ARTicle Magazine

‘Suddenly Wellington sort of grew up’

31 March 2016

To mark the end of the 30th-anniversary New Zealand Festival, Tom Cardy talks to the pioneering figures behind the founding and evolution of the country’s leading arts event.

1986 Festival brochure

When former Wellington mayor Ian Lawrence was a teenager growing up in Sydney, he loved seeing shows by international artists. One of the biggest was Louis Armstrong. But while the young Lawrence enjoyed many jazz and popular music acts, he also risked seeing shows outside his comfort zone.

What struck Lawrence, mayor from 1983 until 1986, was how rare it was then for people to see big names in his part of the world. “In those years, not many people had the chance to travel overseas,” he says.

It was that early love of the performing arts and a desire to see established and new acts from abroad that was the kernel for what would become the New Zealand Festival we have today.

Lawrence’s wife, Sandra, was an accomplished pianist. “Her knowledge of music and the arts was greater than my own,” he says. In 1969, the couple travelled to several countries and would take the trouble to get to performances whenever they had the opportunity. They saw operas at Glyndebourne in Britain and caught several plays in London and the United States. One of his strongest memories was journeying to a restored Roman amphitheatre in Israel, where they saw tenor Jan Peerce and violinist Itzhak Perlman. “I remember coming back to Tel Aviv in a bus at about 2am,” says Lawrence, who now lives in Jerusalem.

Despite having a young family, Lawrence and his wife still managed to go to concerts and plays when they later moved to Wellington. But it was also a reminder of what he believed the capital and the rest of New Zealand were missing. “I wanted people in New Zealand – and especially Wellington – to have the chance to see and hear artists of an international reputation and broaden their own lives in this way.”

Over time, Lawrence realised the only way Wellington and the rest of the country would get the chance to see first-class artists was by having an international arts festival. A city councillor since 1971 and deputy mayor from 1974 until 1983, he appreciated the capital was changing and had the capacity to host several large shows. He’d worked closely with mayor Sir Michael Fowler, driving force behind building what would become the Michael Fowler Centre. At one point, the centre was seen as a replacement for Wellington Town Hall, but Lawrence wanted the town hall to complement the new venue. “I viewed the existence of these two great venues – together with others – as providing the basis for an arts festival on a grand scale,” he says. “Something that would establish Wellington as a centre of arts and culture.”

Philip Glass

Philip Glass (right) appeared at the first festival and then again in 2010. Image: Robert Catto/

In 1983, while running for mayor, Lawrence made establishing a festival one of his main platforms for election. Wellington at the time was home to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Royal New Zealand Ballet and the National Art Gallery, as well as Downstage and Circa theatres. But tours by international classical, dance and theatre acts were rare.

Lawrence says some councillors and other mayoral candidates were sceptical about his festival idea. Nothing had been tried in New Zealand on this scale before.

There was also scepticism from the arts community. Some local performing arts groups were concerned they’d be sidelined by big-name international artists. “I had done some research and it seemed to me these New Zealand-based groups would only benefit from having a larger sector of the population exposed to high quality performance and hence their own standards would be raised and a wider base of people would be ‘educated’ in the arts.”

Lawrence met with local groups and presented his argument. “After discussion, I felt the meeting basically accepted the logic.”

A confluence of other supporters – former Prime Minister Sir John Marshall was the first chairman of the festival board – and a lot of hard work saw the nascent festival gradually take shape. Some councillors were enthusiastic, including Rosemary Bradford and Leoni Harkness, who also ran for mayor pushing the same idea. Bradford, who had the surname Young Rouse at the time, was elected to council in 1974, aged 24. She says prior to the festival Wellington was a dull city. City bylaws restricted restaurants to just the main streets.

Bradford joined the festival board and says one of the key decisions was to have the festival independently run. “It became edgy and punchy. To my mind, it really changed the way the city was. Suddenly Wellington sort of grew up.”

Wellington City Council was the main financial backer and eventually there was some sponsorship. “The financial backing from the council has always been an integral part of the festival structure, but the corporate sector responded positively – even for a then unproven project,” says Lawrence.

It was also decided early on to name it the New Zealand International Arts Festival to appeal to the rest of the country and preclude other centres from taking the name, says Lawrence.

