You certainly know when you look at him. When I spot actor-playwright Kirk Torrance sitting on a wall at the Parnell Rose Gardens, it was his bloody great shoulders - he was wearing a white singlet - that you noticed before anything else.

And it's then you remember. It's maybe 15 years since Torrance last dived into a pool to represent New Zealand, but the swimmer's shoulders are still intact and they remain a calling card from a previous life.

The actor-playwright stopped all that after the Commonwealth Games in Auckland in 1990.

"There's only so much chlorine you can take," he says spooning sugar into coffee and smiling.

And it's his other career, one begun at drama school 10 years ago, that has brought us to this noisy roadside cafe. More particularly we are here to talk about the actor's first play Strata, which opens at the AK05 festival this Friday.

But I can't help myself. There can't be a more disparate pair of pursuits than swimming and acting, I contend. But no, Torrance says they have more in common that you'd reckon.

"You'd be surprised," says the 39-year-old. "There's the preparation and the training that you do for swimming, for an event, the routine and the discipline. That's very similar to acting. All that sense of performing above yourself is the same as the arts. You know that B-grade actor bullshit of being in the moment? It's exactly the same."

Acting, he fully admits, is an accidental career. After finishing swimming, and with "little education", he moved into radio at the beginning of the 90s, only to be made redundant a short time later.

At a loss for his next move, he took a chance on friends' suggestions he train as an actor. He completed a diploma in performing arts at the New Zealand Drama School in Wellington in 1994.

His CV since is a busy sort of read. A dozen or so theatre roles and roughly the same number on the box, including a stint on Shortland Street as the drug dealing Lee Kapene and a lead role in Shark Skin Suit, which won the gong for best TV drama in 2002. And then there was his turn as mob enforcer and (sort of) narrator Holden in the film Stickmen in 2001.

It was while working on this project that the initial idea for Strata, a play developed through Wellington's Taki Rua theatre company, began forming. During filming Stickman camera operator Alun Bollinger and Torrance got talking about the West Coast of the South Island.

"He told me about the miners practising the waltz down the mines. I had this image of them gliding around the pit, one playing the man, the other the woman. And that sort of stuck with me."

In 2002, Taki Rua began a development programme for young playwrights called Writers' Block with lauded writer Hone Kouka as teacher and the promise of a workshop season for the pick of the group.

"The only reason I wanted to write plays was to make work for myself," Torrance says. "That was it. I'm sick of doing and seeing plays from overseas. I'm sick of seeing plays that have nothing to do with me. Not that I knew much about coal mining before this.

"You had a group of people involved in theatre but wanting to take control and make the stuff they wanted to make."

Writers' Block was only supposed to last three months. It went on for more than a year. And Strata, set in a coal pit on the West Coast in the late 1890s, found its story.

Two brothers, Angus and Mo, are miners. Angus is searching for redemption underground and has dragged his simpleton brother down the mine with the promise of earning money as strikebreakers.

All Mo wants is to feel the sun on his back. But Angus has ulterior motives. He is using his brother's ability to see "don't knows", spirits that don't know they are dead. Angus, it seems, wants to take back the soul of his unborn child.

After workshop performances in Wellington - "we got paid!" - the play earned praise from the National Business Review as an ambitious and impressive debut.

But the applause didn't stop there. Strata went on to win 2003 Chapman Tripp Theatre awards for most original production, outstanding new playwright and most promising new director (Tim Spite).

The success has surprised Torrance. His expectations were much more modest.

"I just wanted to get something out there and do something I wanted to do, which we got to do. So the awards were a hell of surprise. I don't mean to be oh-shucks. But it was. I just didn't believe you could do things your own way and achieve what I wanted to achieve."

I'm sure the swimmer thought the same.


* What: Strata, by Kirk Torrance

* Where and when: Herald Theatre, Feb 25-Mar 2