Humour is the Great Healer: Interview with David Geary (Taranaki Māori)

by Moana Nepia*, Fiona Graham**, and Kathryn Kelly***

David Geary is a playwright and dramaturg whose origins include Indigenous Māori connections to the Taranaki iwi (tribe) on Aotearoa / New Zealand’s North Island, and to English, Irish and Scottish settler colonial nations. He currently lives and works on Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish land in what’s colonially termed North Vancouver, Canada.

David spoke via Zoom with Moana Nepia in New Zealand, Fiona Graham in the UK, and Kathryn Kelly in Australia, about some of the influences on his work for theatre, film and television with dramaturgs, performance makers and directors in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Canada, including Indigenous Māori and First Nations Canadian practitioners. His emphasis on practices of care, reflection, and the need to make space for supportive practices within workshop processes and teaching resonates with elements of his Māori cultural heritage, and Indigenous practices he has responded to while working in Canada. What follows is an edited version of this conversation.

David Geary. Photo: Courtesy of  David Geary

David Geary (DG): I really like what Heidi Taylor said about a dramaturg being a river that flows… you have to be very flexible. I used to use the police motto “protect and serve.” You are there to protect and serve the writer and a work. I am mostly a new play dramaturg, but that depends on the contract and the process. Sometimes I am more of a prescriptive provocateur. Every project is different.

My past work in television was very collaborative. I needed to establish very early on in theatre if people were interested in me offering solutions or generating material, as opposed to just giving feedback. In a lot of the productions that I work on now, I ask how we can bring in Indigenous customs, Indigenous Elders and Indigenous languages. If I’m working with someone who’s here in Turtle Island or Indigenous to Aotearoa / New Zealand, I ask what we can do that’s different from mainstream, white, colonial dramaturgy. Sometimes that that produces work that is place-based, connected to land.

When I wrote the play Mark Twain and Me in Māoriland, which was based on the battle of Moutoa Island in the Whanganui River, we went on a trip to consult with the local people. Eventually, everyone in the company started creating stuff, and I realised that I was not the main writer. I was dramaturging what other people were creating. I was more of a mediator taking the temperature of the room when needed, and we changed the credits for the show to reflect this collaboration.

Mark Twain & Me in Māoriland written and created by David Geary, John Bolton, Aaron Cortesi, Ngapaki Moetara, Allan Henry, Maaka Pohatu, Stephen Papps, Leo Gene Peters and Taki Rua Theatre Company. Dir. John Bolton. Dramaturg. David Geary. Performers. Allan Henry, Ngapaki Moetara, Aaron Cortesi and Maaka Pohatu. Taki Rua Theatre Company, Soundings Theatre, Te Papa, Wellington. Premiere: 13 March, 2010. Photo: Robert Catto

Yolanda Bonnell once said that dramaturgy always comes from a matter of care—how we care for and take care of each other as we create together. Dramaturgy is mostly about caring and supporting.

Moana Nepia (MN): Can we go back to what you said about the river metaphor? In my own work, I’ve used the foreshore as a place that I relate to as a visual and performing artist, because home is coastal, and that zone is typified by things slipping away, being washed ashore and constantly changing. I’ve also seen the metaphor of a river being used to describe time, and how you might flow through time in a single direction, past different rocks or bends. As someone from Aotearoa / New Zealand working in Turtle Island with Indigenous people from there, who have their own relationships with water, rivers and seas, how does this metaphor work?

DG: I like the idea of a river because you have got to keep things flowing. If I see a rock, we need to go around it—there’s something not working. Thinking of a river somehow helps you to keep flowing.

The work I’ve done here is interesting because of the playwrights that I’ve worked with. Some were, and others are still developing their practice. When I worked for Native Earth on Huff with Cliff Cardinal (who won the 2023 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama) it was a lot about getting him to understand the potential of a workshop. Stuart Devenie said to me in my first workshop as a playwright, in the late 1980s, “we’re not just workshopping a play, we’re workshopping a playwright.” Sometimes, a dramaturg is trying to create possibilities for a director or writer to open out, see that there’s a bigger ocean or perspective to consider. This is the more traditional idea of the dramaturg as an outside eye. Obviously, we need to focus on small things, but we try to keep the bigger perspective too.

One of the other shows I worked on in Canada was Red Patch by Sean Harris Oliver and Raes Calvert, writers who had  fears about going back to where the story came from. This play was about an Indigenous soldier in World War One. After the writers hit a rock and didn’t know what to do, I said, “you have to go back to the territory where this person comes from, find the First Nations language speakers, and talk to them.” They hesitated until I said, “it will be tough, but it will be powerful, and your work will take on much more richness.” I think they were afraid that someone might have said: “No, you won’t be able to do this story.” Instead, they were welcomed by the local people who said, “Oh, my God, you’ve turned up. We’ve been waiting for someone to try and help us tell the story for a long, long time.” I use case studies like this to explain to others what I do and how I work.

