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Actor Ana Scotney shines a light on Hawke's Bay youth

Ana Scotney. Photo/Michael Rooke.

Actor Ana Scotney tells the coming-of-age stories of six young people from Hawke's Bay.

There’s something about going somewhere new that can help people see their place in the world, physically and metaphorically, with special clarity.

That’s what happened to actor Ana Scotney when she travelled to Hawke’s Bay last winter in search of stories to inform her solo show The Contours of Heaven. It premiered to rave reviews at the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival last October, and won the Basement Theatre Migration Award – as well as three other accolades – when she performed it at the Auckland Fringe Festival in March. The prize was a fully resourced, two-week season at Auckland’s Basement Theatre in June.

The Contours of Heaven, produced by Puti Lancaster, is a striking performance combining physical and verbatim theatre with song and sound-looping to tell the coming-of-age stories of six young people from Hawke’s Bay. The characters, who “whakapapa” to Havelock North, Napier and Flaxmere, were all connected to the local arts scene and known to Lancaster, who has Ngāti Porou roots. Scotney, who didn’t know the group before starting her project, was surprised how quickly they opened up to her during the writing stages. She attributes this to the open-minded approach she and Lancaster took: “We just went to them and said, ‘Hey, who are you, what are you about, and what’s important for you to talk about?’ It was amazing what we got back.”

Scotney says she knew nothing about Hawke’s Bay when she arrived there; she’s lived between Wellington and Te Urewera most of her life, and is now based in Auckland. But she was drawn to the Bay after a hectic, six-month work schedule – appearing in Peer Gynt [recycled], the International Comedy Festival, and The Antigone Sound. Ready for some space, she also believed full immersion into the lives of these young people was the only way to truly tell their stories.

The show she’s created is broken into six distinct parts, with each new section introduced by a loop of music. “Structure-wise, the characters don’t cross over,” explains Scotney, “but they are taken through by sounds. The music reflects each [new] person’s voice.” No one is overtly recognisable, but each character tells their story about what it means to be a young person in the regions right now. Some are harrowing, with themes of youth suicide and gang association.

Scotney says it was “a buzz-out” to perform the piece in front of Ministry of Youth Development, Ōranga Tamariki and Ministry of Social Development staff in Wellington. “It’s hard to articulate some of these issues and do it in a way that’s non-confrontational and non-threatening.”

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Lancaster and Scotney hope bringing the show out of the regions to cities like Auckland and Wellington will challenge new audiences, asking: “Do you even know these experiences are occurring right now for young people?” Scotney also wants to debunk the notion that millennials are a bunch of shallow whingers through these “beautiful, smart… amazing” characters.

Each story is anchored in a deep sense of place, and Scotney uses flowing movement to illustrate this. “It sounds a bit wanky,” she says, “but the movements are meant to be reflective of Hawke’s Bay, because of the bigness of that coast… and contrast between each town.”

Contours is a moving, important piece of work that gives insight into a side of life in New Zealand some will find shocking, but there are lighter moments too. One character is obsessed with WWE wrestling; another’s interaction with the audience is upbeat and optimistic.

“It has a sense of humour,” says Scotney, whose role in new Kiwi comedy film The Breaker Upperers has further boosted her profile. “It’s really important I’m not always coming in with heat – that I’m coming in gentle and you get a tapestry of voices so they’re digestible, so people can hear them.”  

This article was first published in the July 2018 issue of North & South.