Davies, Gillian Ann Interview
Good morning. This is Caroline [Lowry] interviewing Gillian Davies QSM on 1st September 2020. Good morning, Gillian.
Good morning, Caroline, in this, the Covid-19 new world – a strange new world.
Well, I suppose to begin at the beginning, I was born on 30th day of July 1941 in a little town in Taranaki called Hāwera. I suppose people will know that my background is theatre, and I have to say that Taranaki was a melting pot for those interested in theatre, and I was exposed to much of it when I was a very small child. In fact my sister was in a play, and at three I said – when the landlady who was a drunken person yelled at my sister and said, ‘Who broke my bleedin’ feaver?” – I yelled very loudly, my mother told me, from the audience and said, “It was not my sister!” So I think I was three at the time.
And we saw everything that was directed in the Opera House in Hāwera, and so that’s where my love for theatre … I learned what was called ‘elocution’ … or ‘electrocution’ … in those days, but I must say my teacher was [a] pretty up-to-date person. Her name was Nancy Russell and my aunt Nancy Leatham directed plays in the Brooklyn Bowl in New Plymouth and was really instrumental in giving me my first love for the theatre. And that of course, is what I’ve done profusely, I suppose, over here in Hawke’s Bay.
So back to my mother and father; my mother was the loveliest person. Her name was Zita. My father called her ‘Zita Repeater’, because she had him well informed all his life. And she had studied to become a primary school teacher I think, at Wellington Training College; met my father, who came from the West Coast. He was a coal miner’s son and the eldest of eight, and had to go down the mines although his English teacher at Greymouth High School found a place for him and was ready to get a scholarship for him to go to university, but it was not to be. It was down the mines for Harry, but that made him have a real incentive to get on in life; to have his family experience things he did not and could not in his youth. And he determined that he wanted better for us.
So leaving the South and the West Coast, he came to Wellington, and I think he worked for the Power Board, and then went to Hāwera where he became probably the Head of Stores, or something like that; but he always had dreams. And he saved his money and in 1951 … or the year prior, I think … we went on a great excursion around the North Island to see where he’d like to settle. And I think it was my mother who decided that Hawke’s Bay was the place with all this wonderful fruit; we could only afford the seconds from the Indian shop in Hāwera, and here was all this abundance of fruit falling off the trees.
So my mother and father shifted to Napier, and we lived in Tom Parker Avenue. And very shortly after, there we were sitting on the roadside watching the Queen come down Tom Parker Avenue. And I don’t know how my parents afforded a house in that street, because it was ‘the’ street. He must’ve worked and saved his pennies.
But anyway, there we were in Hawke’s Bay, and settled. And I went to school at the Sacred Heart [College] for as long as I went to school, which was not very long because I developed tuberculosis; and at fourteen when I was going to go to St Bride’s in Masterton and had all my clothes and bags all packed, I was very, very ill and was put into hospital; and was there for several years which was quite unforeseen.
Anyway, my father worked exceptionally hard. He bought this milk round; he sold insurance; he was the first to buy Brierley [phone rings] shares. And although the share market went a little ragged, Henry done very well and I am grateful. And I have to say that for my parents, for leaving me, the youngest … their spinster daughter … in a very comfortable way, living with her menagerie of nine at the moment – I won’t tell you what all the animals are but there we are, in residence.
So that brings you to me after I came out of the sanatorium. It was very difficult; and it was a very difficult era to have had tuberculosis in. I can remember going to the Catholic Church over in Onekawa and people were moving themselves from the pew because they were frightened; not enough communication. Now the media goes mad about everything but then there was no communication about such things. So here was Gillian thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ If it’d been today I would’ve gone back to school, but then you just couldn’t.
