Story by Himiona Grace
Ko Hiwi-o-te-Wera me Kiha nga pae maunga.
Ko Haurepo ko Wainui nga koawa.
Ko Te Umuroa te marae.
Ko Te-Poho-o-Parahaki te tipuna whare.
Ko Mihi-ki-te-Kapua te wharekai.
Ko Ngati Manunui te hapu.
Ko Paraki te tipuna.
Ko Ngāi Tūhoe
It would be an injustice to describe Tola Newbery just as an actor. He is so much more than that. In The Pā Boys, his most recent film he plays ‘Cityboy’ a young drummer with dreams of making it big. The role showcased Tola’s talent as an actor, singer and musician. But he is also a performance artist and is known to set up in the streets of Auckland, Wellington, or where ever he happens to be ‘to play on ideas’, tell stories through dance or movement and waiata (song).
“I always knew it’s what I wanted to do. Growing up my parents said I loved entertaining, singing, telling jokes and doing comedy. It’s as far back as I can remember. I was always on stage from primary school right through to college.”
Tola grew up in Lyttelton “a cool little port town, which was quite generous in terms of art. It was a small community then and really inspirational”.
Creativity is on both sides of his family. His father is an inventor and his Mum a singer/performer so it’s very much “in the blood.” And when it comes to Tola’s original art performances they definitely can be described as ‘inventive’.
“When I create a piece I don’t even write a script. I do a physical score, work it out through movement and rhythm and song. It’s always about the kaupapa and creating. But if other people come in [to help with the show] you have to write something down, so I grab a bit of cardboard,” he laughs.
It wasn’t just his parents who supported him in pursuing a career in the arts.
“I had a great drama teacher at college, she encouraged me to do New Zealand drama for NCEA. And it was at college that I saw a poster advertising for students to join Toi Whakaari (The NZ Drama School) in Wellington. I had a gap year and did a few different jobs and shows, starting with Crash Bash Tour, and productions for The Court Theatre in Christchurch. I just wanted to see if the acting buzz was really what I wanted to do.”
It was a big decision to move to Wellington after being accepted into Toi Whakaari. “It was an experience. You learned techniques and the psychology of theatre.
It was intense, I had a 6 month old baby and we were young parents. We had a house by the drama school but it was long hours and days, starting at 7.30 in the morning with warm ups and sometimes we weren’t out of there til 10. Especially intense when you’re doing a show that would run for up to four weeks plus everything else you’re doing at the time, the family, study, playing in a band, just trying to have a social life.”
Since graduation Tola has played many varying roles in theatre, television and film. And in each role he seems to actually take on another persona, to the point that you sometimes wonder if this is an actor playing a role or is this the real character who has been put on stage.
A review of the 2013 production Hui had this to say, "...But it is Tola Newbery who is the revelation here. His portrayal of George, who is intellectually disabled, is something really special - sincere, touching, respectful.”
And there’s not much chance of him being typecast either. He does play young Maori male roles because that what he is. But each character he plays is different from the others and he can easily move in to more mainstream roles like Rev Athol Segwick from The Pohutukawa Tree and Oberon from a Midsummer Nights Dream.
So how does acting in theatre compare to television or film? “Theatre is very physical, you have to be on your game night after night after night. And a play could take a long time to write. For instance ‘Hīkoi’ written and directed by Nancy Brunning took her years to write it. But we only performed it for two weeks (with the possibility of more shows). Film is different, it keeps and can be watched forever”. Theatre acting is also big, you make your characters larger than life because you’re on stage and have to project out to the audience to connect with them. In film it’s the opposite, you pull everything internally because the camera is close and reads everything you do or think. Every expression.
“[There are] good people in the arts, heaps of actors, coming out of drama school too, we’re all competing for the same roles but everyone is close”. Inevitably, with such competition there is only so much theatre and screen work to go around.
“As I refine what I want to do, my performances, art, acting I have a lot of jobs in between, like plastering and working in schools and communities. Anything goes, sometimes you just need money to fund your art”.
Inspiration for his performance pieces come from the usual influences, whanau, surroundings, politics, what’s happening at the time. “Sometimes it’s pictures that come into my head.”
But for Tola a big driving force to perform and create comes from within. “I just want to do better”.