Skip to main content

Women's Institute Drama Groups

1921 –

This essay written by Carol Stevenson was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

Women's Institute (WI) drama made a significant contribution to New Zealand theatre, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s when amateur, one-act play production was at its height. By the early 1990s such production no longer occupied the same place on the local cultural scene, and the institute had moved on to new dramatic activities, such as original skits and musicals, which continued to provide a creative, social and participatory context for women.

From the outset, the WI was active in amateur theatre. A one-act play was presented at the first federation conference in 1925, and by 1931 most institute groups were involved in theatrical activities. Old-fashioned dress parades, mimes and tableaux featured in meetings, celebrations and drama circle programmes, together with readings and performances from the works of Shakespeare, Galsworthy, Shaw and Barrie. The one-act plays which soon came to dominate WI drama were mainly selected from British collections, or from locally written scripts published in the institute journal Home and Country or by the New Zealand branch of the British Drama League (NZBDL).

The WI's drama productions frequently enjoyed a high public profile, benefiting rural areas with their fundraising and entertainment. For example, in 1931 the Matangi Institute (near Hamilton) joined forces with the local dramatic club and raised £17 for the victims of the Hawke's Bay earthquake; in December 1935, 200 women and children took part in an historical pageant, 'Old Days in England', mounted in the Timaru Gardens by the South Canterbury and Mid-Canterbury Federations.

Drama group photo
Members of the Cave Women's Institute in South Canterbury performing a mock wedding, 1934. Mock ceremonies also included mayoral processions and were popular during the 1930s.

Special occasions such as 'Men's Nights', to which male friends and relatives were invited, became an opportunity for members to exhibit their dramatic skill. The popularity among members of Under a Misapprehension, a short propagandist play designed to defend the institute from male criticism, suggests that men did not always support the growth of a rural women's organisation.

Festivals provided the context for the majority of one-act play productions. The first WI drama festival held at federation level was organised by Wellington province in November 1932. The NZBDL's Annual Festivals of Community Drama began the following year, and a fruitful though sometimes fraught relationship grew up between the two organisations. Modelled on the British prototype and inspired by the work of the little theatre movement in Great Britain, the NZBDL sought to foster improved standards in amateur theatre, in order to promote the development of semi-professional drama in this country. Elizabeth Kelso of Levin, who represented the WI on the BDL's national executive from 1933, and Elizabeth Blake, producer of Wellington Players, encouraged WI women to take part in the lectures, schools, production and play-writing festivals mounted by the league. Workers' Educational Association (WEA) finance and tutors and the setting up of the BDL library also helped WI members to develop their dramatic skills.

Competition was an important element of BDL festivals, where entries were marked predominantly for acting, production and stage presentation. 'Endeavour, originality and attainment' together made up only 15 percent of the score. By contrast, the WI's own festivals were more relaxed: in some cases no overall winners were announced. A correspondent wrote to Home and Country in 1931:

A Women's Institute is not an 'Amateur Theatre Society' but is rather a group of women who have fellowship in learning together and this aspect of the matter must influence to some extent our view as to the important points to be stressed in the dramatic work of the Women's Institute. [1]

This ranking of 'fellowship' over aesthetic values had its disadvantages: WI entries in BDL festivals were sometimes heavily criticised by adjudicators, and the women were sharply advised to avoid plays 'full of silly jokes about mothers-in-law', in favour of more worthy material. [2] Finding scripts which provided enough parts for women proved a problem, however, and many groups fell back on works set in boarding-houses, homes for 'indigent women', girls' schools, coffee shops and institutes.

Although institutes were advised to 'do without men players' in 1933, [3] and a separate section of the first BDL Festival was reserved specifically for WI teams, there were no official restrictions on the involvement of men, either as actors or producers, until 1955. It was then decided that any men taking part in WI productions 'must be relatives of members and … fewer than women in cast'. [4] At the 1959 AGM and again at the 1964 national conference, remits seeking to exclude all men from festival productions were debated, but on both occasions the remits were lost. Not until 1986 did the institute officially exclude all men from its productions.

Stylistically the plays selected ranged from naturalistic realism to escapist fantasy. The work of New Zealand playwright Violet Targuse was frequently performed by WI groups in the 1930s. Most of her seven one-act works were set in farm kitchens or living rooms and focused on the concerns of rural women, although her 'Prelude' was set at the court of King Henry VIII. Plays with historical or fantastic settings were popular; many members enjoyed dressing up and enacting roles very different from their own.

During World War II, WI women in some parts of the country used their dramatic skills to entertain the troops or raise funds for the war effort; for example, the 'Fun Doctors' evenings organised by two Manawatū women and their husbands became a feature of the local patriotic committee's fundraising, with their participatory games, songs and humorous skits, including shadow play 'operations'.

