Photo: Florence Charvin

On Christmas Day Hawke’s Bay theatre’s brightest star shone its last. A master of storytelling, Puti Lancaster was taken before her time, right when her creative luminescence was at its zenith.

“That is the power of her work. She goes in and shines some kind of light on some small thing that is deeply human and deeply shared by all of us.”
PITSCH LEISER, ARTS FESTIVAL DIRECTOR

“She kept a really childlike perspective on the world. She always championed people being soft, as artists. Listening to people and giving them a voice is really important. She wasn’t going to do therapy she was going to do theatre.”
OWEN MCCARTHY, DESIGNER AND PERFORMER

From the types of experiences she chose to highlight, to the way she gathered her words; from how she developed a piece, to the manner in which it was presented, everything was done with loving intention. She had an unconventional technique, often challenging to collaborators and audiences alike, but done with such gentle reverence that people could not help but push past their boundaries and respond in kind.

She would begin with an idea, a curiosity, she liked to call it. It’s about ‘home’ or ‘hopefulness’ or ‘what it means to be a family’, she might say. From this starting place she would wait for people and stories to manifest themselves. She was incredibly intuitive. Instinctively she knew the right people would come at the right time. Nothing was ever rushed, and her faith and patience invoked others to trust in her method. 

“Puti was like water – she goes and flows and finds where to go deep where it allows to go deep.”
PITSCH LEISER

Those who worked closely with Puti respond with marked similarity when pondering her process. There is always a pause for breath as they try to articulate something so much more than words in scope, depth and breadth. They allude to shapes, to texture, repeat a fluid gesture, hands flowing through the air as if to grasp something just out of reach. Certainly her way of working was unique, non-linear, layering images and feelings, mapping the topography of the heart and mind. She drew heavily on the whenua, the physical landscape of the Heretaunga plains from the mountains to her beloved moana. The coastline formed a foundational framework to cradle the stories of its people.

Puti was invested in giving voice to the voiceless, of amplifying the ordinary experiences of those often overlooked, particularly by the middle-aged, middle-class white people (amongst others) her theatre reached. 

“She couldn’t say what she was looking for, but she could visually see it in the body or in her mind –it had a shape or a certain texture. She wanted me to see the shape and create the piece based on using my body and using my voice to project from that picture out to the audience.”
KRISTYL NEHO, ACTOR 

Once her subjects found her, she would work on building relationship. Cups of tea, lying in the sunshine and comfortable silences are memories that resurface again and again. While she listened, silent and reverent, her pen flew, sketching images, grabbing hold of a word or phrase to make little poems, devising in her mind how to capture the raw material and craft it into something magical. Her gentle respectful presence and way of being with people, of making them feel seen, valued, worthy, allowed her to peel away surface layers to reveal the vulnerability beneath. She treated these stories as taonga, received in reverence as koha. People turned to her like flowers to the sun, gently unfurling to expose the essence of their truth.

“She loved to push people out of their comfort zone, but not in a provocative way. Her main mission was around seeing past people’s first surface.She would really like to see you without pretence.”
OWEN MCCARTHY

“She had the capacity to harvest from people from their real tender parts. Parts that we don’t really want to expose about ourselves. She did it with love.”
TERESA WOODHAM, WCO-WRITER AND PRODUCER

Once her stories were harvested, she would painstakingly listen back over hours of audio, picking out the parts of speech that spoke to both the core of her subject’s character and the heart of the narrative she wanted to elicit. Every word spoken on stage was verbatim, first formed in the mind and voice of her subject. 

“Puti would just sit there and be deeply, deeply present. There was something about her presence that made people just open, her silent quiet power. There was something about her capacity to enable people to really relax, her ability to be with people on a really deep level that was beyond words.”
TERESA WOODHAM

It’s a way of working that both preserved authenticity and supported her personal predilection for silence. She measured every word, reluctant to give opinion, preferring to reflect questions back on the asker, to make them do the work. “What do you think?” “I’ll leave that with you.” “You’ll work it out.” Frequent phrases rolled from her lips, often infuriating those doing the asking. 

“When you’d ask Puti ‘what do you think about this?’ she’d go quiet and she’d think and she’d say, ‘I’ll leave that with you’. What she does in that process is she puts it back on you. She encourages you to figure it out for yourself. She might have not been able to articulate what she was doing in words but she showed. The framework of conventional theatre is to articulate so you don’t have to think.”
PITSCH LEISER

She spoke not of a script but a score, underlining the almost synesthetic way she worked. She had a talent for looking at things differently – the fragrance of light, the texture of song. With wondrous childlike eyes she knew how to make things anew to get through to people in ways they least expected it. 

