Story: Theatres, cinemas and halls

Page 1. Colonial period

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First venue

An appreciation of the performing arts was one of the attributes that settlers brought from Britain, and towns soon rallied to provide places for musicians, singers and actors to perform. The first performance venue was Auckland’s Albert Theatre, a back room in Watson’s Hotel on High Street. It was there, on Christmas Eve 1841, that David Osborne staged the colony’s first play: The lawyer outwitted. Singing and other concerts also took place there.

How bazaar

To cash in on Dunedin’s gold-mining influx, the Provincial Hotel owner Shadrach Jones quickly converted his neighbouring horse bazaar into the ‘Princess Theatre’. At the end of the business day the horse stalls were closed off and covered with ornamental partitions. A fold-down stage was installed so the space could be quickly converted back to its daytime use. Such was its success that Jones ended up banishing the horses and rebuilding the bazaar as a proper theatre.

1840s–1860s: first theatres

The first purpose-built theatre was Wellington’s Royal Victoria Theatre on Manners Street. In laying its foundation on 31 July 1843 William Lyon welcomed the new amenity, considering ‘a theatre a necessary concomitant of an advanced state of civilization.’1 The building was erected behind the Ship Inn by its proprietor John Fuller and opened on September 12. The first show was Rover of the seas.

From the outside the Royal Victoria Theatre was a plain, rectangular wooden building with a gabled roof, a few windows along its side, and a street entrance beside the hotel. It measured about 14 by 9 metres. Little is known of its interior other than it had stall seating and a commodious dress gallery. It was also brightly lit by whale oil gas, a Wellington first.

Auckland opened its first purpose-built theatre the following year: the Fitzroy Theatre in Shortland Street. A second Wellington theatre, the Britannia Saloon in Willis Street, opened in 1845. Such was its success that it forced the Royal Victoria to close until 1856, when it successfully reopened as the Royal Olympic.

Plays were performed in Lyttelton’s town hall from 1857 and in the Christchurch town hall from 1858. A room in the Provincial Hotel became Dunedin’s first performance venue in 1861. Its first purpose-built theatre, the Theatre Royal in Princes Street, opened in 1862. This and the makeshift Princess Theatre did a roaring trade putting on popular comedies and musical performances for the miners teeming to the Otago goldfields.

The following year Christchurch opened its first theatre, the Canterbury Music Hall in Gloucester Street. It became the Theatre Royal in 1866.

This is serious

Under 17th-century Puritan rule, theatrical performances in England were banned. When Charles II was restored to the throne, he issued letters patent to certain theatre companies giving them the exclusive right to perform serious drama. One of the first companies established itself at the Theatre Royal in London’s Drury Lane. Later theatres issued with patents also adopted the Theatre Royal name to distinguish themselves from other venues. The practice of issuing patents ceased in 1843, but theatre-goers continued to associate the name ‘Theatre Royal’ with serious drama.

1870s: new theatres

Due to growing audiences and the demand for better facilities the 1870s saw a burst of new theatre building by private entrepreneurs in the cities. These included:

  • Theatre Royal, Wellington (1873)
  • (second) Princess Theatre, Dunedin (1876)
  • Theatre Royal, Auckland (1876)
  • (second) Theatre Royal, Christchurch (1876)
  • Theatre Royal, Nelson (1878)

These were of different sizes but shared a common neoclassical architectural style. All were at least two storeys high to accommodate a dress circle in the auditorium. The interiors were designed to provide a sense of occasion and fantasy, with elaborately decorated proscenium arches and ceilings.

These new buildings reinforced the social class dimension of theatre-going. The high-end dress circle and the low-end stalls had separate entrances, and some theatres had proscenium boxes for the elite. The dress circle also had its own foyer where patrons could socialise during intervals.

Opera houses

The period also saw the erection of choral halls and opera houses. The Auckland Choral Society built a choral hall in Symonds Street in 1868, the first of three on the site. In 1882 the cultural entrepreneur H. N. Abbott erected a 1,300-seat opera house in Wellesley Street. While graceless on the outside, it was well-appointed on the inside, boasting four proscenium boxes.

Christchurch and Wellington built opera houses in 1882 and 1886 respectively. As well as performances of opera and comic opera – Gilbert and Sullivan shows were popular – these venues hosted variety concerts or vaudeville.

Footnotes:
  1. New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator, 2 Aug 1843, p. 3. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Theatres, cinemas and halls - Colonial period', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/theatres-cinemas-and-halls/page-1 (accessed 19 October 2017)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 22 Oct 2014