Back in 1971 when The Court Theatre was founded in Christchurch, other professional theatres were also springing up all over the country for the first time. Yet from that era, The Court is the only one to survive, and will celebrate its 50th anniversary on April 21.
A new book – The History of The Court Theatre by Felicity Price (with Derek Hargreaves) has been written to mark the 50th anniversary.
The pair say they wanted to write the book because, “The Court gets under your skin – the drama onstage and off, the love and respect with which it is held by so many in Christchurch and above all, the people who work, act, create and volunteer there.”
Mayor Lianne Dalziel echoes Felicity Price’s sentiments saying, “From small beginnings 50 years ago, The Court Theatre has grown to become a treasured institution in Christchurch.”
Founders Yvette Bromley and Mervyn Thompson took a leap of faith back in 1971. Their new enterprise was indeed small and humble without even a permanent theatre to call home.
Over the first 10 months of its existence The Court Theatre operated from three locations.
The first was the Stone Chamber of the Canterbury Provincial Council Chambers where the debut production The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was staged. The peripatetic theatre then moved to the Durham Street Art Gallery, to the Beggs Theatrette and then to relative stability at the Orange Hall.
It was not until 1976 that The Court Theatre moved to the Arts Centre, its home until 2011 and the venue where many people will have had their first experience of the magic of a Court Theatre performance.
A cast of hundreds has nurtured and developed the theatre over its long history. Of course, the founders themselves and later artistic directors and chief executives Elric Hooper and Stuart Alderton (1980s – 2000), Ross Gumbley and Philip Aldridge (2006 – 2018) and currently Barbara George and Dan Pengelly.
These double-acts have married art and commerce to work together to run a highly successful theatre operation.
What else is behind The Court’s success and longevity when so many others have fallen by the wayside?
The answer is that the programme has been varied, the standards always high and above all the theatre and its artistic directors have been astute in knowing what the audience wants. The latter was a consistent theme during Elric Hooper’s 20 year tenure.
He declared from the outset that his intent was to balance the theatre’s repertoire with “three main thrusts – the classic, the contemporary and the indigenous.”
Come 2011 the Christchurch earthquakes saw The Court out of its Arts Centre home and looking for a new space, which was found in Addington. Fondly known as The Shed, this is where the theatre is today.
But the story of The Court has another act to play out – its move into a new $39 million purpose-built theatre in the central city, opposite Tūranga, on the corner of Gloucester and Colombo streets. Due to open in late 2023, that will be The Court’s home for the next 50 years.