Well I’d learnt drama from a lady called Helen McConnachie, and Helen was going to go down to Wellington to take a position in broadcasting. And she said, “Gillian” – I think I’d got up to about Grade 8 – she said, “take my students. You can take them, you’ll do well; you’re much more imaginative than I. And you know, take them with my blessing.” So that’s how my practical teaching of drama began, and I must say I loved it. It was a way of having children, and handing them back; and it was a way in which I could serve. When I was very young and in those early days when I was first teaching, I had real opportunities. I was given scholarships, and I paid to go to residential drama schools. They were called QE2 Drama Schools, and I learnt so much so that I wasn’t an elocution teacher; I just asked students to serve theatre and serve literature by being curious. I learnt so much from those tutors, particularly Nola Millar – she was a most fantastic woman; a director well ahead of her time. And ohh, there were [was] Alan de Malmanche; there was David Tinkham, there was Rona Davis – ohh! I just was fortunate. I just wish that people now had the opportunities that I had.
But I also have to say that in Repertory here, there was such talent; Terry Coyle, Brian Johnson, Bill Caulfield, Priscilla Peach, Mary Fisher … just wondrous natural talent that was there, and did trust you. I mean I was only a young thing when I first directed – I think I directed ‘The Matchmaker’ – mightn’t’ve been more than nineteen, and it was a five act play.
But I don’t really want to talk about me, I want to talk about them; because rep [Repertory] in the early days when I first came, and again went to most productions that were on in the Municipal Theatre directed by people like May McDonald and Carol [?Verbooket?] – ohh, they were wonderful directors. Kay Mooney was a writer there too. And the actors – as I said, there was Renée who’s the writer now, from here; there’s … ohh! I just could go on; and I’m just being voluble really; this won’t translate into the written word very well but there we are, that’s me.
I know I was really fortunate, and I learned very quickly that theatre informs and educates as well as entertains; and that you have to serve theatre. I hear today so many people say, “Oh, it’s our family; we go down there, and it’s our family.” It’s a bit woolly to me, I think you have to go down there to work and share. And don’t think I am not understanding that theatre wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the real families out in the district who have through the ages come down in those. But it’s not a place just to go there to have a nice wee time and a drink and a plate of food. You are there to work and serve good writers and the community, and it is really important for people to know this. And I think Hawke’s Bay has been very, very lucky to have such good directors, such good writers, wonderful actors, and above all audiences, who for community theatre are really important, because that ultimately is what you serve. You serve the community. They come in and they open the door and their expectations are limitless. They don’t know what’s going to happen, and as long as the material is good – you’ve got to have good material that has friction and makes excitement, and allows more pace and variety and strength. Now that’s talking about my love.
Now I want to talk about the people of Napier. The people of Napier have served me, and believe you me, I’ve been demanding of them. I’m talking about businesses who, [which] without their support, the type of theatre I wanted to direct would not’ve been possible. If I told you of one little thing … and I think I’m meant to be talking about 1965 … in about 1972 a man called Eric Hunt and I decided that the theatre was shocking; the Little Repertory Theatre in McGrath Street was shocking. It was a tiny little dive; it had been a church, and it had served theatre very well but it was cold and damp and leaking. And over the Christmas holidays with the blessing of the Society – as long as we didn’t spend any money – [they] allowed us to transform it into a restaurant/theatre, which was all the rage then. It’s not so much now; you know, we had to entice at that stage … start to entice people into coming to small theatres. The big theatres … if you were putting on shows in the big theatres, they strode up and got a bit dressed up, and went to the theatre. Now, anybody goes in anything and it doesn’t matter, and that’s the way it should be, really.
So we had to find people who would help us with linoleum, carpet – that was good old Pat Magill. Then we had crockery; and believe you me, there were stories – I said, “If you could just give us a couple of dinner sets, we could raffle them off and make the money to pay you for all the crockery we need for our restaurant/theatre.” We had curtains; we had paint we had to get from paint shops. Oh, mulberry! Covered in mulberry; poor Eric Hunt got a phone call one morning; took the phone call, forgot the bucket of mulberry paint was on top of the ladder; it fell down and went right through … he had only probably undies and overalls on, and he was a mulberry person for a week. [Chuckle]
It was great, but the theatre benefitted by it. I can’t begin to tell you how Plix Products were very instrumental in our lighting in the theatre; and … I’m not going to say any more. All I’m saying is, the community rallied. And I think now after this Covid-19, if the community can rally a little in small ways we will be able to survive. But it’s a tough old world.
