Costume designer Padma Akula has finally bought a portable garment steamer.

It's a good one, too, with all sorts of attachments in crisp white and blue; definitely not the sort of thing you can chuck in a suitcase to take on your holidays to get creases out of the little black dress you stuffed in your luggage just in case.

Acknowledged, the purchase of a portable garment steamer might not sound like something worth writing about, but it is. It's a tell-tale sign of the health of Auckland's theatre scene; that one part of the sector is well and truly coming-of-age.

Auckland Theatre Company this month joins forces with Prayas, a community theatre group started 15 years ago to make South Asian theatre for the region's burgeoning South Asian population. In that time, Prayas has gone from staging shows with a definite "am-dram" feel to near professional productions which turned heads at the country's biggest theatre company.


Akula, who joined Prayas in 2005, is finding that as the company's part-time costume designer and wardrobe mistress, her backstage theatre skills are in increasing demand. Hence the need for a serious piece of kit – like a garment steamer.

It'll get a good work-out during Prayas's – and ATC's - next production. Together, they're staging A Fine Balance based on the 865-page Rohinton Mistry novel that was nominated for the 1996 Man Booker Prize and is widely regarded as one of the finest, most visceral and heart-breaking stories of post-colonial India written in recent times.

In what's believed to be a first for New Zealand, the cast are all South Asian actors led by a Sri Lankan director, Ahi Karunaharan. Furthermore, they're working on a script by playwrights Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith, co-founders of Tamasha Theatre, Britain's leading Asian theatre company, adapted from a novel written by an Indian-born Canadian author.

It means there are growing opportunities for South Asian New Zealand actors like Rashmi Pilapitiya and Kalyani Nagarajan who take leading roles in A Fine Balance. Pilapitiya, who graduated from Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School in 2003, says the industry didn't know what to make of a Sri Lankan woman with a "non-commercial" look.

"The industry didn't know what to do with me because I might look Ngati Porou to some Māori or Tongan to some Tongans but I'm not and it's really important to honour Tongan actors in Tongan roles or Māori actors in Māori roles, so I treaded water for quite some time trying to see where I could fit it," she says.

Pilapitiya worked mainly as crew on broadcast TV but that's taken her to some interesting places – like Al Jazeera in the Middle East - and on independent theatre productions, including with Prayas. How did she feel when she got a telephone call inviting her to play the female lead, Dina, in A Fine Balance?

"There are some things you know that you just have to do," she says.

Did she think she would see a production like this in New Zealand?


"Hell no! I thought I would have to fly to Melbourne because somewhere like the Melbourne Theatre Company would do it or go to the UK where there's a huge population; I am thrilled that ATC is looking to have relationships with developing community theatre groups."

Rashmi Pilapitiya and Kalyani Nagarajan in early promotional photos for A Fine Balance. Photo/Toaki Okano Photography.
Rashmi Pilapitiya and Kalyani Nagarajan in early promotional photos for A Fine Balance. Photo/Toaki Okano Photography.

Nagarajan, who graduated in 2015, quickly found herself working with one of our most successful theatre companies, Indian Ink. She's now toured New Zealand and the United States in its sell-out Mrs Krishnan's Party and says A Fine Balance is a change of gear for her.

"I'm a comedy actress and to enter into one of the most serious plays I have ever read in my life… Well, I was like, 'here's a challenge! Let's do it!'"

Visiting India – Nagarajan trained in classical Indian dance and has a huge extended family in Madras – has helped her bring perspective to the two characters she plays, ruthless businesswoman Mrs Gupta and Dina's kindly sister-in-law Ruby.

"You get to see what's talked about in the book in terms of like, a beggar without legs on a thing made of tracks; that's foreign to us here but sadly more common on the streets of India," she says. "It gives me perspective but also a duty to tell these stories in the most direct way and with the most heart that I possibly can. I don't want people to think that India's dirty; it's huge and it's been colonised and constantly reaped of all its resources…"

A Fine Balance takes place from 1975 – 1984 when then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government tried to "clean up the city" by driving thousands of poor from their homes. Pilapitiya and Nagarajan say it's not simply about India, its people and politics; rather it's about human connection and the human condition.

"It's about the right of having a choice as a human-being," says Nagarajan. "What happens when you're given a choice and what happens when not given any choice and that's so relevant today when half of our population get to choose between brioche and blueberry muffins and the other half of us are given a choice between shelter or water. It's that; that's the crux of what we're trying to portray in the show."

What: A Fine Balance
Where & when: Rangatira at Q Theatre, June 14 – July 6