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Stages of Change

Tom McCrory and Nina Nawalowalo
Nina Nawalowalo and her creative partner Tom McCrory, of The Conch theatre company, are about to embark on an ambitious new project in the Solomon Islands.

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The Conch theatre company is embarking on a groundbreaking new project in the Solomon Islands, using theatre to address the problem of violence against women and in doing so empowering a new generation of leaders and storytellers.

Renee Liang speaks to theatre auteur Nina Nawalowalo and her creative partner Tom McCrory.

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The Stages of Change project uses theatre to open up dialogue and awareness about the important role of women in civil society and also to reduce violence against women.

Nina will nurture a new women’s theatre company, selecting women from a broad cross section of some of the 990 islands in the Solomons.  After creating a performance work this year, the show will tour around the main islands in the Solomons in 2014.  There will also be radio scripts created for broadcast, with local writers and directors mentored to continue the project into the future. The groundbreaking project has been funded by the European Union, the British High Commission and the British Council.

Renee Liang spoke to Tom and Nina about their passion for theatre and how it enables change.

Why do you make theatre?

It’s grabbed us both since we were young. The stories, the magic, the people, the social possibilities, the buzz of live performance, the craft and the inspiration of great teachers – the fact that it’s a life and not only a job. It enables so many different facets of our interests to be explored in one form.

We both have a deep sense that we have things we want to say about and to the world and we are interested in the ensuing dialogue. We have a deep respect for theatre’s traditions and feel we have contribution to make to the artform.

Is anything ever impossible in theatre?

Within the process of making theatre impossibility is the spur of creativity. The key with theatre is whether you can get the audience to believe. We can spend a million and bore them to tears or tell the story of the creation of the universe with two buckets of water a plank and an old newspaper in a garden shed and the audience will never forget you. The Conch loves magic where doing the impossible is the whole point.

There is also a social and political dimension to impossibility which is very inspiring. If we are given the impression that for us that it’s not possible, because of who we are or where we come from…then it’s very motivating!

Of course there are times when the practical challenges feel almost impossible – in these times we have to dig very deep and return to our values and vision. In these times we are blessed by the belief of others and the inspiration of the greats.

Why did you start The Conch and where do you hope it will go?

There were two main inspirations. One was Nina’s desire to seek a marriage between her international experience and training in European visual and physical theatre forms with a journey into her Pacific cultural heritage. The other was the acknowledgement of the vast potentiality of Pacific people and a desire to create pathways for that talent to stand equally on the world’s stage among the best and in turn for the benefits of this to flow back into the Pacific community. At the heart was both the desire to create ground breaking work fusing the visual and physical theatre techniques with the power of Pacific cultural forms and at the same time the recognition of the power of the theatre making process to serve as a vehicle for a range of other socially useful outcomes. On a basic level it was the recognition of a potentiality and a necessity combined.

We hope that it will continue to grow and thrive in providing opportunities for all involved and taking Pacific stories to the world. This depends on people and we are always interested to hear from any who are excited by the vision if they would like to work with us.

Tell me about your creative partnership.

Tom: We have been working together now on a range of productions and as teachers for 16 years - 11 of which has been with our company The Conch. It’s been partly a necessity and partly a very natural evolution of our relationship.

This does not mean that it has been without challenges! The creative process of theatre is very intense and demanding, as is running a business out of our kitchen and organizing international touring when you’ve got three kids. At times it’s really pushed us to the limits- but we have learnt so much as we have gone on over time and we have been blessed with amazing support from, Community, family and friends. I believe in and admire Nina as a theatre artist, she is a unique voice in world theatre. Working alongside her has enabled me to travel into cultural territories which as a European would not otherwise open to me and collaborating with her, and the many wonderful Pacific people of the company, has massively challenged and enriched my world view. I have in turn challenged her! We have complimentary skills and we have learnt the benefits of handing an idea back and forwards.  There are times making in a work where you can’t see it any more, by handing over the leadership you step back you can see more which enables you to step forwards again. As my granddad used to say – “Sometimes to get closer to your work you’ve got to step away from it.”

It’s an evolving process, knowing a person so well is a great gift and a challenge as you can’t avoid the truth of who you are, therefore you can enable each other to realize potential and at the same time this can serve as a nucleus to the company. When you come into The Conch you’re coming into a family – this is very much who we are and the way we grew up.

How do you begin making a show?

