HA: BREATH OF LIFE
Somewhere on the North Shore of Oahu today, a Hawaiian kumu will teach the sacred art of hula. A hundred yards away, a Fijian warrior will describe the implements and tactics that made his ancestors some of the greatest protectors of home and family the world has ever known. Around the corner, natives of Aotearoa New Zealand will sing waiata songs of celebration, young Samoan men will cook fish, pork, and taro in an umu, a Tahitian Ari’i will teach the sacred rites of marriage that have preserved the families of his people through generations, and Tongan musicians will pound the enormous nafa drums that have long characterized their island nation.
For many years, the Polynesian Cultural Center had operated six authentic island villages designed to educate and entertain international audiences: Tonga, Aotearoa, Samoa, Tahiti, Fiji, and Hawaii. The six groups had always functioned largely independently, presenting their traditions as freestanding, immersive exhibitions with little connection from one culture to another. But more than a decade ago, an initiative to create a new evening performance for the Center’s guests invited cultural leaders to come together, to unite in telling the common story of all Polynesians, and to bring visitors an experience that would leave an indelible mark on their lives and families. Could they do it? Could they work together? Could they tell a common story? What would happen if they did? And who could facilitate this kind of unprecedented, cross-cultural collaboration? That’s where WB Creative comes in.
The Polynesian Cultural Center is one of Hawaii’s most celebrated tourist destinations. Situated on the North Shore of Oahu, about an hour’s drive from Waikiki, the Center entertains and educates approximately 1.3 million visitors annually.
The Center approached WB Creative’s founders and other key collaborators with a desire to produce a new evening show -- the capstone experience that wraps up each night for visitors on the property. This production, however, would need to have a dual focus: it would need to draw unprecedented new, international visitors to the Center while also re-engaging former visitors and members of the local community. WB’s approach was clear from the beginning. In order to create a performance that would resonate across a diverse audience, the foundation of the show would need to be the kinds of fundamental human truths that touch the heart and speak to the soul. And, those truths would need to be drawn directly from the rich cultures of Polynesia.
During the following months, WB and a group of other frequent partners worked extensively with the Center’s leadership teams to draw out and identify the foundational human principles that are common across Polynesian culture. Cultural leaders from the various island villages in the Center had never been united to work together in quite this way. Hours of conversation ensued; sometimes joyful, sometimes difficult, but always thought-provoking. Over time, it became clear that home, family, growing up, love, marriage, and protection of home and family were the essential ideas that the Center and its cultural leaders were most passionate about sharing with visitors. At the heart of those principles would be a single storyline, the tale of a Polynesian everyman, Mana, whose life’s journey would be the vehicle for sharing the Center’s message with its international visitors.
With the core principles and story in mind, WB worked closely with artistic and cultural teams to develop branding, scripting, music, sets, costumes, lighting, sound designs, and multimedia FX that would bring these big ideas to life. In one of many innovative approaches implemented, WB engaged noted animation artist, Ryan Woodward, as a consultant on the project. Building on Woodward’s animated short, The Turtle and the Shark, a five-minute featurette based on designs taken from Tongan tapa cloth, WB led development of short, animated video clips that would be projected on to large Polynesian sails on the stage to highlight key ideas, bolster visual interest, and add to the world-class nature of the production.
As development continued, a variety of potential ideas and approaches were implemented and tested as part of the Center’s existing evening performances. With each major test, audience data was gathered to seek understanding of how visitors were responding to different tactics, techniques, and elements. This iterative approach provided many opportunities to try on a variety of concepts before making a complete commitment to pursue them. Some ideas were proven effective and implemented while others were left behind.
After many months, the new show, HA: Breath of Life, opened to enthusiastic crowds at the Center. Among its greatest achievements was a powerful response from the PCC’s local community, or kamaaina, as residents from the surrounding area came to the amphitheater night after night, offering standing ovations in celebration of the show’s heartfelt representation of their native cultures. Much of the positive response drew from the unification of the previously disparate cultural presentations and the single storyline they now conveyed together. The production seemed to beat with the heart of all of Polynesia and carried the mana – the energy and power – of its people. The show was heralded as “like nothing else seen in Hawaii,” and was named “Hawaii’s #1 Live Show” by Honolulu’s most celebrated entertainment critic, Wayne Harada of the Honolulu Advertiser. Today, more than 10 years later, the production still elicits standing ovations every night along with a 90% satisfaction rating.
Since the production’s opening, the Polynesian Cultural Center has invited WB back to collaborate on two additional major projects: Hawaiian Journey, an epic IMAX film experience, and HUKI, the center’s colorful canoe pageant held each afternoon.
Uniting cultures to tell a universally moving story that engages audiences and drives revenue? That’s Creative that Matters.
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