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Small town dreams to bright lights

Last seen in these parts behind The Gisborne Herald's front desk, Uawa-Tolaga Bay woman Te Ao o Hinepehinga Rauna has since travelled overseas, returned and been cast as Aria O'Kane in the upcoming TV series, Head High.

Described as a case of art imitating life, the TV drama series plays on the concept of last year's real-life saga in which St Kentigern College was accused of poaching rugby talent from rival schools. Rauna plays Aria O'Kane, a school student with a wry sense of humour, smart comment or observation.

“Growing up in a family dominated by the males' obsession with rugby has had its pluses and minuses,” said a character description.

“On the upside, Aria gets to slide under the radar and live a life less burdened with the expectations placed upon the boys.”

A bit of a loner, Aria is not necessarily unpopular — “just slightly off to the side”.

Head High is Rauna's first screen role but since starting on the series she has enjoyed what many actors in New Zealand dream of — an avalanche of job offers.

“I wasn't entirely convinced I'd get the job as a 24-year-old playing a 15-year-old,” said Rauna.

“I did the audition and got re-called. The two actors I auditioned with play my brothers in the series. The producers could see there was some chemistry you would see in a family dynamic. We were stoked to be part of a show about Maori families and how it feels to live in New Zealand and a piece of our hearts became invested in this production, not just because we wanted it to do well, but because we felt a connection with it.”

Rauna's acting trajectory began at Tolaga Bay Area School under drama teacher and deputy principal Julie Radice. After performing in a production of the tragedy Troilus and Cressida, one of Shakespeare's “problem plays”, Rauna was selected for the national Shakespeare festival for school students. She was Aria's age at the time but the age limit for participation in the national event was 16. Rauna was not able to participate but she did get to perform in drama competitions around the country.

“Troilus and Cressida was the first Shakespeare we had ever read, let alone performed. Mrs Radice set the story so kids could relate to it and made it like Captain Cook's arrival. With that connection it was so much easier to understand. Mrs Radice instilled faith in you.

“I equate my success to that woman.”

Rauna trained in musical theatre at the National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art in Christchurch

After spending her last year of school at Lytton High, Rauna trained in musical theatre at the National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art in Christchurch. She worked for a short time at The Gisborne Herald after graduating then headed for Europe, and then to Australia where she had better luck landing modelling, musical theatre and dance work.

When her grandfather passed away in 2018, Rauna returned to the East Coast to grieve for the man who raised her and instilled in her a love of storytelling. She later moved to Auckland, found an agent and has since performed in shows around New Zealand, including a part in Auckland Theatre Company's Mythmakers — Mahuika!, a recent production of Little Black Bitch by award-winning playwright Jason Te Mete, as well as several months performing with a dance troop in China.

“Back in New Zealand, stories about Maori were being told,” said Rauna.

“To be part of a new way of telling Maori stories and Maori perspective has pushed me further.”

To prepare for the role of Aria in Head High, Rauna looked 10 years into her past for cues. Having younger siblings also helped her develop an authentic 15-year-old character, she said.

“Aria is a young, funky, big dreaming girl who is trying to be at the same level as her brothers.”

Head High is set in the home of a struggling but hopeful working-class family and charts the rise of high school rugby stars, Aria's brothers Mana and Tai. With stepfather/coach Vince and police officer mum Renee behind them, the boys fight to achieve the Kiwi dream of wearing the black jersey.

Mana and Tai play for Southdown High School's First XV, which has squeaked into Auckland's premiere tournament, the 1A. The struggling, low-decile school desperately needs a win but the team takes a blow when the team's captain — Mana's best friend — is poached by their rivals, the wealthy private school Saint Isaac's College.

Meanwhile, Aria comes to resent the attention poured on her two older brothers though. To be different from them she takes up platform diving which also reflects her growing desire to push boundaries in order to challenge her own fears.

“It is important for young people to see others strive for their dreams,” said Rauna in another life-imitates-art moment.

“I grew up wondering if a girl from a small town can achieve things. It's not about where you are from. It's up to you as an individual.”

Head High starts on TV3 on Sunday June 28 at 8.30pm.

HEAD HELD HIGH: Having developed her love of performance while a student at Tolaga Bay Area School, Te Ao o Hinepehinga Rauna now plays Aria O'Kane in the upcoming TV3 series, Head High. Picture supplied