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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
The early 20th-century idea that municipalities should intervene in the market (municipal socialism) meant councils became involved in providing performance venues. These were built in neoclassical idioms. Whanganui’s council led the way when it agreed to build a municipal opera house to mark Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897. It was opened by Premier Richard Seddon in 1900.
The erection of a building combining municipal offices and theatre caused great controversy in Invercargill. Some residents argued that theatre building should be left to private enterprise and it was not a suitable use for public money. The more severe in the community declared theatre sinful. However, most ratepayers agreed to raise a loan for the building, to the great benefit of the city’s cultural life thereafter.
City councils began to build town halls that combined council administration and public entertainment:
Smaller boroughs also built town halls, including Cambridge (1909) and Inglewood (1913). Among the most charming was the Waipawa Town Hall and Municipal Theatre (1910). Its auditorium could accommodate 1,000 people, in a district whose population was just 4,124.
Other small towns used community halls to stage public entertainment. These became a feature of rural life from the 1880s. At their most basic level, halls were one-roomed, rectangular buildings with a gabled roof. Larger halls had entrance porches, cloakrooms, a kitchen, and a meeting room or two. These places were social hubs for small communities, hosting not only performance events, but dances, horticultural shows, and meetings.
During the early 1900s larger theatres were erected in some cities and towns to accommodate increased crowds and the demand for bigger stages. As well as stalls and dress circles the larger theatres had a third-tier gallery (or Gods). They were lavishly decorated inside, with ornate domed ceilings and fanciful proscenium arches. These were mostly erected by cultural entrepreneurs like James Williamson, but some municipalities also built theatres. Among these new structures were:
A theatre wouldn’t be a theatre without a ghost or two. Wellington’s St James Theatre reportedly has several. One was a Russian performer who was pushed to his death from the flies above the stage. He is said to turn all the lights on once the cleaners leave for the night. Another is a boys’ choir who performed their last show at the St James before being lost at sea during an overseas tour. Workers often hear their music in different parts of the auditorium.
The 1910s saw the rise of the cinema or picture theatre. Films had been shown in New Zealand at theatres and halls since the 1890s, but the first purpose-built cinema was the Kings in Wellington’s Dixon Street (1910). Auckland’s first cinema opened soon after in Upper Pitt (now France) Street and was also called the Kings.
Cinemas were modelled on theatres. The screen was on a stage and beneath a proscenium arch, and some cinemas even had proscenium boxes. Most had a balcony or dress circle where the more expensive seats were situated. In theatres without balconies the better seats were often separated from the stalls by a gate in the aisle. Most picture theatres also had a milk bar or ‘nibble nook’ where patrons could buy ice creams and other snacks at intermission.
From the 1920s cinemas became more palatial and whimsical to emphasise the glamour and escapism of movie-going. This included the 1,730-seat DeLuxe (later Embassy) Theatre in Wellington, a restrained neoclassical style building that opened in 1924. The most impressive of the new ‘picture palaces’ was Auckland’s Civic Theatre (1929). Its fantastical interior featured illuminated wild animals and exotic figures and motifs. The ceiling of its 2,750-seat auditorium created the illusion of a twinkling night sky.
The Civic Theatre was the largest atmospheric picture theatre built in Australasia. It featured several innovations, including a rising orchestra pit; the second-largest Wurlitzer organ in the southern hemisphere; and a tearoom, the ‘Wintergarden’, in the basement, from where patrons could see the main screen.
While some cinemas, like Auckland’s Kings (later Mercury Theatre), could host live performances, the reverse scenario was more common. Wellington’s St James Theatre and Christchurch’s Theatre Royal both had periods as cinemas. Small town venues like the Murchison Theatre continued to host cultural performances but also screened movies.
By 1930 New Zealand had 612 cinemas. Many of these were located in the suburbs of cities, such as Devonport’s Victoria and Miramar’s Capitol theatres. They tended to be more modest than their downtown counterparts but proved attractive to suburbanites. The 1930s also saw the two large cinema chains, Kerridge Odeon and Amalgamated, modernise some of their older theatres. Wellington’s Kings Theatre was given an art deco makeover with streamlined surfaces and neon light shows. These facelifts were designed to retain the modernity and glamour of cinema-going.
Despite the growing popularity of cinema, theatres continued to be built. These included:
These were the last of the grand neoclassical-style theatres. In 1929 Christchurch’s Radiant (Repertory) Theatre signalled a new direction in theatre design when it was built in the modern Spanish mission style. Napier’s Municipal Theatre was destroyed in the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake and rebuilt in vibrant art deco style in 1938. While their architecture was different from previous theatres, their internal arrangements remained much the same.
Comprising a large hall, concert chamber and function room, Whanganui’s war memorial hall, which opened in 1960, is the most impressive of the ‘living memorial’ halls. It features a constantly lit vestibule, visible from several angles and containing a book of remembrance. It was the first civic building to be designed in the modernist style and is considered a landmark in New Zealand architecture.
After the Second World War the government provided 50% subsidies for communities to build halls that could serve as ‘living memorials’ to local service people who had died in war. Over 300 war memorial halls were built, in small towns like Kāpuni and Kurow, as well as city suburbs like Mt Eden (Auckland) and Northland (Wellington). These were multi-purpose venues, hosting plays, dances, meetings and much more. Similarly Hamilton’s Founders Theatre opened in 1962 as a memorial to the city’s pioneer settlers.
