Until the rise of cinema in the early 20th century, theatre was one of New Zealand’s main sources of entertainment. Wherever a potential audience could be found, some bold entrepreneur would charge admission to watch performers emoting, dancing and singing on stage. However, throughout the late 19th century those audiences remained relatively small and dispersed, and travelling theatre companies struggled to survive on the income from ticket sales. Until the 1890s the production of live theatre in New Zealand was limited to energetic amateurs, foreign (especially Australian) touring companies and the occasional short-lived local venture.
The first of the amateur producers was James Marriott, who, in the early 1840s, convinced a number of Wellington shopkeepers and artisans to present light entertainment to the new harbour settlement. In the same period an Australian actor-manager, George Buckingham, ran a small company of professional performers in Auckland, but his theatre survived less than two years.
In 1855 Buckingham reappeared in Auckland, this time as part of New Zealand’s first enduring professional theatre company. It was formed by an American showman, William Foley, who had earlier run circuses in San Francisco and Australia. The star performer was Foley’s wife, known simply as Mrs W. H. Foley, who sometimes portrayed 14 different characters in a single evening. For the next 12 years the Foleys, together and separately, staged dramas, comedies, variety shows and circuses throughout the country, providing employment and training to many local performers. They were pioneers of professional theatre in New Zealand.
The discovery of gold in Otago in 1861 brought an influx of diggers, and touring companies to entertain them. Several theatre managers, such as Clarence Holt, arrived from earlier gold strikes in Australia, and moved their companies on again once the Otago diggings declined.
Australian impresarios continued to dominate the local entertainment scene in later decades. Actor-manager J. C. Williamson brought his comedy, drama and light opera productions across the Tasman for 40 years from the 1880s. Tasmanian Tom Pollard also entertained New Zealanders for decades with his Liliputian Opera Company, whose members were his own and other children, aged from 10 to 13.
In a Fullers variety show in 1918 the opening act was the trapeze duo Delmore and Lee, followed by the Five Levins, a team of Chinese entertainers. There was a ‘comedy acrobat and clever tumbler’, a ventriloquist and ‘Upside Down Wright’, who read, smoked, sketched and drank while hanging upside-down from a high wire. ‘Whirlwind jugglers’ were followed by the male impersonator Nellie Kelly, then by Romaine, a violinist. The evening ended with Maud Coreny and her husband singing ‘sentimental songs’.
The first New Zealand-based variety companies to survive for a significant period were probably those founded by John Fuller, an English-born singer who arrived in Auckland in 1893. He recruited his wife and children for a series of popular touring concerts, then formed the Myriorama Company to give ‘magic lantern’ (lantern-slide) shows with spoken commentary. The family moved on to present waxwork shows, and became so successful that they built and ran their own theatres and imported artists from overseas to appear alongside locals.
Until the 1930s ‘Fullers’ was a household name for entertainment in New Zealand, and eventually also in Australia, where the company was later based. Their theatres were eventually converted to screen movies.
Around the turn of the century Fullers’ main competition came from Percy Dix, a rival entrepreneur who formed professional ‘Gaiety Companies’ in each of the four main centres.
In 1917 a small group of New Zealand troops stationed on the Western Front formed a variety troupe called the Digger Pierrots to entertain their fellow soldiers. The group proved so popular that it was reformed after the armistice by Pat Hanna, the recreational and entertainment officer for the New Zealand Army division in Germany. Until the 1930s the Diggers was one of the most popular revue companies in Australasia. The original members were all returned soldiers, but some women were added in the 1920s. Hanna ran the company, while also performing comedy routines and drawing ‘lightning sketches’.
The Diggers’ success was repeated at the end of the Second World War by the Kiwi Concert Party. This multi-talented all-male company included a 12-piece orchestra led by Lieutenant Terry Vaughan, who was also the producer. The Kiwi Concert Party performed for New Zealand troops in North Africa, Crete and Malta, and throughout New Zealand during a furlough (home leave) in 1943.
From the 1920s live theatre faced increasing competition from the new medium of cinema. Some theatre companies, however, managed to survive in this period. From a base in Australia, the distinguished actor-manager Allan Wilkie regularly toured New Zealand cities and towns with a Shakespearean company. The Allan Wilkie Company employed a few permanent actors but also recruited locals in each centre, providing them with highly valuable professional experience.
Theatre producer Ngaio Marsh was also a writer of highly successful detective stories, many featuring the dapper Inspector Roderick Alleyn. She combined both activities in her 1937 novel Vintage murder. A small theatrical company is touring New Zealand towns when one member is gruesomely murdered onstage. The novel is filled with Kiwi dialect and theatrical jargon, drawn from the author’s own experiences. ‘New Zealand audiences are not given to cheering. If they are pleased they sit still and clap exhaustively.’1
A tall young Christchurch woman, Ngaio Marsh, began playing small roles for Allan Wilkie in 1919. She was then invited to join the Rosemary Rees English Comedy Company, one of the earliest attempts to form a permanent local theatre company. Despite its name, all involved, including actor-manager Rosemary Rees, were New Zealand-born. In 1921 the company toured to small towns such as Wairoa in Hawkes Bay, but after three months ‘yielded to high costs and a small population’.2
Marsh later became both a best-selling mystery writer and one of New Zealand’s most influential theatre producers.
