This is about being heard

Nic Lane believes that everybody deserves to be heard. On the back of that belief, he and Rose Kirkup founded the arts collective Everybody Cool Lives Here in 2011, and they’ve been using it to give a voice to the voiceless ever since. Lane took the insanely generous project through our partner charity Inspiring Stories’ 2015/16 Live The Dream accelerator programme, and he sat down with us over a cuppa to share a few of the stories that have poured out of it. These are the stories of Jacob Dombroski, Nick Smith and how a guerrilla-style devised theatre performance gave them the space to stand up and be heard...

In mid 2014, Everybody Cool Lives Here (ECLH) handed Circa Theatre a transcript of a show called Wake Up Tomorrow. They were given the green light, and early in 2015 a group of young Kiwis with intellectual and learning disabilities stood proudly on stage in Wellington’s premiere professional theatre and performed alongside the best in the 2015 Fringe Festival.

However, the youth’s increased understanding of theatre since their first show in 2014 with ECLH meant Wake Up Tomorrow evolved into something quite different. On the night of the performance they delivered an entirely different show than the one pitched to Circa – a show that they had essentially been handed creative control over. For many of them, this was just their second time on stage, and for some, their first chance to stand up and have their voices heard in a very public arena. This was their moment…

Set on a long-haul flight packed with eccentric characters, the show played on the strange places your mind wanders when you’re teetering on the edge of sleep. The 19 performers, a mix of members of Active (a vocational base for youth with intellectual disabilities) and a handful of emerging actors, had dreamt up the story and performance together. They poured themselves into the moment, and at curtain’s close were greeted with stamping feet and thundering applause. They walked away from the Fringe Festival with six awards including Best Ensemble, Best Performer and the coveted Best in Fringe.

There is a generosity to this production that I realised I hadn’t experienced in some time. The cast is genuinely having a good time and I like seeing that. I like being included in that.
Maraea Rakuraku, Theatreview 2015

While Wake Up Tomorrow was damn good fun, the road to awards night wasn’t always easy. In one rehearsal, the actors were doing an exercise where they simply had to walk to the front of the stage and say their names. It was all about not playing a character on stage, and instead just being themselves. As simple as that might sound, one of the performers, Jacob Dombroski, was finding this really hard. 

Lane describes Jacob as “outgoing, charismatic and holds himself very confidently”. Jacob was pushed and pushed again and again to walk to the front of that stage and ‘be himself’ until finally he snapped. He came out, walked to the front of the stage and called out the whole room for being full of shit. “You have all these opportunities that I don’t get!”. Jacob has Down syndrome, and for him it’s not as simple as just being ‘yourself’. He pointed to the struggles that he faces in life and challenged everyone in the room to feel what he feels. 

Jacob went on to play a key role in Wake Up Tomorrow, and at the Arts Access Aotearoa awards night after the show was over, he stood proudly on stage when Everybody Cool Lives Here and Active received national recognition for their community partnership. 

Jacob Dombroski at the Arts Access Aotearoa awards

For another of the Wake Up Tomorrow cast, Nick Smith, the show had a massive impact. Being the parent of someone with an intellectual disability can be a mountain of its own, making sure you have the right balance of independence and support. The show helped serve as the narrative for many of these young people to transition into their adult lives, Nick Smith included. 

Nick had performed with ECLH in 2014 but never as publicly as in Wellington’s premiere professional theatre. However, whenever he was together with the Wake Up Tomorrow team, he was always very confident that this was what he wanted. All through the creation of the show, Nick would play around with all sorts of characters that lived in his imagination, striving to become them on stage. He’d even roll up some mornings with stacks of paper full of his own ideas for Wake Up Tomorrow.

At the Fringe Festival awards night, Nick Smith’s name was announced and he was called up to receive the 2015 New Zealand Fringe Festival award for Best Performer across all 120 odd shows. Completely by chance, his brother’s ex-girlfriend was in the audience. She quickly set off a chain of calls making sure his whole family was in on the news, and by the time the awards were wrapping up, Nick’s parents were well aware of his success and were right there to collect him with a teary bear-hug.

Nick Smith

So where to next? This year ECLH is working again with Jacob Dombroski and Nick Smith from the Wake Up Tomorrow cast, along with others, to create another show for Circa Theatre where they can bravely tell their stories. Lane tells me he hopes to amplify their powerful voices, and to help give these young Kiwis the skills to continue to grow as strong and confident leaders within their community. The show is called No Post On Sunday, and will run from 27 Aug – 10 Sept 2016.

Lane is crystal clear that ECLH also stands for those in other communities who struggle to be heard. Another project they just piloted is called Vivid Wgtn, where they work alongside the Wellington Boys' and Girls’ Institute in creating a platform to develop emerging street art talent within Wellington. Lane says, “in New Zealand, we’re spending millions of dollars each year painting out marginalised people’s voices. They have no platform to be heard so they turn to writing it on the walls… then we scrub it out”. Vivid hopes to promote discussion around nationally adopted ‘solutions’ and how we engage the street to tell more New Zealand stories through our art.

Nic Lane hopes to use what he learned during Inspiring Stories’ 2015/16 Live The Dream programme to galvanise and strengthen the foundations of Everybody Cool Lives Here so that he can build on the momentum and continue to follow their mahi: giving everybody a chance to be heard.

Inspiring Stories have so far worked with over 5000 young people like Nic Lane, helping them to grow their ideas into social ventures that change the world. If you’d like to support them and see the ripple effect that giving your 1% can have on people’s hearts, hit the button below and join the giving evolution.