Acting out, Michael Nicolaidi

Nola Millar: A Theatrical Life
Sarah Gaitanos
Victoria University Press, $50.00, 
ISBN 0864735375

Just Who Does He Think He Is? 
George Webby
Steele Roberts, $30.00,
ISBN 1877338826

Once upon a time – 40 years ago – a convergence of forces led to a popular drive for greater individual independence and freedom. In part, it was forged by the world-wide bolshie mood of articulate young people who sought an end both to Western involvement in the Vietnam War and the passive conservatism of post-WWII governments. Less polemical and rather more engaging was an accompanying hippie counter-cultural desire to uproot social convention and Establishment attitudes and spread “love and peace”.

Particular foci in Aotearoa New Zealand (though “Aotearoa” was very rare coinage then) were the desire for stronger expression of nationhood, acceptance of diversity of lifestyle, and greater government encouragement and support of creative expression through the arts in the broadest sense.

One of the very last of Britannia’s major colonies to claim self-government, the Kiwi extended village of those times felt remote from most of the world. It had a small relatively homogeneous Pakeha population which avoided (as best it could) any significant power-sharing with the tangata whenua. Although there had been brave talk about the value to individual and national confidence of shrugging off the colonial hangover and springing free from the skirts of Mother England, successive governments just could not do it.

Even when Mother was in advanced negotiation to join the EEC, her still-adoring distant islands continued to have faith that, because of her seeming dependence on their lamb and butter trade, she would see them right. This myopia shored up a social environment and ethos that was generally unbending in maintaining and reinforcing the status quo, individual conformity and a high degree of willing, unquestioning self-censorship. And, surely, the artistic tastes and traditions and values of the “old country” were enough?

The faltering fourth term Holyoake National government seemed to think so. While not entirely unaware of the active indigenous forces gathering – Maori and Pakeha – “steady does it” was its modus operandi. Its fundamentally conservative stance on matters of lifestyle diversity and artistic expression remained rock solid. After all, it had established the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council as “a gift to Her Majesty” in 1964. The artsy-fartsies could battle it out – at arms-length from the government – in this particular forum.

However, and notwithstanding this hope, the mounting pressure on the Arts Council’s slim financial resources from creative artists and their advocates helped persuade the council to sponsor the country’s first national conference on the arts in 1970. This conference was to have significant political effect. In 1972, the last year of that Holyoake fourth term, and on his personal instruction, the Arts Council grant from the government, although at a comparatively low base level, was doubled.

Where National lost the plot was in not fully appreciating the link between greater creative and artistic activity and populist stirrings of nationhood. This was a connection beginning to be understood by Labour’s younger dynamic leader of those times, Norman Kirk, and he ran with it passionately and successfully for a big victory at the polls.

So why spin this legend as a preface to my review of these books about the lives of two of our most influential and important theatre practitioners?

Nola Millar and George Webby, single-minded individuals of strong talent and unfearing tenacity, were among those who found their moment when the floodwaters crested and then broke. As active members of Wellington’s left-wing Unity theatre in the 1940s and 50s, both understood the potent humanist elements and political correlations of drama. In 1961 Millar began her own New Theatre company in Cuba Street. Two years later Webby’s growing reputation as one of the best directors in the land was confirmed in a brilliant Unity production of Frederick Dürrenmatt’s The Visit – just as professional theatre was about to establish itself at Downstage.

As one of those swept up in the late 60s surge to nationhood and also a member of Unity theatre at that time, I also had become deeply involved in the push for greater government support for the arts and culture. I had known Webby since the early 60s and, as Arts Council director for two brief years in the early 70s, I had close dealings with Nola Millar at an important time in the evolution of the New Zealand Drama School – today’s Toi Whakaari.

On the front cover of Sarah Gaitanos’ detailed and finely researched biography is a splendid concentrated pose of Millar with cigarette twixt fingers that most appropriately announces her “theatrical life”.  It is difficult to imagine a better visual image of a focused ascetic spirit, whose random pleasures in life would be few and largely concealed.

