Toitoi Opera House interior

Toitoi Homecoming

Toitoi Hawke's Bay Arts and Events Centre / 
29 February and 1 March 2020 / 
Hastings Street, Hastings / 
By Jess Soutar Barron

An Opening in Three Acts. An Ensemble playing multiple parts. With Exits and Entrances, and dramatic arcs. The Grand Old Dame awakes! At dawn on the magical extra day at the end of a leap year summer.

People gather first on the threshold between night and day, between outside and in, streetscape and interior, public pavement and the untouched unknown of the brand new within. In this liminal space community transforms into the very thing this building has been waiting for to truly re-realise its purpose: an audience, and a troupe of players.

Maybe a hundred made it for the 5.30am start of this long-awaited weekend after 6 years of a closed and quiet Opera House. A conch calls out and a karakia replies. “Wake up,” we whisper. The crowd moves quietly through the anteroom to what was the Plaza. The pit has gone, and the columns, the old wine barrels and the faux-brass banisters, and the place where the tipsy lady on heels slipped on a crack, went down hard with a glass in her hand and smashed out her front teeth.

Now there’s carpet and a ceiling that mimics the rush and pop of water over rocks. Deep below us the Mākirikiri Stream rolls past.

The procession of dignitaries and public, council wonks and people who worked on the project winds through the Foyer to the Theatre itself. Takes a seat. Charles Ropitini is on the stage with a tiny prayer book. He incants to the ether. All around kaikarakia thread prayers and blessings into the nooks and crannies of the Theatre. From our velvet seats we hear them, and at intervals see them too, first on the stage then the stalls then the circles then high above us in the Gods. “Wake Up”, they say into the corners.

Wind back to the new function hall, gather again, this time for speeches, notice the details, notice what’s new here and what nods to the past. The Mauri stone has been reset, the generous windows framed in wood and etched with the vista of Te Mata and Tukituki. Ancestors depicted here to remind each and every of legacy and heritage, there are ancestors playing in the architraves.

The two parts of our bicultural selves mingle, make speeches, tangata whenua loop poetry through their korero, us colonists hanker for a cuppa and a bacon buttie.

Act II: Same street, changed completely through the 12-hour interval. Still bright at 6pm. Same cast. Costume change to glad rags. Tea-cup gone, replaced with a prop glass. The deco band is deafening in its celebratory oompah. There are speeches though the crowd can’t hear them, brassed ears ringing and too much chitchat to be had. Too much booze too for some with nothing but a bite-sized birdseed canape to soak it up. Doesn’t seem the power cord for the PA reaches outside so they’ve gone old-school and they’re projecting. Liquor licencing officers would have a field day with this much grog and so little grub.

As dusk descends, we parade inside. The hall has been taken over by dancers on podia. Each an element, each a stunning exemplar of contemporary movement but people plough through and the moment becomes mayhem as if this space is a concourse and the crowd has a flight to catch. If they had waited, they would have seen beauty in motion and heard the call of fellow makers chorusing tautoko. If this public is to become real culture vultures, and consumers of creativity they need to slow down, watch out for wonder, wander not rush, wait for whatever. We have a lot to learn, fingers crossed Toitoi is up for teaching.

In the auditorium, people are seated in plush red velvet, a plush red rag hiding the stage. Clutches of Hastings Choral Society are scattered in and around. The sound threads through the stalls and the circles echoing the morning karakia. “Wake Up,” they sing. Then The Show…MC Henare O’Keefe trussed up in black tie. He’s a master Master of Ceremonies but his patter cuts a fine line between down home and home grown. The crowd loves him, and he loves the performers (some a bit too much) and tells each one so as they hit the stage. There are highlights, and slow bits, bits where we know someone’s mate wanted in, and parts where the heart expands ten-fold and bangs hard against the rib cage. Kahurangi Maori Dance Company brings a powerful telling of their tīpuna. It’s contemporary and traditional and unlike anything seen before. Project Prima Volta breaks the fourth wall and lets us in on its secrets. Arlo Mac only gets one shot at the spotlight and in gone too soon. Newly appointed (potentially informally) Toitoi Poet Laureate, Ben Fagan recites a poem from his Pākehā 2020 series, pokes fun at local realtors, then knocks us off our seats with his Toitoi love poem Tātou Tātou. It humbles and hushes even the slickest VIPs.  Julia Deans honours us with her homage and she’s close to tears about Hawke’s Bay, how lucky we are to be here, to come from here, to call here Home.

Everyone wants to say something to welcome the grand dame back. And the first half of this Homecoming Show balloons with pride. Coming into half time we’re already zonked and the audience naturally thins out. The second half is back on track, tight and timed to the iota.

Two particularly powerful moments come from people not in the room on the night. First, a stunning doco catching us up on the dramas of the last six years, then Prime Minister Ardern addressing us from her seat beside us, though this was shot ten days prior. She tells us our heritage is important, the arts must be accessible, they shape memories and futures. She thanks our community for breathing life back into this treasure.

Life breathed through dawn karakia, through community voices, through opera, pop and hip-hop, through poetry and praise and dad-jokes. Life breathed through five hundred people saying, “Haaaaaa!” saying “Wow!” saying “Phew!” and “Well done” and “Welcome back”.

Then a singalong, and footstomping, and applause. “Wake Up!” we holler.

We funnel out into the function hall and the food arrives. It’s missed its cue, wandering in from the wings midway through the curtain call. Cast and crew scoop it up like it’s tribute roses thrown from the box. Most of the guests have drifted off, and we’re sharing tired yarns and contemplating the one million reasons to be here in the days and months and years to come.

Then heads hit pillows all over Heretaunga and await Act III.

Act III: Tiny bubbles in glasses have been replaced by giant bubbles in the air. Kids leap at them out on the street, even a site as large as Toitoi can’t contain this much young energy. There’re familiar faces from the character actors and bit-part players that are the back-bone of this whole affair: costumes changed, make-up reapplied, ‘toitoi’ emblazoned neon on their matching tops. There’s a dress-up booth and Insta gets a nod with a backdrop for photos.

Inside, people are exploring. In every corner there’s a someone. Families share stories, introduce their offspring to places they know so well but these seven-year-olds have never seen. There are walk-on roles for every one of us. This cast of 30,000 has been waiting for a chance to play.

The brass band is back. Their clangs and pips boom through the Foyer and pound up the stairs. I discover how beautiful the breathing space on the grand circle is. I wish someone had dusted the nouveau chandelier.

The ancestors hide out in the green-room, beyond the crew-only barriers, their descendants nag for food, their guardians crave coffee. It’s a shame there’s no java cart, no BBQ, no ice-cream van, no obligatory bin of Royal Gala.

But this is just the beginning, we have returned, and our House has been returned to us. Now we get to play in it, enjoy it, contemplate our culture from within its walls, laugh at our own jokes, singalong to our favourites. We’ve found our seat inside our place and now we’re in, we’re ready for whatever comes next.

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One thought on “Toitoi Homecoming

  1. Thank you Jess for such a beautiful write up on moments I missed as I was on my way to Adelaide to scout for works that would further light up the grand old Opea House during the 2020 Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival. I had the priviledge to see a rehearsal of the wonderful godesses in the Plaza the night before, along with a few friends and families…slow and contemplative under and above the flow of the Makiriri River…

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