Ex_isle of Strangers

Mâtiu-Somes Island, Wellington

15/04/2010 - 18/04/2010

Production Details

Ex_isle of Strangers

A work-in-progress presentation on Mâtiu Somes Island
April 15- 18, 2010

The New Pacific Theatre Collective is an ensemble of theatre practitioners, musicians and designers – under the artistic guidance of Bert van Dijk. We are investigating an approach to performance training & practice that is reflective of the unique geographic, cultural and spiritual qualities of Aotearoa / New Zealand – drawing inspiration from Contemporary European performance principles, Japanese Noh theatre and the Whare Tapere [pre-European Mâori performing arts].

As a nation of islands and islanders, we share the experience of having left a Homeland, venturing on a journey over sea [by boat or plane], and arriving at a new territory – to be delighted, surprised and challenged by the ‘unknown’.

It is fitting to give our first public presentation the theatrical structure of such a journey by situating it on Mâtiu Somes Island – a place of remarkable geographic, cultural and spiritual attributes.

The work we are presenting is a ‘work-in-progress’ and it is important at this stage to invite feedback and initial responses to our investigations and creations from a selected audience.

To cover the cost of chartering a ferry and offering a light refreshment on the island, the ticket price for Ex_isle of Strangers is set at: $30 adults / $25 unwaged / $20 children.

For pragmatic reasons we are limiting the audience to 50 people per performance – therefore, if you wish to attend this unique event, you need to purchase your ticket ASAP.

Email bertvd@clear.net.nz with a first and second choice of performance dates, the number of tickets required, and your contact details.

The audience is asked to gather at Queens Wharf – 15 min. prior to ferry departure:
April 15 & 16: Ferry departs at 1PM / returns app. at 4:45PM
April 17 & 18: Ferry departs at 1:15PM / returns app. at 4:45PM

Please note that the performance involves walking to various locations on the island and requires a certain degree of mobility.  

Creative Team, Ex_isle of Strangers 
Core Performers: 
Madeline McNamara, Will Moffatt, Rawiri Hindle, Moko Smith, Whetu Silver, Tristan Stibbards, Te Kahurangi Maioha, Charles Royal
Supporting Performers:
Miki Seifert [Butoh], Belinda Davis, Pam Hughes, Simon Haren
Jacob Ennis, Alistair Fraser, Rosie Moxey, Tristan Stibbards, Charles Royal
Taiko Drummers: International Pacific Centre, Palmerston North
Artistic Director: Bert van Dijk
Te Whare Tapere Advisor: Dr Charles Royal
Musical Director: Tristan Stibbards
Production Assistants: Michael Potton & Simon Haren
Cameraman: William Franco
Photography:             Nicole Simons
Costume Designer: Ian Harman
“He Tangi nâ Tâmairangi”
Composer: Hone Hurihanganui
Singer: Stephanie Tibble [née Pohe]
“Kim Lee Noh Play”
Playwright: Bert van Dijk
Dramaturgy: John Davies (University of Waikato)
Musicians: Rosie Moxey, Jacob Ennis, Tristan Stibbard, Alistair Fraser
Jasmine Toynbee, Charles Royal, Rawiri Hindle, Pam Hughes, Belinda Davis, Robin Owen, Bert van Dijk [Composer]
Mask maker: Luke Devery
Madeline McNamara [Spirit of Mâtiu]; Will Moffatt [Ghost of Kim Lee]; Whetu Silver [Ranger]; Moko Smith [Jin Cao Lee]

We acknowledge the Tangata Whenua of Matiu Island - Te Atiawa [as represented by the Wellington Tenth Trust] and the Department of Conservation – particularly the island rangers Jo Greenman and Matt Sidaway – for their invaluable support.

The New Pacific Theatre Collective

Healing the hurts of history

Review by John Smythe 18th Apr 2010

Although Ex_isle of Strangers is billed as a work in progress, the New Pacific Theatre Collective – director Bert van Dijk – specifically requests feedback from all audience members as “a vital part of the overall process.” Envelopes with feedback forms are distributed at each performance and public discussion is also invited via comments to this review. 

Described as “the point of departure” for the work, Matiu Somes Island is where we arrive, via East West Ferry, to engage with the outcome of their devised theatre process. Spanning three and a half hours from leaving and returning to Queens Wharf, it treats us to a range of site-specific evocations of the island’s history expressed in forms inspired by the Michael Chekhov Technique, Te Whare Tapere (pre-European Maori performing arts) and Japanese Noh theatre, with Butoh also present in one sequence.  

