When European colonists arrived in New Zealand in large numbers in the 1840s, they brought with them their enjoyment of making and watching theatre. The earliest performances were held in pubs, and variety shows (a mix of singing, dancing, comedy and dramatic recitations) were the most popular. In 1841 David Osborne and three other actors staged a comedy called The lawyer outwitted at Auckland’s Watson’s Hotel. It was the first known theatre production in New Zealand.
New Zealand-based performers were amateurs, since there was not enough regular work to keep them employed. However, visiting professional companies such as Foley’s Circus (which arrived from Australia in 1855) encouraged higher standards. One reviewer described Mrs W. H. Foley as ‘an accomplished artiste and her appearance ... must be regarded as a new era in the history of public amusements in Auckland.’1
New Zealand theatre soon became almost entirely professional. The gold rushes of the 1860s supported numerous theatrical, operatic and vaudeville (music hall) companies, both local and visiting. In 1864 the American performer Joseph Jefferson, widely regarded as the greatest actor of his day, toured in his most famous role of Rip Van Winkle. His relaxed style was a pleasant contrast to the more usual flamboyance. The Otago Daily Times advised local actors that if ‘instead of speaking naturally they have learned to hesitate and gasp, and to play a thousand other ridiculous pranks with the power of speech, it would be well for them to unlearn these vices quickly.’2
James Pollard, the founder of the ‘Liliputians’ company of child entertainers, included his large family, ranging in age from six to their late teens, in the troupe. In 1881 the company performed a three-week season of HMS Pinafore in Auckland; the Theatre Royal was packed for every show. 21 years later Tom Pollard told the Star that the record three-week run had only recently been equalled by his later company, with 18 consecutive performances of the operetta Florodora.
Theatre was often a family business, but aspiring actors who did not come from theatrical families could learn their craft in two ways. One was to be taught elocution and stage techniques by a private tutor. As a young man the great English actor Sir Henry Irving was tutored by William Hoskins. Hoskins became an actor-manager (who was responsible for all aspects of a production) in Australia and later moved to New Zealand. In 1888 he established Christchurch’s first permanent professional theatre company.
The other possible training ground for a young actor was a stock company like the one Hoskins created in Christchurch. A stock company provided visiting stars with the support they needed to perform in a repertoire of popular plays. The company’s actors specialised in ‘stock’ roles (such as young innocent, juvenile lead and old man), and centre stage was left to the visiting star. There were also actors who were not professional but could gain work with visiting professional companies, rather like movie extras today, to play minor roles or walk-on parts. They were called gentlemen amateurs.
From the 1870s until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, numerous foreign touring companies visited New Zealand. Local stock companies eventually disappeared, since improvements in roads, rail and shipping made transporting an entire theatre company across the Tasman and around New Zealand faster and cheaper. Also, leading actors formed their own companies and became actor-managers. The English-born, Dunedin-educated Bland Holt toured the country in 1882 with his company, and was billed ‘The King of Melodrama’.
In 1909 The Citizen newspaper named six New Zealand actors who had made a name for themselves internationally. One of them, Harry Plimmer, was listed as a star in the US, although ‘not of the first order’. He performed melodrama in the 1880s for Bland Holt’s company, then toured internationally with J. C. Williamson’s Australian-based company. In 1910 Plimmer was described as ‘a likeable actor, with a good appearance and a telling voice. In his still manner he is graceful; in his abruptness he is easy; in his coldness he is emotional.’3
Attempts were made to set up New Zealand companies, but the only really successful one, Tom Pollard’s ‘Liliputians’, started life in Australia and then shifted its headquarters across the Tasman. The company, which specialised in juvenile performances of light opera, was immensely popular. Two of its young stars, Wellington-born sisters May and Maud Beatty, went on to adult careers overseas.
A small number of other New Zealand-born actors also found success overseas. Harry Plimmer was a leading man for two famous actor-managers – Nance O’Neill and Lillie Langtree – on their tours across the US. He later returned to New Zealand and formed his own company with fellow New Zealander Reynolds Denniston.
From the 1920s famous international actors still toured New Zealand performing English and American plays and musicals. However, several factors contributed to a change in the role and status of actors, and to the decline of theatre.
By the late 1920s, as professional theatre declined through competition from cinema, amateur performers became a well-organised movement. James Shelley formed several local drama societies before becoming New Zealand’s first director of broadcasting. He wrote that in the 1920s ‘[d]rama and play-acting became powerful social forces; and when … the people of the Dominion became really aware of the dramatic “revival” the whole country rapidly budded with theatrical effort.’1
In 1949 the Canterbury Student Players went on tour to Melbourne, where their productions of Luigi Pirandello’s Six characters in search of an author and Shakespeare’s Othello were received with great enthusiasm. One newspaper critic described actress Brigid Lenihan’s Desdemona as ‘faultless’, and another critic said she was easily the equal of legendary British leading lady Vivien Leigh, who had recently toured with the Old Vic, although Lenihan had ‘more reserves of dramatic strength.’2
Every city, small town and country district had its own amateur theatre group. In 1931 a New Zealand branch of the British Drama League (BDL) was formed to cater for this pastime. Some groups built their own small theatres. Others rented those under-used opera houses that had not been turned into cinemas, the only legacy of nearly a century of theatrical endeavour.
