18 Nov 2019

Nancy Brunning put Māori women at 'forefront of story-telling'

8:30 pm on 18 November 2019

The performing arts community has paid tribute to Nancy Brunning as a powerful actress, and advocate for wāhine Māori characters to be centre stage.

Nancy Brunning at the 66th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin in 2016.

Nancy Brunning at the 66th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin in 2016. Photo: AFP

Ms Brunning died on Saturday aged 48, just a day before she was posthumously awarded the Bruce Mason Playwright Award.

She also previously won a Best Actress award at the New Zealand Film Awards for her role in the Once were Warriors sequel, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.

Actor Temuera Morrison who worked with her on What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, Crooked Earth and Mahana, said although she was small in stature, she has a powerful performer.

"She had a wonderful speaking voice too, her voice connected to a truth that is what us actors try to get into, within the characters, find the truth in the scenes and Nancy had that ability, her voice just spoke purely straight from her heart."

But Mr Morrison said she blossomed in the theatre.

"That was where her passion was and more recently training a lot of our rangatahi coming through into the theatre and giving them the confidence and the belief."

Lee Tamahori with Nancy Brunning on the set of Mahana

Lee Tamahori with Nancy Brunning on the set of Mahana Photo: supplied

Playwright Briar Grace-Smith first worked with Ms Brunning as a director, on her first play Ngā Pou Wāhine.

It was Ms Brunning's first time directing, having only recently graduated from Toi Whakaari about 1992, but they would go on to collaborate regularly together over the next decade.

"She would really probe away and ask me lots of questions and there would often be things I knew I hadn't resolved and was kind of hoping - you know, the lazy gene in me was hoping to get away with, but with Nancy there was no way you could get away with it, so I always loved working with her because she was a great believer in finding that truth.

"I would often bring a story or a problem or something I was wrangling and just run it past her to see what she thought about it, so in that way she was my tuakana."

Ms Brunning wasn't afraid of acting, or writing complex Māori characters at a time where there were few wāhine Māori on screen.

"She was fearless - there was a time when we were younger, as Māori creating characters that were flawed [and] it was quite tough because there weren't that many of us and you were representing your race... [but] Nan was never afraid to take on any role.

"She worked with Māori funding bodies such as Te Waka Toi and Toi Māori to create really strong platforms and make change ... she was relentless with that, and also, upskilling Māori women, and putting Māori women at the forefront of story-telling, and, within productions that she was making and producing, showing the diversity of Māori women within the roles that she created for them."

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Stacey Morrison posted this image of Nancy Brunning on Facebook when announcing her death. Photo: Facebook / Stacey Morrison

Toi Whakaari director Tanea Heke was there at Ms Brunning's hospital bedside when she received the Bruce Mason Playwright Award last weekend, surrounded by her whānau.

She will remember "Nan" as humble, but fierce.

"When she picked up that stick to kōrero, she just took no prisoners ... she's fierce as, and why - because mana motuhake, mana wāhine."

She started Hapai Productions alongside Ms Brunning, and most recently they worked on Witi's Wahine together, which premiered at the Tairāwhiti Arts Festival last month.

She said despite the fact she was very ill, and wheelchair bound at that stage, Ms Brunning still flew up to Gisborne from Wellington for the premiere.

Ms Brunning will be remembered as one of the greats of film and theatre, Ms Heke said.

"She would always stand and tell us - and especially the rangatahi - she was really big on that, she would tell us the names of those who'd laid down the taki for us - Don Selwyn, Keri Kaa, Wi Kuki Kaa, Uncle Bob Wiki ... she made sure that all of us remembered that the reasons that we were standing on that atamira now was because all of those people had made sure that we could do that.

"Her name is also with those esteemed rangatira, her name will also be amongst those wonderful people because that's the influence that she had, she's a rangatira for us."

Nancy Brunning's burial will be held at Raukawa Marae in Ōtaki on Wednesday at 11:30am.