When the No Limits crew of young Pasifika performers began exploring themes for their next show, one issue dominated the brainstorming process.
It was not a surprise to No Limits director and Ara Institute of Canterbury Pasifika Liaison Sela Faletolu-Fasi, who created the No Limits programme with her husband Silivelio Fasi four years ago to give Pasifika youth a voice through devising and performing original shows.
NZ’s sad statistics
New Zealand again recorded the highest teen suicide rates in the developed world, the OECD recently reported, but the problem has also impacted on No Limits directly.
No Limits is like a family for the young Pasifika performers. So when in December last year No Limits member Tala Mailei succumbed to suicide, the entire group was hit hard.
The upcoming show, Speak Your Truth 2.0: Don’t Dream It’s Over, on 4 and 5 November at the YMCA theatre, is dedicated to Mailei and his family and friends.
Talking about suicide in their latest production is a way of minimising risk for the No Limits! Pasifika performance group.
However the groups’ experience with suicide ran even deeper. “It has been an absolutely emotional journey for all of us, because obviously we are thinking about Tala, but that’s only part of it,” Faletolu-Fasi said. “The performers relate to suicide from their own lives. Every single person in the room had thought about it at some time in their lives. It’s rampant.
“They wanted to address suicide. They said, ‘we believe that this is so important for adults and young people to hear it from us directly’. I just have to support them in that process.”
From a Pasifika perspective
Le Va, the non-government organisation leading New Zealand’s first national Pasific suicide prevention programme, states that “among Pasifika young people, suicide is the leading cause of death”. The Le Va website cites recent provisional figures released by the Chief Coroner (2007-2014) showing that on average, 26 Pasifika people have died by suicide each year in the last seven years.
Giving young Pasifika a platform to explore issues that impact them the most is a novel approach, but four years on Faletolu-Fasi is seeing positive changes in young lives, where it really counts.
Decision makers are taking notice. Faletolu-Fasi has urged MPs, policy makers, principals, teachers and service providers to see No Limits performances. Statistics and policies are one thing – bringing audiences to tears as they experience the personal stories of Pasifika youth first hand is quite another.
For the performers, the presence of influencers in the audience is empowerment in itself. “In all honesty they feel a sense of validation, of being important, because the story that they are telling impacts everyone and is particularly bad in Christchurch. Articles about Canterbury having the highest suicide rate in the country were coming out during rehearsal, and the kids were posting them up on the group Facebook page. They have been in tears.
“They will perform for people who can start to make changes, but for them it’s the validation that people at high levels are listening to them.”
Decision makers are listening
No Limits has given Faletolu-Fasi a voice too at some powerful forums. Whatever the audience, she never deviates from speaking up for Pasifika youth.
“No Limits has a way of engaging people where they’re at, whether they have 10 degrees, a PhD and they’re earning 6 figures or they’re working in a factory.”
Faletolu-Fasi is aware of the risk inherent in exploring suicide with 12 to 25 year olds, and has made the group aware of suicide prevention resources and services. The No Limits members told her they won’t use these services; they are not seen as specific to or relevant for Pasifika. Against the shroud of silence recently brought to light by media, these young people want to talk about suicide.
“To them that is a key element, having platforms like this where they can speak up openly and allow the door to open for others to ask for help.”
During the performances we will have the He Waka Tapu suicide prevention team ready outside the doors should any issues be triggered in the audience. There will also be cards on every seat with helpline numbers and contact details of suicide prevention organisations.”
The response needs to be community-driven Faletolu-Fasi says, and everyone has a responsibility. “This is the bed we have made for ourselves as a society; it‘s not just the government policy, we are talking about us, our families, the church, the education system, the government, the justice system, the social service sector – there are so many ducks that are not lined up.”
Calling on community support
“In a way, we are all suffering in a silence, but this is our chance as a community to stand up and say it’s OK to be vulnerable, even during the most successful time of your life to feel like everything is not going your way, it’s OK to tell people and gather together as a community. I think more often than not services are focused on the term ‘suicide prevention’ – what we’re trying to do is focus on the pursuit of happiness. How do you live a life that is filled with purpose? It’s still the same message as when we started in 2012 ultimately.
“That’s how you build the community - by shifting those that are currently not contributing to their community, and inspiring them to contribute even in the smallest ways. A lot of that has to do with opportunity and attitude.
“Make any contribution, even if you are a street sweeper or packing shelves at Pak n Save, you can contribute in terms of building your family, your energy, your volunteering time, your impact on your surrounding community, your youth group, your church, your school - that’s the long term game, getting people over to the contributing side.”
The students devised Don’t Dream It’s Over under the guidance of Faletolu-Fasi and Pasifika graduates of the National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art at Ara during just two weeks of the recent school holidays. They will tweak it until opening night, balancing creativity with truth as they portray the story of a character called ‘youth’ who, at the point of desperation, is taken through his life and shown everything that is worth living for.
“No matter how hard it gets, we can never dream it’s over. When you’re tired of battling your demons, don’t dream it’s over, when you get to that point in the fight when you go ‘my soul and spirit are broken, I can’t do any more’, that’s when we have to gather as a community, reach out and draw down on any reserves to go one more day.”
Once again, No Limits will perform the show at Te Puna Wai o Tuhinapo, a Youth Justice facility. Amongst Faletolu-Fasi’s growing collection of stories of personal transformation that has been triggered by No Limits, a favourite is of an audience member at Te Puna Wai o Tuhinapo.
“When they see young people doing something powerful like this it gives them a sense of what is possible in life. They think, ‘why the hell am I sitting in here?’ We’ve had young people who from that engagement have absolutely turned their life around.
“One of the girls was one of the most violent youth offenders. One of our girls, Joy, connected with her. They started jamming with the guitar, singing together, and Joy said ‘you’re such a good singer, you’re amazing, and you could be doing what I’m doing! Honestly the only thing keeping you and me apart is a wall. We walk the same walk, it’s just that I’ve been given a platform to do something good and you could do the same’.”
“That girl later got out of the youth justice facility and toured with a kapa haka group around New Zealand. She’s fully taken one conversation, seeing one of our performances and talking to one of the cast and absolutely turned her life around.
“It’s the model of engaging youth to do something positive and contribute to society, not watching a show. It’s how you start shifting people onto the contributing side of the seesaw.”
Speak Your Truth 2.0: Don’t Dream It’s Over, YMCA theatre, 12 Hereford Street, gold coin donation.
Friday 4 November at 8pm and Saturday 5 November at 6pm and 8pm.
Note for parents: Please be advised that some of the themes and material may not be suitable for younger audiences.