Goretti Chadwick: Smiles, star power, and soap

by Dale Husband
Sun 1 Apr 2018
12 min read
  • Goretti & co-star from 'Still Life With Chickens'
  • Jack and Telesia Chadwick, Goretti's parents
  • Goretti and 'Pani and Pani' co-star Anapela Polata'ivao

The word is that there could've been an entertaining interview with Goretti Chadwick that simply focused on the mischief she got up to at high school in Auckland. But Dale Husband hasn't bothered with that line of questioning.

Instead, he's seen how she's been able to forge a career from the cheek and talent and energy that she had all along. And he's encouraged her to outline her progress as an actor, writer and director, so that we can see why, now in her 40s, she's become such a popular performer on the stage and on screen.

 

Talofa lava, Goretti. And, of course, seeing that you have such an unusual name, I feel obliged to ask you about that.

Kia ora, Dale. Well, the reason for me having an Italian name is that my family is Catholic — and I’m actually Maria Goretti, named after an Italian saint.

When I was little, I found it to be quite annoying, because people constantly mispronounced it and I just wanted a basic name like everyone else.

Then, as I got older, I started to love my name. Although I'm known more as Letti than Goretti, because a friend heard my mum calling me Letti and it just stuck.

But I’m cool with both of those names.

And the Chadwick surname?

My dad’s heritage is Samoan and English. He’s Jack Chadwick Tutuiula (his matai name). He’s from Taufusi in Apia, and my mother, Telesia, is originally from Nofoali’i.

And now they have their own home on a gorgeous quarter of an acre in Vaitele.

Actually, my story is slightly bizarre — although not that original, when you speak to other big Samoan Catholic families.

My mother and her sister, Nina, married two men who were practically raised as brothers. Jack Chadwick and Ben Pereira. And so, when us kids were growing up, we were all raised as brothers and sisters. Seven of us, with two mums and two dads. I’m Number 3, but out of the Chadwick lot, I'm the oldest. Then there' s my sister, Priscilla, and my brother, Matthew.

I got the most exotic name. But Priscilla was born the day Elvis died, so if she’d been male, I would've had a brother called Elvis.

You were born in the islands?

No, I was born in Auckland. And we were raised in Kingsland, although we started off in Symonds St. There were these apartments, above really beautiful retail shops – which are still there. Children weren't allowed in the apartments, so, when the adults went off to work, my mother (who looked after all of us) would take us children all around Auckland, to the parks and whatever, so we wouldn’t get sprung by the landlord. And she’d sneak us back in at night.

We're still in Auckland, now based in Green Bay.

When you look back, are you thankful or slightly disappointed, that you grew up here rather than back in Samoa?

I'm so in love with Samoa that, every time I go there, I feel like I'm at home anyway. But, at the same time, I'm so grateful to be born in Aotearoa as well. My mum and I had a conversation years ago about dreams, and I asked her if she’d achieved everything she’d set out to do.

She was still sort of contemplating, but she said her biggest dream was already accomplished. When she was growing up in Samoa, she said the big thing was to say that your children were born in New Zealand. At that time, she had no idea she’d even get to New Zealand. But, thankfully, my Aunty Nina and Uncle Ben had come here, and they flew my mum over to help look after the children when they went out to work.

Then Mum met my dad, and so us three kids came along in 1975, ‘77 and ’78. And so my mum’s biggest dream of having her children born in New Zealand worked out, just like that. The next step was for us all to complete school and to have careers and families.

So, yes, she's pretty happy.

Good on her. And no doubt, your parents, like a lot of that generation, had to cope with tough, menial, low-paid jobs to provide a platform for their kids. So how do you feel about the sacrifices they made so you could get a decent kickstart?

Well, she worked at two or three jobs — and I hardly saw her as a teenager. In fact, right up until I was at drama school, I hardly ever saw my parents because Dad would help Mum (who had two jobs) at her night job. And then, of course, there was their work in the community and for the church. So, I have a deep respect for them and that generation.

But they never complained. And even though I'm sure Mum and Dad had to deal with prejudice — probably still do without me knowing about it — they carry on as if that’s just the way of the world. They’ve still had to pay the bills and feed the kids. So that's what they’ve done, and I'm really proud of them.

When I get together with my siblings and close family friends and we talk about those times, we agree that we had no idea that Mum and Dad were struggling.

It wasn't, I think, until we were in our 20s that we started to realise the pattern of their eating routine. They’d serve us children first, and we just assumed that they'd already eaten. But they hadn't eaten. There were days when they didn't eat.

Yes, there were the odd times where we noticed that things were getting really tough. Like when, as we got older, we wanted to play our music in the bedroom, which meant the power bill would go up. And even though they didn't say it at first, you could feel the stress and then realise that money was tight.

But they masked it so well. They just wanted us to be happy — and it worked.

Now it's the other way round. It’s completely flipped on its head. Now when my parents are in Auckland, they live with my husband and me and they don't pay for anything. And they don't pay for anything when they're in Melbourne or in Brisbane where my siblings are. They get to travel everywhere and they don't pay for anything.

