Loose Canons: Miriama Mcdowell
Loose Canons is a series in which we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.
Two short years after graduating form Toi Whakaari, Miriama McDowell had starred in various films and and television series: Toa Fraser’s debut feature No. 2, television series Interrogation and Taonga. Since then, her screen credits include sci-fi thriller This is Not My Life, Gaylene Preston's Hope and Wire, and the acclaimed film The Dark Horse. Nominated for a slew of screen awards across various projects, in 2017 Miriama won Best Actress at the Rialto Channel New Zealand Film Awards for her role in The Great Maiden's Blush. Most recently, Miriama has starred in two seasons of Māori Television comedy series Find Me a Maori Bride and the internationally-acclaimed feature film Waru.
McDowell works extensively as an actor, writer and director in theatre. 2017 saw her writing and performing in the Auckland Arts Festival and Silo Theatre production Cellfish, as well as directing the much-celebrated production of Much Ado About Nothing for the Pop-up Globe in Auckland and Melbourne. Ever busy, Miriama is currently co-writer of Massive Company's Sightings, which opens this week at Q Theatre, and can be seen in the lead role in Sam Brooks' newest play Burn Her, which opens on August 1st, also at Q Theatre.
I’ve always been in choirs since I was at primary school. I love harmonising. My twin brother (who’s a much better musician than me) says the best way to teach your children to sing in parts is to do it in the car, because you’re all facing forward so they can kind of hear you, but kind of not. Maybe that’s how I learnt too. I have lots of memories of being on big road trips with my family and singing in rounds. I was once in an international choir that had 24 singers from 14 countries. I know songs from all over the world and find they pop into my head in the most unexpected moments.
Now that I have babies I realise how singing gets into your DNA. I sing songs to my 6-month-old that have been passed down through my family for generations. I imagine my great-great-grandmother singing songs on the ship from Wales to New Zealand that I now sing to my little girl in her bedroom in Kingsland. Last year I directed a show that really asked a lot of my brain and I was very stressed. I noticed myself frequently turning the radio off in my car on the way home from work and singing at the top of my lungs, often big choral numbers like Ave Verum Corpus. It made me realise that I use singing as a form of stress release, without even knowing I do it. My baby likes songs from the Pacific Islands, especially when I sing the men’s parts! It must be the deep rumbling tones – they put her to sleep.
Te Reo Māori
Nothing inspires me like seeing people embark on the journey of learning te reo Māori. I went to kōhanga reo in Auckland when I was little, but lost the language as I got older. I’ve learnt slowly as life has continued, but have never given it the attention it needs and deserves. I am always inspired by people who have made the commitment to learning the language. Everyone’s story is different – the whys and the hows – but watching the transformation from someone being a non-speaker to a confident speaker is amazing. I have a friend from Japan who came to New Zealand to learn English and found he liked the Māori language a lot more. He went back to Japan with very little English but was able to whaikōrero on the paepae. He has a constant stream of Māori showing up on his doorstep in Tokyo – me included! My 6-year-old daughter Talanoa is experiencing a bilingual education – her reo brings me to tears.
Massive Company / Gaulier
I’ve been with Massive Company for 13 years. Massive has had a huge impact on my life and work as an artist. I feel like I found my tribe when I started working with Massive. The people are big-hearted, conscious, and curious. They work really hard too, and I love people who work hard. Massive works with professional actors like me but is also a place for emerging artists to develop their skills. I’ve seen our work change people’s lives. It’s hard to explain how. It’s something to do with helping young people get past all the excuses, the posturing, the blocks, and be themselves.
The foundation of the work is le jeu. The game. It’s founded on the belief that no matter what is happening on the stage, no matter what story the actors are telling, there must always be a game between the actors. If there is no game, it is “fucking boring”. Sounds easy enough, but only very special actors know how to play. They’re usually quite naughty and have a twinkle in their eye.
I went to train with Philippe Gaulier in Paris in 2015 – he’s world-renowned for his work in le jeu. It was the best experience of my acting life. I could listen to that man talk all day and all the night for the rest of my life and be happy. I love people who are naughty, a bit silly, and who feel things deeply and also think deeply. Gaulier is all these things. Plus he has the best insults and does them with a thick French accent. If words fail he has a button beside him that makes a machine gun sound: get off the stage.
The Mum Club
I love that part in Wonder Woman when Diana’s mother has caught her leaving the island and her mother says, “You have been my greatest love. Today you are my greatest sorrow”. Oh my gosh, I bawled my eyes out at that part. I feel like it articulates so beautifully what it is to be a mother. For me it’s a constant journey of letting go. You love these little people so much but you have to let them keep growing, taking steps further and further away from you.
No one ever told me that when you become a parent you join this new club. The conversations I have with other mothers are just amazing. I can be the worst version of myself and the best version of myself. I can ask questions, ask for help, let myself be vulnerable, laugh about my failures. The best thing is that mothers of all ages have something to teach you. Parenting is a series of stages – it never ends.
I haven’t been to America Latina for at least 18 years, but I feel like it had a really strong effect on me in my late teens, those years when you are figuring out who you are, what you love, what you believe in. I love the Spanish language, the history, the poetry, the music, the people. I went to an international school in Canada and really gravitated towards the Latinos; they felt like Māori and they looked like Māori to me. So began the teenage love affair (literal and metaphorical) with the continent.
I still have books from those years; Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Mario Benedetti. I lived in Costa Rica for a bit, but also spent time in Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico. When I auditioned for drama school my accent was really strange after living overseas for years. The actor and director Rachel House auditioned me when I was 19. She asked me to do my audition piece in Spanish. It was so much fun! The character completely changed – I could feel it jumping out of my skin.