John Cameron Pryce – Theatre Hawke’s Bay
The late Mr Lionel Priest was a remarkable man. He did so much for our theatre, and he would never say ‘no’, for an answer … that there was always a way. So he gathered round people, and for the comfort of the workers, cast and patrons, gas was piped throughout the buildings so no one need again suffer the winter chills. To complete this state of the art theatre an up to the minute sound room was added. However, that was kids’ stuff compared to the major reconstruction of the stage area and auditorium that was planned as a millennium project. The aim was to present a new image as part of the jubilee celebration plus a new name for the company proudly marking a new beginning.
First the concrete pillar that blocked the view of the stage for so many patrons had to be removed. I’ll let the then president, Lionel Priest – and he was a prime mover in this mammoth task – describe it in his own words:
“Well it seems that if you seek the information and you follow the direction anything can be done if you believe in it. All the resources of first, a design engineer, were put to good use and an estimate was given, then a search was made for suitably sized steel beam to strengthen the concrete once that was supported by the problem column. Steel was located and a building consent obtained. Next, before you can say ‘eat your Weetbix’, a phone call gave us but a few hours to have the place ready for the transition. The steel beam went up, the floor was replaced and the column was ready for removal.”
Here again it was the case of many hands and honourable mention must be made of those stalwarts: Loughnan, Hall and Thompson … they were structural engineers. Lattey Civil Engineering, project conveyance; Ken Davidson, waterblasting; Mike Barker Construction, truck compressor; and Hastings District Council for the prompt attention to consent. These were all the big guys, but as Lionel said, “let us not forget the little guys” – the team of volunteers who slogged their heart[s] out breaking up concrete to achieve the job. I’m told the dust could be seen for miles. These big little guys were Robin Barker, Brian Rogers, Brian Cochrane, Shane Priest, John Glew, Christopher Green, Trevor Hall, and team leader Lionel Priest and George Ashridge.
The same Lionel takes up the story again with the auditorium: “The planned strategy to achieve the refurbishment of the auditorium goes something like this: with the pillar gone we all then attack the stage. This calls for a complete lifting of the decking, strengthening and insulating under the under-structure.” So all this was achieved with great enthusiasm from the people – they were just amazing.
I must enlarge a bit on the decor – forgive a woman’s view embellishing the practical Priest’s description as it was mentioned. The grand finishing touch has to be in the artistic hand[s] of set designer the late Chris Green, painter and decorator of many sets. It is he who must take credit for all the over [the overall] colour scheme of blue and gold, dark pale blue enhanced the walls and pillars with decorative features picked out in gold. Art deco lights provide soft illumination while art deco embellishments add further interest.
The effort and the money that had gone into literally building of the Hastings Musical Comedy there must never be minimalised, but a theatre company is more than bricks and mortar, it is people, people who organise, select, build, direct and perform in the shows … shows that present the company to the public.
We will start with the shows themselves. Statistics show that since 1952 we have done one hundred and seventy-odd productions, reviews and pantos, straight plays, most of the great musicals – some of them more than once. What a record! But though the productions showcase the company to the public it is actually the people who are the lifeblood. Imagine all those people involved in some way, many unseen, unrecorded, but each one playing an important part, however small.
Reminisces [reminiscences] abound. It was during one of these pantos that a minor player witnessed the comedic talents of Peter Hill. Peter had a two minute scene, which over the season grew to ten minutes by Peter Hill’s brilliant ad-libbing which had the back stage crew, cast and audience alike convulsed with laughter. Archivist Jeannie Hall, loyal working member for over forty years, has kept meticulous lists, and justly, her name appears most often … for thirty-five unbroken years in fact … as property mistress. And I have worked on only ten shows with Jeannie, but directly I have [worked] all over New Zealand with both professional and amateur stage crews. I can say without any doubt Jeannie tops the list for her ability to calmly produce even the most out of the way prop. She [is] also noted to [for] her unflappable efficiency in both of rehearsal and presentation. To prove I am not biased, I must add that in 1993 Jeannie was presented with one of New Zealand’s first merit awards from the Musical Federation in New Zealand. This was to honour her for twenty-five years’ continuous service to the theatre.
There were many, many characters that helped and contributed so much. Emma-May Brown, daughter-in-law of the early ballet mistress; Brian Cochrane … many, many people that I could mention. Keith Brazier was a remarkable character – he did so much; Hec Brown – he was known to have not only a forceful, but also a colourful turn of phrase … he was always the perfect gentleman in front of women. He wholeheartedly upheld my edict of no swearing and no shouting, and in fact I never heard him even slightly raise his voice during a performance. In the running of one of my shows I came upon a nasty dispute between two members of the cast, and I ruled in favour of one and was immediately subjected to a flood of foul language from the other. From the backstage shadows emerged Hec – a big man though he was, you never heard him move. Silently he frogmarched the offender into the dressing room and said quietly, “get out of your costume, pack your things and don’t come back. I will not have that sort of behaviour as long as I am in charge.” What a man! So the standard of the theatre was kept very high. As for his backstage work, it had all the precision, skill and magic of a ballet. At a word or even a gesture from him his crew would go into action – towering flats would float silently in place from opposite directions and come together; a toggle rope would fly unerring to secure the tops, and the bottoms would be braced. By ‘hey presto’, a room as built. A man would run up on [an] apparently freestanding ladder to vanish into the flies, and notoriously heavy backcloths would be manhandled faster and more easily than I could peg clothes on a line. He was the ‘Hec the best’, and he demanded and willingly got the best from his highly trained people.
