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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONSocietyJune 26, 2023

Killing the human in humanities: What Victoria University’s cuts will do to theatre

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

In a field many have worked hard to decolonise, shunting the theatre programme into English literature feels like an act of recolonisation, writes Te Herenga Waka/Victoria University of Wellington theatre lecturer Nicola Hyland.

Ko Ruapehu te maunga,

Ko Ruahine te pae maunga,

Ko Whanganui rāua ko Rangitīkei te awa,

Ko Te Ati Haunui-A-Pāpārangi rāua ko Ngāti Hauiti te iwi,

Ko Ngā Paerangi rāua ko Ngāti Haukaha te hapū,

Ko Kaiwaiki rāua ko Rātā te marae,

Ko Nicola Mārie Hyland taku ingoa.

I’m a wahine, a māmā, a creative and a kaiako. 

“Theatre” is not in my whakapapa.

I’m always reluctant to say that I teach theatre at a university because these are, historically, two of the whitest spaces on earth. It’s all jazz hands and chorus lines of cheery sylphs dressed as sexy clowns and old dudes with RSC accents playing teenagers or nurses for $400 a seat at the St James; it’s all suede patches and pipe-smoking and doddery musing about Foucault and futurism and raising up all the white dead men of Europe from their tombs to speak to the psyche of a privileged few. I did not grow up watching or making plays. I never attended drama classes (or ballet, or tap, or jazz, or speech), I never made it to the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival. I was never a theatre kid. I wanted to change the world! For my people!

And now I teach theatre at a university.

I don’t do theatre for theatre. I do what I do because I believe in the transformational properties of telling stories with bodies. Our core business is in embodiment: real, live, feelingful, corporeal bodies. It is the thrill of kanohi ki te kanohi – the face-to-face experience. The things that are in the room. Humans. Telling stories. I believe that this energy exchange (ihi-wehi-wana) is transformational. It brings people together. It creates and sustains community. It enhances mana. It creates joy. This is not “art” as it is understood within western conception. From the perspective of tangata Te Moananui-a-Kiwa, performance is always multi-functional and collective. We do it with and for our whānau and our tūpuna. Our bodies are vessels for telling the stories of who we are, but they also generate our histories. Our bodies are archives. I mean, it makes no sense for the history curriculum to not include performance, because this is the only way we have been able to tell our stories, uncontested, since long before the combine harvester of colonisation ploughed its insidious trench through our cultural heritage. But that’s another story.

a glassy building with a big "VUW" sign outside
Victoria University of Wellington (Photo: Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

Creating decolonised theatre spaces makes sense. We have a whare at our heart. We wānanga, bringing folks together collaboratively. We debate, we laugh, we share and show aroha. We manaaki our manuhiri. I’m unapologetic about working in this way, including with tangata Tiriti, because I believe – to misquote Tā Mason Durie – that what is best for Māori (in theatre) is best for all. Theatre can and should be for everyone, it celebrates our creativity without compromising our identities. I’m not saying this as some idealistic nut job, I’ve witnessed it (in person) many, many times for the last 10 and a half years at Te Herenga Waka. I’ve watched some truly amazing folks claim the stage with pride, for the first time in their lives, shining and sharing their creative knowledge and their truths with their whānau. One of the most meaningful perks of my job is actually sharing the literal, live assessment with the community: watching parents watching productions, watching their tamariki live their dreams. And – this one’s for you, bean-counters – watching them then go on to have amazing careers because our graduates are kicking ass all over the show. 

I represent 50% of the tangata whenua FTE staff in my school, 100% of the tangata whenua in my programme, and have a 75% chance of losing my job if these proposed cuts are endorsed by our senior leadership team. I will lose some of my closest friends. The Pōneke theatre scene will lose. (But don’t worry, we’re theatre kids – we’re used to being losers!). Shunting the theatre programme into English literature feels, symbolically, like an act of recolonisation for a field many of us have worked so hard to decolonise. That’s not to say that our whānau in English have not been our most supportive allies in this clusterfuck, or that they are not also trying to lead the way to decolonise their own cultural imperialist brand. But our overlords are definitely trying to get us to stop making theatre. To teach, not do. Roll up your suede-patched sleeves, Cressida, I’m gonna lesson you about live encounters. On Zoom.

Wellington’s iconic Bats theatre (Photo: Sean Aickins)

It’s a bit of a tragedy (ooh, just like Hamlet, fans) that much of this financial tūtae has been caused by the fact that what we do requires kanohi-ki-te-kanohi experiences to make sense. The university said no more teaching IRL during the pandemic. But we only work IRL! However, don’t think that we did not do everything we could to tautoko our students to complete their degrees. Because we’re really good at (literally) thinking on our feet, we came up with a whole new online syllabus, overnight. We didn’t lose all the money. We just didn’t make all the money.

I like to tell the story of my Pākehā tipuna Sir Joseph Swan, the guy who actually invented the electric incandescent lamp. Thomas Edison, who you probably have all heard about, was much better at paperwork and he patented his own design 10 years after Great Uncle Joseph: thus becoming the official inventor because he bagsed it first. I use this story for the punchline that this whakapapa makes me keenly attuned for when I am being gas-lit. This is not about me. I can probably find a job running Tiriti workshops for corporations who are trying to convince their stakeholders that they “do” diversity. This is about more than me. This is about more than theatre. This is about rangatahi who don’t fit in. This is about continuing the whakapapa of the oldest artistic form in the world, in our own way.

This is about the death of the human in humanities. 

There are still opportunities in the next five weeks to stop this madness (I’m looking at you, Beehive). Then maybe we can sit down together. Have a talk. Watch a show.

Keep going!