Nola Leigh Millar was born in Wellington on 18 February 1913, the daughter of Agnes Eleanor Marshall and her husband, Frank Winfird Millar, a civil servant who became general secretary of the New Zealand Public Service Association and editor of its journal. Agnes Millar died in 1919 leaving two small daughters. Nola was close to her family, which was extended by two half-brothers after her father married Winifred Annie Maginnity in 1920.
Educated at Wellington East Girls’ College, Nola Millar began a BA degree at Victoria University College in 1932 and joined the Alexander Turnbull Library as a typist in 1934. She found the Turnbull collections a rich resource for her enquiring mind and, under the reference librarian, Alice Woodhouse, developed the flair for research that led to her own appointment as reference librarian in 1947. Her pursuit of the obscure fact aided a generation of academics, historians and writers.
Throughout her 16 years at the Turnbull, Nola Millar juggled the demands of her job with an increasing fascination with theatre. Beginning as an actor with the Wellington East Old Girls’ Dramatic Society, she soon turned director, eagerly entering one-act plays in the annual Wellington festival organised by the British Drama League. By 1946 she had joined Unity Theatre, where she found herself in feisty company among people engaged as keenly in the choice of a play as in its performance. Unity suited her talents and her intellectual vigour, and it was there that she honed the production style that was to become her hallmark. Millar could coax a fine performance from apprentice and experienced actor alike, and gathered round her a core of outstanding male players drawn by her fidelity to the playwright’s intention and by her fervour. Over a decade Millar was president of Unity five times. Furthermore, she became the dominant influence in Unity’s gradual shift from its left-wing propagandist origins to a theatre with a rising reputation.
Unity was also the springboard for her first sortie into professional theatre. After she helped fellow members Edith and Richard Campion form the New Zealand Players in 1952, Millar joined as manager. The months of preparation, the apparent realisation of so many hopes for a national theatre, and the nationwide auditions were all much to her taste. Less so the lonely job out on the road ahead of the company, and by 1954 she was once more a reference librarian, this time at Victoria University.
Still restless for the theatre, however, she left the shelter of the library to become a free-lance producer. Despite the financial insecurity, she was buoyant and sure of her future. Her writing and broadcasting gave her some support. A perceptive critic, Millar was a regular contributor to the New Zealand Listener ’s radio review page, an occasional broadcaster and, from 1958 to 1967, editor of the New Zealand Drama Council journal, New Zealand Theatre. She prepared the drama and ballet section of the arts supplement to the New Zealand Official Yearbook of 1964 and sometimes wrote for Landfall. A persuasive and incisive speaker, Millar became more and more involved with amateur theatre administration, first with the British Drama League and then as a member of the Drama Council. She chaired the steering committee that led to the merger of these parallel organisations into the New Zealand Theatre Federation.
Never content with the mediocre, Nola Millar constantly moved forward, taking risks, carrying the less innovative with her. She kept abreast of new plays, plays by New Zealanders and new directions in theatre abroad. Under the name New Theatre she formed a company, established a school and then founded a theatre club. In 1959 she assembled a group of experienced actors ‘to play Shakespeare to school audiences in college halls’. They eventually performed to 12,000 secondary school students, and by 1962 were officially known as The New Theatre Company. Experience as a tutor at Drama Council summer schools convinced her of the need for year-round training for young actors. The marked success of the school she directed at Massey University in the summer of 1964 persuaded her and her fellow tutors to start a part-time school in Wellington. The 1960s were her most creative years. Ad hoc engagements as a producer for drama societies all over the country established her standing beyond Wellington, but she continued to work with Unity and to direct at Downstage Theatre. The chronological list of Nola Millar play productions over 40 years is evidence of her catholic taste.
In 1966 Nola Millar gained a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand fellowship to study theatre in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Europe the following year. The trip, which she entered on with some trepidation, turned into a passionate pilgrimage. Theatres, plays and drama schools were observed with an eye to what would be useful at home. Millar returned to create the New Theatre Club, with a membership audience. The club was ardently supported by professional actors and designers, play followed play, and membership grew. Because of her success, in 1970 the Arts Council looked to her to provide an interim training school. Its premises were two flights up in Cuba Street, Wellington, and Nola Millar was the director. With a handful of students and nine tutors, the New Zealand Drama School had its genesis.
Shy and reserved on first acquaintance, Nola Millar, with her disciplined approach to creative work, could seem formidable. But to her students, actors and friends she was warm, witty and splendid company. Other people’s foibles she regarded much as she did her own, with a wry sense of the absurd. She was a familiar presence at race tracks; the nail-biting gamble gave her immense pleasure.
At her peak Nola Millar fell ill. Through months of declining health she continued to direct the interim Drama School almost to the end, facing death as resolutely as she had lived her life. She had never married. Not long before she died at Wellington on 20 January 1974, she was given the Arts Council’s highest Award for Achievement. The Nola Millar Library at Toi Whakaari (the Drama School) is her memorial.