February 12, 2012

David Armstrong Smiles   

02 March 1935 – 30 January 2012    

Four Seasons Theatre in Whanganui played an important role in the development of professional theatre inNew Zealand. It was founded by David Smiles, who also made a great impact with schools tours of Children’s Art Theatre (CAT). David passed away on 30 January 2012.

David was born in Patea on March 2 1935.  His father was a clerk and his mother was a teacher specialising in Music History and English. David was very close to his mother and she encouraged and nurtured his love of music and oral expression from an early age.

His primary education was completed in Patea and then David completed his secondary education at New Plymouth Boys High. He excelled at school in English, Music and Drama and began his stage  career while at secondary school appearing in the school productions. His dream was not to be an actor but a concert pianist and he continued to compose and play throughout his life.

On leaving school in 1951 he moved to Whanganui joining the ANZ as a bank clerk where he worked until 1963 before leaving their employment to travel to the UK. While working in Whanganui David joined the local community theatres and began appearing in many productions. He then headed off on his OE to England where he became a professional actor and member of British Actors Equity. He became involved with children’s theatre touring throughout the UK.

David returned home to Whanganui in 1965/66 and in 1967 he and several others founded Children’sArtTheatreand began touring successfully throughoutNew Zealandto many primary schools. The company encouraged audience participation and many adults today have gained their appreciation of the stage through the productions of CAT. In school holidays the company performed resident seasons at Downstage.

With the help of an inheritance, David established a professional theatre in Whanganui. A property in Putiki was bought and extensive renovations started. It was the realisation of one of David’s dreams. Four Seasons was officially opened on April 15 1970 and the first show The Knack by Ann Jellicoe (a hit play originating from the Royal Court_Theatre, London) – opened on April 28. Four Seasons was one of the first professional theatres to establish in New Zealand. Its opening preceded Court, Fortune, Theatre Corporate, Gateway and Centrepoint theatres.

As well as Four Seasons productions David produced many shows throughout New Zealand for many different theatre groups.

Seven years ago David had his first major stroke and was no longer able to care for himself and he went into care at Summerset centre. It must have been frustrating for him to lose his command of the English language and his ability to play music. But in true David style he fought back regaining the ability to communicate and play the piano with his left hand. He even began to write a Christmas show for the residents of Summerset to perform – alas another stroke forbade its completion. Further health issues saw David moved to Kowhainui as his needs and frustrations grew.

Many actors, directors and backstage crew owe David a huge debt of gratitude for being their first mentor. He was an actor and director who was fond of many forms of theatre but above all he was a master of comedy and comic timing. David was an outrageous ham and audiences loved it.  And he was a devil for playing pranks on his fellow actors. 

David Smiles could not be described as a conformist and this often put him at odds with others. He scowled and frowned and muttered and grumbled. He snapped and swore and skulked around in his black clothes, with his gap toothed sneer piercing his dyed black beard.  He didn’t suffer fools and pretty much everyone was a fool. But he was in fact a gentle, caring, deep thinking and easily hurt person and he was much respected as a theatre artist.

Four Seasons theatre survived for thirty years. It had a chequered history and others led it in latter years, but it only existed and continued to exist for as long as it did because of David.  Actors and volunteers and board members came and went.  David was the constant. Theatre was his life.  And if you were lucky enough to be involved with Four Seasons Theatre, then David was a huge influence on your life. All of us who worked with him, learned from him, and he helped make us the theatre people we are. 

Sources: Murray Lynch, Craig Cleveland, April Phillips, Hazel Menehira  

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