Talk to theatre-maker Nina Nawalowalo about her latest project - bringing the much-loved comedy troupe The Naked Samoans back on stage for the first time in 12 years - and there's no getting away from another show she's pouring her energy into.

That show is Magicians, where five of the world's leading illusionists set out to demonstrate the art behind the tricks, which arrives in Auckland this week with two more dates added because of demand for tickets.

Nawalowalo, the world's first Melanesian woman theatre director, manages the production put together by Wellington-based magician, magic tutor and consultant Nopera Whitley. Producer Whitley says it's not about pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing women in half.

"We wanted to show a side of magic that the public probably hasn't seen before and I hope they leave the show with a new perspective on what the art is really about," he says.


Scotland's Colin Cloud, a well-known mind reader whose America's Got Talent performance gained more than 80 million views online in just 15 days, headlines the show. Also featured are Spain's card magician Hector Mancha, a past winner of the FISM World Grand Prix of Magic Award; close-up magic champion and one of the genre's hottest young stars Shim Lim; two-time Hollywood Magic Castle Stage Magician of the Year Rob Zabrecky and world-renowned variety act Charlie Frye and Co who are frequently compared to classic comedians Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

Award-winning theatremaker Nina Nawalowalo is returning to her magical early career years and directing the show Magicians.
Award-winning theatremaker Nina Nawalowalo is returning to her magical early career years and directing the show Magicians.

"Everyone loves magic," says Nawalowalo. "I think it's innately in us as human beings to be fascinated by what appears to be the unknown and the mysterious. It's such a lovely feeling to experience something magical."

But it may seem like a distinct change of pace given her theatre company, The Conch, is renowned for making work which explores Pacific themes and often serious issues. Most recently, it created and toured The White Guitar about renowned hip-hop artist Scribe's family which starred the rapper , his father John and brother Matthias.

Before that, there was the Auckland Arts Festival show Marama about the destruction of Pacific Island forests which followed a 2013 project to start the Solomon Islands National Women's Theatre Company Stages of Change to address violence against women and girls.

This month, Nawalowalo was named Senior Pacific Artist Award-winner at Creative New Zealand's Pacific Arts Awards with judges noting she is "passionately committed to bringing untold stories into the light and for using theatre as a vehicle for social change".

So what is she doing directing Magicians and working with The Naked Samoans on their 20th anniversary production, The Naked Samoans Do Magic? It turns out Nawalowalo has a few tricks up her sleeve that are perhaps less well known in NZ.

Studying mime more than 20 years ago in London, she befriended fellow students Richard MacDougall and Paul Kieve. MacDougall went on to become a world champion close-up magician while Kieve is the only illusionist to have won a New York Drama Desk Award (for Ghost the Musical). Most recently, he helped make Matilda - The Musical even more magical, crafting some of its special effects.

Before she returned home to NZ, Nawalowalo spent six years touring and performing all over the world with MacDougall and, in 1994, received a prestigious comedy award from the International Brotherhood of Magicians. And, no, she's never been sawn in half.

As well as directing Magicians, she's teaching a few tricks to The Naked Samoans - Dave Fane, Mario Gaoa, Shimpal Lelisi, Oscar Kightley, Robbie Magasiva and Heto Ah hi - for their 2018 Auckland Arts Festival performances (announced today).

"They're loving learning how to do magic," she says, "but I just feel some things are meant to be. If I wasn't working on Magicians then I don't think I'd be able to do as much as I am with The Nakeds. With all the other theatre I make, I like to try to introduce magical elements which accentuate the story."

What: The Magicians
Where & when: ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre; Wednesday - Saturday