A very young group of Japanese drummers (none of whom are Japanese) greets us at the island wharf with a striking display of their skill. Although it has nothing to do with the history of the island, it does help to establish the theme of strangers and strangeness.

We split into two groups. One watches a French Impressaario (Te Kaahurangi Maioha) put a trio of performing dogs (Madeline McNamara, Will Moffatt, Whetu Silver) through their paces: some very impressive dogginess here.

The other group enters the Whare Kiore (visitor shelter) to be inducted into the rules of the island by the (genuine) Duty Ranger then welcomed by a high camp gaggle of a crown-bedecked Queen (Rawiri Hindle), bustle-frocked Ladies (Belinda Davies, Pam Hughes) and Kit Kat Boys (Moko Smith, Simon Haren, Jacob Ennis, Tristan Stibbards) singing a modified version of ‘’Willkommen’ from Cabaret (“Willkommen, haere mai, welcome”). Then we swap.

I’m not aware that performing dogs or gay cabaret are ex this isle either but if the objective is to abstract a melange of Crown control, quarantined animals and German ‘aliens’ in a context of fear of Japanese invasion (not mentioned in the programme but during WWII much military infrastructure around Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington Harbour was based on that premise), I suppose that too could be intellectually extrapolated.

A pleasant stroll up the hill – the Collective has been blessed with clear sunny weather following a brief southerly squall earlier in the week – brings us to a point overlooking the small Mokopuna Island, famed for the isolation of Kim Lee. Only if you have read the 12-page programme on the ferry, or know your local history well, will you know at this point that he was a Chinese fruiterer from Newtown suspected of having leprosy, who died in miserable exile in 1904.

Indeed this story inspires the ‘Kim Lee Noh Play’ that will end the programme later and it will still be necessary to know the essential background, as the play assumes we have that prior knowledge. In our case audience members exchange bits of information as we stroll on up towards the quarantine station, which may or may not be accurate.

En route, amid the native greenery on the path, we encounter a Maori woman (Stephanie Tibble) and her Son (Paihere Aperahama), in European clothes and tied to a tree. They are the prisoners of a tattooed Warrior (Rania Aperahama), adorned in piupiu skirts and wielding a taiaha. A purerehua (bull roarer) and koauau (bone flute) haunt the air (musician Alistair Fraser). The Woman sings beautifully, the Warrior’s heart is won and he frees his prisoners.  

Again, only if you have read the story in the programme will you understand this evokes an 1820s incident in which Tâmairangi and her children, prisoners of the invading Ngâti Mutunga, were freed into the protection of Te Rangihaeata when he – while visiting the Ngâti Mutunga – heard her sing her waiata of farewell to her lands and people. Except in this re-enactment the would-be-assassin and the liberator are one and the same.

At the summit the beautiful, natural and peaceful environment gives way to ugly, functional government buildings. We are split into three groups to be led, by white-coated clipboard-clutching guides, through the Quarantine Centre.

Peggy the Administrator (McNamara) – blonde wigged, flouncy-bloused, mini-skirted and high-heeled – is stressed out by our ‘open day’ visitation as she neurotically fossicks in her drawers for the animal husbandry manual, shares a passage on arousal and develops an intimate relationship with her institutional-green wall while finding herself unable to look through the window at the view. Despite having access to a phone, even the staff, it seems, feel isolated and go stir-crazy.

A melancholy cello (Rosie Moxey) expresses unspeakable sadness … Down a passageway one wall is lined with pale green lockers from which hands and naked arms reach, grasping at air. A motif is emerging – we’ve seen it with the dogs at the fence, Peggy at her desk and now these faceless prisoners: hands opening, closing, scratching at surfaces … Shoes and clothes are tossed out, naked legs emerge, the men appear clad only in ties and underpants.

Interestingly they don’t present as downtrodden victims but open-faced, wide-eyes, eager to please, even as a red-nosed and rubber-gloved health inspector probes ears, noses and throats, and they are led to foot-troughs and hosed down. The faint strains of ‘Willkommen’ are reprised on a harmonium. These, then, are the wartime alien internees.

In a shed of livestock pens, red-nosed ‘animals’ epitomise isolation. The concrete and pipes are redolent of Auschwitz imagery. The person in charge also has a red nose. I’m not sure about the arbitrary use of red clown noses here (nor before with the health inspector) as the characterisations are not clownishly distilled, nor do they work as ‘windows to the soul’. They just seem stuck on to me.