Early career theatre makers often don’t know what dramaturgs do, or why they might need one. That’s why I love actor Jeremy Strong’s description of what happened to a character in the final season of Succession: “Well, dramaturgically it tracks.” Everyone in popular media went, “what?” A meme appeared of him trying to explain what dramaturgical things are, and how dramaturgy is a real word: “I’m a theatre nerd, it’s a theatre nerd word, and I’m sticking to it.”

MN: What did he mean by “tracks”? Is this a hunting reference, seeking or following something, and if so, what is that, or is this another theatre nerd word?

DG: Ha, no, not a hunting reference. It means it follows, it works, makes sense, it’s right on track.

Indigenous makers often ask what you do, why they would want to be involved with you, and what value you might add to the process. Sometimes you’re there to help devise the whole process. Other times you give feedback on a script and can accelerate the rate of development through a workshop process. I’ve experienced dramaturgically lead workshops that have felt like being in a crucible, where progress in three or five days might have been equivalent to progress made elsewhere over three to five months. With the right people and the right chemistry, you can have an amazing reaction. But you do have to control and guide that process. This is like guiding a river, and, as I was saying earlier, constantly taking the temperature, which involves asking questions: “Is the writer getting what they want? Is this helping? How will we get them to the next point? What element should we bring in, and when should we bring it in?”

MN: In relation to the crucible idea, are there specific tikanga, Māori values, practices, or concepts that you keep to the fore?

DG: I would say it’s about supporting people. After having trouble with developing one production, I suggested meeting in circles outside of work, to meet and check in, like non-Indigenous groups do all the time in theatre. Workspace is sacred and tough, and we need to be careful. When I finish a work, I like to come out and be cleansed in another circle, to be able to “let it go.” Otherwise, I guess it could be like returning from the horrors of war, not being cleansed, and having to take those horrors with you everywhere.

Banff Writers Festival 2023. Brian Quirt (left) Kodie Rollan (centre). DG: “The photo above is the circle for the readers I created as a dramaturg, then outside that again the circle for the listeners. I’m not a big fan of the orchestra stands across the stage and the audience in the seats type of readthroughs. I like it when the actors/readers can see each other and interact face-to-face. And the listeners are another supportive circle around them. The listeners can also move around during the reading to experience the reading in different ways.” Photo: David Geary

MN: Are you also saying that dramaturgy is like going to war?

DG : Well, it can involve battles about how to tell a story without it being preachy, or finding a suitable style or way to tell a story without resorting to tropes and clichés. There can be battles with time and resources too. Art is hard work, and if it feels like a battle, you have to choose your weapons and tactics carefully. Other times there are creative differences that need to be mediated.

I was leading an Indigenous film script workshop for the Writers and Tricksters program in Vancouver. Everyone in the room was Indigenous. The screenwriter had written the W-Monster word, which I still find hard to say. A First Nations actor challenged the writer, by saying “we do not say that word.”

MN: I don’t know what the ‘W-monster’ is.

David writes WENDIGO in the chat.

DG: It’s not a big secret. You can find it in the great Elder wisdom of Wikipedia :), and out there in the public domain, it refers to a cannibal monster based upon stories from Indigenous First Nations and Native American people. But for Indigenous peoples it can be a very sensitive subject. The person who wrote the script was very happy about writing it and saying it, and some of the actors were fine with that too. Others wanted time out—they felt through repeating that word, you make it stronger, you invite it into the present. We decided to have a circle at the end of the day and leave the “W-word” back in the room with the work. When dealing with something traumatic, I need to check in with everyone and see if they need support.

The other practice I used to adhere to was holding check-in circles where we would try to leave all our baggage outside the room, but then I saw how Yolanda Bonnell suggested that if things are going on you have the opportunity to share them in such circles, so everyone knows. In this way, everyone can help carry you through the day, as you do the work, instead of saying “Oh, yeah, forget about that. We’re just gonna do the work.” I really liked that concept of care too. So these are some of the ideas and practices that I keep working on.

The ritual burning of all the spare pages at the Banff Playwrights Lab I was part of in April 2023. Photo: David Geary

Another practice to be aware of in terms of cleansing is smudging.

MN: In your Rough Guide to Indigenous Dramaturgy and Workshopping, you’ve written about smudging with sage as a way to indigenise and make spaces feel safe for Indigenous performers from Canada and the United States, and you’ve also acknowledged what Indigenous writer and performer Falen Johnson describes as making connections with each other, ancestors, the earth, and the creator through this process.

