Jason Te Kare grew up watching his mum raise and love at-risk youths in their family home. The director of new prison-set play CELLFISH talks about learning how to live a compassionate life.
When playwright Miriama McDowell worked with inmates in a Christchurch prison, she was often asked to sneak in contraband. Not your typical cigarettes or cellphones, but kaimoana. All kinds of kaimoana.
So when she and co-writers Rob Mokaraka and Jason Te Kare needed a new name for their prison-set play (because the original ‘Lucky Fucken Me’ didn’t quite work on funding applications) they were inspired by the inmates of Paparua. They settled on calling it CELLFISH.
The play is about the tough truths of incarceration. It challenges the familial cycles of domestic violence and the systemic failings of a highly punitive justice system. Giving agency to the voiceless, it is offset with wicked humour.
Set in the present day, CELLFISH focuses on a fiercely determined woman whose relationship with prison is in teaching inmates Shakespeare. Shapeshifting through seven characters, actors Jarod Rawiri (Shortland Street) and Carrie Green (Bless the Child) embody teachers, inmates and super heroes, with a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance thrown in for good mix.
“We’re taking a real heavy subject and investigating it with a bit of lightness, humour and charm,” says co-writer and director Jason Te Kare. “This approach allows audiences to listen more. They are charmed by the characters and see them as people instead of the crimes they have committed.
“Two actors play all the characters in the prison. Part of the magic is seeing the pair create a whole world with very limited help. There are no props or costume changes. Using the audience’s imagination, they tell the whole story while never leaving the stage. That is the power of theatre.”
Te Kare has enjoyed a long career exploring the different facets of theatre.
He spent a decade as the drama producer at Radio NZ, worked for youth focussed music and arts facility Te Oro in his childhood neighbourhood Glen Innes, is artistic director for Theatre of Auckland and is Silo Theatre’s current artistic associate. He has been on, off and, to the side of stage since his early years.
Performance came naturally to the young boy with Tainui and Ngāti Maniapoto roots. His first experience was in the rows of his school kapa haka group. Te Kare learnt stage presence and had great rhythm, but his best memory was learning that he was Māori.
In a school where the Pacific Island kids would proudly identify as Tongan, Niuean, Samoan, Te Kare wasn’t sure what to answer when they would ask what ethnicity he was. Back then, he thought everyone was the same.
“One night mum told me my whakapapa. The next day I walked around telling everyone “I’m a Māori!” he laughs, as he recalls the moment.
He eventually progressed into acting and as a teen partook in the Ngā Moemoeā a te Rangatahi drama programme doing skits about Māori health. While his interest was influenced more by the fact it included overnight stays at Queen Victoria Māori Girls’ School, he went on to join the early roots of what is now Massive Company, alongside the likes of Oliver Driver and Tamati Patuwai.
“I definitely prefer the directing chair,” he admits. “I equate it to being a first five in rugby – you get to have a lot more say in implementing the game plan.”
He is pretty good at it too, winning Most Promising Newcomer and Director of the Year at the 2011 Wellington Theatre awards for his mainstage directing debut with I, George Nepia.
In CELLFISH, real life experiences underpin and inform the storytelling. For Te Kare, he drew on his childhood in Glenn Innes where his mum, social worker and community champion Barbara Te Kare (Nanny Barb), housed at-risk youth in their family home.
It started when a cousin, who was meant to be looking after the home, had a house party. Nanny Barb caught wind, came back and kicked everyone out. There was a group of youths who were living on the streets and didn’t have anywhere else to go. She invited them to stay with one rule: go to school or get a job. Te Kare was aged seven.
“It was a very colourful childhood. I remember watching the Queen St riots on TV and seeing some of the kids from the house on the news, throwing rocks and charging police,” he laughs. “I never saw them as naughty kids. They were complex, charming, sometimes volatile. In that environment I experienced first-hand the way a young person’s perspective on life can become skewed, so crime and violence are idolised.”
Their home was formalised into a social welfare halfway house, then a home for CYFS kids. It was here he realised how potent and life changing parental and whānau love could be. And how quickly society could judge those affected by the inter-generational cycle of violence.
It is something he hopes audiences will reflect on when coming to view the show, in amongst the fits of laughter.
“Crime is something every society has to deal with, but how we deal with it is the question. This is a war and the thing that seems to be killed first is compassion. Those of us who have not been brought up in environments of abuse, those who have had loving, caring upbringings, need to be the ones who show compassion first.
“Through the lighthearted way we approach the themes in this show we have tried to remind those with really judgemental ideas of inmates, of people who have committed crimes, that sure they have done some bad things but in the end they are still people. Just like the rest of us. ”
CELLFISH runs from Tuesday 13 June to Sunday 24 June as part of Silo Theatres 2018 season, playing at Q Theatre. Click here for more info.