Hindle delivers a robust recitation of a poem about a dog that loses its bark then gets it back (unattributed in the programme but my companion thinks it’s by James K Baxter – one of his Bow Wow poems, to which Sam Hunt responded, or was it ine of Sam’s?). Beautifully haunting choral harmonies, sung a cappella, carry us to a furnace in which a lifeless body lies. Its hand, placed on a harmonium keyboard, remains inert.

In another room, trapped in a pen, a white body-painted woman in a white frock on which we glimpse fragments of text (I think this is Butoh exponent Miki Seifert). Slowly she finds the capacity to fly free only to find herself in a room that traps her just as much. The bits of text I happen to discern – “it is as good as gymnastics I assure you” and “We in the corner over where it has not been touched” – add no further meaning to this sequence for me.

Fresh fruit and juice refreshments are offered in a run-down recreation hall. Many of us escape out to the sun and light, albeit on concreted ground enclosed by rusting wire fences.

And so to the final act, in the cleaned-up Barracks hut: the Kim Lee Noh Play (playwright Bert van Dijk). A Dutch writer /director uses a traditional Japanese performance mode to tell the story of a Hong Kong Chinese man’s quest to discover the fate of his mother’s mainland Chinese father who emigrated to Wellington. Is this using a sculptor’s chisel to paint in oils; wearing ballet pumps to tap-dance; playing a piano concerto on a clarinet? Whatever, it is mesmerising.

The musicians play traditional instruments, a Chorus intones the narration and actors play out the drama. A man – Jin Cao Lee (Moko Smith) – washes at the water’s edge and is swept in a swirling tide to Mokopuna Island. In apparent affirmation of the old Chinese proverb, “There are certain things in life we cannot predict”, fate has taken him – inevitably? – to the very place his grandfather met his doom.

According to the extremely codified language and the symbolic gestures and movements of Noh theatre, masked and gowned characters play out their roles. Madeline McNamara is the majestic Spirit of Matiu. On Matiu, a Ranger (Whetu Silver) hears Jin Cao’s cries for help, comes to his aid and tells him the story of the shipwrecked fisherman who sheltered in the small island’s cave and encountered the ghost of a Chinaman: Kim Lee.

The Ghost of Kim Lee (Will Moffatt) arises in vengeful mode (the masks by Luke Devery are superb). On this isle of exile, its long history punctuated by paranoia and cruelty before it became a Department of Conservation sanctuary, the urge towards bitterness and revenge vies with the quest for peace and reconciliation.

“During the devising process,” van Dijk writes in his programme note, “we were struck by the enormous amount of suffering that took place on Matiu Soames Island and we felt a strong urge to bring love and spiritual nourishment to the island – perhaps in an effort to restore some of the imbalances that had occurred … ‘Reaching out’, in order to overcome separateness, loneliness and isolation began to emerge as one of the leading motives in our work.”

Hence there is a therapeutic tone to the resolution, with the play allowing the island to speak its stories to itself – through the agency of the New Pacific Theatre Collective – in order to free itself of the hurt. An interesting notion of how efficacious theatre can be. 

The overall feeling, as we walk back down to the ferry after further refreshments and chat with the company and each other, is of time well spent to absorb, through various means, the story of this ex-isle of strangers and to share in the sense of healing.

In retrospect I feel bound to note that this mode of working seems to deny the inclusion of hard facts and historical material that may, for example, characterise the policy-makers and their rationalisations for using the island this way. If we haven’t read and retained the programme notes, the rationale for some of what is being performed remains secret from the audience, leaving us either bemused by its obscurity or connected only to superficial performative elements rather than engaged more deeply by its content, and therefore more fully appreciative of the means of expression.

That said, Ex_isle of Strangers offers a memorable experience that somehow slips in through pores we don’t normally open to these sorts of inputs.


Terese Mcleod November 29th, 2010

Kia ora koutou

I want to use this forum to pay public tribute to the Ex_Isle of Strangers production whanau. 

Matiu Somes island has very layered histories, for such a relatively small place there has and continues to be a huge amount of activity within it.  There is so much information that to distill its essence, as the beautifully crafted work Ex_Isle of Strangers accomplished, is remarkable.

I glanced through some comments above about audiences not being fully briefed about certain stories - however I don't think there needs necessarily to be such background knowlegde.  I have worked on the island for over a decade and I still don't know all the many island produced histories, but because of the style of this production I didn't need to, the stories I didn't know or know well, I FELT through the well considered and thoughtfully constructed performances. 

