First play performed
When European colonists arrived in New Zealand in large numbers in the 1840s, they brought with them their enjoyment of making and watching theatre. The earliest performances were held in pubs, and variety shows (a mix of singing, dancing, comedy and dramatic recitations) were the most popular. In 1841 David Osborne and three other actors staged a comedy called The lawyer outwitted at Auckland’s Watson’s Hotel. It was the first known theatre production in New Zealand.
New Zealand-based performers were amateurs, since there was not enough regular work to keep them employed. However, visiting professional companies such as Foley’s Circus (which arrived from Australia in 1855) encouraged higher standards. One reviewer described Mrs W. H. Foley as ‘an accomplished artiste and her appearance ... must be regarded as a new era in the history of public amusements in Auckland.’1
New Zealand theatre soon became almost entirely professional. The gold rushes of the 1860s supported numerous theatrical, operatic and vaudeville (music hall) companies, both local and visiting. In 1864 the American performer Joseph Jefferson, widely regarded as the greatest actor of his day, toured in his most famous role of Rip Van Winkle. His relaxed style was a pleasant contrast to the more usual flamboyance. The Otago Daily Times advised local actors that if ‘instead of speaking naturally they have learned to hesitate and gasp, and to play a thousand other ridiculous pranks with the power of speech, it would be well for them to unlearn these vices quickly.’2
James Pollard, the founder of the ‘Liliputians’ company of child entertainers, included his large family, ranging in age from six to their late teens, in the troupe. In 1881 the company performed a three-week season of HMS Pinafore in Auckland; the Theatre Royal was packed for every show. 21 years later Tom Pollard told the Star that the record three-week run had only recently been equalled by his later company, with 18 consecutive performances of the operetta Florodora.
Training of actors
Theatre was often a family business, but aspiring actors who did not come from theatrical families could learn their craft in two ways. One was to be taught elocution and stage techniques by a private tutor. As a young man the great English actor Sir Henry Irving was tutored by William Hoskins. Hoskins became an actor-manager (who was responsible for all aspects of a production) in Australia and later moved to New Zealand. In 1888 he established Christchurch’s first permanent professional theatre company.
The other possible training ground for a young actor was a stock company like the one Hoskins created in Christchurch. A stock company provided visiting stars with the support they needed to perform in a repertoire of popular plays. The company’s actors specialised in ‘stock’ roles (such as young innocent, juvenile lead and old man), and centre stage was left to the visiting star. There were also actors who were not professional but could gain work with visiting professional companies, rather like movie extras today, to play minor roles or walk-on parts. They were called gentlemen amateurs.
From the 1870s until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, numerous foreign touring companies visited New Zealand. Local stock companies eventually disappeared, since improvements in roads, rail and shipping made transporting an entire theatre company across the Tasman and around New Zealand faster and cheaper. Also, leading actors formed their own companies and became actor-managers. The English-born, Dunedin-educated Bland Holt toured the country in 1882 with his company, billed as ‘The King of Melodrama’.
In 1909 The Citizen newspaper named six New Zealand actors who had made a name for themselves internationally. One of them, Harry Plimmer, was listed as a star in the US, although ‘not of the first order’. He performed melodrama in the 1880s for Bland Holt’s company, then toured internationally with J. C. Williamson’s Australian-based company. In 1910 Plimmer was described as ‘a likeable actor, with a good appearance and a telling voice. In his still manner he is graceful; in his abruptness he is easy; in his coldness he is emotional.’3
Attempts were made to set up New Zealand companies, but the only really successful one, Tom Pollard’s ‘Liliputians’, started life in Australia and then shifted its headquarters across the Tasman. The company, which specialised in juvenile performances of light opera, was immensely popular. Two of its young stars, Wellington-born sisters May and Maud Beatty, went on to adult careers overseas.
A small number of other New Zealand-born actors also found success overseas. Harry Plimmer was a leading man for two famous actor-managers – Nance O’Neill and Lillie Langtree – on their tours across the US. He later returned to New Zealand and formed his own company with fellow New Zealander Reynolds Denniston.