Nina Nawalowalo is a Wellington theatre director with a reputation for making memorable pieces of theatre that reflect her Fijian whakapapa and European theatre training – like the internationally acclaimed Vula and Masi, last year’s breakout success The White Guitar, and the more recent Marama. She spoke to Dale about her drive to create Pacific theatre, and the path that led to her becoming the first female Melanesian theatre director in the world.
I understand that you have a Fijian dad and an English mum, and that, I imagine, would’ve made for an interesting upbringing. I wonder how that came about.
My father, Ratu Noa Nawalowalo, came over to New Zealand in the 1950s. He was part of that early group of Pacific Island men who came to New Zealand for education. Albert Wendt was another one at university at the same time.
Dad was the first Fijian-born barrister to graduate from Victoria University. My mum was a nurse, and she’d come from England for a working holiday. Mary Tancock was her name. She was from Oxford, and the daughter of Cambridge-educated public schoolmasters.
They met in Wellington — at the Wellington Chess Club, as a matter of fact. That’s where it all started. Big love affair.
I heard that your dad let your mum win so he could see her again.
That’s how he told the story anyway. Mum told it differently. She said, no, she was better than him at chess. There was a bit of family rivalry there.
As a family, we all had to sit around the table and play chess. There were three of us kids. My brother, Robert, who now works as a counsellor with Māori and Pacific Island youth. And my sister, Bridget, who’s a visual artist.
I understand that you visited Fiji a lot as kids. But, later, when your dad took ill, you took him back home to his village. So I suppose that was a time when you became immersed in what we could call Fiji-tanga.
Yeah. My dad’s from the island of Kadavu and the village of Tavuki, and it’s still very traditional there.
But we’d actually gone back to Fiji to live for a few years when I was about three. And, after we came back to New Zealand for school, I visited again as a teenager.
We did get immersed when we were in Fiji. We were familiar with the Fijian cultural ways, like how you bring Fijian visitors into the house. But we don’t speak Fijian. My father was of that time — he’d gone to school in Fiji when the schooling was still very colonial, very English — and he thought the way forward was for us to speak English and be educated. He didn’t think it was necessary for us to know the Fijian language, so it wasn’t spoken in the home.
Every time I’ve had an opportunity to go back to Fiji, though, it’s been life-changing for me in the sense of understanding myself and where I fit in. I know my place there. I know that I’m within a certain family. I know my relatives very well — we’re all very close. And I feel I belong. Doesn’t mean everything’s familiar all the time, but there is a familarity that you feel within yourself.
And what about those early days growing up in Wellington?
I was very into sports as a girl, and I had an especially big love of basketball. I played for Wellington and the juniors and went on to play for New Zealand. So, my youth was sport-driven.
No theatre, though! It wasn’t until I went to Wellington Teachers’ College and we had to do drama as part of the course that I got hooked. At that stage, I’d never actually been to the theatre or been drawn to performance.
But there was a fantastic lecturer, Robert Bennett, who taught mime. I saw a mime performance with him and his company, and I was transfixed. I just loved it. So I started taking his classes. That whole thing of no words, and working with movement was what appealed. Especially to someone like me who was into sport. It was physical and visual and movement-based.
So the pull of the theatre won out over teaching then?
Well, I actually taught for about a year and a half at Maraeroa primary school in Porirua. But then this amazing opportunity came up to go to a world youth festival in Russia. I was selected as part of a New Zealand delegation of young people.
And that was the beginning of my eyes being opened up to the world of theatre. It was such a privilege to land in the heart of theatre-makers. I went to Russia and Czechoslavakia and Poland — places where the forms of theatre are really deep.
From that, I went to England to train in theatre. Taught and earned money, and went and did different courses and studied with different teachers. I did mime and then I studied mask in Italy.
And you trained in clown and magic as well? I understand you were quite the magician, that you performed and taught all over the world with a world champion magician (Richard MacDougall) and you even won an award from the International Brotherhood of Magicians in 1994.
