Former Shortland Street child star Amber Curreen now runs her own Māori theatre company and has co-produced the 80s retro play Astroman with Auckland Theatre Company.

1 Astroman is a coming-of-age story about a Māori boy growing up in Whakatāne in 1983. How much is based on playwright Albert Belz's own life?

A lot is based on Albert's childhood in Whakatāne. Laughton Kora, who also grew up there, has done the sound design for the show. Lots of things from his childhood are in it; the kid with the Michael Jackson glove, the beat box crew, the spacies parlour. He's created some amazing new music using gaming sounds as well as putting together an epic 80s soundtrack. The young people we've got playing the kids are having so much fun with all the retro pop culture.

2 Is it a risk having teenagers lead an Auckland Arts Festival show?

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Our lead Levi Kereama is still at high school but he's already done a full-length professional show with Auckland Theatre Company. Kauri Williams and Rickylee Russell-Waipuka come from a kapa haka background and Aaron McGregor's done amazing physical theatre work. Thanks to ATC they're supported by experienced actors Miriama McDowell, Nicola Kawana and Gavin Rutherford. We're fortunate to have that depth of expertise in terms of our indigenous actors. That's down to our strong theatre scene; we're prolific theatre makers. What drives us is the need to see more of our own stories on stage.

3 Is racism a theme in Astroman?

We all know how racist New Zealand was in the '80s so that's present in the play but it's not what it's about. It's really a heart-warming and affirming story by Māori, for Māori. It's a Kiwi story as well. Albert puts a light touch on some difficult issues and delicately challenges the audience to question their own racial biases. Hopefully they'll walk out the door thinking a bit while laughing and humming the songs.

4 Is this the first time Astroman has been staged in Auckland?

It was first performed in Melbourne last year with an Australian indigenous cast that Albert was working with and it also premiered at Christchurch's Court Theatre at the same time. This is the first time Auckland audiences can see it.

5 This is Te Rēhia Theatre Company's first collaboration with Auckland Theatre Company. Is this a one-off, or an attempt at a deeper bicultural partnership?

It's the first time either company has done a collaboration of this depth. We sat down together and thought about what a balanced power relationship would look like and developed a model for how that would work. We've just moved our Te Pou Theatre to Corban Estate where we hope to build a new venue. ATC are in a good position to give us advice and support having built the ASB Waterfront Theatre. There will be other times when they come to us for advice and support. The deepest kind of partnership you can do in this business is make a show together because that's where you actually muck in together and do it in practice.

6 What have been the challenges of working together?

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We're much smaller - there's only three of us. Our major priority is developing a tikanga Māori way of working that uplifts our people. It requires constant questioning of the accepted way of doing things under the Western model and thinking about how that fits into a Māori world view.

Amber Curreen at Te Rehia Theatre Company. Photo / Michael Craig
Amber Curreen at Te Rehia Theatre Company. Photo / Michael Craig

7 Can you give an example of how you'd do things in a Māori way?

There's the classic things that everyone knows like you come together and karakia but you can get into nitty gritty things like the bow at the end of a show. In one show, we felt something about that tradition didn't quite represent our relationship with the audience and all they bring to the room so we decided that after the bow, we'd bring up the lights, a cast member would acknowledge the audience in te reo Māori and invite them to meet us out the front after we'd got changed.

8 Is it hard to attract Māori audiences to the theatre?

It is. People often say 'it's not really my thing' because they don't know what to expect so we try to make theatre a welcoming place for Māori. Coming to the theatre is a big commitment nowadays when you can get everything delivered exactly how you want it within your time frame. Asking people to come to your location on your schedule and price and engage with a story they can't pause, rewind or stop is a big ask.

9 Growing up, did you always want to be an actor?

I grew up on Waiheke Island. Mum's family are from Southland and Dad's whanau are from Hokianga. I was really into dance. David Wikaira-Paul who ended up being my on-screen partner on Shortland Street grew up on Waiheke as well. I had a crush on him forever. We were each other's first kiss when we were five. He got into drama because we needed a ring-in for our local dance theatre company. He got a job on the TV show and a year later I did too.

10 You started on Shortland St at age 16. Did it change your life being on TV at such a young age?

Immensely. I've only just started to realise how much in the last couple of years, now that I'm raising a 13-year-old girl. The pros include the learning and all the positive relationships I formed with people in the industry. The cons include playing a character who had a baby that died. At 16, babies weren't even on my radar but a few years later I was pregnant with my own. There's no doubt in my mind that had I not gone through the process of understanding of what it was to have a baby and then bury it in order to portray that on TV, I wouldn't have had a child so young. Being on the show, I missed out on going to university and having a chance to do badly and learn from it because no-one notices. I did my degree by correspondence.

11 Why did you set up Te Rēhia Theatre Company 10 years ago with Albert Belz and Tainui Tukiwaho?

In 2008, Playmarket hosted a big Māori theatre hui. The question was; 'What is Māori theatre?' which no one could answer. The other question was, 'Where is it?' and it sure as heck wasn't Auckland - everything was happening in Wellington. So we decided to take up the challenge. Through our mainstay of touring te reo plays to schools, we'd earn enough to present new works by Māori playwrights.

12 As a mum, do you find you 'helicopter parent' more than your mum did you?

Oh yes, I'm much stricter. Mum's a hippy; she let me get away with everything because I seemed like I knew what I was talking about. I'm always quite deliberate with my daughter about why we're doing things and the underlying kaupapa behind it. I wouldn't want her to be on TV now because social media would make it so much worse. She's really good at acting but she's more into music. It's probably good she's doing her own thing.

Astroman by Albert Belz is at Q Theatre until 6 April.