Leaders of the NZ Entertainment Industry Acknowledged
An Instigator, a Pioneer, and a Guru
Claiming 170 years’ experience between the three of them, Rex Gilfillan, Peter Frater and Chris McKenzie all received achievement awards at the recent ETNZ Conference in Wellington, NZ.
With careers spanning six decades, and hurtling towards seven, these unstoppable stalwarts of the industry have had an extraordinary impact on the entertainment industry, not only in terms of technical knowledge but by virtue of their personal commitment to the sector.
Peter Frater – Industry Achievement Award
Peter is a fixture of the Wellington theatre scene, occasionally on the boards, largely behind the scenes, and for the last fifteen years until very recently on the door of the Wellington Opera House.
His service to the entertainment industry has included instigating the not-for-profit Newtown Music Festival, now the biggest annual street fair and free music festival in New Zealand with 12 stages and 80,000 visitors.
Back when it started in the mid-90s, Peter unearthed local Cook Island dancers, Samoan opera singers, rap and folk bands, all reflecting the vibrant, diverse and inclusive nature of Newtown. To this day the festival, and Peter, retain this love for the local community.
Peter also led the campaign to save the St James, an Edwardian theatre, threatened with demolition by a private development corporation. His passion and commitment to preserving this Wellington icon resulted in the City Council’s purchase in 1993, subsequent refurbishment and its place now as a leading venue for the arts.
Grant Gilbert, Live Event Independent Contractor and past president of the ETNZ, recalls Peter calling him up to tell him he’d got the key for the empty theatre, “We went down in the dark and checked it out, played with a few switches and got a few lights going. Then Peter pretty much moved in as tech and got things going.”
For Grant, this is the perfect example of the kind of guy Peter is, “He will give up his own time and get something done, rather than wait to get paid for it. He’ll provide all his own personal equipment to help get something going, and to make sure it is done safely.”
Peter is also willing to take the time to share his knowledge, “He’s one of us old school techs and he likes to talk! If someone is smart enough to recognise that Peter has been around a long time, and tap into that knowledge, he is always available. He’s well read, well connected, and very approachable.”
Now 80, Peter has spent his last fifteen years manning the stage door at the Wellington Opera house until his dismissal via email in May of this year as part of a health and safety initiative to move to professional contractors.
[‘A 59-year career with the arts in Wellington ends with an email‘ – story at Stuff/Dominion Post]
An outpouring of shock at this heavy handed approach coursed across the nation’s capital culminating in a slot on national news and tea with 92 year old Dame Kate Harcourt who thanked Peter on behalf of the city for his service to theatre.
ETNZ joined Dame Kate, adding the appreciation of all the technical staff who had learned from him over the course of his 59 year career, which is apparently not over yet. Peter has told Grant that he has a few things he wants to do,
“I suspect he is beavering away on something. He cares passionately about the working conditions for front of house staff and he likes to stir things up, so we’ll see what happens next.”
Rex Gilfillan – Industry Achievement Award
Another 80 year old who is still making his mark on the industry, Rex Gilfillan was honoured for his leadership in the field of entertainment technology and innovative product development.
Rex founded Theatrelight in 1972 to provide a range of electronic lighting control products to the Theatre and Television industry and to launch his first memory lighting desk, the Memory Master.
Rex has written and designed the operating software for nearly every product Theatrelight has ever manufactured, utilising his own lighting design and operating experience to innovate to ensure the boards worked quickly and ergonomically.
His own theatre experience began at the age of 14, then taking him overseas to hone his skills as a Lighting Director and Stage Manager in English repertory theatre, the Welsh National Theatre, and in many of London’s West End theatres.
Returning to New Zealand in 1969 he came to the aid of Downstage Theatre’s tour of ‘Staircase’ to Auckland when they lost their lighting designer. It was a baptism of fire recounted in the annals of the history of the Downstage Theatre, a role that soon saw him at his kitchen bench making tin can lights for the Northern Sky for Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’.
During the dress rehearsal, the theatre’s dimmer board started flickering and he had to operate the show off-the-cuff as the hired replacement arrived ten minutes after curtain call.
With the theatre too broke to buy a new dimmer, Rex convinced his manager to let him spend $50 on transistors and have the afternoons to design and build a dimmer for the theatre.
He had discovered his true calling. He built his first 24 channel dimmer rack. His business was born but he continued to design many shows for Downstage and Circa, until moving the business to Auckland in 1978.
Today as the markets move to LED technology, Rex has created new LED theatre luminaires both white and now colour, from the ground up. He has also embraced the changing need for distribution of power to new and existing theatres and studios employing both LED and tungsten lights.
Distribution packs and the first ever off-the-shelf mix and match component patch panel system are but a few of the new ideas that Rex has pioneered. “You hear his latest innovation, and you think Rex, what have you done now? But it always works,” explains Grant.
“He’s like the reverse of Apple who make things and then get people to want them. Rex knows what the industry needs, and then makes that product happen.”
Theatrelight is still wholly NZ owned and continues to supply lighting equipment to NZ, Australia, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. And as Rex now reaches age 80 he is still as actively involved with new products as he was when he first started Theatrelight at the age of 33.
Chris McKenzie – Life Member (ETNZ)
Life members are defined in the ETNZ constitution as persons who have rendered outstanding service to ETNZ.
A member of ETNZ since the beginning, and an executive member for 10 years, a supporting supplier from the first trade show, Chris ticks every box. Grant expands, “The ETNZ has had a few iterations and this is the strongest by far. Chris played a huge part in its revival and ongoing development, but he doesn’t just serve the ETNZ, he gives his time freely across both sectors; theatre, and TV and film.”
As such, Chris is a member of the Illuminating Engineering Society of Australia & NZ, a former chair of the New Zealand Film & Video Technicians Guild (Now Screen Industry Guild New Zealand) and a current member of the Society of Television Lighting Directors in the UK.
Like Peter and Rex, Chris fell in love with the industry through community theatre, initially in Auckland, moving to Masterton in his late teens – and then quickly fleeing the Waiararapa for the bright lights of Christchurch and an electrical engineering degree. This remained unfinished as a career in lighting beckoned.
From 1973 he worked at Wellington Opera House, St James, WNTV1, Channel 10 and Channel 7 in Australia. In 1977 he returned to Auckland to Vidcom and was able to learn about film from the greats such as James Bartle.
In 1982 he started freelancing, and set up Professional Services Ltd, sister company to Kenderdine, which he continues to manage to this day. He has consistently been a heavy sponsor of community events and will always offer support with lighting equipment, and readily and freely share his knowledge.
Through his businesses, he continues to drive the industry forward, “He has always taken risks and brought new innovations into the country for us to play with, which we otherwise wouldn’t have access to. And he just trusts you with it. He’s a personable guy, well-liked and a life-long friend to industry people all around the globe.”
All of which brings huge benefits to New Zealand live entertainment and to ETNZ.