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Kim Garrett as Maggie. (Image: The Court Theatre/ Charlie Rose Creative. Design: Tina Tiller)
Kim Garrett as Maggie. (Image: The Court Theatre/ Charlie Rose Creative. Design: Tina Tiller)

KaiApril 11, 2023

Loaves of rēwena in the spotlight – literally

Kim Garrett as Maggie. (Image: The Court Theatre/ Charlie Rose Creative. Design: Tina Tiller)
Kim Garrett as Maggie. (Image: The Court Theatre/ Charlie Rose Creative. Design: Tina Tiller)

Rēwena bread plays a starring role in a theatre show currently on at Christchurch’s Court Theatre. Charlotte Muru-Lanning talks to the show’s director about bread making and transformation.

This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.

It’s a delightful sourdough, unique to Aotearoa, with a complex history. This isn’t the first time I’ve discussed rēwena in this newsletter, and it likely won’t be the last. What I’ve found since delving into the world of this parāoa is that there are so many stories baked into each loaf. It would be impossible to cover all of that complexity – whether that be its elusiveness, its commercial appropriation, its links to food sovereignty, its ties to colonisation – in a single newsletter. I wouldn’t want to anyway – when it comes to this bread, which has been largely ignored by the mainstream in Aotearoa, the kōrero surrounding it, at the very least deserves to be an ongoing conversation.

And so, this week I had a chat with Tania Gilchrist (Ngāti Porou), the director of a theatre show at Christchurch’s Court Theatre where rēwena is quite literally in the spotlight. Written by author Whiti Hereaka, Rēwena is told in real time as Maggie (played by Kim Garrett) shares memories, traditions and beliefs while making rēwena. The bread baked on stage and its recipe are eventually shared with the audience.

I spoke to Gilchrist about how the show inspired her to take up rēwena making for the first time, and how it’s changed her life.

CML: What is the premise of the show? 

TG: It’s about whakapapa, reciprocity and authenticity. The main character, Maggie, goes through a small but significant transformation as she works through this painful moment in her life while she’s making this bread for us. And at the same time, she’s telling us about the history of bread and telling lame jokes, and she’s having this lovely time. It’s that idea of transformation: you take some flour, and some water, you love it, you care for it, you prove it, you shape it and this miracle occurs.

 Tania Gilchrist, Kim Garrett and Whiti Hereaka huddle together and smile for a photograph in the onstage kitchen set.
From left; Tania Gilchrist, Kim Garrett and Whiti Hereaka. (Image: Supplied)

Had you made rēwena before directing the show?

No. I grew up in the South Island raised by our Pākehā mum. I made other kinds of bread as a teenager though. It’s one of those things my mum got me to do when I was getting moody. I was really grateful that I had that experience as a teenager because when it came to making rēwena there was quite a bit of muscle memory. Now, I’m making it three or four times a week and I make beautiful rēwena. I’m a school teacher too, so I bring rēwena into school for my students. When I’m doing mentoring, I sit with the kids with rēwena and Milo. It’s just become part of my toolkit now as a teacher. It’s beautiful, it’s changed my life.

What was that process of learning like?

In preparation for the show, I pulled all of Maggie’s instructions out of the script, and started having a go. I made a bug [starter] and then I made a few bricks. So I went looking for other recipes for troubleshooting. I got Christall Lowe’s book, because she’s got a whole chapter on rēwena. It was from the book that I learned that you should name your bugs. I ended up going back to Maggie’s recipe, armed with all this new information, and really all it turned out to be was just giving my bugs enough time to grow strong enough to make good bread. I was not only growing my bug strong enough, but getting them to trust me. You become invested in your bugs. They become like your children. I’ve got three bugs that we use in the show. Kim has made three. And one of the stage managers has created a bug himself. So they’re the featured extras in the show: Rangi, Wai, Rongo, Gillie, Hono, Tuhia, Kuini.

Which of those are your three bugs?

I’ve retired Wai and Rangi – they’re at home. But Rongo is still at the theatre working. So one of the dressing rooms at the theatre is just for the rēwena. So they have their own possies, and it’s at a controlled temperature. We do all the proving and everything in that room. Quite the divas – their riders are extreme.

A professional headshot of Tania Gilchrist on the left, she wears a black and white blouse. On the right two rēwena starters or bugs, named Gillie and Rongo sit in their dressing room shelves with name tags.
Tania Gilchrist (left) and Gillie and Rongo in their dressing room (right). (Images: Supplied)

How do you feel about the absence of rēwena in shops and bakeries?

I read your article about how we should be able to buy rēwena. And I’m actually in two minds about that. It would be nice to just go down to the shop and get a loaf. But there’s also something really healing about the slow process of making bread.

I often think about how great it would be to go down to the shops or a restaurant and buy rēwena, hāngi and so on, but then I wonder whether that runs the risk of creating a disconnect between kai Māori and all the mātauranga and tikanga it’s imbued with.

It’s part of the duality of being Māori, right? It would be nice to go down the shop and get a loaf of rēwena, but it’s nice to not only have those skills but to be able to pass on those skills. When it comes to food sovereignty, it’s not just access to the food, it’s how do we process our food? How do we create our food? A slice of rēwena is like a bona fide meal, it fills up your belly and you feel like you’ve been nourished. I can understand now how our tīpuna were like “this is how we’re going to look after our whānau”. It demands your time, it takes love and care. And when you put all of that into this kai and give it to your family it’s this energetic exchange of mauri.

What is it about rēwena that has made it so life-changing for you?

When you add it to your kete, it just changes the shape of everything, you’ve got a slightly different lens that you’re looking at things through. If I try and whack a loaf out, it never turns out well. But if I give it the time and I chat to my bugs, then I have a beautiful loaf. Now, whatever it is I’m doing, I think to myself, “am I putting the time and care required into this?”. Whether it’s making a resource for my class, or creating a space in my garden, it’s given me just a new perspective on how to do things and what’s important. It has been this journey of discovery, creativity and sovereignty. It might just seem like it’s a little thing, but you change a little thing and it ripples out.

Rēwena is on till Saturday 22 April at The Court Theatre in Christrchurch. You can buy tickets here.

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