There will be Havoc. In the Garden.
HAVOC IN THE GARDEN rehearsals look like crazy fun. Each day starts with the most high-stakes, intense game of handball I have ever seen, making my high-school handball games look like a game for, well, kids. There are shouts, and loud howls of triumph when director Sam Scott is finally vanquished out of the top square. She pulls the 14 actors, made up of experienced and emerging actors, into a circle to discuss the day’s rehearsal. Actress Kura Forrester assumes a childlike alter-ego and affectionately strokes the director’s cheek. Wesley Dowdell (so good as Aaron in Outrageous Fortune) is congratulated for his role in kiwi film Love Birds. Miriama McDowell (This is not my life) talks about a difficult photoshoot did for Metro Magazine. Meeting over, Sam announces that one of the youngest actors, Beulah, is going to take the cast for a Zumba workshop. “ZUMBA!” – Scott Cotter is very excited. The cast give the Latin moves their all.
If it all sounds like fun and games, the youngest and freshest actors of the cast Beulah Koale, Jake Toaga, Tuyet Nguyen, Olive Asi and Loretta Aukuso are quick to point out just how tough, draining, and fricking hard work the process can be for making a show for the Auckland Arts Festival.
Havoc in the Garden is a play about family. Five different family groups are exposed through the story. “They all have something they’re hiding and not telling each other” says Beulah. He and Jake are part of a family of Samoans – “they try to cover up everything, they think they’re tough, but not really, deep down inside they are hurting…. They just don’t want to show it because they’re big tough Islanders.”
Olive, Loretta and Tuyet play a loose ‘family’ of friends. “We’re not really a family, but we’re friends, we’re all just friends.” As for the other families? “Not as cool as us” says Jake, but there’s a brother and sister, a family that reunites, and Scott Cotter who “is on his own doing monologues!”.
Havoc in the Garden has been written especially for, and with the cast members. English playwright Lennie James, who previously collaborated with Massive Company on the Sons of Charlie Paora, was inspired by the actors’ own life stories. The process began with initial workshop auditions with a larger group of Massive actors:
Beulah: He gave us provocations – What’s family to us? What’s home for us? We’d answer these provocations however we like. Some people had stories behind it. Then he picked out stories from people – oh this might go well with this guy’s story – it’s a collective story, broken down, edited.
Jake: Most of them are all true stories.
Beulah: Everything’s true.
Olive: There was like a process. We had two workshop auditions for the show and during that process we had to talk about our own personal life stories. We showed what we wanted to give to him, and then he went away and he chose who he wanted to develop a play with I guess, and he used our stories as ideas, and that’s how he came up with the script. It’s basically being ourselves and giving what we have to give to him.
Beulah: But then he adds his own flavour…
Olive: He’ll do a draft, and then he’ll come back to us and we’ll read it and do a video blog sort of thing and send it off to him and tell him what we felt wasn’t us, or what he needed more to add on or something and then he’ll tweak it again and send it back to us, another draft. We’ve had like five drafts so far.
Lennie James is currently working for HBO in the States. Assistant Producer Kitan Petkovski tells me “That’s his level… to be able to write for a company in New Zealand, it’s kind of unheard of in a way”. “It’s just amazing to have someone interested in a company, and interested in our lives and wanting to write a play” says Olive, “it’s just mind-blowing.” Massive and HBO had to have negotiations between dates when Lennie could come see the show performed. “We lost” reveals Kitan, although Lennie is back in Auckland this week to work on the show.
Playing characters that are based on their own lives puts the cast in a unique position. How do they approach that as actors? Where does the difference lie?
“You don’t want to show up and be you” says Jake firmly. “It was written for you, it’s your story, but when it’s onstage it’s kind of not… I’m finding the line where, I’m still part of the character that’s going on, but it’s still not me.” Beulah backs him up “The character is you, but there are aspects of the character that is not you… If you just throw yourself in there it’s sort of boring.”
And how do they feel about having versions of their stories performed onstage for heaps of people?