DG: Yes, but not everyone does smudging. Some people have cedar bough cleansing. If we are going to be dealing with tough things, we want to cleanse the space, and maybe lift the tapu and make it normal again. And if we’re dealing with anything that people would consider sacred or tapu, then we want to know how our people can make it safe. That would be part of introducing tikanga in my work in Canada.

MN: Do you discuss the meaning of tapu with people you work with in Canada?

DG: I do, but I’m no expert on tapu. I try to find out if there are equivalent cultural sensitivities or restrictions that we need to be aware of. Use of the ‘W-word’ would be one example. This would also be an opportunity to involve local Elders who know more than me about local cultural practices.

Living and working in Canada, I’m constantly positioning myself, saying I am not “of Turtle Island.” I am from Aotearoa / New Zealand. My mother told me I had Māori blood when I was a kid. But I did not know until my thirties that I came from Taranaki. I did not know the name of my tīpuna (ancestors) until then. My whole Māori identity has been built much later in my life. I recently did an interview with Alice Te Punga Somerville, a Māori academic and writer here at the University of British Colombia, about being a long-distance Māori, part of the diaspora, and not fully on the ground:

I’ve been here seventeen of the last twenty years, and if asked about things back home, I usually reply “I don’t know.” I try to follow what theatre is doing there, but I’m not there. I make regular trips back, but I’m not seeing Aotearoa / New Zealand shows very often. I’m more in touch with the New Zealand film industry because I see New Zealand films here. Alice and I had a big discussion about a lot of those things, about being the one who’s away, and positioning yourself as being not from here, but invited in.

I’ll sometimes say to people here that I’m not sure if I’m the best person to be doing this work. I’ll do what I can and hold the space for now. But I’m also looking for the person who can replace me, who will be the local Indigenous dramaturg that can help local makers, or work with me to help others.

I met a great Chief here who had just been elected and asked him what the first job of a Chief was. He replied, “Find the next Chief.” I thought “that’s right, that’s a succession plan.” I sometimes question if I am the best person to be talking here, the best person to be having an opinion, or if there is someone better, who knows more than I or we do. That’s something else a dramaturg does—identifying opportunities where we need to find an expert or a community, where we acknowledge our ignorance or our curiosity about something. The dramaturg can be the one saying, “I will go and do the research to try and help us around this rock, to keep the process flowing.”

MN: You’ve touched on something that others I’ve talked to have referred to and described in their own ways: how rituals prepare a space, prepare people to create a safe space, or a space that is fruitful and creative. Is that part of your dramaturgical thinking?

DG: Yes. I’m big on the right of reply. I like it if the audience has a chance to respond. I like audience feedback. I love when Māori audience members stand up and sing in Māori theatre, talk to the cast and to others in the audience. If it was up to me, I would say every performance should have that. I love that we are having more opportunities to see shows like this, to talk and respond to performers during or after the show. Everyone should get a chance to reply. I love what Yolanda Bonnell does, where she stands at the door and welcomes people into the space, and says, “Hi, I’m the performer. How are you? This is what’s gonna happen.” I do feel we have to take extra care with triggering and traumatic content. Have you seen the film Waru?

MN: Yes.

DG: A few years ago, it was being shown here, but I hadn’t seen it yet. I knew Briar, Katie, and others involved with making the film and knew some, but not all the content or how it was presented. After encouraging our Indigenous film students to go and see it, many of them took their families along. Some students felt very uncomfortable because it was about the murder of a child and felt tricked because this hadn’t been explained to them. Those who had dealt with the death of children in their own families were especially upset.

I now use this as a discussion point with faculty, staff, and students to explain the importance of telling people about the content of work before they see it. You don’t want to give away the whole story, but you do want to explain what the themes are so audiences can choose whether to come or not. I also like audience members to be offered the chance to leave a performance at any point if they feel it’s not for them, and for them not to feel judged in any way if they do.

MN: In 2007 I went to Chicago, to join other whānau (relations) on a visit to one of our ancestral wharenui (carved meeting houses) from Tokomaru Bay called Ruatepupuke, which is on permanent display in the Field Museum. We were taken to a cultural centre for the local native community where the hosts invited us to join them in a drum dance. We couldn’t just sit and watch. We were told their performances weren’t for an external audience. It was for the people who were performing. On this occasion it was about making a connection between visitors and locals, moving in unison to a constant rhythm and every now and then there’d be what I call an ectopic or syncopated beat. I asked one of the women about that afterwards, and she explained that those beats were to remind us that we’re all alive.
Māori people are used to connecting with and engaging their audiences in a different way.  They project a certain energy to their audiences, and in a good performance, the exchange of energy is reciprocated from the audience. That reciprocation of energy is quite different from what we experienced on that occasion in Chicago. Have you experienced anything similar here?