The legacy of this work is now an integral part of the island and has been a significant contribution to its health and healing and a wonderful lead in to the formal handing over of the island back to my iwi.  My only wish is that more people can see this work, its definitely arts festival material.  Thank you for everything your roopu gave to the island.

Mauri ora Terese Mcleod (Co-Kaitiaki Matiu Somes Island for Taranaki Whanui)

Luke H June 23rd, 2010

I'm a bit late to this party, but I've jotted down some thoughts on ex-Isle of the Strangers on my blog

Corus May 3rd, 2010

 At last, eloquently put, hear hear and thankyou Nic.  

Nic Farra May 3rd, 2010

 Caramba! Assuming the audience has read the 16 (SIXTEEN!!) page programme on the ferry trip? For a mate of mine who has dyslexia that's asking a bit much. I think if you have to read the programme beforehand it's a bit like having to have read the text first in order to understand what's going on; not everyone's gonna do it. The actor's version of 'publish and be damned' is 'perform and be damned'. In other words, stand up, hit your marks, tell the truth. Tell the story on stage. Don't tell me anything vital in the programme, I may not read it.

I know nothing of contemporary European theatre practice. Why should I? I'm always of the opinion that if the people who do know screes about said practice get a little extra out of it, fine. The folk who've not had the benefit of living/working/training in Europe, or playing with those who've taught something of it should still be able to get a wide ranging experience of the piece, on many levels. Noh, butoh, Gratowski are all fine sounding methods if they are engaging and communicative, but if I have to be a blind camel to see the red nose on your face, then I remain the guy who pays your wages and goes away feeling like I've been swindled.

Colette Nixon May 2nd, 2010

From an audience member! 


The Ex-Isle of Strangers performance stimulated both imagination and interesting conversation in our family. It was a fascinating experience for our kids aged 10 and 8, who usually have story meanings spoon fed to them.

What fun it was to be able to interact with the actors and in turn affect their own experience of performing. One of the actors had noted our daughter looking at him during the passageway scene and later thanked her for doing so.

There were points of frustration; the critical timing meant we felt hurried along at times and although the Butoh performance was stunningly executed, I found myself distracted by trying to read what was on her dress.

As one of those who didn’t read the programme on the ferry I still managed to be engaged with each “Act” without needing the history lesson beforehand. Yes, had I read the programme it would have been a different experience, but not necessarily a more meaningful one.  

Quotes from the kids: “It was really weird but awesome as well”; “It was hard to understand but it was pretty cool.”; “My favourite bit was patting the dogs because they acted like dogs.”; “My favourite part was Peggy in the office”.

Were we entertained by this innovative, experimental and experiential theatre? Absolutely!! 

John Smythe May 1st, 2010

Bert, please re-read my review and note that nothing I have said is based on a “personal conception of what theatre should be” – although your production obviously is (of course!).  

I have noted the performative principles that inform your work, represented what happened (for the historical record), made some objective observations, responded subjectively wherever I felt so moved and raised some questions in relation to relying on prior knowledge or a study of the programme notes to connect more meaningfully with the work.

All is predicated on an appreciation of your performance aims (supported by your research and development process) and, given it is a work-in-progress, a shared – I assume – interest in exploring how the experience may become even richer for future audiences.  

I find it frustrating that so many ‘straw men’ have been erected in this discussion despite no-one arguing for a conservative, text-based, proscenium arched status quo. Let me assure you I am made of far more flexible stuff than that.  The minute I find myself uninterested in having my experience of what theatre can be expanded beyond what I know, I shall give up being a critic.   

PS: There is just one ‘should’ I do subscribe to: theatre should engage its audience. If no connection is made between the work and the audience, it does not – I believe – qualify as theatre.  And what distinguishes theatre from other art forms is that it aims to engage groups of people simultaneously at a designated time and place.   

Bert van Dijk May 1st, 2010

 I am certainly not blaming the audience for not loving our work. The feedback from the audience that is streaming in suggests that the vast majority of the audience enjoyed the work on many different levels, was stimulated by it and moved physically, emotionally and spiritually. That is not to say that no critical comments or suggestions for improvement are made. They did and we really appreciate their contributions.

As the work is part of an ongoing research project my expectation was that any theatre critic would respond to the work in relation to the research aims rather than in reference to any personal conceptions of what theatre should be.

