Transitions, Four Decades of Toi Whakaari:NZ Drama School

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16/11/2010 - 24/12/2010

Production Details

From its humble beginnings in Cuba Street Wellington to a world-class facility in Te Whaea: National Dance & Drama Centre, the journey of the New Zealand Drama School has been marked by many challenges and turning points. Its very existence today is testament to the vision and tenacity of the School’s six directors and the Boards who stood with those directors in their struggle to secure a permanent home for the School.

In the mid 1980s the Drama School began to look at the world through a Maori as well as a Pakeha lens as a way to build more dynamic practitioners for stage and screen. This bold move has recently been articulated in a fresh way, exploring the underlying values of Te Ao Maori to challenge assumptions about the very nature of theatre in the 21st century, enabling the School to be more articulate about the focus of its work and the very purpose of performance. 

From just nine students under the inspired guidance of Nola Millar, the School has become a multidisciplinary performing arts institution with over 150 student actors, designers, directors, technicians, performing arts managers and costumiers. Passionately written and vividly illustrated, this book celebrates that extraordinary transition and is a tribute to the achievements of all who have contributed to what is now is now truly of its place: Aotearoa New Zealand.

Published 2010
Victoria University Press (VUP)
ISBN 9780864736420
Format paperback

Category History, New Zealand, Arts & Literature
RRP: $50.00

Purchase from VUP.

Wealth of detail makes fascinating reading

Review by Ralph McAllister 27th Nov 2010

You cannot help but be impressed by this history of Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School published by Victoria University Press in association with the School.

We not only get a comprehensive, chronological and detailed account of the School and its place in our theatrical history, we get photographs and interviews and insights into the philosophies which have driven the six directors of the school in its first forty years.

Much of the drama surrounds the buildings which the School has occupied, from the pocket sized space in Cuba Street in the early seventies, through fire endangered premises above brothels in the eighties, to the magnificence of the present site Te Whaea in Newtown where the New Zealand School of Dance is also resident. 

The achievements have been considerable.

Nola Millar began with seven acting students in a one year course in 1970. In 2009 some fifty graduands were honoured in numerous disciplines most from three year courses. 

The list of past students is a proverbial who’s who of New Zealand theatre with names like Simon Philips, Cliff Curtis, Kerry Fox and Cathy Downes.

But it is more than that. Many have gone on to become leading writers, admistrators, TV producers and broadcasters. 

The very diversity of the people who have been involved in this forty year enterprise is breathtaking. The links with education and more particularly Wellington Teachers College are as obvious as they are profound.

Sunny Amey, George Webby and Annie Ruth all came under the influence of that bastion of individuality in learning which was the College under Walter Scott, Reg Waghorne and Jack Shallcrass. Each of the former brought differences in style and content to the job of Director of the School.

Training actors to be actors was never enough. Each of these directors insisted in trying to bring out the talents of the students but they were also intent on broadening the minds and interests of their charges. Education owes a great deal to these people.

As a successor is sought to Annie Ruth, let us hope that tradition of inquiry and pursuit of excellence continue to be hallmarks of the School in the next forty years. 

Bill Guest does a fine job with this his first book. He has amassed and organised a wealth of detail. The book is accessible, either to be read from cover to cover, or to be dipped into to read about your favourite year or student.

The development of biculturalism and multiculturalism makes fascinating reading. 

There may be some ducking away from some of the personality clashes which have taken place through the years, but that is more than made up for by the genuine pride that most people will experience from reading this history.

It is interesting to note that we now have two comprehensive histories of part of New Zealand Drama. Transitions sits nicely beside John Smythe’s Downstage Upfront (also VUP).

One is left wondering why we await other publications of our other professional theatres in other parts of the country. One is left wondering why a history of non-professional theatre companies is still to be written. The theatres of Wellington Repertory and Unity Theatre in the forties, fifties and sixites would make for more exciting reading.

Surely someone is ready to fill these gaps in a recording of our progression to outstanding arts achievements.

In the meantime Transitions will do nicely.


Richard Grevers November 29th, 2010

Peter Harcourt's "A dramatic Appearance" (Methuen, 1978) covers the period 1920-1970 nationwide, but not in great depth. 

And (in case John is contemplating a NZ Theatre bookshelf section) there is Glyn Strange's "The Little Theatre" (Clerestory Press, 2000) covering the Shelly/Marsh era at the University of Canterbury.

Bill Sheat November 28th, 2010

I meant to mention that there is quite a bit of Unity Theatre historyin Rachel Barrowman's "A Popular Vision :The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950"

Bill Sheat

Bill Sheat November 28th, 2010

I want to follow up Raiph McAllister's point about histories of other professional theatres. There is one on the Mercury  "Wit, Eloquence and Commerce" by Nicholas Tarling. It was published in 2007 and is virtually unknown here. I stumbled on it only last year. I could lend my copy to Ralph to do a review.There is also a history of Wanganui's Four Seasons.

There is of course an need for a general history of Theatre in New Zealand. I have been trying for some years to promote a "Companion to New Zealand Theatre" to fill that gap. An application to fund a feasibilyty study for such a work was refused by Lotteries earlier this year.

Bill Sheat

Joseph Harper November 27th, 2010

Would be interested in reading a Smythe family memoir.

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