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Opening New Doors to Creativity in Schools

11 Aug 2021
A full immersion school in Tauranga is learning how to take their performance to the next level, thanks to opportunities once the domain of private schools.

Aukaha Kakau-Dickson is not your average 17-year-old.

Considered by those who know him to be “like an old man in a teenage body”, his passion for te ao Māori shines like a beacon. One of the year 13s at Te Wharekura o Mauao - a full immersion Māori school in Tauranga with a roll of around 250 tauira (students) - he’s a leader in his own right, front and centre in the school’s kapa haka group.

Seasoned stage performer and director Jason Te Mete describes him as “a one of a kind student to be honest. I don’t think in my long time working with schools I’ve ever met anyone quite like him. 

“He’s fascinated by reo, pūrākau (stories) and whakapapa. He’s a confident speaker, he has interesting things to say, he’s got a great energy, he’s warm and draws you to him.” 

But Kakau-Dickson (Tauranga Moana, Ngāti Awa) is out of his comfort zone this week.  

He’s taking the stage in a different way, as one of the lead roles in Te Wharekura o Mauao’s first ever full-scale production. 

Takitimu is running at Tauranga’s Baycourt from August 11-13, a special moment for the school that was made possible with funding from the Creatives In Schools programme, an opportunity for teachers and creatives to work together to provide engaging learning experiences for their students.

With funding open for up to $17,000 per project - it opens the door to professionals in a diverse range of art forms to get involved. 

Admitting to some mixed emotions ahead of their first wānanga (meeting) with Te Mete, the creative brought in to help bring this production to life, Kakau-Dickson’s embraced the challenge.

“Pretty excited to put all our hard work into action,” he states. “We’ve been on this journey for a few months now. It’s been a good experience so far, just the exposure to the likes of Matua Jason who has a real reputation and career going for him. Same with Matua Vinnie (Te Mete’s Tutuara Collective collaborator Vincent Farane) who is choreographing our dances - we’re fortunate to have someone of their calibre come in and give us their time, just so we can pull off the best we can do.”

It’s a passion project for Te Mete (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Rangi) on two fronts. He’s a Tauranga local, who has spent the last 15 years working professionally in the performing arts - with this a rare opportunity to work where he grew up. 

Jason Te Mete performing at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival. Photo: Supplied.

And for much of that career, he’s been sharing his skills with rangatahi.

“I love working with them at this age when they are more curious, more raw - I find particularly Pasifika and Māori students are inherently great storytellers, they don’t realise that. They carry a lot of gravitas on stage - Māori have a very strong identity, they know who they are and where they’re from in most cases. 

“Being able to introduce that concept of theatre and storytelling from a different medium than kapa haka at Te Wharekura was something I was really interested in doing.”

First day of rehearsals for Takitimu. Photo: Supplied.

But in a decade of working with schools on their production - all but one of them have been private schools - mainly because they have the means to pay for it. As much as he wanted to help other schools out, the commitment meant not having the time for the work that creatives need to survive on.

“You do feel bad sometimes that these kids get this extracurricular opportunity and many have done really well, they’ve grown contacts in the industry, a lot of them end up going down that path,” explains Te Mete. 

“Public school kids usually have the same talent, it’s just that it hasn’t been fostered, built and encouraged to develop into a career. Creatives In Schools is great and does really open up some fantastic opportunities.”

This particular opportunity came about when Te Wharekura o Mauao’s Head of Performing Arts Wiremu Mako set his mind to break out of the school’s mould.

“I chose to go big,” Mako remarks. “Everyone said to do it at our gym but I said no, it’s not good enough - especially for our first one. So I chose to have it at Baycourt - big theatre, big lights, big sound and we'd use all the students that are keen to go for it.”

Takitimu looks at the navigation and challenges of Takitimu - one of the waka that iwi in Tauranga are descendants of - but contextualising it in what is happening in the present day. The bilingual performance features a range of storytelling elements - dance, live band, waiata, poetry, comedy, hip hop and haka.

As soon as Mako (Rātana Pā) made the decision to put on this production - he knew the man for the job.  

Having spent time doing a holiday programme with Te Mete before Christmas - and having taken a group of students up to see one of his shows in Auckland two years ago - Mako says they knew the way each other operates, so it was easy to convince him to come home to “give him the reins and tell him to go for it.”

Mako elaborates “the students are used to me, they’re comfortable with me, they know how I work. Once he came in and brought in a whole new dynamic, whole new skillset and little techniques, especially getting them out of the kapa haka realm. 

“His big push was he didn’t really care what their skillbase was, he wanted them all to try everything. He challenged them all to give it a go, that’s what I liked about it.”

Cast and crew of Takitimu meeting for the first time at Huria Marae, Tauranga. Photo: Supplied.

On his teaching style, Te Mete explains “I’m very anti-demonstrating - my work as a teacher, as a kaiako has always been to explain to them how to do something and get them to find it themselves, rather than show them and then they copy.

“Rather than put the students into the project and then fit them into the mould, we’ve done it the other way around - we’ve written the play based on the students and what they bring. 

“We’ve written a character for Aukaha as the koro sitting on the paepae who tells the story, he’s the beacon of knowledge for the young people who go to him to ask for advice.” 

Te Wharekura o Mauao student and performer Aukaha Kakau-Dickson, Head of Performing Arts Wiremu Mako and Creative In Schools participant and Takitimu director Jason Te Mete. Photo: Supplied.

Kakau-Dickson’s got nothing but praise for Te Mete’s approach and empowerment of the performers.

“Matua Jason encourages us to take our own lead on it. Although he has given us direction, we’re encouraged to make the lines our own, relate them to ourselves. He’s essentially giving our kids a voice and a platform to deliver their whakaaro, their thoughts and their ideas on the big stage in front of their own people.

“It’s been really good for some of the year 13s to see a local boy that grew up just down the road - his marae is literally down the road from our school - come back and show us that you don’t need to grow up in the big city to make it in the big city.”

Aukaha Kakau-Dickson leading Te Wharekura o Mauao's kapa haka group. Photo: Supplied.

So used to being a part of a collective performance with kapa haka, Kakau-Dickson has enjoyed seeing so many of his classmates get the chance to showcase their talents in a new way.

It’s definitely been an eye-opener,” Kakau-Dickson sums up. “One of my biggest takeaways has been ‘be comfortable in being uncomfortable’ - breaking out of the norm, the status quo and proving to yourself that you can do more than what you’re made out to be.”

As he gears up for his debut production - Kakau-Dickon’s hints it has opened his mind to performing more in the future.

“After I’ve had the experience I’ve had….yeah, why not? After the stuff we’ve learnt from the calibre of the people we’ve had in to take us, it’s a no brainer for some of the kids.”


UPDATE: Written in partnership with Creatives in Schools. Funding applications Have been extended to 5 September - to find out how to get involved, click here.