Another important decision was the creation of the Friends of the Festival, which was headed by Rita Skinner, wife of Shell chairman Paul Skinner. The Friends brought in corporate support and awareness. The Skinners had only been based in Wellington for about a year. “We had to start from absolute zero – a lot to do and not a lot of time. We realised that in order to make it a success we needed to galvanise the whole of New Zealand,” says Skinner. It became easier to recruit members once some acts were revealed, including Australian opera star Dame Joan Sutherland.

Compared with today, the first three-week festival in March 1986 had a small line-up. However, quality outshone quantity: along with Sutherland, it included the Philip Glass Ensemble, the Staatskapelle Berlin State Orchestra and – both at the height of their popularity at the time – Laurie Anderson and Dire Straits.

The Staatskapelle Berlin was the first orchestra from overseas to play in New Zealand in 12 years and it helped that the festival’s first director was Kiwi Michael Maxwell. Maxwell had previously been Auckland Regional Orchestra’s general manager, but had spent many years overseas with some of the world’s best-known orchestras. This included being the youngest general manager of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. He’d also appreciated the power of festivals since attending the Edinburgh Festival in 1959.

Many of the shows sold out, with long queues outside the ticket booth at the Opera House. “I was not surprised the festival was a success, because despite the relative lack of time we had committed people aboard who also knew what was needed and how to achieve it,” says Lawrence. “We all learnt a lot and I believe subsequent festivals have built on those early beginnings.”

Wynton Marsalis

A guest in 2016 with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis was also part of the second festival's line-up in 1988. Image: Frank Stewart

As if to prove the point, Maxwell’s second and final festival in 1988 not only had more acts but a stellar line-up that was the envy of any arts festival in the world. New Zealanders could see jazz legend Sarah Vaughan and Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporain – Maxwell knew both artists – along with the Kronos Quartet, the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, Twyla Tharp Dance and ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev.

Writers Week, initiated in 1986, boasted Margaret Drabble and Michael Ondaatje.

“There’s no way I can justify in anybody’s mind our programme appealing to everybody. But I have to appeal to a wider audience than would normally think about going to an arts event in the course of a year,” Maxwell told The Listener on the eve of the 1988 festival.

Opera singer Christopher Doig, who oversaw the 1990 and 1992 festivals, is still seen as instrumental in expanding and putting the festival on a more secure financial footing. Doig had an impressive singing career in Europe, but had also impressed as an administrator and promoter, beginning as promotions director for the Christchurch Arts Centre Trust.

Doig was most proud of staging Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with Kiwi opera legend Sir Donald McIntyre. At a cost of $1 million, it was the first fully-staged production of a Wagner opera in New Zealand and the biggest operatic event in the country’s history, with more than 200 singers. The festival also boasted Circus Oz, Stéphane Grappelli, Mel Tormé, Steve Reich, Max Bygraves and Billy Connolly. “The 1990 programme is unquestionably better balanced than either ’86 or ’88. We’ve catered for youth, for families, and for the elderly,” Doig said in 1990.

He was also pleased to see an increase in New Zealand shows, including two new productions by Māori writers.

Carla van Zon

Longtime festival executive director and then artistic director Carla van Zon with former Wellington mayor and now festival executive chair Kerry Prendergast. Image: Robert Catto/

Carla van Zon replaced Doig in 1994 and went on to be the festival’s longest-serving executive director until 2002 and then artistic director in 2004 and 2006. Van Zon and artistic director Joseph Seelig brought the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo to Wellington to open the 2000 festival. It sold 78,000 tickets and remained the single most popular show in the festival’s history until this year when a return visit from the Tattoo was the 2016 festival’s curtain-raiser, selling 84,500 tickets.

Van Zon worked as a stage cleaner and technician in the 1988 festival. Under Doig in 1990, she was a publicist and “odd jobs person”. She graduated to artists’ liaison for the 1992 festival, the first to make a profit. “For me, it was a huge learning experience,” says van Zon, now artistic director of the Auckland Arts Festival.

She says the festival took a risk in appointing her as executive director for the 1994 festival. “I was 41 years old and I had little experience. I was incredibly lucky I had people who were willing to give such a lot. I grew and a lot of other people grew at the same time as the festival. It was a hotbed of activity.”

