Marlborough actor's six decades treading the boards

Terence Burtenshaw says the Blenheim Musical Theatre has brought together different aspects of his life.
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ

Terence Burtenshaw says the Blenheim Musical Theatre has brought together different aspects of his life.

Reporter ELENA MCPHEE takes a look at a slice of theatrical history with Blenheim Musical Theatre stalwart Terence Burtenshaw, still performing at the age of 84.  

Playing a famous musical villain is one of the highlights of Blenheim man Terence Burtenshaw's 63-year connection with the stage. 

"It was the most satisfying part, the most evil person you could possibly think of," Burtenshaw says. 

Actor Terence Burtenshaw with a picture of himself and a fellow cast member in 'Anything Goes', painted by Marlborough ...
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ

Actor Terence Burtenshaw with a picture of himself and a fellow cast member in 'Anything Goes', painted by Marlborough artist RW Faiman.

Burtenshaw, the longest-performing member of the Blenheim Musical Theatre, appeared in Les Miserables as the cruel but comical pub landlord Thenardier in 1995.

"It was tremendous, with Viv Grigg who was Thenardier's wife. We were a right evil couple," Burtenshaw says.

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Terence Burtenshaw in the 1960s production Can Can, with Val Dredge.
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Terence Burtenshaw in the 1960s production Can Can, with Val Dredge.

"I don't think that will ever go away." 

Burtenshaw, who first appeared on stage in Blenheim in 1953, says he has been involved in nearly 60 musical theatre shows, either acting or behind the scenes. 

At 84, he is preparing to tread the boards again, as a priest in the Blenheim Musical Theatre's production of Mamma Mia! in May, in Marlborough's new ASB Theatre. 

Terence Burtenshaw as Thenardier in Les Miserables in 1995.
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Terence Burtenshaw as Thenardier in Les Miserables in 1995.

"I was thrilled to be even thought of [to audition]," Burtenshaw says.

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The Blenheim man has had a variety of roles over the years, and his sense of humour and love of amateur dramatics shines through as he talks about his memories. 

Another memorable moment was performing in Jesus Christ Superstar in 1980, when Burtenshaw played King Herod, and made his entry onto the stage on a motorbike. 

Terence Burtenshaw in 1986 production Fiddler on the Roof.
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Terence Burtenshaw in 1986 production Fiddler on the Roof.

"Each show has its attractions. Sometimes it's the music. Sometimes it's the drama," Burtenshaw says. 

"Musicals give you the ability to spread your involvement."

One drawback of Jesus Christ Superstar was having his hair permed for the part, at the behest of the director. 

Musical theatre is not just about singing and acting: he and his wife Tricia have found themselves part of a close-knit community.

"It's been an amalgam for various aspects of our life," Burtenshaw says. 

The couple, who married in 1960, met through the theatre, which used to be known as the Blenheim Amateur Operatic Society. 

They also made lifelong friends through the group, they say. 

Among those friends was Burtenshaw's future employer, lawyer Merv Wisheart, from law firm Wisheart, MacNab & Partners. 

It was a serendipitous meeting for Burtenshaw, who stayed with the firm for 30 years, first as an accountant and then as a legal executive. 

After retiring from the firm he became a tour minibus driver for Highlight Wine Tours, before finally giving up work at the age of 80. 

Blenheim Musical Theatre president Blair McLean describes Burtenshaw as a legend. 

"He's always there for any support, especially in recent years. He's had a few more mature, guest roles. He's an inspiration to the younger actors. 

"He's still got that diction and the clarity to his lines, and a good singing voice." 

Former theatrical producer Robin Sutherland, who has worked with Burtenshaw on many musical theatre shows, speaks highly of him. 

"He's a delight to work with. Anything he does, he does well." 

Although he was new to acting when he moved to Marlborough in 1952 as a 21-year-old, Burtenshaw had a musical background.

He and his sister performed at homecoming parties for troops returning from World War II, and when he was younger Burtenshaw had also been on the radio, singing as a boy soprano. 

Burtenshaw and his sister grew up in Southland and were struck by the good weather when they first came to Blenheim on holiday in the 1940s.

"In the middle of June you were able to be outside in bright, brilliant sunshine." 

Both Burtenshaw and Tricia have been president of the Blenheim Musical Theatre at different times. 

Tricia, who grew up in Blenheim, performed on stage with the theatre until their son Anthony was born.

She stopped acting after that but stayed heavily involved in the theatre, in the wardrobe department. 

Among her favourite memories is Burtenshaw appearing as Pellinore, the knight in rusty armour in Camelot.

He had to wear very heavy chain mail, and came on stage with an old English sheepdog. 

"The dog got star struck. He absolutely loved it, he would parade around," she says. 

For months after that, every night about 8.20pm the dog's owner said he would get restless, wanting to go back on stage.  

"They say 'never work with children or animals' but he was a pleasure to work with," Burtenshaw says. 

Another fond memory of Tricia's is when Anthony and Burtenshaw were both on stage in South Pacific, and actress Viv Grigg's son was also involved in the production. 

Burtenshaw, who has also been involved with the Marlborough Repertory Society, says stage fright was never a problem for him but he was far less comfortable when he had to work back stage, looking after lighting. 

"Each to their own," he says.

Burtenshaw does not think the membership of the Blenheim Musical Theatre has changed much.

However, over time the venues have changed.

Until it was closed and then demolished in the early 1970s, His Majesty's Theatre on High St was used for productions.

Blenheim-based director Duncan Whiting says there are many stories about the theatre, including when the river rose and musicians in the orchestra pit had to wear gumboots.

While the front of the building looked structurally sound, you could see the sky through the bricks in the back wall. 

"It was a huge earthquake risk," Whiting says. 

After His Majesty's was closed, the operatic society used the auditorium at Marlborough Boys' College to put on shows for more than a decade. 

Burtenshaw was part of the trust which formed in 1974, which pushed for the existing Marlborough Civic Theatre to go ahead. 

It was wonderful to be involved in creating the new facility, Burtenshaw says. 

The effort to get the Marlborough Civic Theatre, originally called the Marlborough Centre, off the ground involved a lot of voluntary labour. 

"There was a lot of voluntary effort by the theatre trust people. The seats were from the old civic theatre in Christchurch, they were refurbished and revarnished," he says. 

Fellow trust member Sutherland says there were "an army" of fundraisers. 

The first production in the Marlborough Civic Theatre was held 31 years ago, in 1985. 

Although the Burtenshaws feel some sadness about the civic theatre no longer being used, Burtenshaw says he has been inside the ASB Theatre and it is "fantastic". 

"It will be the envy of everywhere in New Zealand," he says. 

All in all, musical theatre has been very important to him over the years, Burtenshaw says. The Blenheim Musical Theatre's 100th birthday, coming up in 2018, will be a special occasion. 

"It's been a very valuable part of our life," he says.

* The Blenheim Musical Theatre's production of Mamma Mia!, directed by Rhonda Daverne, is running at the ASB Theatre from May 6. Visit the musical theatre's website for more details. 

 - The Marlborough Express

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