But back to the seventies. So there was Rep with its new little restaurant/theatre and great productions … really lovely productions. I was either in them or directing them, and people came and enjoyed. And we had very great critics at that stage; I can remember Penny Waddell was pretty slicey, but best of all I loved Eric Bradwell. If you got a word of praise from Eric Bradwell you danced on the roof for a month. [Chuckle] It was great.
Then of course, we enticed young people; there was a young people’s group, but I can’t just remember the name of them. But Nan Horwell and her husband ran it and it was great; and so really young people were introduced to the theatre. I had been acting since … oh, it was when I was young, about thirteen, before I was sick I think … I was in a production called ‘Hotel Paradiso’. Then later, when I started teaching, I was in ‘The Crucible’ as a very young person. And there were other young people in it too, and that was an outstanding production by John Thomas. John and Campbell Thomas were amazing directors, and she was a brilliant actress. And John went on – had to change his name because you can’t be called John Thomas in America – he had to become Campbell Thomas. And he became the head of the Dallas Theatre Centre, and then came back to New Zealand down to the Dunedin – is it Unity Theatre?
No, Unity, I think, down in Dunedin, and he was excellent.
Theatre in Hawke’s Bay and the Operatic Society – it was the hub of my world really. I suppose I lived and breathed … and I still do in a funny way. I’m finding it very difficult to be retired, and I think that you don’t ever have to retire because there’s something you can do. You can support, you can sell tickets, you can … Oh, and lately I’ve been in a monologue – I had to learn forty minutes of dialogue. By heavens! That was a bit of a crucifixion, but there we are. That’s what you do, and that at seventy-nine isn’t too bad, and I’m very grateful for that opportunity.
Back to the theatre – I also became involved in the Napier Operatic Society, and I had a lovely time because I’d missed out on a great deal of growing in this district. You know, I’d missed going down Emerson Street like the girls at high school did, and go past the Palm Grove [Milkbar] and see the bikies and the *widgies and the bodgies, and the … you know; and just walk on the edge of being very dangerous. I didn’t have any of that, but I did have the Napier Operatic Society, and it was colourful and there was a bit of action always going on there too, in very many ways. And the Society was lucky to have the families of … you know, don’t think I was decrying families, I’m just saying I don’t like the word[s], ‘Oh we are a family’. We are not; we are a business that has to succeed. But it’s the families who’ve come down through the generations … like the Colliers, the Reids, the Joneses, the Briggses … they’re all responsible for carrying on down through the ages this real love. But it has to be more than love, and these people have given of themselves and of their energies and skills, and a production is only as good as the people who work on it. And Hawke’s Bay – if I talk about the whole of Hawke’s Bay – that’s Valda [Peacock] down in Waipuk, [Waipukurau] and all the people who come from Central Hawke’s Bay; Lisa-Jane Hay who started off sort of there, and at the EIT. [Eastern Institute of Technology] Dick Johnson, I have to say, is really responsible for all of us being driven to better theatre. He was a toughie; he was an oddie, very like me I think really. But he gave all his life – as a single person it’s much easier to do than as a married person; you haven’t families to rush home and look after. You are inclined to spend too much time there. I think it would’ve been better if I had organised my time, but my love was there, but it also was my love to research. And the people in the Bay appreciate research and excellent directors; people like Miriam Heath; James Morgan also, and those people before us, like the May McDonalds – they were the people who really underlined the importance to know [of knowing the] how, when, where, what, who to [of] everything, whether it’s your character onstage, whether it’s the set.
You know, the theatre is remarkable because it mirrors life really. If you have not been in somebody’s house and go into a room, you behave differently; you might have a sly little look to see … hmm … And all of this actors have to take into their understanding, to know if they’re coming on stage and their character hasn’t been in the room before, how do they behave? Have they met the person before? How do they behave? It’s the how, when, where, what, who; and that’s life in Hawke’s Bay. How, why, when, what, who. We’re a very curious and nosey bunch of people – that’s life. That’s why theatre’s fine; that’s why it mirrors society; and that’s why it’s important .
