Shona McCullagh (MNZM) – My story, as told to Elisabeth Easther

Shona McCullagh is the artistic director of the Auckland Arts Festival, which is scheduled to run from March 4-21 with more than 70 events taking place across 18 days.

“I was born in the Waikato and, when I was 4, my family moved to Northland in Wellington where we lived in a state house with a pylon in the backyard. I have very early memories of knowing we weren’t allowed to climb the pylon. I also have vivid memories of the Wahine storm, and Mum being extremely nervous about both the pylon, and the tiles sliding off the roof.

“Wellington’s infamous weather was a big part of my childhood. Walking to school in southerly gales, my violin being flung out of my hand, leaning forward on a ridiculous gradient against the wind. I’m hugely fond of Wellington and no one who has ever lived there can ever talk about it without feeling the massive imprint of that magnificent, dynamic landscape and one’s relationship with the weather. Or the glorious Oriental Bay days, sunbathing as a teenager, covered in buckets of baby oil.

“When we moved up the road to a house above the Northland tunnel, we could feel all the earthquakes. Today, the Auckland Arts Festival office is in a building right by the excavation for Aotea Station and when the building shakes and shudders with the machinery, it takes me right back to childhood, watching the little ornaments shake on the pelmets and tip off in every earthquake.

“We literally lived on a faultline, and my relationship to the physicality of our landscape has carried through into my work as a dancer – the body is the land, the land is the body. I feel very blessed to have such a visceral relationship with the wind, the shaking earth, the powerful seas and glorious bush.

“My mother came from a very musical family, with stories of a violin handed down through the generations, won from a debt in a hotel in Dunedin. I played this very violin and, as a 6-year-old, I rode the bus from Northland to Mākara where my orchestra was. Mum had a mantra – you can do anything you want, so long as you get yourself there and back. She had no choice, with four kids. But Mākara felt like the end of the world to a 6-year-old nervous about getting off at the right place. Had I missed the bus? Would I miss the stop? Did I have enough money? But Mum’s edict meant I developed self-reliance from a young age.

“Mum was pragmatic. I’ll never forget one Christmas, my present was a bike carrier and I remember feeling crestfallen. My father had TB when he and Mum were young marrieds, and my sister had just been born and he was in hospital for six months. I don’t know how Mum did it, chopping up tea boxes for firewood.

“As a child I lived in a highly imaginative world, fed by my sister who would sit at the end of my bed telling me stories she invented. At primary school I wrote lots of poems, stories and plays and I had a seminal light bulb moment when Children’s Action Theatre came to Northland School. We were all sitting on the hard floor, there were two black upright barriers on either side of the space and suddenly somebody emerged from this makeshift proscenium arch. The person disappeared and appeared and they were being someone other than themselves. That was my first experience of the jaw-dropping magic of live theatre.

“Another time, Laughton Patrick – with his beautiful twinkly eyes, smiling with his big heart – he initiated a mass choral children’s event at the Wellington Town Hall based on the myth of Māui, I think. This is back in the early 70s, there were 600 kids, and I remember thinking – this is really powerful. The sense of emotional unity, that we were all serving the higher purpose of telling a story with sensitivity, beauty and imagination.

“Music played a huge part of my childhood. Mum was the choir mistress and organist at our church. We all sang in the church choir and played instruments. I went on to play in chamber orchestras and string quartets and sing in choirs, but at the end of college, I had to make a choice between dance and music, and dance won. But the intense richness of musical experience has had a huge influence on my career.

“I loved writing but was absolutely aghast when I didn’t get into journalism school. At that time, in the early 80s, you couldn’t train as a contemporary dancer as there was only the National School of Ballet. After a year as a cadet at Wellington Newspapers and not having the best time, my mother, who was a librarian at Wellington Teachers’ College, suggested I enrol there, and that’s where I met my tribe. Most of us were artists (although very few of us ended up becoming teachers!), and it was a brilliant education in terms of discovering what we could teach through the arts. One of my utopian dreams is that the education system reverts to everything being learned through the arts.

“In 1982, when the NZ School of Dance included contemporary training, I was accepted in the first intake in what turned out to be a bumper first-year crop. So many of us had been sitting, desperately waiting for this moment.

“At times it’s been incredibly challenging, but Ive had a truly blessed career. The hardest thing has always been the fight with myself. Am I good enough? Dance is particularly confronting, so much of the training was about looking back at a reflection of yourself. If I could live my life again, I’d not waste so much time thinking I wasn’t good enough. But no one can protect others from their own journey with themselves.

“I started at the Auckland Arts Festival on March 10, just as the 2020 festival was starting to fall like a house of cards. I was astonished by the skill of the incredible team who made the safety of artists and audience their number one priority.

“The world has changed irrevocably. Up until Covid, festival directors spent a huge amount of time on planes, seeing works all over the world. I came in wanting to take a close look at the festival’s carbon footprint anyway, so Ive been delighted to rechannel all of our resources to the artists of Aotearoa.

“One of the new initiatives this year is a debate – Are The Arts Essential? There can be a perception that the arts are a luxury, but imagine just one day of your life without any artistic enrichment? I love the fact that in so many indigenous cultures, there was no word for art, it’s just woven vitally though everything architecture, food, clothing, implements, rituals. Art was at the heart of everything. If we go back to understanding and valuing the arts as intrinsic and central to our lives, rather than external and separate, well be a much healthier society. Art heals, soothes, connects and uplifts us every day.

“I’m often told I am tenacious. My great-great-great grandmother travelled on a ship to Dunedin from England. She had 10 children and was pregnant with the 11th when her husband died on the voyage. She arrived in Dunedin with nothing, and the mayor took up a collection for her. I often think about her. How did she survive? When I look at what’s happening in the world today, the problems we face, I see women reaching into a deep well of resilience, tenacity and courage. This inspires me every single day, and I truly believe it will be feminine intelligence, strength and empathy that will solve the world’s problems.”

The organisers of the Auckland Arts Festival would like to encourage people to keep booking, in spite of what we all hope is a brief return to level 3. In the event of show cancellations in relation to Covid-19, AAF have a refund policy in place, available via www.aaf.co.nz.

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