Creativity means different things to different people. For Michelle Johansson, putting together a public performance with a group of South Auckland youth meant grounding the process in traditional cultural creative practices. The students, from several South Auckland secondary schools, shared personal stories to create a show that expressed elements of their common experience through dance, song and movement, not just words.
Michelle points out that creativity has always been central to self-expression and cultural cohesion in Pasifika cultures. Community history is recorded in songs, dances and spoken poems and stories, not bound into books. Different people will take slightly different approaches to a story, modifying it for greater effect, so every story is the individual creation of its teller.
The successful season of the show SOUTHSIDE RISE at the Mangere Arts Centre in late July 2017 was only the tip of the iceberg. The project was about the process, as much as the product, says Michelle. “The idea was always to grow polycultural  leaders for South Auckland. We also wanted to do a bit of mentoring and see if it made any impact on the students’ academic results. We wanted to look at them as whole people, rather than just the singing star or the dancing star.”
That said, the use of creative forms such as song and dance were central to generating both the show and the leadership skills. Michelle says: “We wanted to follow these students through, and see if recognition of their ‘Polycultural capital’ would impact their academic progress and their choices. We also wanted to build a greater recognition of Pasifika literacies. If literacy is the way we communicate who we are and how we live in, and with, the world, then we (the Pasifika community) do that through dance and song. We don’t do that by sitting at a desk and writing an essay. That’s not how our heritage is carried. Our literacies are embodied, rather than written on paper. We wanted those qualities to be acknowledged. The very first line of the show is ‘Our stories are carried in bodies and bloodlines’. That’s been true since the beginning.”
SOUTHSIDE RISE began in October 2016, when Michelle approached the Performing Arts teachers in four South Auckland schools: Tangaroa College, Otahuhu College, McAuley and Wesley. She chose these schools “because I knew the teachers really well and I knew that they’d be supportive of the idea. We started going in with workshops for the Year 12s. For each school, we did three workshops, with a workshop team of Black Friars.”
The South Auckland-based theatre troupe the Black Friars was formed in 2006, “out of a desire to challenge the dominant stereotypes surrounding Pasifika people and, to ‘keep talented young brown people off the street and on the stage’.” Michelle has been director and mentor to the troupe since the outset. The Black Friars have created several highly acclaimed productions of Shakespearean plays. Additionally, members of the group have responded to requests from aspirant young South Auckland performers to serve as mentors. Through such connection and collaboration, creative practice is kept vital by being refreshed with new talent, ideas and enthusiasm.
In the workshops, the teams had three talanoa. “Talanoa is a word that has a lot of weight in most Pasifika communities,” Michelle explains. “Literally, ‘tala’ is ‘to tell’ and ‘noa’ means ‘of nothing’, but we use it to mean ‘talking openly’ or `talking story’. One of my favourite definitions comes from Jione Havea, who explains talanoa as: “the content (story) and to the act of telling, unpacking and unravelling (telling) that content, and to the event of engaging, sharing and interrogating (conversation) the content that is being unpacked and unravelled.” We started with three talanoa in the schools:
Talanoa one was drama-based ‘get to know each other’ activities. “We took over a drama class for the year 12s, and through a process of doing drama activities, we generated a number of ‘Wordles’ of words around leadership. We got the usual – communication, ideas, confidence – but we also got things like courage, bravery and creativity , and then the more Pasifika qualities, like alofa, reciprocity, and community. We’ve got a Wordle with the input of about 200 kids in it, because that’s how many we’ve seen over the course of the process. We also interviewed Pacific leaders about the qualities needed to lead in South Auckland. Most of the words marry: the leaders are saying the same things the kids are saying.”
Talanoa three – “we’ll go back to number two in a minute!” says Michelle – likewise involved working with whole classes of Year 12 students. “We got them to build waka. That was our metaphor for leadership, with them all rowing together. They built the waka with their bodies, and then they built it with materials, and then they told us the stories of the waka they had built.”
“Talanoa two was a little bit different. We approached each school and asked if we could have their Pacific leaders for a lunchtime. We took in food, and we got them to tell us some stories about the leaders in their lives. We got the juxtaposition of two concepts: they had ideas about communication and confidence, but the stories they told us were actually about their mothers. Those stories, from talanoa two, made up the script for SOUTHSIDE RISE.”
As the project gained momentum, it also gained participants. “By the time we got through Nov last year, we were up to seven schools. Schools heard about it, and wanted to come and play… By the time the show SOUTHSIDE RISE got on stage, we’d had 10 schools go through the process. Well, nine schools officially; eight schools with principal’s sign off at the time we printed the poster! In fact, we had 11 schools represented on stage.”
In 2017, Michelle and the Black Friars teams went back into the schools to see if they were ready to put together a show. “That was just a ‘let’s see what you’ve got’ with the classes. The students were now Year 13, and we did a bit of goal-setting with them. To be involved in the project, you had to be a performing artist, hold some leadership roles in your community or school, and be tertiary-bound. When we met them again in Year 13, they were all rearing to go, and they all had plans for their lives. We hoped to be able to provide some mentorship in that area, but it has turned into way more than that!”