And I think the bookshops in Hawke’s Bay were wonderful to me and to others. I have to think – Marsdens used to send, Everetts used to send away for books for me, and it would take months. Now you can get them in a couple of days, and you can get them online; and you can go and nose and see extracts from here, there and everywhere. There is no excuse. But please God, let books not go out of date; because you have to look through them. You just don’t turn on that machine, punch something in, take a glance of [at] it and copy it. I just – I’m sad; I sound like a very old lady I know, but I’m sad for the kids of today. There’s nothin’ like the sniff of a book …
… and getting into the absolute crux of anything that you are wanting to know. It is really important to research. And Napier with the Art Deco, shows how they have researched that.
All the way through Hawke’s Bay; now with the new Opera House and Megan Peacock … she’s a great girl. When I taught at – I don’t know whether I’ve said – I taught at the EIT for some considerable time. Dick said to me, “I want you to come on board.” I said, “Oh gosh, Dick, what can I have to offer? You’re excellent.” He said, “Well, tell me what you think”, and I said, “Well there’s one thing I do think, and that is, what does a certificate of acting give a person?” I know because I haven’t those qualifications that other people have done so well with, and I regret it. I think the bits of paper are highly important, and especially today. I’ve managed to get through some back doors and I’m very lucky and very privileged. Without Stuart Devenie I would’ve never got to Downstage. Without … what is it? In Palmerston North … Centrepoint. Oh – you see, I’m old. Mind you, I’m in my eightieth year, so don’t criticise. [Chuckle] Don’t dare criticise. [Chuckle] So without those people I wouldn’t have managed to have learned from and with all those people; developed a big Schools programme like Stage Truck in Wellington, and had the tenacity to just keep on keeping on.
But it’s the Bay that is my stomping ground, and I love it and I am just hopeful – and I will do everything and anything – and believe you me, when I decide I want to do something, it’s hard on some others around me, but I will do it until I die because this is my love.
Now I was talking about the opportunities at EIT, and I’ll go back to that; and I’m sorry I’ve rambled, but that’s the way I am. Dick said. “Now what will you do? And I said, “What does a certificate of acting give a person? They’d be better off sitting their LTCL.” [Licentiate of Trinity College London] In one second he said, “Well they will; and you will teach them, and they will do that as part of the course.” So I did as I was told, and at least sixty or seventy or eighty students went through that school and got their LTCL – if not fully, speech and drama and theatre. And it allowed them to go to university, and this because it soon became apparent that these schools were doing mighty things, and that the Trinity College exams and Guildhall exams allowed them to cross; I think they got six university papers if they passed both.
And there is Megan Peacock at the Opera House; she would never have been there had it not been for her real ability to research; to actually decide that she was going to make something of her life; and that was the interest she had, and there she is now in charge of the Opera House in Hastings … which is not the Opera House is it? It’s [renamed] Toitoi. And you know, I’m proud of her, but proud of twenty and thirty and forty others. They were great people; and it was astonishingly fine that the EIT had that course, and the singing course as well; and then of course, there’s the singing school that happens. What will happen now? It’s rather sad. There’s a production going on at Napier Operatic, and I think it’s going to have to be cancelled because it’s eating away at the funds just keeping … So this is just a little bit of today, into the yesterday. But the yesterday is so important to remember; it was an era where people had more time. They had more commitment.
I remember Don Hurley and Barry Brown were wonderful workers for the Operatic Society, and Don Hurley saying to me, “Gillian, what colour do you want the velvet drapes? We’ve got these yellow ones.” No actually, he didn’t say “what colour” – I said, “Donald Hurley, if you think I’m going to put people against those yellow velvet drapes you have another think coming. Could you get me some from the Muni?” [Municipal Theatre] “Oh no, I can’t”, he said. I said, “Well, could you perhaps get some from Palmerston?” “No, no, I don’t think so, Gillian”. He said, “What colour do you want?” And I said, “Well, red, or green, or …” Three days later he came with these huge velveteen drapes. He had shut one of the buildings at Tomoana [Freezing Works] and put out of [an] order and had dyed them in the vat. I don’t think he can get into trouble for that now, but Donald Hurley, you are named. So wasn’t that wonderful? And therefore, we have to say, as one of our prime supporters, Tomoana Freezing Works.
