Stories from the Source [by James Wenley]
New Zealand, famously, is a land of immigrants. Waves of migration over the country’s history have created a rich fabric of cultures, as well as perhaps an uncertain ‘kiwi’ cultural identity. What is it about New Zealand that makes it unique, and what is this discovery like for new arrivals? How do they become part of the ‘culture’? Do they want to? We can learn a lot about ourselves – good and bad – for those on the outside looking in / fitting in.
Be | Longing, directed by Hillary Halba and Stuart Young from the University of Otago Theatre Studies programme, is a verbatim play, using interviews from immigrants (new and old) to the country. As explained at the beginning of the show, using dialogue from real interviews between interviewer and subject, the cast listen to MP3s of the interviews which they speak in real time, capturing all of their inflections, pauses and idiosyncrasies. The interviews were also filmed – the actors studying them in detail to portray the real body language on the stage. The interviewee, as communicated through the actress, was slightly dubious at the idea – “people sitting like us… just talking?” What sort of theatre show is that?
Upon entering the surprisingly intimate playing space in a sectioned off part of the Lower NZI, we’re asked on a map of the world to record either where we were born, or where we feel we belong. Crosses and marks traversing the globe have already been placed by the other audiences members, creating quite a tapestry. I put down my place of birth Slough, England, but I don’t feel like I belong there. I emigrated to New Zealand when I was 10 months old!
The various interviews have been edited together, and placed like a montage in sections like “First Impressions | Challenges” and “Language”, giving us an accumulative impression of the different immigrant experiences. Along the way we meet many different “characters” (or “people”?). There’s the remarkable story of Elena from Kiev, a place suffering from the effects of radiation, who came to New Zealand because it was nuclear free. There’s Yan Li, a Chinese woman who married a kiwi man without knowing much English. There are immigrants from all over the world including India, Iraq, Germany and UK . Some stories are inherently dramatic, others low key anecdotes.
The actors take on multiple roles through the piece, and comfortably morph into different shapes and voices. It’s amusing to hear different accents come out of them, as well as the incongruity of the imagined image from their voice and nationally, and the actor portraying them. The scenes with couples are fun, as we see the relationship dynamics in action as they disagree, support, or talk over one another – usually the poor men struggle to get a word in!
This was my first experience of a verbatim play, and to be honest I’m still not sure what I think of it as theatre. The acting does feel natural, and has a noticeably different style or feel, capturing the hesitation, back-tracks and jumble of thoughts and words that come out of our mouths, rather than the precision of a playwright’s pen. On the other hand, there’s perhaps a limitation in being so beholden to the real people, the actors performing as talented mimics, puppets even, controlled by the real thing (the press notes state that sometimes the actors think of themselves as ‘avatars’). The montage style – taking bits from one interview to the next, sometimes feels like we are only getting the surface, like there is deeper to go and hear from the stories.
It’s a question of form – what sort of subject makes a good verbatim play? Why not a documentary? Why not a ‘real’ play? Why do we have to hear from the real people through the actor? I have no answers, just questions that have sprung from this experience and not satisfactorily answered by the production.
It’s quite fascinating to hear about the stories of the immigrants, and this is the strongest part of the play. Through this, there are some really interesting observations about New Zealand. “Where all the people?” was the first thought of a woman from India. Another finds it funny how Kiwi’s don’t like to be touched. There’s an interesting discussion about how one should respond to “Hi, how are you going?”. Paul and Laura from England say that New Zealand looked British, but when they scratched the surface it really was quite different. They say kiwi culture, especially our obsession with sharing food and hospitality, as the Maori influence really.
At the end, one immigrant talks about the idea that “New Zealand doesn’t know where it’s at”. This may well be true, but Be | Longing is a small and welcome contribution to figuring it out.
Be | Longing: A Verbatim Play is presented by Theatre Studies, University of Otago and Talking House and plays as part of the New Performance Festival, final show tonight 7:45pm. More information at THE EDGE.