She credits the acumen of artistic directors Seelig and Rob Brookman, technical director and for 2002 executive director Alex Reedijk and long-serving Perth International Arts Festival director David Blenkinsop in helping her learn and diversify the New Zealand Festival. There were more New Zealand works – including some commissioned by the festival and now a staple – along with more free and regional events. The van Zon years included hit circus act Les Arts Sauts, the controversial Giulio Cesare, Stomp, Hilliard Ensemble, The Junebug Symphony, The Dragon’s Trilogy and Pat Metheny.

“For me, there were many wonderful moments and great artists. The festival was a major turning point for the arts in general in New Zealand.”

Lissa Twomey

"I've always maintained you can't just Fedex a festival in," says Australian Lissa Twomey, artistic director from 2008 until 2012. Image: Robert Catto/

Australian Lissa Twomey, artistic director from 2008 until 2012, came from the Sydney Festival. But she was already familiar with the New Zealand Festival, having visited Wellington to see several shows and both festivals working together on some tours.

Twomey was free to decide what she wanted in the programme, she says. “[Although] to quote Sir Rudolf Bing, Edinburgh Festival's inaugural director, ‘there is no artistic decision that is not also a financial one’.”

“I've always maintained you can't just Fedex a festival in,” says Twomey, who now works for the Australia Council for the Arts. “In approaching the New Zealand Festival, I wanted to bring an alternative perspective, but still hit a chord with the audiences that clearly had a great love and ownership of their festival. I wanted to break down expectations that there would be ‘one of this or one of that each year’, [and instead] shine a light on work that wasn't so familiar and provide different perspectives through the relationships between shows.”


Sutra, one of the hits during Lissa Twomey's tenure as artistic director. Image: Robert Catto/

Under Twomey, the festival had several hits, including National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, Sacred Monsters with dancers Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan, the return of Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, Ravi and Anoushka Shankar, Sutra, Bon Iver and Political Mother. Writers Week, which had evolved into a major strand of the festival, boasted Richard Dawkins and fantasy star Neil Gaiman.

“After three festivals, I took so much away with me both personally and professionally,” says Twomey. “I was privileged to have been able to rub shoulders and work with so many terrific artists and staff. Running a festival the size of the New Zealand Festival in a small environment is a much tougher gig than that of my counterparts in Australia who have access to greater subsidies. But then again no festival director ever thinks there is enough money.”

Sue Paterson cropped 2

Sue Paterson, executive director since 2009. Image: Jeff McEwan

Sue Paterson has been the festival’s executive director since 2009, seeing Shelagh Magadza in as new artistic director for the 2014 and now the 2016 festivals. Magadza, previously artistic director for the Perth International Arts Festival, first worked on the New Zealand Festival in the early 1990s.

Paterson’s connections go back to when she was general manager for Auckland-based Limbs dance company, which was part of the 1986 festival. She continued to work with the festival while at Creative New Zealand in the early 90s to help fund New Zealand works and had a stint as the festival’s marketing director for four years. It has given her an appreciation of the festival’s impact on Wellington and New Zealand and how the festival continues to adapt to the times.

Paterson says Limbs always drew large crowds in Wellington but in the mid-80s “as a town it felt quite dull”.

“Wellington went all out. The ’86 festival blew me away. I moved from Auckland to Wellington in 1988 partly because of the festival. I thought, ‘If they are going to have a festival of this scale and calibre, I want to live there.’”

For Paterson, there are many highlights. She was impressed with Englishman Seelig’s three-festival tenure, beginning with the 1996 festival. “We sold so many tickets. He just had this knack of putting together quite populist events like Stomp alongside really cutting edge work like [Japan’s] Dumb Type and [Canadian playwright Robert Lepage’s] Seven Streams of the River Ota. He just had an ability to cover his bases.”

Joseph Seelig and others

Three-time artistic director Joseph Seelig (right) returned to the festival in 2004 as producer of the opera Elixir of Love. He is seen here with (from left) director Daniel Slater, then-executive chair of the festival Fran Wilde, conductor Graeme Jenkins and then-artistic director Carla van Zon. Image: Robert Catto/

Seelig, now back in Britain, where he is co-founder and co-director of the London International Mime Festival, says his aim was to create an event “that would be artistically strong, stylish, surprising and contemporary, with some new departures from previous festivals, but which wouldn’t frighten anybody. I counted on the fact that most people are actually more open and adventurous than they think they are.

“I wanted the festival to be serious fun, to be truly memorable, to make people feel good, to make arts professionals around the world look at our programme and decide it would be worth taking the extra step from Adelaide or Hong Kong to see what we were creating.”

