Edinburgh: The story behind The Factory – New Zealand’s first-ever Pacific musical

The Factory-158

A scene from New Zealand’s first-ever Pacific musical, The Factory at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

New Zealand’s first-ever Pacific musical, The Factory, a vibrant, funk-fuelled and entirely unique exploration of the Samoan migrant experience, is being presented by the Kila Kokonut Krew at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe (part of NZ at Edinburgh, continuing at the Assembly Hall – Main Hall until 25 August).

Lured by the promise of a better life in New Zealand, Losa and her father arrive from Samoa harbouring big dreams. She finds work in a textile factory; staffed by her fellow countrymen but run by an unscrupulous owner. Each time the factory bell rings she feels further away from both her home and dreams. But then hope, and the possibility of love, arrive from an unexpected ally.

Based in South Auckland Kila Kokonut Krew was created in 2002 by Vela Manusaute and Anapela Polataivao, both Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School graduates. They wanted to create a theatre company that focused on the recognition, development and celebration of Pacific voices.

Manusaute and Polataivao, joined by Stacey Leilua, Aleni Tufuga and Glen Jackson, are collectively the creative nucleus of New Zealand’s principal Pacific Island Theatre Company. The company is dedicated to the slogan that has been in place from day one: From the Pacific, we rise.

Vela Manusaute is the artistic visionary for Kila Kokonut Krew, the driving force that seeks new and innovative ways of presenting ‘Kila’ work. Lisa Martland caught up with him.

The Factory is described as New Zealand’s first-ever Pacific musical, what makes it so different to those shows that have come before? 

There is no other show like The Factory. There has never been a Pacific Island show on this level of production, casting of talent and combination of story and music. The show has a lot to say about New Zealand at that time (1974). It fearlessly tackles social issues and also celebrates who we are as a people. These days, Auckland is the world’s Pacific Island capital city – The Factory is a tribute to the Pacific Islanders that worked the factory floor, helping to make New Zealand what it is today.

Do you feel previous representations from European artists like Robert Louis Stephenson and Gaugin, plus the classic American musical South Pacific, have presented the country as an exotic backdrop to a Western experience? 

Through the Western world’s eyes, the Pacific seems like a paradise – and it is for them. I know everyone that goes back to the Islands finds that paradise, they love the weather, and seeing all the naked islanders running around back in the day. And that’s the way they saw it. But the story of The Factory is based in Auckland, during a hard time for the Pacific Islanders arriving into the country in search for the milk and honey dream of opportunity, prosperity. For most pacific families the reality of the dream was found working on the factory floor. I’m more of a political writer that deals with social issues concerning our Pacific people.

Vela

Vela Manusaute, the artistic visionary for Kila Kokonut Krew

When you created the Kila Kokonut Krew in 2002, was The Factory a story you always wanted to tell?  

Kila Kokonut Krew was born out of frustration. Frustration at attending drama school and coming out realising there weren’t any jobs for us. The company slogan is ‘From the Pacific We Rise’ and we live by that, its juice for our creative work. We are a fearless bunch of rebels. The Factory came about after a conversation I had with my mother saying that I should create work in memory of my father – a tribute to his years of hard work in the factory to support all of us kids growing up.

Could you tell me a bit about the creation of the show and the main creative people involved. I hear that the production was a huge hit at the Auckland Arts Festival 2013, particularly the funky 1970s-style score.

It’s always been about the perfect collaboration between a lot of people. Many creative hands have helped The Factory get to where it is today and it’s still growing. The main people have always been the Kila Kokonut Krew directors and founding members – we call ourselves the ‘tight five’. Anapela Polataivao (writer /director), Stacey Leilua (writer/associate producer), Aleni Tufuga (actor/writer) and Glen Jackson (musical director). Along with them, a huge influence regarding the music style and score has come from Poulima Salima (composer/score).

I also believe that it is a story very close to your heart and you remember your own father taking you to the factory where he worked.  

