Anapela Polata'ivao is an actor, writer and director with numerous awards under her belt. Anapela is currently directing Things That Matter for Auckland Theatre Company, a new play by Gary Henderson based on the best-selling memoir by emergency department specialist Dr David Galler. It premieres at Auckland Waterfront Theatre, August 17-29.
I was born in Samoa and my mum recalls that when I was little I didn't want to wear anything other than my underwear. I also liked rolling around in the mud with pigs and chickens. I had a pig called Suka, which is Samoan for sugar, and I would ride around on Suka's back.
When I turned 5, my family moved to New Zealand and life changed. Going to school was really tough. There were so many people and what is this language? I was so terrified when I had to let go of the mum and dad's hands as they'd go to work.
The first two words of English I learnt were "please" and "thank you" and that's how I'd answer any question in English. If someone asked "what is your name?", I'd say "thank you". And if they asked "how old are you?", I'd reply "please". I also remember buzzing out when I learned to count to 98, although I couldn't quite reach 100.
We arrived in winter and the first time I tasted Weet-Bix, I tried a spoonful, and spewed the whole mouthful out on the floor. I preferred my first taste of Krispies, and Twisties. But I love Weet-Bix now. I think they're an acquired taste, like Marmite.
When we first arrived, we stayed with my uncle and auntie until mum and dad got their own place in Māngere. Then we moved to Ōtāhuhu and now we're in Manurewa. There are nine of us in this house, and at the weekends when my brother brings his kids, there are 12 of us, so we all have to negotiate and navigate the space, but I love it.
I wanted to be a nurse, because I felt the need to help people. Then I found drama at Sunday School when I was about 9.
In Fa'asamoa, we have White Sunday where children are celebrated and they perform Bible stories in church. When I read the script, it said that my character goes on a journey. I thought about it and knew, that I, Anapela, if I was on a journey I would get hungry and need food. But I also knew you weren't allowed to eat in church but that didn't matter to me, as I was making sense of my character's "journey".
As kids, we were scorned if we didn't sit and eat because, "only animals walk and eat", but on this journey I decided my character would walk and eat. When I got my backpack out and peeled a banana, I heard the gasps echo in church. Although I wasn't doing it intentionally to be a rebel, it was the beginning of me formulating ideas around how we convey meaning when we tell stories.
I was incredibly shy, but my shyness went away when I was on stage. At high school, I went to Ōtāhuhu College, my drama teacher suggested I join the Maidment Youth Theatre during the school holidays. I had to scrounge for coins for my bus fare as our family had no car back then. The night before I'd make scones that turned out like rocks, so I had food. I also had to figure out how to get to town from South Auckland, how to get from A to B, and because I got home when it was dark, my dad would meet me at the bus stop, and we'd both walk the 20 minutes home. It was challenging, being in amongst a sea of palagi kids, but I really wanted to do it.
Mum and dad had no idea what I was doing. We came from Samoa, so they really grappled with the concept of theatre. But what they did see was my joy in storytelling, and the more they saw my high school shows - I did all the musicals - they got more of an understanding. but I don't think it ever occurred to them that this could be a potential career path. So I take my hat off to them, arriving here, speaking very little English and trusting their kid to experience this thing called theatre and knowing she was going to be okay.
After high school I went straight to work, mainly in cafes, all the while getting bits of acting work. My first professional job was a Theatre In Education show in 1996 with Pacific Theatre. That toured for nine months, then I got into drama school in Wellington. I was absolutely guilt-ridden about being away from mum and dad for three years and not being able to support them. Dad fell ill and mum left work to take care of him, and it was hard to keep going. My student allowance was $170 but I always tried to send something back each week to help out.
I was not one to wait by the telephone and I knew I wasn't aesthetically the "right" fit by industry standards for roles, so Vela [Manusaute] and I made our own work. We formed Kila Kokonut Krew and for the first eight years created all our shows from scratch. We did it on nothing and learned everything, building our foundations, philosophies, relationships and skills. People thought we were crazy but slowly it all came together.
My parents are a constant for our kids. If it were not for them, we could not have achieved half the things we've done. Because of them we were able to go to Edinburgh and Australia with The Factory, and most recently New York with Wild Dogs. My parents held the fort because they see their purpose is to raise, guide, embrace and celebrate all the things we achieve. I owe them everything.
We took Wild Dogs to SoHo Playhouse, off Broadway at the end of 2019 where it played for three weeks. When we came home, they invited us back for five weeks. We were organising airfares and sorting paperwork, while in the background Covid was coming. It wasn't serious, just "oh be careful" but as we were about to book our flights, New York went into lockdown and the whole world came to a standstill. But we stayed afloat and I actually loved that first lockdown. It was like a vacation at home.
I want to tell stories about the human condition, and share more of our own backyard stories, like in Things That Matter. When I did Alofagia, Le Opera with Sole Mio, the point of departure was, what was our sound that we made as a people before colonisation. I found it very cathartic. There were so many layers, and through it I felt a re-alignment with where my feet are planted. Where the earth is. Feeling the fullness, the inner power, of all those voices. Maybe it's an age thing, and where I'm at, but from now on, I just want to make stuff that is uplifting.