As a teenager at Taupo-nui-a-Tia College in the late 1980s, Nancy Brunning wanted to tell stories of and about Aotearoa which painted a more rounded picture than those she saw on stage and screen.

Now Brunning is proving to be as strong and resolute as the women she has played in a career that saw her become a household name as one of the original Shortland Street cast, the matter-of-fact young Nurse Jaki Manu.

This month, a Boosted campaign revealed that Brunning, 48, is seriously ill but is determined it will not stop her proceeding with one of the most significant projects of her working life.

Friends have launched the campaign to raise $67,000 for a "life prolonging" drug and are simply saying she is unwell rather than revealing her condition. The Boosted website states: "With the marvels of medicine we can show our love for Nan by buying us all more time with her. We can ensure that she finishes some important projects…"

One of these is Witi's Wāhine, a play Brunning wrote and will direct, based on excerpts from acclaimed New Zealand writer Witi Ihimaera's stories and featuring some of his most powerful wāhine Māori characters.

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While she would not discuss her health, Brunning says the theatre production is vitally important because she wants to make more visible the kinds of Māori women seldom seen - particularly on screen.

The renowned actor, director and writer has been a major force in kaupapa Māori productions including directing te reo shows for national Māori theatre company Taki Rua and co-founding Hāpai Productions to create work that upholds and celebrates Māori integrity.

She says Witi's Wāhine lays down a wero (challenge) to other playwrights, storytellers and filmmakers to ensure they write more honest and varied roles for women who, in turn, can be role models for the next generation.

"I have always loved these kinds of characters, but we often don't see more than a glimpse of them on screen even though they are the ones who have crafted communities, have been the hard workers who have taken care of whānau, looked after the land," she says.

"In the theatre, I've played some amazing women but in film and TV, it seems everything needs to be dumbed down because it's so male orientated. I want to show women with history who aren't one-dimensional but who have character and influence. They are the types of people I am interested in."

Nancy Brunning in a scene from the 1999 New Zealand film What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, sequel to Once Were Warriors, based on the book by Alan Duff. Photo / Supplied
Nancy Brunning in a scene from the 1999 New Zealand film What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, sequel to Once Were Warriors, based on the book by Alan Duff. Photo / Supplied

Brunning points out that Ihimaera says the women in his life are the reason he had stories to tell.

By placing them centre stage, she wants to provide younger women with more "honest role models" who can help them navigate the complex messages they are given about wāhine Māori.

"It's been one-sided for so long; it's almost like we have been dormant and need to wake up. Our youth have to contribute to the world in a positive way; we have to make sure our young ones understand their purpose in the world."

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Ihimaera is supportive of Witi's Wāhine, one of the main drawcards at the inaugural Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival in Gisborne in October. As part of the Boosted campaign, he recalls Brunning starred in a high school production of his famous story Whale Rider.

"She was my first Nanny Flowers to ride the whale and ever since then she has been leading the way riding the whale of performing arts for all women in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Darling Nancy keep on riding the whale of performing arts and leading us onward!"

Nancy Brunning as Nurse Jaki Manu in Shortland Street. Photo / File
Nancy Brunning as Nurse Jaki Manu in Shortland Street. Photo / File

Boosted says doctors have approved a "special drug that is known to prolong life in these circumstances" but the medication is not subsidised and costs $7000 per month. With 30 days of the campaign left, fans, friends and colleagues have raised $42,200 – 62 per cent – of the total needed.

Brunning has had award-winning roles in films like What Becomes of the Broken Hearted and Mahana and appeared in or directed ground-breaking New Zealand theatre. She started planning Witi's Wāhine after starring as family matriarch Grandmother Romana in the 2015 film Mahana based on Ihimaera's book, Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies but has been a fan of his since her high school Māori teacher gave her a copy of Pounamu Pounamu.

• Mere Boynton, Roimata Fox, Ani-Piki Tuari and Ngapaki Moetara star in the world premiere of Witi's Wāhine, part of Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival in Gisborne from October 4 – 20.