11 Apr 2021

Fifty years of the Court Theatre

From Standing Room Only, 5:32 pm on 11 April 2021

Christchurch's Court Theatre has outlived all the other professional theatres set up in New Zealand as it celebrates 50 years later this month.

Felicity Price, a long time patron and board member, has penned her account of the much-loved theatre in her book History of The Court Theatre.

It follows the Court from its origins, to its numerous different homes over the decades, to some of its most memorable actors and productions.

The book includes dozens of interviews with people who have been on stage and behind the scenes including long-time artistic director Elric Hooper.

Derek Hargreaves' account of his 47 years as secretary to the Court Theatre Trust forms the backbone of the book.

He talks about working alongside the Court's two founders, Yvette Bromley and Mervyn Thompson.

Hargreaves said Bromley arrived from the UK and taught theatre at Christ's College in Rangiora before setting up the theatre. 

"The name of the Court was taken from the Royal Court in London."

Thompson, he said, brought his own repertoire of "indigenous New Zealand and self-made work".

"The blockbuster play that really set us up was the production he did of King Lear. He came back from UK, and in the second year we were on, he put on a grand King Lear. He said, 'we've got to do a large bookmark play that will set us on the right professional road' and it certainly did. It was a very good production and caught the attention of the arts council."

Price said one of the best plays put up was O! Temperance! which was written and directed by Thompson. It included a lot of drama students.

She said the balance of bringing many actors balancing it with drawing in big crowds still continued at the Court today.

"The Court was ... and still is the only theatre in New Zealand that has its own set design department, costume design department, wardrobe, make up. It is all done inhouse. I wouldn't say no expense was spared because they did a lot of it on the smell of an oily rag."

Hargreaves recalled Hooper skill at picking the programme repertoire to keep audiences faithful and interested.

"In his first year, he set up what he called 'the stagione system' where plays were selected and based around a theme [like] love and war and he made the plays have a link altogether, and this fascinated the audiences. 

"He was an extremely good director and a very good trainer of actors."

He said the Court was nearly closed in the 1980s following the global financial crisis and losses. 

"I said to them 'if you make three losses in a row, we are in real trouble'. We did in fact make three losses in a row and we were in trouble. So we had to take steps ... they were lifesaving but quite shattering. We had opened a Court studio which we called Court 2 - that was immediately closed, staff were reduced which was painful and we put the price of seats up. And our audience was so loyal that didn't blink an eyelid and we got ourselves out of that mess successfully. And the next year we made one of our biggest surpluses, about $200,000. It was thanks to Elric's brilliant programming that dragged us out of that.

"The next episode that nearly sunk us was the earthquake," Hargreaves said.

But he said, the Court meant "an awful lot" to him. 

"It's been a big part of my life, my professional, and personal life too because my wife and I enjoy the theatre hugely. And even in the early days, my mother was one of the wardrobe mistresses. It's been a big and rewarding part of my life. It's been marvellous seeing it grow from level to level."

History of The Court Theatre is published by Caxton.