Loose Canons: Natano Keni

Natano Keni is a Samoan playwright and performer who was born and raised in the Hutt Valley.

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Loose Canons is a series in which we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.

Natano Keni is a Samoan playwright, director and performer who was born and raised in the Hutt Valley. He trained at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School and has worked with Tikapa Productions, Kila Kokonut Krew, Tawata Productions and Barbarian Productions. He's also worked extensively with organisations that focus on youth development, through schools and juvenile detention centres – using theatre as a tool to question and problem solve. 

In 2015 Natano wrote and performed his debut play Manny Pacquiao of Timberlea at Circa Theatre for the Matariki Development Festival. As a result of this development, Natano is now co-directing (with Sarita So) a new iteration of the play, renamed Riverside Kings, which opens tomorrow night at BATS Theatre as part of the Kia Mau Festival 2017. 

Salaki and Filifilia

I owe a lot to my parents, the original caregivers, who have always allowed and supported me in everything I do. They have always worked so hard to bring us up, despite a large family including my brothers and brothers and sisters from other mothers. Through them I have learnt and I'm inspired by their great generosity and their stories. I also think that they’re pretty crack-up characters and hope to put them in my future work, I just need to find the right brushes to paint them with. They have instilled a lot of positive things in my life; love for language is one of them.

I think back to a time when we were not allowed to speak English in the house. It was as though there was a line at the door and as soon as we stepped foot into the house, we were only to speak Samoan. I am so thankful for this because I guess the language stuck and now I will always have that link back to them and our cultural heritage. This is something that definitely fuels my work as an artist; a gateway into describing and seeing the world through this particular and beautiful lens that is full of metaphors and poetry. 


My first experience of travel would be our family's eight-month stay in Samoa as an eight year-old. I ended up going to school there. After my first introduction to the ruler hitting my fingertips, followed by the cane for being late, I knew I was no longer the new kid and had been immersed into this new way of life. 

Later, while I was at Toi Whakaari, I went to Uganda as part of my third-year secondment. Again I got to meet a new culture and I found it was so different yet similar to my own.  Being faced with a country that had gone through such a horrific experience, and seeing the way they were trying to rebuild themselves and preserve what was left of their culture was a truly humbling experience. 

I love travel because as an eternal student of life, you can always learn something when travelling to other lands and culture, meeting the people of the place and living with them. It's something that fuels my work; that curiosity and investigation into other realms and ways of life. 

White Sundays

I’m sure nearly every Samoan kid has a White Sunday story.  It's a day that's supposed to celebrate children – I always thought of it as the only day when the children got to eat first. We would normally have to perform some sort of skit loosely based on a bible story, followed by a song and recitation. A 'White Sunday Festival of the Arts' if you will, where parents were the directors and the children performed for their supper. How loud you were would determine how much food you got to eat.

KK, my eldest brother, was my first director. I remember KK was recovering from an almost fatal car accident and through a recovery like that, where else does one turn to but the arts? I remember him throwing himself into this project, as self-appointed director of all our shows. I will always commend him on revolutionising the bible stories. His aim was to make our plays relevant and contemporary. By coming up against the conservative parents with stories set in pubs and brothels, to the soundtracks of PlatoonLast of Mohicans and Terminator 2, he was a trailblazer. He was also a taskmaster who demanded perfection – I’m not sure if we were ever any good, but it makes me laugh every time when I think back to our first showing under his direction, seeing the parents and the way their jaws dropped. In a way, he got people thinking outside the box and approaching the teachings in a more creative way. The bible as inspired by popular culture!

So I think pushing the boundaries, rules, whatever you want to call them, is something that I took away from his approach. Again it’s that investigation and curiosity to keep exploring in your work, and also doing it for the love and length of time that he has now been at it is something else inspiring.  Even some 20-odd years later, he is still directing White Sunday plays, despite saying every year that he’s going to hand it over.

Junot Diaz – Drown

This was introduced to me by my group of creative mates, the Amigos. At the time it was the first book that I had read in a while. When I started it, it was a rare occasion where I felt it captured something that really spoke to me and my upbringing and culture in a different context. The way it captured life and the perspective and descriptions – it was modern and nostalgic at the same time. It reminded me of my own memories of youth and I just loved that it gave a voice to people and characters that I’d rarely seen in mainstream representation.

Anderson Paak – Malibu

I'm rarely a diehard fan for any one particular artist, but when I first heard Anderson Paak's new album Malibu, particularly Heart Don’t Stand a Chance, I knew it was my jam.  I just love the layers in it and when I heard this particular track I thought I wanted to become a drummer. The song itself is a fuel; for party time, happiness, energy, work.

Riverside Kings runs from June 13-17 at BATS Theatre, Wellington. Tickets available here.
More information on the Kia Mau Festival here.