5 Famous Kiwi Theatre Performers

The performing arts might not be the first thing you think of when you think of New Zealand. You might think of rugby, adventure sports, Maori culture, sheep, Lord of the Rings, or the country’s isolated and rugged natural beauty. The truth is that New Zealand’s deep history with colonial and aboriginal influences and its dedicated contemporary theatre scene are just as rich as its other cultural attractions. While you’ll find unique, modern plays that touch upon current themes and familiar cult classics, there are also performances that draw upon both Western and Maori cultures.

Within the New Zealand theatre scene, a few standout Kiwi performers have emerged, some making a name for themselves beyond performing arts and into mainstream television and film. Unlike amateur gamblers who need a guide to playing free pokies, these stars have honed their craft to the point where they can fully trust their instincts to become their characters and bring them to life. Here are five famous Kiwi theatre performers to check out.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand

With over 40 years in theatre and film, Jennifer Ward-Lealand has established herself as integral to New Zealand’s performing arts. While her credits for film and television performances are extensive, the stage is where she shines. Ward-Lealand has been involved in over 120 theatre performances, including famous plays such as King Lear, The Threepenny Opera (twice), Twelfth Night, The Rocky Horror Show, and The Talented Mr Ripley – to name a few. And she hasn’t just acted – she’s directed several significant performances herself, including A Christmas Carol for the Auckland Theatre Company.

Her accolades bolster her reputation even further, as her influence on New Zealand’s theatrical landscape earned her an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Jennifer also received a Scroll of Honour from the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand and was the distinguished New Zealander of the Year in 2020.

Amanda Billing

Known best for her highly-praised role on New Zealand’s longest-running soap opera, Amanda Billing is also an esteemed stage actress. She wasn’t always on stage or on the big screen, however, as she earned her bachelor’s degree in Geography and spent three years as a high school teacher before switching lanes.

Billing got her start as Dr Sarah Potts in 2004 and spent 10 years playing the character, adopting other roles in the meanwhile on other New Zealand TV series such as The Brokenwood Mysteries. She was nominated for Best Performance by an Actress at the 2007 Air New Zealand Screen Awards for her performance as Sarah Potts. Between 2003 and 2018, she also performed in a variety of plays, including As You Like It as Rosalind, Boys Will Be Boys as Astrid, Threepenny Opera as Polly Peachum, and, most notably, Macbeth as Lady Macbeth.

She currently works as an actress, photographer, and painter, delving into multidisciplinary creative projects.

Catherine Wilkin

Catherine Wilkin has a rich and lengthy background in television and stage, playing various roles in New Zealand and Australian dramas since 1979 and performing in theatre since 1975. Her acting career spans a whopping five decades, and she’s made an indelible mark on the country’s performing arts.

Wilkin was committed to becoming a theatre professional after joining the University of Canterbury Drama Society and training at the historic Mercury Theatre in Auckland. Some of her most memorable roles on screen include Kate McGrath in Cop Shop, Katherine Jensen in Embassy, Liz Ryan in McLeod’s Daughters, and Sally Downie in Blue Heelers. She has always shined in theatre, taking on important roles early on, such as Ophelia in Hamlet and Desdemona in Othello. Later on, she performed as Linda in Death of a Salesman, among other productions, mainly for the Auckland Theatre Company and the Melbourne Theatre Company, as well as the Downstage Theatre.

With multiple awards and nominations under her belt, such as Best Supporting Across for Weight of Elephants, she is well-recognized as a famed Kiwi performer.

Hayden Tee

Hailing from the rural small town of Maungaturoto, Hayden Tee is a distinguished actor, specifically in theatre and opera, as well as cabaret. At the age of 18, he was invited by fellow theatre and cabaret performer Avigail Herman to study at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, owing to his outstanding potential. Tee hasn’t just appeared in local productions, expanding his horizons into Australia, the UK, and Broadway in the United States as well.

His work was awarded and acknowledged early, having won the New York Award at the 2002 Sydney Cabaret Convention. In 2003, the Sydney Morning Herald deemed him “a definite star” after his performance as Frances in Three Winters Green. Tee has done plenty of solo work throughout his career, with his solo cabaret shows Me to a Tee, Quarterlife Crisis, and Hayden Tee, a musical theatre album called Face to Face, and a CD voted as one of the top five male vocal media pieces of the year.

Fleur Saville

Fleur Saville’s big break came much earlier than some of the other stars on this list. At the young age of 16, she was chosen from a pool of 1,000 auditionists to play the main character, Eve Baxter, in the series Being Eve. The sunny and playful teen drama series aired in both New Zealand and the United States, with an overall positive reception from the audience. Her biggest stint in TV was her role as comedic relief Libby Jeffries in Shortland Street, but not before she performed in countless musicals and plays in the years prior.

Her first few performances included musicals Oklahoma!, A Slice of Saturday Night, Oliver!, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Sound of Music, most of them hosted at the beloved PumpHouse Theatre in Auckland. Just like many of the other names on this list, she has pursued her own passion projects, mainly on the other side of the camera as a producer for feature-length and short films.

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