Amateur actors and directors could learn about theatre in one-act play competitions. They could attend annual summer drama schools and special courses (often with tutors from overseas) established by organisations like the BDL and the NZ Drama Council (1945), and later their combined organisation, the NZ Theatre Federation (1970).
Aspiring actors could still take lessons from private speech and drama teachers such as Maria Dronke. In Wellington in the 1950s she taught talented young actors such as Elizabeth McRae and Peter Vere-Jones, who later became leading professionals.
In the 1940s and 1950s the Canterbury Student Players, under their director Ngaio Marsh, reached very high standards and toured to acclaim in Australia. Three of their actors – Brigid Lenihan, Elric Hooper and Jonathan Elsom – went on to successful professional careers.
Touring productions by international stars continued to inspire local actors. In 1948 the renowned Shakespearean and cinema actor Laurence Olivier brought Richard III and other classics. Ten years later, Olivier’s assistant as director of Britain’s National Theatre was Wellingtonian Sunny Amey, who went on to become artistic director of Downstage from 1970–74 and acting director of Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School from 1989–91.
From 1960 a series of events contributed to the growth of professional acting and the flowering of a distinctively New Zealand theatre:
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. However, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, and greatly extended the range of work for actors in New Zealand.
In the 1980s the renaissance of Māori culture brought a spectacular growth of Māori actors on stage and screen. Leading actors such as Jim Moriarty, George Henare and Wi Kuki Kaa moved easily between mainstream European-styled theatre and Māori marae-based theatre. Rawiri Paratene and Rangimoana Taylor were among the early graduates of the New Zealand Drama School in the 1970s.
With the formation of Māori theatre groups such as Maranga Mai in Auckland and Taki Rua Theatre in Wellington, the number of Māori actors grew. Taki Rua started as a bicultural company and then became purely Māori with seasons of plays in te reo Māori. In 1988 the New Zealand Drama School changed its name to Te Kura Toi Whakaari o Aotearoa: New Zealand Drama School, and adopted a bicultural approach to teaching drama.
Māori plays were widely performed in theatres all over the country, and Māori actors found international success in the films Once were warriors (1994), Whale rider (2003) and Boy (2010). They made Rena Owen, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Cliff Curtis and Taika Waititi nationally and internationally known names.
As the Pacific population grew, particularly in Auckland, Samoan actors started to make their presence felt. In 1977 Lani Tupu Junior became the first Samoan student at the NZ Drama School. Later Oscar Kightley and Dave Fane found fame as popular comedians, writers and stage and television actors.
During the making of Roger Donaldson’s film The bounty, actor Ian Mune watched ‘Wi Kuki Kaa, as the Tahitian chief, giving away his daughter to [Fletcher] Christian. It is a huge scene with crowds … the essence of the scene is the heartbreak of the chief at losing his daughter not just to a man … but to a new culture. The whole weight of the world is in that craggy, froggy face, and as the couple leaves, the tears stream down his craggy cheeks and he keens softly ... it is a deeply moving intimate moment, and Wi is magnificent.’1
A 1994 graduate of Toi Whakaari, Jacob Rajan, created a stir with his trilogy of solo plays exploring Indian themes, starting with the hugely popular Krishnan’s dairy. The face of New Zealand film, theatre and television had started to change dramatically. This was most evident in the increasing number of characters of different ethnicities appearing in New Zealand’s longest-running television soap opera, Shortland Street.
Actors turned to creating and performing plays based on their diverse cultural backgrounds. In 1999 Dianna Fuemana, of Niuean and Samoan parentage, included the Niuean language in Mapaki. The same year, 19-year-old Madeleine Sami (of Irish and Fijian Indian descent) created a sensation performing as a Fijian matriarch and numerous family members in Toa Fraser’s play No. 2. The actor, writer and poet Lynda Chanwai-Earle (a fourth-generation Chinese New Zealander) wrote the first authentic New Zealand-Chinese play, Ka shue (1995).
The restructuring of the education system in the 1990s meant that courses on every conceivable aspect of the performing arts, including many Māori performing arts courses, became available at all levels, from university degrees and polytechnic diplomas to the NCEA standards at secondary schools.
Most New Zealand actors combine stage acting with film and television work, and a growing number have developed international careers. They include Anna Paquin, who won an academy award at age 11 for her role in The piano (1993); Lucy Lawless, who played the title role in the US TV series Xena: warrior princess; and the comic actor Rhys Darby, best known as Murray Hewitt, the unstable band manager in Flight of the Conchords.
In the 2000s it remained difficult for graduating students of theatre to find work in an already overcrowded profession, in a country with a small population. Worldwide, it is estimated that 85–90% of actors are unemployed (as actors) at any time. In 2012 the average annual income for actors, dancers and other entertainers was estimated at $26,500. However, aspiring actors were unlikely to be deterred by these statistics.
Downes, Peter. The Pollards: a family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand & Australia 1880–1910. Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2002.
Downes, Peter. Shadows on the stage. Dunedin: J. McIndoe, 1975.
Guest, Bill. Transitions: four decades of Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School. Wellington: Victoria University Press; Toi Whakaari, New Zealand Drama School, 2010.
Harcourt, Peter. A dramatic appearance: New Zealand theatre 1920–1970. Wellington: Methuen, 1978.
Mason, Bruce. Every kind of weather. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986.
Smythe, John. Downstage upfront: the first 40 years of New Zealand’s longest-running professional theatre. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004.