With Frances Hollis (Howick Little Theatre)

Frances Hollis Dare we suggest that there’s more to life than business? Co-founder and director of the Columbus Coffee NZ chain, France Hollis, believes there is. We pose a few questions to a highly successful businesswoman about her passion for giving back to the community, not in the boardroom, but by treading the boards of community theatre.

– Do you enjoy your role as president?

To be president of one of the most respected community theatres in New Zealand is a privilege. It’s rewarding but challenging role. Thankfully, I have a wonderful team and I can draw on the experience I gained in the 25 years of business.

I am proud to have been elected and enjoy the challenge of working with such dedicated, hardworking and passionate people. To put that dedication into perspective, these amazing people volunteer more than 27,000 combined hours of their time every year to produce our programme of eight stage productions.

– How important is community theatre and how reliant is HLT on support from volunteers, audiences and the wider community?

One of the most enduring challenges of staging live theatre comes down to funding and how we balance our commitment to artistic merit with the importance of being self supporting. It is a sad truth that the performing arts both professional and community struggle.  The Howick Little Theatre has always had the support of the Howick Local Board who has given generously to our theatre over the years.  We are immensely grateful, but well aware that we cannot take that support for granted and need to be constantly mindful of balancing financial imperatives with artistic merit.

– How successful has HLT been? What’s the secret to its success?

I think the management committee does a great job of balancing the two, but in the end, all that matters is that we continue to deliver what our community wants. The last Customer Satisfaction Survey carried out by the Auckland City Council rated us at 97%, so we can take that as an endorsement that we are generally getting the balance right.

– What’s HLT Studio programme all about and why is it important?

Launched in 2014, the Studio is an initiative designed to showcase the talents of young up and coming playwrights, directors and actors. Under the expert guidance of professional actor and director Terry Hooper, I can promise you a thoroughly rewarding experience and the talent of these young people will amaze you.

– Did you show any acting promise at school?

While my childhood was spent in South Auckland, 45 years ago my husband and I moved our family to Howick. Mangere East Primary and Papatoetoe High provided my education but neither presented me with many opportunities to demonstrate my thespian skills. Apart from playing the fairy Rosebud, in a primary school play, my acting talents went largely unrecognised.

– How did you first come to be involved with Auckland’s Howick Little Theatre (HLT)?

Howick Little Theatre gave me the encouragement to try my hand at acting. I joined the adult drama class more as a way to provide a distraction from day to day pressures rather than any great desire to act. I was coached in the ways of the stage by Denise Tuck. She gave me the support and encouragement to ‘give it a go’ and I took on my first stage role in 1991 (at the tender age of 44!) playing a bystander in Passion Play – it was an drama about adultery which caused quite a stir at the time!

From there, I went on to act in a number of plays including Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, my first leading role, and most recently Roger Hall’s Taking Off.   Although I am occasionally tempted to audition again, my role as president keeps me more than busy.

– How has local community theatre changed since your involvement began?

In the early days, our programmes included a lot more of what I would call ‘light British entertainment’. Today’s programmes are very different. Our 2017 season covers a wide range of genres from popular comedy to thoughtful and provocative drama and ably demonstrates HLT’s recognition of the changing face of our community and the theatre’s place within it.

The Howick of today is more culturally and ethnically diverse. Its people are busier and there are more entertainment choices than ever before.  To remain an important part of people’s entertainment options, our theatre like all community theatres nationwide needs to recognise and embrace the opportunities that change brings. It’s been most enjoyable to be a part of this.

– Overall, what’s been your favourite HLT production and why?

Obviously, I am a Howick Little Theatre fan and enjoy attending all the shows. But my all-time favourite show was Two Fish ‘n’ Scoop, featuring the huge talents of Julie Zhu and Andrew Gordon. With wit and charm it challenged us to think about our conflicting attitudes to the increasingly multicultural face of our community.

– If you could be Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage for one day, what would you do first and why?

I think it is interesting to look back to 1917 when the term ‘community theatre’ was first coined by Louise Burleigh. Louise sincerely believed in encouraging local communities to produce the live theatre they wanted to see. This belief is as real today as it was then.

So, as the Minister, I would look to celebrate the important role community theatre plays in the cultural well-being of its citizens. I would endeavour to ensure that sufficient funding was always made available to allow it to survive and flourish.

– If you could invite any three actors or playwrights, living or dead, to dinner, who and why?

I can’t help thinking what would be like if I could invite Oscar Wilde, William Shakespeare and Roger Hall to sit down to dinner to discuss that very question! Without doubt, it would be a lively, witty and very entertaining evening, but I think I will leave the last word to Oscar Wilde:

“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”