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Bringing the Cook Islands to the stage

Saturday 9 July 2022 | Written by Supplied | Published in Features, Weekend

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Bringing the Cook Islands to the stage
Cook Islander Poe Tiare Ruhe-Tararo. Te Herenga Waka—Wellington Uni/22070807

Growing up in the Cook Islands, Master of Fine Arts (Creative Practice) (MFA(CP)) in Theatre student Poe Tiare Ruhe-Tararo says she didn’t have much experience with theatre.

Theatre isn’t part of Cook Islands everyday learning and teaching, so it wasn’t something I experienced at school growing up, Poe Tiare says.

“Acting is also very Western and not traditional in Cook Islands performance, which is based on singing and dancing.”

Poe Tiare did have the opportunity to do a few acting jobs for the local TV station, however, and it was this experience that made her certain that a career in performing arts was right for her.

“I loved how collaborative film and theatre could be, and how there are so many possibilities.”

Poe Tiare came to Wellington for her undergraduate studies, something she was quite nervous about.

“I was terrified coming here because I didn’t have any background in studying theatre,” she says. “I also quickly noticed that I was the only brown person in my classes – I didn’t realise how alone I would be.”

Despite her initial fears, Poe Tiare soon came to see her experiences and perspective as an advantage.

“I definitely had to work hard on becoming my own individual and not getting lost in or overwhelmed by other cultures, but my culture and background gave me something unique that I could bring to the theatre world,” she says.

“I also had some amazing one-on-one mentoring from Dr Nicola Hyland—we were able to understand each other’s culture and bond over it.

“I know a lot of people feel like this, so my advice is not to be scared—focus on all the unique skills you can bring, and don’t worry about feeling less smart or experienced or anything else.”

Poe Tiare loved her experience as an undergraduate, especially because she had the opportunity to meet so many people.

“You don’t realise how many people you’ve met and how many connections you’ve made. You make a lot of close friends and build a community, which is really valuable in theatre—if you need someone to build a set, or design lighting, you usually end up having someone you can call just from all the people you meet while studying.”

Poe Tiare is now working on her Master’s degree. The MFA(CP) gives her the opportunity to create an original production from scratch and then put on the production for the public.

“Along with Hannah Taylor, another student who will be acting as production manager, I’m writing and directing a play about a Cook Islands legend. We’re combining traditional Cook Islands dance and singing with Western-style acting and musical theatre.

“As far as I know, only one other person has done something similar—in 2010, Thomas Peyroux created the production Beyond the Reef. The production was successful in the end, but from what I have read he definitely faced some challenges getting the show off the ground.”

One of the biggest challenges that Poe Tiare expects to face is finding actors from the Cook Islands to be in the production.

“There are a lot of strong singers and dancers from the Cook Islands, but not that many actors,” Poe Tiare says.

“We really want to have as many Cook Islanders in the show as possible, but if we can’t find a full cast we want to have Pasifika actors in all the roles. We hope by creating these job opportunities for Pasifika actors that we can encourage more Pasifika people into acting.”

“There aren’t a lot of stories about Cook Islanders or Cook Islanders in the theatre industry in general. I want to change that, and I hope to give other kids who were like me someone to look up to in the theatre industry.”

Poe Tiare and Hannah are also working with a cultural consultant to both make sure the cultural details around clothing, dialogue, and behaviour are correct for the time period the play will be set in, but also to make sure that the changes they make when combining Cook Island and Western performance styles respect the original Cook Islands legend.

“Although I’m from the Cook Islands and have some knowledge of these areas, developing a production like this on your own is very daunting. We want to make sure we are uplifting the culture and the legend and treating the story with the respect any culture deserves.”

Poe Tiare and her collaborator are currently writing the script for their production and getting their company together. They are aiming to get into rehearsal and start production in July. The show will premiere on 23 January 2023 at the MFA(CP)’s Six Degrees Festival.

This will be Poe Tiare’s debut as a director, but she hopes to do many more productions like this.

“If this production goes well, I hope to start developing more productions like this once I finish my Master’s,” Poe Tiare says.

“I’m also considering doing a PhD, and hopefully using my research to help incorporate the study of theatre into everyday learning and teaching in the Cook Islands, to give other people the chance to experience theatre in a strong cultural context.”

  • Victoria University of Wellington