ALEXANDER BISLEY talks to Jim Moriarty about saying no to Jake Heke, why Section 59 has got to go, Battalion, whanaungatanga versus The Lifestyle, and how theatre and the Treaty can empower all New Zealanders.

“I WANT the audience to leave the theatre totally uplifted and overwhelmed,” Jim Moriarty told me about his Once Were Warriors musical in 2004. “Beth standing up and saying to Jake ‘No more. We’ve had enough.’ Ending domestic violence. Beth herself is taking her family out of that darkness and into the light, that’s a metaphor for all of us. It’s right up the pathway of the restoration that needs to take place in this country for us to move as a nation towards the repealing of Section 59 of the Criminal Justice Act.” Sweden has seen the rate of violence against children drop to about one quarter of what it was since similar legislation was overturned. “I believe we need a huge paradigm shift, something like you cannot smack your kids, it’s illegal. If I laid a hand on you could have me for assault, but if I smacked my child it’s called reasonable force. It’s absolute nonsense. The most vulnerable sub-culture in society, the most marginalised, the most dependent on love and care, is the one we’re legally allowed to abuse the most.”

Moriarty is artistic director of Te Rakau Hua O Te Wao Tapu Trust – a charitable trust that works with at-risk communities, creating and performing theatre in schools, marae and prisons, as well as professional theatres. On Thursday night, he talked to me after Battalion – Te Rakau’s latest powerful performance – at the company’s Newtown HQ, animatedly confident re Section 59. “It’s gonna be repealed.” Memo to politicians: children being hit is bad for their upbringing. “Shocking eh. It’s bloody shocking. A lot of the work I do is with at risk rangitahi teenagers and that, kids from ten onwards. And I’ve worked in the male and female prison systems. Most of the people I’ve worked who are presenting with problems in terms of society today, are people who have come from violent family backgrounds, and that’s a correlation that stacks. If you’re taught violence as a norm that’s how you behave. When that fine line’s been crossed where your personal space has been invaded by those you love in such a way, then as your life goes on it isn’t so hard for you to cross the boundary either. ..When you cross that line with a child you’re creating a problem, not only for that child, but for society and anyone else who encounters that child along there life’s journey... you grow something with violence, it will grow up violent.”

Moriarty continues to campaign with numerous organisations such as Save the Children, Plunket, Barnados and Women’s Refuge. “There’s hundreds of organisations in New Zealand who want to see this legislation repealed. Not changed, not altered, but tossed out. Most other civilised countries in the world have tossed it out. And not to the detriment of a parent’s right to guide their child successfully along the path of discipline growing them up… it’ll be about empowering people to find alternatives to using violence, better parenting programmes.”

Battalion, written by Moriarty’s wife Helen Pearse-Otene, tells the story of World War Two’s 28th Maori Battalion, and two troubled Wellington youth who stay with one veteran in the country. It’s energetic, engaging and intimate from the moment we are welcomed in from the carpark at 129 Adelaide Rd. Apart from staff, the cast consists of rangitahi from CYFS (most of them at Te Rakau under court order). After the performance, we hear their personal stories, share our response, and have kai and korero. Maru talks about Te Rakau as “the family I never had”. “Never ceases to get the puku going,” one regular audience member says of the performance. The power of art to transcend difficulty is conveyed.

Hospitality is important to Moriarty, he offers me food and listens to my questions with a similar generosity of spirit. “I come from a family with eight brothers and sisters, so there’s nine of all together, there was always whangai, there was always people staying. Mum and Dad were truly those big, generous, open-spirited, whanaungatanga people, so it’s not hard for me, it’s not a foreign concept. What else are we here for? There’s only so much food and drink you can eat on your own, and you can only drive one car at a time. You know, people. I like people.”

Moriarty is thoughtful and articulate, passionate and inspiring. He enthuses about the magic of the theatre. “We’re all going to be in the same space together each night creating this thing and recreating it live each night for the audience.” He diagnoses The Lifestyle’s problem. “I think one of the things about the world we live in is that it’s going at a hell of a fast pace, we are constantly being pressured to consume. Consume this, consume that, consume the other thing. If you get caught up into too much of that consumption stuff your life becomes about paying for the toys that you purchased as a consumer and less about spending time with your family and the people you love. We all get in that trap to some degree or other.”

