An upcoming biography by Playmarket, Maria Dronke: Glimpses of an Acting Life, is set to illuminate the forgotten history of a cultural treasure of Te Whanganui-a-Tara – the actor, teacher, humanitarian and Jewish refugee Maria Dronke, to be launched on 20 November 2021.
Raised amongst the cultural vibrancy of Weimar Era Berlin, Dronke developed a fierce passion for theatre and trained under some of the great Modernist directors of Northern Europe. When war forced her to flee Nazi Germany, Dronke ended up in Aotearoa, where she would go on to influence generations of actors.
A sense of fate follows Dronke’s story, even now. The author of Glimpses of an Acting Life, Monica Tempian, is a scholar in Diaspora and Exile studies, and a Senior Lecturer in German at Te Herenga Waka University of Wellington. One day, she came across a lone essay on an impressive figure she had never heard of – Maria Dronke – and was compelled to find out more. In Monica’s own words, when she couldn’t locate any further information on Dronke, she thought ‘how could this radiant personality have fallen through the cracks of historical recordkeeping?’
The next day, she accompanied a friend to a plant nursery in Paekākāriki. While wandering the aisles of plants, Monica struck up a conversation with the owner. When she inquired about the nature of Monica’s research, and Monica replied that she had come across a fascinating character she had never heard of, a Berlin-born actress called Maria Dronke, the woman’s smile grew larger and larger. ‘Maria was my mother’, she said. That day, she gave Monica access to her family records and her mother’s theatre portfolios.
So many stories emerged from these records, the stories of Maria’s many lives: a young starlet in Europe, training with leading professionals and battling against prejudice for her Jewish heritage; a refugee facing the realities of displacement during the war; a pioneer, who opened cultural pathways in Aotearoa; a humanitarian, who donated proceeds of her performances to the New Zealand Red Cross.
The other story that emerged was that of the theatrical lineage of Aotearoa. When Maria arrived in the country, theatre was a young art. She was the first to open a professional acting studio, and the first to teach poetry recital, among other modernist techniques. Her captivating style imbued local poetry with a new dignity. She helped Aotearoa recognise our great poetic strengths and taught many how to perform poetry with vigour and heart.
Of those she taught, many went on to be high profile practitioners who have continued her legacy – Edith and Richard Campion, Barbara Ewing and Elizabeth McRae are among them. When Maria was awarded the OBE for her services to the arts in 1980, Bruce Mason wrote:
‘The award by the Queen of the OBE to Maria Dronke gave great satisfaction to her horde of friends. An incomparable teacher of speech, she also virtually created the solo poetry recital in New Zealand and gave many memorable performances […] The strength and intensity of her personality is equalled only by the strength of the loyalty of her pupils.’
For such a deeply felt legacy, this biography is long overdue. Maria Dronke: Glimpses of an Acting Life is out November 2021, by Playmarket.