Family’s tribute to theatre legend

Gair McRae, who founded the Howick Children’s and Youth Theatre, died on November 21 after suffering a stroke at home. Times photos Wayne Martin

Gair McRae’s legacy lives on in the thousands of young people she trained, encouraged, mentored and inspired.

The well-known and widely respected figure of east Auckland’s arts community died in Middlemore Hospital on November 21 after suffering a stroke earlier that morning. She was 79.

She is survived by her two children, four grandchildren and two brothers.

McRae will be best known to many locals as the founder and long-time principal of the Howick Children’s and Youth Theatre (HCYT) in Granger Road.

Her work was recognised in 2017 when she was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal (QSM) for services to theatre and youth.

Her own studies included a bachelor of arts in history and English and a drama diploma at the University of Auckland.

McRae established the Huntly Children’s Theatre in the Waikato as a young primary school teacher in 1962.

She later began teaching drama from her home in Howick and at the Howick Little Theatre Youth Group.

She founded the Bucklands Beach Children’s Theatre in 1969 and then the Uxbridge Children’s and Youth Theatre, which later became HCYT in 1996.

The Times talked to her brothers John McRae and Don McRae and her daughter Fiona Bailey about what she meant to them, the community and the thousands of young people she taught over the years.

They say she was driven by a desire to bring out the best in her students and achieve their full potential.

“She was a teacher since her early 20s and she was a very creative teacher, particularly around the arts,” John says.

“Gair was always a creative person.

“She used to organise, write and direct plays in a shed in the neighbourhood when she was a child and all the local families were invited, probably compulsorily, to attend.”

The children’s theatre group she founded in Huntly was very successful and toured the region, he says.

“That was a forerunner of the work she did in and around Howick.”

Don adds: “She was a bit of a visionary with her teaching.

“She introduced methods and philosophies that later on became accepted nationally.

“She never sought any glory from these things.

“The reward she got was not in any acclaim from other people. It was in seeing others develop.”

Before McRae moved to east Auckland, she travelled with her husband Dale Frankum to Canada, where she obtained a speech-teaching diploma at Toronto University.

They later returned to New Zealand by sailboat.

“She did her speech training over there and got the top marks in Canada,” Bailey says.

“Gair was a courageous person. She had a really strong social conscience and was very political.”

McRae and Frankum were active in a group called the Peace Squadron which campaigned against nuclear testing and visits by nuclear-powered ships to New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s.

“She stood up for what she believed in with everything she did,” Bailey says.

“Gair was like that with her students. She pushed everyone to be the best they could be.

“She believed in every student. She believed everyone had talent and it was her job to bring that out of them.”

John says his sister believed in the “power of play and creativity” to develop confidence in young people, as well as to teach them empathy.

“A lot of the productions she chose had strong elements of social commentary. People weren’t necessarily aware of that, but it was there.

“Even something like Peter Pan, which she did several times, is about the power of dreams and imagination. It’s a story about maintaining those dreams.”

Fiona Bailey speaks to mourners at the funeral for her mother Gair McRae, held at St Columba Church in Botany on November 28.

Bailey, HCYT’s principal, says her mother supported all of her students, regardless of their perceived talent.

“One of her ex-students said one of the really neat things about mum was she saw the potential in and gave opportunities to those who were not going to go on to grace the great stages.

“She believed in social inclusivity and fairness.”

Some of her students over the years had learning difficulties or special needs, John says.

Bailey says she and her mum were “extremely close” and shared a very close working relationship.

“I was privileged to spend a mammoth amount of time with her.

“We worked together and I saw her just about every day for the last year.

“We spoke on the phone at least five times a day on top of that. She was my best friend.

“She always believed in me and my brother Miles.”

One sign of McRae’s popularity with her pupils was the number of friends she had on social media.

“She had thousands of Facebook friends and most of them are past pupils,” Bailey says.

“Some of them who struggle a little bit in life used to ring mum up and talk to her.

“What she created in this theatre group was a family and that’s one of the things really brought home afterward.”

John says his sister was “physically small”, but she had an “enormously powerful presence and personality”.

“She could draw people around her. She was my school teacher for two years as a kid and with the Huntly Children’s Theatre.

“There were all these big productions and she was kind of a dynamo.

“She drew not just kids but a lot of adults to that venture.”

McRae continued teaching students at HCYT until last year and was still working for the theatre group she founded the day she died.

“She had never retired,” Bailey says.

“This year was a bit different because we couldn’t do the productions [due to Covid-19], but she was still costuming productions right up until the end.

“She fought for this theatre group. It only survived and flourished because of her skill, determination and commitment to it.”

More than 400 people attended McRae’s funeral at St Columba Church in Botany on November 28, with many more watching the service over the internet.

A group of her former students formed a guard of honour as her casket was carried from the church.

“The amount of messages we’ve had over the last week from past pupils is an absolute testament [to her impact],” Bailey says.

“The number of lives she touched through HCYT is astounding.

“She was just the most amazing woman and she was inspirational to everybody she came into contact with.”