For many of our most popular performers, performing in community theatre lit a lifelong spark. With the inaugural New Zealand Theatre Month now on, they share stories about the first theatres they performed in and how they ended up there.

Claire Chitham:
I started doing weekly classes at Dolphin Theatre in Onehunga when I was 8 years old. It's still operating today and at one point had the largest membership in Auckland for a non-professional theatre company. Not sure if that's still true today, but they are still going strong and they put on five or six productions a year.

The first show I ever appeared in was the end-of-year musical Pinocchio and yes — I played the titular role. I auditioned and successfully landed the part of a boy at age 8. I cut my hair off for the role and looked like a pageboy with a bowl cut for the next three years of my life. It wasn't pretty. I also wore a head-to-toe flesh-coloured body sock with bolts painted on to it. And I still wasn't put off. Something was clearly wrong with me.

I loved the fame and stardom that came with it. I became friends with all the older, cooler kids and I won my first ever "cup" at the prizegiving that year for Best Performance, which is still probably my most treasured award to date. Weirdly, I felt the same way then that I did in my most recent theatre gig last year — excited, nervous, focused and like I was exactly where I was meant to be.

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It literally shaped and launched my career. My teacher, Jan Saussey, was the person who helped me sign with my first agent which is how I got my first commercial and how I eventually got my role on Shortland Street [as receptionist Waverly Wilson, later to become Mrs Nick Harrison] and she is also still a dear friend within the industry today.

Those classes taught me to be okay with standing up in front of people, speaking so I could be heard and not being laughed at or ridiculed but being encouraged and supported. Acting classes can be hilarious, silly places. Most of them are about teaching you one lesson — how to get over yourself and stop worrying about what other people might think of you. And for me it introduced me to a community of people that I fell in love with, felt a kindred connection to and still work with on a professional basis today with as much joy as I felt back then.

• Chitham is soon to appear in a new drama-comedy series for TV2 called Fresh Eggs. Throughout NZ Theatre Month, the Dolphin runs Monday evening readings and discussions. Sally Sutton's The Armchair Trilogy — two one-act plays — are featured on Monday, September 17 while on Monday, September 24 Shortland Street — The Musical creator Guy Langford speaks.

Laurel Devenie:

I think I was 16 when I was in a production of

West Side Story

with the Whangarei Theatre Company, which we performed at Forum North, the big theatre in the middle of town. I played Consuela, a bleached-blond Puerto Rican.

Whangarei is a pretty small city, so if you're involved in one performing arts thing, you hear about others. I had been in several big musical collaborations between Whangarei Girls' High and Boys' High directed by an amazing woman called Eileen Rawson (big ups to the INCREDIBLE people who make these things happen in towns like Whangarei).

What would I say to others thinking about joining their local theatre club? Absolutely join up, find a way, get involved, see if it's your thing. More importantly, however, I would say, is if there isn't a local theatre club or if they aren't doing something which floats your boat then start one yourself!

Theatre can be many things — it can be a bunch of people reading a play together on a regular basis, it can be people sharing stories about their hometown and finding a way to make something from that, it can be interviewing a collection of people about something you care about and using that as a basis to make a performance, it can be calling Playmarket and asking for some good New Zealand plays to have a crack at, it can be a way to investigate something which is challenging a community. I hope more groups and individuals who are interested in performance feel empowered to explore how to use and make theatre as a medium to do powerful things in their cities and communities.

Nicola Kawana:
Nicola Kawana: "In my small experience, community theatres are a dramatic experience within themselves. And an asset to their communities."

Nicola Kawana:

I was 17 and living at home in Hawera. I had spent a year on the dole, bumming around with my bestie. I was happy sleeping in until midday, waiting for dole day, op shopping and getting into mischief roaming the town on our 10-speeds.

My mother, understandably, was frustrated at my aimless existence. She began sussing out dreary job opportunities and then the universe intervened in the form of an audition notice in our local paper. A small theatre in New Plymouth was establishing a government-funded, paid-to-train course in all things theatre.

The Taranaki Youth Theatre programme was a six-month training and Theatre in Education programme, set up and run out of The New Plymouth Little Theatre. After training and performing with the Taranaki Youth Theatre, it became clear to me that being on stage was my calling and I auditioned for the New Zealand Drama School later that year.

After the Taranaki Youth Theatre, I did one show with The Hawera Repertory Society and one with The Inglewood Little Theatre when we moved to New Plymouth for a year in 2003. In my small experience, community theatres are a dramatic experience within themselves. And an asset to their communities.

• Kawana appears in Rendered by NZ playwright Stuart Hoar at the ASB Waterfront Theatre, September 18-October 3.

Through her work at the Mangere Arts Centre, actor/writer/director Alison Quigan is introducing a whole new generation to live theatre.
Through her work at the Mangere Arts Centre, actor/writer/director Alison Quigan is introducing a whole new generation to live theatre.

Alison Quigan:

I used to work as a receptionist for a radio station; one of the announcers said he was going to be in

Around the World in 80 Days

at the Palmerston North Operatic Society and I should come along. I was a keen netballer and rehearsals clashed with practices, but I choose the rehearsals. I think I enjoyed the process of working together to put on a play and the environment itself.

No one in my family was involved in theatre, although my father had been a prisoner of war during World War II and he and his fellow prisoners had put on plays to amuse themselves. He never did it when he returned home, though.

Eventually I moved to Auckland to train at Theatre Corporate. I was in the first production of Foreskin's Lament in 1981. At the time, most productions were classics or international plays. This was the first time that I could hear the voices of my father, my brothers, my uncles on stage. It was a world I recognised.

• Quigan's own play, Mum's Choir, is performed at the Court Theatre in Christchurch, until Saturday, October 6