The beginning of the work often lies in personal experience – Nina hearing the women singing hymns while they fish in the lagoon in Fiji, seeing a piece of Masi in the sunlight on the wall. This experience becomes the motivational energy, which then gathers other things to it, music, objects, stories, collaborators.

The other huge inspiration is people – Nina in particular is very drawn to certain people and very good at drawing out what is essential in them - what emerges becomes the fabric of the piece.

Your work is culturally specific and vested in the personal, yet has huge international appeal.  What is your key to making great theatre?

Clarity of vision.

Being true to yourself and trusting that in the depth and detail of one’s own specific being lies the universality which connects you to others.

Making sure that you are internationally aware and equipped at an appropriate level of skill. In theatre this means learning the laws of your craft and acknowledging that like sport there is an international benchmark of what constitutes readiness to participate.

At a cultural level believing in and uplifting the truth that indigenous art forms of the Pacific are of a level of expertise and a depth of meaning equal to the world’s best.

Putting a creative team together that can make the distance.

Tell me about your development work in ‘Conchus’.

Conchus was set up as a separate programme of our work in 2009. Mentorship and the use of productions as a vehicle for a range of other socially useful outcomes has always been a part of what we aspired to do. However we recognized that there was a need to name and frame our thinking around this and put together a more precise plan of action. The critically acclaimed Conchus season at Bats was the first initiative developing three solo works by emerging Pacific and Maori women. From here we have expanded the vision such that our new Stages of Change project in the Solomon Islands constitutes a Conchus project for us. In addition we have another major project over the next two years in Sydney as well as other very exciting plans for Wellington next year.

What sparked your latest project, Stages of Change?

For two years we were generously supported by the British Council to bring world class illusionist Paul Kieve (Harry Potter, Matilda, Ghost) over from the UK to collaborate on our last major work Masi. The Director of the British Council New Zealand, Ingrid Leary, had been in touch with the British High Commissioner in the Solomon Islands, who, inspired by the excitement of the Pacific Arts festival in Honiara 2012, saw the potential to develop theatre there. Ingrid immediately thought of The Conch since Tom is English and because Nina holds a unique position globally as an internationally successful Melanesian theatre director.

The British Council flew us over to have meetings with a broad range of parties from the British High Commission, the permanent secretary for Arts and Culture, a variety of NGO’s and those interested in the development of theatre. We were extremely drawn towards the people and the land and were very moved by the tremendous enthusiasm of the wonderful Solomon people we met.

Ingrid identified a body of funding that was available through the European Union designated to build the capacity of NGOs to work with the very serious issues of sexual and domestic violence as well as help co-ordinate and enhance programmes designed to empower women to play a greater role in peace building post civil war in political decision making. It was clear that placing Nina in a leadership role in the context would be a very powerful action. Ingrid proposed that we apply for the funds and that we design a theatre project to meet the brief. We did so and then Ingrid and Tom worked together to refine and build the document. It was a risk but the EU were impressed by its innovative approach and awarded us the funding. We are very fortunate to have the leadership and mana of The British Council who, through Monalisa Urquhart, are managing the project, and our amazing partners on the ground, Solomon Islands Planned Parenthood Association headed by Michael Salini and The British High Commission.

Nina, you said, “ Having the confidence to be able to stand on stage publicly is the doorway to being able to find your voice to speak out. “ How will being on stage empower women in society in the Solomon Islands?

Tom: At the core of the Stages of Change project is the establishment of a National Women’s Theatre Company made up of 15 women drawn from the 9 provinces of the Solomons and 7 different NGOs working in Gender related fields. Through training, making and touring theatre we hope to pass on a sustainable legacy of skills as well as empower women to take a more powerful leadership role in society.

Nina: Exploring the themes of violence through different styles of theatre is very powerful and brave…this creates change and highlights issues. The women gain and inspire confidence through working together and making decisions on how to represent themselves on stage. Taking this out to the community helps women see themselves and again builds confidence in small ways.

Just performing alone is empowering. It raises awareness, it creates dialogue, and supports women who are in this situation by putting the themes out there to be discussed.

Sharing their work with the community highlights the issues within the community, it makes women feel not alone when they see and hear each other.

Working with Solomon Island women and exploring imagery and making theatre that explores the themes of violence is brave, it creates a voice and as we work visually this is a powerful voice without words which profoundly changes the impact and nature of the resulting dialogue.

  • The Big Idea will continue to follow the Stages of Change project – look out for updates.

Written by

Renee Liang

22 Aug 2013

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.