Founding theatre professor dies at 80

Professor Phillip (Phil) Mann, who was the founding drama lecturer within Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, died on 1 September.

group of 10 people standing with a model in front of them
L-R: Russell Campbell, Sarah Thomasson, Nicola Hyland, Sam Tippet, James Wenley, Phil Mann, Megan Evans, Sean Coyle, Liz Thompson, David O'Donnell, David Carnegie
Born in North Yorkshire in the United Kingdom, Professor Mann studied drama and English in Manchester in England and theatre directing in California. He and his wife Nonnita Rees came to New Zealand intending to work freelance in the theatre, but soon after their arrival, the late Professor Don McKenzie invited Phil to apply for the newly created drama lecturer position.

The Drama programme, now known as Theatre, was founded in 1970, in a building at 91 Kelburn Parade. Professor Mann recalled, in a recent celebration of the subject’s 50th anniversary, that he and his wife had to sweep the rubble out of the building the day before beginning his teaching. Within a short time Drama acquired its own building in an old house next door, at 93 Kelburn Parade, known as Drama House, which is still used as a teaching, rehearsal, and performance space.

“Phil was immensely charismatic,” says Emeritus Professor David Carnegie, who was drawn back to New Zealand from his native Canada by the offer of a job alongside Professor Mann. He worked with him for 25 years, from a time when the Drama papers were offered by just the two of them, through the new department's growth into a full programme, now part of the School of English, Film, Theatre, Media and Communication, and Art History.

“I set up Drama at the University of Otago a year or two after Phil did here in Wellington. Once or twice a year, we would swap classes, and we complemented one another extremely well—while his teaching was very visceral, mine was more cerebral.”

“Phil was incredibly passionate about teaching theatre,” says Professor David O’Donnell, current director of the Theatre programme, who was himself taught by Professor Mann. “He was very student-focused, and was a warm and hearty teacher. Full of life and energy, he worked very quickly and efficiently. I think the reason he was so inspiring because of his own boundless enthusiasm for the art of theatre and his ability to make it relevant and exciting to students.”

In forming the Drama programme, Professor Mann instilled the practice of “learning by doing,” which continues to this day.  He was himself a dedicated practitioner, as a renowned director who debuted works by playwrights Vincent O’Sullivan, Renee, and Greg McGee, alongside contemporary and classic plays and operas. He had a particular affinity with Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, and the plays of Bertolt Brecht.  

Professor O’Donnell says, “I particularly recall the impact of Shuriken, by Vincent O’Sullivan, which told the story of the massacre of Japanese prisoners-of-war in Featherston in 1943. Phil worked closely with Vincent, mixing stylised imagery with brilliant ensemble work, telling a vital episode in the history of New Zealand, one that had previously been hidden. That play, first produced in 1983, went on to become a classic.”

Professor O’Donnell recalls that Professor Mann motivated a lot of students to think about the politics of theatre, taking his students out into diverse communities and getting them to create work based on the issues that communities were facing.

Emeritus Professor Carnegie says, “In one sense Phil was a romantic. He grasped the intimate relationships within a play, and he helped students identify the true nature of a play and how relationships within it worked to tell a story.”

Theatre lecturer Dr Nicola Hyland says, “The kaupapa of the Theatre programme continues to be centred on learning through doing, with the theatre space a vital hub of creative and critical practice and research, collaboration, and community. Professor Mann’s dedication to devised theatre methodologies led to a whakapapa of original, innovative, experimental, and award-winning work seeded at the University.”

Professor Mann maintained a close relationship with Downstage Theatre, directing major plays throughout his time at the University, getting students involved in backstage work, while also drawing on his industry connections to provide specialist lecturers. He also taught the first course in Aotearoa to focus on film in 1971, starting the move toward a full Film programme later taught by Adjunct Professor Russell Campbell.

Adjunct Professor Campbell recalls that Professor Mann’s drive was always to integrate theory and practice, which meant his Film Analysis course incorporated a filmmaking component. “When I took over the film teaching, I tried to maintain this orientation. With Phil’s encouragement I also tried to develop strong links between film and theatre within Drama Studies. Phil’s energy and enthusiasm were always an inspiration, his sense of humour a godsend.”

Professor Mann was also a leading science fiction author, with one of his books, The Disestablishment of Paradise, shortlisted for the prestigious Arthur C Clark Award in 2014. He was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2017 for services to theatre and literature.

Professor Mann celebrated his 80th birthday last month at Te Whaea in Newtown, which coincided with the launch of his most recent novel Chevalier & Gawayn: The Ballad of the Dreamer, with family, friends, colleagues, and former students.

Professor Sarah Leggott, Acting Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education, says, “Professor Mann made an immense contribution to the establishment and teaching of theatre studies at Te Herenga Waka and to the Wellington arts and literature community, and leaves a lasting legacy. Our condolences go to his family and friends.”

He is survived by his wife, Nonnita, daughter Delia, son Owen, and grandchildren Jasper, Poppy, Ianto, and Rafe.