Challenging theatre with a workplace twist
By day PSA member Jane Yonge can be found at Wellington City Council’s Toi Pōneke Arts Centre and by night she’s an award winning theatre maker and director.
One of Jane's successful collaborations in the last year has been with Waylon Edwards and William Duignan, actors and musicians, on a workplace satire with 21st century sensibilities called WEiRdO.
Originally devised by Edwards and Duignan, Yonge says the play went through multiple versions as everyone discussed how to tackle building theatre-centred pressures and high stakes around the unusual subject of “work”.
Layers of tension
In WEiRdO, a pair of Māori and Pākehā co-workers – played respectively by Edwards and Duignan – unravel layers of racial tension and unspoken unease in their office environment.
This comes to a head around their rivalry to secure a 'golden lanyard'.
The challenge or WERO of this scenario is literally embedded in the title, along with the shorthand of id for identity.
Yonge, a Chinese-New Zealander with roots in Fiji says “I was interested in Waylon’s thoughts surrounding cultural identity, especially the idea of being ‘plastic’ Māori (looking Māori but feeling Pākehā).
"I identify with that because I also struggle with looking Chinese but being disconnected to any kind of Chinese cultural heritage.”
It happens that the selected workplace setting for WEiRdO is the Department of Lifestyle Encouragement, or DoLE for short.
As noted in reviews this cheekily named setting is given a “modern and refreshing” twist, with the performances equally praised for their whimsicality and playfulness.
“WEiRdO follows Waylon, as its protagonist, and there were experiences he’d had in the public sector that he drew from,” says Jane.
“In terms of the cultural awkwardness or confusion, that stuff is definitely from his personal experience.
"We also look at the mechanical aspects of work done by public servants and offices everywhere, like the staging of a Powerpoint presentation, and the bureaucratic steps around how we communicate, which is from my experience”.
Yonge is pleased that WEiRdO has pushed a boundary by challenging how people communicate with each other in office settings, as well as how well we respond to each other’s successes.
“I’m not sure that is something we’re very good at, and likewise we trip over the way we speak to people from different cultures. The public service tries really hard to be culturally correct, respectful, and appropriate but sometimes suddenly everyone feels unsure about what they are doing.
"We don’t want to get it wrong. I think it’s good that we don’t want to get it wrong. But then suddenly we’re all very uneasy.
“We’re all trying very hard but sometimes we fail. How we acknowledge that and move on from that is a valuable question. How do we acknowledge how we’ve acted in the past and where we are now – including the effect of colonisation and how that relates to success.”
As Waylon puts it "talking about ourselves and our identity doesn't have to be tiring - it can be exciting and funny. We wanted to empower people who feel like outsiders to laugh at themselves, each other, and make up for lost time.
"The interconnectedness of our experiences helps."
A multi-genre approach
Yonge says the “tricky” nature of the topic of cultural identity suited the multi-genre approach taken for the staging of WEiRdO which mixes in musical elements with ‘high concept horror’ in a way that led reviewer Matt Loveranes to compare it favourably to the vibe of popular Netflix series Black Mirror.
Posing the question of how cultures fit together is something that Yonge is likely to return to. “I think it starts with being a bit more curious, not worrying so much about being constantly right and admitting ‘I genuinely don’t know this. I’m curious’, while remaining respectful.
“How we relate to each other in order to be able to embrace the multi-culturalism of Aotearoa is something we can keep cracking open.”