Healing through Art

Playwright and director Jason Te Mete (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi te Rangi) of Tuatara Collective, is blending his background in theatre with tikanga Māori to strengthen mental health and wellbeing in theatre practitioners and rangatahi.

Playwright and director Jason Te Mete (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi te Rangi) of Tuatara Collective, is blending his background in theatre with tikanga Māori to strengthen mental health and wellbeing in theatre practitioners and rangatahi.

Jason Te Mete

Jason’s show, titled Little Black Bitch, is the first play in his series Over My Dead Body. It deals with triggering content matter, such as whakamomori (suicide) and includes themes around mental health. The show saw him receive an Adam NZ Playwright Award 2018 and has received stellar reviews ever since. It provides a platform for discussion around mental health issues, in particular for Māori males.

While producing the show, he identified the need to ensure the crew were able to participate in a way that did not adversely affect their own mental health.

“With that play came a responsibility to wrap support around the project and the artists that were working on it,” says Jason.

The support extends beyond the cast and crew and is also offered to the audience as Tuatara Collective has a qualified counsellor or trained psychologist in house for every performance, and communicate this support to the audience.

Aside from that support, tikanga is also practiced during the showing.

Though the support is available, Jason says that the tikanga creates a space where viewers are left feeling comfortable in what they are experiencing.

“We have karakia waerea during that particular show, Little Black Bitch. It’s quite spiritual and helps us ensure that everything is safe, the space that we’re working in is cleared.

“Audiences told us that they never felt they needed to engage with the counsellor. Once they knew they were there, they were able to absorb the show, and they felt safe.”

Having experienced and witnessed the impact of content and work environment in theatre, Jason was inspired to take action in providing direct support for cast and crew.

Theatre is a project-based sector, with cast and crew being contracted for a specific show before then moving on. This kind of uncertainty in job security mixed with the, at times, heavy subject matter showed Jason that there was more to be done to support those involved.

“I saw a hole in how arts organisations provided resources around the mental health and wellbeing of the artists and practitioners they work with.”

Jason credits his business partner, Tāwera Ormsby (Ngāti Porou, Ngāpuhi) with bringing these elements in, as it is the space where her and her whānau have always worked, namely with the Ohomairangi Trust and the Māngere East Community Centre.

“Because of her work in the area, it was quite easy for us to find a good bunch of people that were willing to come and be part of our team of psychologists and qualified counsellors.”

In the past couple of years, Jason has developed collaborative relationships with Dr Marama McDonald (Ngāti Kauwhata, Rangitāne) and Stu McDonald (Ngāiterangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngā Rauru, Ngāti Rehua) of Ahipoutu Collective in Tauranga.

Marama is a Māori health researcher and Stu is a tā moko artist, master carver and educator.

Carving of Tamatea Arikinui on the wharenui at Mount Maunganui College

taiaha; Maioha McDonald

As Jason shares, “We cast their 16-year-old son in the lead role in Little Black Bitch, it was a risk to put someone so young in that position but with Marama and Stu wrapped around him and with our kaupapa, we were alright.”

At the time, the production was in Tāmaki Makaurau and a busload from Te Wharekura o Mauao showed up to tautoko, after which they hosted a kōrero.

During this kōrero, another ākonga from the wharekura asked whether they could have a production like that in Tauranga.

“Tāwera and I looked at each other and went, ‘Yeah we’ll make it happen.’ We talked about how to run a six-day wānanga for rangatahi with performing arts, mahi toi and kaupapa Māori mindfulness practices from Marama and Stu.”

In 2021, they began running wānanga alongside Ahipoutu Collective, designed for rangatahi from the age of 13 to 21 and free of cost to participants.

“We use te taiao as much as we can, we head over to Mauao and do some mindfulness exercises. We get dance tutors in, including Vincent Farane, he’s Sāmoan and is experienced in hip-hop, Pasifika dance and contemporary. The kids love working with him.”

The wānanga are so popular, Jason says they don’t need to advertise as the word is already out in the community and people ask when the next one is.

Though the wānanga are focused predominantly on performing arts and mahi toi, they are delivered alongside mindfulness practices, to make sure that the hauora of the rangatahi in attendance is met across all areas.

These mindfulness practices ensure that the rangatahi learn and access tools to support their taha hinengaro (mental wellbeing) and taha wairua (spiritual wellbeing), as well as their taha tinana (physical wellbeing).

“Most of the rangatahi don’t realise they need the mindfulness practices, but they soon realise as artists or creatives — they do. Through our exercises, they find that there’s other people that have the same feelings as them. Before they know it, they’re getting everything out on the table, and we turn that into a performance.”

This is where Jason’s skill of weaving kōrero comes in, he takes what the rangatahi have written and talked about and turns it into a script to be performed.

The journey that the rangatahi go on during the wānanga is, as Jason shares, powerful not just for them but for their whānau, who get to see them in a whole new light.

“Most of the rangatahi don’t realise they need the mindfulness practices, but they soon realise as artists or creatives — they do”

Stu McDonald of Ahipoutu Collective creating art

Tohu Edwards, a 14-year-old participant.

“It’s definitely powerful, especially seeing the ones who have been dragged along by the cousin or the aunty, and they hate the first day, but by the third day, they’re thinking, ‘Oh, this is okay.’ By the end they have stood on the stage, having done something to a standard they didn’t imagine they could do themselves. They’ve enjoyed it and they’ve made new friends and that is what we do it for.”

Aside from all of the extraordinary and full-scale work that Jason, Tuatara Collective and Ahipoutu Collective do, Jason is shifting the spotlight onto telling the stories of ‘the ordinary person’.

He says, “one of my aims is to focus on ordinary stories, like, for example, that father who worked at Sanford all his life, and was remarkable in that he provided a safe, happy home for his family. The ordinary person that created extraordinary experiences for others. That’s what I want to focus on and it’s nice to be doing that where I’m from, born and raised.”

In 2024, Jason will be creating and directing productions at Mount Maunganui College and Te Wharekura o Mauao, about Mauao and Pukehinahina, as well as initiating some community engagement projects with Tuatara Collective later in the year, so watch this space!

The Kōrero series is supported by the Creative Communities Scheme. Arpége Taratoa is editor of Kōrero.
Words by Matariki Williams
Photography by Adrienne Pitts