I was really fortunate when I was in London that there was a chap within the theatre training who was an amazing sleight-of-hand magician.
And that whole thing of the element of surprise and how you reveal things, I love all of that. Love it.
So I had the opportunity to go into that world and to go to magic conventions, and to explore it. I was fortunate — I was around the right people at the right time, and working with someone who was renowned in the magic world.
It’s been a massive influence on my work. One of the guys I worked with, Paul Kieve, he’s an illusionist designer, who’s worked on the Harry Potter movies. And he came out and worked with me on Masi, and we collaborated to put a magic design within the material.
Through working with people like that, I’ve learned techniques, and I’ve tried to incorporate those techniques into my own work, to use them within the storytelling.
I love that element in theatre. Magic brings out the child in everybody.
So you’re the first Melanesian woman theatre director in the world, maybe the only one. You started The Conch theatre company with your husband Tom McCrory, and now have a name for some pretty groundbreaking work. Vula, Masi, The White Guitar. How did that come about?
I’d been training and working in London, very much in the European form of theatre. And then my dad had a number of strokes, so I came home, and my sister and her son and I took him back to Fiji and spent time there.
That was a real life-changing point for me. I realised I wanted to look at my own identity and explore that through the theatre. I wanted to do something that was linked to my father and linked to myself. And I wanted to blend what I’d learned overseas into a Pacific context.
That’s how it has unfolded over the last 20 years for me — working with young Māori and Pacific Island actors. And working at storytelling.
I understand that trip back to Fiji with your dad also inspired Vula, your first work, which really put you on the map as a theatre director. The whole thing was set on a stage flooded with water. One reviewer described it as one of the most visually stunning theatre experiences she’d ever had.
Yes, that was from being in Fiji and seeing the women in the lagoon, when they fish and when they’re in the water — that communal thing — which is almost choreographic — when they work together and then they sing.
That’s the thing of looking at Pacific images and looking at Pacific women. That’s the thing I adore. I love how you can highlight the everyday things, of how women are viewed, and how they’re seen. How you blend the European form of theatre and how you fuse that with Pacific imagery.
I gather that at least part of the motivation for that was creating work for aspiring Pacific actors?
Oh, absolutely. Totally. That’s what I’m completely committed to.
My husband, Tom McCrory, was teaching at the drama school and he was the head of the movement programme. At the time, Fiona Collins and Tausili Pushparaj (who played the lead in The Orator) and Anapela Polataivao were all students.
And one of the driving forces was that there was so little work when people came out. It was seeing all these amazing actresses coming through, and knowing the phone call isn’t ever gonna come through because there’s no blimming work out there. I realised no one’s ever gonna work unless you make your own work.
There’s a lot more now. Of course there’s Victor (Rodger) — he was at drama school then. And Nathaniel (Lees) was out there doing things. But there was very little material available for all these women coming through.
And that was the seed for Vula. It was: Right, you’ve graduated. Let’s go in a room and make something.
It must have been satisfying, too, to put into practice all that theatre training you’d had in Europe?
I’d come back to New Zealand and thought, where’s the work? I have all this experience and no one’s saying come and make something. You just sort of disappear into the shadows.
And I thought, well, you gotta make your own opportunities. You’ve gotta go and make your own work and put it on. You’ve gotta explore your own stories.
So, there were different motivations that drew me towards directing. I wasn’t necessarily thinking that I wanted to be a theatre director. It just happened that I was the most experienced person in the room when I was gathering with other people, and then I started to lead things. Then it just sort of naturally progressed in that way.
In a way, everything you’d done up to that point had prepared you. That time spent checking out those international theatre circuits, for example?
I knew there was a market out there, but you have to know where to place it. There’s Japan, there’s Germany, there are all these different theatre circuits that I had an opportunity to work on years ago. And I thought, gosh, if you came with a Pacific work, it would be so unique.
What’s unique is us telling our own those stories, stories that have never been seen before or heard before, and placing those stories on the world stage.
