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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




From the very first days of settlement, amateur actors and actresses have maintained a thin but unbroken theatrical line in the history of the theatre in New Zealand. During their first two decades, Auckland, Wellington, and Nelson depended for their theatre on a corps of Gentlemen Amateurs who sometimes swelled out small companies of professionals like George Buckingham or Mrs Foley. At other times they performed for some charity such as the Widow and Orphans' Fund, the Pitcairn Islanders, or the Suffering British Subjects in India. From the forties onwards, however, the arrival of British regiments enlivened the theatrical scene. Garrison theatres were built and soldier-actors staged many plays, sometimes combining with professional actresses, sometimes playing all parts, both male and female, themselves. In the fifties, the 65th Regiment in residence at Wellington, Wanganui, and Napier, and the 58th Regiment in Auckland kept the theatrical banner flying for months at a time.

Amateur support given to travelling stars continued for more than 30 years. Productions by dramatic clubs (generally shortlived) filled the intervals between visits from professional companies and helped to raise funds for needy causes. In the sixties a crop of Garrick Clubs sprang to life from Whangarei to Dunedin. The first of these appears to have been formed at Dunedin in 1862 when Bulwer-Lytton's Money was at the top of the bill. It owed much to the enthusiastic labours of T. W. Standwell who was also associated with the Wellington Garrick Club which opened with a performance of Othello in 1865, when Standwell played the leading role.

The amateur dramatic societies in the seventies and eighties had a longer life than their predecessors. Members of such groups as The Volunteer Amateurs in Wellington or The Foresters' Dramatic Club in Christchurch supported the resident stock companies as extras, and several of them found careers in the professional theatre. In its 11 years of history, the Wellington Amateur Dramatic Club (which was incorporated with the Amateur Operatic Society in 1891) raised thousands of pounds for charities and made 100 appearances in 40 different plays. Most popular plays among similar groups all over the country were the works of Tom Taylor, H. J. Byron, Tom Robertson, and Bulwer-Lytton. These, together with old favourites like Rip Van Winkle and The Hunchback (played by the Dunedin Dramatic Club as late as 1881), were the staple fare of the amateur societies of the day. An occasional Shakespearean production appeared, most often with a professional star engaged for the principal role. The Canterbury College Dialectical Society achieved a high standard of Shakespearean presentation. In 1887 the Dunedin Shakespeare Club made its first appearance in a reading of Hamlet. It has held regular public readings since that date and in 1963 was the oldest dramatic society in the country.

The turn of the century saw well-established societies performing at least twice a year comedies by Pinero, Sheridan, Hawtrey, and Wilde, as well as the old favourites of a generation earlier. Some enterprising groups formed semi-professional touring companies and took productions such as Charley's Aunt on tour of nearby towns.

The Twentieth Century

The growth and progress of the amateur movement is a feature of the twentieth century history of the theatre in New Zealand. Almost every town and village has its own dramatic society, and in the cities this is also true of the suburbs. Amateur organisations no longer play for charity but for their own funds, and they offer a programme of several plays a year to growing audiences.

The 20 years between the First and Second World Wars marked the emergence of the amateur theatre as we know it today. Large repertory societies (in New Zealand a repertory is an amateur society) arose in the main towns and cities of the country. Most of the major societies were established during this period. Some have survived for nearly 40 years such as the Grafton Theatre of Auckland which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1962. The Wellington Repertory Theatre (established 1926), the Canterbury Repertory Theatre (1928), and the Dunedin Repertory (1928) have numbered their membership in thousands. Each of them has at some time employed full-time professional producers, although only the Canterbury Repertory has persevered with this innovation. Most leading repertory societies have developed a small corps of amateur producers over the years. In Auckland a Little Theatre was formed in 1925 but after a phenomenally fast initial growth declined rapidly, and its place was taken by a dozen or so smaller groups. The Auckland Drama Council coordinates the work of these Auckland clubs.

