Story: Actors and acting

Page 3. The rise of professional theatre, 1960 to 1980

All images & media in this story

Television and other opportunities

From 1960 a series of events contributed to the growth of professional acting and the flowering of a distinctively New Zealand theatre:

  • the 1960 collapse of the New Zealand Players, a theatre company formed by Richard and Edith Campion, which had toured the country with a repertoire of mainly British and American plays
  • the establishment in 1964 of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, which funded professional theatre
  • the 10 regional professional theatres established between 1964 and 1975 (although three did not survive for long)
  • the national television network created in 1969 – both radio and television advertising always needed new voices and faces.

New Zealand Drama School

In the late 1950s Barbara Ewing and Alice Fraser studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and became successful actors. James Laurenson also became a successful stage and TV actor in the UK, taking the title role in the Australian 1970s TV series Boney. The establishment in 1970 of the New Zealand Drama School under Nola Millar (a founder of Unity Theatre in the 1930s) meant it was no longer necessary to go overseas to train as an actor.

Man alone

In 1959 Bruce Mason gave the first of more than 500 performances of his solo show The end of the golden weather. A small space, a chair and some lights were all he needed to become ‘in quick succession a child, an old man, a fat one, a thin one, a middle-aged female and a host of minor characters – about forty all told.’1 Creating an inexpensive solo touring production has enabled other actors to overcome unemployment. Mervyn Thompson, Helen Moulder, Cathy Downes, Jacob Rajan, Hone Kouka and Tim Balme are just some who have followed Mason’s example.

Film and radio acting

Work in film became spasmodically available after the thriller Sleeping dogs (1977) sparked a revival of New Zealand’s film industry. The film’s leading actors – Sam Neill, Ian Mune and Don Selwyn – had all started their careers in theatre and became highly successful screen performers. Television, especially major drama series such as Pukemanu (1971) and The governor (1977), provided further work.

Regional professional theatres

The regional theatres Downstage (in Wellington), Mercury (Auckland) and the Court (Christchurch) tried to create permanent ensemble companies, but without success. However, actors like Grant Tilly, Ellie Smith and Pat Evison became local stars. In the field of comedy Billy T. James, John Clarke and the Topp Twins became headliners and national television stars. They were, like the stage actors, indubitably Kiwi.

Co-operative theatre companies

Alongside the relatively large and expensive professional theatre companies, smaller and leaner theatre groups arose, such as Theatre Corporate in Auckland, Circa in Wellington and Free Theatre in Christchurch. These groups often staged productions as ‘single-venture partnerships’, with every member of the cast and crew agreeing to share in the takings from each show.

Alternative theatre groups

During the 1960s social, political, economic, racial and artistic upheavals occurred throughout the world, and New Zealand began to acknowledge that it was a bicultural nation. A strong, distinct New Zealand identity was expressed in all the arts and the Kiwi ‘cultural cringe’ abated. As part of this process, fringe theatre groups such as Amamus, Living Theatre and Theatre Action were formed, greatly extending the range of work for actors in New Zealand.

  1. Bruce Mason, Every kind of weather. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986, p. 98. Back
How to cite this page:

Laurie Atkinson, 'Actors and acting - The rise of professional theatre, 1960 to 1980', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Laurie Atkinson, published 22 Oct 2014