Youth theatre is taking off in the Far North, thanks to one man's mission to help every child and teenager find their superpower. Reporter Jenny Ling spends time with Willi Henley and his new Kāeo group.
One by one, an eclectic bunch of kids file into a community hall off the main street of Kāeo in the Far North.
Some cling to their parents, wide-eyed and anxious, while others chat and laugh, huddled in small groups.
They're all there for one thing: to experience the joys of youth theatre from the man in colourful clothes seated at the front of the room taking registrations.
He is Willi Henley, a 48-year-old from Kaikohe who "found his tribe" when he discovered drama, ran away with the circus, and now loves nothing more than passing his talents onto the next generation.
Henley started the Kāeo Youth Theatre group in May, on the back of similar groups in Kaitāia, Kaikohe and Kerikeri.
Today, as the rain buckets down, 30 excited children and teens make their own thunder inside, stomping around with bare feet, boots, and ballet shoes.
Then they make a circle and are hushed.
Henley asks the kids to share something about themselves; at the very least their name, where they're from and their favourite food.
"There's no pressure apart from to have fun," he said.
"That's the main purpose for today, it's to enjoy yourself - and get out of the rain."
The responses are slow to start, but gather momentum as they gain confidence.
"I'm Toby from Earth."
"I want to own a helicopter."
"I want to be a horse trainer."
"An army veteran."
"Egg pie and noodles!"
"I'm Willi from Kaikohe and I'm from the School of Life", Henley finishes.
While they embark on stretching and breathing exercises as a way to warm up, Henley reminds them he was in the army on and off for 18 years, and reels off a couple of army drills.
His instructions are peppered with his trademark humour, wise words and snippets of encouragement.
"I always say you get out of it what you put in," he said.
"We're not the drama police, we're just helping each other along the way.
"By the way, I'm 48 and I've got arthritis – if I can do it, you can do it."
THERE'S NOT much to do for kids living in small rural towns apart from sport, Henley reckons.
He started the first Far North youth theatre group in Kaikohe several years ago, which stopped for a while and has just re-started, along with successful groups in Kaitāia and Kerikeri.
Kids and teenagers learn stage-craft, improvisation, mime, dance, makeup and theatre sports.
Along the way they learn a lot about themselves.
Some have gone on to become actors in the Kerikeri Theatre Company, performing in stage productions, musicals, short film, Shakespeare, stunt workshops and open mic events.
They've popped up in Peter Pan the musical, Bugsy Malone and Oliver Twist along with performances at Kainui Vineyard.
The Kāeo group is made up, it seems, of every child in town. The kids are aged 4 to 16 and the group meets on Wednesdays at the Theosophical Hall.
Kobe, 13, has been attending since it started.
"It's really interesting, it gets you going," he said.
"I like how you get to play all these fun games. Willi gets you moving and he's got a good sense of humour."
Kāeo mum Hannah Hunter is there with her two boys, Sonny, 7, and Sid, who's nearly 5.
It's the first time for both of them and while Sonny is super confident, Sid isn't so sure.
But no-one seems to mind when he occasionally bolts for his mum and, as he gains courage, runs around the hall on a whim.
"I did lots of youth theatre when I was a little girl and absolutely loved it," Hunter said.
"It's unmeasurable, the benefits, it gives them so much confidence. It's also an outlet for creativity and expressing yourself and gets them interacting with other kids."
Hunter and her sons reckon Henley is the best.
"He's such a treasure for Northland," she said.
"He works so hard and is so talented and he's awesome with the kids."
Henley gets a lot out of the classes as well, and is happy to provide a platform giving young people something to do.
"I'll go wherever there's kids who are wanting to do this," he said.
"It keeps me young and fit and motivated. I bounce out of bed for this stuff."
THERE'S MUCH to know about Henley.
He's been a recycle truck driver, a scrap metal collector, security guard and Fullers tour guide.
His time in the army was as a field engineer, bridge builder and driver, and he did a stint of peacekeeping in the Solomon Islands.
His most recent job was driving Intercity buses between Kerikeri and Auckland.
He's also a veteran actor in the Kerikeri Theatre Company, performing in the likes of Ladies Night.
Henley became interested in drama as a student at Northland College where he was beginning to veer onto the wrong side of the tracks.
He joined the Northland Youth Theatre group in Whangārei and never looked back.
"I just found my tribe," he said.
"They were very welcoming and kept me busy. They built me up and I found a place to channel that energy. I owe it all to drama."
Then the circus came to town.
"I was busting to get out of town.
"The circus came to town and I left the next day.
"I was only going to school for drama. I was always a show-off, always the class clown."
Henley spent six months touring the country with the circus, initially as a labourer, then helping with lighting and setting up hoops for lions to jump through.
Next up was New Zealand drama school in Wellington during his 20s, and though he didn't graduate, "it was enough to make a name for myself".
"I did a stint overseas and did street theatre and lived in Japan and Sweden, travelling with the wind at times."
He also worked alongside well-known Kiwi actor and theatre director Jim Moriarty, best known for his role in the 1970s soap opera Close to Home.
Henley got involved with Moriarty's Māori Theatre Trust, and taught drama to inmates of prison programmes.
He's got a knack for teaching, has Henley.
With his bright optimism and street-smarts, he can relate to the most headstrong youth.
On one hand he encourages them to embellish stories, paint in broad strokes and exaggerate.
Then he'll gently demand respect by setting boundaries and following tikanga Māori.
Classes are fun, social and creative; they're a place to take risks and make friends and discover gifts.
Sure, some youth are shy and reserved and there's a couple who hide in their hoodies and cover their faces between scrunched-up knees.
But it's not long before they venture out of their shells.
"This is where they feel comfortable and are encouraged to be who they are," Henley said.
"It gives them confidence and a sense of belonging.
"All day long they're being told they can't do stuff. Here they can feel okay to be themselves in this safe environment and bring their creativeness out.
"Here they can find their inner power that makes them feel special and strong."