Loretta: Scary. Just to know that it’s your story and people are watching and seeing your story, and bringing your story to life. It’s really scary to kind of relive it. It’s cool, but I’m excited and nervous at the same time.
Jake: For me, I’m sort of happy. I’m really proud because there are other people that relate to it. Throughout the whole play, so many of the stories are relevant to so many people who are fearful of having their story heard. So for me it’s like a way that other people can lean into it ‘oh my god, this so happens to me’. It’s out there, now its okay. It’s not only my story, but its bro, every other Poly, Asian, Pakeha… it just relates to everyone, it’s sort of an off loader for them as well.
The actors have been involved with Massive since their teens, introduced to the company through free theatre workshops. Tuyet started Massive when she was 14. “I met Olive there. I later met Loretta, and these two boys. We went to the free workshops, and from there it grew to South Ensemble, which is a level up, and we did more devising. Then we started being involved in the shows and auditioning for the shows, and that’s how we came here.”
Jake was initially not keen at all do any Massive workshops. “I heard about Massive quite a while back. My uncle was part of Massive, and he was telling me about the free workshops they run. But at the time I thought, acting’s for homos. I just had that mentality. One holiday he said, if you have nothing to do, just check it out, and I had nothing to do that holiday. So I went to it, and that first week changed my whole perspective on acting, and theatre, and I just kept going back”
They think the awareness of theatre is beginning to change in South Auckland; the work that Massive does and the new Mangere Arts Centre are changing people’s perspectives, although there is still a long way to go. According to Jake, “Honestly, I reckon for people who haven’t had an insight on it, they think theatre is the way I thought it was – for a bunch of homos, getting up there dancing around in tights and such…”. Loretta says it’s rare to hear of Samoan people in theatre. “If you tell them, they have their own perception of what theatre is. It’s cool though saying – ‘I’m working on a theatre show’, its fricking cool saying that.”
“The hardest thing for theatre for Polynesians” Jake states, “is that it’s hard for their families to understand that this could be a career choice. They all come from the Islands, trying to get away from this hard lifestyle. They come here thinking ‘Alright, my kid is going to grow up and be a doctor’. They don’t see the arts as a career choice. For me, my Dad took a real long time to understand that I’m doing theatre, and right now it is my job, so he’s slowly adapting.”
And it is a job. Work. Beulah calls it a “hard industry”. “It’s tough man. I thought it would be ‘here’s your script, learn your lines’, that’s it. But there’s so much work. It’s hard, it’s mentally draining. We’re drained. It’s tough, but worth it. I wouldn’t change anything in the journey I’ve taken so far”. The biggest thing Beulah has learnt during the rehearsal process is when to play and when to focus. “Sometimes we get caught playing at the wrong time, but we just learn from that, and we need to switch on the focus. That’s a big problem with us because we’re not naughty I don’t think. But we play too much. And when we focus… that’s when we get work done and make magic.”
Jake agrees. “It’s always going to be tough when you have someone like Sam. She makes it a lot harder, but makes it way easier as well. I kind of look at Sam like she’s kind of like a Samoan mum. She’s just straight up – if you don’t do it, you’re going to get a smack or something. She’ll be straight up. And that’s awesome”.
They are charged up and passionate about the show and industry. They all want to keep going with acting as their careers. “For Life”. Kitan has watched them grow from the first workshops to the current rehearsals. “There are five different families in the play, but they are all one family working together to create the show. They’ve been together from the start, sharing all these intense moments… now that they’ve gone through so much together, there’s nothing they can hold back from when they’re acting, they are giving their all that they can.”
HAVOC IN THE GARDEN is presented by Massive Company for the Auckland Arts Festival
They will be touring to three theatres during the Festival:
Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre: Wed 2nd – Sun 6th March
Mangere Arts Centre: Wed 9-Sat 12th March
The Pumphouse, Takapuna: Wed 16-Sat 26th March.
More information on the Auckland Arts Festival Website
BONUS! Massive Company have been releasing YouTube videos with little peaks of the Havoc in the Garden rehearsals. Here is my favourite.