Written by Mary Rean
Photography by John Williams
His career has included everything from Shakespeare to Shortland Street, “going where my career leads. I’ve been from TV to theatre and back again, movies, voiceovers, juggling lots of different opportunities.”
His latest venture, with fellow actor and director David Aston, is production company Plumb Productions, and they both saw the potential of Bright Star by NZ playwright Stuart Hoar. “We have wanted to bring this play to the stage for a while, and thought the timing with Auckland Live and Suffrage 125 was perfect,” he says.
The launch of Bright Star on 4 September is timely, Paul says, as it examines themes in society that are still relevant today and coincides with Suffrage 125, which marks the 125th anniversary of the Electoral Act 1893. This act gave all NZ women the right to vote, making us the first self-governing country in the world to offer this to women.
Bright Star is also timed to be part of the first-ever New Zealand Theatre Month, the brain child of NZ playwright Roger Hall. He wants to encourage theatres across the country to present a local work during September, with the aim of honouring and recognising New Zealand’s impressive theatre scene and the high standards it consistently achieves.
“This play is about a woman who had to fight to escape from the conventions of her day – in fact, it’s not all that long ago – we’re talking about America in the 1970s. She was faced with issues like the role of women and male domination in her field of science,” says Paul. “She was forced to choose between her career and her family. Think about the irony and contrast with Jacinda Ardern, and what she is able to do today.”
Beatrice Hill Tinsley – the bright star of the play – had a brilliant mind, became a celebrated cosmologist, and her research has contributed to the astronomical understanding of how galaxies evolve, grow and die. But her physicist husband refused to let her take their two children with her to Yale University, where she had been offered a position as assistant professor, and ultimately she had to make the decision to leave her family if she wanted to pursue her career. The American Astronomical Society acknowledged her outstanding research contribution to astrophysics, and she has a main-belt asteroid named in her honour.
The constant factor in Paul’s life has been Ponsonby, which he has called home on and off since his student days at Auckland University. “In those days I lived in a house in Sussex Street that was marked for demolition. We each paid $7.50 a week to live there; the irony is, the house is still there, it’s been done up and it’s probably worth $2 or $3 million now.”
To afford his first house, Paul moved out to the fringes of Ponsonby – Eden Terrace. “Even as an actor I had managed to save about $10 grand and with a Housing Corp loan, I bought the house for $39,000, stayed there five years and sold it for $125 grand. That got me well and truly onto the property ladder,” he says.
Next stop was a little miner’s cottage in Collingwood Street, which the real estate agent described as “a tardis”, Paul says. “It had a basement and by cutting a hole in the floor and dropping a ladder down, I created a bedroom for my son.”
Other than a few years away from Auckland to act overseas, Paul has always lived here, and now he, partner Alison, and their cat live in a 1958-era apartment building in Herne Bay. “It was a top-of-the-line apartment when it was built, so it’s really spacious, with modern features like underfloor heating, and views across the harbour to Rangitoto and round to the Sky Tower.
“We love being round here,” he says. “We walk everywhere – we really feel as if the area is simply an extension of our home. There’s a wine bar across the road the library, a bank, cafés, and our favourite restaurants. It’s so handy, wherever I’m working, the city is a quick bus ride away, and we’re close to the motorway if we want to go away.”
“This is an interesting area; it’s always changing.""Alison and I walk up Ponsonby Road and speculate on the changes – which cafés are new, who might be moving into an empty space, how long they will last. It’s interesting how many restaurants have changed over the years and fascinating to look at the ones, like SPQR, that are still going strong.”
Paul’s probably better at acting and directing than predicting business success or failure. “I looked at the gelato place when it first opened and thought it would never work, but it did last for ages,” he says.
Paul and Alison have favourite spots, but also enjoy the choice. “We love Gusto – the food’s excellent and it has a nice vibe, and we often go to the little French restaurant, Le Garde Manger. It’s had several names and is back to the original again. Shahi does good Indian food and there’s Sidart, but that has to be a treat. Ponsonby Central is great; it brings a lot of energy to that part of Ponsonby Road.”
Paul says he’d like to see something like Ponsonby Central down at Three Lamps to give the area a bit more of a buzz. “Augustus in the old Ponsonby Post Office is a good start.”
One thing he is looking forward to is the development of the Liquor King site into Ponsonby Park. “That will create a real hub for this end of the road, give the area more life – with events and market days and all sorts of stuff.”
During his acting and directing career Paul has performed on just about every stage in Auckland from Theatre Corporate to the Mercury, Q, Basement, Maidment, Herald, and many other theatres around the country, as well as performing in local TV dramas, hosting documentaries such as Epitaph, and taking parts in movies including Hercules: The Legendary Journey and Xena: Warrior Princess.
A member of the original Shortland Street cast, he starred for three years as hospital CEO Dr Michael McKenna. “I did enjoy being part of something completely new,” he says. “But after three years, it was hard to get away from the character of Dr McKenna; he was etched into people’s minds. People think you are your character, that you’re a real person – this was the first time New Zealanders had a soap coming into their living rooms five days a week.”
The show got a lot of flak during the first few months, Paul says, and then the tide began to turn. “For us the first indication was when we were invited to a Russian circus and the compere welcomed special guests, including Shortie Street actors, and introduced us to the rest of the audience. Judy Bailey and Paul Holmes were ahead of us and were cheered, then the first Shortland Street couple went in and the crowd cheered so loudly the roof all but lifted off the tent. We had no idea we would have that effect on the public.”
It’s more than 25 years since he stepped off that set for the last time, but Paul says people still recognise him in the street. “They come up and say, ’Aren’t you that guy from Shortland Street?’.”
Bright Star is being performed at the Herald Theatre in the Aotea Centre from 4-16 September. Paul Gittins is directing a cast that includes Lisa Chappell, Bruce Phillips, David Aston, Matt Baker and Chelsea McEwan Millar. For tickets contact: aucklandlive.co.nz/show/bright-star.