The deputy principal taught Pana Hema-Taylor at Aranui High School in Christchurch – sensed a talent and steered the young man away from the fringes of the Mongrel Mob towards an acting career. That showed foresight and conviction.
Now framed images of Pana – star of feature films ‘Boy’ and ‘Kawa’ and television’s ‘Spartacus’, ‘The Brokenwood Mysteries’ and ‘Westside’ – line the deputy principal’s office wall at Tauranga Boys College.
Each image testament to the faith and energy invested by Robert Gilbert in a former pupil.
“Did you see him last night in ‘Resolve’?” asks Robert. In the recent TV docudrama, a story of courage, Pana played New Plymouth man Murray Crean, gunned down when he stood up to the Black Power. “I thought he carried it off very well,” says teacher of the pupil with just a hint of self-satisfaction and reflected glory.
It’s also a short, considered and educated critique from an education administrator who, outside the deputy principal’s office at Tauranga Boys’ College, is also an actor, theatre director and playwright.
His office at the college is a stage – and this interview is a performance. Robert gesticulates, he articulates and he projects. He can’t turn off the thespian in him.
The deputy principal wrote his master’s thesis on the theatre – transgenderism in the New Zealand theatre to be precise. “I wanted to do something meaningful; that addressed something in society.”
A dear, close friend is transgender. “She is well read, very funny, very sharp with an acerbic wit.” Her name is Liz. She was a costume designer when the deputy principal was a theatre director.
“I only ever knew Liz as Liz – only ever as a woman, never in her previous incarnation. Her gender was never an issue for me. And it never occurred to me that she was anything other than how she presented.”
There was another personality in the deputy principal’s life. “He was a friend, a mentor, a role model – then later in life he told me he was now woman.”
Robert called his thesis ‘Theatre of Acceptance’ – as opposed to theatre of ridicule.
And by that he means Widow Twankey in Aladdin, the pantomime dame portrayed by a man; the broad, coarse, cross-dressing comedians like Mrs Brown and those in ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’. “All these things are quite comedic, yet through my study and talking to people quite close to me I know transgender folk are belittled and ridiculed.”
He believed the time was right for a solid New Zealand play to address some of that. And so, as part of the thesis, he wrote a play underscoring some transgender issues – suicide, homelessness, and abnormally high rates of unemployment.
The seed was sown when Robert heard a gossipy, behind-the-hands comment about the size of Liz’s feet – or something like that. “It was definitely in a hurtful, gossipy way that made me feel really uncomfortable.”
“I mean, what does it matter? I just thought that in these enlightened times, surely people can just be people.
“Can we not accept people for who they are? Whatever one’s sexuality or gender representation, people just want to be comfortable in their own skin. I feel comfortable in mine, but it’s ok for me because I am a Pakeha heterosexual male, over 50, in a reasonably successful career. But that’s not the story for everyone.
“I worry that some of it harks back to freak-show, morbid curiosity. People want to know what’s below the waist line, or what’s in someone’s knickers. My attitude is it’s no-one’s business except for the individual concerned. It just shouldn’t matter to people.”
So Robert wrote Liz into his thesis, to help put things right. “That’s a rather grand notion – but if there’s one thing the arts can do is address what’s going on in society, whatever the art form.”
And to drive his point home, he decided to weave a play in his thesis. So he wrote ‘Trans Tasmin’. Tasmin is a transgender Maori woman putting herself through university by working in a bar. The captain of the local rugby club falls in love with her and two worlds collide with Hadron proportions. It’s a little more complex – but in the end only one person has it all together and that’s Tasmin. Everyone else has issues.
The play has had a professional reading in Christchurch.
How does all this sit with the august office of an education administrator, a deputy principal? “Well, it doesn’t – some other deputy principals might collect stamps, some might do Tae Kwando, I write plays.
“And no, I am not gay, I am none of those things, but I don’t think it matters anyhow.”
And the deputy principal has gone on to write more scripts – one called ‘DTU’ about the drug treatment unit at Christchurch prison. And another about the circumstances of his great-grandmother in New Zealand.
But it’s gender that’s very visible at the moment – gender-neutral school uniforms, gender-neutral toilets and changing rooms, and even parents deciding their children will be gender-neutral.
“Before we denounce I think we should allow people the simple decency of being who they want to be. I know there are parents who struggle with this issue, I know the difficulties it causes families, but we are all faced with difficulties of one kind or another through life and transgender is one of them.”
Some experience and wisdom imparted and very worthy of consideration.