Theatre Corporate, Watershed and Q Theatre
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 2007 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 2013.
Free Theatre and Pacific Underground
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
BATS and SiLO
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.
Taki Rua and Tawata
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.
Small touring companies
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.
Arts festival touring circuit
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.