Born on Waiheke in 1985 and raised locally, Amber Curreen started her career as a child star on New Zealand’s longest-running soap, Shortland Street. Today, she is an arts manager, playwright, performer, and mother who still maintains strong ties to the Island.
Amber’s mother was originally from Invercargill, and her father was from the Northland town of Hokianga and is of Ngapuhi and Te Arawa iwi. After her parents moved to Waiheke in the late 1970s, her mother had a clothing shop before moving to teach science at Waiheke High School and becoming a well-respected teacher. She is still actively involved as a reliever some 40 years later. Amber started her schooling like many on the Island at Te Hurihi primary before moving on to Waiheke High School, followed by a stint in Auckland at arts-focused Selwyn College, something she says ” was a cool upbringing, different and interesting. Her grounding in acting and the stage direction couldn’t have had a better start, as she explains: Waiheke is full of creative types, people who go on to do artistic things.” She resonates with the maritime inclination of the motu’s people – “the yachting and boating space” unique to Waiheke.
An interest in the performing arts, in particular dance and acting, led to an audition, aged 16, with South Pacific Pictures, for the role of Shannon Te Ngaru on the long-running show Shortland Street- a famous proving ground for the nation’s aspiring actors. Her character was adopted by a foster family and went through the soap opera tribulations of a broken engagement, teen pregnancy, and a bitter custody battle. Fellow Waihekeian actor and friend David Wikaira-Paul played her on-screen partner. The experience was Amber’s first on-screen role. She says she “took my opportunity and really enjoyed it”. Growing up in the “public consciousness” helped with the transition to young adulthood; something Amber reflects was ” a kinda coming of age- being on TV.” Amber admits the trappings of fame in a small country did, at times, become a little unsettling and admits being in the public glare was a double-edged sword. “At the time, I kind of felt like I was being watched ” and says, coming back to Waiheke, a place where everyone knew her simply as “Mrs Curreen’s daughter” suited her perfectly.
From age 16 through 21, Amber continued to hone her skills on celluloid and met other life challenges after falling pregnant and giving birth to her daughter Te Rongopai? now aged 17. “I had my daughter when I was 20”, explains Amber, “they ended up writing her into the script as my daughter.”After “wanting to come home”, Amber finished up on Shortland Street and set her sights on getting a formal education. She spent the next three years studying extramurally for a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in business psychology through Massey whilst juggling working at Mudbrick and raising her daughter. Keeping her hand in acting, For two years, she also trained in the Meisner technique, the gold standard in improvisational acting and a must for thespian development. She also passed on her existing skills by training new actors. In 2009, she appeared in a feature film, with an appearance in the Katie Wolfe-directed Nights in the garden of Spain, an adaption of the 1995 Witi Ihimarea book about a married man struggling with his sexuality. She has continued to work with Wolfe in 2014’s Skater Boy, and a recent episode of a well-received local suspense drama, The Brokenwood Mysteries.
From 2010, Amber appeared in 48 episodes of Korero Mai, an Avante-Garde drama series that taught Te Reo to a new audience via interwoven-show reviews of the dialogue.
Screen Actors often remark that their first love is the theatre. While Amber’s route to recognition was via the medium of film, she has been “making theatre since 2008″, and in 2009 was moved to start, along with fellow actors Albert Belz and Tainui Tukiwaho, Te Rēhia Theatre Company after a hui with like-minded Maori in theatre, who examined the local scene, and found Auckland was lacking in a dedicated Maori theatre space. Amber said she enjoyed television acting but gets ” a real kick out of making (theatre) shows happen”. ” I enjoy working with talented theatre-makers and the connections that come from it. I do really love the art form.” Te Rehia is a Maori-led creative that showcases traditional customs and values, known as Tikanga, and applies them to the stage performance.
Amber believes that changing the narrative as it applies to traditional Pakeha theatre is an important step forward in developing and promoting Maori-led artists.
She says the Te Rehia company’s shows have a “focus on Kaupapa Maori”, a set of values, principles and ideas that, when applied to the arts, normalise Maori in the creative space.
Amber, who is of mixed heritage, says her ” Maori family had turned away. They were urban Maori, but I was fortunate to be born when education brought in teaching Te Reo.” By 2015, The company had outgrown its original premises and now bases itself out of Te Pou, the home of Maori theatre in Auckland, holding performances at Corban Estate Art Centre in Henderson. Amber says the theatre is unique; ” there are no other Maori spaces like it”, and seasons typically run for two weeks. Te Rehia managed to put on a performance of ” Black Ties” in 2020 before Covid took hold. The show was a collaboration between Te Rehia and ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, an indigenous group from Australia billed as ‘ a reimagining of the popular wedding rom-com from a distinctively First Nations perspective.’The theatre is not afraid to be provocative and push the envelope. In 2021 as part of the international comedy festival, Racists anonymous, directed by Tainui Tukiwaho, followed a humourous mock- AA-style meeting, where ‘attendees’ share examples of racism they have been subjected to and examine the bigger conversation about what New Zealanders need to do to bring a shift in attitudes.
Amber said Te Rehia’s recent focus has been on making ” a lot of shows for kids”- often as bi-lingual versions that highlight Te Reo and Kaupapa.
The group also hit the road to perform “front yard festivals” and shows to elderly people. With lockdown restrictions, Amber says they have pivoted into doing ” well-received” digital shows.2022 sees the first recognition of Matariki on the Aotearoa calendar. The reappearance of a cluster of stars brings in the Maori new year- an ancient celestial event that is seen as a time to reflect on the past year’s events and make plans for the forthcoming year. Amber says Matariki is more than a belatedly-recognised public holiday; it’s also about ” honouring those who have passed, and looking at the nine stars and what they mean, and relate to.”After being involved a decade ago in another performance, Amber has been asked to come and direct shows based on the event at Oneroa’s Artworks theatre after they acquired funding from Foundation North. She is excited about ” making a show for whanau using local talent” and harnessing Waiheke’s “creative love and talented performers.”
The Matariki show is a part of a six-week mixed media program in venues across the motu. Events include Te Po kiriata, a Maori short film evening, ‘ Shot Bro’- a solo show, and He Hautapu, which tells the Matariki story to children via the use of puppets, as well as a fashion show, music, and a dawn service inclusive of karakia, waiata and kōrero led by representatives of Ngati Paoa. Local writer Billy Treadwell is featured. The festival’s immersive experiences have a grass-roots feel after open-casting calls invited the Waiheke community to bring their ideas and individuality to the table to tell the story of Maori creation. The origin story is considered the oldest philosophy of Aotearoa, and Amber aims to create an authentic experience that encompasses and faithfully retells the narrative that has been passed down through generations. The story begins in the space of Te Kore, an empty faceless void described by Amber as a “space of nothingness and limitless potential. We will bring together our ideas as a roopu, sharing and allowing ideas to live lightly and freely between us. At the end of this weekend, we move into Te Pō, a time of formation, before we see the glimmer of Te Whaiao and finally launch this show ki Te Ao Marama.”
This story originally appeared in Waiheke Weekender.