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  • Writer's pictureTE RĀKAU

Resisting the dollar imperative in theatre

Barry King for e-Tangata | 16 June 2024

Kaupapa Māori theatre is a site of resistance to market forces in the arts, writes former professor of communications and Pākehā ally, Barry King.

Four students wearing white shirts, long skirts and piupiu perform a waiata
Backstage at Te Rākau’s production of Unreel, which explores the legacy of gambling harm. (Photo: Stephen A’Court, Te Rākau 2024)

The recent decision by TVNZ to cut local news coverage and public interest programming, alongside the demise of Newshub, raises valid concerns about the detrimental impact on the national provision of reliable, factual information. Independent websites such as The Spinoff, Scoop and Stuff, surviving on minimal advertising revenue, subscriber support and low-paid or free journalistic labour, are not placed to close the information gaps caused by the curtailing of mainstream provision.

Moreover, as shown by the key example of the New Zealand Herald, the mainstream media devote significant space to international press agency news, advertorials and celebrity gossip. These developments are driven by social media, which have long been undercutting national news content and problematising the very concept of objective reporting. “Fake news” and echo-chamber websites are reducing everything to a matter of opinion.

What affects local news production also affects local performance arts, which have their own history of underfunding and reliance on underpaid and free labour.

They now face, as the arts, culture and heritage minister Paul Goldsmith has recently observed, a greater need to become more competitive for audiences and more nimble at attracting sponsorship and business support. Following already-existing practices of underfunding, the sector is likely to enter a deeper trough of shakeout and retrenchment. In this scenario, not only is truth in journalism compromised, but so is the cultural role of drama, which has its own standards of truth-telling.

Theatre plays a particular role in expressing and exploring local culture, which film and television, required to be both local and international, are less capable of addressing. Theatre presents historical and contemporary events which challenge received opinions and, sometimes, constituted authorities. Such challenges are experienced by audiences directly, rather than at a second remove, as in the case of film and television.

In this sense, there is an analogy between politics and theatre. In a post-truth media environment, politics becomes a performance — and theatre, like the performance arts in general, engages in emotional marketing, which leads in a feedback loop to stage plays as an emotional encounter. For instance, the Auckland Theatre Company, following the lead of the British National Theatre promoted recent play The Effect as “a sizzling chemistry lesson”.

In a post-truth media environment, politics becomes a performance — and theatre, like the performance arts in general, engages in emotional marketing, which leads in a feedback loop to stage plays as an emotional encounter.

Considering what these developments mean for the imagery of nationhood, it’s useful to recall that the Greek word for theatre is theatron — a viewing place. The defunding of news, and of the performance arts, narrows the place in which a national conversation can occur. Such a conversation — about what is, what relates to what, and what is important — succumbs to a neurological rush.

The historic commitment to biculturalism — if facing ongoing contestation by some Pākehā — positions Māori tikanga as the primary context within which successive migrant ethnic groups must establish their own claims to belonging. Yet the acknowledged centrality of Māori performances to the public and civic rituals of nationhood is not just an act of settler generosity. The contribution of Māori to New Zealand’s International “brand” and GDP, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, stands at $68.8 billion.

The importance of Māori tikanga to New Zealand’s creative economy is particularly ironic given the emergence of arts funding policies that increasingly emphasised market performance as a primary funding criterion. Like Indigenous practices globally, Māori arts are formed by and celebrate traditional, communal forms of expression. For this reason, they provide a basis for resistance against the increasing encroachment of market relationships across the spectrum of social life

In times like these, when Government policy is enforcing an intensified focus on marketability as the primary criterion for arts funding, it is worth reviving a different kind of theatre. Such a theatre could, of course, take different forms. But the Theatre Marae model developed by Jim Moriarty, the artistic director of Te Rākau — Aotearoa New Zealand’s longest-surviving independent Māori theatre company — offers lessons about challenging market-driven drama.

Based on marae rituals, Te Rākau’s version of Theatre Marae is a public theatre that combines two forms of practice: a therapeutic practice with culturally and socially oppressed groups, and a hybrid theatrical form derived from Māori and Pacific cultures, the Whare Tapere, integrating storytelling, dance, music, comedy, puppetry and games.  In short, a political theatre that combines social commentary with a “good night out” is equipment for surviving in hard times.

Clear-sighted recognition of what matters to Aotearoa New Zealand depends on a connection to an imagined community that provides a place to stand: a tūrangawaewae. As the Māori proverb advises: Kia kawea tātou e te rēhia. Let us be taken by the spirit of joy, of entertainment.

By so doing, a vision of unity and solidarity can be nurtured that will ground the ongoing weaving of the nation’s cultural tapestry. On many fronts, this vision is under threat.


Dr Barry King was, until his recent retirement, Professor of Communication Studies at AUT University. He is the author of  Taking Fame to Market: On the Pre-History and Post-History of Hollywood Stardom (Palgrave, 2014), and Performing Identity: Actor Training, Self-Commodification and Celebrity (Palgrave, 2024). His latest research concerns the relationship between theatre and cultural identity in Aotearoa/New Zealand.


This article was originally published in e-Tangata. Read more on the e-Tangata website below.

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