Professional Māori actors
In the 1980s the renaissance of Māori culture brought a spectacular growth of Māori actors on stage and screen. Leading actors such as Jim Moriarty, George Henare and Wi Kuki Kaa moved easily between mainstream European-styled theatre and Māori marae-based theatre. Rawiri Paratene and Rangimoana Taylor were among the early graduates of the New Zealand Drama School in the 1970s.
Māori theatre groups
With the formation of Māori theatre groups such as Maranga Mai in Auckland and Taki Rua Theatre in Wellington, the number of Māori actors grew. Taki Rua started as a bicultural company and then became purely Māori with seasons of plays in te reo Māori. In 1988 the New Zealand Drama School changed its name to Te Kura Toi Whakaari o Aotearoa: New Zealand Drama School, and adopted a bicultural approach to teaching drama.
Māori plays were widely performed in theatres all over the country, and Māori actors found international success in the films Once were warriors (1994), Whale rider (2003) and Boy (2010). They made Rena Owen, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Cliff Curtis and Taika Waititi nationally and internationally known names.
As the Pacific population grew, particularly in Auckland, Samoan actors started to make their presence felt. In 1977 Lani Tupu Junior became the first Samoan student at the NZ Drama School. Later Oscar Kightley and Dave Fane found fame as popular comedians, writers and stage and television actors.
During the making of Roger Donaldson’s film The bounty, actor Ian Mune watched ‘Wi Kuki Kaa, as the Tahitian chief, giving away his daughter to [Fletcher] Christian. It is a huge scene with crowds … the essence of the scene is the heartbreak of the chief at losing his daughter not just to a man … but to a new culture. The whole weight of the world is in that craggy, froggy face, and as the couple leaves, the tears stream down his craggy cheeks and he keens softly ... it is a deeply moving intimate moment, and Wi is magnificent.’1
A 1994 graduate of Toi Whakaari, Jacob Rajan, created a stir with his trilogy of solo plays exploring Indian themes, starting with the hugely popular Krishnan’s dairy. The face of New Zealand film, theatre and television had started to change dramatically. This was most evident in the increasing number of characters of different ethnicities appearing in New Zealand’s longest-running television soap opera, Shortland Street.
Actors turned to creating and performing plays based on their diverse cultural backgrounds. In 1999 Dianna Fuemana, of Niuean and Samoan parentage, included the Niuean language in Mapaki. The same year, 19-year-old Madeleine Sami (of Irish and Fijian Indian descent) created a sensation performing as a Fijian matriarch and numerous family members in Toa Fraser’s play No. 2. The actor, writer and poet Lynda Chanwai-Earle (a fourth-generation Chinese New Zealander) wrote the first authentic New Zealand-Chinese play, Ka shue (1995).
New forms of theatre training
The restructuring of the education system in the 1990s meant that courses on every conceivable aspect of the performing arts, including many Māori performing arts courses, became available at all levels, from university degrees and polytechnic diplomas to NCEA standards in secondary schools.
Most New Zealand actors combine stage acting with film and television work, and a growing number have developed international careers. They include Anna Paquin, who won an academy award at age 11 for her role in The piano (1993); Lucy Lawless, who played the title role in the US TV series Xena: warrior princess; and the comic actor Rhys Darby, best known as Murray Hewitt, the unstable band manager in Flight of the Conchords.
Acting as a profession
In the 2000s it remained difficult for graduating students of theatre to find work in an already overcrowded profession, in a country with a small population. Worldwide, it is estimated that 85–90% of actors are unemployed (as actors) at any time. In 2012 the average annual income for actors, dancers and other entertainers was estimated at $26,500. Aspiring actors were unlikely to be deterred by these statistics.