Everybody helped. I spent five days before the Music Hall started, with a bevy of people coming in on shifts. We had twenty sewing machines down the middle of the Operatic hall; people slept over, and they went on their shifts, and they covered all these chairs so that this production could take place. Now people cannot do that. In their light they have to work to earn food, to earn a living, and there is always somebody at their back; it is a different world.
So I have to thank God for those sixties and seventies, and perhaps even the eighties. No, it wasn’t the eighties; sixties and seventies that allowed me to be served, as well as the writer and the public, by so many businesses, so many people with real dedication and hard work, spending hours sometimes away from their families, or with their families, working on behalf of theatre which exhilarates and stimulates people. And to my mind is as important as bread and butter to anybody.
This is Wednesday 16th September 2020. Good morning, Gillian.
Good morning in this year of Our Lord, and Covid.
Theatre restorations; upgrading. Theatre/restaurants; theatre in the parks; theatre in churches and their halls, in schools and technical institutes. Tastes of it even in streets and malls and sports fields. All of this stems back in [from] time immemorial really; today, from yesteryear.
The Bay’s certainly utilised all and every type of venue, indoors and out of doors. I worked for some years with the incredible Dick Johnson at the EIT and then later with [?LJ?] and Wendy Doole. They were great fun and they loved letting loose and getting out into all of these wonderful venues. And there was theatre in Napier … the Century Theatre, now the MTG; [Museum Theatre Gallery] the Tabard Theatre in McGrath Street; [Coronation Street; The Little Theatre is in McGrath Street] the Frivs [Napier Frivolity Minstrels] Theatre; oh, even the Botannical Gardens, and the Church Road Winery, and the Mission Vineyards. And in Hastings we often went to the Opera House, and Group Theatre, and the Hawke’s Bay Musical Comedy [Club]; and now of course, it’s Theatre Hawke’s Bay; St Aubyn’s Theatre, and Cornwall Park, even. And that’s not to mention the Central Hawke’s Bay venues, so we’re really privileged to have such places in the Bay.
Theatre can be served, though, it can be served up anywhere; and ‘served’ is the sort of operative name of the word, or word of the name, or … can be served in countless ways. And talking about service – in my life there was a man who helped me, we, us, them, those, [chuckle] who witnessed the end product; a man who really helped me to know about strengthening, and realising the joy in enjoying the strengths of others. He was a chemist, a potter, a theatre buff, a designer and lighting expert, and he knew what service was. Gwyn Ace; I miss him immensely. We certainly got down [chuckle] to the nitty-gritty of every problem, round the table, piles of paper filled with scribblings and ideas and ending up, lots of it, on the floor. Learning drama from May McDonald … May Mac as she was known … he sure knew to dot his i’s and cross his t’s; preparation was the key to all. And he was just so generous … he was really, really a generous person.
John Briggs followed so ably in his wake. We owe him; a one-off designer and builder of real note; Neil Page and the Collier boys, stage directors; Nora Griffin, Mary Crook, Sonia [?Awhai?], they were all production managers and secretaries; Sue Page, Lois Reefman, wardrobe mistresses. Dylan Findlay and Richard … I can’t remember his second name; they were from Brebner Print, and props people. Dale Mitchell had the artistry – he should’ve been at Weta Workshop. He was just outstanding; he could make beautiful props. Mind, so could Gwyn, and so too, Mark Collier. Then the more ‘usual’ props as they were known, to thespians, anyway. Items and furnishings we needed, you know, for any set; and we had to gather them up from many supportive members of the city, from antique dealers, second-hand shops, churches. Much advice was given and much care had to be taken to return them in the same order, otherwise insurance would have to pay out, and it goes without saying what would happen to us. The stage managers locked precious items under lock and key.
