorious, driven by anger and grief at injustice. Touching the face was not an issue. Liberty or death was the issue.

Royalty disdains such melodrama.

Easter Journey

We went north for Easter, myself, Caroline and Te Whaea, drove to Picton, left the car, caught the ferry, had a night in Wellington, hired a car, drove to Ohau to scatter my brother’s ashes, then dropped Whaea off at her Mum’s in Palmerston North, before continuing to Napier to spend a night with my nephew from my adopted family,  whose mother recently died.

It was great not to fly.  Airplanes and airports are tedious, a fatal disaster the only possibility of excitement. On a car and boat journey, you experience change in the landscape, you see things and people: are disturbed as the procession of churchgoers with their cross walk through the pleasure-seeking crowd in Picton, over hear conversations, have time to ponder the blind girl and her friend, watch the white stick unfold and snap open, wonder about the man incessantly pacing the terminal, doze as you traverse the strait, watch the ramp come down ever so slowly and the bright light of the capital intrude.

The family gathering was healing. For the first time my brother and sister spoke their stories of the family disintegration, their middle-aged children weeping as the traffic on SH1 flowed past in the distance. The ashes were heavy and ready to form clay.  For the first time we seemed to exist as a family unit, a disjointed and edgy one, but that was okay. We’d  had to wait until old age for it to happen, but that was also okay.

From there to one of those Californian houses, large and lush, the adopted family having progressed from an ex-state house to this in two generations. It’s why Mexicans keep crossing the border, for they can see that the dream can happen; for these are ordinary working people living in these suburbs. I pondered the recent photos of my sister in law. She’d shrunk into the physical archetype of an old lady on a marae, become a kuia. They’d bought this house so she could have the flat that was attached. She was already frail and an infection in the pancreas quickly invaded and they’d had to make the painful decision to switch off the life support.

I remembered her first appearance at the ex-state house in Palmerston North. She’d been a girl with life in her and as she refused Pakeha puritanism, was a welcome change. I remembered the loving, close physical relationship she had with her infant son. I remembered her sadness when she witnessed my daughter’s growing facility with te reo and her telling us of her regret at not learning the language from her native-speaker father when she was a child. I remembered these things. I hadn’t seen her for ten years and now she had become memory. Remnants of my brother will still lie in the river bed.

My nephew and his wife took us to the local Indian restaurant for dinner. In the morning he showed me his Harley and I took their dog for a walk. The last night of the trip we stayed with Omar and Serena in Wellington. On their wall is a map of Palestine before the creation of Israel, a document lovingly prepared, the Arabic writing a graceful commentary.

It was the most political image I’ve seen for a very long time.

Core Business

Back to rehearsing. Core business. It makes me feel alive in a way nothing else does: to find the emotion, the thought, the gesture, the shape of a story, to go behind the mask, to be the other and therefore more oneself, the interaction past daily chat and routine, to tell the truth or at least endeavour to do so. And it is innocent, for it leaves no mark on the planet.

It takes me back to directing my first play at university and thinking, I can do this. For some reason I know how to do this.

And all those places where I’ve rehearsed, often odd places, for rehearsal space can be an expensive issue so it’s a matter of seeking spaces that are under-used. For years, it was the Kelburn Scout Hall, nicely situated in the Wellington Botanical Gardens near the top of the Cable Car. It was only used one evening a week and otherwise free. A couple of memorable incidents. Once, during the voice exercises there was a knock on the door and a Japanese man bowed and gestured that he wished to enter. He did so, sat and watched for a while then got up and performed his own voice exercises (he was probably a Kabuki actor). Afterward, he bowed and left. On another occasion, policemen with a dog burst in the door, it having been reported that someone was in distress.

The Scout Hall became unavailable so we moved to the derelict NZ Players Building in Newtown with its multitude of memories for NZ theatre. Then it was bought for apartment development and for a period we had a space in a short-lived artist’s co-op which rented an old woolstore with lovely lanolin floors from the sheep wool. Then we started slumming it, using the abandoned Mataraunga School in Aro Street, an old factory in Dixon Street, before finally acquiring a studio, the gracious ballroom of the old Working Men’s Club in Petone. Each place had its stories and its ghosts. Each place was marginal. One rehearses on the margins.

In England we found a Girl Guides Hut in Haslemere, Surrey. Once again the police turned up, this time a Bobby on his bicycle. And then there was the time Karlite Rangihau took us to Ruatahuna to rehearse – a life changing experience. Twice I’ve had the privilege of working on a play at Tapu Te Ranga. Now, in Mawhera, we have the luxury of a big school room without desks. It has a heat pump for winter, is generally available for evenings and weekends and is on a koha basis – there is less pressure on space in the regions. Last night there were a couple of young people there, learning to improvise, slightly startled by their seasoned elders still capable of erupting into emotion. We seemed to enjoy each other’s company, and the process.

As I said, Core Business.

The Writer

Reading Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water again, reminded me of how elemental she is to NZ writing. For she was just a writer, whose sole task is to find the words to describe people and environment. Her madness, which is unexplained except as a nervousness, an anxiety about the world, gave her the content. It forced her into contact with society as madness, made up of the patients and the staff of the looney bin; the asylum as microcosm.  She is not interested in politics except as a sort of class system among the mad, which led to patient distribution to this ward or that. The patients and their peculiarities, the staff and their’s, the natural world – that’s it. The writer’s task is to write. There is no explanation, no Freud or Jung here, the madness just is. ECT is administered to enable forgetting. Whatever it is that’s bothering you, best to forget it. ECT will help the process. If that doesn’t work, a leucotomy.

We know the story of her being saved from that by a story, by publication, the doctor realising she was a writer and therefore it was a mistake to fry her brain permanently.

Writing, once she was out of the bin, was a restoration of memory through writing. She lived reclusively, for the shyness, the anxiety presumably remained. But as pure writer, as writing as a singular vocation, she has no peers. The genius in the attic, or in this case, the provincial town suburb is a correct paradigm.

There is one description that remains with me: of her getting on the wrong side of one of the staff through perceiving an empathy for the patients lurking behind the brisk nurse’s mask. She is caught watching, caught understanding, becomes a caught-out consciousness, possessing the power which consciousness brings. Thereafter the staff member hates her and punishes her, for she has been exposed. It remains the writer’s dilemma: to shut oneself away and just write or to reveal her knowledge in the public arena and become threatening or foolish.

I can have that dilemma in the village in which I live. Consciousness is threatening, a negating of daily routine, of daily mask. To know can be an act of unkindness, even arrogance. Bill Pearson made no friends locally when he wrote Coal Flat.

There have been a lot of diggers operating in the area lately, so let me finish this post with a poem.

The mechanical arm

The compressed power

Of hydraulic fluid

The bucket scraping and lifting

The man in the cab

A strange animal

A beast of prey

Devouring the earth.

Time stands still –

Green leaf, insect life,

Worms, caterpillars

Aphid, grub,

Stone and rock

Powerless.

Flat and tidy the result

Ready for concrete or asphalt

Those lifeless materials

Of modern man

 

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