Dominion Rd The Musical
Dominion Rd The Musical will be hitting the bright lights of Auckland this August. This is a story based on true events that carries a political edge. It is also an example of how creating a truly authentic representation of diversity is not only achievable, but can add to the creation process. Yes, there are multiple buzz words in that sentence. But in this case they actually mean what they express. This is a multi-layered production where you will find cultural and ethnic diversity at every level of cast and crew, that includes community representation in both the creation and performance, where the entire production has been developed within a tikanga Māori framework. If tackling any of the three aspects listed above sound scary to theatre makers out there, here exists an example of how it works.
Dominion Rd The Musical is the tale of a group of residents who find out that their local Councillor plans to transform their street into a Chinatown. Angered at the idea, together, they combine forces to fight the development. It promises all the trappings of a great musical - unlikely alliances, old romances rekindled, a healthy dose of debate and of course fantastically catchy tunes.
If the premise for the story sounds at all familiar, that is because it is based around true events. Since 2011, the Auckland Council have been exploring the potential of ‘upgrading’ the Balmoral strip of Dominion Rd into a branded ‘Chinatown’.
The essence of the story is based around local resident and writer, Renee Liang’s response to what she deems an offensive proposition. For starters, she says, the Council has failed to recognise that Chinatowns in other cities started as places of exile and siege for immigrants living in overtly racist societies. She also carries concerns that the commercialisation of the area would destroy the authentic character that makes Dominion Rd the vibrant place that it is - the life that makes the idea attractive to Councillors in the first place.
“There has been an overall negative reaction from the Dominion Rd community, and I thought this would be a fertile territory for exploring the idea of community stories versus a commercially-driven narrative. I also thought I could make my own feelings known. This musical is my way of calling Council out.”
For the first stage of the creation process, Renee Liang facilitated a workshop that brought together professional singers, actors and creatives alongside a group of 17 community members with strong connections to Dominion Rd. These individuals shared their stories, histories and languages and it is these stories that have formed the basis of the characters in the show. Many of them have gone on to perform as part of the group of 10 community members who make up the chorus in the musical.
Creative Producer, Sharu Delilkan, says that the complex nature of the idea had its early challenges, especially when it came to explaining the concept to funders. “The fact that it is a fabulous blend of professional actors and community members made it initially difficult for them to comprehend what we were trying to achieve, mainly because we didn’t fit into a particular box. In fact we ticked all the boxes, which in some cases wasn’t the done thing.” It was through sheer perseverance and a determination not to give up on the idea that they managed to finally secure CNZ funding to create the project.
The production team have been committed to diversity in the truest sense of the word since the very beginning, building diverse representation not only into the performers but the crew behind the scenes. For Creative Producer, Sharu Delilkan, it was this true commitment to diversity that made her truly believe in the idea from the outset.
“I was sold on producing Dominion Rd The Musical the minute I discovered that it would mirror Tāmaki Makaurau’s unique diversity. It feels like we’re on the cusp of creating something groundbreaking, which we hope will have a long life past this initial development season. In addition to the multicultural cast, our production represent various ethnicities including African, Indian, Chinese, Fijian, Filipino, Māori, NZ European, Samoan making the entire production an authentic representation of this international precinct.”
Pulling together that amount of diversity is no mean feat, and Sharu says that again it came down to determination. This time, it was their determination to tell authentic stories that kept them true to this commitment. This was an opportunity to give voice to communities that are rarely seen or heard in the performing arts, and whose lives are often affected by decisions made without consultation at a local or national government level.
Director, Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho led the creation process through a tikanga Māori framework. This provided a set of values that supported the precarious mix of professional and community members from diverse cultures and backgrounds. With his background as co-founder of Auckland’s Te Pou Theatre and creator of several festivals working with marginalised groups in the community, Borni was perfectly placed to support this creation process.
Borni says, that an essential first step to working with any group of people is “figuring out what engagement means to each specific group and how each individual receives information.” It all begins with listening and setting up a case for strong communication from the outset. They incorporated principles of Manaakitanga where he shared the processes of whakatau, waiata and karakia to create a framework that everyone could become familiar with and comfortable within.
“We strive to uphold an individual’s mana and empower them every step of the way. With Dominion Rd The Musical having so many layers including the various personalities and demographics, using tikanga to drive the project allows us to have a central 'pou' or support that everyone at hand, can be involved with actively.”
Working with a mixture of experienced and amateur actors and singers has been a new experience for Musical Director and Vocal Coach, Lavina Williams, and one that she has learned a lot from. “It has been an interesting but amazing experience”, says Lavina, “a great balance between raw and perfect sound combination which gives our sound that extra spice it needs for such a multicultural multiethnic show.” She has found that the excitement and passion that the community chorus members have brought to the process “brings the energy and the heartbeat of our community songs.”
The production team believe that the diverse nature of the cast and crew has added a magical layer to this production that wouldn’t have existed. Their belief in the story and the essential nature of weaving the stories of real people into the musical, combined with a lot of hard work, has kept their compass pointing in the direction of true diversity.
“It’s not the cast mix that matters," Sharu says, "it’s whether you believe in the project and whether that combination of professionals and community is the right fit for your work, not the other way around. If it’s going to work you have to let it evolve and happen organically, not set the criteria trying to achieve a certain outcome.”
Dominion Rd The Musical plays...
Wednesday 9 August - Saturday 19 August, 7:30pm
Playhouse Theatre Glen Eden
15 Glendale Road (next to train station & free parking)