Amateur drama festivals were popular throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The British Drama League was set up in New Zealand in 1931 and quickly established competitive festivals of one-act plays, often by New Zealand playwrights. The first competition was held in 1932 in Auckland, and by 1936 British Drama League festivals were occurring throughout New Zealand. By 1937, the Federation of Women’s Institutes also ran its own annual drama festival.
New Zealand Authors’ Week
New Zealand Authors’ Week was held in April 1936. Based on an Australian model and established by members of PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists), the committee aimed to educate the public about New Zealand writers and writing. The president of the national committee was Sir Harold Beauchamp, father of the writer Katherine Mansfield. The programme included lectures and exhibitions about New Zealand writers and books as well as performances of New Zealand music and plays. The festival received funding from the government and the patronage of the governor-general.
Celebrations and centenaries
The 1940 centennial was an opportunity to celebrate New Zealand’s artistic progress, so drama and music festivals were included in the celebrations.
The National Festival of Community Drama included a competitive festival of one-act plays. Competitors included members of the Women’s Institute, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and teacher training colleges.
A series of regional Centennial Music Festival events were held in June 1940. The Wellington events included an orchestral concert, a thanksgiving song service, a performance of Faust and choral and symphonic concerts. In Christchurch, the festival included performances of Faust, Carmen and Elijah, as well as a Highland band concert and the national centennial symphony orchestra.
Provincial centenaries were celebrated by the provincial centres in the 1940s and 1950s. Otago (1948) and Canterbury (1950–51) celebrated with music and drama festivals as well as exhibitions.
Auckland’s Festival of the Arts included an eclectic film programme. Filmed operas such as I Pagliacci and foreign-language films like Le salaire de la peur were shown. In 1959 the festival screened the first part of the epic six-hour Russian film And quiet flows the don. Other more familiar films were The great dictator, The third man, All about Eve and 12 angry men.
Regional arts festivals develop
The 1950s saw the development of regional arts festivals, which presented professional music, drama and arts in the one package.
The success of four Auckland Musical Festivals (from 1949 to 1952) led to the first Auckland Festival of the Arts in 1953. Held in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, the festival began with a service of dedication and thanksgiving at St. Matthew’s church. It also featured a youth concert, a series of lectures and exhibitions at the Auckland Art Gallery, brass and Highland bands and a festival play (George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan).
By 1954, the event was described as ‘a festival of a standard which would be regarded as high in any town in Great Britain’.1 The festival continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s, eventually becoming irregular and finally petering out in 1982.
Wellington got on board with its own festival in 1959. This festival encompassed more than just the arts, with cricket games as well as outdoor ballet performances. The festival was also held in 1961 and intermittently during the 1970s. Dunedin (1950) and Christchurch had their own arts festivals. Palmerston North held its first arts festival in 1959.