Keith Brazier – he had his own memories. He recalls Arch Barclay singing ‘yesterday’s skies were grey, look this morning – they’re blue’, while gesturing grandly to the backdrop of a bright orange and red sunset. Keith also confesses to stage tricks, like the time he had to hide in a fountain and stagger on stage half drowned. He had a glass of water behind the fountain; he would take a huge mouthful, totter down to the footlights and spray the orchestra with water. One matinee, conductor Arthur Young replied with water pistols and bicycle pumps, but pianist Mary Bell, ever the lady, simply raised an umbrella. And it was Mary Bell whom Keith claims caught [taught] him to speak in time with the music, long before Rex Harrison made it fashionable in ‘My Fair Lady’.
Keith Brazier also had a bit of a mishap in ‘Rio Rita’, and he made history when his infected leg demanded rest. Without Keith the show would have to close, but never once did it [he] give up that easily. Keith solved the bedrest problem by performing in a wheelchair. Wife Peg brought her own artistic talents as a dancer and wardrobe designer, and in the field of wardrobe Peg was [as] artistic and meticulous as her husband. Her wardrobes were always period correct, rich and vibrant in colour, theatrically spectacular and perfectly coordinated to the set. Not surprisingly their two children flashed briefly across the Hastings Musical Comedy stage. One of these children, son John, is now a professional stage and TV actor.
Life memberships were always awarded; awarded to Mary Bell (deceased) for twenty-four years of service to the company, and there were many, many people who have contributed to our theatre. It has just been quite amazing.
Moving on. However, to risk a cliché, the wind of change starts blowing again. In late 1996 a small group of far-sighted theatrical people were concerned that the numerous societies – twelve in all – were all trying to feed off a limited number of theatre goers. Attendances were dropping off all round, so a meeting of representatives of all these societies was called to try to solve the problem. Many suggestions were made, ‘til amalgamation seemed the most logical answer. With many societies in the Napier-Hastings area producing shows and using the same comparatively small pool of actors and backstage crews, the situation was growing desperate so the suggestion was made to join forces, and to use to better advantage the manpower expertise available, thus presenting a wide range of genre to the public. Most of the smaller or more specialised societies dropped out of the discussion at this stage, leaving only the Hastings Operatic Society, Hastings Group Theatre, and the Hastings Musical Comedy Company. As the Hastings Musical Comedy Company was the only one of the three to have mortgage free property, it was decided that the new joint site should be Hastings Musical Comedy’s theatre playhouse. When the Hastings Operatic Society made it clear they chose to go it alone, Hastings Group Theatre [and] Hastings Musical Comedy settled down to some serious thinking.
Small committees from each society worked both together and separately to consider the various advantages and problems and soon a viable plan started to emerge. By April 1997 a firm merger proposal was prepared for the specific discussion. With the ground and the buildings already owned by Hastings Musical Comedy Company it was obvious that the new joint theatre should be sited on the Hastings’ Alexandra Street property. By June three basic building plans were tabled, and soon a mission statement for the embryo society was established: To provide quality varied theatrical entertainment and a more secure and flexible future for community theatre in Hastings, while generally assisting and raising the profile and quality of theatre in Hawke’s Bay. One of the goals was to produce a minimum of five shows a year covering a range of theatrical entertainment. While there was always an atmosphere of happy cooperation within the joint meetings, there were of course differences of opinion that had to be worked out through compromise to a jointly acceptable conclusion.
Next came the question of a name, and anyone who has been through the trauma of naming a baby, with suggestions – not to mention demands – from even more remote relations pouring in to confuse the issue, will have a pretty clear idea of the situation. The decision was made in the meantime to call [it] the “…….” Community Theatre, with the name going to the sponsor who made the highest bid. This was later considered to be a rather unwieldy plan.
In September both societies were frantically reading masses of material in an effort to choose just the right show to launch the group early in ‘99. Meanwhile, the naming stakes were still running high, but in the meantime the two societies settled on ‘Theatre Hawke’s Bay’, which seemed to fit well into their mission statement. There was also a proviso that the two societies should retain individuality by Hastings Musical Comedy productions going under the name of ‘Playhouse’, while ex groups were to be named ‘Studio’.
There was similar deep discussion about a suitable new logo for Theatre Hawke’s Bay, but after much head, heart and brain searching that question too was happily resolved, as you can see. So now with new name, new logo and the merger complete, it was time to plan the first production. By September both societies were frantically reading masses of material to choose just the right show to combine the company in early ‘99. The popular ‘Market Forces’ was decided upon with the happy approval of Logan Stone, who had generously offered to sponsor the opening. However, we all know about the best laid plans of mice, men and theatre buffs, and though ‘Market Forces’ was the opening show it was a solo Hastings Musical Comedy production in late ‘98. However, the slightly premature baby still resulted in a great and grand celebration, with a group opening the new theatre of [in] 1999 with the great Stoppard double bill of ‘After Marguerite’ and ‘The Real Inspector Welland’.
There have been many, many shows since then, working up to the grand fifteenth celebration coming in October and ‘Me and My Girl’, directed by Bruce Murray – all under the title of Theatre Hawke’s Bay. And many shows we have done since then. We’ve had [the] wonderful Ray Wolfe and [‘The] Sound of Music’ here, and we have the skills and ability in Theatre Hawke’s Bay to bring in high profile theatre people from out of town, who wish to be with us and join with us. But of course in Theatre Hawke’s Bay and in Hawke’s Bay, we have a huge amount of outstanding talent in the theatre world, and I’m referring to the whole of Hawke’s Bay, not just Theatre Hawke’s Bay.
I trust that this little insight – up to this date – of [into] our theatre and hope that it gives you a little bit of info. And we’ll go on from there, and may another fifty years proceed. Thank you for listening, and take care.
Original digital file
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Audio File; Local Stories
- Lionel Priest
- John Cameron Pryce