Once Were Warriors’ producers were keen on Jim Moriarty playing Jake Heke. Moriarty declined to audition; he couldn’t do it and stay committed to the trust’s work. “I would have let a whole lot of other people down, I don’t like doing that.” Ten years later (2004), Moriarty, who was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2000, directed and starred (as social worker Kahu Bennett) in the stage version of Once Were Warriors along with numerous rangitahi from Te Rakau. The National Business Review raved: “A massive show in every sense… raw, rare and vitalising... Moriarty has rediscovered the true meaning and purpose of musical drama and inspired his team to deliver a remarkable result...”

“What a hell of a thing?” Moriarty says of the soldier’s experience. Paying tribute to the 28th’s courage, connecting rangitahi with their whakapapa, Battalion “is a war on abuse and dysfunction.” Though he acknowledges “people need to be kept safe”, Moriarty is concerned that New Zealand is on track to having the highest rate of incarceration of indigineous people in the world. “We need to keep our rangitahi out of jail.”

Stopping violence, healing, empowerment and emancipation have been themes throughout his career. “I got into theatre as a young boy in the 60s, they were the sort of final, glory days of the Maori Theatre Trust, the golden days. And then in the 70s I was in television for quite sometime, and I got into a lot of grass roots theatre in the 70s... it was pretty didactic stuff but you had to do it, it was Treaty driven theatre mainly. But always I’ve come from really a political position... I identified early on that my own particular strength in relation to what I could do to enhance Tino Rangatiratanga and Mana Maori was to use creative stuff… So what I’ve done is I’ve remained true to that calling. I produce theatre, I direct theatre, I perform in stuff, and it’s all really to do with the emancipation of people, freedom and liberation of people, that’s what I’m interested in. All the work I’ve done with Te Rakau is along those lines. All the theatre I’ll continue to do in the future will be about using theatre as a tool for change.”

How can theatre affect that change? “By the nature by which you construct it firstly. That can bring about a huge change for the participants in the process and also the way in which you then present it and work with communities. I always try to have forums post performances so that people can discuss how they’ve been affected by the production. When I create theatre, I create theatre not just with individuals but their families and create a new family. So it becomes if you like a metaphor for better communication among people fullstop.”

Ruia taitea kahikitia te Wairua no tuawhakarere (Lest we forget) is a message that resonates through Battalion. Moriarty is someone who remembers.

What went wrong in New Zealand in the 90s? What led to a marked increase in despair, violence, gangs and crime. “There are a huge lot of economic factors that influence the disparity between the haves and the have-nots.” He is not a fan of the National Party. “That was essentially about the so-called market forces, the monetarists, and that [money] was supposed to trickle down. Well it didn’t trickle down, it trickled up, it just kept trickling up. The fall out- the major fall out-was the social fall out. The prison populations increased, the suicide rate increased, unemployment increased... it’s bullshit.”

Social problems result from monetarism, the system fails Maori, he says. “In the mid 80s they had this wonderful thing called Trade Training Schemes. A lot of the guys I work with now that are at risk youth or in prison, these guys would have been qualified apprentices, carpenters, builders, blocklayers whatever. But the National government scrapped all that stuff, tossed it out, said we don’t need it anymore, let the market level itself out, let the builders set up their own. It didn’t happen and now we’ve got an acute labour shortage in all sorts of arenas and jails full of young people. Because there’s been no direction, no guidance, they’ve gone into crime.

“And the gang’s have got burgeoning population numbers because what’s the alternative. And I’m working with kids all the time now, who with the toss of a coin could be in the Mongrel Mob, the Black Power, the Headhunters whatever, the Nomads, or what? Or what is there? Where are those apprenticeship schemes? Where are all those things that nurtured people through the troubled years of adolescence? On top of that you add a dysfunctional family background and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.”

