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Jason Te Kare | Artistic Director, Theatre of Auckland (TOA)

Jason Te Kare, founder of TOA (Theatre of Auckland), is a firm believer that quality work deserves quality development. He shares with Dione Joseph the journey behind giving the company’s debut, Cell Fish, the legs to travel far.

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When renowned tour de force artists Rob Mokaraka and Miriama McDowell brought their brand new script to Te Kare he was immediately hooked.

“The world of the prison, the yard, it fascinated me. It reminded me of high school but with very high stakes. This was a world where there are the rules of the prison and the rules prisoners give themselves.”

It’s a formidable and dangerous world but for the former actor and now director/dramaturge (as well as producer for Radio NZ) it’s a story that resonates on multiple levels.

Cell Fish reminds me of Shakespeare. It’s epic. There is a hierarchy from the gods to the king, all the way down to the peasants, and there are strong parallels between those and the prison hierarchy. But of course the drama happens when somebody dares to challenge the order.

“This issue of Maori men being incarcerated has continued to be a major issue and a work such as Cell Fish explores the stories of a unit who are nearing the end of their time. It’s a two-hander performed by Miriama and Rob but they play a whole swathe of characters to give the audience a chance to really hear the voices of different individuals within the system.”

This new work will also be the debut of Te Kare’s new theatre company TOA (Theatre of Auckland) whose kaupapa is to produce high quality work from a Maori and Pasifika perspective through nurturing and creating opportunities for mid-career artists.

Although an Aucklander who grew up in GI (Glen Innes), Te Kare spent many years in Wellington in the 90s and is inspired by the community that provided much of the support and infrastructure for a thriving Maori theatre.

Although much has changed over the years (including the recent establishment of Te Pou in West Auckland) Te Kare is keen to broaden the conversation in Auckland by focusing on supporting talents who are ready to make the transition onwards and upwards from a mid-career level.

“The percentage of those who carry on from mid to established careers should be larger,” he says.

“Over the 20 years I’ve been involved in the industry it seems such a shame to see artists who have so much knowledge and skill move away. I understand the different pressures that come with that phase but through TOA I would like to create a platform to help sustain and push us as an industry, so that collectively we continue to develop our artists.”

And with Cell Fish, born from the talents of artists like Rob and Miriama who are ‘at the top of their game’ Te Kare has found the perfect play to launch TOA. The story also strikes a personal chord with the founder.

“I grew up in a halfway house for runaway kids and young adults run by my mother,” he shares. “I have vivid memories of going to visit some of the young men who by their choices, ended up being incarcerated. My mum being their parent was the one to visit them and give them that hope for when they got out.”

It is that hope for change, new possibility and exploring new ways to recognise the humanity of former offenders that drives Te Kare’s determination in telling this story.

“These are men who have made bad choices but they’re not all bad men. Sure there are bad people out there and there are people in our script, men who don’t want to change and men who don’t want to grow up, who display those characteristics; but there are also men who DO want to change and who do realise their mistakes. It’s important that we remember that we need to give them hope but also we need to have hope for them.”

Unlike most new productions that rush from the page to the stage the collaborators on Cell Fish are taking the time to develop the work – and are asking the community to support them on this journey. To bring a level of quality to the work the team across three cities must come together to take their research and exploration to the next level and workshop the story to do justice to its life on the stage. They hope to do a development season of the work early next year.