As amateur dramatic societies found themselves more and more the only providers of theatrical entertainment in their communities, the standard of acting and production slowly improved. This was helped in many cases by the work of teachers of dramatic art or artists from the professional theatre such as Mabel Hardinge-Maltby, Paul Latham, Mr and Mrs Culford Bell, Helen Gardner, Ngaio Marsh, and Maria Dronke – to name but a few. The repertoire of these groups was varied; a mixture of West End comedies and melodramas, the plays of Barrie, Galsworthy, Shaw, and Wilde, leavened with an occasional Ibsen and a few Shakespearean productions. Until they went into recess in 1959, The Thespians, Wellington, maintained a policy for over 20 years of presenting annually one of Shakespeare's plays.

Since the end of the Second World War, an increasing number of societies have built their own studio theatres. The high cost of renting theatres has made the amateur movement over-conscious of box office, and this has been a factor in the presentation of the generally unadventurous choice of play – the kind which normally would come from the commercial theatre. It has been left to the smaller groups to explore the less obvious fields of drama and keep alive the classics. Unity Theatre, Wellington (which celebrated its coming of age in 1963), the drama clubs of the four main universities, and Rosalie and Patric Carey's New Globe Theatre have led the way in this regard. In the late forties, the Canterbury University Drama Club, under Ngaio Marsh, made history with its touring productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. In its Student Union Memorial Theatre, the Victoria University of Wellington has one of the three new theatres to be built in the country for nearly 50 years. The University of Otago broke new ground when it appointed John Trevor as lecturer in drama.

In the cities the amateur repertoire has recently included some Shakespeare, Sheridan, Ibsen, and Chekov as well as work by Sartre, Anouilh, Betti, Brecht, Pinter, Behan, and Beckett. In 1960–61, The Diary of Anne Frank was the most successful and popular play of the year with amateur societies; The Shifting Heart met with similar success in 1961–62. New Zealand playwrights whose work has been introduced to the public by the amateur theatre include Frank Sargeson, James Baxter, Allen Curnow, Claude Evans, Jean Lawrence, Marie Bullock, and Bruce Mason.

The New Zealand branch of the British Drama League was founded in 1932 and is organised on a basis of areas throughout the country. Each area conducts its own local festival of one-act plays, and for many dramatic groups these festivals are the highlight of their year's activities. North and South Island semi-finals and a National Final Festival are held annually. The Drama League offers tutorial aid in production and acting to its affiliated groups and maintains a play-lending library. Early in the League's history it began a series of playwriting competitions, and between 1933–36 it published five volumes of one-act plays. Visits from the British Drama League in London by Mr and Mrs E. Martin Browne, Miss Frances MacKenzie, and Mrs Nora Ratcliffe have been highlights in the League's history.

In 1945, representatives of 15 repertory societies formed the New Zealand Drama Council as an association of the larger amateur theatre groups in the country. The Drama Council in 1962 represented more than 100 member-societies, to which it offers tutorial assistance for specific productions, as well as weekend schools on production, acting, and other aspects of stagecraft. The council has, since 1950, held an annual resident summer school of acting and production, and in 1960 it inaugurated an annual winter residential school in production. Directors of the summer school have included Hugh Hunt, Stefan Haag, John Sumner, and Doris Fitton, all from the Elizabethan Theatre Trust in Australia.

As part of their adult education work, the universities of Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury, and Otago offer many services to dramatic societies. Their regional councils of adult education provide five staff tutors in drama as well as part-time tutors who give tuition throughout the country not only in practical theatre work but in the study of drama as literature.

The Department of Internal Affairs and, more recently, the Arts Advisory Council, have fostered the amateur theatre by making regular annual grants towards the work of the New Zealand Drama Council and the New Zealand British Drama League. They also grant drama bursaries in acting and production for study overseas.

by Nola Leigh Millar, B.A., Director, New Theatre Company, Wellington.

  • Prompt Book, Reid, J. and R. (1959)
  • A Survey of the Arts in New Zealand, Simpson, E. C. (1961)
  • Evening Post, Jun-Jul 1928, “Thespian Memories”, Nicholls, H. E.
  • New Zealand Theatre. Music and Stage in New Zealand, Hurst, M. (1943)
  • New Zealand Theatre and Motion Picture Magazine (1920–50).