One-act plays involving murders also enjoyed unprecedented popularity, ensuring the continued involvement of some institutes in one-act play production after the war. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, most institute groups turned their attention to eisteddfods and group drama meetings. These featured comic skits (such as 'Other Shoes', in which a husband and wife swap roles for a day) and other short entertainments based on local issues or media items, including television advertisements. Such work continued into the 1990s. It was also common for institutes to mount an informal performance as part of their own celebrations; for example, Koputaroa Institute in the Horowhenua organised a 'Seven Ages of Women' pageant to mark its fortieth anniversary in 1972, and a spoof on the Olympic Games for its fiftieth in 1982.

At national level, competitions in choir, drama and musical theatre were organised every three years, and provided an important focus for those institutes with a particular interest in performance. In 1990, for example, an institute competition was held for one-act plays with an indigenous setting. The Wellington final included two original works, one set during the New Zealand Wars, the other in a women's convalescent home.

For individual Pākehā women, the drama groups provided opportunities for personal growth and transition from the private to the public sphere. For those with little or no education beyond primary school, theatre activities developed cultural awareness and confidence, in a supportive environment created by women. For Daphne Hunt, for example, involvement in institute drama at Foxton in the 1940s 'opened all the doors', [5] and she went on to an active public life in other community service organisations.

Māori women were not as involved in the drama groups, despite the fact that some areas had a large number of Māori members. Anglocentric scripts and conventional casting practices meant that they usually had little opportunity to perform in one-act plays. [6] They were involved backstage, however, and were consistently active on those occasions when Māori performances were considered appropriate. The WI welcome for Lady Liverpool in 1929, for example, included items by Māori women.

In theatrical terms institute drama provided a context for the performance of works by local playwrights. On a personal level it provided a space in which women otherwise confined within the home could develop their creativity. Janet Takacs, a member of Kia Ora Katoa and Hillside Institutes from the early 1970s, recalled that for her, drama represented time out from the demands of family and the opportunity to 'let your hair down'. Her vivid recollections of a kitchen band characterised the freedom from inhibition that prevails in such drama groups, and the informality of the institute's 1990s performance activities:

There was a big woman sitting with her legs spread out banging away at a cooking pot held on her lap...and every so often she'd flip her dress up and put her knees together—boom! boom! She'd strapped pot lids to [her knees] and these big leg...oh it was so funny … [7]

Carol Stevenson

1994 – 2018

In 2004 Country Women’s Institutes once again became Women’s Institutes. The national executive continued to have a ‘Drama and Musical Convenor’, responsible for devising performance competitions which any WI or federation of WIs could enter. In alternating years a musical item competition replaced the drama competition, although the choir section of WI, which had reached an excellent standard, no longer existed.

Assistance towards expenses for those taking part in these competitions, as well as the national handcraft competitions, was provided from the Mealing Estate Trust administered by WI. This Trust had been established in 1973 to support choral and drama groups, but in 2013 it had no applicants, so widened its mandate to give scholarships and assistance to individual members and their families for furthering education in the arts and crafts.

The performances making it into the finals were presented and judged at the annual AGM, and these entertainments continued to be written up in Home and Country as part of the annual report. As members grew older, fewer were interested in entering these competitions; so there was sometimes no winnowing out beforehand, and all the pieces entered were put on at the AGM. In 2018, however, an adjudicator travelled around New Zealand judging all the one-act play entries, and the top four competed at the annual conference held in Lower Hutt.

Anne Else


[1] L. Streatfield, Home and Country (HC), Vol. 4 No. 9, October 1931, p. 6.

[2] E. Blake, ‘The Art of Theatre', HC, Vol. 5 No. 8, August 1932, p. 9.

[3] Victor Lloyd, 'The Amateur Stage: Valuable Work of Women's Institutes', in NZBDL supplement to HC, Vol. 6 No. 3, March 1933, p. iv.

[4] Dominion Federation of NZCWI Drama Rules [n.d.], Longburn CWI records.

[5] Daphne Hunt, personal communication, 4 February 1992.

[6] However, in 1940 Taranaki Māori Women's Institute performed 'The Tiki', apparently a play with a Māori setting and characters. See p. 27.

[7] Janet Takacs, interviewed by Carol Stevenson, Dunedin, 1992.

Unpublished sources

Cox, Lois, Avelda Howie, Rosemarie Smith, personal communications

Longburn CWI records, in possession of Longburn CWI [in 1993]

Stevenson, Carol, interviews with Zeta Hood, Koputaroa; Haidee Aldersley, Enid Hills and Daphne Hunt, Palmerston North; Janet Takacs, Dunedin; 1992

Women's Institute / Country Women's Institute collection, 1921–1992, WI headquarters, Wellington

Published sources

Harper, Barbara (ed.), History of the CWIs of New Zealand 1921–1958, Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Christchurch, 1958

Home and Country, 1929–, complete set held at WI headquarters, Lower Hutt, Wellington

South Canterbury Federation of the CWI, History of the South Canterbury Federation of New Zealand Country Women's Institutes 1930–1970, CWI, Timaru, 1971

Stevenson, Carol, 'Staging Women's Talk: A Discussion of Selected Works by Violet Targuse', Women's Studies Journal, Vol. 7 No. 1, May 1991, pp. 75–83