• Helen & Paul Topliss and David Adkins in full bib and tucker at the joint Torbay Theatre and Mairangi Players (Birkenhead) 40th Anniversary Ball.
  • Helen in her first lead role at Torbay Theatre: Imperfectly Serious, 1980.
  • Helen in the lead role in Life and Beth last year: she is nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
  • Naïve Kiwi meets Russian soldier in Roses are Red, by Paul

Since it is our 70th Jubilee this year, we spoke to long-standing member, Helen Topliss.

Helen and husband Paul have done it all: acting, directing, writing, children’s classes, make-up, set-building … since 1979. Son Adam was three weeks old at his first rehearsal, and he is still in the audience at practically every show. Helen and Paul are as active as ever: last year Helen took the lead role in Life and Beth, and recently directed Cinderella and The Snow Queen (script by Paul).

They fell into the club as newlyweds in 1979, shortly after arriving from the UK. After coming to see a play, Paul ended up lighting the next show, and that was it!

Torbay competed in regional and national am-dram competitions. Paul’s one-act play Roses are Red (re-staged in 2019), won the regional prize, and several were placed in the Nationals.

Cast and crew would travel to a different town each year, taking their set and props, and the play was judged not only on the performance, but also on erecting and striking the set to strict time limits, timed on a stopwatch. The crew would be waiting in the wings, and on the signal “Go!” each would do their well-practised jobs. The stage had to be set within 15 minutes and struck within 10. If they went over, they were disqualified. Aside from the challenge of the competition, it was a great social time, everyone staying in the same motel for a long weekend.

In fact, Helen and Paul practically lived at the theatre, taking part in every play for many years: four shows a year and six club nights –always including a one-act play, for new directors.

The theatre was busy: often rehearsing two shows at once. They needed more space! So the Gate Theatre was built after much imaginative fund-raising (delivering the North Shore calendar to every house on the North Shore from the back of a ute, a “guess the name of the doll” competition …)! The Gate’s dimensions match the big stage, to facilitate rehearsing, as well as giving more club space. Pre-Gate, the clubrooms, including rehearsal space, toilet and kitchenette, fit into what is now the wardrobe! For 4-5 years Saturday night shows were catered, with theatre members and their families cooking a three-course meal and waiting at table, serving drinks, and, of course, washing up afterwards!

Before the Gate was built, actors changed in a shed out the back: it poured during one memorable pantomime, and bevies of children had to be escorted through heavy rain under umbrellas held by troops of volunteers, protecting the colourful costumes and make-up!

“Torbay Theatre gave us our first friendships in New Zealand,” Helen says, and this hasn’t changed. Performers and crew come back year after year. Helen is just one of many. This year, we will highlight various personalities and aspects of theatre life in Torbay.

This Article was published in the March 2022 Issue of the “Focus on the Community” magazine