John Smythe April 30th, 2010

My comments are not in the least bit confined to “specific architecture and literature” or “reliance on the proscenium arch and the script.”  Take Binge Culture’s Storytime for the Hungry as but one example: free, unscripted, interactive, happening in the open ... It still required people to gather at an appointed place and time, events occurred at a pace controlled by the performers ... Each ephemeral performance happened within a finite time.

The same goes for many an excellent Fringe show witnessed over the years – unconfined by conservative conventions yet still in the realm of performing arts.

And who said “all exhibitions have price tags in them”? I was just suggesting that one way to engage with a work of visual art for ‘a lifetime’ would be to buy it. But obviously you can do the same with public art – e.g. the bucket fountain or a Welly wind sculpture – without paying a brass razoo.

Surely there is nothing pejorative about suggesting visual and performing arts are, in their pure forms, different from each other. Why else do we use different words to define them?

sam trubridge April 30th, 2010

It seems a bit of an oversight to say that all exhibitions have price tags in them, expressing a very compartmentalised and narrow view of what you might call the visual arts. And to describe installation and performance art as crossover artforms acknowledges the flexibility of these  'rules of engagement' that you say divides the visual arts from theatre. The rules of engagement that you attribute to theatre are perpetuated by a specific architecture and literature. But without that reliance on the proscenium arch and the script then what?

John Smythe April 30th, 2010

Well I have waited, like Bert, for nearly three days to “hear some other voices who have experienced Ex_isle of Strangers” but they are not forthcoming yet, so I’ll respond to some of the points above.  

First, I reject the idea that it is “bad taste to comment on a review of work that you're personally involved in.” This production has specifically invited feedback and it would be impolite for the practitioners not to engage in the conversation. Indeed Theatreview would like to encourage the creative protagonists of all productions to engage more often in robust debate in the overall quest for enlightenment and excellence.

That said, I have to say I’m bemused a Bert’s assertion that my failure to “pick up on the depth of research and exploration that went into the work does not mean that it wasn't there - it just means that John Smythe was unable to pick it up. In that way I fear it says more about his lack of perception or imagination than about the work.”

I would assert that I opened myself to the experience with all receptors primed to perceive all stimuli and my imagination ready and willing to carry me beyond the immediate experience. And my review reflects that: it is not a negative review. As always I abandoned myself to the experience then ‘interrogated my response’ in retrospect, thus engaging my intellect.

Bert, I appreciate you “come from a contemporary European theatre training and performance background” and that for you “theatre is total theatre that appeals foremost to the senses, the imagination, the feelings and to a lesser extend the intellect.”  And where I come from, blaming your audience for not loving your work is generally seen as a cop-out. Besides which, it is precisely because I’m aware of how much work had gone into the project that I’m suggesting there was more to some parts than you made available to our senses and imaginations.  

Whenever I feel performers are having a richer experience than their audience, I am likely to enquire into the whys and wherefores.

Tristan, I am also dismayed at your writing the opening sequences off as “just a light and amusing way to welcome the audience to the island” – and ticking me off for over-analysing it. Surely the choices made arose from the extensive “research and exploration” undertaken and the presence of queens, Germans, dogs et al was therefore significant in some way.

Sam, I am afraid I think that the ‘rules of engagement’ for visual arts and performing arts will always be different (the crossover modes of installation and performance art notwithstanding).

At an exhibition an individual might choose to engage with a work for half a minute, half a day or a lifetime, by buying it.

At a performance, a group has assembled at an appointed time and place where they collectively and individually engage with the work within a specific timeframe.

They are simply, objectively and incontrovertibly different. And yes, of course, in both cases they may resonate in the memory and continue to engage individuals for a long time after.

Michael Smythe April 29th, 2010

A very interesting discussion. By the way Sam, big ups to your bro for his deep down success. And to your dad for his latest high-flying /very hot exploit.

This is a case where I know what I am talking about and so does Sam - he may even enjoy the punny stuff. Should I have written the comment in such a way that those not in the know might have appreciated?

There is obviously a continuum beginning with spoon-fed universal accessibility and ending with esoteric obscurity. There is a magic place where the audience is engaged and then challenged and extended and motivated to find out more but it is unlikely to be at the same point of the continuum for everyone. So all anyone can do, including reviewers, is to open themselves fully to what the work has to offer and then report on their experience of it.

