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Standing ovation opens

Visit our new exhibition about half a century of theatre at Downstage.

Half a century of Downstage Theatre

Runs from 22 August – 11 November | 10am – 5pm, Monday – Saturday | Level one

This exhibition touches on six productions across the lifetime of Wellington's Downstage Theatre that were deliberately “of New Zealand”.

Catherine Wilkin as Hedda Gabler in front of mirrors.
Detail of Catherine Wilkin as Hedda Gabler, 1990. Photographer unidentified. Ref: PAColl-9545-29.

Downstage opened with a production of Ionesco’s Exit the King at Victoria University in 1964. It became New Zealand’s longest running professional theatre enduring just short of fifty years, which by international standards is still a significant lifespan.

The theatre shared a dialogue with Wellington audiences across a range of plays both international and home-grown. The company floundered with lack of funds on occasion, found international recognition at other times.

Resolutely different from the mainstream of theatre – Downstage practitioners, regardless of their roles from governance to backstage, grappled with what it meant to be a New Zealand theatre company. The theatre endured and triumphed over the hardships of funding and the contradictory visions that are part of any cultural history.

As Martyn Sanderson puts it in talking about the Downstage quest, "I felt arrogant enough to propose to discard the whole tradition and work it out for ourselves, starting from as close to nowhere as we possibly could..."

Events programme

In association with the exhibition, the Library will be hosting a series of talks with many of the people involved in Downstage's history and the theatre community. Join us!

25 August: A conversation about Hedda Gabler, with Colin McColl, Dame Kate Harcourt, Catherine Wilkin, and Tony Rabbit
1 September: Bruce Mason at Downstage, with John Smythe
8 September: Prisoners of Mother England, with Roger Hall, David McKenzie, Prue Langbein, and Dame Kate Harcourt
14 September: The Downstage contribution to theatre in New Zealand, with Peter Bland, Sunny Amey, and Murray Lynch
29 September: Treasures of our theatre history: some gone forever, with Rowena Cullen and David Carnegie
6 October: As you like it, with Sunny Amey
12 October: Niu Sila, with Dave Armstrong, Oscar Kightley, and Conrad Newport
9 November: Shuriken, with Phil Mann and Vincent O’Sullivan

Curatorial group

Alexander Turnbull Library:

  • Shannon Seiuli
  • John Pearson
  • Martin Harley
  • Shane Gosnell

Victoria University of Wellington:

  • Stefan Peacock
  • Gerrit van Rooyen
  • James Penman
  • Jonathan Bishop
  • Seth Corker
  • Walter Langelaar