From a horrific eye injury in Greece to earning rave reviews at the Edinburgh Festival, it is fair to say Robyn Paterson's overseas experience has been one of highs and lows.

The former Shortland Street actor's journey comes full circle this week as she premieres her one-woman show back where it all began. The South Afreakins originally premiered as a 10-minute piece at the Short + Sweet festival in 2012 before Paterson headed overseas for further training and work. She spent those years expanding the personal story into a 65-minute show and brings the revised version to Auckland for the first time.

"I play both my mum and my dad," says Paterson, who's also appeared on Go Girls, The Blue Rose, Anzac Girls and Power Rangers. "It's their story of our immigration from South Africa to New Zealand. I'd say it's a very personal and close to my heart story."

Her family immigrated to New Zealand from South Africa when Paterson was 5 and though she grew up in Hamilton, she's never lost the feeling that she didn't belong here.


"When you emigrate from one country to another, it's not just like a little segment of your life is as an immigrant. You are an immigrant for the rest of your life. It becomes part of your identity and something you have to live with.

"You just feel constantly out of step. Even though I've been out of South Africa for 24 years now, I go back to South Africa now and I fit right back in. The energy that Africa emanates is the energy I emanate. It's something intangible that makes you feel at home."

The 30-year-old initially wrote the play for her parents rather than setting out to tackle the issues around migration but the play naturally evolved that way. However, rather than focusing on the sorts of topics that have been a part of the political climate for the last few years, Paterson says the play is about those "small moments" that you have as an immigrant where you wonder if you have made the right decision or not.

"It's not a play about stereotypes or vast majorities of people; it's about two very real people who are trying to start over again."

Determined and ambitious, Robyn Paterson kept making theatre after a serious eye injury.
Determined and ambitious, Robyn Paterson kept making theatre after a serious eye injury.

Having to start over is an experience Paterson has dealt with in recent years after a shock accident left her partially blind in one eye. Shortly after moving to the UK in 2014, Paterson started what was meant to be a six-month trip around Europe.

The trip was cut short the day before her 27th birthday when she was on the Greek island of Santorini. A rubber exercise band she was using for stretches snapped while wrapped around her foot and flung upwards, hitting her in the left eye.

"I felt my whole eye go back up into my head and come back down," Paterson recalls. "The minute it hit me I felt like I was in a car accident. It broke my nose; it shredded my retina in 13 places. My heart stopped beating. Everything went deathly quiet. The vision was gone, it was black."

After visiting doctors on various Greek islands, passing in and out of consciousness and vomiting, Paterson eventually saw the right ophthalmologist who said she had to fly back to London immediately to save her retina.


The surgery stopped further damage but a number of micro tears mean her vision is still damaged in that eye. Paterson describes it as giving things the smudged quality of a Monet painting.

However, describing herself as an over-achiever and fiercely ambitious, she didn't let the injury stop her from carrying on with creating and performing theatre. In 2015, she spent six months playing the lead in the blockbuster NZ-produced, zombie-themed immersive theatre show Generation of Z in London.

Paterson then performed The South Afreakins at festivals in the UK in 2016, including at the Edinburgh Festival where it received rave reviews. While she enjoyed the critical success, she says it was one South African woman in the foyer afterwards who made the hard work worthwhile.

"I was leaving the theatre and her husband ran up to me and asked me to sign their Edinburgh book," Paterson says. "[The woman] was sobbing. She looked at me and said, 'That's our story, you've written our story'. She just grabbed my hand and said 'Thank you'.

"That's why I do this. I'll remember that when I'm 80. I want to write theatre that people remember for the rest of their lives."

The South Afreakins is at The Basement Theatre from Tuesday - Saturday.