Stand-up and self-love by Madelaine Empson
Kura Forrester is an award-winning comedian and actor who grew up in Wellington. Her New Zealand film credits include What We Do in the Shadows and The Breaker Upperers, while on TV you’ll recognise her from Golden Boy, Educators, and of course, Shortland Street, where she played nosy receptionist Desdemona Schmidt.
In 2019, Forrester won the prestigious Billy T Award for her NZ International Comedy Festival show Kura Shoulda Woulda. She returns to the festival this year not only as a Billy T judge, but to perform a new crack-up hour of stand-up at BATS Theatre from the 9th to the 13th of May. In Here If You Need, she’ll talk about her new puppy, getting hearing aids “at the ripe old age of 38”, where she’s at with dating, “which is not great”, and much more. Forrester is pumped to debut the show in her hometown, saying “it just feels right”.
When and why did you get into acting and comedy – and did the two go hand in hand?
I went to drama school in Auckland at Unitec straight after high school. That’s where I decided that acting would be something that I’d really like to pursue. Then, like most actors, I graduated from drama school and went straight into hospitality [laughs]. Slowly but surely I worked away at getting jobs.
The comedy thing didn’t happen for me until I was overseas in 2012. I went over to Wales with Massive Company, a theatre company I worked for. Then I went to Paris and studied for two months at École Philippe Gaulier. I moved to London after that and worked at Peter Gordon’s restaurant called The Providores. I had a wonderful time there, but I started missing performing. I thought, what about stand-up as a way to fill that creative void? It’s so accessible – you only need you and a microphone. So I started going along to open mic nights, and then I got on the bill once and I did my first five minutes of stand-up. The rest is kind of history.
Do you remember that first stand-up gig? Were you nervous?
Oh God yeah, I was absolutely s***ting myself. But quite funnily enough, I was at this club where a lot of people were doing it for the first time. I had some confidence in myself because I love theatre and had an advantage being an actor – you’re already used to live performance. Even though I was nervous, I was like, ‘I’m definitely not going to be the worst on the night’ [laughs]. But yeah, I’ll never forget it.
Acting and comedy are two sides of the same coin but very different beasts. What kind of a kick do you get out of both of them?
The comedy for me, the thrill of it all, is about being alive and being right there with people that I love, connecting with audiences, and just having a good time making people laugh. The TV acting buzz is a little bit different. You don’t have that instant vibe with an audience, and you have to link up a bit more internally as an actor. It’s not as showy offy I guess! But then later on when it comes on the telly, you get that feeling again, just in a different way. When I was working full time, my main goal was to make the crew crack up, so I can find an audience anywhere.
IMDb said you’ve starred in over 500 episodes of Shortland Street. Is that right?
Really! Wow. I was only on for two and a half years, but I guess if you think about it – yeah, probably! I never counted. God, if you think that was only two and a half years. Some people have been working there for 25 years...
Thousands and thousands of episodes! What can you tell me about the experience?
I loved it. It was a real dream of mine, but I never really said it out loud. It feels like such an iconic steppingstone for any actor in New Zealand. I always knew that I really wanted to play a comedic role on the show, and receptionist was my ultimate goal because you think back on all the receptionists, they’re always so funny, they’re in everybody’s business, and they get licence to be a bit more out the gate.
There’s always fun going on no matter what, because it’s such a wonderful ecosystem out there. It’s an amazing group of people who are all enjoying their work. Even though you go really fast and you work really hard, everyone is gearing towards the same goal. Working with my friends was a dream. I shared a dressing room with Ria Vandervis, she plays Harper and we went to drama school together, and Sally Martin. Her dad and my dad are best friends, so I’ve known both of those women all my life. It was so cool.
What have been some of the highlights of your stage and screen career so far?
The telly highlights would definitely be Shorty, and Taskmaster last year was an absolute riot. I just wish everybody got to do Taskmaster once in their lives. For stage, I always have to mention Massive Company, because I came through there as a young actor and really cut my teeth on a few great roles, like Whero’s New Net. My other favourite moments on stage have been with my friends, Tom Sainsbury, Chris Parker, and Brynley Stent. We did a play called Camping at the Comedy Festival maybe five years ago. I remember being onstage with those three and being like, ‘I could just do this for the rest of my life’.
What do you most love about the NZ International Comedy Festival?
Just being together is the most exciting for me. How much we’ve missed the festival in the last couple of years. It’s always such a great opportunity to see how everybody’s going and I just think we’re so bloody good at it. You know how people always talk about how Kiwis really punch above our weight? It’s the same in comedy.
Here If You Need is a follow-up to 2019’s Kura Shoulda Woulda. How do you think your comedy has evolved since then?
That’s a great question. I’ve noticed that a lot of people who do acting first and then come into stand-up like to do character work. We do sketches, we act things out. I remember doing that a lot in Kura Shoulda Woulda. My goal for this show is to do no characters and to tell stories, to just do pure stand-up. I think that’s how I’ve evolved. I’ve gone, ‘It’s actually okay to just stand and tell jokes, and I can do that’.
What do you hope audiences get out of the show?
Part of my process – and I think a lot of comedians will relate to this – is that you write a show and then the more you practise it, the more the themes come through. Here If You Need is about self-care in a way – how do you find great ways to be there for yourself and be a good backup to yourself? But also weirdly, what’s coming through for me is that it’s about friendship and platonic love. I’m talking about how I’m in love with my dog, and I’m really in love with my friends, and it’s okay for them to be the most important relationships in my life. Obviously and hopefully, you’ll come away with a whole lot of laughter. But I also hope that you might want to ring your best friend after my show and tell them that they’re dope.