ESTHER STEPHENS

ESTHER STEPHENS 
Musician & Actress
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I grew up in Howick, East Auckland. Music was something you kind of didn’t have a choice with in my family.  Dad had been playing instruments and writing songs his entire life, my mum and sister were both musical and my brother was in a band called Artisan Guns. So it was almost just a given that I’d end up doing something musical. Dad was a minister until I was 16, so I grew up singing in the church. I can’t remember my first official performance, but I remember the first time I went to a recording studio with Dad when I was nine years old. I couldn’t believe it was real!

From a young age I always enjoyed performing and thought it was something I might like to do when I was older. As you start to explore something that you’re good at in a way where people notice, you have those experiences, particularly in intermediate, where you fall victim to Tall Poppy Syndrome. You get picked on and people really try to bring you down for pursuing something that you love, which can really make it hard to keep going. So off the back of that, I lost heart with it a little bit throughout early high school.

When I was trying to figure out what I was going to do when I left school, I heard Murray Hutchinson, the former head of acting at Unitec talk at a school careers night. The programme and what it entailed really captured my imagination and I quickly fell in love with the idea of studying acting. The school production of Oliver in my 7th form year really opened my eyes to the world of musical theatre, so following that I auditioned for Unitec and went on to study acting for three years, which really kicked everything off.

Part of the reason I decided to study acting as opposed to music was because I had already been playing in bands and performing as a singer, so I decided that it would essentially be a good move for me to train what I thought was my weaker discipline. That way it was like adding two strings to my bow. So with acting, it wasn’t until I made that decision to study it, that I actually started pursuing it seriously and funnily enough that 7th form school production was a real catalyst for that.

People talk about being ‘too big’ in terms of your acting style. I always thought that I would be too big for television and not quite naturalistic enough, because naturally I’m a very demonstrative and theatrical person. After I graduated from Unitec I started working in musical theatre, then went overseas for a bit of exploration. While I was in New York I got the call from New Zealand asking me to put a tape down for Go Girls. At the time I was really sick and didn’t have the right recording equipment, so there was just no way that I could audition. When I got home they still hadn’t cast the role and wanted to see me, so I got my material together, went in and lucky for me ended up getting the part of Olivia in the second season.

Go Girls was a huge learning on the job experience for me. At the time I didn’t know any of the TV set lingo, or even how to read a call sheet. Because the time between me being cast and being on set was only a matter of weeks and Olivia was a new core-cast member, I was totally thrown in the deep end into a sink or swim scenario. Fortunately for me I had some lovely people around me who really taught me how to be on set and work as a television actor. Peter Burger who was one of the directors is one who I really credit with helping me learn how to be a good screen actor. That first season was really challenging but I certainly learnt a lot and I was lucky enough to come back for two more seasons after that, where over that time I really started to expand my skill base.

After Go Girls I went and lived in Melbourne for four years. Part of that was wanting to see what else was out there and to see how I could expand my opportunities by being in a different place. The first year was pretty hard. It’s a much bigger place, with a lot more work, but there’s also more actors. I started auditioning and got a couple of good little roles but it’s funny that as soon as you leave somewhere, people decide they want you back. So I started coming back to New Zealand to do a lot more work. I did the WW1 Project and my band Esther Stephens and The Means were also doing a fair amount at that time, so I started frequently tripping back. Once it got to a point where my commitments meant that I wasn’t spending much time in Melbourne anymore, my husband and I decided to move back to Auckland.

I auditioned for Ngaire on Westside when I was still living in Melbourne. I had seen bits and pieces of Outrageous Fortune so had this vague recollection of what kind of character she was and how she held herself. I thought I’d look online to see if I could find anything to jog my memory but everything was totally geo-blocked and there was nothing on Youtube. So for the audition I just had to take queues from the script itself in terms of how she reacted to Rita and what those interchanges were like. You’re taking 30 years or more off a character so it’s such a big jump back in time, but coincidentally I think that I had a similar kind of energy to Elizabeth Hawthorne. The directors also specifically stated that they were not looking for someone to do an impression of the existing character, or to replicate them in anyway, so it just seemed like a happy marriage.

Westside is a really fun show to make, with such a lovely cast who truly are good friends that love going to set everyday. Having those good relationships and open communications really serve the script and the characters well as we all openly talk about our characters trajectories together. That’s the joy of being on a long running show, because you don’t often get that as a guest character on an existing show. You turn up in the morning and the machine of that show is already barrelling along and there’s no time to have those conversations, so you just have to slot into whatever is going on, do your thing and then get out of there.

There’s a reason why actors get cast in certain roles. They have an energy, rhythm or quality that is exactly what the writer is looking to portray in a character. I think I have always been a bit of an old soul and in terms of my my manner I’m quite weighted and my voice is quite deep, so I have some of those qualities that make people cast me in those stronger female roles.

