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'My family called Samoa'

Theda Lehmann A Family called Samoa, 12th Festival of Pacific Arts, Guam 2016

‘Theda - You busy in May? We are going to Guam

Ten words that might change a life'

Part of the delegation selected to represent Samoa at the 12th Pacific Festival of the Arts, Theda reflects on her once in a lifetime experience.

Two months later I’m on stage half way around the world, representing Samoa at the 12th Festival of Pacific Arts 2016 in Guam! The initial text message left me slightly gobsmacked. Which was nothing, in comparison to the roller coaster that ensued. We are Easter Monday when all the world seemed to have family to got to and eggs to hunt for, I met GAC creative director Sani Muliaumaseali'i at Victoria Station to find out a bit more about what this ‘thing’ was.

It turned out that ‘FestPac’ is the well established, don’t tell me you haven’t read about it, month-long event where the Pacific Nations meet and share, celebrate and commemorate all aspects of their culture.

And I was invited!

Sani was going to take his layered art experience ‘A family called Samoa’ as part of the offering presented by the Samoan delegation. And to do that he needed people who could bring all the elements of the story to life. I knew I had to go.

There was something in that part of the world calling me.

And a week after that meeting at Victoria we were in rehearsal.

Text, and music and the Sa-Sa! Yes, Sa-Sa, nothing like Salsa but – well, bodypercussion-formation-dancing. A mostly seated, sometimes standing, hand-clapping, thigh-slapping and breast-beating workout. You follow a caller who announces which ‘figure’ to perform next – like line-dancing, but not like it at all. It’s accompanied by drumming and gets faster as you go and you do your damnedest to keep up to avoid looking silly when everyone else is still perfectly in sync…

It’s very exciting when you have the privilege of rehearsing with the creator of a work. When the composer gives you the most faithful translation of the words they have chosen. When the writer entrusts you with their text, but is flexible about the written words, so long as you convey the story they intended to be told. And yes, it’s very fascinating when during the rehearsal process you find that those words, which you couldn’t get your head round, turn out to be the best way of putting it. I have never been in a rehearsal space where I have felt so supported and safe on the journey of discovery of my part and in collaboration with the rest of the cast as on this project – thanks guys!

It was an exercise in letting go of notions of how something ‘should’ be...of being in the moment and just being ready to grasp each day of the adventure on its own merit.

The roller coaster of rehearsals, attempting to plan to travel half way around the world and daily life continued with minimal information about venues, dates, times, flights etc. Go with the flow and don’t worry about that which is beyond your control was truly the order of the days.

And some 2.5 weeks after that meeting at Victoria, and after some stressy name-change-negotiations at the airport, we were on a night flight to Guam via Manila and arrived at 03:55 to 27C. As part of ‘the UK contingent of the Samoan delegation’ we were greeted by a welcome committee with leis of coconut leaves and seashells and welcomed by no lesser person than the Guamanian Minister of Culture.

Some would say that our stay was dominated by the apparent absence of a sense of planning/organisation on the part of those who were running FestPac. Alternatively, one can look at it was an exercise in letting go of notions of how something ‘should’ be, of submitting to the idea of ‘Island time’ i.e. it will happen at some point; of being in the moment and just being ready to grasp each day of the adventure on its own merit.

And what an adventure it has been:

  • Coming to somewhere with a glorious average temperature of about 30C, mostly blue sky & sunshine on a daily basis But freezing to an icicle on account of the ridiculously low air-con settings (if you put clothes ON to go indoors and contemplate having lunch in the dining hall under your duvet something’s amiss!)

  • Getting up at 03:00 to prepare for the ‘Welcoming of the boats’ – as the Pacific nations are expert sailors and navigators the opening of FestPac has their delegations arrive in boats near Hagåtña bay in a fantastic festival atmosphere But being too short to actually see the boats arrive and the official welcome and presentation of gifts – luckily the UK Samoan contingent has 2 very tall people who took pictures, thanks Capt’n & Nina!

  • Walking into the FestPac Arena in Hagåtña later as part of the Samoan delegation and being formally welcomed by Guam and her people But queuing in the stadium for this walk-in with the other nations for about 7+ hours under the Pacific sun and watching the other nations do ‘their thing’, in song and dance in traditional costume and all with such energy despite the circumstances was truly amazing and wonderful and more

  • Meeting the lovely people that are the Guamanians, who are so warm and welcoming and hospitable that it nearly breaks your heart when you compare it with London – as you walk around and most people greet you and ask where you come from and are really pleased when they hear you’re with a FestPac delegation, nevermind when they find out you have come all the way from London

  • Finding out that the Samoan Parliament debated whether it was in the interest of Samoa to allow a foreign contingent to be part of their delegation and found in our favour!

  • Discovering that blue, white and red are apparently me:

the colours on the flag of the home where I spent the first half of my life so far: Germany

the colours on the flag of the place where I spent the next half of my life: the UK and…

guess what the colours of Samoa are!

  • Hearing from the Chief of our delegation that he has been at every FestPac since its inception (1972 – that is 40 years, and it’s only held every 4 years) and this is the first time outsiders have been ‘allowed in’ – I have made history… being essentially adopted by Samoa in a most moving delegation meeting on 25 May 2016

What will stay with me are the words that popped into my head and the accompanying feeling of peace, when I stepped out of the airport building in Guam and the night embraced my with its velvety 27C. They are the same words, though I didn’t know it at that point, which end the opening piece of ‘A family called Samoa’ which I got to perform as a last minute decision and thus spoke every night on stage: “I am home…”


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