Polyfest destined for great success in Southland

LAUREN HAYES
Last updated 05:00 25/08/2014
polyfest
ROBYN EDIE/ Fairfax NZ
COLOUR SPLASH: Polyfest organisers Lisa Tou, left, and Pauline Smith with some of this years T-shirts.

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Almost everyone has experienced first day jitters.

It might be starting that new job, meeting new classmates, or even just taking a different bus route home that sets them off, igniting the fear that it might all go wrong.

For Murihiku Polyfest co-ordinators Lisa Tou-McNaughton and Pauline Smith, the first day jitters were out in force before the first Polyfest in 2009.

With the sixth festival reaching its peak this week, the success of Polyfest now seems inevitable. That outcome wasn't always so certain.

Nothing of the sort had been attempted in Southland before, and the pair had little experience at throwing together a big event, Tou-McNaughton says.

"It was [done] on the smell of an oily rag, on the smell of nothing. We didn't know how much anything cost.

"I still remember going there, this first day, thinking, I hope it's going to be all right."

As it turns out, the nerves weren't necessary.

The line of people waiting to get in to the first Polyfest stretched out the door of Stadium Southland. Twenty eight groups had signed on to take part, and 2000 people turned out to watch.

The venture first started as a suggestion by a colleague, Parker Ormond. Nurtured by Smith and Tou-McNaughton, the event has grown from a one day performance to a cultural celebration including the four day festival, an art exhibition, the community jandal project and several workshops.

It's a pretty impressive feat in a place like Southland, stereotyped as a bastion of conservative, pakeha farmers.

Perhaps the most important achievement of Polyfest is the way it gets communities excited, not just about Maori and Pasifika culture but about all the cultures they represent, whether that be Filipino, Czech or Scottish.

There have been many other achievements along the way. The Murihiku Maori and Pasifika Cultural Trust was established in 2010, on the back of the fruitful first Polyfest.

Since then, the trust has managed to attract world-class performers, including Black Grace dancers, designer Lindah Lepou and writer/performer Victor Rodger, to Southland.

Not only does the trust get top talent to visit, it also convinces the talent to keep coming back. In some cases, like Lepou, a trust-arranged visit can lead to top talent calling Southland home.

So what's the secret?

According to Smith and Tou-McNaughton, the key is hyper-enthusiasm and an "elite version of southern hospitality - cheese rolls and all".

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It's all about manaakitanga, Smith explains, an attitude that includes concern for others and good hosting skills.

Many of the opportunities now associated with Polyfest came from being audacious enough to ask leading artists (in the toilets at a national conference) if they fancied visiting Invercargill, and showing them a darn good time when they arrived.

Of course, the success has also grown from a lot of hard work.

The pair, who both have day jobs, can often be found at the Polyfest grindstone before work, after work and during the weekends, and rely on strong family-and-friend support to keep things moving.

Ten volunteers take the cultural festival week off work to help out, while hundreds more give smaller portions of their time throughout the event. Getting the team through is their mantra, borrowed from acclaimed Samoan poet and writer Albert Wendt: if there is dedication and aroha, and your motives are pure, opportunities will come.

However, the immense success of Polyfest and all the opportunities now coming its way have proved a bit of a mixed blessing, Smith says.

No matter how passionate, a volunteer team can only manage so much, and Polyfest has expanded about as far as it can go without a structural change.

"It's grown so big, so quickly, and that's exciting and that's really positive, but that's the thing that's tipping us up at the moment."

Despite this, there are very big - very exciting - plans for the future.

The aim is to extend into the weekend, so community groups can join in the fun. There are also more ambitious goals of taking Polyfest's reputation global, helping young Southlanders break into the world stage.

"Anything's possible from here - anything," Tou-McNaughton says.

"There are so many roads you could go down [but] because of our restrictions in time, we can't always get down all of these paths."

The key to embarking down those roads is more funding, enough to allow Smith and Tou-McNaughton to commit full time to the Polyfest world. Until that happens, the pair will continue to encourage as many Southlanders as possible to get involved.

"It's just a really cool thing to be part of. We hope people get it, and get on the waka and help us paddle."

Whanau, friends and supporters can jump on the waka and enjoy the Polyfest spectacle from tomorrow to Friday at Stadium Southland. Entry by koha.

- The Southland Times

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