The comparison with the visual arts interests me. When I chose to head down the design track in the mid 1960s, some theatre practitioners were showing what they could conjour up on an empty stage wearing only black tights and skivvies - it was all created in the acting. An equal-and-opposite reaction in me led to contemplating a theatrical performance using everything except actors to tell a story and /or deliver an enriching experience. But without the vibe between performers and audience in real time would the live theatre plot have been lost? Installation art and performace art (the cross-over genre?) do a great job of blurring the boudaries, but my own experience is that they often require a major investment by the audience to achieve any level of comprehension. (This comment has nothing to do with the work that initiated this discussion - like Sam I have not seen it. And reading John's review suggests it succeeded on many levels - not the least of which was in generating this discussion.)

sam trubridge April 28th, 2010

Yes, and I suspect that our audiences are used to attending art exhibitions, and therefore able to use their experience as an art audience (not just a theatre audience) to read the art work in question. Besides, why can't theatre be considered a 'fine art' as well? The 'rules of engagement' have changed significantly, and the theatre space or the gallery space is no longer what it is 20 years ago. Equally, the need to be explicit is not so urgent, so layers of an experience can be unpicked at the viewer's own will, in response to their own engagement with the material. This is how a show or a dream or an 'artwork' can continue to 'haunt' me long after the experience. I am still discovering things about works I saw 3 or 4 years ago because they were such rich experiences, and not because they exposed their research.

Bert I am sorry I didn't see the show, because the site and all these aspects of its history have interested me a lot. The challenge would seem to have been how you would not only bind together a range of scattered locations on the island into a fluid experience, but also bind together a mix of styles and mythologies: such as Noh theatre, Maori mythology, clowning, and archived NZ history. I imagine that it would have been necessary to develop recurring themes or lietmotifs in order to construct a consistent dialogue between all these parts, thus allowing the audience to maintain a consistent train of thought, and not become distracted by the compartments of each style, myth, experience, and location. Is John's disorientation something to do with this? Perhaps without being 'held' in some way by the whole experience then we begin to fret, or defer to our individual expectations of what performance is or could be? Questions I hope, without wanting to make assumptions about anything, and of course wishing I had seen the work.

Theatre Ghost April 27th, 2010

"It may be considered bad taste to comment on a review of work that you're personally involved in"


Should've stopped there. 

Bert van Dijk April 27th, 2010

The fact that John Smythe did not pick up on the depth of research and exploration that went into the work does not mean that it wasn't there - it just means that John Smythe was unable to pick it up. In that way I fear it says more about his lack of perception or imagination than about the work.

I don't feel the need to spell out the background explorations and investigation to an audience. In devised theatre the ultimate physical and vocal actions are the result of intensive research, explorations and eliminations - in our case two years of it! The ultimate selection of movements, sounds and words contain all the previous explorations within them - that is what creates the rich texture of devised work. The quality of devised theatre is directly related to the amount of waste. Our work had at least 90% waste I would say. 

Coming from a contemporary European theatre training and performance background for me theatre is total theatre that appeals foremost to the senses, the imagination, the feelings and to a lesser extend the intellect. Theatre in this approach uses the same language as dreams - a language of images and imagery - not a language of narrative or logic of time and place or words. IIt is more like dance and music and it is not about 'doing plays'. 

It would be great to hear some other voices who have experienced Ex_isle of Strangers to hear what their responses are. Any volunteers?

Tristan Stibbards April 27th, 2010

I do see your point John and I appreciate that some people may have expected to be granted more of a context to the piece which is definitely something to consider in our next work. I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe you’re approaching the whole thing from too rigid and traditional a standpoint to really covey a true sense of what we were doing. These ‘rules of engagement’ that you’re talking about are exactly what we are trying to challenge with the New Pacific Theatre. I mean simply the transformative process of beginning a theatre piece on a boat sailing out to an island and ending it when everyone is dropped back on the mainland should convey the fact that this wasn’t you everyday variety of play.

As with the philosophy of the Noh style, it is the atmosphere and imagery used to communicate to a more subconscious level of perception. The idea being to inspire a more archetypal connection with the audience where the context of immediate history becomes less relevant. As you know this is a work in progress and I’m sure we will grow and improve in our methods as we go but in the meantime I think it’s important to understand that this was the idea behind the piece and I personally thought that your review conveyed very little or none of that intention. 

I think that the whole idea behind the dog / Wilkommen scene was just a light and amusing way to welcome the audience to the island and make them feel relaxed and looked after in preparation and contrast to the more heavy scenes that they would bear witness to later in the piece. I really don’t see the point in over analysing this.

