Fijian arboriculture student branches out from the stage to the treetops

Merlin Arboriculture Student lightened

Merlin Connell-Nawalowalo climbs a rata tree at the Wintec City campus in Hamilton.

For Fijian-Pākehā student Merlin Connell-Nawalowalo, the jump from theatre to arboriculture has been a life-changing one. Initially forging his career path as a full-time theatre actor in Wellington, Connell-Nawalowalo is now retraining as a budding Arboriculture student at Wintec, Hamilton.  

Connell-Nawalowalo, 29, was born into a family of performers and theatregoers to a Fijian/English mother and a Pākehā father, and his connection to his Fijian culture is strong. 

“For the first five years of my life I spent a lot of time with my grandfather who was the first president of the Fijian Community in Wellington, and the first Indigenous Fijian barrister and solicitor to graduate from Victoria University. I feel really connected to my heritage, even though he passed away when I was five.” 

Being immersed in the world of theatre from a young age, it seemed only natural that Connell-Nawalowalo would follow in the same footsteps as his family. It wasn’t until he was 20 however, that he considered it a viable career option after a few years in his late teens going off the rails.  

His real introduction into theatre started with an internship at Wellington-based theatre company The Conch where his Aunty Nina Nawalowalo is artistic director.   

“I started spending time with my Aunty, as she was directing a show called Masi.  After the internship I found out I really enjoyed being immersed in that world and I ended up performing in the show. The experience I had with Masi was so amazing and I knew that I couldn’t miss out on the next one.” 

His experiences working with The Conch kept the connection to his Fijian heritage strong as he toured throughout the country as part of productions The White Guitar starring musician Scribe, and The Naked Samoans do Magic.  

Life on the stage, though fun and exhilarating, didn’t provide the stability that Connell-Nawalowalo needed. After experiencing a career high, Connell-Nawalowalo hit a low point. 

“There’s this thing called the “post-show blues”. While on tour you’re living up here, everything feels amazing, and people are looking up to you. When you crash back to normal life, it can be quite extreme.  

“After a period of time freelancing in theatre I got really down. One of my best mates came over and he could tell that something wasn’t right, and he said he had a job for me if I wanted it. He’s an arborist and needed someone to drag branches around and I thought okay, I’ll do it.” 

It wasn’t long before Connell-Nawalowalo’s one day a week dragging branches turned into a full week, as he showed keen interest in arboriculture and his boss saw that he was taking it seriously.   

For Connell-Nawalowalo however, his desires grew beyond working on the ground to being up in the treetops. 

“I was loving the work but I really wanted to get into tree climbing. The timing wasn’t great for my boss to start teaching me how to do that, so I started looking at other options.” 

Soon after, Connell-Nawalowalo began an arboriculture apprenticeship in Wellington. He enrolled at Wintec shortly afterwards as he realised that having an arboriculture diploma would lead to greater job security within the industry.  

“Learning on the job as an apprentice was great, but because I was working directly with clients, I was learning how to do things in a very specific way. At Wintec, there’s a lot of room for me to ask all those crazy questions in my head, and to discover that there are hundreds of ways of doing things, not just one. 

“My tutors [Rob Graham, Andrew Harrison, Jono Summers and Martin Herbert] are so supportive. They make you feel like part of the whānau and the experience adds so much flavour and depth to the learning experience.  

“When I get things wrong, my tutors show me the way. I have freedom to learn where I want to go, but I also have the staff available to answer all the ‘out there’ questions I come up with. 

“I don’t know if I’d still be on the course if it wasn’t for the support that they were offer and deliver. They don’t have to go out of their way but they do.” 

Having supportive tutors is something that has assisted Connell-Nawalowalo through both arboriculture and theatre. 

“A previous director I had [Stella Reid} always gave me really positive feedback and boosted my confidence when I was just starting out in theatre. She could tell I wasn’t sure of myself. That’s the same thing I get from Wintec as well. 

“When you have a tutor who can see that you’re trying and taking it seriously, you’re met with encouragement and respect. You start to feel good about what you’re doing, and you want to keep going. The tutors in arboriculture are human, really easy to connect to.” 

That’s not the only similarity he has experienced in his crossover between theatre and arboriculture. 

“While theatre and arboriculture are drastically different, both involve a lot of physicality. I was really fit from theatre. Teamwork is also very important in both areas. I work really well as part of a team, rather than by myself.” 

As the end of the year approaches, a seed of an idea has already been planted in Connell-Nawalowalo’s head. He wants to start his own arboriculture business.   

“The idea for owning my own company is definitely in my mind. My current project is researching what I need to start up my own business in arboriculture. 

“I did a ‘Strategic Planning for Small Businesses’ paper during summer school and that is feeding directly into my ideas.” 

Although Connell-Nawalowalo is keen to give arboriculture the starring role in his future, he hasn’t quite given up on pursuing theatre in his spare time.  

“My neighbours probably think I’m a bit eccentric because I still like to film myself doing theatre stuff from time to time. I did become a bit of a thespian, and I haven’t completely left it behind. But the job security and stability I’ve found at Wintec and through arboriculture I’m enjoying. It’s good for me.” 

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