From the 1960s smaller theatres made a comeback as venues for a developing local amateur and professional theatre sector and for introducing new performance ideas. Among the most novel was Dunedin’s Globe Theatre. It was built in the house of Patric and Rosalie Carey, who extended their living room to create a 30-seat auditorium in 1961. It expressed a growing desire for more intimate performance venues.
Wellington’s Downstage Theatre performed in the Walkabout Coffee Bar in Courtenay Place, where patrons could eat before watching a play. In 1973 it erected a new theatre on the same site.
Most other professional companies took over existing theatres or converted buildings into theatres:
Student demand for modern performance venues saw the construction of new university theatres. Victoria University of Wellington led the way, opening the Memorial Theatre in 1961. It was joined by:
From the 1970s new venues for amateur theatre and other events were built throughout the country, including Howick’s Little Theatre (1974), Rotorua’s Casa Blanca Theatre (1981) and Cromwell’s Fine Thyme Playhouse (2004). The period also saw an increased use of pubs as rock band venues. These included the Gluepot on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road and Dunedin’s James Cook Tavern – dubbed ‘the Cook’.
During the 1950s Māori were not permitted to sit in the dress circle of Pukekohe’s Strand Cinema. The theatre’s proprietor, Mr B. Blennerhasser, defended the measure, claiming that most Māori patrons were ‘substandard’ in terms of cleanliness and behaviour. He therefore confined them to the front stalls. Māori were also banned from the lounge bar at the local pub and from several barbers in the town.
During the 1950s cinema admissions continued to increase, reaching a peak in 1961 with 40.6 million admissions. A steep decline followed as New Zealanders forwent cinema-going for television watching. The introduction of the later 10pm bar closing time in 1967 was a further diversion, with admissions falling to 14.3 million by 1969. This dramatic decline led to the closure of many cinemas in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1972 Christchurch finally got a town hall worthy of the name. It included an auditorium for concerts and the James Hay Theatre.
Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre opened in 1983. It was meant to replace the old town hall, but public opposition to its demolition saved the building. Auckland also kept its old town hall and in 1990 opened the multi-venue Aotea Centre nearby.
These Modernist buildings lacked the palatial and fanciful atmosphere of older venues, but their spacious auditoriums and large artworks retained a sense of grandeur and spectacle. Interior spaces were less overtly divided by social class than in previous theatres, and the dress circle was now a thing of the past. However, the most expensive seats still had the best views of the stage.
A legendary multi-purpose performance venue in Wellington was Thistle Hall in bohemian upper Cuba Street. It got its name as a venue for Scottish country dancing, but in the early 1980s it was the city’s main punk rock venue. It attracted a diverse crowd, including gang members. Intimidation and violence was common. In one infamous 1981 gig members of the Nomads gang walked in, picked up the band’s equipment and walked out again.
When Christchurch’s Theatre Royal was threatened with demolition in the late 1970s supporters of the theatre formed a foundation to buy and then restore the building. Hopes to retain Auckland’s His Majesty’s Theatre were dashed when it was unceremoniously levelled in 1988. Its fate increased public awareness of the heritage significance of old theatres.
When a developer proposed demolishing Wellington’s St James’ Theatre in the late 1980s there was such a public outcry that the city council bought the building. A trust was then founded to restore and run it. Dunedin’s Regent Theatre and Nelson’s Theatre Royal were saved in a similar fashion.
While some spectacular cinemas like Dunedin’s Octagon Theatre were also demolished during this time, public campaigns to save Wellington’s Embassy and Auckland’s Civic theatres were successful. In 2012 a trust was formed to save Auckland’s spectacular but derelict St James Theatre.
New theatres continued to be built, including the North Shore’s Bruce Mason Centre (1997) and Auckland’s Q Theatre (2011). In 2013 plans were progressing for a large theatre complex in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter: the Waterfront Theatre project. A proposed post-earthquake arts precinct in Christchurch argued for two new theatres close to the historic Isaac Theatre Royal, but in 2013 it was uncertain if these would be built.
Wellington’s Old St Paul’s church had long been used for performances of choral and other classical music, but in 2013 Australian rock legend Paul Kelly broke new ground when he held a series of concerts there.
Cultural performances that attract very large crowds are held in sports stadiums in the main cities, or Auckland’s 12,000-seat Spark Arena. These include concerts by famous international acts, from Lady Gaga to Kiri Te Kanawa.
From the mid-1990s there was a revival of cinema-going, with many people rediscovering the thrill of watching a movie on a big screen. This phenomenon was encouraged by the arrival of multiplex cinemas in New Zealand in 1990. These comprised multiple auditoriums in one building, often attached to a shopping mall or precinct. Auditoriums were of different sizes – from about 40 to a few hundred seats – providing greater flexibility for showing films. Between 1991 and 2010 the number of cinema screens in New Zealand rose from 140 to 411.
Multiplexes were often plain, box-like structures that lacked the ‘architecture of illusion’ of the first cinemas. Some multiplexes and boutique cinemas enhanced the movie-going experience by providing sofa-like seating and allowing patrons to consume alcohol during screenings. Such developments made cinemas more like modern living rooms than the picture palaces of the past.
Brittenden, Wayne. The celluloid circus: the heyday of the New Zealand picture theatre, 1925–1970. Auckland: Godwit, 2008.
Downes, Peter. Shadows on the stage: theatre in New Zealand: the first 70 years. Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1975.
Frey, Michele, and Sara Newman. On a Saturday night: community halls of small-town New Zealand. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2012.
Jack, Fiona. Living halls. New Plymouth: Clouds and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 2011.
White, Georgina. Thistle Hall 1907–2007: 100 years of community. Wellington: Wellington City Council, 2008.