Most know her as Toni from Shortland St, but Taranaki people can now get to know Laura Hill on a different level.
The actress plays the lead role in New Zealand playwright Roger Hall's latest production, A Shortcut to Happiness, which will be on show at the TSB Showplace in July.
Hill plays the part of Natasha, a recent Russian immigrant who has arrived in New Zealand with a dream to be a music teacher.
There's only one problem that stands in the way - her articulation of the English language.
She begins to take international folk-dancing lessons instead, which Hill says stages the play.
"You meet the people she meets through the dance class and essentially all of them are a bit lonely.
"They come to the class looking for companionship of one kind or another, and they all end up becoming friends, and for some of them, more than friends."
Hill says Natasha's character is very different, although there are some similarities between her and the real Laura.
"She's very strong, proud and opinionated and she's not shy about expressing those opinions."
Hill admits she is known to be opinionated at times, but tries to suppress that trait in when she can.
"But with acting, you have to find the bits in yourself that match up with the character, and then amplify them.
"Playing someone who is not yourself is really liberating, because you get to say and do stuff that you wouldn't normally do, and you can do it with no repercussions," she laughs.
A lot of humour throughout the play comes from the cultural clash between how Natasha perceives New Zealanders, and how we think of ourselves, Hill says.
"It has been great. Through exploring a completely different person, I've been able to get a glimpse into another culture and see what Russian people are like."
Working alongside Hill in the production is a stellar cast, including Stuart Devenie, Cameron Rhodes and Alison Quigan, who is most known for her role as Yvonne in Shortland Street.
"There's an incredible amount of talent and experience in the programme," Hill says.
"Alison and I shared a dressing room when we were in Shortland Street, so we're great mates. The dressing-room shenanigans definitely added to the fun there."
In what is her second inclusion in a Roger Hall play, Hill says there is no doubting his reputation as New Zealand's most successful playwright.
"He's probably the only playwright in New Zealand who sells tickets on his name alone, not on who is in the play."
Hall's earliest drama was for television, but in 1976 he wrote his first stage play, Glide Time, which catapulted him to the forefront of New Zealand theatre writing.
Many successful plays have followed, including Middle Age Spread, which ran for 18 months in London's West End and won the Comedy of the Year Award.
Taranaki theatre groups have also taken advantage of Hall's expertise and Kiwi humour, putting on many of his productions around the region, including Four Flat Whites in Italy by Inglewood's Cue Theatre.
Glide Time, Conjugal Rights and The Share Club have also been performed by the New Plymouth Repertory Society.
Hill says Hall is very well loved by a range of people, including those who don't often go to the theatre.
"He has a really good eye and ear for picking up what is relevant to New Zealanders, so his plays are always really accessible for non-theatre-going audiences."
A Shortcut to Happiness is no different from any Roger Hall play, Hill says, in that it provides a fantastic night out.
"There's a lot of laughter along the way, but there's also something simple, beautiful and true about people looking for connections.
"So far the audience has been very involved and seems to care about the characters."
Since her time as Chris Warner's squeeze in Shortland Street, Hill has done a lot of theatre and a few television cameo appearances. However, she is thoroughly enjoying her time as Natasha the Russian.
"I start on stage for the opening, and every night, when I hear the music start and the curtain rise, I have a big smile on my face," she says.
zA Shortcut to Happiness,
- © Fairfax NZ News
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