About the Canterbury Repertory Company
Repertory's first production was on 15 November 1928 at the Radiant Hall (now The Repertory Theatre), and the Canterbury Repertory Theatre Society (Inc.) was incorporated on 1st April 1930.
The Society's objectives are to:
produce plays of literacy and artistic merit
conduct drama classes and readings
foster public interest in dramatic art, and to carry out these objectives only within New Zealand.
The Society's has been serving its members and the community at the present location for over 77 years. It purchased the theatre in 1950.
The building is distinctive with the facade very much as it was when it was built.
There have been some alterations made to the interior, but in the main it has kept its essence which gives it a unique charm all of its own.
The theatre has a seating capacity of 430; when required, this can be reduced to 180 seats to create an intimate atmosphere.
The Canterbury Repertory Theatre Society (Inc.) is committed to staging five productions per year, filling all the key roles from its membership.
It also rents out the premises at very reasonable rates to other groups and organizations.
As a non-profit incorporated society Repertory is run by volunteers who love entertaining and being involved in a friendly environment. If you would like to become involved either actively or as a supporter please fill in the form at the Becoming a Member page.
In 1929, when the radiant health club wanted a place to meet in and Professor James Shelley wanted a "Theatre for the people" for the newly formed Repertory society Charles Luney was 23. 15 years ago, Charlie told me he wanted to get a bit bigger than a builder of houses so he looked around for a project to tender for. Frances Willis had created a design for the Radiant Health Club.
Professor Shelley encouraged them to make their hall a Theatre as well, and Charlie got the contract. He told me in 1993, "The building was to be brick with timber trusses and a lot of ornamental plaster work throughout, Frank Willis was fond of the twiddly bits. My plasterer Harry Sharman was talented; he made all the molds and cast the plaster detail on the ceiling. It was a great building to do at 23 years of age. I gained experience as I went along."
The Radiant Health Club's 300 members hoped the new Radiant hall would become the home of true music, drama and modern thought. Professor Shelley headed English at Canterbury College and was founder of the University Drama Society, he designed the stage, fly tower, wings and dressing rooms. The interior of the hall was finished in old ivory embellishments in old gold and the curtain in tangerine and blue. From the start Repertory rented the hall that has been their home ever since. The first play performed there was Lilies of the Field in November 1929. For 20 years amateur theatre blossomed. The relationship between the club and its tenant was a good one. Then came an event that threatened to blow the society and the Theatre apart.
Selling the Theatre, Almost
We continue Penny Giddens’ recollections told to me for a story in The Press in January 1993. The attempt by the society to start a professional theatre had failed and Repertory ceased to have a professional director.
“It was a reflection of the times that in the 1970s some society members put forward a plan to sell the Kilmore Street theatre. I had just returned from overseas and was struck dumb. I could not believe my ears. In the end we did not sell. It was a struggle, we owed money, but we got there under the inspired leadership of our new chairman, John Hendry.”
Penny was appointed Artistic Director in 1983. At her first meeting she proposed significant changes to tune the theatre in to changing times.
“It was clear at that time that fewer people were attending theatre, but those who did, wanted surroundings that were intimate and congenial.”
She recommended dividing the theatre with a curtain, to create an intimate theatre at the front. She wanted to rake the rear seating and make more space between rows. The dress circle had already been removed to create upstairs rehearsal rooms, which should become a club with facilities for entertaining after first nights.
The ideas were embraced by John Hendry, who was also resident architect. He designed the raked seating which transformed the theatre, creating excellent viewing even from the back. It was a point appreciated by major tenants such as St Josephs Light Operatic Society and Children’s Theatre.
The post television era changed the theatre and the society, but the show went on. Yvette Bromley, Mervyn Thompson, Ray Hope, Harold Pointer, Wendy de la Bere, Neta Neale, and Ngaio Marsh, directed a wide variety of plays.
In the mid 1980s Penny Giddens found herself fighting once again, to save the theatre she loved. A neighbouring firm offered to buy it and let the society use it for 20 years. The sum offered was large and some members thought it was a way of setting the society up financially and refurbishing the theatre.
“At no stage was I drawn to the idea at all,” recalls Penny. “It was a terrible thing to be doing and I could see the dangers at once. Nothing is permanent when it comes to large companies, and the thing I feared happened. The neighbouring firm has gone.”
At a special meeting at that time, the general membership rejected the idea of selling.
It’s at the Very Heart of Me
This is the final part of the The Press story from 1993, where Penny Giddens reflected on a Repertory past. At the end of the article she looked forward.
She told me, “The West End of London is the theatre capital of the Western world and it does the sort of plays we do and people still go to see them. It’s our function to keep them fresh and alive, and provide an outlet for people who want to act, paint, design, direct, stage manage, and do props and wardrobe – all the things that go into it”.
In 1990 Penny Giddens was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for services to theatre in Canterbury. She was involved in Canterbury Opera and she directed for a range of organizations, but her first love was the Repertory Society and its Kilmore Street theatre.
“I do love it – it’s at the very heart of me”, she said. “The fact that I’ve been here, and seen all these people through. We’ve done so many things together”.
At that time, Rep had just mounted its 324th production, the comic musical Nunsense, directed by Penny Giddens. The Press named one of the actors, saying she gave the Best Performance of the Year.
Penny said, “We have to increase Repertory’s position in the city, which is what we hope to do by giving the theatre a facelift shortly. Since the last major alterations we’ve spent a lot of money on lighting, settings and heating, but the time has come to give the theatre a 1990’s facelift.”
It’s perhaps due to Penny’s vision for the theatre that we are now inspired to take things so much further and give our theatre a push in to the 21st Century.
Penny went on to say at that time, “We must make people aware of what we have in this place. It is the only fully equipped small theatre in the city whose rental makes it viable for all kinds of groups and professional touring companies”.
“Most people simply don’t realize what this theatre does, what it brings to all those people”, she went on to say. “If you see a dance recital, a Children’s Theatre play, a one-man show, a serious Rep drama, a big musical, a professional company, and see all the people involved, it’s fantastic.”
“I stood in Kilmore Street only yesterday and looked back down, and there were all these square boxes and in the middle of it was the little gem that lightens your heart, and you think, “Gosh, isn’t it a joy to see that little thing sitting there?”
Yes, Penny, it is. Thank you.