That's the pact that us children have made. Our parents are now our children, so they get spoilt.

That's lovely. But what isn’t at all lovely is the tendency to treat new immigrants here as if they’re a bit thick — when the reality is that they’re bilingual (or in the process of becoming so) and it’s the monolingual Kiwi who, by comparison, is a bit thick.

I’ve been shocked when I’m speaking to Mum and realised that I have this terrible tendency to break things down for her so that she could understand. But she’ll give me that nod to indicate that she already knew what I was talking about — and not to patronise her.

My father has also been self-taught. He left school early at St Joseph’s College in Samoa because money was tight for his family. Then he managed to work his way into being a legal clerk in Wellington and, when he moved up to Auckland, where he met my mum, he’d read all the newspapers and was constantly listening to the radio. 

He wanted to be up-to-date. And he’d pick up new words and practise those words on us kids. It got to the point where I needed a dictionary for some of the words he was using. It was a struggle for me to try and catch up to him. Mum and Dad are way more intelligent than I'll ever be.

How do you feel when you hear people referring to Fobs and Coconuts?

The late Peter Fatialofa had the best rules for dealing with that. In effect, he said: If you're a good friend of mine and we're used to talking like this, then go for gold with those terms because we're comfortable with it. But, if we don't know each other, and you use that language, I’ll take offence.

I'd call myself a proud Fob. Still do. And, when we make mistakes, my siblings might go: “You fobbed out.” Again, I don’t have a problem with it when I’m in the company of people I know and who I know aren’t offended by it. It’s never intended to be mean spirited — in fact, it’s the complete opposite.

One interesting development for you, I suspect, came in your time at Auckland Girls’ Grammar. There was, in your day there, nearly 25 years ago, as there is now, a really strong Polynesian population. Was that where you began thinking of a career in drama?

That was where I came across the wonderful world of Polyfest. My older sister, Theresa, was in the Samoan group then and I’d never seen that many Pacific Islanders in one space. It was like a huge concert. Just so many students celebrating our culture. I'd never seen anything like it.

At that time (1988), AGGS had won 10 years in a row. Then I started at AGGS in ‘89, joined the competitive Samoan group — and they lost. Well, they didn't really lose. They came second. But I just went: “Oh, my gosh. I'm bad luck, I'm really bad luck.” But then we slowly redeemed ourselves in the following years, and, in 1993, I became a leader alongside Natarlia Pouli-Lefale and Acquin Ioane. We took out the Samoan cup that year.

And it was tougher then because we weren't just competing against girls' schools. We were competing against everyone. Girls. Boys. Co-eds. It was just one whole competition. So that was the first time I’d really felt the excitement of performance — and the discipline that was required.

Then in my seventh form year, I had a wonderful Media Studies tutor. Max Cryer, who was incredibly interesting and intelligent. And super tall — I remember being so overwhelmed by his height. And he was pretty tough on me. Really good tough, though.

Then I took a module he was offering. It was called Laughter is the best medicine. And it was there that he introduced me to the world of theatre and subtext. I was also taught drama by Julie Watson and Keith Giblin. And soon I was accepted into The Performing Arts School, which merged into Unitec. And that staircased me into the entertainment world that I'm in now.

I would not have known about the world of performing arts if it wasn’t for Max Cryer, and I’m so grateful for him.

I crossed paths with Max myself many years ago, because my mum steered us rugby league kids into the Auckland Children's Light Opera for a couple of years. And there was Max riding herd. And what we learned, among other things, was how much practice and attention to detail was needed for a first-class performance. But that’s all become second nature to you, I’m sure.

Especially with theatre where you usually have only three weeks to prepare. Then you move into the theatre on the Monday, do a tech run on the Tuesday, a technical dress on the Wednesday — and you open on the Thursday.

But it’s the work that you do even before the rehearsal that’s essential. Doing your research and learning your lines before you start rehearsals so that you’re not freaking out about your lines when you’re having to deal with the gazillion mistakes that are made in the course of the rehearsing.

I realise that acting can be a precarious way of making a living because most jobs, most shows, are short-lived. And it’s not all that long since Pacific Islanders like yourself have been able to establish a substantial presence in that world — whether that’s as actors, writers, directors or whatever.

When I look back to the time I went to the performing arts school, I can't believe it was so rare to have other Pacific Islanders in that line of work. There were other Pacific Islanders who were already emerging artists — or who had emerged, or were even in mid-career by then. Like Nathaniel Lees, for instance. And Lani Tupu and Jay Laga’aia.

But we were constantly finding ourselves among the firsts. It was scary because there wasn't enough work for us — and we had such a little voice in the industry.

So, in 2004, I started working for a private training establishment and, along with Sean Coyle, turned what was initially a certificate course into what became PIPA, the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts. PIPA wouldn’t have existed without Sean. And that certificate course became a diploma and then a degree.

I left PIPA last year in April, and in November, PIPA came to an end — and that wasn’t pretty at all. But what was beautiful is that, through all the mistakes and all the joys and highs and lows of PIPA, there emerged a whole lot of beautiful young actors, dancers, creators, and directors who are proud to be Pacific.

