After starring in the hit Kiwi series Go Girls, Esther Stephens moved to Melbourne to find more work.
But in recent years, she’s been so busy with gigs on this side of the Tasman, spending more time in Aotearoa than Australia, that the singer and actress last month made the difficult decision to move back to New Zealand.
“It was crazy – my place in Melbourne was starting to feel very foreign,” laughs Esther (29). “It’s nice to be home and around my family, but now I’ve said that, I’ll probably be called back over the ditch at any moment!”
Reprising her role as prickly Ngaire Munroe in the new series of Westside was just one of Esther’s projects here in New Zealand. She also scored a guest part in the second season of 800 Words, toured with her band Esther Stephens & the Means, and performed some Shakespeare at Auckland’s Pop-up Globe theatre.
However, right now, it’s her starring role as Kate Sheppard in the Auckland Theatre Company’s production of That Bloody Woman that Esther is buzzing about.
“I’ve always wanted to play the lead in a musical,” she confesses. “It’s been on my performer’s bucket list for years now. My parents are both musicians, and my father used to write musicals and put them on, so I grew up loving Evita, Cats and all the Andrew Lloyd Webber shows.
“For my ninth birthday, I got tickets to Jesus Christ Superstar with Margaret Urlich as Mary. My mum had to keep elbowing me throughout to stop me singing along so loudly. When I left drama school, I thought that was the direction I’d go in, but life had other plans and I ended up in television, which I’m stoked about. But this is a dream come true.”
However, the words “be careful what you wish for” entered Esther’s mind when she got the script for That Bloody Woman and realised, “Hey, I have a lot of words and a lot of songs in this show!”
She admits, “It was very intimidating. I’ve had to make sure I’m fit, that I’ve got my lines down and that my voice is on point. It’s hard work, but when you’re doing something you love, it gives you the energy”.
That Bloody Woman, which opened in Auckland on June 11, follows suffragette Kate’s successful bid to make New Zealand the first country to give women the vote, which Esther says gives her “a real sense of pride in our corner of the world”.
Kate is a personal heroine of hers, but the actress confesses there were some surprises when it came to researching her role.
Esther tells, “One of the things we touch on in the show is the fact that when Kate was campaigning, it was considered taboo for women to ride bicycles. They were spat at and mainstream media would say they were asking to be raped! But they needed a lot of signatures so they had to get around on bikes”.
Because of her super-supportive parents, the star had “no concept of my gender being any kind of limitation” while growing up.
“Doing this show made me realise how lucky I was,” says Esther, who is engaged to fellow musician Todd Beeby. “It hasn’t always been this way and it still isn’t for a lot of women.”
In recent years, the actress has experienced sexism.
“I’ve had a couple of moments where dudes have said or done things where I’ve felt surprised they could still indulge in something as dated as misogyny,” she tells.
“If I’m doing corporate work with bands, I’m generally the only girl in the group. It’s such a boys’ club, and you get guys condescendingly telling you how to work your amp and change the settings on your guitar.
“But I’ve been lucky. My fiancé is a modern, enlightened man and for the most part, the men in my life are really progressive, left-leaning, generous, smart individuals.”
When it comes to women’s rights and equality of the sexes, Esther says New Zealand has come a long way.
“But there are still things we need to be conscious of,” she cautions. “There’s the nuanced, subtle misogyny, bigotry, racism and homophobia. It’s not always as blatant as hurling abuse. It’s the way you talk to the guy or girl at the gas station. It’s how we relate to and treat each other.”
Words: Sebastian van der Zwan