January 29, 2020


Alister McDonald              posted 29 Jan 2020, 05:57 PM

Campbell Thomas was appointed Artistic Director of the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin in December 1985. He succeeded Anthony Taylor whose 18 month reign had ended in August of that year, with Otago University Drama lecturer, Lisa Warrington, serving for a term as Interim Artistic Director before Campbell’s appointment.

Campbell was born in Hamilton and educated in Auckland (at Auckland Grammar). A bacteriologist by day, he was actively involved in amateur theatre, meeting his actress wife, Jacque, in an Auckland Repertory Theatre production of The Crucible. In 1964 the pair left to train at and later join Paul Baker’s then fledgling (now famous) American regional company, the Dallas Theater Center. With the exception of a brief return to New Zealand to join the short-lived Canterbury Theatre Company in Christchurch in 1967, the pair worked for 20 years in Dallas and later in Arkansas and Florida. This was an unusual path for New Zealand thespians to follow at the time – most headed to the United Kingdom to train and seek work – and getting the requisite green cards required the intervention of an influential member of the Theater Center’s board.

Paul Baker encouraged Campbell to pursue a range of theatrical pursuits – as actor, designer, lighting designer and director. This array of skills along with his management experience (he also headed a scenic design firm in America) made him an ideal candidate for the Fortune position and he held it for 14 years, the longest serving of any of the Company’s artistic leaders. The first half of the 1980s had seen some striking productions but it also saw strikes by actors and production workers and three Artistic Directors and a General Manager had endeavoured to run the Company in that time. By contrast, Campbell’s era was largely marked by stability (indeed predictability was a charge levelled at him by his critics towards the end of his time at the Theatre). Dunedin audiences came to expect a consistent and reliable standard of work from the Fortune and responded to it in a way not matched by any of his successors.

He surrounded himself with a small management team (Lindsay Shaw and later Lynette Gernhoefer as Managers, Bruce Appleton and later Jon Waite as Production Managers, Peter Brown and Claire Dorking as Marketing Managers, Richard Finn as Associate Director and Alister McDonald as Dramaturg) and proceeded to present seasons averaging ten mainbill productions a year. He directed 57 mainbill productions, 50% more than the next most prolific director during the Company’s 44 year history, and designed 80 (working wonders with budgets miniscule by comparison with those of the theatre companies in the larger northern cities).

His productions were craftsmanlike, always showed a respect for the text and were marked by the balanced composition of his stage pictures. In an industry noted for its temperament, Campbell was a down to earth, practical individual who rolled up his sleeves. As a manager he was not deskbound but worked with his staff towards a common goal of quality productions. He could be found with the stage carpenters constructing and finishing his sets and with the Members’ Society and Board engaged in fundraising activities. He often reminded Board members of the American adage that it was not their job to pick the plays for the Theatre but rather to “Give, get or go”.

During his years at the helm the Company aimed to bring to Dunedin audiences the best of contemporary English language drama from throughout the world. In 44 instances these were the first productions in New Zealand of these plays. In addition to British, Australian and Canadian works he put particular emphasis on American drama, frequently presenting off-Broadway and regional successes.

His one pre-20th century production was of the 1606 Jacobean satire, The Revenger’s Tragedy, which received its New Zealand professional premiere at the Fortune in 1995 with the aid of a special grant from Creative New Zealand. This enabled a full incidental music score to be composed by Anthony Ritchie and sumptuous costumes to be designed by the then doyenne in the field, Pamela Maling from the Court Theatre in Christchurch.

For more than a decade Campbell enjoyed a close working relationship with Roger Hall and directed the world premieres of 11 of his plays, among them some of his greatest hits such as Love off the Shelf, The Share Club and its sequel After the Crash, By Degrees, Social Climbers and Dirty Weekends. There were also his pieces for one performer, Mr Punch, C’mon Black and The Book Club.