And I'm so proud because I now get to work alongside the graduates. Like on Fresh, when you see Pani and Pani, one of the most exciting things for me is that one of my graduates, Mario Faumui, is one of my directors. I mean, how awesome is that?

I think it's important that we have more Māori and PI stories, but it's not just about quantity — it’s the quality and the opportunity that matters.

And, as much as we all love comedy, like everybody else there are other dimensions to us. Like drama, which is something that I really want to get back into.

What do you see the role of performing arts in the overall Pasifika development, especially for Pasifika people who call Aotearoa home? And I include Māori because we're Pacific people, too. Expressing our feelings and telling our stories on stage and screen plays a part in shaping how we think and behave, doesn’t it?

Yes. It's really important. But there are obstacles — and one of them is the process of funding significant performing arts projects. Unfortunately, the funding criteria isn't user friendly. You'll usually find that those who’re great at writing proposals have been getting the funding even if their work hasn’t always been up to the mark.

But the ones who can deliver the work often aren't that great at writing proposals. And they don't know where else to go. Also, there are very few Māori and PI producers out there and that's what we also need. Hopefully, Creative NZ is taking those issues on board. And, hopefully, other funding bodies also recognise that they need to be much more accessible and user friendly.  

I know lots of artists who’ve done beautiful work and when I ask why they haven't applied for funding, they say: “Have you seen what you've got to fill out? It's ridiculous. I can't even understand that language.”

And I suppose that if you criticise the process, you’re liable to be shunted to the back of the queue. But let’s talk briefly about some of your work, including Game of Bros. Right from the get-go, I thought: “Gee, this is a strange one on Māori Television.” But it's turned out to be very popular. It's tongue-in-cheek. It's got Māori and Pasifika. And, of course, it's got two beautiful hosts — you and Anapela Polata’ivao.

Anapela (Bells) and I bonded straightaway, as soon as we met more than 20 years ago. It started off as a friendship, and then along came Pani and Pani, which was created by Kila Kokonut Krew. That was run by Anapela and Vela Manasaute, her partner.

Basically, Bells and I would just go into her garage studio, we’d do silly stuff and try to make each other laugh — and Vela would film us. And that's how Pani and Pani started. Then Lisa Taouma asked us to do a filler on Fresh one day when another group couldn’t make it.

So, we kept doing that. Then we did Mr Lavalava for Fresh. And then it turned into Game of Bros with Māori TV.

Can we talk about Still Life with Chickens? When I saw it, I didn’t know what to expect. But I was really touched by it. By its simplicity, its staging, the theatre-craft, and how you were able to hold the stage for so long by yourself, because it’s really a one-woman show. Has it been one of the more challenging roles for you?

It's definitely one of the tougher ones. Doing virtually a solo show is full-on because, if you stumble on a line, especially if your co-star is a chicken, you're really on your own. You’re carrying the show. If you’re flat, the show is flat. But, if you’re enjoying the show, the audience will enjoy it, too.

I’m playing an older Samoan woman who’s ignorant of other cultures — she is set in her ways. “Mama” stays at home looking after her bedridden husband and is constantly on her children’s case for not visiting her. This play mostly addresses her loneliness, with a couple of dark secrets thrown in there for good measure, and the friendship she develops with a rogue chicken.

I’m on the go for the whole show, which runs for 48-50 minutes. And sometimes it can feel like an hour. After last night’s show, one woman told us she wanted it to go on longer. That was a lovely compliment, but that’d be tough.

I've had a ball with the show and I love where it's at now because it's changed so much since the first performances at Māngere. The words are much more settled. The movement is much more settled too. And the relationship between the puppet (the chicken) and me has deepened.

Who would've thought I’d be absolutely in love with a puppet?

I fell in love with the puppet, too.

I know. It's so cute. And Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson (the puppeteer) does a wonderful job. He’s just amazing. He’s also one of our PIPA graduates. And he's everywhere now. He’s just finished doing a feature film called Hibiscus and Ruthless. He's on quite a few ads and he's done a few plays and is also the lead in Vela Manusaute’s short film, The Messiah. He’s just a joy to be on stage with — and he’s done an incredible job with operating the chicken.

We’ve finished our season in Auckland but, in a fortnight, we’re off to Palmerston North for six days at Centrepoint Theatre, and then, two weeks after that, we’ll be at Circa in Wellington for a month.

Finally. I wonder if there’s something about you that we don't know but that you might like us to know.

Well, I'm a soapmaker and I’ll be launching my company, Le Masina, next month. I make luxury soaps, lotions, creams, and so on. I use organic coconut oil from Samoa — and I highlight and source ingredients from all around the Pacific. Like vanilla sugar from Tonga, coconut cream from Fiji, Fetau oil from Samoa, and kawakawa here from Aotearoa.

I started making it because I’d get eczema and I couldn’t use the detergent-based so-called “natural” bodywashes or any of those fancy lotions. So I started making my own. It’s a joy. And it’s another outlet for me to express my love of art.

Did it clear up your eczema?

Well, I don't have it anymore.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

© e-tangata, 2018

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