When I left drama school, I learnt very quickly where my niche was. It’s an old trope, but you really start to learn how much hair colour plays a part in casting when you first start acting. I did lots of different things with my hair throughout my 20s and I noticed that when I had dark hair I’d always get the role of a journalist, politician or lawyer – the real career women. When I was a redhead and had short hair, I was the quirky best friend of lesbians. Then when I was blonde it would always be the romantic lead, which although it looked right, just didn’t fit with my personality.

One of the realisations I had last year was that you can’t spend your life chasing other people’s dreams. You have to listen to your own heart and the voice inside you that tells you if this is the right way for you, because if you go against that, you’re only going to be unhappy. The other thing that has been really useful for me in my career is trusting my gut and sometimes that can be really hard.

My representation had an office in Los Angeles and they were interested in me coming over for pilot season and having a look at work in the States. However, the further I got with investigating that process and what the possibilities were, the more I just didn’t feel like it was the right road for me. It’s strange because there’s this expectation that all actors want to go to LA and truly become successful because it’s the mecca of film and television. But for me personally, that’s not my dream and not what I want for myself. It’s just not part of my personal goals or list of priorities. So I said to the agency, ‘thanks so much for your belief in me, but that’s not actually something I want to invest in at this point in time.’ They thought I was crazy, to the point where I ended up questioning myself as to whether or not I had just sabotaged my entire career. But those are the instincts you have to follow and they made me realise that while I love my career as a performer, I do have other priorities in my life – I got married last year and my relationship is really important to me. I’d like to have children at some point and I want to have a home in New Zealand. I want to have a balanced life, where I can have all of the things that I love and are important to me.

In terms of my creative life, my first goal is longevity. I want to be able to do this for as long as I possibly can. I don’t care if there’s fame and glory involved or not. I just want to make cool shit, with cool people for as long as I possibly can, so that’s where my priorities lie. That presents its own set of challenges of course. It means that you’ve got to be willing to hang in there when the work is quiet and make the most of the work when it is there. I’ve never had another full time job other than performance work. Certainly as a performer you have your side hustle that helps pay the rent, but this is the only life that I ever wanted and I feel very lucky that I am still doing it. You always feel like it could dry up at anytime, but you can’t let that fear get the better of you, or let it erode your sense of personal value. It’s very easy when the work is not flowing to think that you’re a terrible actor and you should just give up and quit, but if you can have your own sense of security and worth, then that counts for a lot.

In my final year of drama school my voice teacher Linda Cartwright told me that, ‘If your work is good, it will speak for itself.’ It was at a time when everyone was talking about making the right connections and schmoozing their way into the industry, but I just prioritised on making the best work that I possibly could and trusted that opportunities would follow on from that. So far, that piece of advice has never put me wrong.

The universe has a strange way of bringing you what you need at the right time. Every time I’ve thought of bailing because I’ve been out of work for so long and it’s too hard, the phone will ring with another opportunity. That’s when that self-care stuff is important. Taking care of your own mental and emotional health and the other areas of your life that can get neglected.

I think if you’re an artist or an independent contractor it’s important to stay across your finances. This road isn’t easy – It’s so unpredictable, you don’t know when your next job is coming and you’re always at the mercy of somebody else’s judgement of you, so you have to put something in place to protect yourself from that. You need to know that if you don’t have a job next month you can still make your rent if a person says, ’no we’re not casting you,’ and have a breakdown when that happens. Allow yourself one day of feeling shitty about the fact that you didn’t get the part, then pick yourself back up and surround yourself with people that love and encourage you. We’ve seen too many artists take a turn for the worst because of circumstance and I think we need to protect people with creative temperaments and support them further.

One of the things that makes New Zealand music, theatre, television and film so special is the fact that we are such a small country, that breeds a certain kind of creativity. I feel like we are more likely to take risks because we don’t have as much to lose. People are making work on the smell of an oily rag. There’s no budget, but if everyone likes an idea they all contribute to it together. At the same time that is a double-edged sword because it means it can be challenging to make a living because we’re such a smaller market. But I do believe that willingness to take risks and express our unique, creative voice is such an asset. The only thing that we really lack is the self confidence to promote our work and take it to the international and national stage and say ‘We’ve done some really good work and you’ll love it.’

However, It is certainly an interesting time for creative women in New Zealand. There’s a lot of us who are currently making really interesting work – Jennifer Ward-Lealand for example, who I had the opportunity of working with on our tour of ‘That Bloody Woman.’ Julia Deans is another person who is a fantastically inspirational human being. Also Antonia Prebble, Sophie Hambleton and Sophie Roberts who is the head of Silo Theatre, are all amazing and inspiring individuals.

It’s a very exciting time to be a woman in the creative arts in New Zealand.

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One thought on “ESTHER STEPHENS

  1. I have a 15 year old daughter who is loving drama / singing/performing at school and has an audition shortly with a local theatre company and many points in this story will definitely help her through a few things I’m sure.
    A great insight into one of our many talent women in this country.
    Thank you

    Like

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