1. Change of Scene
As a theatre artist you are always looking for inspiration. It is inspiring (and therefore useful to both your craft and your personal growth!) to be somewhere that’s quite different than where you’re from. Academically, you can gain perspective on a subject that interests you, and personally, you incorporate parts of your host culture into your understanding of the world.
A particularly different change of scene, like studying abroad in New Zealand rather than the UK, is also really useful because it adds something unique to conversations with drama students and professionals back home. Many of the theatre artists you’ll encounter in your career in the US won’t have access to ideas about drama from New Zealand. The unique perspective that you can provide will expand not only your understanding of theatre, but the understanding of others around you, and that’s really valuable!
2. Shakespeare in a Postcolonial Context
While it’s wonderful to study Shakespeare where those stories were originally performed in London, there is a lot to be said for studying Shakespeare as it has affected other countries/cultures around the globe.
According to my Drama professor, the first European ship that ever came to Aotearoa carried only 2 books: The Bible, and a works of Shakespeare.
Since the first arrival of Europeans, Shakespeare has been as much a colonizing weapon of “Pakeha” (white european-descendents) as the Bible has been. Today, many theatre artists in New Zealand continue to seek new ways to turn the works of Shakespeare into cultural weapons that work on their side rather than against them. The power to change and transform Shakespeare to fit indigenous Aotearoa is an act of resistance against the ideas that Shakespeare in its original context often reinforces: that non-dominant cultures are “other” and less-than.
The show pictured above is maybe the most famous Maori reimagining of Shakespeare, a production of Troilus and Cressida performed in entirely te reo Maori. It has been performed both in New Zealand and at the Globe Theater in London, without translation for an English-speaking audience, and it completely revises Troilus and Cressida to fit a traditional Maori context. It’s surprising how well the story fits— Maori concepts like utu (reciprocity in the universe, but often translated as ‘revenge’) make a story like Troilus and Cressida actually make more sense. There’s also the convenient Maori saying that “men die because of land and women”. For anyone familiar with Troilus and Cressida, or many Shakespeare texts, that should ring a bell.
3. Film Access
Wellington is the center of New Zealand’s film industry, which is one of New Zealand’s biggest claims to international fame. If you’re interested in a career in film, you can learn a lot by touring Wellington’s Weta Workshop, the company who supplied props and effects and many other essential parts of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, as well as James Cameron’s Avatar, the King Kong movies, and many more. Wellington, even though it’s the capital city of New Zealand, is a fairly small place which really helps to get involved in the industry— I was shocked to learn that my theatre professor personally knew Richard Taylor (founder of Weta) for instance, and I seemed to meet someone every day who had some connection to the film industry. It’s not hard to make connections in Wellington, and even easier to get inspired.
4. Verbatim and Devised Theatre
New Zealand is one of the world’s leading countries in Verbatim and Devised Theatre. For those of you who might not have come across those terms yet— Verbatim theatre is theatre that comes out of conversations with communities. Their words/experiences are used in conjunction with a theatre professional to help the community create a show that reflects something of their own experience.
Drama as a tool for social change is a really important aspect of drama education. Some professionals, including many that I met in New Zealand, believe this to be the most fulfilling part of the work they do. The experience I gained learning about Verbatim theatre in New Zealand allows me to participate in a much more informed and creative way in the conversations I have now, back home with American theatre professionals, about the direction and purpose of theatre.
5. DIY Shows
DIY (Do It Yourself) shows are the main brand of New Zealand theatre I experienced. My impression was that it is also the way theatre is generally done throughout the country, because shows generally have to be able to go on tour (without too much expense) to make enough money. The DIY spirit of NZ theatre is useful to learn about while studying abroad because:
#1: From a cultural standpoint, it helps you better understand New Zealand. The values reflected in DIY theatre such as humility, hard work, and emphasis on community engagement are also, in many ways, the values of New Zealand.
#2: From a practical standpoint, DIY shows are easier for you, as an outsider studying abroad, to get involved in the show. You just offer your services and enthusiasm and you’re in.
#3: Artistically, DIY shows tend to expose you to more experimental forms of theatre. These can be so useful and important to having a well-rounded theatre education, and give you ideas of what kind of shows to produce when you are out in the real world making theatre on a tiny budget for a while (or maybe indefinitely).
6. Insight into Your Host Culture
Studying theatre in school can help you better understand your host country by what plays you read in class. In my drama class, our syllabus included plays about indigenous identity but also plays about Pakeha identity, and within plays about Pakeha identity, I became familiar with all sorts of symbols and tropes (small towns, the sea, family crisis) that often mark those plays, and consequently, mark the every-day concerns of many New Zealand people.
7. Cultural Fusion
Wellington, as New Zealand’s capital city, brims with culture. In addition to being an epicenter for Pakeha-Kiwi culture, there seems to be a greater influence of indigenous theatre in Wellington because Wellington is located on the North Island, where a higher population of Maori people reside. There are also many immigrant communities in Wellington. One of the best shows I have ever seen was about a collision of cultures in Wellington: Krishnan’s Dairy by the Indian Ink Company. It follows an Indian protagonist who owns a dairy (market) in New Zealand, and not only explores how those two cultures collide, but is told by one actor donning different commedia dell’arte masks, and thus works from Italian theatre influences as well. It is an amazing show that I won’t spoil for anyone, but there are also many more productions in Wellington that look at multiculturalism directly and openly explore the challenges of living in such a diverse city.
8. Perspective on Your Home Culture
One of the most important aspects of studying theatre abroad was that it helped me gain perspective on my own culture and the way the USA does theatre.
After studying theatre in New Zealand, I feel like I have a better idea of the ways in which American theatre reflects and shapes America, just as I felt I learned more about how New Zealand theatre reflects and shapes New Zealand.
I feel more prepared as a theatre professional because I spent a semester looking at how theatre affects another country, and also looking at my own country from an international perspective. My experiences abroad helped me to understand and articulate what theatre does for us now and why it is useful, and why it may continue to be useful in the future. I have better conversations now about the future of theatre than I would have had without this international perspective, and I have more inspiration to draw from when constructing my own shows.
There’s so much to love about studying in New Zealand, I hope some of you theatre kids out there consider it as your study abroad destination! Come to IFSA-Butler if you have questions, we would love to help you get there!
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