One woman, well-grounded

Claire Chitham in the full light of an Otago Polytechnic camera as audiovisual work is filmed for...
Claire Chitham in the full light of an Otago Polytechnic camera as audiovisual work is filmed for the play. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Claire Chitham on stage at Auckland’s Silo Theatre in the play Rabbit. Photo supplied.
Claire Chitham on stage at Auckland’s Silo Theatre in the play Rabbit. Photo supplied.

Claire Chitham is one of those rare actors instantly known for not one but two beloved "Kiwi'' characters she has played, Waverley in Shortland Street and Aurora in Outrageous Fortune. She tells Rebecca Fox she hopes her character in Grounded, at the Fortune Theatre, will also endear herself to the audience. 

When Claire Chitham walks on to the Fortune Theatre stage she will be ticking off a "bucket list'' achievement, a one-woman show.

"It's terrifying and exciting. It is just you and the audience. It is a pretty huge challenge as an actress. She is a cool fierce character, which is always fun to play.''

While best known for characters she played in television programmes Shortland Street (1994-2004) and Outrageous Fortune (2006-07), Chitham had her start as an actress aged 8 years playing the lead in a stage production of Pinocchio.

"It's always been my first love. Television and film don't tick the same boxes that theatre ticks.''

Even while on television, she made a conscious decision to actively pursue stage opportunities.

She took extended breaks from her commitments in the series to perform on stage, including Auckland Theatre Company's Play 2.03 in 2003 and at Silo Theatre, Rabbit, by Nina Raine in 2008; The Real Thing, by Tom Stoppard in 2007; and The Only Child, by Simon Stone in 2011.

"With television there is demographics and there are certain people watching at certain times, but with theatre you can still get everybody from 16 to 80, 90.

"That is another thing that attracted me about Grounded, that it is a really fresh and current topic but still filled with massive emotional journey.''

Chitham then headed overseas, spending time in Australia, where she appeared in television series such as Neighbours, and also travelling to Los Angeles.

"I did bits of film and television and in the States I did a lot of study.''

Having gone straight into television, she did not go the drama school path, so having the opportunity to study was a bonus, she said.

"It's been a nice way to explore my education and craft for the first time.''

The United States' long history of acting as a profession, means there are some amazing teachers of the art.

"I've also been writing my own stuff and since coming home last year have been training on the other side of the camera, which has been awesome.''

Now settled back in at "home'', she said Grounded had come along at the right time as she had promised herself she would get back on the stage when she came home.

"It's cool timing that it turned up when it did.

"I asked Danielle Cormack who did The Case of Katherine Mansfield [one-woman show] and she said do it, it'll be the best thing you ever do.''

It will be her first time on the Fortune stage and first time back on stage in five years.

Grounded provides a challenging role as it tackles issues of war, the use of drones and women's role in the military, all topics relevant to today's world.

Chitham plays a career fighter pilot who is grounded and reassigned to fly drones from a caravan in the Las Vegas desert.

"War topics are not my thing but I read the play. From the first page, the language was incredibly unique, it's really poetic with a rhythm and a kind of a beat to it. It made me excited about the playwright.''

She said it was the story of a woman having a family and a crazy day job in a modern world: the story of an interesting military figure who goes from flying fighter jets in a war-torn country to sitting in a caravan in the middle of a desert flying drones.

"What I learned just from reading the play was pretty astounding. I guess I got really excited about it because it is so relevant. We are watching hideous news items weekly at the moment about bombs being dropped on people ... this is a massive part of this.''Chitham did not know a lot about drones and what she did know related to what friends were doing in the film world.

"I had been excited from a film-making point about what they could do.

"I started looking into it a bit more and these look like jet planes,

"They are scary-looking machines but they are unmanned.''

Added to this was the interesting psychological journey the woman goes on during the transition from "rock-star'' pilot to family woman.

"It really appealed for that reason.''

There was also the collaboration with Otago Polytechnic's digital and film students, which was really exciting, she said.

"It's a piece that is relevant now. Involving them in this really modern digital aspect of it gels with the content of the play, which is such a modern and relevant topic.''

They will be producing some of the 3-D images and audiovisual pieces for the show.

"Hopefully it'll add another layer to the immersive experience of theatre.''

Because of how beloved her television characters Waverley and Aurora were, Chitham says she is still frequently recognised.

She believes she was fortunate to be able to play a "couple of cool characters on screen that were fun and unique''.

"It's cool Shortland Street has had such a long life ... and it still holds a place in Kiwi hearts.''

Even when overseas she does not escape the character of Aurora, as Outrageous Fortune seems to be the show "every expat Kiwi relied on as a cure for homesickness''.

"I hope that intrigues people to come along and see it.''



The play


 Grounded opens at Fortune Theatre in August.



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