Wellington's theatre "Oscars" announced

All My Sons playwright Witi Ihimaera, right, and Rob Mokaraka, winner of Actor of the Year at this year's Chapman Tripp ...
David White

All My Sons playwright Witi Ihimaera, right, and Rob Mokaraka, winner of Actor of the Year at this year's Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards.

For more than two decades, senior legal partner Neil Gray backed Wellington theatre, ensuring its annual awards were amply sponsored so actors, directors and set designers could be rewarded for their craft.

One of the inaugural trustees of the Chapman Tripp Theatre awards, worth about $30,000 a year, Gray has since retired, and the legacy of the firm supporting Wellington's equivalent of the Oscars has ended after 22 years.

At the annual theatre awards last night , he received a prestigious gong for his outstanding contribution to theatre, although he was too ill to attend the event.

"Without his advocacy, we wouldn't have had the 22 years we had," says Dushka More, a spokeswoman for the Wellington Theatre Awards. 

It's fitting that Gray's son, Tanemahuta Gray, has also been acknowledged for his impact on the Capital's theatre scene, although as a practitioner, rather than a funder.

The dancer and choreographer heads the Maori production company, Taki Rua Productions – a Maori theatre company that has run for almost three decades. The big winner last night was the joint Taki Rua and Circa Theatre production, All My Sons, written by Witi Ihimaera, which took out several top gongs, including ones for most original production and production of the year.

A finalist in the arts section of the Wellingtonian of the Year Awards in 2014, Tanemahuta Gray says his father pushed the arts at his law firm at a time when sponsorship typically went into sports.  "If you look at the number of people who have a Chapman Tripp award on their bio, it's been a wonderful legacy."

Joining the law firm in 1955, Neil Gray and his wife Tiahuia encouraged their other children into the arts – their daughter, Merenia, is a dancer and choreographer, while Nathan Hoturoa is a writer. Moana and Fraser both graduated from Victoria University of Wellington with degrees in drama studies, now living in London and Sydney respectively and working outside the arts.

"It's a shame Dad won't be able to make it," says Tanemahuta Gray. "The theatre scene is a real whakapapa thing – when you've been in the industry for 20 plus years, you start to see the kids coming through."

The other theme of the awards night was its Maori and Pacific Island flavour, and the actors, directors and set designers promoting indigenous works. "I'm really glad to see that coming through, and the support of old European-based theatres like Circa, which have traditionally had an older, white audience," says More.

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It's also significant that Circa joined forces with Taki Rua to put on All My Sons, which unravels the untold story about Maori who fought in World War I. Director Nathaniel Lees was awarded the gong for top director, while actor Rob Mokaraka won best  actor.

"It's been an exciting partnership which has pushed the barriers," says Tanemahuta Gray. "The Circa audience has had a whole different experience, coming into Circa One and being exposed to some of our rich Maori talent."

Taki Rua's production, Nga Pou Wahine, also won an award when Miriama McDowell was announced as the most promising new director.

"In the awards, there's been an amazing Maori and Pacific Island haul," says Tanemahuta Gray. "It's been a really big year for indigenous theatre, and there is some great work coming out of other companies too which are really pushing the envelope."

Theatre company Tikapa Productions was one of those, for its production, Not in Our Neighbourhood, about domestic violence, which was named outstanding new New Zealand play, while actress Kali Kopae was named the top actress.

Of his acting award for the role of Waru Mataira, a Maori soldier in All My Sons, Mokaraka says it was a real honour. "A lot of people put a lot of work into All My Sons to create the magic."

No stranger to the Chapman Tripp awards, Mokaraka won a gong for best newcomer actor back in 2001 and best new playwright for his play, Strange Resting Places. "The thing that's really exciting right now is that the Maori and Pacific Island theatre communities are unifying in Wellington, and there's this pocket of really punchy work coming through, which I'm really excited to be part of."

Currently co-writing his first feature film, Mokaraka has openly talked about his depression in the past, which saw him being shot by the police in 2009 as he tried to attack them with a machete. He has written about those times in his black comedy play, Shot Bro: Confessions of a Depressed Bullet, which was staged here in June. "I speak openly and honestly about depression which helps. It helps to acknowledge it and to talk about it. I'm also lucky that I write and I act, that I can do both."

WELLINGTON THEATRE AWARDS – WINNERS LIST 2015

Outstanding Contribution to Wellington Theatre

Neil Gray

Most Original Production

All Our Sons – Taki Rua Productions / Circa Theatre

Actor of the Year

Rob Mokaraka – All Our Sons

Director of the Year

Nathaniel Lees – All Our Sons

Production of the Year

All Our Sons – Taki Rua Productions / Circa Theatre

Lighting Designer of the Year

Jen Lal – All Our Sons

Sound Designer of the Year

Maaka McGregor – All Our Sons

Outstanding New New Zealand Play

Not in our Neighbourhood – Tikapa Productions

Actress of the Year

Kali  Kopae – Not In Our Neighbourhood

Most Promising Male Newcomer

Andrew Paterson – The Angry Brigade

Most Promising Female Newcomer

Carrie Green – Conversations With My Penis

Most Promising New Director

Miriama McDowell – Nga Pou Wahine

Outstanding New Playwright

Helen Vivienne Fletcher – How To Catch A Grim Reaper

Costume Designer of the Year

Ian Harman - The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Set Designer of the Year

Ian Harman – Ache

Outstanding Composer of Music

Phil Jones – The Kitchen at the End of the World 

Supporting Actor of the Year

Jamie McCaskill – Seed

Supporting Actress of the Year

Brianne Kerr – Richard III

Outstanding Performance

Renee Lyons – Ache

Critics' Wildcard

Tawata Productions

Outstanding Contribution to the Wellington Theatre Awards 

Tim Gordon

Significant Contribution to Theatre

The Critics 

 - Stuff

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