When it comes to performing arts, the career of Cian Elyse White has gone from strength to strength. The writer, director, and actress, most recently starring in TVNZ series Vegas, has made a name for herself but in her case, it is not about fame and fortune. She speaks to journalist David Beck.
Rotorua's Cian Elyse White is a busy woman.
But it is from what keeps her busy that she draws all her strength and energy.
After a stint in Auckland, White returned home to live in Rotorua a few years ago. In her role as Rotorua Lakes Council performing arts director and with a range of her own projects on the go, there is plenty to keep her creative juices flowing.
Most recently, she starred in Vegas, a thriller-action series filmed in Rotorua which premiered on TVNZ 2 last week.
"To win big, sometimes you have to risk big."
White said in creating Vegas, in which she plays the lead female Tony, she and everyone else involved had set out to do something "brave and bold".
"To win big, sometimes you have to risk big," she said.
"I'm curious to see if our investment in this story and our belief in it does pay off, if it does reach people and if our community and audience understand what we were trying to do.
"I'm waiting in anticipation but also with an open mind and the knowledge that we had the best intentions with the work."
She has previously starred in Australian–New Zealand comedy-drama television series 800 words and the New Zealand film Cousins.
White said she had not initially planned on auditioning for Vegas.
"I know that a lot of wāhine Māori, top actresses in the industry, auditioned for Tony. Another actress was cast as Tony but because of schedule conflicts and Covid-19 she wasn't able to do it.
"I was on board as an intern director, because I have aspirations to direct, but I received a phone call before shooting began, asking how I would feel about auditioning. I knew it would be a really challenging role but I auditioned and got it."
It is a competitive industry she finds herself in so she knows the importance of taking every opportunity.
"You have to be grateful. A lot of people dream and work so hard to even get a foot in the door. So, when you are offered a core role like that you have to take it with both hands. Especially when it's a Māori woman inspired by a place you grew up.
"I felt I understood the character and had the tools to bring her to life. It was a blessing and I'm really grateful.
"The genre is so distinct, it's action, crime, drama, and just such a different ballpark to what Cousins and 800 Words were. It was a whirlwind way to be cast. It's definitely been a ride, it's been a journey."
A storyteller from a young age
White has always been interested in the arts, even in kindergarten she remembers being drawn towards the more creative activities.
"I used to play on my mum's piano and pick my dad's guitar up - I've always loved music and performing," she said.
"Dad loved to play guitar and sing, mum played the piano and was always into film and performing arts. I definitely think in our family there is a lot of performing arts blood.
"There was always a drive and passion to tell stories which I have absolutely inherited. Everything I do in my life now is around telling stories that uplift and provide hope for other people."
White said using performing arts as a tool to uplift was always her overarching goal.
"Art is such a powerful vehicle for healing and sharing ideas that make people think in a way that isn't necessarily possible if someone is being controlled to think one way.
"Exploring these ideas with art can access people in ways that other mediums of education can't.
"I'm super passionate about using that platform of storytelling, whether it be a TV series, whether I'm writing or acting or directing, and using it in a way to carry important messages that enable healing and growth."
The development of a passion
That love for the arts continued to grow at St Michael's Catholic School where she took part in kapa haka, singing, and poi.
At John Paul College she was taken under the wing of performing arts teacher Gabrielle Thurston.
"She is a huge presence there and has trained a lot of exceptional performing arts talent," White said.
"I did a lot of competitions and scholarship drama while I was there."
At 17 years old, she successfully auditioned and was given a place at Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School in Wellington.
A star was on the rise.
"I was super blessed to be able to go there when I was 17. I was the youngest in my class but I met so many people who are lifelong friends and great contacts. That really held me in good stead."
Home is where the heart is
White came home to Rotorua three years ago, after a stint in Auckland, and is deeply passionate about developing the arts in the region.
"I've moved home and I'm really dedicated to our community," she said.
"It's interesting because I left Auckland at a time when I was in a really great place in my career. We'd just done three seasons of 800 Words and I was doing good work.
"People asked why I was returning to the regions and I told them 'I'm going home because home is closest to my source, it's where I get my energy from, it's where my family is. It's a community I really care about, who have invested in me and I want to give back'."
She said she was "fully invested" in her work as director of performing arts at Rotorua Lakes Council.
"I'm dedicated to that and I really want to help promote the arts and create some really good local opportunities for our local talent, provide pathways into the professional industries in both film and television.
"I want to champion Rotorua and everything that we're about, showcasing all the aspects of our heart as a community."
• Vegas screens on TV2 on Mondays at 8.30pm.