January 25, 2021


William Newton Sheat CNZM OBE
1 May 1930 – 20 January 2021

Bill Sheat was Patron of The Theatreview Trust (since its inception in 2011) and Shakespeare Globe Centre NZ .

“He was a man, take him for all in all.
  I shall not look upon his like again.” – Hamlet, I, 2

“Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince…” Hamlet, V, 2

Bill was very active with Wellington Repertory in the 1950s, on the committee, and as an assistant stage manager, assistant director, sometime understudy and revue writer. He understudied a letter box in a pantomime and on the final night had to ‘go on’, thankful he had assiduously studied the moves required to play side-stepping havoc with the Dame’s attempt to post a letter. He was also part of the team that created a memorable ‘storm at sea’ scene with various manually operated props and devices.

With Terry Browne he co-wrote two Repertory revues which featured long-form parodies in the second half: a rural idyll, ‘Under Milk Shed’; a rugby yarn, ‘Off Side Story’.

Eventually his career as a lawyer took precedence – and he committed those skills to advocating for and supporting the arts in many ways. Bill liked to tell this story from his time as chair of the minimally-staffed QEII Arts Council. When a staff member come to him with a funding application and said, “This looks like an excellent project but it doesn’t fit any of our categories,” Bill replied, “Well invent a new category!”

From John Smythe, Downstage Upfront, VUP, 2004. 

Elected to the inaugural committee of the Downstage Theatre Society in May 1964, Bill’s expertise as a lawyer was essential to Downstage’s survival.

… Bill Sheat had heard that a mystery benefactor was willing to donate £150,000 for the building of a little theatre in Wellington. He discovered her name was Sheilah Winn, née Hannah, a family which had made its fortune selling shoes. (Her first cousin was Edith Campion, whose Hannah money had already done much for professional theatre in New Zealand.) Bill wrote to Sheilah to raise her awareness of Downstage’s existence. This sowed the seed for a significant relationship that would require a lot more cultivating. So, as opening night at the Memorial Theatre loomed, Downstage remained homeless.[i] [p25]

… until Harry Seresin found the Walkabout Coffee Bar & Restaurant on the corner of Courtenay Place and Cambridge Terrace. As Bill recalled it:

The Walkabout Coffee and Luncheon Lounge Ltd, the lessee of the building, was in receivership or some other financial straits. We initially leased it from the receiver or some accountants who were running it – there were all sorts of horrendous tales about someone who had put their head in the oven and died on the premises, which may be where the ghost of Downstage came from. So Harry and I went and had a chat with the young Bob Jones, who was just emerging as the bright young financial whizz around town. From that came the idea that, in order to secure the lease, we would for a very nominal consideration, acquire the shares in Walkabout Coffee and Luncheon Lounge Ltd. So we did, in the name of Martyn Sanderson and Tim Eliott. Then we eventually got the lease transferred to the Downstage Theatre Society.[ii] [p28]

In 1965 Bill was appointed to the Theatre Panel of the newly formed Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, which eventually had the responsibility of deciding how the Sheilah Winn gift should be applied.

On 14 March [1968] Downstage’s strategic lobbying finally bore fruit, when the Arts Council announced that Sheilah Winn’s gift to the city would be ‘at the disposal of Downstage Theatre Society Inc, for the erection of a theatre on the site where Downstage now operates, on the understanding the site be purchased by Downstage Theatre Society Inc’.[iii] The same day president Bill Sheat issued a press statement:

The 3,000 members of Downstage theatre are most enthusiastic about the decision. My Committee is taking immediate steps to set up a Trust Board to see the job done as quickly as possible … My Society is more than happy to recognise the contribution of Mrs Winn and her family, and she will be the first person invited to join the Board … The theatre would of course be known as The Hannah Playhouse …

It is vital not only to this community but also to the nation as a whole that we establish a national identity in theatre. In this way we can help achieve our maturity as a nation. Until now our arts, especially those of theatre, have tended to be second-hand and derivative of overseas forms. The bold step forward now being taken would help focus the talents of the community into an exciting venture in theatre which we can say is ours and is not dependent on overseas forms, attitudes and experts.