DG: Yes, at Pow Wows, which are big here, intertribal round dances can include family dances where everyone’s invited to join. Mask dances are traditional on the West Coast, but Pow Wow, which isn’t from here originally, is now everywhere. There’s also a band called Snotty Nose Rez kids, which is a First Nations hip hop band. If you go to one of their concerts, everyone dances.

I saw an amazing show called What’s Left of Us by two Indigenous, queer, disabled, artists and dancers, Justin Many Fingers and Brian Solomon. It was powerful having the audience connect with them. I remember the audience got up at the end, wanting to hug them and say how proud they were, “You must bring your show to us. You have to take it everywhere.” The performers explained how there were only two of them, and how they couldn’t. I suggested we make a film of their show and I’d still like to.

The line between performer and audience is always interesting for dramaturgs to negotiate with Indigenous work. For me it’s like asking: “What is this? A different audience? How could I mediate this? Get some flow going?”

There’s a Māori circus performance show coming here very soon called Te Tangi a te Tūī (The cry of the Tui), andI’m interested to know what the level of audience engagement is going to be with that show. One reviewer described how performers stood on the stage at the end and asked the audience to respond in any way they liked. The Cultch theatre here in Vancouver have asked me to talk to them about how to meet and engage with these performers. That’s another role for a dramaturg—as an intermediary when two groups come together who don’t know each other and you’re the middle person who translates.

As a dramaturg, I give people resources in case they want to learn more about structure, character, or dialogue writing. Because I teach in a film department and have worked in television, a lot of those resources are from film and television where the dramaturg would often be called a story consultant, script consultant, script editor, or story producer. I flow into that world and back as well.

When I started off in my own personal practice, I had to be very clear with people about what I could or couldn’t do with them. Because I’m a writer, I would think about what I could do or write, but would be careful to ask if they’d like me to offer a solution or, if a character was going to say something, for example: Would they say it this way? Put it that way? Or “Have you thought of…?” That is always an interesting conversation to have.

While at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, I had my own play there, QEIII – Black Betty (a lost Shakespeare play) and was working on other people’s plays too. We got to read each other’s work and made suggestions to other playwrights about what our characters would say. There was also a dramaturg present to mediate that process…to “protect and serve.” Sometimes, a cast or directors start to take over from the writer; or a director with a very strong vision suggests that because they haven’t got much time, they need to work out how to do something immediately, or “I’ve got an idea…”. The writer can lose control of the crucible in those instances. The dramaturg tries to protect what the writer imagined and see what help they might need.

Kathryn Kelly (KK): I was very lucky to have worked in Toronto, where I trained as a dramaturg, and had the opportunity to be in the room with an extraordinary Canadian playwright and dramaturg, Iris Turcott, who worked at Canadian Stage in Toronto for decades. With a lot of what you’re talking about, I can hear Iris in my mind, and am reminded of that wonderful, writerly, writers’ theatre found in Canada that Banff Playwrights Lab does so beautifully too. The equivalents in Australia and Aotearoa / New Zealand have all died unfortunately. We don’t have those big national writers’ workshops, and we don’t have that architecture or philosophy anymore. Listening to you just now is like swimming in this beautiful pool of Writers’ Theatre. Yay! It still exists.

DG: Guillermo Verdecchia’s motto is Do no harm. I’ve met him and think he’s a great dramaturg and writer. When he came to Vancouver, he said, “That’s my bottom line. You, the dramaturg, are in a very powerful position, because the creator, the writer has been very vulnerable, putting a lot of things out there, so you could inadvertently damage or push them away. No matter what else, the dramaturg must do no harm.”

KK: When I went to the first Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) conference, I remember being overwhelmed by a room full of dramaturgs. It was quite extraordinary. We don’t have anything like that in our communities of practice in Australia. It’s a massive difference to have that collegiality, to compare practice and discuss it sympathetically. 

The ritual burning of all the spare pages at the Banff Playwrights Lab I was part of in April 2023. Photo: David Geary

DG: During Covid-19 it was great because LMDA would meet every two weeks online. That was when there was a lot of connection. They live all over the United States, Canada and a few in Mexico, and don’t see each other very often. Anyone can join the LMDA. The conferences are game changers. Everyone’s speaking the same language. No one’s having to explain themselves. And a lot of the people who go, wrote the books that get studied. That’s where I galvanised a lot of my thinking through chatting with open, friendly people like Brian Quirt and Mark Bly who edited The Production Notebooks.