That was the vision when we made Vula. I wanted the work to go all the way. And yes, we made it on no budget. But you know, when we placed it into the Auckland Arts Festival, the Sydney Opera House saw it and they loved it, and so that was a springboard. And, from that, it went to Holland, and it went to London, and it had a great run of seven years. Seven years of touring!
And it’s also about trying to prove a point. It’s saying we’re just as good as everyone else. It’s not about there being one Pacific role in a play somewhere. It’s about grabbing a hold of it and making it for yourself and for the community and for our own people and for the world.
Do you feel a particular responsibility in telling Pacific stories?
For me, something that is really important, and particularly being half-caste, is knowing that the elders and people of the community are settled with what you’re doing. When you’re coming from a traditional base and you want to have a kava bowl on a set, or you want to have anything that’s tabu, that’s sacred — they have to know that you’ll take care of it in the right way, that you can be trusted to use those things.
It’s to do with people opening up that sacred knowledge, and knowing that you’ll look after it in the right way, that you’re serving the right source of what it is.
Otherwise, you’ll know about it sooner or later. (Laughing.)
In The White Guitar, which was another huge success for you, you actually had (the hip-hop rap artist) Scribe and his brother and father playing themselves — in a play that was based on a story written by Scribe’s dad, while he was in prison. How did that come about?
Matthias Luafutu (Scribe’s brother) was at drama school, so we knew him as a student. He had a very close relationship with my husband. The dad, Fa’amoana, wrote the story while he was in jail. And we had that story, and then we thought, what if we could get the whole family to do it?
I mean, going into a room with Malo (aka Scribe) and him not knowing us, and going: Trust us. To come on this journey was huge for him. He’s a hip-hop artist, but I had absolute confidence in the team that I put around the Luafutu family. All the key players were people I’d worked with a lot, including Jim Moriarty who’s a great text man and who worked on the script.
You know, I’ve got fabulous teams of people that I work with. When I find people that I click with, I hang on to them. I surround myself with people who are great practitioners, who are visionary people in their own right. People like Gareth Farr, who composed the music for Vula and Masi. He did the music for Marama, too. He’s just someone who’s great to work with. He listens and he looks.
With Marama, which played at the Auckland Festival early this month, you’re again focusing on Pacific women, and on deforestation. How did you become interested in that? And why women?
Tom and I did a two-year project in the Solomons setting up a national women’s theatre. The project was looking at gender-based violence, and of course I was so interested in doing it because of the Melanesian women there, and me wanting to learn more about Melanesia.
But, when I got there, I realised, oh my gosh, I actually have to do something political. I’ve gotta make a statement. And how do you do that in a tactful way when you’re not from there? How do you represent something that can open up dialogue?
And, through being there and touring the outer islands, I became aware of all the illegal logging going on and all of the ways that different Australian companies and Chinese companies go in there and pay the locals and rip out the forest.
It made me think, how can I contribute to what’s going on in the Pacific, and highlight it within the work that I do? I wanted to make a piece of work about that.
I was also very drawn to key women. I suppose I get drawn to key performers. They don’t have to be trained. It’s not for them to come and be somebody else. It’s for them to be themselves and to reveal who they are on the deepest level.
Marama means high-born women in Fijian. And there are five women: from the Solomons, from Fiji, and a Samoan and a Māori woman. They’re very special women. And it’s something that’s really unique — to be able to look at all the forms of how they move and how they relate to a forest and how deforestation affects indigenous communities and what it does.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I’d love to think that I’ve been able to open doorways for other Pacific practitioners, that I’ve helped other people develop, and that I’m helping to develop a whole form.
That’s what I would love to think I could leave — that I’ve been able to influence New Zealand theatre development and it’s not trying to be like ATC (Auckland Theatre Company). It’s not trying to be like Circa. It’s trying to create something that’s unique to Pacific people.
It’s about creating our own opportunities for ourselves from things within us.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.