Story: Theatre companies and producers

The fortunes of live theatre have waxed and waned over the years, due to financial pressures and competition from other forms of entertainment. However, theatre remained a vibrant art form in the 2000s.

Story by Mark Derby
Main image: Allan Wilkie Theatre Company, Wellington, 1929

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Early theatre companies

Until cinemas became common in the early 20th century, live theatre was the main mass entertainment in New Zealand. However, audiences were small.

The first amateur theatre producer was James Marriott in 1840s Wellington. In 1855 American William Foley set up a professional theatre company which performed around New Zealand for 12 years.

Australian touring companies included J. C. Williamson’s productions and Pollard’s ‘Liliputian’ Opera Company, which featured a cast of children. In the 1890s John Fuller performed around the country with his family, then set up the Myriorama Company. Fullers built and ran theatres around the country.

Wartime and interwar theatre

Until the 1920s theatre companies were often run by actor-managers – actors who formed and led a company. In time the producer became more important. A producer chooses the work to be performed and co-ordinates planning and finances.

New Zealand troops in the First World War formed a variety troupe, the Digger Pierrots, which continued after the war. The Kiwi Concert Party was an all-male company that entertained New Zealand troops during the Second World War.

In the 1920s education professor James Shelley formed the Canterbury Repertory Society, and insisted that they employ producers.

In the 1930s theatre audiences fell due to the rise of cinema. Theatre producer George Worthington taught community drama groups how to produce plays with limited resources.

Professional companies

A number of professional companies were set up in the mid- to later 20th century, including:

  • the New Zealand Players, set up by Richard and Edith Campion in 1952
  • the Globe Theatre, formed by Patric and Rosalie Carey in Dunedin in the mid-1950s
  • Downstage, which ran in Wellington from 1964 to 2013
  • Mercury Theatre, active in Auckland from 1967 to 1992
  • Court Theatre in Christchurch, from 1971 onwards.

1970s onwards

Professional companies were followed by smaller companies, which could play to more varied audiences in different venues. They included:

  • Red Mole, an alternative company set up by Alan Brunton and Sally Rodwell in 1974
  • Pacific Underground, New Zealand’s first Pacific Islands performance company, from 1993
  • BATS Theatre in Wellington, which became a professional company in 1989
  • Tawata Productions, which performed work by Māori and Pacific writers, from 2004.

Touring companies may have no permanent staff, but take on actors and crew for specific productions, brought together by a producer.

How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Theatre companies and producers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 September 2023)

Story by Mark Derby, published 22 Oct 2014