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Be Street Smart - or You'll Go Up in Flames

Tanea Heke.
Tanea Heke in Waru (2017).
A straight shooter and a force to be reckoned with on screen, on stage and behind the scenes - Tanea Heke's career is an extraordinary one, Kirsten Matthew writes.


Ask Tanea Heke how she got to where she is and she’ll give it to you straight. “I’m gobby and I’ve got an opinion,” says the director of Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School. 

It’s an attitude that has taken the 57-year-old places. Over three decades in the arts, Heke’s carved out a reputation as a powerful actor and a formidable arts administrator. She’s worked with and supported New Zealand literature, fine art and drama while empowering women and Māori to take on positions and move into spaces in the arts. This year, she’ll juggle her directorship of the national drama school — not only running the institution but shepherding it through a post-COVID-19 reality — with acting work and talks with leaders in the sector about how to ensure the arts are sustainable in our new world. And, she’ll probably run a marathon and mentor a couple of colleagues in her downtime too.

The Power of One

“She’s strong and she’s capable,” says her friend, playwright Victor Rodger. “In amongst all of this amazing stuff, she’s a mother with three very evenly spaced children. She has a full life. And she is so connected, with a lot of pretty flash people at her fingertips. She can blow the conch and get them anywhere.”

“Tanea Heke is an extraordinary woman; a leader, a team player, a shaker and mover, a practical doer not scared of hard work and an inspiration to many people,” said Carla van Zon when Heke was appointed to the Toi Whakaari role last July. “Her appointment... is great for Aotearoa New Zealand’s national theatre school. She will lead the organisation into the future – a future that welcomes everyone.”

“I’m a mummy first and a nanny and then a whole lot of other things,” says Heke (Ngā Puhi), somewhat underplaying her capabilities. “I’ve always had and done lots of different jobs and I have been lucky that I've been presented with opportunities. Often as an actor, I have got into what was none of my business, saying ‘Hey, I will do this’. I’m trying lots of hats on at Toi Whakaari.” 

Naked Ambition

Heke’s first go-round with Toi Whakaari in the early ’90s was sort-of accidental. The young mum was at Victoria University of Wellington, studying linguistics and Māori and planning to embark on a diploma in teaching. When she realised linguistics wasn’t for her — “I was the thickest student they had ever had. I didn’t realise that linguistics was actually science.” — she spotted the drama department next to the campus kohanga reo her children attended, decided it would be convenient for drop off and pick up, and switched to a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Māori and a minor in theatre and film. Tanea Heke performing in Insurrection.

Tanea Heke performing in Insurrection.

Studying drama then was a very different proposition to now. “They pulled us apart and then built us back up again,” Heke explains. “It was about ripping out all of your faults and it was painful. I learnt Received Pronunciation. There was a naked class — this was well before ‘Me Too’ — and in every production you could guarantee there’d be a nude appearance... All of those experiences have helped shape and influence the person that came out the other side and I really, really enjoyed it. But now you work with the newer generation who are carving out these fantastic careers and moving into roles where they shape the landscape.”

“That year was one full of very strong personalities,” says Rodger, who met Heke at drama school. “When I look back, I loved the connections I got to make that year and Tanea has become a really significant figure in my life. We forged a strong connection and as one of the older students, she was a real leader and she showed that throughout. It doesn’t surprise me that that has carried through in the roles that she has had since leaving.”

As a student and then a neophyte jobbing actor, Heke was often surprised at the roles she was asked to play: “They were always strong women. Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, Blanche [in A Streetcar Named Desire]. I played one of the witches in Summer Shakespeare on stilts! I played Professor Higgins’ mother in My Fair Lady with natty dreads.”

With film credits for No 2, Eagle vs Shark, Second Hand Wedding and, more recently, Waru, she’s played a role in some of our best-known contemporary movies. Theatre parts in The Prophet, Hāruru Mai by Briar Grace-Smith, Doubt and countless other plays have been added to the resume too. Last year, Heke took on the role of Old Mata in “Cousins”, a feature film directed by Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith and based on the book by Patricia Grace. 