In terms of the ‘robust defense of leaving things open to the audience’s imagination’ I have read some of the audience feedback, poetry and looked at the drawings that our piece inspired them to create which to me is evidence that our intention to spark the imagination of our audience was definitely successful to a degree. If you’d actually like to read some I’m sure that the director would indulge you if you send him an e-mail.

John Smythe April 26th, 2010

Regarding the ferry trip, given it was a Wellington show, people inevitably found themselves in the company of acquaintances they hadn’t seen for ages so the trip afforded catch-up time. Not a lot of reading got done.

I totally concur, Sam (and Tristan) on the importance of engaging the audience’s imaginations – along with their empathy, intellect and sense of moral judgement – and have often extolled the virtues of the ‘get it’ moment that suddenly makes the whole add up to more than the sum of its parts.

To take the dogs and clown bit as a specific example, the ‘act' I saw gave me an appreciation of one actor’s skill at creating the ‘ta-da!’ moment that is endemic to circus tricks (a very good actor training exercise that I recall first learning with Ian Mune in 1969), and the other three actors’ excellence in evoking the behaviour of dogs. But nothing prompted me to imagine them into the context of the island story or its ambience; in fact it seemed to contradict them.

Had I known what I later found out (not from the programme), about the incarcerated Austrian clown and his dog, the whole experience would have been enriched. And whether or not that historical information had been shared, had I discovered from the performance that those we had just seen perform were in fact imprisoned and denied the chance to ‘do their thing’, that too would have engaged me at deeper levels than a mere superficial appreciation of performance skills.

I agree that dance and music (especially in combination) can engage, communicate, provoke and inspire in a completely non-verbal way and that such activity is entirely valid in a work like this. The caged bird attempting to fly certainly provoked my imagination and empathy, as did a number of other images – not least the desire of the quarantined inmates to please and be liked, like kittens, puppies or orphans hoping someone will take them home.

Over all Ex_isle of Strangers could be likened to an art exhibition in which some works resonate strongly while others don’t. But that’s a very individual thing, and each of us are free to move through art show exhibits at our own pace. That’s not how it is with the performing arts – the ‘rules of engagement’ are different, I reckon.   

sam trubridge April 26th, 2010


What else is there to do on a 30 minute boat ride when you are already anticipating the performance, other than read the programme? I'd say it would be a safe to assume that audiences would have at least skimmed the material.

I have had no experience of this work, but I believe it is important that we always leave something up to the audience's imagination, or risk being didactic and explicit. In the end I think it really depends on discipline and craft, and in being able to create a moment that provokes (and continues to provoke) the audience's imagination. Of course having an actor say 'what a lovely sunny day it is' will let the audience visualise exactly what we want. Job done? But that is often a rather blunt instrument in contemporary performing arts, and I like to think we can provoke the imagination in more complex or subtle ways than that. This is the beauty of going to a dance performance, where I am never sure if I share my imagination of the work with those around me. Romeo Castellucci calls this 'epoteia' (filching from an ancient greek term) and describes it as 'the gaze that relaunches the object'. Put simply, it is possible for the show reside in the eye/experience of the beholder and not always in the word of the actor.

Ellen Walsh April 26th, 2010

No problem, I enjoy correcting peoples mistakes ;)

Michael Smythe April 26th, 2010

"Somes, not Soames ..."

In hindsight I suspect that increased incidents of mispelling date from the 1967 TV series The Forsyte Saga (no to be confused with the Pencarrow Saga set a stone's throw from the island in question). The main chatacter, played by Eric Porter (was he a Kiwi?) was Soames Forsyte. Good drama has dangerous side effects!

John Smythe April 26th, 2010

Yes, Tristan, I am fully open to an exchange of views and the inevitability of agreeing to disagree. Maybe ‘bleating’ was a poor choice of word. As always, it’s better for us to focus on critiquing the work than each other. 

I would still like to see a robust defence of leaving things open to the audience’s imaginations, and some evidence that other audience members responded that way with alacrity, rather than feeling, as I did, deprived of access to the work’s more substantive dimensions.

Tristan Stibbards April 26th, 2010

Yes, thanks Ellen, and thanks for your response John, i'm enjoying the healthy debate. It does seem slightly unfair to me that you label your critisism of the work as "generous feedback" but then any critisism of your writing as unjustified "bleating". This is a pretty blatant double standard is it not? In fact the only reason that I chose to respond at all was because you personally encouraged us all to do so after our performance. I completely agree that everyone should be able to have their opinion but I would also hope that they would be open to that opinion being challenged.

