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Taking a different stage

Taking a different stage

Annie Ruth is used to being in charge of public performances but she will have a different role to play at next week’s Victoria University of Wellington graduation ceremonies.

The former Director of Toi Whakaari: the New Zealand Drama School will take the stage as a PhD graduate, concluding a period in which she juggled doctoral study with holding down one of the most demanding jobs in performing arts in New Zealand.

Annie retired from Toi Whakaari in 2011, when she was two-thirds of the way through her PhD.

“It was hard work but I find the harder you are working, the more capacity you have to work and I loved every part of doing a PhD, right down to the technical stuff like footnotes.

“It really helped that my study and my day job were in congruent areas. The University research provided me with raw material and Toi Whakaari provided me with a group of students, who were very curious about what I was doing and were prepared to put my thinking into practice.”

Annie’s PhD research looked at how tikanga Māori can be integrated into actor training and theatre production.

As a director, she uses the Viewpoints technique which requires actors to focus on movement and gesture as much as words. “I think of it like a game of rugby—we know the rules but we don’t know exactly who is going to get the ball or when so you have to watch, listen and be really awake to what others on stage are doing.”

Into the mix she added a long-standing interest in, and knowledge of, Māori rituals.

“I think of performance as a kind of powhiri or hui and that means being acutely aware of the environment. Eventually you come to think of every aspect of the performance environment as something that has meaning and is not just decorative.”

The result, says Annie, is a unique theatre experience which has the vitality of improvisation but structure that brings artistic depth.

She says her research project helped to counteract the despondency she sometimes feels when she goes to theatre productions, not just in New Zealand but around the world.

“I often see work that is quite dead. Theatre is very influenced by film but the feeling of life and connection between people that you get in film from being up close to the actors is not what theatre does best.

“Theatre needs to go back to its origins which were often outdoor performances that became community events. Audiences connected to the play on many levels—they weren’t sitting in the dark with their arms folded waiting.”

Annie graduates with a PhD in Theatre on Thursday 12 December at 1.30pm.


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