The ‘Walkabout’ coffee bar
Prior to the existence of the theatre, this was the location of the ‘Walkabout’ coffee bar, owned by Harry Seresin, it was a hub of creativity and performance activity in central Wellington.
The Downstage Theatre Company was formed out of activity in the ‘Walkabout’ coffee bar in May 1964 and was New Zealand’s longest running professional theatre company. Contrary to popular misconception Downstage Theatre Company ran for a considerable time in the original building, the ‘Walkabout’ coffee bar before shifting to the Rowing Club building while the Playhouse was built. The original 1964 stage was in the upper floor in the coffee bar, in 1968 the company took over the building and the whole upper storey became the new adaptable Theatre Restaurant. This was designed by B. Woods as the major project in his final year at the Wellington School of Design. The builder was Graham Maclean.
Building the Hannah Playhouse
The Hannah Playhouse Trust was formed in 1968 to build a theatre venue on the corner of Courtenay Place and Cambridge Terrace, and after a very generous gift from Sheilah Winn of $300,000, the Hannah Playhouse’s was named after her maternal family – the Hannah’s; who also founded the Hannah's shoe company.
The building was designed and constructed by James Beard and Co. Raymond Boyce, New Zealand’s Living Treasure theatre designer was on the board of Downstage when the Playhouse was built and acted as the theatre consultant to the Architects, Ron Parker and James Beard. The design has won a number of awards including The New Zealand Institution of Architects Award in 1978, and the Award for Enduring Architecture in 2006.
The Hannah Playhouse opened on October 15th 1973, with Downstage’s performance of ‘As You Like It’. The evening was a resounding success, with only one hiccup in the preparation: the leading lady, Janice Finn was hit by a motorcycle as she left the premises after dress rehearsal. As she broke her wrist, teeth and her hips were injured, the understudy had to step in. The Post reported that she gave a fine performance. Further information on that performance, click here. Shakespeare devotee Winn was thrilled on opening night.
Downstage Theatre was based in the Hannah Playhouse until 2014.
The Hannah Playhouse has hosted hundreds of New Zealand works, with some of New Zealand’s most prolific theatre practioners, and countless audience members coming through our doors.
Bruce Mason's Bust
At the top of this page is a photo of the bust of Bruce Mason CBE (28 September 1921 – 31 December 1982), which sits in the Box Office Foyer of the Hannah Playhouse. Bruce was a significant playwright in New Zealand who wrote 34 plays and influenced the cultural landscape of the country through his contribution to theatre. His most well known play is The End of the Golden Weather, a classic work in New Zealand theatre, was made into a feature film directed by Ian Mune in 1991. Wellington born, he was a co-founder of the Downstage Theatre Company. Downstage ran the Hannah Playhouse for many years.
On 1 January 2014 Experience Wellington (previously The Wellington Museums Trust), took the lease on the Hannah Playhouse, to provide a theatre venue for Capital E, the National Theatre for Children. Capital E had been relocated into new premises without theatre facilities, from a venue deemed earthquake prone.
The Trust have made the Hannah available as a theatre venue for hire, to continue to promote Wellington as a destination of cultural and artistic significance. In 2014 and 2015 this was made possible through Creative New Zealand (CNZ) support, and in 2016 this support was continued by the Hannah Playhouse Trust and by Wellington City Council.