Every city in New Zealand is proud of their live theatres. To my knowledge, all these buildings have been carefully restored and continue to offer citizens stage shows and a wide array of other community events. Auckland has the magnificent Civic Theatre (with the St James nearby in a state of decay awaiting funding for restoration) Wellington has the equally magnificent St. James Theatre. Christchurch has the recently refurbished Isaac Theatre Royal and Dunedin has the even more impressive Regent Theatre.

The history of theatres in New Zealand go way back to the early days of European settlement as the performing arts were seen as a sign of a civilized society. Entertainment ranged from opera to vaudeville and performances were always well patronized as these places offered the only family entertainment in town. Early theatres also had orchestra pits and other facilities to allow groups of musicians to perform. Philharmonic societies were established in Wellington in 1848, Nelson in 1852, New Plymouth in 1856, Invercargill in 1864 and Christchurch 1872. These societies presented mixed programmes that included orchestral performances. By the late 1870s orchestral societies of over 40 players had been formed in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin and performed on a regular basis in their respective theatres. Along with the orchestras, choral societies were established and most towns boasted a local choir. The early settlers embraced music and regarded it as an important part of their lives and many homes had a piano. In 1889, Dunedin’s Exhibition Orchestra became New Zealand’s first professional concert orchestra.


The foundation stone for New Zealand’s first theatre was laid by hotel proprietor, John Fuller on the 31st July 1843, just three years after the first European settlers arrived in Wellington. The Royal Victoria Theatre built behind the Ship Hotel on Manners Street was a plain, rectangular wooden building with a gabled roof. It had a few windows along its side and an entrance from the street next to the hotel. The interior had hard bench seating and a reasonably spacious gallery. It was lit by whale oil gas which was an innovation at the time for Wellington. The first production to be presented on the small stage opened on 12 September as a double bill: Rover of the Seas and Crossing the line. Wellington’s second theatre, the Britannia Saloon in Willis St, forced the Royal Victoria out of business soon after it opened in 1845. 

A year after the Wellington opening, Auckland’s first purpose-built theatre, the Fitzroy, opened in Shortland St with a variety programme that included the then-popular overture to Boieldieu’s Caliph of Bagdad.

By the start of the 20th century, the plain interiors and uncomfortable seats in the theatres built by the early settlers were no longer acceptable by the public. It was time for the various cities to outdo each other with the most spectacular theatre in the country. Money was lavished on building magnificent venues that would enthral all who entered them. It was also a statement about the town itself. Embracing the arts was seen as a sign of sophistication and success. The settlers in Christchurch were much pleased when their Isaac Theatre Royal opened in 1908. It replaced the original theatre built in 1861 and re-modelled a decade later. Like the fate of many theatres during the 1930s the building was converted into a cinema. However, today, at a cost of $40 million, the city can be proud of its beautifully restored live theatre venue.


The 2,000-seat Empire Theatre opened in Dunedin in 1916. In 1928, it was taken over by Australian showman Thomas O’Brien and re-modelled as a Moorish Atmospheric style theatre, with twinkling stars arching across the ceiling, minarets, and a Taj Mahal-like proscenium. This made it the first Atmospheric theatre in New Zealand. A new Art Deco style lower lobby was built in the late-1930s. From 1946, the Empire Theatre was operated by the Kerridge-Odeon cinema chain. It underwent renovations in late1952, and was re-named St. James Theatre. Sadly, much of the atmospheric style detail was covered over or removed in the 1950s. The ornate plaster proscenium was hidden behind a huge 70mm screen in the 1960s. The St. James Theatre was closed in 1993 but has now reopened as the Rialto Cinemas and is showing movies once again. Around the corner, the lovely Regent Theatre which operated as a cinema for a number of decades, has now reverted to a live theatre. I spent many hours watching movies here as a teenager. This was my favourite of Dunedin’s seven cinemas as it had a warm atmosphere and offered luxurious surroundings which were lacking at the other cinemas in town.

The country’s only other atmospheric theatre opened as the Civic in Auckland on the 20th December 1929. It was the first purpose-built cinema of its kind in New Zealand. It fell into disrepair in the late 1980s and was threatened with demolition until fundraising efforts in the 1990s saved it for future generations. Today, the Civic is internationally significant as the largest surviving atmospheric cinema in Australasia. It is treasured for its Indian-inspired foyer, which includes seated Buddhas, twisted columns and domed ceilings. The main auditorium imitates a Moorish Garden with turrets, minarets, spires and tiled roofs, as well as two life-sized Abyssinian panther statues. With a reduction in seating capacity from its original 2,750 to 2,378, the Civic is still the largest theatre in New Zealand.


Live theatre was the main mass entertainment in New Zealand from the time of the first settlers until the arrival of cinema in the early 20th century. James Marriott was the first amateur theatre producer who staged productions in Wellington as early as the 1840s. In the following decade, American William Foley set up a professional theatre company which for 12 years performed at venues around New Zealand. Around the same time, John Fuller and his family also performed around the country. John went one step further than his American competition by building and operating theatres in a number of towns.

A group of Kiwi soldiers in the First World War formed the ‘Digger Pierrots’ and staged variety acts in war zones. After the war, these army performers continued to act on stages across New Zealand and proved popular with the public. During the Second World War, the ‘Kiwi Concert Party’ was an all-male company that entertained New Zealand troops in various war zones.

In the 1920s theatre productions became more complex, so actors who up till then had organized all staging requirements, were replaced by a producer who took over the role of choosing the work to be performed and co-ordinating the planning and finances. At was at this time that education professor James Shelley formed the Canterbury Repertory Society, and insisted that they employ producers.  


A number of professional companies were set up in the second half of the 20th century, including the New Zealand Players in 1952, the Globe Theatre, formed by Patric and Rosalie Carey in Dunedin in 1954. Downstage ran in Wellington from 1964 to 2013. Mercury Theatre was active in Auckland from 1967 to 1992

The Court Theatre formed in Christchurch in 1971 and is still an important part of that city’s cultural scene. Bats Theatre in Wellington started out as an amateur theatre group but became a professional company in 1989.

Cinema provided stiff competition to live theatre from the 1950s until recently. Television was an even bigger threat but today, live shows are almost as popular as they were when they first appeared in New Zealand way back in the early days of European settlement in the 1840s.

Ceidrik Heward

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