Story: Theatre companies and producers

Page 1. Early theatre companies

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The challenge of live theatre

Until the rise of cinema in the early 20th century, theatre was one of New Zealand’s main sources of entertainment. Wherever a potential audience could be found, some bold entrepreneur would charge admission to watch performers emoting, dancing and singing on stage. However, throughout the late 19th century those audiences remained relatively small and dispersed, and travelling theatre companies struggled to survive on the income from ticket sales. Until the 1890s the production of live theatre in New Zealand was limited to energetic amateurs, foreign (especially Australian) touring companies and the occasional short-lived local venture.

James Marriott

The first of the amateur producers was James Marriott, who, in the early 1840s, convinced a number of Wellington shopkeepers and artisans to present light entertainment to the new harbour settlement. In the same period an Australian actor-manager, George Buckingham, ran a small company of professional performers in Auckland, but his theatre survived less than two years.

The Foleys

In 1855 Buckingham reappeared in Auckland, this time as part of New Zealand’s first enduring professional theatre company. It was formed by an American showman, William Foley, who had earlier run circuses in San Francisco and Australia. The star performer was Foley’s wife, known simply as Mrs W. H. Foley, who sometimes portrayed 14 different characters in a single evening. For the next 12 years the Foleys, together and separately, staged dramas, comedies, variety shows and circuses throughout the country, providing employment and training to many local performers. They were pioneers of professional theatre in New Zealand.

Gold-rush theatre

The discovery of gold in Otago in 1861 brought an influx of diggers, and touring companies to entertain them. Several theatre managers, such as Clarence Holt, arrived from earlier gold strikes in Australia, and moved their companies on again once the Otago diggings declined.

Australian touring companies

Australian impresarios continued to dominate the local entertainment scene in later decades. Actor-manager J. C. Williamson brought his comedy, drama and light opera productions across the Tasman for 40 years from the 1880s. Tasmanian Tom Pollard also entertained New Zealanders for decades with his Liliputian Opera Company, whose members were his own and other children, aged from 10 to 13.

Varied variety

In a Fullers variety show in 1918 the opening act was the trapeze duo Delmore and Lee, followed by the Five Levins, a team of Chinese entertainers. There was a ‘comedy acrobat and clever tumbler’, a ventriloquist and ‘Upside Down Wright’, who read, smoked, sketched and drank while hanging upside-down from a high wire. ‘Whirlwind jugglers’ were followed by the male impersonator Nellie Kelly, then by Romaine, a violinist. The evening ended with Maud Coreny and her husband singing ‘sentimental songs’.

John Fuller and Sons

The first New Zealand-based variety companies to survive for a significant period were probably those founded by John Fuller, an English-born singer who arrived in Auckland in 1893. He recruited his wife and children for a series of popular touring concerts, then formed the Myriorama Company to give ‘magic lantern’ (lantern-slide) shows with spoken commentary. The family moved on to present waxwork shows, and became so successful that they built and ran their own theatres and imported artists from overseas to appear alongside locals.

Until the 1930s ‘Fullers’ was a household name for entertainment in New Zealand, and eventually also in Australia, where the company was later based. Their theatres were eventually converted to screen movies.

Dix’s Gaiety Companies

Around the turn of the century Fullers’ main competition came from Percy Dix, a rival entrepreneur who formed professional ‘Gaiety Companies’ in each of the four main centres.

How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Theatre companies and producers - Early theatre companies', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 22 Oct 2014