History

Circa Theatre started life in 1976 after a breakaway group of actors and theatre practitioners decided a new way of producing theatre was required for New Zealand. Enlisting the assistance of others who worked outside of theatre, a new ‘less is more’ model was created and a pared-back theatre space was built in the Ilott Advertising building on the corner of Harris Street and Jervois Quay.

Susan Wilson, founding member of Circa, describes the drive behind those early days: “Those old British dinosaurs occupying the New Zealand professional theatre landscape [of the time] built large administrations, extravagant sets and costumes, and gave focus, as it were, to the cover rather than the book. We set our course away from gigantic self-perpetuating monoliths and worked to pool our resources. Our goal was to dazzle the audience with the sheer excellence of the performance – to present theatre of the highest possible standard – where economy and ingenuity took the place of money. We aimed to keep costs for sets, costumes, lights and management to a minimum so that the rewards could be equally shared by artists and practitioners.

Circa Theatre staged its first production - Knuckle by David Hare - in April 1976 and the “lean, mean, hungry machine" that is Circa today was born.

In the succeeding years Circa has gained a reputation as one of New Zealand's liveliest and most innovative theatres. Circa pioneered its own co-operative system, where all available resources are directed towards those who provide the life blood of the theatre – the people involved in mounting each production. This is a system which, in stressing the qualities of commitment and self help, promotes the pursuit of theatre of the highest professional standard.

Each production is produced by an individual dramatic partnership; for every play at Circa is run by a Single Venture Partnership (SVP) of actors, the director, designers and, other theatre personnel. This co-operative way of operating has been hugely influential in keeping theatre alive in New Zealand.

Overseeing this management of the theatre is the Circa Council. Made up mainly of actors and theatre practitioners who have over their substantial careers, the Circa Council has been hugely influential in shaping New Zealand theatre as we know it. The Council programmes an annual season of the best plays from New Zealand and around the world. It also administrates the Circa Theatre building, runs the Box Office, and administrates each show’s finances on behalf of each Co-operative.

Theatre Artists Charitable Trust

In 1987, the Theatre Artists Charitable Trust (TACT) was set up to assist the financial feasibility of keeping a full-time, six day a week theatre in operation. TACT, through the incredible generosity of its sponsors, has distributed over $1 million over its 20-plus years existence to co-operatives at Circa. TACT grants are given at the beginning of the rehearsal period to tide practitioners over until the Box Office takings can be accessed at the end of the production.

Over the years our TACT sponsors have shown inspired corporate leadership with their generous support. Not only have they invested in a multitude of important and inspiring works of art, they have also made a career in the professional theatre viable for countless numbers of actors, directors, designers, stage managers and technicians. To each and every one of our TACT sponsors (and funders) we give our heartfelt thanks. Current sponsors are Chapman Tripp, Deloitte, and Creative NZ. Past sponsors include Vodafone, Sovereign, Fujitsu, BP NZ Ltd, BNZ Finance, Ltd, Faye Richwhite, and Norsemann Pacific.

Circa on the Waterfront

In November 1994 Circa moved to its new premises at 1 Taranaki Street, next door to Te Papa. It opened the new Theatre with a stunning production of Tony Kushner's Angels In America, which won many awards at that year's Chapman Tripp Wellington Theatre Awards.

On behalf of those who work at the theatre, the Circa Council would like to gratefully acknowledge the support of majors sponsors ANZ Bank, BP NZ Ltd, and Fay Richwhite & Co Ltd for their help in making the move possible.

The architect for the Theatre as is now stands was Grahame Anderson of Ampersand Architects, with support from concept designs drawn by Grant Tilly. Ian Nicholls created the lighting design and Ian Hull Brown consulted on sound.

Download the Complete Circa Production History

Every major play performed at Circa Theatre has been carefully documented by Linda Wilson, Circa Council member and resident archivist. You can download the PDF below to read the list of all shows produced at Circa from 1976 to present. If you would like to find our more information on a past production, or inquire about purchasing a copy of Circa's 20th Anniversary book Circa 1976-1996, please contact Linda via the Box office.

PDF icon. Circa Production History (PDF 172 KB)

A Memorial to Grant Tilly - 1937-2012

Grant Tilly played a significant role in establishing Circa as a dominant force in the New Zealand Theatre scene. Those closest to him pay tribute to his influence. Please click on the person's name to read their memories.

Roger Hall Playwright

Grant Tilly with Jane Waddell in 'Spreading Out', written by Roger Hall and directed by Ross Jolly

A short tribute from me to Grant.

Grant provided a lifetime of so many wonderful performances. I will restrict myself to the roles he played in four of my plays.

His Colin in Middle Age Spread was hilarious and very moving. Colin was intense, concerned, conscientious, vulnerable - Grant conveyed them all--and did it all again for the movie version. Years later, he created a superb Dickie Hart on his travels to South Africa as an All Black Supporter in C'Mon Black!. Dickie was a naive dairy former experiencing OE for the first time, who loved his cows, good jokes and, above all, the All Blacks. Grant portrayed the bewildered hurt when the ABs were robbed of victory in Johannesburg, his eyes brimming with tears at the injustice of it all.

And then, in You Gotta Be Joking, Dickie adjusting to life in the city.