Fiona Graham (FG): The Dramaturgs’ Network here in the UK set up a lot of international links between dramaturgs, just before Covid. I was in a group with Brian Quirt, Sarah Elkashef, from Montreal and two dramaturgs from Finland. We did a lot of group support work through that time. We still meet and learn from listening to each other talk about what we are doing and issues that we are concerned about. I also interviewed Greg McGee about his play Foreskin’s Lament, which is one of the first New Zealand plays to be developed through a workshop process. It got out of hand because everybody had ideas about what he should do, expected him to do rewrites overnight and bring them in the next day. In film, they can take your script, rewrite it, and then “pass” it back to you, which is something I would never dream of doing.

DG: Yeah, a script editor on a TV series can change a lot of things. I’ve written scripts, seen them on TV with my name there, and go, “Whoa!” They just waded in and rewrote a lot of it. But that’s what a pass is. If you have a show runner, you write a script for them, and then the show runner has a pass at it. It might be very different again, but I think you can build up trust and knowledge through sharing and working as a team. Team writing is pretty fun in TV because everyone’s throwing ideas together.

FG: It’s a contract, though, isn’t it? From the beginning you know what you’re getting into. I work a lot with students on the contract between us and what we expect from each other. For Hush, which was a verbatim piece I did in Dunedin about family violence, we did what you were talking about, but I never thought about it in terms of circles. We created space and time for the creative team to process their experience and reactions to the work.

DG: It’s interesting to think about what fiction editors do compared to a dramaturg as well.  I write a lot of short stories now. With a dramaturg you will get text notes but you expect there will be a conversation that goes into more detail too, especially, obviously, when you’re in a workshop—there it’s often all one big conversation. Compare that to how I’ve never had a live conversation with any of my fiction editors. It’s a literary work, so everything is done in a written form, with Track Changes usually. It can feel more intensive than dramaturgy because there’s just the writer, the editor and the reader.

I remember with my short story #WATCHLIST in the Black Marks On The White Page (2017) collection, edited by Witi Ihimaera & Tina Makereti. The first note from Tina was Witi thought I should change the order of the sections and put the bit about the famous composer Stockhausen saying the events of 9/11 were the greatest work of art closer to the start, and she agreed. That’s a big note for a first note. There was still a high degree of care and concern, but I had to get used to the fiction world giving feedback that is more direct, nuts and bolts, cuts and suggestions, shuffle things around. It was a great new skill to learn. Sometimes that directness is what a playwright wants, but you have to build a relationship of trust first. Dramaturgs and editors have to act responsibly in their professional relationships when working with others to bring their creative ideas to life.

What other qualities do dramaturgs need? They also need a sense of humour, especially when they’re perpetually asked: What do you do exactly? There is no Indigenous word for dramaturg, so I sometimes call myself the deliberately pretentious title of the ‘StoryShapeShifter’. Sometimes it gets a laugh. But, seriously, humour is often what’s needed in the workshop and the work. Especially when the work is “heavy” and we’re getting bogged down. So it can be the dramaturg’s job to inject that, find that, lighten the mood and bring spirit back into the room. Sometimes I talk about how comedy is harder than tragedy but has two great rules we can all learn; Reversal and Exaggeration. Humour has helped us survive many horrors. It’s helped us laugh in the face of death. In it’s satirical form it can take the power back and reaffirm our humanity. The TV series Reservation Dogs and the satirical newsfeed Walking Eagle News would be prime examples of this. Humour is the great healer. Finally, a little dramaturg’s joke: Q. How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb? Writer: You’re not changing anything. 🙂 

Photo: Natalie Robertson

*Moana Nepia had an international career as dancer and choreographer before retraining as a visual artist. Through research and creative practice rooted in Māori epistemologies and ways of knowing, he has also sought to expand discussion about Indigenous creative practice. 

Photo: Isabel Shore

**Fiona Graham (Britain / Aotearoa) is Programme Director for the MA Dramaturgy and Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College, London University. She is also a freelance dramaturg and writer with forty years’ experience in Britain, New Zealand, Portugal, Singapore, and Australia. Publications include Performing Dramaturgy (Playmarket, 2017). 

Photo: QUT Brand Centre

***Kathryn Kelly is a dramaturg and theatre historian and a Senior Lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research interests include dramaturgy and socially engaged, feminist and transcultural performance. She is company dramaturg with Belloo Creative an award winning, all-female company, based in Meanjin/Brisbane.

Copyright © 2023 Moana Nepia, Fiona Graham and Kathryn Kelly
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