Actress and comedian Sieni Leo'o Olo shares stories from her Mangere childhood in Massive Theatre Company's emerging artist show Chance to Ignite at Q Theatre this month.

1 What was your childhood in Mangere like?

I was raised by a village. I've got a huge, close extended family. It's a beautiful thing. I've always lived with my grandparents. It's no secret that I'm my grandpa's favourite. He used to be a strict man but as soon as I came along he softened. Now he's this playful prankster. Our house was always filled with people that my grandparents wanted to take care of. Sometimes we'd have 18 to 20 people in our three-bedroom home. But it was cool because there'd usually be a bunch of kids around the same age sleeping on mattresses in the lounge. We'd stay up watching movies, talking, building forts out of blankets. The house had so many different rhythms. On Sunday mornings my grandparents would make dinner - grandpa would be boisterous but grandma would glide. It's a lovely thing to wake up to. That's what love is, right there.

2 Was it hard to feed so many people?

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There was a period where we had pancakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I remember it as a really fun "pancake party" time but I found out later it was because we were so poor we couldn't even afford eggs - it was just flour and water. I'm so grateful the adults managed to hide that from me. Mum and dad live next door and have always worked. Grandma looked after all the children.

3 Did you always want to be an actor?

I'd always been a loud kid but I didn't know you could do something with that. On White Sunday at church I'd always volunteer to be centre stage. My family didn't want me to study drama at college because it wouldn't get me a job. I stumbled into a Massive Theatre Company workshop when I was 16 and finally felt like I could be me. The artistic director, Sam Scott, helped me find a way for my ideas to come out. She really cares about the work and showed me where I could put that energy.

4 You travelled to Scotland last year to perform Massive Nui Ensemble's play The Island. How did overseas audiences respond?

In The Island, six of us young actors shared stories of our island heritage through our own eyes. We were worried about how it would translate but the audience got it. They responded with noise and laughter. We spoke in our own languages - te reo, German, Samoan - so we had to paint a picture through body language. I showed snippets from the markets - the hunched lady selling taro on her mat, the cheeky kids running round with coconuts. Afterwards people came and asked about Samoa. I was really proud to share that.

5 How did you end up doing a stint in comedy last year?

People have always told me I should try stand-up but it's scary. People are paying you money to make them laugh. A friend made me put my name down for the Comedy Festival and once I had a date I couldn't get out of it. The first night I was like, "Oh my God, who even does this?" But once I said my first line, everyone cracked up and I was sweet. I loved it so much I brought it back south. I hired a hall in Otahuhu, put it on Facebook and more than 40 people showed up.

6 What was your comedy routine about?

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Just a bunch of weird stuff that goes on in my head. Like I've never had a boyfriend or even kissed a boy. I would jump at the chance but the universe hasn't presented it yet. I did have my first crush last year so I made up this entire fantasy about him being a taniwha slayer who rescued me off a balcony. I did a segment about prepping to visit a gang house to the sound of Eminem's 8 Mile - stealing a kid's scooter, washing car windows at the lights. Random stuff like that.

Sieni Leo'o Olo at her workplace in the Auckland CBD. Photo / Peter Meecham
Sieni Leo'o Olo at her workplace in the Auckland CBD. Photo / Peter Meecham

7 One reviewer couldn't believe a Samoan girl would talk about sex on stage in front of her mother. How did your mum cope?

Mum laughed through the entire thing. She's awesome. My family are traditional but I've always had freedom of speech. I love my culture, if you come to my house I will serve you, but I can't not laugh about sex just because I'm female and Samoan.

8 Have you encountered racism growing up in Auckland?

All the time. I get stopped by security just because I'm brown. I remember going to buy a ball dress with my mum and the shop lady said, "That's not in your price range." She hadn't even asked what our price range was. We'd saved up for it. We just walked out, it wasn't worth arguing. It sucks that someone with that mindset exists and is probably teaching it to their children.

9 Did you ever encounter cyber-bullying at school?

Yeah, a bunch of really mean texts that weren't true went around in Year 12 about me doing stuff with guys. Even my own friends thought it was true. I was really hurt. I just ignored them all. I didn't even try to clear up the rumours. By the end of the year people started coming back to me again when being weird suddenly became cool. Through that I learned that I can't control what people think about me. I know who I am and that's all that matters.

10 How do you use social media these days?

I've got a page called Bubbah Black Sheep the Ice Princess where I post videos of me doing characters and going on rants. Like once I went to a club and some guy grabbed my butt. He said I shouldn't have worn a dress if I didn't want guys to do that. So I posted this big rant about why that's not okay. Within a day I got more than 1000 responses. Sometimes I get haters. One comment was just: "You've got such big nostrils." So I did a rant about how I know I've got a big nose and I don't care. Girls who got teased about their noses too messaged to say my video had helped them so I started a "Nostril Movement" on Instagram where people could flaunt their insecurities.

11 Have you ever been through a period of being depressed?

Yes, I got really down late last year about where theatre was taking me. My family told me I needed a job to support myself so I tried a desk job at a call centre. I felt like my soul was actually dying inside me. I didn't want to wake up any more. It was like I was already dead. I realised that I can never stop creating so I quit that job and came back to Massive. I've got a part-time waitressing job that I can fit around acting. I carry a book wherever I go where I write down ideas, things that inspire me. My dream is to become a playwright and director.

12 What's your new play with Massive, Chance To Ignite, about?

It's a cast of seven young women, aged 16 to 24, telling our own stories. Massive provides really cool ways for us to have our voices heard. The director gives a provocation for us to respond to, like "How can your spark illuminate the world?" Once we've got lots of material we do an NZ Idol-type audition where we decide what stays. It's a very physical show and it's very honest and pure.

Chance to Ignite, Q Theatre, 25 to 29 July, 7pm and Mangere Arts Centre, 2 to 5 August, 7pm
www.massivecompany.co.nz