There’s a fair chance, as more of us have the pleasure of getting to know Kura Forrester, that she’ll reward us all with plenty of laughs. The Ngāti Porou actress and comedian recently won the coveted Billy T award at this year’s NZ International Comedy Festival— the first Māori comedian to do so since 2004 — confirming her as a rising star in comedy.
Here she is talking to Dale, whose taste in humour runs a little less racy.
Tēnā koe, Kura. Or tēnā koe Kura Leigh Forrester, if I were to address you by your full name, which is a handle that suggests that, like me, you come from a Māori–Pākehā whānau.
Kia ora, Dale. And yes, my dad, Amos Forrester, is Ngāti Porou, from Tokomaru Bay, and my mum, Robyn, is Pākehā from Wainuiomata, in Wellington. Her dad was from Huddersfield in England, but I’m not sure about her mum. I assume she was from Wellington, too.
And how did your folks get together?
I’m pretty sure they met at the Petone Rugby Club. My dad started playing rugby for Petone while he was studying at Victoria University. They were in the same area at the same time and had a bunch of mutual friends as well. And they’ve still got those friends today.
What sort of study was your old man doing?
Accounting. And he went on to be an accountant for various companies and then into management. These days he’s on lots of boards and rūnanga for Ngāti Porou. He’s very academic and good with money. Not like me!
Not like me, either. Did you go to school in Tokomaru Bay?
No, we never grew up there, unfortunately. My Dad did, and then got a scholarship to go to St Stephen’s School out there at Bombay — he talks about getting shipped off to Tipene from Toko when he was only 12 years old. And then he carried on to university at Victoria.
So I was born in Wellington, Lower Hutt. I grew up in Eastbourne, then Dunedin till about the age of 10, then back to Wellington, in Plimmerton. But Tokomaru Bay was where we’d go for our summer holidays and whānau catch-ups.
As a matter of fact, here at E-Tangata, we have a connection with your dad through his early days, when he was a little squirt at Tipene. One of our E-T team, Gary Wilson, way back in 1965, was an English teacher there and recalls having an especially bright bunch of third formers that year — including Amos from Toko. And among his classmates were Wassie Shortland, long known for his command of reo Māori, and Larry Parr, the head of Te Māngai Pāho.
Yeah. That would’ve been my dad. Wow. That’s awesome.
Tipene, of course, has since closed, but we should mihi to the school because, for many years, decades in fact, it had a significant impact on the lives of a great many young Māori men. Does you dad speak of those times at the school?
Yeah, he does, although with mixed feelings. I get the impression that, because it was a boarding school, it wasn’t always an easy place to be. He tells stories about some pretty full-on bullying. But I know he’s also made lifelong friends from that place.
What are your memories of your high school days?
Well, I went to Wellington Girls’ College, and I didn’t see myself as being very smart. I guess that was because I couldn’t help but compare myself to my friends and older siblings. I have an older brother and older sister, and I’m very close to them both. I always wanted to be like them — and, back then, I didn’t understand that you could be smart in various ways.
It took me quite a while to realise that being smart doesn’t mean just being good with numbers, or being a geeky kinda book nerd. You can be smart with your opinions and comments, and with your humour. It took me a while to see that being funny was being smart, and being powerful as well.
I’ve also learned how important it is not to compare yourself to others, especially as a young person.
Have you ever considered that being the youngest among your siblings has helped shape your personality?
Absolutely. And, in hindsight, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I used to love performing for my family in the ad breaks when we were watching TV. I was always a natural show-off and I guess that, as the youngest kid, you sorta gotta vie for attention. Then going to drama school and meeting lots of actors, I remember thinking there were a lot who were the youngest in their family. It’s a personality trait for sure.
Was drama school a natural progression for you?
Well, at Wellington Girls’ College, which had a great drama department, I was always first to put my hand up for any school productions. We also had a really competitive kapa haka group, and when we performed, I always had a feeling that I might be good at this.
I didn’t really know that it was a career option until a friend of mine gave me the prospectus for the UNITEC drama school in Auckland and said I should have a look at this. So I did a bit of research.
But I’ll never forget a moment, probably when I was in the sixth form, when a teacher took us to Te Papa to see a play called Woman Far Walking. Rachel House starred in that and I remember the play starting and me just looking up at this amazing performer.
That was a real turning point for me. I was like: “I wanna do that.” Here was this Māori woman making her career out of that acting talent. And I was thinking: “Oh my God, that’s possible.” You know?
So Rachel is somebody that I acknowledge whenever I talk about where it started for me. And then, of course, going to see lots of plays during drama school and watching other amazing people like Nancy Brunning and Miriama McDowell and Madeleine Sami.
