The play's the thing

by Roger Hall / 20 January, 2007
Nola Millar and George Webby helped establish professional theatre in New Zealand.

When I arrived in 1958, the Wellington theatre scene consisted of the New Zealand Players, repertory for amateur productions of West End and Broadway hits (that filled the Opera House); the Thespians for big costume dramas (they had a wonderful wardrobe) at the Concert Chamber and Unity for message, political and thoughtful plays. In addition, and throughout the provinces, there was the British Drama League (which mostly did one-act plays). Hardly anyone did New Zealand plays, partly because so few were written, but also because those that were done received a harsh response if New Zealand was portrayed in anything other than a tourist-brochure warm glow.

Nola Millar directed plays for all of these groups and, indeed, did almost everything there was to be done in theatre: acted a little, produced, arranged outdoor productions ranging from the botanical gardens to motor camps (death!), ran courses for actors and directors, and even, once, managed the lights, an art that had previously been a mystery to her.

Unity Theatre was her prime love. Set up by a group of (mainly com-munist) advocates, Unity staged plays that presented "the problems of today's social, political and economic life", normally a recipe for dreary theatre if ever there was one. But in fact, their productions stood out like good deeds in a naughty world: Ibsen, O'Casey, Gorki, Chekhov. Unity became the Wellington theatre, both in choice of plays and the theatrical talent it attracted.

Two landmark productions directed by Millar were Our Town (with a young George Webby in the cast) and Look Back in Anger, the play that changed the face of British theatre forever. What must be remembered is that in most cases these were not only New Zealand premieres but Millar had never seen any other production of them (her first time abroad was not until 1967, except for a month in Australia).

At a crucial time in Unity's development, three actors set up Downstage Theatre, which lured aware much of Unity's best talent. Unity was never the same again.

In February 1970, the NZ Drama School (Toi Whakaari) opened, based on the teaching Millar had been doing at her own New Theatre. She worked there as founder director until her untimely death in 1974.

Now we have a brilliant biography by Sarah Gaitanos, who has put together in a highly readable way a mass of material, including meticulous appendices of all productions and teaching courses in which the "Mother of New Zealand Theatre" was involved.

Gaitanos has done a wonderful job on Millar, a woman everyone regarded as an "enigma" who kept her private life to herself. She sought little personal gain and consistently subsidised her theatre projects (or her students) from her meagre earnings, yet was also an addicted gambler on the horses, losing almost all the money she had: she regularly had to borrow from friends.

Early in her working life, she borrowed the equivalent of eight weeks' wages from a colleague (who could ill afford it and had to borrow from a life policy to do so), but the loan was never repaid nor even referred to again. Many friends had the same experience, so it speaks volumes for the loyalty Nola engendered that she retained these friendships. Indeed, it was often only the loyalty and devotion of so many people that enabled many of her theatre projects to come into being or to be sustained.

One reason for her reticence was the loss of her mother when she was eight: she had to watch her mother suffer a prolonged and agonising death. Her father, a colourful, theatrical and flamboyant character, soon remarried, but to a woman who had little but criticism and harsh words for the young girl.

It's not often remembered that Millar had a career as a reference librarian as well as her theatrical one. She held a major position with the Alexander Turnbull Library, where she provided thorough and meticulous research for those requiring information; and later with Victoria University. She gave up both these secure positions to follow her theatre ambitions.

Nola cared little for her appearance. She bought a coat and skirt (usually black) and wore them every day for a year until they wore out and she was famous for her black beret and a cigarette permanently dangling from her mouth. Clearly, she didn't want to attract anyone through her looks, and Gaitanos comments that she seems to have had no sex life whatever.

Millar's career mirrors that of New Zealand theatre in recent times, that is, progressing from a largely amateur basis to the establishment and survival of the professional groups, starting with Downstage and Mercury and others. It was thanks to her (and others) that this became possible, but it's sometimes forgotten that for a time there was a lot of professional theatre: Alan Wilkie's company, J C Williamson's and the NZ Players made regular tours of the country. But the arrival of television kept everyone at home so that for many years the prevailing wisdom was that professional theatre would never get re-established.

It's hard to think of a greater contrast of personalities than Nola Millar and George Webby, who were friends for many years. Their theatrical paths crossed often (inevitably some material overlaps in the two books under review). Webby directed Unity productions as well as some for Downstage, and he succeeded her as director of Toi Whakaari.

Webby was dapper, outward-going, waspish, sexually active, and a great lover of gossip, which he dishes out here and there in these pages. But clearly he doesn't care for gossip about himself since he is remarkably coy about his private life. He was also, in his own words, a "naughty actor", by which he means he didn't learn his lines, a trait he finds less amusing in others.

Also in contrast to Nola Millar, he was blessed with a happy childhood and a mother who took him regularly to the movies and encouraged him to learn the piano, a blessing indeed.

Webby's career was similar to many of that era who ended up in the arts in that he started his working life as a teacher (and later as a lecturer at Teachers College). He began by acting and then directing everything from plays, Gilbert and Sullivan and one Gang Show. Again, as for Millar, Unity theatre was especially significant. For me his most memorable production was Durrenmatt's The Visit in 1963, starring the late (great) Anne Flannery.

A pivotal time in Webby's life took place with the visit of theatre guru George Baker, who invited him back to the university in Dallas for what clearly was one of the most fruitful times of his life, giving him a greater confidence in his abilities as a director and in the standard of local productions.

For a generous slice of our theatre's history, these two books are more than welcome additions.

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