My father was one of the many strong Pacific Island men that came to New Zealand to work to earn money, in order to bring their family over to have a better life. He worked in a bed factory in the late 1970s as a machine operator. As kids, we used to walk down to his work on payday every Thursday to get the money before he spent it all at the pub. I also worked in a printing factory in Ponsonby, Auckland when I was 14 for over a year, before I decided that a factory was no place for a kid and returned to school the following year. I lost my father ten years ago, and we never got to say goodbye. So this work is very close to my heart – him working in the factory in the early hours to put food on the family table is something I can’t forget.

The elements of the story sound like they will have a resonance to contemporary situations as well. Do you feel it has been so successful because its themes are universal?    

Yes. The migrant experience, coming to a new country in search of a better life is one that people all over the world can relate to. At the end of the day themes like family, love, and justice are universal. We’ve had a fantastic response already from audiences in New Zealand and Australia, from a range of ethnicities and ages. The show strikes a chord for a lot of people.

Why have you chosen the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to introduce the musical in the UK? Can u tell me a bit about the production playing there.

We believe that The Factory is on its way to becoming a well-loved musical across the world. It’s an honour for us to share such an important part of our New Zealand history with the world and what better platform to reach such a global audience than at Edinburgh!  An Auckland reviewer (Simon Wilson at Metro Magazine) said in a review last year: “The Factory will become a new pillar of New Zealand theatre: a classic that is performed frequently and inspires a generation.”

Edinburgh is such a vibrant collection of festivals, always on the go, very alive – The Factory sits so perfectly within that, as a standout piece of original musical theatre. Being set in 1974 allows the show to have a lot of funk and disco, which is a lot of fun. There’s everything from tender love ballads to full blown chorus numbers that had Auckland audiences on their feet and dancing. It’s all original, a great mix of fresh Pacific sounds with a classic musical theatre feel. There are some songs that will really move you to tears, too.

I know you are passionate about presenting ‘Kila’ work and nurturing Pacific artists through the Kila Theatre Creatives Programme. Can you describe some of the work you have done and which names we should be looking out for? 

When we are creating new work, Kila Kokonut Krew is constantly questioning ‘How does this differ from other Pacific work we have seen in the past?’ ‘How does it further the creative advancement of our Pacific people?’ and also of utmost importance to us all is that the quality of the work remains at a high standard. This is the case with the Kila Theatre Creatives Programme too. The bi-annual programme offers mentoring to emerging artists over a three-month period, utilising trained dramaturgs and directors to shape the work of rising Pasifika playwrights/creatives. We have had a range of work come through the programme, from a Tongan play using Tongan dialogue and song, to a comedic physical theatre piece, as well as spoken word poetry from a Fijian writer. It’s great to support new voices in theatre and give them the tools to develop their work further.

Alan Parker’s The Commitments changed the world’s perception of Ireland from a quaint backwater to a gritty, modern society. Is this what The Factory is doing for the Pacific islanders?

Yes it is… when The Factory first debuted in South Auckland in 2011 – it played for a FOUR WEEK season. No new work in New Zealand has ever done that. Our Pacific people were proud of seeing something like this – it’s new for our people to tell a story in this way. We have just finished touring Australia with the work and a lot of Islanders who have moved over there were proud of being Pacific Islanders again, they were able to get back in touch with their heritage. Proud to be Samoan. The Factory does that – it’s a show were you can be proud of being a Pacific Islander. ‘From the Pacific, We Rise.’

The Pacific Islands/Oceania encompass the Polynesian (including Samoa), Micronesian and Melanesian regions: that’s 14 nations, 36 dependencies, hundreds of inhabited islands and 36 million people dispersed over 3 million square miles. How can you distill that experience into one company?

It’s not about painting them all with the same brush. Obviously all of those nations and cultures are different, and as much as we can we want to celebrate the uniqueness and beauty of them. When we say ‘From the Pacific, We Rise’, it’s about unity, and about speaking out and understanding that all those tiny little islands and the richness of the stories and heritage that comes from every corner of those places is as important as any other part of the world. So it’s more about creating a platform where that unity can be projected on an international stage.

 

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