“Would you like to perform your classical piece, Tommy?” the Head Drama teacher from one of Australia’s top drama schools asked me. I stood up, feet grounded like a palm tree on the edge of my happy place, Lalomanu beach. I shot a look at my fellow auditionees, my side-eye said it all. Watch and learn kids! I quickly pulled down my sleeves to make sure my Taulima on my right arm, my grandmother’s pride and joy, wasn’t peeking out.
It would reveal that I wasn’t the blank canvas an aspiring actor should be. Tattoos in western culture are often met with negative assumptions about the individual which in turn create assumptions about their character. In Samoan culture your tatau is a mark of your culture and is an honour to carry. I chose Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest as my audition piece because I resonated with the character's struggle of being Indigenous and the way he is misunderstood by the new arrivals, also known as the colonisers. I had spent days throwing an old tennis ball against my bedroom wall to drill in the lines and gathered all the knowledge I could online about iambic pentameter, the fancy way of performing Shakespearian text.
I quickly pulled down my sleeves to make sure my Taulima on my right arm, my grandmother’s pride and joy, wasn’t peeking out.
I made a bold choice to begin the monologue from behind a white board, my fingers led the way curling slowly out followed by the rest of my body as I crept out taking on a physical language before delivering the lines:
“All the infections that the sun sucks up
From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall and make him
By inch-meal a disease!
I caught my reflection in the back mirrors between delivering lines, my face frozen and stunned like the moment before a baby lets off another shrieking cry:
His spirits hear me
And yet I needs must curse. But they'll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin--shows, pitch me I' the mire –”
I noticed the assessment panel and my fellow auditionees, all white, staring blankly at me while I tried to remember what the actual “pitch me I’ the mire” even means. I made a bold choice to slowly eyeball every person and end with a cheeky wink at the panel. My eyes twitched with nerves and excitement as my audience laughed at my clowning skills and I give trust to the physical impulses surging out of my body. I reckoned I’d nailed it and received a polite thank you from the panel without applause. I made a mental note to ensure that the panellist would get me by the end of my three years of study.
Turns out I never got into that drama school and this experience burnt me for quite some time. I continued my self-education through part-time classes while working several jobs and eventually a summer in New York training at the Atlantic Theatre Company earning myself a financial debt I only just paid off. For years, I would attempt to fit the mould. Though I’m grateful for the skills I learnt in these spaces, I could never quite understand the rigid structure and the outdated techniques and text that were, and still are, used to prioritise the elevation of a Geoffrey Rush thespian-type of actor.
I could never quite understand the rigid structure and the outdated techniques and text that were, and still are, used
As the namesake and grandchild of a high-ranking Samoan chief, Tomasi Tamaseu, I’ve always known I’m a naturally talented performer. It’s in the blood. Yet no one from Sydney to New York was giving me a real chance. My frustration and a small but loyal following of my work on social media and Queer community spaces drove me to continue to build my own opportunities, my own seat and my own table – one with more than a packet of Arnott’s assorted biccies and cucumber sandwiches to feed those sitting at it.
I found inspiration in watching performers like Brian Fuata, Kiliati Pahulu and Betty Grumble absolutely own their craftmanship at Queer venues and unconventional performance spaces and embraced this as education. I then was part of a young person’s development ensemble that by chance led me to Tokelau/Fijian storyteller and Orator Emele Ugavule, who over the years has gifted me opportunities to work with fellow Indigenous artists of Oceania.
A personal favourite part of a creative room led by Emele is the ample time spent in Talanoa. Talanoa, in my understanding, is a form of open dialogue used in many Oceanic cultures to share story, resolve conflict and converse, which is grounded in mutual respect of each individual's histories, cultural knowledge and spiritual being. Talanoa is the conversations in the foyer, the social media posts sharing the stories across the Ocean to our diasporic kin, it’s the arguments days later over a family feed where the audience place themselves in the story. Once I embraced Indigenous and Queer styles of storytelling, I really began to flourish as a performer and writer simultaneously and my story continued to evolve.
Talanoa, in my understanding, is a form of open dialogue used in many Oceanic cultures to share story, resolve conflict and converse, which is grounded in mutual respect of each individual's histories, cultural knowledge and spiritual being
I’ve had some successful few years of accomplishments. Some highlights include performing in Taofia Pelesasa’s production Te Molimau at Belvoir theatre, Dr Léuli Eshrāghi’s Queer Pacific work re(cul)naissance for the Sydney Biennale, in the world premiere of Let me know when you get home for the National Theatre of Parramatta and writing residencies with Belvoir Theatre and PACT. These moments wouldn’t have been possible without the artists and their own Talanoa who came before me that have paved the way for the doorways that would not budge at their knocks to swing open for me.
It is also the lifetime of experience learnt from my Samoan family and community. My childhood years in Samoa spent listening to my grandmother informed me of the detailed lives (or village gossip) and lineage of the 70-plus photos of my Aiga that hang on the walls of her home. I unknowingly learnt the art of clowning and humour from my father, a skilled performer able to craft a joke out of the smallest things. My education is found in my childhood years at Samoan dance practice late into a school night in preparation for Canberra’s annual Multicultural festival, an opportunity for our youth group to continue the friendly rivalry with the Tongan youth group.
Storytelling is such a huge part of our culture, if you’ve ever been to a Samoan wedding or funeral, you better be ready for some of the best performances of your life. This is often one of the only opportunities in diasporic Samoan communities where chiefs can display their oratory skills and knowledge of traditional proverbial speech. It is not uncommon for a Matai (chief) to recite their family history dating back to a Samoan deity like Nafanua, the goddess of war. I am still waiting for the day my nana hopefully explains our family’s relationship. These skills in memory and adaption of story have been refined over thousands of years and display our nuanced performance of life itself.
In researching for this piece, I was watching old home videos of the annual Teuila festival in Samoa a celebration of our culture, art, food and Samoa herself the pride displayed a testament to Samoans commitment to perform. Though 25 years ago, the life and vibrancy of my culture still jumps out of the screen. I was also reminded of Faleaitu the art of Samoan comedy in which skilled performers embody spirits and deities as a way to critique the Matai (chiefs) and other social or political structures. We’ve been doing political satire for thousands of years and I find assurance knowing that what I’m doing as an artist is by no means new but is guided by generations of storytellers that came before me. Before I go on stage I will often say a prayer and thankyou to my grandfather Tomasi, I feel him standing beside me as the lights go up.
I challenge the arts industry to not just respect the practice of storytelling cultures but give us the recognition we deserve. We have a lot of knowledge we can share and we can bring our old and well-crafted stories to new audiences and invite them into our Talanoa, come with an open heart and an empty stomach, there's always a feed involved. To the young folks and those just starting out in the arts industry, believe me when I say this. Indigenous and Queer folks are storytellers by nature, it’s in your blood and is formed by your continued resilience. Your story is your script, your culture is your BFA and your Elders are your lecturers. You are the institute.
Tommy is a Samoan/Australian Fa’afafine person who grew up on Ngunnawal country in Canberra and their village Toamua in Samoa. They are a writer, actor and performer and have trained as an actor with NIDA, The Hub Studio, ATYP and The Atlantic Theatre Company (NYC).
This article is part of SBS Voices' Straight Up Islander series, showcasing the work of writers with ancestral ties across Oceania. It has been edited by Winnie Dunn, in partnership with Sweatshop Literacy Movement Inc.