Then, Colin once more in Spreading Out. Pompous, slightly self-satisfied, coping with a prodigal son and (in his eyes) an irritating wife. Grant conveyed it all and then with Ray Henwood, playing Reg, joining together in the small hours when we so often contemplate both our pasts and our dwindling futures. The two of them played the scene so well it moved one to tears. (How very disappointing that neither of them were nominated for Chapman Tripp awards for their performances).

In our home there is a permanent reminder of Grant: one of his fabulous boxes, with a theatrical theme, commissioned by Dianne for my 60th. It's individual, quirky, colourful, with doors that open to reveal big spaces, and a few tiny secret compartments - in short, a bit like Grant himself."

- Roger Hall, Playwright

Ross Jolly Actor, Director, Founding Member of the Circa Council

Grant Tilly and Cathy Downes in 'Knock Knock', directed by Ross Jolly in 1977

Grant Tilly' s brilliant, iconic pen and ink drawings of Wellington cityscapes hang on many a wall; and his brilliant iconic performances hang in many minds.

I first saw Grant acting in the early days of Unity Theatre and later Downstage and was struck by his singular ability to charm and win over an audience. Be it a drama or comedy Grant could capture and thrill us… And surprise us all, as in Luv, when he suddenly dives head first through an open window. 'Yeah I was quite good at gymnastics when I was a boy,' observed the fuller figured man. Well that, and other memorable feats, roused audiences to cheers.

I directed Grant in my first gigs at Circa. A standout was when he was paired with the late, great Michael Haigh in Weed. Those two brilliant rascals, playing a couple of dodgy old farmers who grow marijuana as a cash crop, were quite simply comedy gold. And, didn't they give the "new boy" a whale of a time.

Grant was in countless numbers of my radio productions at the NZ BC. His sonorous, well modulated versatile voice can still be heard in archive plays. He was the go-to guy for accents, a superb all-rounder.

Mr Tilly also lent his considerable design skills to early productions, often acting in them as well. This multitasking could sometimes engender the familiar cry "where the hell's Grant?", as he made last-minute, opening-night adjustments to his set. He would then take to the stage he had just created and bring the house down.

Grant was part of television's Gliding On team and a founding member of Circa Theatre. In fact, he pretty well single-handedly designed the new Circa on the Wellington's waterfront.

'It's versatile, you can transform it and hammer nails into it,' he would proudly exclaim. He ensured there were comfortable quarters and a balcony for the actors. 'Artists deserve to be treated well, not work from a ghetto,' he maintained. He was a tireless champion for the role of the creative artist, often arguing that NZ did not always appreciate and value creative talent.

And Grant Tilly himself personified creative talent: designer, actor, director, artist, skilled woodworker – the list is incredible. He was intelligent, thoughtful and passionate about the arts and their place in society. You could always have a good debate about that one. He was amusing, frank, principled and roguish. Grant cared about things. He was a bright, funny and an absurdly talented human being – we miss him already."

- Ross Jolly, Actor, Director, and Founding Member of the Circa Council

Susan Wilson Actor, Director, Founding Member of the Circa Council

Grant Tilly in 'Angels in America', directed by Susan Wilson in 1994

I've spent many memorable moments working with Grant the master multitasker. Here is one:

4 p.m. Adelaide, opening night for Joyful and Triumphant. Grant is of course working on the set which he designed. The talented Mr Tilly steps back to survey his handiwork and somersaults backwards off the stage.

7:30 p.m. Mr Tilly returns from the hospital in a wheelchair but is miraculously able to stand up and make his first entrance for the opening-night performance. Needless to say his performance while not exactly joyful was as usual triumphant. The old trooper, the true professional, believed sincerely that "the show must go on".

Let me emphasise and celebrate just how magical Grant was on stage. His energy was remarkable and his talent simply amazing . His generosity as a fellow actor carried you along and made one look and feel good. For me, his performance as Roy Cohn in Angels in America was just superb and fully deserving of its best actor award. Grant will always be for me "the remarkable and incredibly talented Mr Tilly". God bless you Grant.

- Susan Wilson, Actor, Director, Founding Member of the Circa Council

Linda Wilson Circa Box Office Manager and Circa Council Member

Grant Tilly in 'Joyful & Triumphant', directed by Susan WIlson

It’s so difficult to know what to say. Grant has been a part of my life forever. I saw his brilliant acting in productions when I came to university in Wellington in 1972, and first worked with him as a stage manager in Sexual Perversity in Chicago. He persuaded me to ‘tap my toes’ as Pat in Foreskin's Lament, which I also stage managed and he played Tupper, as well as designing it. He drove me crazy because he would arrive at the half to replace the pane of broken glass in the window, and we’d have to turn the whole set around, and I’d have 15 minutes to set up! He was hilarious with the huge plate of food in the second half with the pav and the pineapple rings, which got even bigger when we transferred to the Opera House. We worked on lots of productions together and I admire his talent as an actor, director, designer and artist.

But the memory of Grant I hold most dear is the final scene in Joyful and Triumphant when Dad (Grant) and Rose (Jane Waddell) and Raewyn (Michele Amas) have a cup of tea. I watched and listened to it hundreds of times over the years and always found it moving. One night at old Circa I forgot to boil the kettle and the tea was cold, and Grant was very disappointed because he said he looked forward that cup of tea every evening. I will miss him, but have many lovely memories of him, as well as drawings, and posters and boxes all around my house.

- Linda Wilson, Circa Theatre Box Office Manager and Circa Council Member


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