Until the 1920s the actor-manager, generally a veteran actor who formed and led his or her own company while continuing to star in its productions, was the dominant figure within a theatre company. As performing standards and audience expectations rose, the producer replaced the actor-manager as the dominant figure. The producer is responsible for choosing the work to be performed, co-ordinating the production’s planning and finances and liaising with the entire production team. The role is both creative and administrative, and is often vital to a theatre company’s success and longevity.
The immensely energetic James Shelley arrived in New Zealand from Britain in 1920 to become professor of education at Canterbury College (later Canterbury University). A lifelong drama enthusiast, he soon formed both a College Drama Society and the Canterbury Repertory Theatre. Shelley often produced, directed and starred in their productions, as well as designing the sets and costumes.
Shelley also recognised and fostered the role of the professional theatre producer, and insisted that the Canterbury Repertory Society employ producers from the outset. Some had overseas experience, such as Bernard Beeby, a former member of Allan Wilkie’s company who later became producer of radio plays for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC). In 1930 the society’s producer was the Hastings-born, London-trained actor Kiore King, who had worked with both Wilkie and Rosemary Rees.
From the 1930s the cinema devastated the audience for professional theatre, and amateur companies provided almost the only opportunity to see acting on stage. George Worthington was employed by the Workers Educational Association as a theatre producer, under James Shelley’s instructions, to show community drama groups how to produce plays with limited resources.
In 1942 a Wellington newspaper advertisement sought people interested in producing ‘Dramatic and Anti-Fascist plays’.1 The result was Unity Theatre, a local version of the people’s theatre workshops formed in Britain and the US. Against expectations, Unity survived for three decades and played an important role in the development of a professional local theatre.
The original members were energetic amateurs. The first producer was Robert Stead, a carpenter and communist who later became a television director in England. He was soon joined by Nola Millar, who went on to form New Zealand’s first drama school. Other prominent members of Unity included Richard and Edith Campion. By 1962 it was Wellington’s leading serious drama group.
Live theatre received further encouragement in 1947 when the government funded the Community Arts Service Theatre. Until 1962 this company toured towns throughout the northern North Island, employing actors on short-term contracts.
In 1959 critic and playwright Bruce Mason said that in a Wellington production of Oedipus Rex, producer Richard Campion ‘showed throughout … a talent for engaging mind, ear and eye simultaneously’.2 Eleanor Elliott, a member of the New Zealand Players, felt that Campion is ‘quite the best producer I have ever worked for. He has a remarkable ability of making you see what he wanted … a poet, so he chose the right word to make you see his vision. He had a splendid imagination and an understanding of people’s feelings.’3
In 1952 Richard and Edith Campion, formerly of Unity Theatre, set up the New Zealand Players as a national touring company. Between 1953 and 1960 the company presented 30 plays, and gave employment to more than 100 actors. Many of them, such as Raymond Hawthorne, later became celebrated actors, producers and other theatre practitioners.
Richard Campion next formed the Drama Quartet as a smaller and less expensive company to tour to schools. Neither company had a long life, but they confirmed the possibility, as well as the challenges, of sustaining professional theatre.
Another early regional theatre company with professional intentions was the Southern Comedy Players, founded in Dunedin in 1957 by William Menlove and Bernard Esquilant. It initially toured South Island towns not reached by the New Zealand Players. When that company failed, the Southern Comedy Players ventured nationwide. Remarkably, they survived until 1970.
Patric and Rosalie Carey, former members of the Community Arts Service Theatre, began producing plays from their Dunedin home in the mid-1950s. In 1961 they opened a tiny theatre, the Globe, behind the house. Over the next 18 years all the plays of James K. Baxter were developed and premiered there. Many other plays by playwrights such as Samuel Beckett had their first New Zealand productions at the Globe. Some were also toured regionally.
Whanganui producer David Smiles formed a professional theatre company to tour to North Island schools in 1967. For the next two years Children’s Art Theatre toured to more than 700 primary schools in a small van. It employed five full-time actors, several of whom later became well-known in adult theatre, film and television.
Although the New Zealand Players survived for only seven years, they contributed to the formation in 1964 of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (later Creative New Zealand). This, in turn, funded a number of long-lasting regional professional theatres. Downstage opened in Wellington in 1964 as an intimate theatre-restaurant. By 1973 it was based in the purpose-built Hannah Playhouse in central Wellington, producing mainly original New Zealand plays. Falling ticket sales forced Downstage to close in 2013.
Wellington gained a second professional theatre in 1976, when Circa opened as a co-operative. In 1994 it acquired new premises on the Wellington waterfront, where it remained active as an actors’ co-operative in 2023.
Mercury Theatre opened in Auckland in 1967 in a renovated building off Karangahape Road. Mounting debts forced Mercury to close in 1992, although it re-formed into the Auckland Theatre Company (ATC). In 2023 the ATC was based in a large theatre complex on the Auckland waterfront.
