Bringing Māoriness to the world by Madelaine Empson
Jamie McCaskill (Ngati Tamaterā, Ngā Puhi, Tuwharetoa, Ngāti Rangi) is an actor, producer, director, musician, and avid surfer based in Pōneke. His stage career has seen him tour through China and New York as a member of the Modern Māori Quartet and perform solo at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The award-winning playwright picked up the Bruce Mason Award for Manawa in 2013 and the Best New New Zealand Play at the Wellington Theatre Awards for Not in Our Neighbourhood in 2015, while he recently won Outstanding Solo Performance at the 2021 New Zealand Fringe Festival for Company Kamupene. The powerful satire was presented by critically acclaimed theatre company Tikapa Productions, of which he is a co-director, and The Māori Sidesteps Collective.
McCaskill is a founding member and director of The Māori Sidesteps, a contemporary Māori showband and sketch comedy quartet also starring Cohen Holloway, Regan Taylor, and Erroll Anderson. Known for their satirical, subversive skits and crooning comedy, The Māori Sidesteps started simply with a web series about “a group of fullas who work at Pete’s Emporium and form a band”, McCaskill chuckles. Quickly collecting a large national following, the talented quartet released their first TV show on Māori Television this year. Over six episodes, Hari with The Māori Sidesteps, which McCaskill was head writer for, examines different themes – such as identity, Te Reo, and digital media – via live performances, songs, and even a sitcom about daddy daycare in the 80s!
Pre-lockdown, McCaskill and I sat down over a cuppa to chat about his extensive stage and screen career in the arts.
Can you pinpoint an experience growing up that led to your love of the arts and where you are today?
I did Sound of Music when I was 13 and I was the only brown face in the von Trapp family [laughs]. I loved it. Being a von Trapp gave me the love, but it wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 that I discovered there was a career path in the arts. Then I went to drama school [UCOL Theatre School].
What was it about theatre that made you pursue your passion?
When I was at school I was never really academically that good, so when it came to the performing arts, I was good at something. I fell in love with the craft.
The craft of acting was – and I still think is – the hardest. You have to be really vulnerable, and it’s consuming.
As an actor you’re portraying other people, whereas as a musician or writer, you’re often writing about yourself or your own experiences. Why do you think acting is the most consuming and vulnerable of the crafts?
I think because you are inhabiting other characters. When I was a young Māori actor – I called myself a young Māori actor because I noticed young Māori actors were getting consumed by characters and not able to split off from them, and doing destructive stuff in their early twenties, and I was one of them. As I reflect back now, when I act in a play, especially a solo show, I become totally consumed by it and I can’t focus on my family, surf, anything. I enjoy performing and the hour after, but the other 23 hours in the day… It’s just a tough craft on you mentally, physically, and emotionally.
What do you think are some of the best and most challenging aspects of life as a full-time artist in Aotearoa?
What’s the average full-time theatre person’s wage? $14,000, I think, a year. So money is a struggle. And the grind, there’s a lot of work you have to do, a lot of networking. But once you get through and you push onto the other side, theatre especially is great to use for your own agenda. People know that Tikapa Productions or The Māori Sidesteps deliver a certain message, so I love that. The best part about it is sharing stories.
What are the messages that Tikapa Productions and The Māori Sidesteps deliver?
Tikapa Productions is about producing Māori theatre with an agenda. Whatever that agenda is within the story, whether it’s social justice, whether it’s giving mana to the Pākehā status, it’s all from a Māori lens.
For The Māori Sidesteps the mission statement and vision is bringing Māoriness to the world. That vision encapsulates our humour and our message. All our stuff is inherently Māori-driven, for the good of Māori and the better understanding of non-Māori. We do that in a real fun way and not so in-your-face.
Since you first started with The Māori Sidesteps, have you noticed more people bringing more Māoriness into the world?
Yeah! We play our part, that’s for sure. Not everybody likes our angle, we’re not going to please everyone, and that’s fine. I think when our own people start throwing stones at us, we’re shifting the paradigm a little bit, and that’s good. Don’t be scared when our own people start going ‘hey hey hey, you fullas are making us look bad!’ Get over it, we’re going to keep doing it [laughs].
Have you witnessed more change as a result of your work?
I’ve witnessed a societal shift; there are lots of other things at play and we’re a part of it. There is feedback that we get from people who don’t know some of the issues that we put forward. New Zealand history stuff. Looking at the world through a Māori lens and normalising it. A Māori lens and a Western lens can actually move in harmony together. Sometimes they move together and sometimes they don’t, and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got some cool projects coming up which I had thought of 10, 15 years ago and I feel mature enough to be able to tackle those ideas. I’ve got a reverse colonisation play about a Māori airline that crashes onto an island with native Pākehā, and there’s reverse colonisation going on. I think 15 years ago when I had the concept I was quite angry. Now it’s about presenting the idea and having fun. There’s a way to heal our history, and it’s not through anger – but we do have to look at it.
I’m working with an Aboriginal writer over in Australia on a family movie. It’s all about empowering a First Nations voice. It’s tiring, I tell you. But as an Indigenous or Māori artist, there is a responsibility, always.
I’ve been working on an anime in Japan for the last three years that me and Brandon Te Moananui and Te Awanui Reeder had an idea for. It will be New Zealand’s first anime in Japanese style, Māori-Pasifika anime.
Wow, some amazing things in the works! Any ultimate goals still to check off the list?
Probably looking at a career in politics in my 50s, I think that’s where I want to go. Prime Minister?
I can’t let you leave without asking about your time as Pita Rameka on Shortland Street. Do you have any silly stories from set?
I found it really great, it’s a beast of a machine. The weirdest thing about it was, you know the lift in the hospital? There are people on the side who open the doors when you’re in the studio. Because it’s not very high, you have to walk out like this [squats and walks]. But you don’t duck, you have to make it look normal. So that was weird!