To answer your question: I won't be responding to any of the feedback we recieve from the audience members, unless of course they ask me to do so as you did. I would also like to point out that this is just a personal response and is not at all supposed to represent the opinions of the other people involved in the project.



John Smythe April 26th, 2010

Thank you Ellen - you've allowed me to correct a mistake I've been making all my life (and a Google search reveals I'm not the only one).

Ellen Walsh April 26th, 2010

You may now wish to go back and spell Soames correctly (not somes).

Well actually it is Somes, not Soames as you've incorrectly spelled it.

(See here- http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-visit/wellington/poneke/matiu-somes-island/ and here - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matiu/Somes_Island )

You're welcome!

John Smythe April 25th, 2010

First, my apologies for misspelling your name, Tristan – now corrected. You may now wish to go back and spell Soames correctly (not somes).

May I take it that you are going to go through all the written pages of feedback you (collectively) requested from every audience member and bleat the same way at thier generosity in sharing their honest responses? That would be a shame. 

I assure you I came with no preconceptions and was completely open to the experience, which I enjoyed. But when I become aware there is a rationale behind the impulses that drive the devised work and all I am getting is the surface result, stripped of its context, I feel I’m having a more superficial experience than necessary or desirable. I feel I should be getting a better return for the time, trust and attention I’ve invested – especially given the amount of creative energy the devisers have put into it all. Whether you like it or not, Tristan, that was the outcome for me.

Since you use the rationalisation, “I believe that the audience should be allowed to interpret this work in any way that their imagination leads them”, I will confess that I have, over the years, become wary of that one. It is too easy an excuse for poor dramaturgy. It’s not a question of “having all the meanings and historical context served up for them on a platter” but of giving the work a strong foundation that allows us all – audience included – to ‘play’ confidently within the creative structure it stands on.

Put it this way: is it a good outcome for the performers to be having a richer, more meaningful experience than their audience?  And by the way, if it is a pre-requisite for the audience to read the 16-page programme in order to get a handle of the show, they should be told so before the ferry ride commences so they can swat up en route.  Personally, I feel a performance piece should work within itself without such study being necessary.

Tristan Stibbards April 25th, 2010

It may be considered bad taste to comment on a review of work that you're personally involved in but I feel that this review missed the point by so much that I felt I had to respond. For a start, this peice was never meant to be a history lesson. I'm not entirely sure where the reviewer got the impression that we were acting out the history of somes Island but if he had actually read the programme that he so frequently refers to, he might see that this is not the case (and might even be able to spell my name correctly - who knows!).

Ex-isle of strangers was a collection of devised works inspired partly by some of the history of the island but more from site specific improvisations around the ideas of exile, segregation and reaching out that were inspired by the island itself. I believe that the audience should be allowed to interpret this work in any way that their imagination leads them without having all the meanings and hisorical context served up for them on a platter beforehand.

I would have thought that the 16 page programme would have been adequate, but if not I would hope that if people were inspired to learn more about the history of the island then they would take it upon themselves to do so afterwards. In fact I would be glad if this was the case as the island has an immense amount of very interesting history that couldn't possibly be condensed to fit into a programme.

When you go to see a work with personal pre-concieved notions about what you expect and want it to be like and then write in complaint of all the ways that the work failed to meet those expectations can you really even call this a review? I liken this to reviewing a comedy film and listing all the reasons why it failed to be the drama that you were in the mood for at the time. I think that perhaps some critics are so well seasoned in their criticism that it becomes difficult for them to be present and objective as an audience member which I believe is a crucial step in writing a good review. Thanks.

John Smythe April 19th, 2010

A reader (from Auckland) now advises that a clown and performing dog did feature in the Matiu Soames Island history. Joseph Anton Zahn was an Austrian travelling entertainer and artist. He performed as Rinaldo the clown with his trained dog, which smoked cigarettes. (The dog’s picture appeared in the Auckland Weekly News 20/4/1916, p. 41.)
They were held on the island during the ‘Great War’ then deported. The story goes a guard on the island got drunk, dressed up in the clown costume and violently attacked a prisoner.
Had this information been integrated into the Ex_isle of Strangers performance (not added to the programme notes), I would have perceived the top-hatted moustachioed ‘man’ and his dogs, and the red noses on various faces, in a different way. Deprived of this info those elements seemed relatively random and superficial.  

Imparting such experience-enriching information within the context of a performed work is a great dramaturgical skill that we too easily take for granted. In this case its absence has made us aware of its value.  

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