This weekend’s Garden Party festival in Wellington sees the premiere of Navigating the Stars, a live performance for families based on Witi Ihimaera’s acclaimed collection of the same name. Ahead of the show, Ihimaera spoke to his friend and former collaborator Whiti Hereaka about bringing the stories to the stage.
Witi Ihimaera describes himself as an artisan, “Someone who can take their tools, their skills, and apply them to whatever might be at hand.”
Over his career as a writer, he has used his skills as a storyteller to write libretto for opera and ballet, work in non-fiction and memoir, as an editor and anthologist, scripts for television, film and on stage, and, of course, as a writer of fiction.
His latest work, Navigating the Stars: Māori Creation Myths, ably straddles non-fiction, memoir and fiction.
“I wanted to take a break from writing,” he says, “I’d finished [my memoir] Native Son and I wasn’t ready to write the next installment. I told my editor Harriet that I was taking a break. A four-year break. And she said to me: But what will you do?”
He smiles and takes a sip of his coffee, “I said to her, ‘there is something that I’d like to work on…'”
It is always a pleasure to see Witi. I haven’t seen him in a while, so we have a lot to catch up on. We argue about who will pay for the coffee. He tells me he’s the koroua here, so that’s me told. We talk about the projects that we are working on and the projects that are coming up for us. Witi asks me gently about my novel – the novel I’ve been working on since we met many years ago – and I can finally tell him that it’s pretty much done.
‘So it’ll be out by Christmas then?’ he asks and my “I hope so” is closer to the truth as it has ever been.
Witi understands that some writing projects have a long tail. Navigating the Stars is a work that he has been thinking about for years, but he hadn’t found the right time to write it.
For Navigating the Stars, Witi draws the pūrākau together, structuring it like a novel. It is an approach that is at once new and traditional — new, perhaps, for those who are used to pūrākau being anthologized and think of each as a discreet story complete in itself; traditional in the sense that it is nearer to how pūrākau are told and understood in te ao Māori — each is a thread in a larger, continuous story told over many generations.
Retelling pūrākau lets the stories breathe – they are stories for now and for the future, and can help us navigate the world as it is now. This is a conversation that Witi and I have had many times before – it was an idea that underpinned our collection Pūrākau; that the telling and retelling of pūrākau not only updates the stories for a contemporary audience, but also deepens and expands our understanding of them. It is the idea that there can never be an authoritative telling of a pūrākau, by its very nature – very obviously in the word pūrākau itself – stories must grow with the teller and the audience.
In Navigating the Stars this idea is illustrated by a quote from Wayne Ngata:
“The Māori way would have three or four of us sitting in your book with you,” Wayne writes. “We would trade our versions of the narratives with yours, enjoying the felicitous fit and arguing when the toe can’t squeeze in there.”
Theatre is not too distant a cousin from collaborative storytelling, so it seems like a natural fit for a text like Navigating the Stars, to be reimagined as a play, which will receive its premiere at Wellington’s free Garden Party festival on Sunday. The characters in Witi’s play act in the same way as the multiple storytellers in Ngata’s example — arguing about points in the story being told or giving the audience another perspective on the action.
The play itself is a collaboration with Taki Rua, one of many between Witi and the theatre company over the past couple of decades. Witi wrote the script and is in Wellington this week for rehearsals.
The play is stripped back – a few performers and maybe a guitar. Witi hopes that in the future it could be toured around schools.
I ask why Witi chose to write a play instead of giving a reading and he answers with a cheeky, “Aren’t you bored of reading too?”
This playfulness comes through Witi’s script – it is witty and fun. Familiar pūrākau like the separation of Rangi and Papa, Māui taming the sun and the story of Paikea are told with a humour that will appeal to an audience of all ages. And at the heart of it is the idea that, “Like the stars, you can use the stories to navigate your lives by.”
Navigating the Stars, by Witi Ihimaera and Taki Rua Productions, is at the Soundshell, Wellington Botanic Garden, on Sunday 21 February, 10am. Part of the Garden Party festival, brought to you by Verb Wellington and The Spinoff. More information.
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