She's probably best known for playing a floozy, boozy nurse on Shortland Street. But since quitting the soap two years ago, Toni Potter has returned to being one of Auckland's best theatre actresses. However, as Greg Dixon finds, her post-Street career hasn't been easy.
Lord Baden Powell is not amused. Hanging high on a dirty white wall inside the St Barnabas Hall in Mt Eden, the great scout's portrait frowns as an actor busily acting below him says something rather rude and almost unprintable about, well, having a knob on his head.
Oliver Driver laughs. And so do his actors, Adam Gardiner, Brett O'Gorman, Dan Musgrove and Toni Potter. They're all having a very jolly time doing something theatre types call "devising", which is what actors and directors do when creating a production that comes entirely from their own, rude heads.
The final show, Did I Believe It?, opens tonight at a bar in the Britomart precinct called 1885. However, this warm Wednesday afternoon, director Driver and his four actors are very much in the middle of distilling - only fitting, given this comedy's subject is vodka - the best bits. As Potter puts it, "At the moment we're devising lots and lots of stuff and picking out the shit, really."
Talking to Driver outside the hall - he leaves his actors to their inventing in the hall's tiny kitchen - I gather that the first Silo Theatre production of the year is a piece of interactive experimental comedy. Experimental not only for its choice of subject (surely vodka, at least customary, is more a muse for artists than a subject), but also for its form (a "homage" to 70s info-tainment shows) and the choice of venues - bars in Auckland and Wellington. Offbeat but hip seems to be the vibe of the thing.
However, if the production is a little hard to get your head around without actually seeing the thing, the reason 32-year-old Potter has been cast is rather more clear-cut.
"She's f***ing hilarious," Driver says, dragging on a Dunhill. "Everyone knows her now from Shortland Street and they think she's the nurse in Shortland Street. I don't even watch Shortland Street, so I don't think of her in that capacity.
"She's got a great energy and a great madness that you want to have in the mix. We auditioned seven actresses to play that part. In the end it was one of those horrible things where Toni auditioned first and then you spend the rest of the day thinking 'it's not Toni'. She's an astounding actress."
Silo Theatre's artistic director Shane Bosher, who has directed Potter too, is also effusive. "She's one of a kind. If you were to draw analogies to anybody she would be like some sort of hybrid of Ruby Wax and Joan Rivers. She's pretty damn witty and is prepared to make herself look absolutely stupid as well."
The Auckland Theatre Company's Colin McColl agrees. "She's got a terrific sense of comedy. She's good fun to work with. She's incisive about discovering characters - and she's as sexy as hell. Those are all good reasons to have her in a play. She would be one of the actresses in the country for doing Tennessee Williams plays."
Such plaudits. Such praise. Such confusion. In our conversations, Potter is charming but she is also unassuming, rather self-effacing and tends more toward frank earnestness than waxing Ruby Wax. Disconcertingly too, pessimism seems to sit at her shoulder when she talks about her profession. And I find myself wondering why it would be that one of the best of Auckland's theatre actresses would confess to struggling with feelings she's a fraud.
Making it up as you go along is actually what New Zealand actors do off-stage. To be an actor in this country is to spend your life devising ways to survive, and this, in part, may explain the hint of melancholy that you sometimes hear behind Potter's words.
Since the beginning of 2010, she has starred in three theatre productions, The Vagina Monologues for the Basement Theatre, Horseplay for the ATC and this new Silo production. However, and more tellingly, she has also taken temporary work in friends' clothing and collectables stores and worked a short-term contract teaching at Auckland's Pacific Institute of Performing Arts.
You won't be surprised to learn, then, that wages in theatre aren't great. Indeed, Potter says, rather than rising, they have gone down in the 10 years she's been acting. "Most actors working in theatre are probably not going to be making more than $20,000-$25,000 a year - and that's a successful theatre actor."
How the hell do they survive?
"You don't, you can't. You have to hope that you get a TV job which will pay you a bit more money, you have to hope you get lots of [advertising] voiceovers, you have to hope you'll get an international commercial. I've been lucky. I've had lots of theatre work, but I also have friends who own shops who've said 'oh you can come in and work in the shop for a couple of days a week?' And I have. Lots of actors who are considered successful will be doing childminding or house-cleaning. It's not easy."
Clearly. Rather unfairly, I ask her why she - and the rest - don't just give up and do something else. Fortunately, she laughs at this. "I can't do anything else. I don't want to moan ... I knew what I was getting into when I started this job."
That said, when she left Unitec with a bachelor of performing and screen arts in 2000, at the age of 22, she was optimistic about everything.
She had, she says, the usual delusions. "Like any drama school grad you think you're going to be rich and famous." She laughs. "I don't think there are many that don't think that. Reality hits you quite hard in the face."
She was, she confesses, never much of a student. At St Margaret's College in Christchurch, this eldest of two daughters of an army warrant officer and a nurse had been bookish and awkward.
"I was never any good at school. I always think school is misplaced. You should be doing high school when you're in your 20s, not in your teens. You can barely think when you're in your teens. All you can think about is f***ing and drinking, so how can you concentrate on school?"
