In the 1840s European colonists who arrived in New Zealand held theatre performances in pubs. Variety shows, involving music, dance, comedy and drama, were popular. A comedy called The lawyer outwitted was performed in Auckland in 1841.
By the 1860s there were many theatre, opera and vaudeville (music hall) companies, both local and visiting. Some actors learnt their craft in theatre families, while others studied with tutors or became members of stock companies, which provided supporting actors for visiting stars.
From the 1870s till the start of the First World War many foreign touring companies visited New Zealand. As transport improved, it was easier for whole companies to tour, so stock companies disappeared. Some people tried to set up New Zealand theatre companies. The most successful was Tom Pollard’s ‘Liliputians’, which started in Australia then moved to New Zealand.
Amateur acting, 1920s to 1960
International actors continued to tour New Zealand, performing British and American plays and musicals. However, theatre began to decline, due to competition from movies and later television. Local amateur drama groups remained popular. In the 1940s and 1950s Ngaio Marsh directed the Canterbury Student Players, which successfully toured Australia.
Professional theatre, 1960 to 1980
Set up in 1964, the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council funded professional theatre. Ten regional theatres were set up in the 1960s and 1970s, and the New Zealand Drama School was established in 1970.
From the late 1970s some actors found work in films. The regional theatres Downstage (Wellington), Mercury (Auckland) and Court (Christchurch) tried to set up permanent companies of actors, but were unsuccessful. However, some actors, such as Grant Tilly, Ellie Smith and Pat Evison, became well known. New Zealand identity began to be expressed in theatre and television.
Multicultural theatre, 1980 to 2000s
In the 1980s Māori actors such as Jim Moriarty, George Henare and Wi Kuki Kaa emerged. In 1988 the NZ Drama School changed its name to Toi Whakaari and began taking a bicultural approach. Actors of Pacific and Asian ethnicity also appeared. New Zealand actors such as Anna Paquin, Cliff Curtis and Lucy Lawless became internationally successful.
In the 2000s it could still be difficult for New Zealand actors to find work.