Her words refined, she would enter the devising stage, working intensively with her crew in a way both creatively collaborative and led from the front. Her preference was to spend a week at the beach together, actors and designers all. Away from the world, they would live into the piece, diving deep into both the material and their own wellspring of vulnerability. 

“She knew what she wanted and when she saw it she held on to it and then fine-tuned. She was really good at acknowledging and drawing out of a person. The same with the audience she acknowledged and then drew through actors, through lighting, through sound. But she never imposed her belief or her thinking.”
JANIS CHENG, LIGHTING DESIGNER 

“As a practitioner she would get under your skin. She touched you in your trauma places. What a harvester of creativity! She wanted me to process my trauma so I could live lighter.”
PERĒRI KING, ACTOR

Worlds apart from the business-like nine to five, these sessions were structured like breathing, like the ebb and flow of the ocean – frantic activity interspersed with quiet contemplation. Connection with the material was facilitated through play. She encouraged open expression with joyful exuberance – laughter, song and silliness were as much a part of the process as digging into one’s own heart of darkness. From this place of free exploration actors would generate ‘makes’ – snippets of theatre, parts of the whole. 

Though she could be vague about articulating what she wanted, she knew it when she saw it. Sometimes all that was retained from an hours-long expulsion of blood, sweat and tears was a single tiny gesture. Actors spent hours listening over recordings of the real voices they were bringing to life, coming into intimate relationship with their cadence, “capturing the essence of the experience of meeting them”. Slowly and painstakingly, the piece would be built. 

In the quiet times, hours were spent walking and exploring, feeling the grass at their backs and the sun on their faces, endless cups of tea. This space to exhale was essential for her practice. These were deep stories requiring profound self-inquiry. If she was asking her people to mine their depths she was also invested in their pastoral care. Her goal was not merely to produce shows that made a difference in the world. Equally important was the growth and development of her subjects, cast and crew. It’s the reason everyone who worked with her speaks of her not as a colleague but as a friend.

She pushed me in differentdirections to create morediversity in my work. I will takeher into every process I have.She wasn’t just a director, shewas my best friend. I’d like todedicate a lot of my career toPuti. I’ll always take her with me.”
KRISTYL NEHO

Her style of staging was deceptively simple. She allowed her actors to take ownership of the story and shine. Props and costumes were minimal. Where used they were imbued with symbolism, elevated from mere objects to tools of communication. 

Little things became big things, just as ordinary stories and small voices were amplified into profound universal truths. Plain paper folded into origami houses becomes a suburban outline, a motif of a longed-for home. String delineates coastline. A measuring tape is at once the tool of a reformed man’s honest labour, used to demarcate time and space, and a reflection on the binary, definite nature of his character. An echoey voice replayed on an op-shopped tape recorder is passed through the audience from ear to ear, whispering authenticity like a slow rippling wave. 

She was experimenting with smell, working with a Wellington scent artist to add a further sensual element to her theatre. She showed a preference for sun colours in costuming, clothing her characters in hope, even as they traversed the valleys of adversity. Lighting design and soundscapes were an integral part of her devising process, embedded in the works’ creation rather than tacked on. Though her work couldn’t be more different in feel and impact to the showy artifice of musical theatre, many of her performers displayed feats of song and dance that would not have been out of place on the Broadway stage. 

“All of her work goes back to her roots as a Māori practitioner in terms of the philosophy, the framework, the understanding, the energy. That’s why she was able to deliver these hard stories in such a dignified and respectful way that your heart can’t help but open.”
JANIS CHENG

Puti’s process was not as linear as traditional theatre directors work. She would have an idea of something and then she would start collecting bits that fit that idea and then she’d bring it together and edit and edit and edit and strip it back to what was often quite a simple story line. She would not add extra words or extra anything unless it was absolutely crucial to communicating the story.”
PITSCH LEISER

She approached the practice of performance with a singular eye. She was always reaching for novel ways of staging. Rejecting received conventions of how theatre ‘should’ be done allowed her to induce vulnerability in her audience, coaxing them into a liminal space, opening them to receive. 

Tikanga Māori underpinned everything she did. Her pieces were pōwhiri in essence but universal in their impact. She would greet each audience member at the door, touch their hands, look them in the eye. She thought about the audience a great deal. Their inclusion was important to her. “By the time they leave they know they are in this conversation, they feel they are…it’s not about being a voyeur.” Just as she cared for her collaborators, so too did she care for her audience. She was a master of whakamārama, expertly holding space at the end of a performance, applying the still, focused listening quality with which she gathered material to those who had received it. Often those whose stories featured in performance were present, reinforcing the notion of kotahitanga, that we are all going on a journey together.

