Purapurawhetū by Briar Grace-Smith


The Process of Writing Purapurawhetū by Briar Grace-Smith
About the Playwright


Purapurawhetū is a tukutuku pattern that represents the night sky. In Briar Grace-Smith’s play, each star represents a family member or ancestor who has passed on and now watches over the rest of us.

The play is set in a small coastal community where the death of Hohepa and Aggie’s baby son years ago hangs over the community. Aggie left. An unravelled Hohepa neglects his people. His estranged son Matawera jockeys to take Hohepa’s place. The interwoven mysteries of the play unfold as the tukutuku panel takes shape, all coming to a head in the play’s climactic defeat of Mata and the passing of Koro Hohepa’s legacy to Tyler.

The extract we have chosen for OUTLIERS begins part way through scene one.  Our outlier and protagonist, Tyler, is interrupted at his weaving by Matawera and Ramari. In this scene Mata teases Tyler for being a weaver and bullies him into accepting Ramari’s help in order to speed up delivery of the panel for the new wharenui. Ramari is also an outsider, new to the tikanga of this community and reliant on the creepy Mata to help her belong.

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The process of writing Purapurawhetū by Briar Grace-Smith

Purapurawhetū was once a short story, or at least a version of it was! This is a common way of developing plays for me (but writing the play isn’t the reason I write the story). If the story has the right legs (potential for dramatic action) I’ll turn it into a play or a screenplay, otherwise it stays as is.

The ideas for my plays never come from just one place. Several ideas and characters percolate in the back of my mind over time until at some stage they all find harmony together in the same story.

While Purapurawhetū is a fictional tale, the central idea of the story was close to me, but it wasn’t until some time after I had written the play, that I was able to step back and identify its source.

My mother lost a child before I was born and sometimes she would talk to me about my brother. He was much loved. Mum was someone that did a lot for others – our house was often full. She just made people feel welcome. It wasn’t until I grew up and had my own children that I really understood the huge ache she must’ve carried. Writing Purapurawhetū – which is essentially a story about a family overcoming the grief of losing a child – was a way of acknowledging her and other parents who have been through or are going through this. 

To add to this, at one point in the play’s genesis I was helping to weave tukutuku panels at my husband’s marae, alongside an Aunty. While she sat at the front of the panel and told stories about the Pa, I sat at the back tying knots, listening and glimpsing her through the slates. 

The panel we were weaving was Purapurawhetū (which depicts stars in the night sky). Each star represents a family member or ancestor who has passed on and now watches over the rest of us.

So in the play, as the panel Purapurawhetū is woven, the concepts held within the pattern come to life on the stage around it – and the lost soul of a child journeys from under the sea, into the arms of his whānau of stars.

In the first production, the way characters entered and exited the stage, also became like the criss cross weaving of the panel, so two forms of weaving were taking place at the one time.

The workshop of the play proved to be really valuable for me (always are) – having actors stand it up and read the words out loud and give feedback on their characters, helped me work out where the holes were.  In the early drafts, I remember feeling like the play really wasn’t delivering on its promise and then director Cathy Downes giving me a very pertinent piece of advice ‘Bring on the gods” she said. I’m not sure if she meant me to take it literally, but I sort of did. It worked!

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