Other New Zealand dramatists also had a further 11 works premiered at the Fortune in Campbell’s time, among them Renee (who completed her working class historical trilogy with Jeannie Once), Stephen Sinclair (whose early musical satire, Big Bikkies, Campbell spotted at the 1986 Playwrights’ Workshop), Joe Musaphia (The New Zealander) and local writers John Broughton (1981, Anzac) and Mark Casson (The Brooding Sin, Stretch). As a mark of his commitment to the work of younger practitioners he staged a musical (Flowers at Breakfast) by two Otago University students as the Company’s 20th anniversary production in 1994. Robert Lord was appointed Writer in Residence during 1991 but sadly his premature death meant he never completed Academic Circles, the play Campbell had commissioned from him.

Two of Campbell’s productions were seen by the greatest number of Fortune spectators. Just under 9,000 Dunedinites saw the two seasons in 1986-7 of the premiere of Love off the Shelf while just over 7,000 spectators in Dunedin and Invercargill saw the 1990 production of Conjugal Rites.  (To put this in context, to have a play seen by 9% of London’s inhabitants would require full houses in the largest of the National Theatre’s auditoria for almost two years. There are very few literary or artistic works which achieve this degree of population penetration in little more than a month.) 

Of the 54 hits in the Fortune’s lifetime (productions seen by more than 3,000 spectators), 21 were staged during Campbell’s term as Artistic Director. 1990 was Campbell’s most successful season at the box office with around 30,000 admissions to a repertoire that included Teechers, The Sex Fiend, Aunt Daisy and Nunsense alongside an ambitious programme of locally written work, chosen to mark the sesquicentennial of European settlement in New Zealand.

One of Campbell’s Fortune productions, Billy Bishop Goes to War, was also staged at Circa Theatre in Wellington and, for five years in the early 1990s, the Company also undertook an annual ten day tour of a hit production to the State Insurance Theatre in Invercargill.

Campbell introduced to Dunedin audiences early in their careers many performers who subsequently achieved national prominence. These included Theresa Healey, Danny Mulheron, Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, Robert Pollock, Julie Edwards, Jonathon Hendry, Erik Thomson, Katie Wolfe, Jacob Rajan, Stelios Yiakmos, Fiona Samuel, Kathy McRae, Anna Cameron, Sarah Somerville, Adam Murphy, Tim Beveridge and Jason Kennedy.

Tim Bartlett, Phil Grieve, Barry de Lore, David Cameron and Jacqui Dean featured in his companies along with established Dunedin based performers such as Louise Petherbridge, Brian McNeill, Shirley Kelly, Barry Dorking, Hilary Norris, Karen Elliot, Peter Hayden, Helen McGowan and Terry MacTavish.

In 1989 he invited the famous English theatre scholar and National Theatre dramaturg, John Russell Brown, to direct at the Fortune and two productions resulted, Burn This and On the Verge. Other guests included David Pursley and Cliff Baker, who he had worked with in the States, and the English playwright and television star, Gavin Richards.

During the 1990s the Fortune took the lease on the former Manhattan dance hall and ran it as an occasional third performance venue. In the main Trinity auditorium Campbell had a revolving stage installed, still the only one in the city, to facilitate quick set changes by the Company’s skeleton backstage crew.

He directed three productions at the Manhattan for the Southern Performing Arts Centre, a tertiary level theatre training institution established in Dunedin in the mid-1990s.

He was also invited to work for the Dunedin Opera Company when it was endeavouring to increase the professional elements in its productions, and directed and designed The Daughter of the Regiment (1987) and Madame Butterfly (1988).

In 1998 he directed the world premiere in the Regent Theatre, Dunedin, of the Central Otago goldfields musical, Rush!

He was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2000.

Having retired from the Fortune at the end of 1999, he lived in several North Otago towns. A talented artist (he designed a number of Fortune posters), he focused on wood sculptures and held two exhibitions of his work at the Moray Gallery in Dunedin. He was anticipating a third at the time of his death in Oamaru on 22 December 2019.

His wife, Jacque, pre-deceased him in 2008. They had no children.

Alister McDonald (Mr McDonald was the Dramaturg at the Fortune Theatre from 1985 until the Company’s closure in 2018. Portions of this article have been adapted from his essay Thirty Years of Drama, Comedy and Tragedy at Fortune published by the Fortune Theatre Trust in its 30th anniversary publication in 1994.)

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