Nevertheless, and almost in the style of a probing amanuensis to this singular woman, Gaitanos has dug deep and rewardingly and by so doing not only done Nola Millar proud. Her meticulous account of the theatrical life and times of Wellington, particularly from the 1930s through to the early 70s, viewed through the prism of Millar’s emergence as persistent, unflagging theatre director and teacher, is social history at its best.

There was show business and politics and journalism (as well as Catholicism) on both sides of the family – the Millars and the Marshalls.

Nola’s maternal grandfather Richard Marshall, actor musician and theatre manager, was secretary of the Public Halls Company that owned the Theatre Royal in Johnston Street, dubbed the “sweet end” of Lambton Quay, in the 1870s. Her father Frank Millar, whom Gaitanos variously describes as “a big gambler” (a line of recreation his daughter was to indulge in as well) and cutting “a dapper figure”, joined the education department in Wellington as a cadet in 1901. He was to become the first permanent secretary of the Public Service Association (PSA) and charismatic editor of its journal and a magazine of his own that he ran on the side – Theatre & Motion Picture. By providing this kind of “deep” theatrical background, Gaitanos adds to our understanding of the many-sided qualities of pioneering individuals, families and their milieux that have contributed to our cultural heritage regionally and nationally.

At the centre of the book, of course, is the indomitable, idiosyncratic Millar herself who with minimal resources pioneered on her own account. Like Webby, who was to follow her after her death in 1974 in the field of serious drama training, she has influenced the lives and careers of several generations of actors and directors working in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Webby’s autobiographical “theatrical life” is outspoken and occasionally outrageous as becomes this multi-talented mercurial individual who these days, and now in his 80s, resides in the Wairarapa. Rather characteristically, yet not altogether surprisingly given that he pens his own story, he underplays his particular skills as a teacher and as a mentor.

As one of those at the centre of theatrical life in Wellington for many years, he proved to be a sympathetic, invariably ironic but always realistic and often necessarily blunt and prickly advisor on the shoals and safe harbours in life. And his wisdom embraced many more individuals (well-known and comparatively unknown) than his book might suggest.

Right from the beginning, it is easy to respond positively to Webby’s story. In particular, the circumstances and influences of growing up gay within a warm, supportive family environment in pre-WW II Wanganui emerge quite wonderfully, given the mores of the time. Equally engaging, like his picture on the book’s cover swinging daemon-like from a branch, dramatic text flourished in free hand, is the path he subsequently trod from school teaching, his gradual absorption by theatre, and drama training in America. En route there tend to arise a few bitchy observations (catharsis?) on others in the theatre game, as well as wisdom and straight-shooting on the practical difficulties of getting a fully-fledged drama school established.

While these days we invariably accept as a sine qua non the essential biculturalism of the country, it is illuminating to be reminded in both these books how this can occur and develop in specific cases.

Webby’s contact with and visits to the Nuku family in Murupara in the late 50s clearly were most important for him. For Nola Millar it was “discovering” Maori actor Don Selwyn and working on Flowers Bloom in Summer, a play about race relations, for Unity in 1961. The play, written by Campbell Caldwell, the pseudonym of Pat Earle, is based on his teaching experience in a community divided. A decade later, in the final years of Millar’s transitional drama school, Rawiri Paratene and Rangimoana Taylor were the first Maori student actors to enter training.

While tighter editing and some reordering of material might have improved the flow and chronological drive of both books, their great value lies simply in having been written and made available to a wide public.

There is an endnote to my introductory legend from the highways and byways of arts and politics.  On first becoming Prime Minister in 1999, Labour’s Helen Clark herself chose to hold the portfolios of arts, culture and heritage. No previous leader of this country has so conspicuously, confidently and naturally chosen to wrap themselves in a cloak that epitomises the forces of politics, nationhood and the arts. In doing so, she has helped propel the importance of creative enterprise and the greater significance of the work of our best artists, in all fields, to hitherto undreamed-of realms.


Michael (Mike) Nicolaidi is a Feilding reviewer.

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Posted in Autobiography, Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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