7 Oct 2015

Stars Return Home

From New Zealand Society, 3:30 pm on 7 October 2015

They've come from as far as London and Las Vegas. International and local stars are returning home. They're back to celebrate their high school's 40th anniversary in style with a fund-raising arts festival because they want to give back to the school and the teachers that inspired them. An alumni herself, Lynda Chanwai-Earle heads to Havelock North High School in Hawkes Bay to hear from the old boys and old girls and also the stars in the making - the current students themselves.

By Lynda Chanwai-Earle

From Dunedin to Las Vegas, Havelock North High School in Hawkes Bay celebrated its 40th Anniversary in style by hosting the HNHS Arts Festival featuring performances and an art exhibition by many current students and also alumni who are now successful stars in the international and local arts industry.

The Festival took place over a week and included three concerts with an all-star performance cast including; London-based mezzo-soprano Rhonda Browne, Tamsyn Millar aka The Chess Countess, Ben Throp & The Intimate Strangers, Samoan Singer Benson Wilson, Ben Fulton and his band “The Bones”. and current Year 11 HNHS student Arran Cargill-Brown, already an established musician at 15 and performing several times in the regional finals for RockQuest.

I was also returning as alumni myself, to perform some of my published poetry. You see it was all for a good cause, to raise funds for a new auditorium for a school that inspired all the old boys and girls to follow our dreams.

The driving force behind it all; Producer and Festival Director, former Head of Drama at the School Ken Keys. Ken tells me he thinks teachers seriously under-rate themselves when it comes to the repercussions of inspiring students, especially when the alumni end up following careers in the passion they expressed while at high school and especially if its in the performing arts. Ken taught and developed drama for almost 20 years at the school.

I was always excited at the talent that the school produced. It's the 40th Anniversary of the school and the teachers that were operating are still alive and passionate!

The festival launched with an art exhibition by alumni held at the Hastings Community Art Gallery. I took the opportunity to ask Principal Greg Fenton his thoughts. Greg tells me that the foundation Principal David Barham established a culture in the school that celebrated the arts forty years ago. HNHS is also very strong on academic achievement with a number of scholarships awarded annually.

Artist Delicia Sampero's wall of larger than life identity portraits adorns the gallery walls. I asked her what she thought of her time at HNHS. Delicia also puts it down to being inspired by the teaching staff.

We had a few really good teachers. They believed in us and gave us the time of day and they were patient.

At 9am sharp in the music room at HNHS on the Friday morning, students from Hastings Boys High School as well as HNHS were practicing operatic excerpts.

"I'm going to stop you each time - the rolled 'r' is so important. Rrrrrrrrr...! All of these muscles; all your laterals, obliques, abdominals, all your intercostals have to work, in order to make that sound .."

As London-based and professional mezzo-soprano Rhonda Browne conducted her masterclass singing workshop, the students hung off her every word. They seemed determined to push themselves. Rhonda was imparting invaluable tips with easy grace and she had the students listening hard. They would not forget this visit.

Around the corner, the High School’s Black Box Theatre hosted those of us who have a career in performing arts with a 90-minute Drop of Drama production made up of excerpts of our works.

Returning theatre stars included renowned and award winning actors Anatonio te Maioha (Shortland Street, Spartacus) - performing original poetry, Chris Brougham (lead actor, The Ugly One, Circa Theatre, Wellington) - performing his own solo theatre piece Little Boy Blew and newer talent like Andrew Clarke making a name for himself at the Wellington Young and Hungry Festival.

Daniel Betty tells me he is currently teaching drama at HNHS. He was alumni in 1997 as an adult student - arts and music being his passions. He's come back from running his own theatre company in Melbourne, Australia.

He says it's lovely to be back giving to the school that first inspired him and his own children are thriving in the community. "The kids and culture here are absolutely fantastic, we're always having that fight between the talented students from both music and drama so it's great to show them both off in festivals like this."

As part of the pro-bono work for the festival, Chris Brougham also held work-shops in theatre technique with the HNHS drama students. Chris tells me jokingly that it's really exciting being back but as always, the school seems smaller than he remembered it as a child.

Director of Performing Arts at Iona College Lisa Jane Easter was the key facilitator for the Drop of Drama.  She tells me it's great to return as an alumni actor with some life experience and maturity to offer.

The Drop of Drama theatre was hosted by the MC and current Head of Drama at the school, Matt Brebner. He tells me that his own four children have been (and still are current) students of HNHS and that he loves this extra connection. He's proud of the quality of talent produced by the arts sector of the school.

Wrapping up the festival was the final concert on the Saturday night. Ben Fulton takes a moment out to talk to me after he and The Bones have enthralled the audience with their "thick, fat beats and snakelike guitar lines". He shares his thoughts on being back:

It's been fantastic, playing with my brother because we played together in high school. To come back and be in the hall 23 years later!  I have a huge passion for Led Zeppelin that started when I was sixteen, so we did one track and also a couple of our own.

The prize for performer with the most flamboyant costume would have had to go to Tamsyn Millar, aka The Chess Countess, a pop singer and alumni from 2002 to 2006. Her stage presence had the whole audience clapping along to her original compositions.

Pro-bono work included all the hard working technicians and sound operators bringing the festival to life.

Head of the Tech team, Todd Huston from BATS Theatre in Wellington also trained students like Kimberly Smith (Year 12) at the school. Todd had nothing but praise for the hard working and focused HNHS students providing the volunteer efforts behind the scenes, particularly Kimberly.

Kimberly tells me she had caught the "techie bug" and couldn't wait to train and work in the industry. Todd was sure there would be a place at BATS for Kimberly as a techie in the future.

Rhonda Browne was the final solo performance at the concert, dazzling the audience with her extraordinary vocal range and powerful voice. Rhonda tells me she loves being back home.

The thing that blows me away every time home is the incredible support I get from the community. I love that I can give that back. I just want to say a huge thank you for all the support over the years.

Wrapping the festival was the reunion choir – led by former Head of Music Roger Stevenson. It was a fitting finale for such an ambitious festival and for Ken Keys. "Teenagers being so impressionable, you do have that enormous influence. That's what inspires people."

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