Migrant experiences—children’s musical theatre and a journey from the Philippines

Ditas Yap came to Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington from her home in the Philippines, and is graduating this May with a Master of Fine Arts (Creative Practice) with Merit, majoring in Theatre, after a run of sold out shows for her final project, Kia Ora Khalid.

Ditas Yap in the library smiling at the camera.

Ditas first studied agriculture in the Philippines around thirty years ago, but started working in theatre after she finished studying. With more than twenty years of experience working in theatre and teaching children and young people, especially in musical theatre, Ditas applied to replace the pre-requisite educational requirement with her practical experience, and she was accepted into the Master’s programme.

When considering the path she wanted to take, Ditas looked for universities that offered practical, hands-on courses. Canada and New Zealand were her first choices for countries when she decided to leave the Philippines. Then she had to research all the universities and the courses they offer, as well as make sure she met the requirements for entry.

“It takes a lot of determination to be able to get here,” she says. “It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of willpower and patience to get accepted into university.”

Ditas was still in the Philippines when her enrolment was accepted, and was about to move to New Zealand when the COVID-19 pandemic happened. She stayed in the Philippines for another three years and the University extended her letter of acceptance, and she was able to come to New Zealand in 2023.

“Taking my Master’s at age 55 is even harder than all of my struggles with past experiences,” Ditas says. “It’s the craziest and hardest undertaking that I have experienceed in my whole life. I was adapting to a new culture, climate, and language, as well as the academic studies, being away from family and home, trying to make ends meet, and get a job.”

Her determination to succeed in her studies and stay in New Zealand got her through, as well as support from her supervisor, Dr Kerryn Palmer, senior lecturer in Te Kura Tānga Kōrero Ingarihi, Kiriata, Whakaari, Pāpāho—School of English, Film, Theatre, Media and Communication, and Art History.

Ditas’ final project was a professional children’s and young people’s theatre show called Kia Ora Khalid, which sold out four performances earlier this year and received multiple positive reviews. Kia Ora Khalid was created in 2011 by award-winning writer Dave Armstrong and composer Gareth Farr. Ditas was the stage director and creative lead for the 2024 shows.

“The piece was suggested to me by my supervisor Kerryn Palmer. I was supposed to do a Broadway musical but she suggested doing something new,” Ditas says.

Dr Palmer presented Ditas with some New Zealand based musicals to choose from. “When she showed me Kia Ora Khalid, I said ‘this is the one’,” says Ditas.

“Working with the young cast was a lot of fun. Because beyond creating a beautiful play, my goal was to be able to enrich and establish a relationship with them, while having fun doing the play, and I think that manifested in the performance.

“Everybody was just enjoying it, they were so into it.”

Professional youth and children’s theatre is not common in New Zealand, Ditas says. The success of Kia Ora Khalid has given her confidence that she can make it work professionally in the theatre industry. She hopes to reshow Kia Ora Khalid with a national tour.

“I hope to be able to create change, especially for the migrant community,” she says.

Giving opportunities to young people and making them feel they are an important piece of the bigger picture is important for Ditas. “After every project they feel so fulfilled and happy being part of the work.

“Wherever I go in the world it’s the same language with young people, the connection. I feel it’s effortless for me to be speaking with them, to communicate with them.”

The connections she built during her studies and the show will be celebrated after her graduation, with a pizza party with the cast and crew of Kia Ora Khalid, along with her son, who followed her here from the Philippines and is now studying architecture at Victoria University.

Ditas says she is grateful to the staff of the MFA department, under the leadership of Kerryn Palmer, who were extremely supportive of her studies throughout the duration of the programme.

“For mature students it’s a big challenge to do something of this magnitude,” Ditas says. “Going back to school, doing academic reading and writing, conversing in a more scholarly way, meeting all the requirements. You will be forced to do things even when it feels beyond your capacity.

“At the end of the day I would say it’s all worth it. You become a more mature person, you grow in wisdom, become more intelligent, and gain a very strong sense of fulfilment. I feel that the universe has opened up and extended its arms, guiding me all the way.”

Learn more about studying Theatre at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.