The Four Seasons Theatre opened in a historic homestead in Whanganui in 1970, and closed in 2000. Christchurch’s Court Theatre opened in 1971 and was based at the Christchurch Arts Centre from 1976 until the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. In 2023 it occupied temporary premises in a former grain silo.
In 1978 Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre acquired a base in the historic Trinity Methodist Church, where it remained until it closed in 2018.
In 2023 the only permanent professional theatre outside the main centres was Palmerston North’s Centrepoint, formed in 1974.
The rise in the 1970s of regional professional theatre companies was soon followed by the emergence of smaller companies, able to play to more varied audiences in a range of venues. Theatre Corporate formed in Auckland in 1974, and survived until 1986. In 1991 Michael Hurst and other Auckland actors formed Watershed Theatre, which performed from a succession of waterfront venues for the next five years. In 2011 the custom-built Q Theatre opened in Queen Street.
A number of loose-knit, experimental theatre companies also appeared as a complement, and often an artistic challenge, to mainstream venue-based regional theatres. They included Paul Maunder’s Amamus Theatre, Living Theatre Troupe, led by Ken Rea, and Theatre Action, led by Francis Batten. Red Mole was among the first of these companies, and also the longest surviving. It was formed in 1974 by Alan Brunton and Sally Rodwell, and continued to perform periodically until Brunton’s death in 2002.
A modern equivalent of the 19th-century variety companies, touring a continual parade of local and international musical and theatre shows, was the Stetson Group, formed in 1973 by Stewart McPherson and remaining active in 2023.
Free Theatre Christchurch was established in 1979 by staff and students at the University of Canterbury to experiment with styles of theatre beyond the predominantly English literary work of the mainstream theatres. It became a permanent working cooperative and provided a launching pad for other performance groups such as Pacific Underground, New Zealand's first Pacific Island performance company, established in 1993.
Two of Pacific Underground’s founding members, David Fane and Oscar Kightley, took their comedy show Naked Samoans to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2002, and developed later Pacific productions in film and television as well as theatre.
Wellington theatre company Barbarian Productions was formed in 2001. Co-founder Jo Randerson has said, ‘Producers are a key part of the team, and shouldn’t be seen as separate from the creative work. I’ve heard some directors say to their producers, “You just produce the thing. I don’t really want to know anything about that part of the process.” Well, I do want to know about that part of the process.’1
Wellington’s BATS Theatre was founded in 1979 by the Bayne and Austin Touring Society, whose name formed its acronym. Originally an amateur venue, it became a professional company in 1989, spawning the Wellington Fringe Festival. In 2011 film-makers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, long-time fans of the company’s productions, bought the company’s central Wellington premises and planned to upgrade and enlarge them. BATS, like Auckland’s SiLO Theatre, has been a testing ground for new works by mainly young writers and companies.
Although the Maori Theatre Trust, under producer Richard Campion, had provided experience and exposure to Māori actors from 1967, professional Māori theatre companies did not appear until the 1990s. In 1991 Wellington’s Depot Theatre (formed in 1983) became the Māori company Taki Rua. Taki Rua was joined in 2004 by Tawata Productions, created by Hone Kouka and Miria George to perform work by Māori and Pacific writers. Tawata has presented work throughout New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, Canada and the United Kingdom.
From the 1990s some of the most distinctive and best-received New Zealand theatre has been produced by small companies not based in regular venues. These include Theatre At Large, Dunedin’s Wow! Productions, and Indian Ink, founded in 1997 by Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis. Indian Ink has become one of New Zealand's most successful touring theatre companies, both nationally and internationally.
Wellington’s Bard Productions has specialised in shows in non-traditional sites such as the Wellington waterfront and Matiu (Somes Island). The SEEyD collective, formed in 2000 by graduates of Toi Whakaari, the national drama school, developed a reputation for powerful productions, created by the entire company.
These mobile and flexible theatre companies have been helped to survive financially by the emergence of regional arts festivals, including fringe festivals. By paying a guaranteed fee to perform, the festivals have created a national touring circuit for companies such as Armstrong Creative, formed by producers Dave and Caroline Armstrong.
Such touring theatre companies may have no permanent employees, but instead employ actors and crew for the duration of specific productions. A creative theatrical producer brings the team together and deals with any subsequent financial and technical problems. New Zealand’s relatively small and dispersed audiences continue to challenge the economic viability of professional New Zealand theatre, yet it thrives as a vibrant art form in the 21st century.
Carey, Rosalie. A theatre in the house: the Careys’ Globe. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1999.
Downes, Peter. Shadows on the stage: theatre in New Zealand: the first 70 years. Dunedin: J. McIndoe, 1975.
Harcourt, Peter. A dramatic appearance: New Zealand theatre 1920–1970. Wellington: Methuen, 1978.
Maufort, Marc, and David O'Donnell, eds. Performing Aotearoa: New Zealand theatre and drama in an age of transition. Bruxelles; New York: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2007.
Smythe, John. Downstage upfront: the first 40 years of New Zealand’s longest-running professional theatre. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004.
Wilson, Linda, and Grant Tilly, eds. Circa Theatre, 1976–1986, the first ten years. Wellington: Circa Theatre, 1987.