I get the impression that the skills you’ve garnered, for serious theatrical work as well as for comedy, have given you an important backstop in your career.
For sure. And I feel lucky to be able to give both a go. I’m often asked what I prefer, as if I have to pick one, and I’m like: “Aw mate, I love all of them. I’d never be able to choose just one out of TV or theatre or comedy or drama.”
I like giving everything a go. I think I have a natural propensity towards comedy, but I find drama just as challenging and just as exciting. So it’s really cool to have my hands in lots of pies, I guess.
What did you learn from that period in drama school that you think helped with your comedy?
Oh, so much. When I started drama school, I was only 17 and the youngest in my class, and I think the eldest was 30 something. And, over those three years in Auckland, I did a lot of growing up. At first I didn’t know how to drive or pay my bills or anything like that, and I was really grateful for that time to move out of home and get some of my life together as an adult.
It’s important to go out and do scary things like that as soon as you can as a young person, just to get to know yourself. And I think I found comedy in the same way. Trying it and really just showing off in front of my classmates. Enjoying it and starting to write my own stuff as well. At drama school, we got to write our own monologues and that’s where I think we learned that you’ve either got it or you don’t.
I had people in my class who didn’t have a natural feel for comedy and it helped me see that it was more than just my personality, and that I had the skill and the timing on stage to turn it on. So it was all about honing those skills, understanding what I was doing, and employing the best techniques.
I’ve talked at times to Mike King about the art of the stand-up comedian and he’s emphasised how much depends on rehearsing. He says that on stage you’ve gotta look like it’s all coming out naturally when, in fact, there’ve been hours in front of the mirror with a hairbrush, perfecting the routine.
I totally agree with Mike. The art of comedy, I reckon, is rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing, and then looking like you’re just making it up then and there. That’s where the artistry comes into it.
I love being so well rehearsed that I know where I’m headed, I know where the builds are, and I know how to let the audience feel they’re allowed to laugh or respond in other ways. And there’s space for me to improvise. And the only way you can do that is if you’ve rehearsed and worked hard enough on your stuff.
As we know, Mike is doing some brilliant and important work in this new stage of his career. But, in the past, he’s made use of what some would see as fairly crass, X-rated material. I guess that’s part of finding out where the line should be drawn.
I reckon the best comedy is telling the truth. It’s whatever’s going on in your life — if you’re being honest about it and seeing it in a funny perspective and sharing that with your audience. The best thing about comedians is that they can see what’s funny in everything. As a comedian, you can get laughs from talking about the most mundane things. Like, everybody knows what it’s like to be on a first date. Or have rude thoughts. And, as long as you’re being honest, it can be funny.
You’re not afraid to venture below the belt in your comedy routines, even though in te ao Māori we’re often reminded that it’s impolite to talk about that stuff— and that it may be especially inappropriate in the presence of mum and dad. But you’ve invited your parents to a show where you speak about sexual encounters and other realities of your own life.
It was a really big thing for me to have Mum and Dad at my show this year. I’d never had that experience before because usually I’m playing characters. So, even if Mum and Dad come and see me do something a bit racy, they don’t care and I don’t care, because it’s not really me. It’s the character saying this stuff.
But this show was completely different because I was telling true life stories. Luckily, my big sister was a buffer, and she came along to the show on opening night and went home and told mum and dad everything they were about to hear. And she asked them: “Will you be okay with that?”
They both said: “Yep. We’ll be fine.” So they had tickets for closing night in Wellington and I’d had a good run and I was so proud of the show— and I really wanted them to see it. So they sat up the back and I didn’t make eye contact with them the whole time, especially when I was talking about the dates and stuff with different guys.
And, afterwards, they were really proud of me and said I had nothing to worry about. They were really cool about it, but it was definitely tricky and something that I had to think hard about before letting them come to the show. I’d talked to other comedians and they said that sometimes they just don’t let their parents come to anything, because it’s easier that way.
I understand that you did some of your stand-up apprenticeship when you went off to the UK on your OE. Did that experience help build up your confidence?
Yeah, for sure. There was an element of anonymity that helped. I didn’t know anyone, so I could tell myself: “Aw, it doesn’t matter if I bomb here, because I don’t really care about what any of these people think.”
I picked a place that was doing open-mic nights. The other performers there were pretty average and, because I’d been to drama school, I knew I could get by on stage even if I wasn’t funny. I thought I could at least “fake it till I make it”. It was a great place for me to start.
So you weren’t petrified? But perhaps you are sometimes?
All the time. But petrifying-ness is getting less and less common for me. Thank goodness. In 2015, I did a show here in New Zealand called Tiki Tour. It was my very first hour of stand-up and I remember being backstage waiting to come on, and thinking: “Oh God. Why did I decide to do this?” And then getting out there and really enjoying it.