“The first I knew of Tanea was her renown as an actress,” says Tama Waipara, Heke’s friend and  chief executive of Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival. “The icons of Māori theatre — Nancy Brunning, Rachel House — Tanea is part of their ilk; staunch Māori women who were innovators and made space for people, building opportunities for Māori theatre.”

“She’s a very strong actor,” says Rodger. “That’s not to say she can’t play vulnerability; she can. She’s done so much in her theatre work.”

Heke’s first formal foray into administration came in 1998, when she took a job at Taki Rua. “I learnt to be a producer there,” she says of the Māori theatre and production company. “I was lucky enough to team up, very early on, with Nancy Brunning. I worked with her; we went overseas together on a gig. She became my teacher. She had such a strong vision. It was all about mana wahine, mana Māori.”

The creative, collaborative relationship between the two women was extremely influential in Heke’s life until Brunning’s death in 2019. The pair formed their own company, Hāpai Productions, and focused on theatre that embodied and promoted Te Ao Māori. Heke still contributes to the company as a producer and Hāpai will present the play ‘Witi’s Wahine’ at Waipara’s Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival this October.

“Whenever we did a Hāpai production, Nancy’s dream would be to work with Māori practitioners. There were more actors and directors around, but it was also about lighting, AVs, sound design and looking at the abundance of Māori work in all of the disciplines. At Nancy’s tangi, when I did a kōrero, it was to remind people of her vision. It was being able to acknowledge these people and the mahi they do.”

Strength in Numbers

Tanea Heke in Waru (2017).

Heke’s knack for nurturing and connecting up-and-coming arts practitioners is a skill she’s applied in every subsequent role. She’s been employed as an exhibition manager at Te Papa, and took work at Creative New Zealand overseeing the Venice Biennale and our country’s cultural programme at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair. 

“Being a project manager at Te Papa was the same thing as Taki Rua; they still do everything there on the smell of an oily rag,” Heke says when asked if it has been difficult to move between different genres. “I understood that the skills were about working with people, being good with people and being able to go through to the delivery phase of the installment of art. I do always worry about whether I will be good enough. I get whakamā (embarrassed). But Te Papa was just like putting on a play - the teams were bigger and there was slightly more money, but it was the same.

“There is always an extra component for me: Who can I bring through with me?” Heke explains. “The role I see myself doing is always for someone else to follow behind. I truly, truly believe that I need to be bringing two, three, four people with me. I never want our people to think they can’t and if you see it, you know you can do it. So it’s not a personal thing [my career] and it never was.”

“She has always had a rather fabulous, splendid way of bringing people together,” says Waipara, who met Heke a dozen years ago, when she was working for Creative New Zealand. “Her knowledge around the arts and way of bringing people together really allows people to try on their own terms. In all the versions of Tanea, she’s such an accomplished, knowledgeable, intellectual wahine toa, but her generosity and humility is overriding.”

And a sense of humour helps. “She has a wicked sense of humour,” adds Waipara. “I’ve been in many situations where at the last minute someone has asked her to open a process or get us kicked off and with no warning at all she’ll deliver the most profound kōrero, with humour and always with heart. She has an ability to say things in a way we are able to hear them and process and reflect on them.”

“Her mischievous side will never fail to manifest and people respond to it,” adds Rodger. “Not everyone can get away with it, but my mate certainly can.”

Tanea Heke.

Future Proofing

So how is Heke adapting Toi Whakaari for post-COVID tertiary learning? Mostly, her students and teachers are back in the building; online learning is also available. Some of it, she says, has been “a bloody hōhā (nuisance), but we have learned to make our work, and approach it, in different ways. I’d like to think COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to recalibrate and redefine the way we work.  Not just as a school but as a community. We need to keep positive, hold that and let it nurture. Don’t be defined by the deficit but by the opportunity.”

That resilience and positivity is essential for a career in the arts, Heke says. “Here’s my thinking, my whakaaro: You have to be street smart, really resilient, or you’ll go up in flames. You have to work at it, work hard to be in this business any longer than two years because it’s one of the most difficult professions. If you choose to work in this sector, you have a weird gene anyway. There is nothing about working in the arts that is easy ever. And if you’re a maker, you can do anything you frigging like - you’re not defined by it.” 


Words by Kirsten Matthew.


Written by

Kirsten Matthew

1 Jun 2020