The alumni noticeboard outside Dr Vanessa Byrnes’ Unitec office reads like a thespian Who’s Who: Director Amberley Jo Aumua and her award-winning short film Waiting; artist and designer Lisa Reihana, who was New Zealand’s representative at last year’s Venice Biennale; drama graduate Hanelle Harris, the creator, director and co-lead actor in TVNZ’s comedy web series Baby Mama’s Club; and dance graduate Lydia Zanetti, currently festival director of Auckland Fringe. And then there’s Teeks – aka Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi – Unitec music graduate and award-winning soul sensation, who headlined his first international gig in London this month.
“Artists and makers are essential to the lifeblood of a healthy community,” says Byrnes. “Art and great design can change lives.”
Byrnes maintains that creativity is a skill and a craft that can be both learnt and taught. Unitec is a hotbed of applied learning, creating an environment where students have the freedom to generate original thinking, learn how to perform it and connect with an audience in the best ways available. It’s a collaborative, supportive, tribe-like environment where students are taught that it’s okay to fail, as long as they learn from their mistakes.
“We’re authentic – grounded and pragmatic. We also encourage our students to take risks – to take the good with the bad,” says Byrnes, a former actor, producer and one-time assistant director at London’s Globe Theatre.
“But at the end of the day, quality sustains our profession,” she says, “even more so when we’re competing with the likes of Married at First Sight for audience attention.”
In Byrnes’ view, entertainment is not the same thing as art, creativity, or brilliant design. She believes that everyone has the ability to create their own work but is adamant that in order to have a successful career in New Zealand, students need to know how to run as a business entity, how to collaborate and how to multitask.
“A lot of our students won’t walk into traditional jobs,” she says. “Rather, we’re teaching them to create their own work and are increasingly developing our programmes to be culturally and industry responsive so they’re in touch with what’s going on.”
Most Unitec courses run over three years, which Byrnes says gives a student enough time to find their own voice and develop the courage to put it forward. Unitec operates a selection process, so the assumption is that students are starting off with a certain degree of talent. And once they are there, Unitec offers a unique and broad range of creative programmes, many of which enjoy international credibility. The world-renowned Beijing Dance Academy has sent a group of students to study contemporary dance performing arts at Unitec and hopes to formalise an annual exchange programme in the near future.
In her role as custodian, Byrnes feels privileged to be able to follow what she views as a gift. But she’s also a pragmatist.
“In our profession you need to be bloody good,” says Byrnes. “There’s no such thing as a second-rate dancer or actor. Our job at Unitec is to encourage our students to bring out the best in themselves, but they also have to make some big sacrifices.”
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