“She knew what she wanted from the audience and she knew how to get it. She was a director not just for the actors and the designers but for the audience. She had cast them already in her head.”
JANIS CHENG

“In the mapping process there was some structure we always returned to: marae structure, the pōwhiri. She would tailor the whole experience of bringing people into the room and really connecting. The pōwhiri process is about meeting authentically.”
OWEN MCCARTHY

In her quest to engage she was relentlessly innovative. 

For Freedom is Beneath My Breath, she transformed the foyer of the Blythe into an interactive installation, in collaboration with Iwi Toi Kahungunu, spreading a cloak of te ao Māori over what could have been an intimidatingly large white space. On its conclusion, the audience was invited to cast their wishes into the installation, to be gathered up with care. These wishes formed the basis of her Arts Festival installation the following year, Come Home When The Lights Are On

Her work was constantly building on itself, as she developed as a practitioner. The notion of installation appealed to her passion for access. She wanted her work to reach more than just the privileged few who felt welcome in a traditional theatre space. She worked hard to ensure money was no barrier to those who needed to see her work. She always took care to make everyone feel entitled to take up space in her audience, as on her stage.

“She wasn’t necessarily interested in the long life of pieces. She was interested in the life of it being here and now.”
TERESA WOODHAM 

She knew how to roll with the punches. 

When her actors fell away for A Fragrant Tone of Light she and designer Owen McCarthy took to the stage themselves, so determined were they to honour the stories they had discovered. In doing so she exposed a whole other facet of self, inhabiting the wairua of the narrative even as she operated the lights from her phone while on stage. 

When restrictions not once but twice stymied her efforts to stage what would have brought to conclusion the trilogy of whānau stories, Speargrass Skies Run Run By, she co-opted the narrative into a phone line and interactive website. Here participants navigate time and space to hear snippets of story that come together to create a bigger picture. Her wish was to have the show performed at the Waimarama Marae, in the heartland of the stories’ genesis, and her collaborators are working towards this goal. 

This final show aside, she was not particularly interested in the longevity of her works. The touring circuit did not hold much appeal. With the exception of The Contours of Heaven, which earned the top prize at Auckland Fringe then took wings and flew all the way to New York, her stories were very much rooted in the here and now. 

Her legacy lies in the lives she touched, and they were legion – a constellation of whānau under one big wharenui. Her tender, gentle way of being with people, the respectful reverence with which she treated their stories was an education for many. Everyone who worked alongside her was changed both in their practice and their personhood. Though she has passed, the waves she made will roll and grow in scope as wide and deep as the ocean, as multitudinous and radiant as the stars. 

“The things it takes to tell stories, things going back to bare bones. Those are important to be revealed. How do we have that accessible for everyone to see so that we can remember those things in our ordinary lives?”
PUTI LANCASTER

Timeline

2013/4 
Allow Me To Mend The Broken Ends Of Shared Days, Hastings City Art Gallery

A performance of poetry commemorating the 50th anniversary of Hone Tuwhare’s No Ordinary Sun.

2016 
River Seeds, Hastings City Art Gallery

A women’s history of Heretaunga in response to an exhibition of female artists, Waitangi Wāhine.

2016 
Atapō, Hastings Community Art Centre

Collaborative performance exploring the rediscovery of Māori wisdom regarding water and stars.

2016 
Edge of a Raindrop, Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival

The importance and fate of Hawke’s Bay water as exemplified through the diverted Makirikiri river.

2017 
The Contours of Heaven, Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival 

Six rangatahi navigate their hopes and dreams.

2018 
Freedom is Behind My Breath, Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival

Three generations explore the notion of home and what it means to be a family.

2019 
A Fragrant Tone of Light, Parlour Projects, Kai Tangata, Mangaroa Prison, Hastings

Stories of men and their whānau, in and out of prison. 

2019 
Come Home When The Lights Are On, White Night, Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival

Interactive installation around the theme of home and wishes in response to Freedom is Behind My Breath

2020 
As the Day Draws In, Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival

Six kaumātua and kuia reflect on life as it was and as it is.

2021 
Whare Kōrero, Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival

Kristyl Neho (A Thousand Thoughts a Minute) and Eru Heke (The Hunger Strikes Me) each tell their coming of age stories.

In Development… Speargrass Skies Run Run By 

Whānau stories from Waimarama of a grandmother raising mokopuna.

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