Cinema and other challenges
From the 1920s famous international actors still toured New Zealand performing English and American plays and musicals. However, several factors contributed to a change in the role and status of actors, and to the decline of theatre.
- The aftermath of the First World War and the onset of the economic depression made audiences less inclined to pay for melodramas and farces.
- The first talking movie, The jazz singer (1927), marked the arrival of overwhelming competition for live theatre.
- In 1936 BBC Television presented the world’s first regular high-definition television service. Regular broadcasts began in New Zealand in 1960.
- The realist works of playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O’Neill seemed sharply different from the sensational plays and melodramas that had been the mainstay of 19th-century theatre.
- Constantin Stanislavski and other European directors introduced new theories about acting and directing.
By the late 1920s, as professional theatre declined through competition from cinema, amateur performers became a well-organised movement. James Shelley formed several local drama societies before becoming New Zealand’s first director of broadcasting. He wrote that in the 1920s ‘[d]rama and play-acting became powerful social forces; and when … the people of the Dominion became really aware of the dramatic “revival” the whole country rapidly budded with theatrical effort.’1
In 1949 the Canterbury Student Players went on tour to Melbourne, where their productions of Luigi Pirandello’s Six characters in search of an author and Shakespeare’s Othello were received with great enthusiasm. One newspaper critic described actress Brigid Lenihan’s Desdemona as ‘faultless’, and another critic said she was easily the equal of legendary British leading lady Vivien Leigh, who had recently toured with the Old Vic, although Lenihan had ‘more reserves of dramatic strength.’2
Local drama groups
Every city, small town and country district had its own amateur theatre group. In 1931 a New Zealand branch of the British Drama League (BDL) was formed to cater for this pastime. Some groups built their own small theatres. Others rented those under-used opera houses that had not been turned into cinemas, the only legacy of nearly a century of theatrical endeavour.
Amateur actors and directors could learn about theatre in one-act play competitions. They could attend annual summer drama schools and special courses (often with tutors from overseas) established by organisations like the BDL and the NZ Drama Council (1945), and later their combined organisation, the NZ Theatre Federation (1970).
Speech and drama teachers
Aspiring actors could still take lessons from private speech and drama teachers such as Maria Dronke. In Wellington in the 1950s she taught talented young actors such as Elizabeth McRae and Peter Vere-Jones, who later became leading professionals.
In the 1940s and 1950s the Canterbury Student Players, under their director Ngaio Marsh, reached very high standards and toured to acclaim in Australia. Three of their actors – Brigid Lenihan, Elric Hooper and Jonathan Elsom – went on to successful professional careers.
Touring productions by international stars continued to inspire local actors. In 1948 the renowned Shakespearean and cinema actor Laurence Olivier brought Richard III and other classics. Ten years later, Olivier’s assistant as director of Britain’s National Theatre was Wellingtonian Sunny Amey, who went on to become artistic director of Downstage from 1970–74 and acting director of Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School from 1989–91.