Moriarty, who also works in the mental health sector, is the first to demand Maori stand up and take responsibility to stop the violence against children in their communities. “Maori traditionally were not violent to their children. Part of that was the whole Christian-Judaeo system, that whole belief in some Christian writings, ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ And the missionaries and the churches bought that stuff. Children were a valued taonga, they were a treasure in pre-European Maori society.” He says all New Zealanders need to be “true brothers and sisters” and be committed to helping Maori get back on their feet and make the most of their talents, after the negative effects of colonisation. “Maori had their language and their culture base basically bloody legislated out of existence.”

He remains optimisitic. “But the good old Kiwi’s a pretty resilient bugger in the main. And I like what the Labour government’s been trying to do to reempower people, reemploy people, redeploy people, ‘cos people are the core unit of exchange in any economy. And if they’re feeling pretty lousy and shitted off about the world they live in, they’re not going to contribute to the economy. What I do with theatre is to get people well, so they can get out there in the marketplace and do stuff.” The Maori and Polynesian renaissance continues to rise.

“His passion drives Te Rakau,” Te Rakau CEO Alicia Conklin tells me. “The kids, they respond to him. He has that X-factor. When they wouldn’t respond to anyone else. Trust. His non-judgmental approach. Truly showing love. Some of them have never experienced that.” Playmarket Director Mark Amery is another enthusiast. “Powerhouse devisor and actor whose whanau fuelled approach to making theatre out in the community has taken Maori and Pakeha theatre community values out there to people in a way more professional theatre should. Enormous heart and spirit. An impressive history of projects, which have helped train and develop an impressive number of theatre practitioners. A key figure in the arts. Give him a laureate award now!”

It was gratifying to be awarded New Zealand Order of Merit, but Te Rakau offers richer rewards. “Hell yeah. Some of the most astounding outcomes for me are the ones that an audience would [probably] miss... When the outcomes are such that people repatriate with their family when they’ve formerly been at odds with them because of a lot of the dysfunctional dynamics... and you know that they’ve then re-integrated back into their families or their communities in a healthy, strong way.

“It’s when you know that you’ve helped to add your bit to the journey of that young person’s life in terms of them being able to make sense of the dysfunction and hurt, so that they can move on from there. And I use theatre as a tool for change as a way of helping young people unravel the stuff that’s hurt them so it doesn’t have power over them anymore…And then from people’s shared stories graphing that up in creative language. For me it’s about using theatre as a tool for political change, a transformational, transitional tool, helping people to make more sense of the world they live in, and about the choices they can make about what’s happened to them and what happens in the future.”

Moriarty is passionate about Tino Rangatiratanga and the foreshore/seabed debate. “Tino Rangatiratanga still means what it’s always meant to me. The right of the indigenous people, the Maori of Aotearoa, to have access to the resources as they were identified in the Treaty, and to have a say in the management of those resources in perpetuity, for the benefit of all.” Pakeha uproar at the idea of Maori owning- or rather care-taking- parts of the foreshore and seabed is dodgy given the minimal objection voiced at the significant amounts of the foreshore already in the hands of rich foreigners, who often show the land inadequate respect and give New Zealanders access even less. Moriarty argues the Treaty can save the foreshore and seabed for all New Zealanders. “We need to wise up as a nation and realise that the Treaty is infact the only document, not just on behalf of tangata whenua, but all New Zealanders, that will protect its wholesale bloody distribution to the highest bidder from somewhere else in the world, to absentee landlord ownership, and that’s what we’re getting a lot of.”

In another life, Moriarty stars in The Waimate Conspiracy, unravelling a Maori land claim in the South Island. It took the top honours at the 2006 digiSPAA Awards, an annual Australian competition for feature films made with digital cameras and the supreme award at the Wairoa Maori Film Festival. (“Beautiful,” he says of River Queen, which also screened. “Vincent’s a purist.”) Shakespeare is one of his favourite writers, he will play Othello in Downstage’s Aotearoa-set production next year.

Moriarty has the audacity to hope. “I reckon this particular generation care about the world they live in and their relationships with other people.”