- Missing the Drama:Staging Communities without Conflict
We were in the Basement, a rough-and-ready theatre in Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand. The theatre has been built into the back of an old brick building on Queen Street, and is known for its funky appeal to younger, more diverse audiences than its mainstream neighbors in Auckland’s Arts Precinct.1 The Basement’s black box had been set up for an awkward, rather claustrophobic mix of cabaret and bench seating, almost engulfing a smallish rectangular stage planted on the long side and elevated about a foot off the floor. The audience was predominantly Māori and Pasifika, hip, and queer. The show was part of the Auckland Pride Festival (February 5–21, 2016), and the party was definitely perking along. The play was Puzzy, by Kiki (Kiana Rivera), a Hawaiian-based Samoan-Filipina lesbian playwright.2 The string of identifiers is essential here, because that’s what the play is essentially about: the coming-out story of Mele, a Samoan-Filipina Jehovah’s Witness who struggles against being labeled even as she comes to face up to her grandmother’s disapproval. The role of Mele was played by one young woman, Frankie Adams, while the other three women on stage (Nora Aati, Gaby Solomona, and Malia ‘Ahovelo) stepped in and out of the spotlight with her as friends and lovers, family and others.
Across town at TAPAC (The Auckland Performing Arts Centre), the house was also packed, for At the End of My Hands: Stories for Deaf and Hearing Audiences.3 Onstage: six actors (four Deaf,4 two hearing) and a musician playing a variety of instruments, including piano and drums. The stage was bare except for three black cubes. Three translucent muslin panels hanging vertically upstage broke up the blackness of the box and offered opportunities for a bit of shadow play. At the End of My Hands was less scripted, more improvised than Puzzy. The stories were dispersed among the performers, a constellation of personal narratives, rather than centered on a singular protagonist, but the episodic structure was much the same: fragments of scenes in collage. Mixing sign, spoken word, and pantomime, the actors took turns describing and enacting episodes from life on the edge between Deaf and hearing communities. There were no “interpreters” as such, no translation or accommodation in either linguistic direction. With twice as many Deaf as hearing performers, those of us not fluent in New Zealand Sign Language had to employ a fair bit of empathy and imagination to keep up with the play. [End Page 7]
At TAPAC, we were seated more conventionally, in rows facing the proscenium. But as at the Basement, it seemed that both the frame of the stage—what separated us from the performers—and the line between ordinary life and its theatricalized double had been transcended in the way Carol Martin describes in her introduction to Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage. In her words, “much of today’s dramaturgy of the real uses the frame of the stage not as a separation but as a communion of the real and the simulated; not as a distancing of fiction from nonfiction, but as a melding of the two.”5 Likewise, Hans-Thies Lehmann begins, in Postdramatic Theatre, by seeing the theatre as “a place where a unique intersection of aesthetically organized and everyday real life takes place.” 6 In these Auckland theatres what was performed seemed to be, in Lehmann’s words, “a real gathering.”7 Our sense of communion was intense, profound, contagious.
Both Puzzy and At the End of My Hands were embraced by their audiences, many of whom clearly saw the actors speaking truths that were, if not their own, nonetheless resonant with their own experiences and values. There was a very real sense of grace in these gatherings. Both shows gave stage to communities who do not generally feature on the dominant cultural platforms of New Zealand, or anywhere else in the world. The productions were professional and proficient, well reviewed, with coverage in the city’s paper of record as well as on more specialist...