Astroman set in writer’s hometown

MEMORIES OF WHAKATANE: Playwright and screenwriter Albert Belz is setting his upcoming play, Astroman, in Whakatane. Photo Robert Cross Photography

PROFESSIONAL playwright and screenwriter Albert Belz is returning to his Whakatane roots in his latest play, to open in Christchurch in October.

His upcoming play, Astroman, is set in the town where he was born and lived until he was seven.

Albert, of Ngati Porou, Nga Puhi and Ngati Pokai descent, was born in Whakatane. Apart from some time living in Minginui and Napier, he spent the rest of his formative years in Auckland, where his is still based.

He has been writing for film, television and theatre since 2001 and has written around 12 plays in that time.

“I started off as an actor. I was dry for some work for a couple of months so I thought I’d write my own play, and that was Te Maunga.” Oddly, he didn’t end up acting in it.

“A friend of mine [Taungaroa Emile] came in on the workshops to play the role while I sat down as the writer to watch what the actors were doing. He did such a good job that I said,

‘Bro, do you want to just do it’. He was more than happy to”.

The show also starred Shortland Street’s Blair Strang. Te Maunga received critically acclaim and his next play, Awhi Tapu, based on his experiences in Minginui, was nominated for several Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards. In 2006, his play, Yours Truly, based on Jack the Ripper, won Best New New Zealand Play and Most Original Play in the awards. Albert says this is probably his favourise.

Albert is probably best known, however, for Raising the Titanics, which paid tribute to Maori showbands of the 1950s to 70s and featured Whakatane’s Francis Kora among the cast.

This show toured New Zealand and won The New Zealand Listener’s Best New New Zealand Play in 2010.

During this time he has also worked in television, storylining on Shortland Street for almost a year and he has a new television show that he created and wrote, called Tongue Tied airing on Maori Television in June or July this year. He has also tried his hand at acting, featuring in Hercules, Young Hercules, Shortland Street (as Manny in 1992) and Disney’s Rip Girls.

He is presently working on a play set in Whakatane in 1983-84, titled Astroman.

“I wrote the first draft for the play while I was living between Geelong, Australia, and Melbourne in 2012, he says. “The Melbourne Theatre company will be doing an Australian version of the play in October this year. In fact, it opens in Melbourne the same night as the Whakatane version of the piece opens in Christchurch.”

Astroman is about 14-year-old Jimmy Te Rehua, who has a passion for video games and the IQ of a genius. He is befriended by the socially isolated elderly Scottish proprietor of the Astrocade video game parlour who helps him with bullies. The two characters living on society’s fringes support each other to overcome life’s difficulties and move ahead with their lives.

“Wairaka at the reef features in it so it is definitely unmistakable as Whakatane.”

The Australian version is set in Geelong, with indigenous Austrailian actors playing the roles. “I went over to Australia with the story outline already written, set in Whakatane.

Then thought, while I’m in Australia I may as well write the Australian version. It took them two years to pick it up and in that time I’d written the Kiwi version and that ended up getting picked up as well.

“I have a great deal of fond memories growing up in Whakatane,” Albert says.  “We still, however, had our house down King Street and most school holidays were spent in Whakatane until I was about 11, when it was sold.”

Memories include, “winters playing football on Rex Morpeth or sprinting my guts out at the athletics club, summers at the pools or at Ohope and Ohiwa beaches, St Joseph’s Primary gala days and the Awakeri Pools”.

“The first draft of my play Whero’s New Net was mostly written while my partner and I were staying in a cabin at Awakeri in 2008 and 09. Although living in the Auckland rat-race, I visit the town as often as possible and never miss an excuse to get down there. My partner and I dearly hope to one day settle back in Whakatane.”

Astroman opens at the Court Theatre in Christchurch in October and has also been picked up by the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin.