To mark the publication of our three new entries on acting and theatre, Mark blogs about his own history with New Zealand theatre.
My acting career was brief and unspectacular. For a few years from about the age of nine, I occasionally played young boys with names like Albert in productions staged by our local amateur dramatic society. I can’t remember any of the shows, fortunately, but they all seemed to have the same set – an upper-class English drawing-room, with fake French doors at the back, real doors at the sides for dramatic entrances and exits, and a mantelpiece for the hero to lean on moodily from time to time.
I don’t regret my stumbling, stammering stint as a stage actor, because it gave me a lifelong taste for watching real actors doing live theatre. I found that I could see plays set in houses that looked like mine, or not even set in houses at all. There were plays about things I argued over with my friends and plays that even had my friends in them.
So I revelled in the opportunity to contribute to three related new entries in Te Ara – Actors and acting, Theatres, cinemas and halls and Māori theatre – te whare tapere hōu. They reminded me of shows I’d seen and loved – and others I’m sorry I missed.
The endless struggle to sustain a theatrical culture within New Zealand’s small, diffuse and far-flung population is recounted in several of these entries. The chronically creative Dunedin couple Patric and Rosalie Carey extended their living room to create a 30-seat theatre where James K. Baxter’s plays were first performed, and which remains a force in the city’s theatregoing to this day. One theatre that didn’t survive was Wellington’s Downstage, which opened as a theatre-cum-restaurant in 1964 and finally closed its doors in 2013.
Another theme running through these entries is the vast contribution to New Zealand theatre made by Māori. As early as 1868 missionary Thomas Chapman was bowled over by the singing and oratory he heard on a marae near Whakatāne. ‘One old man attracted my attention more than all the rest … This man’s performance has made an impression on my mind that can never be erased … I could not help thinking at the moment, how infinitely superior it was to all the elaborate, theatrical shams that draw people at Home [England] to crowded theatres. Were this old man to sing his song in London, I believe that [theatre] professionals would have nothing to do until he left.’ By the 1950s, however, Māori were regarded very differently by many Pākehā theatregoers, and in at least one cinema – the Strand, in Pukekohe – Māori and Pākehā were seated separately. Half a century later Māori were performing Shakespeare in translation, in their own language, for the world – on film in 2001, and at London’s Globe Theatre in 2012.
Take a look at these sumptuous entries, but don’t think for a moment that reading about theatre, even on Te Ara, is any substitute for watching the real thing.