At Unitec, it wasn't much better. She never got lead roles, but she did get terrible marks. McColl, one of her tutors, recalls with a laugh that she was a bit slack. "She didn't take easily to being bossed around." Potter says the head of the Unitec performing art school wrote her off with a "I don't think you're going to work in this industry".
Her CV suggests that, for the first couple years after Unitec, this looked likely. But from 2002, she went from being just another resting actor to sought-after. In the next four years, she landed roles in nine theatre productions (including Equus and Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer) and was cast in guest parts for TV's Orange Roughies and Outrageous Fortune before landing a regular recurring role in a South Pacific Pictures' short-lived crime drama, Interrogation.
And then, after numerous auditions and "cattle calls", came the offer that, arguably, every New Zealand actor dreams of.
Celebrity is overrated in New Zealand. For a start, you can be famous here and still be on the bones of your arse. Certainly local celebs will almost never, unlike many in America or Britain, earn enough money to insulate themselves from uncomfortable or unpleasant interactions with the public. And without that insulation, fame, even Kiwi fame, can be rather less positive.
For three-and-a-half years Potter appeared on Shortland Street as Alice Piper, a role that garnered her a Qantas Award nomination in 2008. But the attention which came with a job on the Street was far from fun, and seems to have left a lasting mark on her.
"Up to that point [when you join the Street] you don't realise it, but people don't really look at you, they look through you. And when you reach that sort of celebrity in New Zealand, people stop looking through you and look at you - and they look right at you. People stare at you and talk about you and get in your face when they're drunk and they do and say inappropriate things to you. You get treated differently by people, because they think you think something. People are either really welcoming or they're really horrible to you and there isn't really much in-between. I became quite claustrophobic and didn't really go out any more. I hated malls ... and walking past schools when school's were coming out."
It probably didn't help that Nurse Piper was a bit of boozy floozy with a loud mouth. Some viewers aren't that bright when it comes to separating actors from their TV characters.
It also didn't help that she suffered from periodic anxiety attacks - a problem that began in her early 20s - or that she used to deal with the attacks "by just drinking a bottle of wine".
While she emphasises that the Street was a good training ground, which taught her well, she stayed a year too long, she says. "The last year I was at Shortland Street was particularly difficult. I got quite sick, like mentally not great. I was really depressed and stopped eating for a while - all of those big signs of bad depression - and also I was just really, really angry.
"It took a long time to come down off that. Once you leave, it takes a while to get it out of your system."
She left the role in April 2009, but still managed to squeeze in three theatre productions before the end of that year. "I'm incredibly lucky that, before I went into Shortland Street, I had a really good theatre background and that when I came out there was work. I did a comedy show straight after. That was like the best therapy, you just laughed yourself stupid every day."
One supposes that it might be a little difficult for an actor to say farewell to the regular income, even if, after years on the Street playing the same character, they have begun craving something that one might call artistic freedom.
"For me it wasn't hard to give up the money because I'd been really broke before, so I was going back to being broke again - and I have been unbelievably broke over the past few years. But nothing was worth the emotional strain."
So, er, she wouldn't consider going back the Street?
"Well I've learned to never say never, but no." She giggles. "I've done that now." Besides, she says, they're better off without her.
"I'm just not very good at being myself." Potter laughs again as she says this. "I'm much better being a character. Talking for publicity, I'm always such a big foot-in-mouth person, so ... I just can't keep my mouth shut, that's the problem. I get nervous and my mouth starts to run away with me."
This might be true, but only to a point. There are things she won't talk about: her 36-year-old partner Andy Currie (she volunteers only that they're on the second time around and he works in the Shortland Street art department) and her father ("It's probably best not to talk about Dad") are no-go zones. But Potter is remarkably open and her opinions unadorned, especially for someone in showbiz. She will freely tell you she's a member of the Green Party and of Actors' Equity (she's remains very angry about the Peter Jackson-Hobbit business). She will talk about her feelings, her brushes with depression and anxiety and her dislike of fame.
She will tell you she is restless. She and Currie have bought a home (her first) near Muriwai only just recently, yet already she's thinking about where she wants to live next.
It's only when she talks of her acting talent - and her future propects - that you wonder whether she's speaking too plainly.
She despairs at the state of the theatre business - "it's really, really struggling" - but despairs more about the lack opportunity for women of her age. At 32, she is now too old to be the ingenue but also too young to play a mother. Her male actor friends have access to twice as many auditions as she does, she says.
However, for someone so well thought-of in the business, it's a bit of worry that she confesses to constantly confronting feelings she's a fraud. "The next show you work on you're going 'oh God, this is the one people are going to figure out I am a failure'. It's really hard."
Bosher, who seems to cherish Potter's talent and her long contribution to the Silo, is rather more sanguine about her future. In the next few years he believes that, with her approach to her work, she will "really carve out some space" on television or film.
"She's in the tricky casting range. But when she hits back, she will be back in a really new and interesting way."
Potter doesn't seem so sure. "There will be moments when you say 'f*** this, I'm giving it all away to do something else' and that's when another job comes up. It's like a carrot that's constantly dangling."
Did I Believe It? is at 1885, Britomart until April 30.