My director and close friend Jessica Joy Wood, who I make my stand-up shows with, is a big help with that. She’s very good at telling me not to be too nervous!
But, yeah, stand-up is definitely the scariest thing ever. It’s also an awesome natural high.
It’s awesome, too, because it’s so simple. It’s nothing like the shows that depend on roadies lugging drum kits and other gear for their band. It’s just you and a microphone. Do you enjoy the fact that it’s such a sparse setup?
Absolutely. One of my favourite things about it is the simplicity — and the fact that you can take it anywhere. It’s so accessible and it’s for everyone. Tickets are cheap and it’s only an hour long. I love theatre and big plays as well, but there’s so much work behind them and so many people involved, whereas this is just you and a microphone. Very simple.
Who are the comedians you’ve admired over the years? And who’ve influenced you?
Billy T James was probably my first exposure to comedy. I remember watching his shows and thinking he was so clever and real and honest and cheeky and brave. I loved everything about those shows when I was growing up. My dad used to play his tapes in the car along with Prince Tui Teka. So I’ve always been inspired by them.
But Māori people that live rurally are so funny and inspirational, too. And sometimes when I go back to Tokomaru Bay, I’m the least funniest person there. Everyone’s so naturally crack-up.
Then, coming up through the ranks, there’ve been Americans like Kristen Wiig and Tina Fey and all these amazing ladies absolutely killing it — and people making Saturday Night Live and writing their own stuff. And, of course, there was Hannah Gadsby a couple of years ago making a show that really blew my mind.
Also, when I went to Ecole Philippe Gaulier, the clown school in Paris, that had a big impact on me. Then there’s Madeleine Sami and Jackie Van Beek and all these amazing comedic performers in New Zealand.
So, inspiration happens all the time, every day and everywhere. And I’m always on the lookout for it.
I doubt if many people are aware of the work that has gone into you developing into the high-class performer that you’ve become. So they may underestimate the pleasure and pride you no doubt felt when you won the Billy T James Yellow Towel award at this year’s comedy festival. It must’ve been a thrill and humbling for you to get that nod of recognition from your peers.
It was an amazing feeling. The five Billy T nominees are all really good friends and we all helped each other out during the buildup towards the performance night. And, yes, I was so stoked. I’d told myself, if I don’t win, I’ve still given it my best shot. So that was quite a nice feeling. And then the award just felt like a cherry on top. Bloody stoked.
Obviously, you’ve made a name in New Zealand and there must be some potential for you as an entertainer and comedic talent overseas. But are there any barriers to that next step? I guess what I’m asking is whether you can make a decent quid out of this work around the world?
I hope so. That’s really my next challenge. I’m keen to do the Melbourne Comedy Festival next year — and Edinburgh as well. I look at Rose Matafeo who’s absolutely killing it overseas, and so I’d love to put myself to the test and see if that could work out for me.
And your old man could manage your money.
Yeah. Exactly. Ha!
Then there’s scope for acting in television and movies, isn’t there? Can you see that in your future as well, Kura?
Absolutely! Actually, I have just started a little stint on Shortland St. Doing fast-turnaround television is a new skillset for me, but I’m having lots of fun.
You’re not in Tokomaru Bay now, Miss Forrester. Maybe they could use that line in one of the new episodes some time.
What about music. I’m assuming that you can sing?
I like to think I can! I reckon I can hold a tune — but, no, I’m not going to make a living out of that, that’s for sure. But I do love singing.
Finally, you may like to comment on the question of whether we’re making enough effort to encourage talented young Māori into taking the plunge that you’ve taken in opting for a career in theatre and entertainment. Should there be more focus through the school years on looking beyond conventional professions and trades and seeing what opportunities there are for careers in performance art?
I do some of this work with Massive Theatre Company. They’re the best company I know at reaching young people. Massive goes into schools talking to young people and holding free theatre workshops. They try to get around to the rest of the country, but it’s a small, independent company, so like many theatre companies, funding is an ongoing battle.
I think the education system could put so much more emphasis on the arts as a career option, though.
Being able to express yourself and tell stories is such an important part of being human, and yet we keep cutting funding for the arts. That’s horrific to me. I think the arts should be seen as a popular career path. Not that it’s easy. It’s frigging hard work, it’s lots of hours, and there’s no glamour in it.
It’d be really valuable for school students if they could learn about those worlds and they could see that, to succeed as an actor, it’s not a matter of being lucky or pretty. It comes from dedication and hard work. I’m an example of somebody who’s gone down that path and would love to help students, especially Māori, to see that it could be an option for them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kura will be performing her award-winning show Kura Shoulda Woulda for one night only in Auckland’s Q Theatre on 31 August. You can book here.
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