Among her friends, Mele Toli is notorious for "underreacting" in times of crisis, so when the Kiwi actress received a letter informing her that the prestigious British drama school she was due to attend – which she'd already paid thousands of pounds in fees to – was suddenly closing, she remained cool, calm and collected.
"I just took some deep breaths and went to sleep!" laughs the bubbly 25-year-old, who stars in Auckland Theatre Company's production of Hyperspace.
In April 2022, without warning, London-based drama school The Academy of Live & Recorded Arts (ALRA), whose alumni include Hannah Waddingham and Miranda Hart, shut down with immediate effect, saying it was no longer financially viable. Explanations were thin on the ground. Many staff and students largely found out about the closure through Twitter.
"I was living in Hawai'i at the time and, due to COVID, had delayed my place at ALRA by 12 months," explains Mele. "I felt so lucky at the time to get accepted, then I get this email saying the school is closing and I'm trying to figure out, 'Have I missed something?' I'd paid my tuition in advance and was getting ready to move over there. I fired off an email asking about the money, but all the emails bounced back – the website no longer existed. It was a mess."
Sadly, none of the fees Mele had paid could be recovered. She recalls, "I was going to give up my acting dream after that all happened. I told Mum and she said, 'Don't be ridiculous!' I'd got into other international drama schools but those offers were no longer viable. Then Mum found me The Actors' Program in New Zealand, with patrons like [Sir] Sam Neill and artistic mentoring by Jennifer Ward-Lealand, who she admires."
The move back home paid off. Even though she had to start again and work three jobs to fund her studies, getting a lead role with the ATC is quite a coup for any young actor and signals an exciting future.
As she chats to Woman's Day, Mele excitedly waves her script around and admits she thought she'd flunked her audition for Hyperspace, which features a throng of aerobics diehards in a "full-noise, body-positive" '90s nostalgia party.
"The story talked about music and food, so in my audition, I played some '90s jams on a little speaker and brought a six-pack of supermarket ham-and-cheese rolls with dip," the theatre newcomer smiles. "It's a wonder they heard what I was saying through my mouthfuls!"
Born in Auckland, Mele moved with her family to Invercargill as a toddler and enjoyed drama productions at St John's Girls' School. She then got an academic scholarship to a university in Hawai'i, where she studied political science and anthropology. For six years, the brunette beauty also performed at Oahu's Polynesian Cultural Centre.
"I was in a Broadway-type show called Hā: Breath Of Life," she says. "It used Polynesian dance, music and fire knives to tell the symbolic journey of a man, Mana, from birth. He meets the love of his life, Lani, which was played by me! Doing that show really was the best job. It made me realise acting was my first passion and I had to follow my dreams."
During her time there, she got to meet actors Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Jason Momoa. "Both of them are huge energies and really care for our people. The Rock brought his family and I always used to see Jason scootering around – this big guy on a small moped. To us, he was just 'Uncle', which is a term of endearment in Pasifika communities for someone older."
As she prepares to showcase her talent as high-energy Hiona in her theatre debut, Mele reflects that she feels "really lucky". She adds, "Not only for myself, but for my parents. My dad Manase comes from the outermost islands of Tonga and he never dreamed he would come to New Zealand to raise a family.
"Pasifika families generally want their kids to do something very stable career-wise because they've gone through so much hardship just to get you to this point. But my mum Kim saw that acting and entertaining was something I enjoyed, so she and my dad were like, 'OK, we're going to nurture this.' They're my biggest champions."
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