"Courage is contagious."
That's what 12 Auckland teenagers hope for when they appear at the Herald Theatre in a show where they tell their own stories to make a fresh start and cast themselves in a new light. Now in its fourth consecutive year, Manawa Ora is the flagship project of Nga Rangatahi Toa, a creative arts initiative providing support to Auckland youth excluded from school.
All the performances - one-act plays, spoken-word poetry and music - are created by the teenagers, who work alongside established artists, actors and musicians. Previously, Anika Moa, Teuila Blakely, Oscar Kightley, Pana Hema-Taylor and Ladi6 have acted as mentors.
This year's mentors include world-renowned aerosol artist Owen Dippie, musicians Coco Solid, Tourettes, Team Dynamite's Lucky Lance Fepuleai and Tony Tz, dancer Thomas Rose, and visual artists Sara Beazley and Lucie Blaze. Director Jess Holly-Bates will then pull the individual works together.
Educator and creative entrepreneur Sarah Longbottom founded Nga Rangatahi Toa six years ago in response to the need for arts access and mentoring in alternative education. She further developed it after visiting similar programmes in the United States.
Nga Rangatahi Toa uses visual and performing arts to encourage teens, many of whom have backgrounds where domestic violence, gangs, and drug and alcohol abuse are the norm, to give education another go.
"Society doesn't just marginalise these young people, but it pathologises them and paints them as the be all and end all for all the woes in our society," Longbottom says. "These kids actually end up being de-humanised because no one gets to hear first-hand from them.
"This year's theme comes from the young people themselves. Their courage is contagious as they tell their stories of reconnection, re-presenting themselves and reimagining what our shared Auckland stories could look like."
She says statistics show that less than half of teens in alternative education programmes make it back into school or on to tertiary training.
"It's a waste of potential and, believe me, there is great potential there. We use the arts to encourage them to have one more go and it works because, for many, it's the first time they've been asked to stand up and express their feelings, share their stories.
"After every show, people will stand up and give testimony about their own lives. I've seen middle-aged men stand up and say they're talking for the first time about the role domestic violence and abuse played in their own childhoods."
Manawa Ora is a turning point for many of those who participate. Longbottom talks of one "cripplingly shy" young woman who was in trouble with the police but was ashamed of what she had done even if she put up a tough front.
"She could sing - and sing really well. We paired her with Anika Moa, who worked alongside her on a song. On the first night, the young woman walked onto the stage but was too shy to sing and walked off; on the second night, she stood on stage while the song was played but didn't sing and then, on night three, she brought the house down.
"If you don't set high expectations, these youngsters won't take the next step because they won't believe they can do it or that anyone expects them to try any harder, do any better."
The young woman is now completing a travel and tourism qualification and continues to sing in her spare time. Longbottom's work was recently recognised by the Auckland Arts Regional Trust (ART) who named her the inaugural recipient of its Emerging Creative Entrepreneur Award.
What: Manawa Ora
Where & when: Herald Theatre, October 5 - 8