Born in Christchurch on 17 March 1904, Neta Doris Billcliff was the daughter of Arthur Billcliff, a Yorkshire-born grocer, and his American wife, Thomasina Emily Jocelyn Corcoran. Educated at Elmwood School and Christchurch Girls’ High School, she became a pupil-teacher at Opawa School and studied English and French at Canterbury College around 1922. She did not complete a degree, but under the guidance of James Shelley, professor of education and later director of broadcasting, she acted in and directed numerous productions at the Little Theatre. In the mid 1920s she attended Christchurch Training College. After teaching in Canterbury for two years she met Ronald Douglas Neale, who had just completed a bachelor of engineering degree and had accepted a position with the General Electric Company in England. They were married at St Stephen’s Church, Ashburton, on 12 July 1930.
The couple spent 10 years in England, and their only child, a son, was born there. Neta completed examinations in speech and drama at the Guildhall School of Music and Trinity College of Music in London. She also worked with amateur theatre groups and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. When the Second World War broke out Ron Neale worked for a time with the Royal Navy, then in 1940 returned to New Zealand to become a lecturer in electrical engineering at Canterbury University College; he continued to serve with the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve. In 1942 Neta helped found the Canterbury Housewives’ Union and became its first president, serving until 1944. She also joined the Canterbury Repertory Theatre Society and was soon involved in acting and directing. About 1945 she produced Eugene O’Neill’s play Anna Christie. The Neales returned to England in 1949–50, when Ron was awarded a Carnegie study grant. They travelled via the United States, where Neta lectured to theatrical and university groups.
Back in New Zealand, Neale developed her ideas for a children’s theatre using adult actors, and sets, props and costumes of a professional standard. She believed that good theatre for young people should be entertaining and educational, and should encourage audience participation. The Canterbury Children’s Theatre was established in 1952, with Neale as founding director. Helped by an enthusiastic group of friends, its first production, The tinder box by Nicholas Stuart Gray, played to excellent reviews and made a net profit of about £5. In 1953 she directed The princess and the swineherd and the following year Toad of Toad Hall .
In 1954 Ron Neale accepted a posting to the University of Rangoon, and the couple spent 2½ years in Burma. On their return to New Zealand Neta taught speech and drama privately, and also taught English and commercial practice at Cashmere and Hillmorten high schools. At the same time she guided the children’s theatre and directed a large number of productions. Ron died in July 1962.
Neta Neale travelled to England and the United States in 1965 on a grant from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand to study developments in theatre. That year the Canterbury Children’s Theatre purchased a permanent home, the Malthouse, in Colombo Street, Christchurch. Neta enthusiastically took part in cleaning and renovating the building to create rehearsal and performance spaces; it was officially opened in 1969. In these years she also directed Rattle of a simple man and Blithe spirit for the Court Theatre. She introduced classes for children at the Malthouse in drama and creative movement in 1969, and continued her private lessons, tutoring many television presenters, radio announcers and stage personalities.
In 1974 Neta Neale relinquished her directorship of the children’s theatre, although she continued to play an active role. In 1976 she was made an MBE. Through her tenacity the theatre secured the rights for Mary Poppins in 1978, becoming the first theatre group in the world to present the show. Neale’s directing swansong, the season was a tremendous success, attracting over 10,000 patrons. She was a vice president of the New Zealand Association of Teachers of Speech and Drama Society and a member of the panel of producers of the New Zealand Drama Council. A petite, vivacious woman, in later years she lived in a small, neat house in Oxford Terrace with her dachshund. Neta Neale died in Christchurch on 26 May 1988, survived by her son.