In 1942 a Wellington newspaper advertisement sought people interested in producing ‘Dramatic and Anti-Fascist plays’.1 The result was Unity Theatre, a local version of the people’s theatre workshops formed in Britain and the US. Against expectations, Unity survived for three decades and played an important role in the development of a professional local theatre.
The original members were energetic amateurs. The first producer was Robert Stead, a carpenter and communist who later became a television director in England. He was soon joined by Nola Millar, who went on to form New Zealand’s first drama school. Other prominent members of Unity included Richard and Edith Campion. By 1962 it was Wellington’s leading serious drama group.
Community Arts Service Theatre
Live theatre received further encouragement in 1947 when the government funded the Community Arts Service Theatre. Until 1962 this company toured towns throughout the northern North Island, employing actors on short-term contracts.
In 1959 critic and playwright Bruce Mason said that in a Wellington production of Oedipus Rex, producer Richard Campion ‘showed throughout … a talent for engaging mind, ear and eye simultaneously’.2 Eleanor Elliott, a member of the New Zealand Players, felt that Campion is ‘quite the best producer I have ever worked for. He has a remarkable ability of making you see what he wanted … a poet, so he chose the right word to make you see his vision. He had a splendid imagination and an understanding of people’s feelings.’3
New Zealand Players
In 1952 Richard and Edith Campion, formerly of Unity Theatre, set up the New Zealand Players as a national touring company. Between 1953 and 1960 the company presented 30 plays, and gave employment to more than 100 actors. Many of them, such as Raymond Hawthorne, later became celebrated actors, producers and other theatre practitioners.
Richard Campion next formed the Drama Quartet as a smaller and less expensive company to tour to schools. Neither company had a long life, but they confirmed the possibility, as well as the challenges, of sustaining professional theatre.
Southern Comedy Players
Another early regional theatre company with professional intentions was the Southern Comedy Players, founded in Dunedin in 1957 by William Menlove and Bernard Esquilant. It initially toured South Island towns not reached by the New Zealand Players. When that company failed, the Southern Comedy Players ventured nationwide. Remarkably, they survived until 1970.
Patric and Rosalie Carey, former members of the Community Arts Service Theatre, began producing plays from their Dunedin home in the mid-1950s. In 1961 they opened a tiny theatre, the Globe, behind the house. Over the next 18 years all the plays of James K. Baxter were developed and premiered there. Many other plays by playwrights such as Samuel Beckett had their first New Zealand productions at the Globe. Some were also toured regionally.
Children’s Art Theatre
Whanganui producer David Smiles formed a professional theatre company to tour to North Island schools in 1967. For the next two years Children’s Art Theatre toured to more than 700 primary schools in a small van. It employed five full-time actors, several of whom later became well-known in adult theatre, film and television.
Although the New Zealand Players survived for only seven years, they contributed to the formation in 1964 of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (later Creative New Zealand). This, in turn, funded a number of long-lasting regional professional theatres. Downstage opened in Wellington in 1964 as an intimate theatre-restaurant. By 1973 it was based in the purpose-built Hannah Playhouse in central Wellington, producing mainly original New Zealand plays. Falling ticket sales forced Downstage to close in 2013.
Wellington gained a second professional theatre in 1976, when Circa opened as a co-operative. In 1994 it acquired new premises on the Wellington waterfront, where it remained active as an actors’ co-operative in 2023.
Other regional companies
Mercury Theatre opened in Auckland in 1967 in a renovated building off Karangahape Road. Mounting debts forced Mercury to close in 1992, although it re-formed into the Auckland Theatre Company (ATC). In 2023 the ATC was based in a large theatre complex on the Auckland waterfront.
The Four Seasons Theatre opened in a historic homestead in Whanganui in 1970, and closed in 2000. Christchurch’s Court Theatre opened in 1971 and was based at the Christchurch Arts Centre from 1976 until the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. In 2023 it occupied temporary premises in a former grain silo.
In 1978 Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre acquired a base in the historic Trinity Methodist Church, where it remained until it closed in 2018.
In 2023 the only permanent professional theatre outside the main centres was Palmerston North’s Centrepoint, formed in 1974.