“Every school had a wayfinder – the eight people you see on the poster are the wayfinders.” These wayfinders were nominated by each school as a leader for that school. Michelle says the process relied absolutely on the wayfinders. “We couldn’t have done it without them. They organised their students to come to the fono, they gave us numbers, they gave us names and t-shirt sizes, they pitched the project at their schools – they were just really outstanding young people.” Thus, well before the SOUTHSIDE RISE show, the students were learning creative leadership skills.
The first fono (gathering) was held on 1 April 2017. “We waited until after Polyfest, because that’s so huge,” Michelle says. “We opened the doors at 10am and sat there: ‘is anybody going to come?!’ Then one person came… then 60 more kids turned up! We had four fono on the weekends spread across April to June. Each had workshops; the kids could just opt into the workshops, so they could do media, social media, spoken word, DJing, music production, choir and other choral singing, songwriting, rap, hip-hop dance, hula, siva, all sorts of music, as well as acting. During those fono we heard more stories, and the lead roles and stories began to emerge.”
From the shared narratives, Michelle and the co-directors, Denyce Su’a and Lauie Tofa, wrote the script. “There were six storylines running through it, and we spent a lot of nights with Post-Its figuring out how the story was going to fit together. In a lot of instances the story is identifiable, but at the same time it’s quite generic – a number of people could have shared that same story. In the two instances where it was very identifiable, we approached the student whose story it was to get their permission to tell it; we asked them to go back to their family, and ask if it was okay to tell this story. In one case, we went to the family ourselves and said ‘we’re going to tell this story. Is that okay with you?’ In both cases, we were met with open arms, and lots of tears…”
Opening up these histories through creative means was transformative for people in the community beyond the students involved. “There’s a story in the show about Moana, who is born premature; her father switches the life-support machine off, but her grandmother believes she is going to live. That’s a true story of one of our young women,” Michelle says. “When her mother and family came to opening night, we got enveloped in a massive family hug; we were all just sobbing together. They said, ‘Thank you for telling our story. Thank you for honouring it like that.’ The girl whose story it was – who didn’t end up being in the final show – was just overwhelmed by how it felt to have her story on stage and given that importance.”
Some of the songs in the show were also written using material generated through creative processes with the students. “There is a song in the show called ‘My Nana says…’ and that was workshopped with the kids,” says Michelle. “We asked ‘what is the shit your Nana says?’ and they threw stuff up and the boys from the Black Friars turned it into music. There’s a song called ‘Mama’ in the show, where the kids thank their mothers, and that was from their words. Nothing was said on stage in the show that wasn’t said by the kids at some point in the process. We didn’t make anything up. We didn’t actually sanitise anything, either, which we thought we might have to. It was all very raw, but they really honoured the people whose stories they were telling. We didn’t get any gang stories; we didn’t get any drug or alcohol stories. We just got leaders: we got mum, we got family, we got community, sacrifice. Those were the stories that ended up on stage.”
“We’ve had amazing stories come back to us post-show about what it has meant to them.. We asked them what the best things were about being in Southside Rise. They talked about creating new family, and building a sense of community together, and having the sense that now these people ‘have their backs’ for life. Another thing was that all the time we get these stories of conflict between schools – ‘De La Salle’s fighting Mangere outside KFC!’ – and we wanted to bring kids from these different schools together in a project that was not adversarial. It didn’t pit school against school, but allowed them to build that community together. When they go off to their tertiary institutions, they’ll be so much stronger for having each other.”
The mentoring continues to support the students as the next generation of creative leaders. “The next step for us is running a tertiary application workshop in the next week or two” Michelle explains.” Then we’ll do exam workshops for the end of the year. We want to see how they did in their exams – we’ll track them.” The hope is that the skills learned through the creative process of the show – focus, collaboration, expressing ideas – will have had an impact on their school results as well as their confidence and leadership abilities.
Those new abilities are also being exercised beyond the production, Michelle says. “We’ve got them to do many things since. Teach First has a global organisation called ‘Teach for All’, and two of our wayfinders spoke to an international roundtable on student leadership. They were being asked questions by people in LA, Argentina, Chile. The girls were so eloquent, and the people in the community who were listening were really respectful and honoured them as well. I’ve got two of them speaking at the next First Foundation event. They’re going to come with me and speak the high-falutin’ business people and tell them how to mentor young brown kids! It’s an ongoing thing.”
“Lots of them aspire to be Black Friars now, which is very cute. We’re going to use seven of them in our next show in a couple of weeks, so they get a taste of being on stage professionally and being paid, which is nice.” For Michelle, this is an example of how creative leadership generates more creative leadership. The Black Friars – who were once the young people she mentored and engaged with the theatre – “now have enough experience under their belts to be able to pass some of it on. If we can just keep that reciprocal thing going, it would be great.”
 The term “polycultural” is used by Dr Karlo Mila-Schaaf to refer to cultural capital where the term “polycultural capital…is coined to describe a theoretical construct which describes the potential advantage Pacific second generation (New Zealand born) may experience from on-going exposure to culturally distinctive social spaces” (Mila-Schaaf, 2010).