Passion for theatre and culture's brought performing arts director full circle to where her glittering career began
It's easer to catch tumbleweed in a gale-force tailwind than snare Cian Elyse White.
Since her appointment as the council's performing arts director she's been a woman on the move, doubling that role with acting, writing and directing commitments she and her production company, Waiti, were already contracted to complete.
With the short te reo Maori film, Daddy's Girl, she wrote and directed, backed by funding from the NZ Film Commission now in the can, Our People's finally managed to grab her - our much delayed get-together's timely.
The city's month-long Indigenous Performing Arts Festival Aronui launches at Te Papaiouru marae tomorrow, Cian (pronounced Cee-arn) is its director. With eight nations participating it's no minor undertaking but Cian's a directing pro.
She's also in the director's chair for the classic stage production, Nga Puke (The Hills), that features on the festival programme. She's travelled the country with it, this will be its second Rotorua staging.
Cian's heart has pumped performance skills into her bloodstream since she started studying drama aged 7, under Kelly Morrison's tutelage.
Her all-round talent's home-town nurtured. Local speech and drama teachers Pam Moore and Gabrielle Thurston shaped the confidence that's taken her before and behind the spotlights and cameras of live theatre, small screens and large. She studied ballet at the Anne Samson School of Dance, American jazz and hip-hop at AMJAZ.
Her stage debut came at 16 when the late Robert Young cast her as the narrator in John Paul College's Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, a plum role that a year later carried her through the doors of Toi Whakaari, the New Zealand Drama School, leap-forging the usual entry age of 21.
"Wow", we say, "that's some impressive achievement."
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"I guess what shone through in my audition was that I was so passionate about drama. I think I was born a story-teller, I think of story telling as a beautiful photograph.
"It helps I'm from a family of artistic people. My parents [Tahuwaiki Waiti and Judy White] and my siblings are very talented."
Her dad's a tour bus driver, her mother an insurance broker. "My favourite school holidays were going on tour with my dad all over New Zealand."
Acting aside, the person we have here is a born leader. At JPC she was drama captain, house captain, Maori captain and passionate debater.
Her first major performance out of drama school was in Bruce Mason's Awatea, a study of Māori rural communities in the 50s and 60s.
Cian shared the stage with theatre luminary George Henare, reprising the role he played in the original 1968 production.
"All the top Māori and Pākehā talent was in it ... I learnt so much from them, it was an amazing, incredible experience that shaped my future, they remain my professional mentors."
An appearance in the Auckland Theatre company's Kings of the Gym followed - it was her first shot at comedy.
TV work flashed on to her agenda when she was invited to audition for the Australian true crime series, Underbelly. Cian was cast as Valerie, a woman caught up in the seamy underworld.
"It wasn't a huge role but a cool experience. I had to learn on the job. Film and television are so very different from theatre, the best actors are theatre actors because you only get one moment in time. Where film's involved you get many chances [takes] to get your role perfect."
At 23 she headed to Sydney "because I felt I wasn't growing in my skills".
She took classes at NIDA (Australian Institute of Dramatic Arts) supporting herself with work outside "the profession".
"I waitressed in China Lane, an Asian fusion fine dining restaurant, an all-Kiwi business. It was the first job I'd had where I wasn't performing, I loved it."
After an audition via Skype she headed for a US Shakespearean summer season, not in any old bit part but playing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.
While there another audition invitation pitched up, it was for a core cast role in the combined BBC-American production, Tatau, to be shot in the Cook Islands and around the North Island.
Cian was in Rarotonga when her agent sent her a script for 800 Words, the tele-production that's made her a household name on both sides of the Tasman.
We prick up our ears at her casual mention of an agent.
"I've had an agent since I was in my second drama school year when Johnson Laird Talent Management approached me."
The outcome: Cian's never spent long periods "resting", her work's been continuous.
In 800 words, Cian played "the surfie chick, Hannah".
With its combination of Aussies and Kiwis the cast became a tight-knit unit.
Discovering few involved with the production were familiar with the Māori way of life Cian brought them to her home marae, Te Takinga (Mourea), for a weekend of total immersion.
"After the pohiri (welcome) they immediately felt bonded to the land, the people."
When the plug was pulled on 800 Words Cian dedicated her time to Waiti Productions, the company she established with three friends in 2016.
"I set it up because I'm passionate about theatre. I didn't feel that up to then I was being relevant to current Maori theatre. I wanted to write, direct, add to the Maori storytelling narrative."
Established in Auckland, the company's now Rotorua-based. "I didn't want to spend any more time there [Auckland], I wanted to be here where my family, partner come from."
That partner is Willie Ripea, he works at Eat Streat's Puawai Jade.
Eat Streat was the couple's meeting place; it was New Year's Eve 2016-17, they got chatting in Ponsonby Road Bar, Cian was there as her siblings' sober driver.
"I mentioned I liked to walk in the Redwoods. The next day he was there waiting for me, we became good friends, have been together since."
Which brings us to why she has chosen to return to her roots, work for the council ahead of the perceived glitz and glamour of film and television.
"I never could see myself living in the US working in shows like CSI. I am much more interested in our homegrown theatre, our people.
"My passion is with events like Aronui. It was the vision I mentioned to the council when being interviewed for a museum advisory position. My now boss, Stewart Brown, said 'That's exactly what we want' ... I never applied to become Performing Arts Director, it just happened.
"My passion is to see that theatre (Howard Morrison Performing Arts Centre) open, for festivals, artistic activities, kapa haka, productions that make us laugh, cry, reflect, that are relevant to everyone, locals or visitors."
CIAN ELYSE WHITE (WAITI)
Education: St Michael's Primary, John Paul College, Toi Whakaari NZ Drama School
Family: Parents Tahuwaiki Waiti and Judy White, three brothers, sister, partner Willie Ripia. "My Maltesian puppy, Hiwa, is my baby."
Iwi affiliations: Ngati Pikaio-TeArawa, Tuhoe, Ngati Kahungungu
Interests: Family, theatre, film, animals, travel, the gym, walking in the Redwoods
On her life: "It's been a rich story - so far."
On Rotorua: "I love Rotorua, its people, its land."
Personal philosophy: "Treat people as you'd like to be treated."