Theatre Preview: The Factory, Mangere Arts Centre

By Dionne Christian

Tupe Lualua (left) and Joanna Mika-Toloa rehearse for The Factory. Photo / Richard Robinson
Tupe Lualua (left) and Joanna Mika-Toloa rehearse for The Factory. Photo / Richard Robinson

In a street dominated by light industry, panel beaters, mechanics and lunch bars the Heart Foundation would shudder at, an unusual sound fills the early evening air: rousing singing.

Shut your eyes for a moment, block out the sounds of the surrounding factories and you half-expect to open them again and find yourself in a theatre on Broadway; such is the power of the voices.

Sitting in what was once a factory but is now a private training provider, Vela Manusaute smiles and looks quietly confident he's about to achieve his dream of making history by writing the world's first Pacific musical.

The Factory is a musical with a difference. Not only is it home-grown, it takes its inspiration from the hundreds of factories, like those neighbouring the rehearsal space, and the workers who staff them.

With a cast of 11 performers and a live orchestra, The Factory is set in south Auckland where Losa (Victoria Schmidt) and her daughter Susana (Joanna Mika-Toloa) find themselves after leaving Samoa as refugees from the 2009 tsunami, which killed their husband and father.

Like so many immigrants, they arrive in New Zealand searching for a better life.

There are sacrifices to be made, questions to be asked and decisions to be mulled over - but also plenty of love and laughter.

While Manusaute aims to create theatre with a strong political and social focus, he has made a name for himself as a comedian firstly with The Brownies and more recently with the Kila Kokonut Krew (KKK).

It means he likes to entertain and celebrate. He wrote The Factory as a tribute to his parents and the thousands of other Pacific people who came to New Zealand in the 1960s and '70s and took manual factory jobs.

Manusaute, the first Niuean to graduate from Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School and a father of three, turned 40 last year and has been feeling reflective.

"As I've become more mature, grown up, I've thought about the experiences thousands of Pacific people had in coming to New Zealand - supposedly for a better life - and ending up working in factories.

"It's only now I appreciate the work, the hard slog, they put in so I suppose this is my tribute to my parents, and others, who came and swept the factory floors and kept things ticking over."

The project received a major boost when Creative New Zealand funded a three-week workshop and public showing in January, then, impressed with the results, further money to stage a full production.

It means The Factory has developed slowly, giving Manusaute time to build its themes while the creative team and cast have longer to perfect their performances.

He wants it to have the look and feel of a Broadway show, and that's because dreams of the bright lights of Broadway have played a special role in his own life and creative development.

His family arrived in New Zealand in 1979 and Manusaute, then 9, was dazzled by the sights and sounds of his childhood stomping grounds of K- Rd, Ponsonby and Grey Lynn.

He thought it was fun to go with his father every Thursday to collect his wages and, like so many kids, he would play briefly in the factory, never thinking too much about whether it was where he wanted to end up.

He was also like many kids in that he couldn't wait to leave school. As soon as he was 14, he quit Seddon High School (now Western Springs College) and headed into the "real world", taking a factory job like his dad, Manu, and his mum, Ete.

"It was my job to sort combs for hair into the right categories - you know, all the 'Billies' in one pile and the 'Belindas' in another," he recalls. "I had a 7.30am start and I remember running across the road and jumping the fence to get into the factory on time.

"I remember the boss man wearing the walk-shorts and the knee-high socks with the brown sandals."

With weekly wages and freedom from school's rules and regulations, he thought he'd be living up large. He quickly realised he'd swapped one bureaucracy for another and the money didn't compensate for it.

So he did something many don't do. He returned to school, first Seddon High, then Selwyn College where teacher June Renwick nurtured and encouraged his talent for performing and comedy.

"My English was terrible but I liked storytelling and drama and I was lucky I had a couple of teachers who took me under their wing. It was always the older palagi women, probably because I was basically a happy kid even though I got into trouble a lot."

He spent the years after high school working on the fringes of theatre, seeking to build a career in performing arts.

Any doubts he had about his vocation vanished the night of his 21st birthday when friends clubbed together to buy him a ticket to the touring musical spectacular Les Miserables.

Manusaute made it his dream to write his own blockbuster musical. He was on his way when, on his fourth attempt, he was accepted into the New Zealand Drama School in the early 1990s.

He graduated in 1996 and said mainstream roles for Pacific people were still limited, but his graduation coincided with a surge in Pacific writing and theatre led by people like Justine Simei-Barton, who formed the Pacific Theatre Company in 1987, and actor-writer Oscar Kightley.

It meant there was work which either gave a Pacific twist to other people's stories or entirely new pieces by Pacific writers for and about Pacific people - and Manusaute could use his own voice.

He chuckles when recalling a drama school tutor telling him he had "mid-Atlantic vowel sounds" and one of his classmates, actor Jeff Szusterman, good-naturedly ribbing him about the comment. "Jeff said, 'you know, that means she thinks you sound like you're a Fob' - fresh off the boat."

Those mid-Atlantic vowel sounds and the popularity of newly emergent Pacific theatre gave Manusaute and his partner, Anapela Polataivao, the confidence to make their own work and, by doing so, new opportunities for other Pacific people.

They first set up the comedy troupe The Brownies then, in 2005, with a number of collaborators, the Kila Kokonut Krew whose shows such as The Taro King and Once Were Samoans have been popular with the public and critics alike. Earlier this year, KKK staged New Zealand's first full-length Tongan play Kingdom of Lote about a promise a mother makes to her late husband that their son will make rugby history.

One of KKK's most important collaborations has been with Auckland Theatre Company. It has allowed KKK to learn about developing infrastructure; ATC says it helps extend its audience base.

Manusaute says he's learned about the value of combining traditional and newer styles of theatre to make new stories. While firmly grounded in Pacific New Zealand, The Factory features an original score by musical director Poulima Salima and performed by a full orchestra. Music is accompanied by song and dance sequences.

While he only spent one year in a factory job, the memory has never left him.

"I don't know what would have happened had I stayed at the factory. Who knows? I could have ended up part-owning the place.

"My intention certainly isn't to knock that world, but to celebrate it because it is one that is recognisable to a lot of people and one where a lot of those I know have done very well.

"They have raised families and sent kids to good schools, paid off mortgages and bought boats on factory wages and, at the same time, kept the manufacturing sector ticking over. I think that's worth recognising and celebrating."

The Factory features Victoria Schmidt, Asalemo Tofete, Joanna Mika-Toloa, Nastassia Wolfgramm, Tom Natoealofa, Fasitua Amosa, Paul Fagamalo, Tupe Lualua, Tavai Faasavalu, Taofi Mose-Tuiloma and Michael Koloi. Musicians are Loata Mahe, Iselta Allison, Sophie Williams, Joseph Taouma, Demitrius Savaiinaea, Mark McEwan and Vincent Falefatu.

Performance

What: The Factory

Where and when: Mangere Arts Centre - Nga Tohu o Uenuku, August 13 to September 10

- NZ Herald

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