Then there were other things, like cars, horses, dogs, foliage, shrubbery, lawn – all had to be tended responsibly, because the heat of the lights was a real problem. So we were just sponsored in so many unusual ways. That’s what’s great about theatre. I remember Fairclough’s Radio in Emerson Street; he was a booking agent for many theatre productions – or all theatre productions at that time. Mr Floorcloth we secretly called him.
What decade would that’ve been, Gillian?
That goes right back to the 1950s. When I’m talking about the props I’m talking about yesterday and today, and more musical theatre than Repertory.
The line-ups were phenomenal from his shop on the opening sales day, stretching round past Sandersons Fabric Shop on the corner of Market Street, and then round again up into Dickens Street. Support was unquestionable; the productions were expectantly awaited and attended, and everyone wore their best bib and tucker. And this was you know, from the fifties and sixties. Oh, you wore your velvet coats, and your beautiful embroidered … they make curtains of it now, what was it? Beautiful brocades, that’s it, that’s the word; and the reaction was instant and caring. The babble of analysis [chuckle] in intervals – it was really hilarious. You could go out there and you knew exactly how they thought, and whom they thought was wonderful, and new and exciting, and great. The waiting for the critics’ comments was amazing in the Bay – everybody rang everybody up and said, “Have you seen the paper? Did you see Mr Bradwell’s write-up?” Eric was pretty scathing at times.
Touring productions came and went … operas; the New Zealand Players; English productions of Gilbert & Sullivan; orchestras – the New Zealand Symphony and some really outstanding orchestras who were local. You know, they were conscientious and ably supported. Hawke’s Bay flocked, and the critics and the armchair critics spoke avidly; for the first few days, anyway. Newspaper, radio, all was chewed over and agreed or disagreed with. Personally, much was learned; and I loved the fact that it was often controversial – they were doing their job and we were doing ours. The ascerbic Eric Bradwell, Penny Waddell, Laurie Swindell, often wrote with astute insight; they had done their homework, but hopefully, we had done ours. It was great for our work to be analysed; it was really good. I think that is what you actually direct theatre for – an audience who you expect to analyse, as well as critics. It was powerful, though. Reviews could, would and perhaps should make money, but if they don’t … if they are bad, well, you can lose it too, and that is horrendous for any society, because theatre costs too.
You will notice that I haven’t spoken about productions of mine in particular – mine or any others, really. Each one was so special, and in its time and place it was important. The casts were all wonderful, committed, able; and I owe them much. Oh! We adored what they stood for; the Bay gave us wings, and being a young and driven person in those early days, I did appreciate it, and them all.
I suppose it’s a lifetime, Gillian, of learning, teaching, sharing, caring, casting?
The sixties, and seventies, and eighties, and nineties plus the next two decades – over sixty years puddling around in a medium we adored. We adored serving it, and I adored serving writers, composers, casts who were worth their weight in gold.
Oh, and I have to say Bob Houston changed my life, because he changed and came to adore acting. When he first came into the theatre in the forties, he stood there and sang. And he [chuckle] said to me at the first rehearsal, “I don’t know why they worry about all these bits between the songs – what’s important about those?” So here you have to forgive me for mentioning him, because he changed, and he changed me; he changed my way of thinking.
And there’s another person that I will mention too, and that is Jane Pierard. I think Jane Pierard opened my eyes to the joy and wonder that a person who really thinks, and works hard at, and considers everything a challenge, but a joyous one, is a lesson to anybody. And I think Janey has brought joy to my life. Tthere are many others, too … many, many others.
Now I’m on the other side of the fence, never too quietly chewing my cud, I have to say. But I’m supporting others in this oddly Covid-19 world to keep carrying on and as I keep saying, theatre will never die. Theatre is necessary to mirror our world and others; it educates, entertains and informs us. So in the meantime and in between time let’s zoom on, until we can continue once again to enjoy the special life blood and life force that is good and often great theatre.
Thank you, Gillian, that was fantastic.
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Interviewer: Caroline Lowry
- Gillian Ann Davies