Downstage humbly accepts the responsibility that goes with the decision that has been made. We will strive to carry out Mrs Winn’s wishes and provide a theatre of which Wellingtoncan be proud.[iv]

The motion to form a trust was passed in June, once the final decision had been made to build on the existing site and Downstage had acquired the necessary lease for long-term tenancy. [p89]

But when QEII was not willing to fund a series of Sunday night workshops of new NZ plays …

… Bill Sheat had tapped into an unlikely source: the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, based in Lisbon, which dispensed largesse from profits earned by its Armenian founder via royalties on oil production. But the grant of $1,600 was ‘for the purpose of mounting a series of plays by New Zealandwriters who are new to the stage or who are not normally associated with the theatre’.[v]  [p109]

… The Hannah Playhouse was scheduled to open in June 1972.[vi]

Initially the Winn gift had been sufficient to buy a site and build, equip and furnish a theatre, but the Arts Council took so long to get the project under way that the gift could no longer cover the purchase of a site. Then the city council came into the equation and the project descended into a bureaucratic labyrinth. By 1971, the gift was sufficient only to build the shell but not to equip or furnish the theatre, let alone buy the site. The trust had to raise yet more capital and an appeal was launched under the chairmanship of Lion Breweries’ Bernard O’Connell with Dirk Hudig, managing director of Philips Electrical Industries (NZ), on the team. They would eventually raise $192,000 from 44 business, industry and individual donors, with 29 ‘designated gift donors’ covering the costs of equipping and furnishing 15 defined areas. On 18 March 1971 – thanks to Bill Sheat’s knowledge of funds available and trust chairman Allan McDougall’s astute lobbying of Mayor Frank Kitts – the Wellington City Council (which had, a year before, ignored Downstage’s plea for help to retire its establishment debt) voted to divert the $120,000 it had set aside for a civic theatre to the Hannah Playhouse fund. …[vii] [p125]

Bill moved on to become Chair of the NZ Film Commission …

In the midst of Conjugal Rites’s box-office success, and in an economic climate where the only good business was a growing one, the Downstage Theatre Trust began talks with cinema chain Pacer Kerridge about buying the Embassy Theatre, valued at $3.75 million. It had been on the market for almost a year and the Royal New Zealand Ballet was also interested. Eventually the Ballet Foundation acquired it with loan funding from Brierley Investments and Sir Ron Brierley himself. (Ballet Foundation board member Bill Sheat ran it, leasing it out to various cinema exhibitors, until 1997. Then the Embassy Theatre Trust, also involving Bill, acquired it and the ballet made its home alongside the saved and renovated WestpacTrust St James.) Meanwhile the Downstage board’s investigations into ways the Hannah Playhouse might better meet the theatre’s needs included developing the ground floor to provide a more appealing entrance and better box office, creating a larger bar area and investigating the possibilities of the space next door at 10 Cambridge Terrace for offices and workshops.[viii] [p316]

[See Links to tributes and contribute to the Forum]

[i]      Batstone, Act 25, p13 (but Bill Sheat corrected the £20,000 amount to £150,000 by email, 3 July 2003).

[ii]     Bill Sheat, interview with Colin McColl, 15 June 1995, DTOHP, OHC 111-28, Alexander Turnbull Library.

[iii]     Act, vol 2 no 1, p7.

[iv]    Ibid.

[v]     Bill Sheat, telephone conversation with JS, 4 August 2003; Act, vol 3 no 2, Winter 1969, p25.

 [vi]   Raymond Boyce, interview with JS, 22 May 2003; Act 13, p7; Act 21, December 1973, pp2–9.

[vii]    Peter Harcourt, A Centre of Attraction: The Story of Downstage Theatre, Downstage Theatre, 1979, p18; Dirk Hudig (jr), phone conversation with JS, 21 August 2003; Bill Sheat, phone conversations with JS, August 2004; Act 22, March 1974, p57; Laurie Atkinson, Act 14, July 1971, p5.

[viii]   Evening Post, 18 May 1990; Bill Sheat, email & phone calls with JS, February 2004; C H Toogood, Downstage Theatre Trust Board Chairman’s Report, Backstage 38, August 1991, p2.

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