Theatre design – also referred to as stage design, performance design and scenography – includes set, lighting, costume and audiovisual elements. The scope of theatre design in New Zealand ranges in scale from opera and ballet in large traditional theatres such as the St James in Wellington and the Regent Theatre in Dunedin, through to drama and contemporary dance performances in smaller venues such as Bats Theatre in Wellington and the Maidment Theatre in Auckland.
Until the second half of the 20th century the concept of theatre design in New Zealand was strongly influenced by productions touring from Australia, Britain and continental Europe. These were performed mainly in large proscenium-arch venues (theatres with a rectangular frame around the stage), in the larger towns and cities. The sides and back of the stage were typically lined with flat screens painted in a naturalistic style to suggest the setting of the performance.
For Downstage Theatre’s 1974 production of The zoo story, the set, wrote reviewer Bruce Mason, was ‘a single park bench on a wooden rostrum … When the play began, audiences and actors were at once merged in a creative unity.’1 Two years later Wellington’s Circa Theatre used a building saved from demolition for the first-ever performance of Glide time. Actor Peter Harcourt said, ‘The stage was hardly more than a cleared area in the middle of the floor … the drab, dingy and dispirited workhouse of an obscure minor department in our vast bureaucracy.’2
Local professional theatre
From the 1960s there was a significant increase in local professional theatre, notably in drama. These productions favoured more intimate performance venues such as converted halls, university studio theatres and spaces not previously used for performing. Wellington’s Downstage Theatre was at the forefront of this movement, opening its first production in 1964 at Victoria University’s Little Theatre before moving to the Walkabout Coffee Bar in Courtenay Place and then the Star Boating Club in 1969. It was not until 1973 that Downstage occupied a purpose-designed and -built theatre on the site of the coffee bar.
Reconfiguring the theatre
The use of smaller, more intimate performance spaces placed greater emphasis on lighting and costume design to establish locale and create atmosphere. With audiences seated in arena (surrounding the performing area) or traverse (on both sides of the performing area) configurations, large naturalistic scenic units proved impractical as they obscured the audience’s view of the performing area. Instead, smaller scenic modules were used, often simplified or abstract in design. A style of theatre emerged in which performers and design elements occupied the same physical and atmospheric space as the audience.
At its extreme, site-specific or found spaces such as public lawns or vacant office buildings were chosen for their unique architectural or natural settings. These required very little, if any, additional staging to support design concepts. ‘Theatre design’ in these circumstances is often simply a matter of audience placement.
With the traditional barriers between the acting area and auditorium reduced, a new relationship between performer and audience was established. The audience’s imagination was employed to help create the performance environment.
New Zealand’s first professional stage designer was Raymond Boyce, a graduate of the Slade School of Fine Arts in London, who became resident designer at Scotland’s Dundee Repertory Company. He arrived in New Zealand in 1953 and joined Richard Campion’s New Zealand Players. Later, as resident designer for Downstage, he designed over 100 productions and became the design consultant for their new home, the Hannah Playhouse, in the 1970s. His impressive set and costume designs for drama, major opera and ballet, ranging from minimalist to high baroque, set the standard for professional stage design in New Zealand.
Other stage designers
Other practitioners to advance the scope and vision of stage design in New Zealand from the 1960s, across a wide range of theatre forms, have included Grant Tilly, John Parker, Tony Rabbit, John Verryt, Dorita Hannah, Tracy Grant Lord, Tolis Papazoglou, Tracey Collins and Tony de Goldi.