Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Ria's leap of faith into theatre

New Zealand singer and actor Ria Hall talks about her upcoming role. Photo: Greg Bowker.
New Zealand singer and actor Ria Hall talks about her upcoming role. Photo: Greg Bowker.

When Ria Hall was asked to star in a new play, the award-winning singer and TV presenter didn't hesitate to sign up for the gig - even though she's never before worked in live theatre.

Starring as The Lady in playwright Hone Kouka's The Beautiful Ones, she'll rely on the sources that have long given her strength and inspiration: respect for tradition and culture, whanau, an intrinsic love of performing and self-belief.

Hall, 33, is probably too modest to add one more to the list so we'll do it for her: inherent talent, but it's talent she's worked hard to develop, combined with a willingness to try new things and an openness for fresh experiences.

A week before rehearsals, Hall (Ngai Te Rangi, Ngati Ranginui, Te Whanau a Apanui, Ngati Porou, Ngati Tuwharetoa, Waikato) travelled from her Tauranga hometown to perform at Auckland Museum's new exhibition, Volume: Making Music in Aotearoa.

Unruffled and effortlessly stylish, chatty, self-assured but a little nervous about her theatre debut, she'd also just finished recording her new single, Love Will Lead Us Home, and still made time to come into Weekend.

She's a perfect fit for the Tawata Productions show, The Beautiful Ones, written by award-winning playwright Hone Kouka. Tawata produces multi-media shows by Maori and Pasifika writers; company co-founder Kouka wanted to write a show that was like a dance party, urban and contemporary, and united a whole team of creatives from a cross-section of performing arts.

The story is simple: young lovers Hana and Ihia inhabit a dynamic and heady world but will the promises they made to one another withstand the temptations of this world? Kouka says by making the narrative more straightforward, it's allowed him to devise a hybrid of art forms and cultures and work with a wider range of actors, musicians and designers.

The cast includes Tia Maipi, who made his film debut in the NZ hip-hop movie Born to Dance, Scotty Cotter, Sharn Te Pou, Paige Shand, Te Hau Winitana, Braedyn Togi and Raai Badeeu, who have worked with dramaturg Dolina Wehipeihana and choreographer Tai Paitai.

Hall, playing a nightclub singer, will perform her new single and contemporary music by Tama Waipara and rising music producer K*Saba. If you feel like getting up and dancing, that's okay because there's a dance floor as part of the set. Artist Johnson Witehira and fashion stylist Sopheak Seng have done the set and costumes. Rather than audiences being ordered to turn off their phones, Kouka urges them to keep theirs on and post or stream throughout The Beautiful Ones.

Playwright Hone Kouka wanted The Beautiful Ones to have the feel of an urban dance party.
Playwright Hone Kouka wanted The Beautiful Ones to have the feel of an urban dance party.

He and Hall had never met but have mutual friends and were more than willing to put their trust and faith in the other's abilities. Kouka says as soon as he heard whispers that Hall was interested in theatre, he looked for a way to include her; Hall says what better introduction to theatre than to work with Kouka, who's won numerous awards, including the Bruce Mason Playwright Award, for plays like Nga Tangata Toa, Waiora, TU and I, George Nepia.

"I've always wanted to do theatre so I jumped at the opportunity and basically said, 'yes, what do you need me to do?' Hall says, chuckling. "I hope I can use all the skills I bring to singing and live performance. It might be a challenge but I think we should always challenge ourselves and you've also got to be adaptable in this business and open to trying new things and doings things in a new way."

Kouka, who co-wrote the film Born to Dance, wants The Beautiful Ones to showcase the best young Maori talent out there to counter negative and persistent stereotypes. It's a sentiment Hall doubtless agrees with given that, although the word wasn't mentioned, our conversation essentially came down to a topic some might consider deeply unfashionable: values.

Her values were honed by her whanau, notably father Fred, who raised Hall and her three sisters, one step-brother and one step-sister to be curious about the world around them, embrace independence, work hard, take opportunities as they arose and to always be grateful and humble.

"The work ethic was always there for me; right from an early age, I was hungry to learn, always looking to get better and eager to explore."

Maungatapu marae, 500m from the family home, was a focal point, where birthday and Christmas parties, weddings and tangi were held. Although she's not a member of the Ratana Church, Hall sang in its choir as a child from the time she was 7.

"I'm very grateful for that because with the urban drift of the 1950s, not a lot of my generation had that," she says of her sense of place and strong grounding in Maori culture.

At Tauranga Girls College, Hall was a kapa haka enthusiast who helped the school to place at the then-prestigious Waiariki Secondary Schools Kapa Haka Competition. When she wasn't competing alongside her school mates, Hall belonged to Te Manu Huia and later Te Waka Huia kapa haka group, led by Drs Ngapo and Pimia Wehi.

Wehi passed away, aged 82, earlier this year. Maori Television described him as the "most decorated exponent of Maori performing arts" and noted that he held the record for the most national wins at Te Matatini National kapa haka competitions.

Hall describes him, and also the wider Wehi family, as hugely influential, saying he talked about the importance of being humble, being the first to congratulate others when they did well; the first to offer a helping hand and to always give back to the community.

"I guess you could say those messages were everywhere in my life."

In Year 11 (the fifth form, as it was then), Hall heard 2b S.Pacific by singer Che Fu and it changed her life. She recalls listening to it and getting goosebumps because she knew - just knew - it was going to change her personal history. For the first time, she'd found a local album that explored diverse themes and contemporary concerns but, more significantly, was by someone who put his cultural heritage front and centre.

"It made me feel that I could be unashamedly and authentically Maori in the mainstream."

Hall was gigging from age 16. Her aunt, Connie Farrell, was a soprano who gave her singing lessons alongside Hall's cousin, Connie's son, Mana. He's now based in Western Australia and a member of the Platinum Tenors. Hall recalls going with them to small venues and performing for not many people, but she valued those experiences because it provided the chance to bring herself "up to scratch".

She got used to microphones, moving on stage, taking the audience on a journey with her.

"I'm not formally trained; everything's been trial and error."

Hall's since fronted the reggae band Hope Road, been a live backing vocalist for Hollie Smith and Trinity Roots and performed with Fly My Pretties. Hall sang the Rugby World Cup anthem at the 2011 opening ceremony; the following year her self-titled album was named album of the year at the NZ Music Awards. She was a guest vocalist with Stan Walker on the track Like It's Over and presented Maori Television's Marae DIY.

And now The Beautiful Ones. Will she be nervous?

"I think there will be a little bit of anxiety because it's not something I have done before, but I'm vigilant about learning all that I can so that I am totally on top of my game."

- NZ Herald

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