I’m delighted that Circa Theatre is presenting a reading of Dean Parker’s play Shirley and Bill, based on Shirley Smith: An Examined Life, during the upcoming New Zealand Festival in Wellington. Dean Parker is a legend and with Jane Waddell directing, Carmel McGlone playing Shirley and Gavin Rutherford playing Bill, it promises to be a great occasion. Details: 29 February at 2 p.m. in Circa One. For more information and tickets, see Shirley and Bill.
Last month I completed a series of oral history interviews for the New Zealand Theatre Archive with a trip to Christchurch to interview Elric Hooper, artistic director of Court Theatre from 1979 to 2000. Originally a protégé of Ngaio Marsh on whose recommendation he got into the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) in 1958, Elric’s acting career then took off in what was a most exciting era of transformation in British theatre. Among other things, he was in Joan Littlewood’s iconic musical entertainment of 1963, Oh! What a Lovely War. He recently spoke about this in Appointment with Des Wilson on Radio New Zealand: www.radionz.co.nz/concert/programmes/…/audio/…/oh-what-a-lovely–w…
Nola Millar was sometimes described as New Zealand’s Joan Littlewood. After listening to Elric, I’m not sure the comparison is apt, but they were both courageous, innovative, political and extraordinarily individual. Elric worked for Nola Millar on a visit to New Zealand in 1972/3. He was struck then by how much the general level of theatre consciousness in this country had risen since his previous trip home in 1969. ‘Best of all,’ he observed, ‘there was a school. Nola Millar, that courageous and disconcertingly honest woman, was running a sensible full-time training scheme for aspiring actors in Wellington.’ (Landfall, ‘Making Our Own Mistakes’, December 1975.)
After we finished recording his life, Elric read Nola Millar: A Theatrical Life. I share his response here, compliments and all – shamelessly wanting new readers. More seriously, Elric’s reflections and perspective of my subject are of special value.
Finished your biography Nola Millar – A Theatrical Life last night. My admiration is boundless. I began with a sense of duty but was soon overtaken by the story and the enthusiasm for this history of the formative days of the New Zealand professional theatre. For example all the stuff about the financial history of the New Zealand Players – its origins, its work and its decline was new to me. I saw all their early work and was bowled over by its decor and glamour. Also the inner story of the philandering of Dick Campion was a revelation – and so bold to publish while he was still alive.
What an enigma your central subject was! When the name Nola Millar is mentioned now all I see is a tall slender apparition going out the door. The absence of a sexual life and her constant self-neglect – teeth and fish-and-chips – is made substantial only by her obsession with racing, her distant friendships, her occasional flaring of temper – and of course her great work in the theatre and the drama school. Yet she lives centrally through the book – a kind of ever-present ghost. I thought the death sequence particularly moving. How rare it is to read the details of decline and demise.
Also enlivening was the roll call – Maria Dronke (who I always thought rather odd and grand reciting Keats in a heavy Viennese accent) Ngaio Marsh, of course (seen from a distance and not always the Easter Island statue of authority and grandeur) Michael Langham (whom I worked for at the Old Vic intellectual and beset) George Webby (whose gnat-like humour was as much
decorative as useful) Mike Nicolaidi (whose down-to-earth attitudes got things done) Michael Haigh, Ray Henwood, Don Selwyn (all good actors) Anne Flannery (whose mental decay trumped her theatrical endeavours) and so many more.
You build a picture of a city aspiring and with that certainty of superiority that is necessary to get things done. I am still surprised by the literary quality of the plays from Shakespeare to Brecht. But as you say it was easier for amateurs without pay to stage some of the great monstrous works like Mother Courage and Three Sisters. (I sometimes wondered if the theatre group actually had the rights to some of the pieces done. Brecht and his heirs were very careful of his copyright and some of the West-end hits seemed too recent to be free – but those were the days when New Zealand was at the ends of earth not the internet.)
I could go on but suffice it to say, I think you have done a wonderful job,
Hot news in July 2012:
- A useful resource about New Zealand film and television and theatre is Screentalk, New Zealand On Screen. The latest interview is Ian Pryor interviewing iconic actor Ray Henwood. Talking about his life and career, Ray pays tribute to Nola Millar ‘First Lady of New Zealand Theatre’.
- The New Zealand Theatre Archive has been awarded Lotteries funding to continue their interviews of people who shaped our modern professional theatre.
- I was saddened by George Webby’s passing last month. I first interviewed George in 1995 for the Toi Whakaari o Aotearoa: New Zealand Drama School Oral History Project, and later again for my biography of Nola Millar who was his friend and mentor. George took over the New Zealand Drama School from Nola on her death in 1974 and directed it for 16 years. The same qualities that make him a successful educator and theatre director – generosity, wisdom and much more (not least a wicked sense of humour) shine through his accounts of his life both in interview and in his memoir, Just Who Does He Think He Is? (Steele Roberts 2006). We joked that we were joined at the spine – our books were reviewed together, they sit together on my bookshelf as they did on his. He is warmly remembered. Ralph McAlister and Danny Mulheron pay tribute to George on Radio New Zealand Upbeat.