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’.
Kiwi Concert Party
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.
Allan Wilkie Company
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.
Murder, she wrote
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.
From actor-manager to producer
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.
Canterbury Repertory Society
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.