Paterson says when she returned in 2009 – taking over from chief executive David Inns, who moved to the Auckland Arts Festival after managing four New Zealand Festivals – it was a case of helping to build a new team and working with Twomey. “Festivals have always been about the team you put around you. We have had fantastic people work here. That’s been the joy of working at the festival.”

Much of the personality of each festival came from the artistic director, says Paterson. This has continued with Magadza. “Lissa was a fantastic programmer and really knowledgeable. She had a good sense of putting a programme together. Shelagh brings in a whole new range of strengths, including community engagement, interaction with the environment. It just stretches the festival further.”

One the biggest changes for recent festivals has been more quality free events, says Paterson. It’s also been continuing to think outside the box. Power Plant, a light and sound experience held at night in Wellington’s Botanic Garden, was the single most popular show in the 2014 festival. It helped the festival as a whole inject $70 million into Wellington’s economy. Paterson says she and Magadza knew audiences were likely to embrace it, especially with their affection for the garden. But they were still surprised at how many people went through.

The 2016 festival featured the Power Plant team’s follow-up light and sound experience, For the Birds, in Otari-Wilton’s Bush, which was another big hit, as were the festival’s free events, including opening-night dance spectacular Le Grand Continental® and the Contact Festival Playground in Frank Kitts Park, which was enjoyed by some 50,000 children and adults.

Pina Baush Tanztheater Wuppertal – Rite of Spring

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch was one of the big hits in 2016. Image: Ludovica Bastianini

Highlights in 2016 also included a double bill of Café Müller and The Rite of Spring by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and a residency by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – both of which played to full houses.

Among other standouts were Salvador Dalí-inspired cirque spectacular La Verità, Concerto Italiano’s performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers, the premiere of New Zealand composer John Psathas’s multi-layered world music collaboration No Man’s Land, and American author, filmmaker and artist Miranda July’s interactive lecture during Writers Week.

“There is always an inherent risk in presenting work that is unfamiliar to audiences,” says Magadza, “but the reputation established by this festival over 30 years allows us to continue to attract leading artists to New Zealand and to facilitate transformative encounters between them and audiences.”

The assortment of international artists has also had an impact on our own artists. Lauded Kiwi choreographer Douglas Wright presented The Kiss Inside in the 2016 festival. Not only has he had several works in previous festivals, it introduced him to “life-changing artists”, he says, including Sankai Juku and Les Ballets C de la B. Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch is his favourite dance company in the world.

“It has been extremely challenging over different festivals to present brand new dances, world premieres, which have to stand next to work by celebrated overseas companies – work that, in most cases, has toured extensively and been honed and polished to an exquisite degree,” says Wright.

“This has pushed me to my limits creatively, and has helped me grow as an artist.”

Shelagh Magadza

Shelagh Magadza has just completed her second festival as artistic director. Image: Jeff McEwan

Thirty years on, says Magadza, one of the biggest changes for the New Zealand Festival has been the environment in which it exists. “Travel is cheaper, so people travel more often and see shows overseas. The internet and the digital revolution mean people have a high level of awareness of what is happening around the world and more access to different experiences.”

Contrast that to when she first worked on the festival in 1991, she says. “There was perhaps a more old fashioned internationalism at that point. But now we are definitely globalised and people can watch so much online. We are competing with Netflix and more interactive experiences. Which is something we need to be aware of as we try to reach a broader audience."

Magadza says the way works are being made, funded and toured has also changed. But some of the core reasons for the popularity of the festival haven’t. She cites Australian show dirtsong in this year’s festival. “Clearly the heart is still there. The basic premise of people meeting people through culture from all parts of the world – it’s still something very visceral and meaningful in real life. That’s what live performance brings.”

For the festival in 2016 to be seen as integral to Wellington and New Zealand’s cultural life pleases Ian Lawrence. “I have always believed a city has a wider role than sealing roads and footpaths,” he says. “How dreary it would be if there was no entertainment, be it cultural or sporting. We need people to be involved in the life of their community and to derive benefit and pleasure from living there. I would like to think someone will write a review of the next 30 years of the festival and it will be positive. No one should take it for granted, however. The festival needs ongoing commitment and support.”

  • Tom Cardy is a former arts editor of The Dominion Post.

Want the full ARTicle in your inbox each week?