New Zealand Theatre month

A month of celebrations dedicated to New Zealand theatre, with the ethos behind the month being to ‘celebrate and elevate’ Aotearoa’s theatre. This blog reflects on theatre and its contribution to the local community.

Setting up for the show

The Memorial Hall was a bleak building. By contemporary standards. It often fell to me to put out the rows of folding, clattering wooden seats. A check with the ticket sales and the number of chairs would be calculated with a small and hopeful added provision for door sales.

Most people had bought their tickets from the drapery shop in the village or through coercive cast members and stage crew. The floor of the hall helpfully gave some geometry for the auditorium because the markings for badminton and netball courts kept things ordered and precisely placed.

Adventurous community drama company

For the Far North, we were a pretty adventurous community drama company. Sure, there was the diet of comfortable melodrama – the breath-taking moment in The House By The Lake when the French windows of the set had swollen and jammed in the rain so that the rescuing hero couldn’t make it to the drawing room in a timely way to save the hypnotised heroine with suicidal pistol to her head.

Some ad lib counting and a furious entry from a side door avoided spilt blood — of any kind. Yes, there were annual pantomimes written with reference to the village politics and scandals, puns landing heavily on the floor but delighting us all for the recognition of our community.

However, we are only the second company to stage a Joe Orton play in New Zealand. This was in the lee of the Manchester Royal Exchange production of Loot, when bobbing police helmets and torches parsed the text to make sure there was no diversion from the Lord Chamberlain’s adjustments to ensure good manners and good taste. Neither of which was particularly a predisposition of the playwright.

We staged The Waltz of Toreadors which had Kendall’s 4 Square, each morning of the brief season, agog with shock at the cruel humour of Jean Anouilh’s play. There were many other demanding and interesting texts that came to production — each challenging a small rural community to think about theatre and culture in ways that weren’t always comfortable for the era.

Staging conventions less adventurous

This was the 60s. Despite some bravery with texts, we stuck with a lot or Edwardian staging conventions. The pros arch stage was draped with legs and masks to shield view of lights and backstage. Every production was interrogated for the detail of flare from lights or the peak of a props table. Over the decade we shifted from mocked up lights in large tin cans to our own basic stock of Fresnel lanterns.

Sticks of Leichner make-up were part of the armoury of performance. Waxy and pungent, they often carried the buried strands of hair of a previous performer in the last production. Odd white stripes ran down the bridge of noses, over-delineated eyeliner and red dots in the corner of eyes all believed to accentuate the features of faces. In fact, it was oddly ghoulish and married uncomfortably with some of the highly naturalistic plays that were mounted.

The Turner Centre — world-class theatre complex

The Memorial Hall was host to us as a drama group; it also served as a venue for touring groups such as the New Zealand Drama Quartet. The Boy Scouts met there, RSA events were celebrated, sports played, the community feted. The building was cold, noisy, unyielding. The experience was warm, rich, embracing.

The relevance of all this for the Kerikeri community is that it seeded the development of a superb and world-class theatre complex known as The Turner Centre. The main auditorium of the venue is named after the man, John Dalton, who largely brokered our taste and experience of theatre that confronted the conventions of the well-made play. 

Main auditorium, John Dalton Theatre seating.
John Dalton Theatre — the main auditorium of the Turner Centre. Photo by Turner Centre.

Richly complex national theatre history

Our national theatre history is richly complex. September’s New Zealand Theatre Month celebrates the writers, performers, backstage techies, plays and companies. What we see, hear and share now reaches back into the work of previous generations of practitioners.

Despite our earlier and absurd cultural cringe, there is a rich legacy of professional and community theatre. Holding on to this is history intelligibly is critically important.

Theatre Archives New Zealand key to theatre history

Theatre Archives New Zealand (TANZ) is key in offering people a way of both accessing and registering archives held by companies, individuals and libraries throughout New Zealand. Theatre Archives New Zealand also invests in a growing archive of oral histories from important practitioners which are archived with the National Library of New Zealand.

Accessible online,, TANZ works as a navigation point for understanding what and where theatre history and ephemera are held, how to care for your theatre archives and some of the wider resources of influence in archiving and recording histories.

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