Wellington Scoop

Death of Bill Sheat, a major influence on our cultural life

bill sheat

William (Bill) Sheat, who died in Lower Hutt this week, completed more than seven decades as an innovative leader in the creative arts, not only in Wellington but also throughout New Zealand.

His exceptional record included chairing national and regional performing arts institutions as well as spearheading the preservation of two of Wellington’s most iconic theatres. He advocated passionately for a living wage for artists, and provided pro bono legal advice to countless artists and organisations. Without his commitment and contribution, New Zealand’s cultural assets would not be what they are today.

Bill Sheat’s creative work began as a student in Wellington in 1948, when he joined the Victoria University Drama Club for which he produced and directed university extravaganzas and revues from 1949 till 1967. He was president from 1950 to 1953.


At its peak, the annual extravaganza ran for two weeks in the Opera House and was sold out every night. He also directed operas for Opera Technique and the Chamber Opera Group, and directed plays for Wellington Repertory.

After graduating as a lawyer, he joined Gibson Page Marshall and Sheat in 1953, becoming a partner in 1957. He retired as a partner of Gibson Sheat in December 1997, remaining as a consultant until 2013 – having practised in the profession for 60 years. At the same time as he graduated, he began an unparalled involvement as an arts advocate and administrator.

He was chair of the Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council from 1969 to 1973, a period when the Arts Council made its first grants to assist New Zealand filmmaking. Under his leadership, the Council appointed its first New Zealander as director.

During this term he commissioned an influential report that outlined the case for state support for independent New Zealand film-making.

After leaving the Arts Council, he led an active campaign to persuade politicians to support the establishment of an independent New Zealand film industry, as chair of the Film Industry Working Party from 1973 to 1975. When the interim New Zealand Film Commission was established two years later, he was appointed its chair, and when the Film Commission was established by Act of Parliament in 1978, he continued as its founding chair, a key role that he held until 1985. During that period, the Commission was the key investor in a forty independent New Zealand feature films, including the first three New Zealand productions to be internationally honoured with official selection at the Cannes Film Festival.

The success of the Film Commission directly enabled the extraordinary emergence of New Zealand’s feature film industry.

Bill’s many other key roles included being a member of the management committee that established Downstage Theatre as New Zealand’s first professional theatre in 1964. He was its president from 1965 to 1968 and was a committee member for ten years. In 1968 he was instrumental in forming the Hannah Playhouse Trust that successfully raised funds to build the theatre in Courtenay Place. From 1988 till 1991 he was president of Playmarket Inc. In 1995 he was chair of the New Zealand Theatre Archive Trust. From 1985 to 2001 he was chair of Victoria University’s Summer Shakespeare Trust Board.

Bill chaired the Royal New Zealand Ballet for seventeen years from 1973 to 1990. During this time there was a blossoming of dance in New Zealand, and the company grew to become a major professional company. It also received its royal charter

Bill was the leader of notable campaigns that resulted in saving two heritage Wellington theatres from destruction. In 1976 he was chair of the Save the Opera House Campaign, which succeeded in finding a new owner for the century-old theatre when it was threatened with demolition. From 1977 to 1994 he was a board member of State Opera House Ltd.

Similarly, in 1996 he established the Trust that succeeded in preserving and restoring Wellington’s historic 1920s Embassy Theatre. The Embassy Theatre then became the home of the NZ International Film Festival.

In 1996 Bill was responsible for establishing the New Zealand Film Festival Trust, for which he was founding chair from 1996 till 2003. The trust administers annual film festivals in Auckland, Wellington and ten other centres with an annual attendance of over 200,000.

In 2011, his services to the arts were recognised when he became a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. He had received an OBE in 1973.

Since 2011, Bill was chair of the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand Trust, which is responsible for a substantial annual programme involving students, actors, directors, teachers, the corporate sector and devotees of Shakespeare. During his chairmanship, the Centre’s activities for young people expanded from acting and directing to poster design, costume design, and music composition. In the same period, the organisation’s regional and cultural diversity broadened, with students translating and performing the works of Shakespeare in languages including Maori and Samoan.

As a pro bono legal advisor, Bill continued to support the Wellington Summer Shakespeare Trust Board, including with the development of new health and safety procedures for outdoor performance in compliance with the Health and Safety At Work Act 2015. When Summer Shakespeare celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2013, Bill was one of those who worked in partnership with the Victoria University alumni association to stage a successful anniversary exhibition and reunion at the St James Theatre. Bill was also involved in publication of the book Wellington Summer Shakespeare 1983-2017 written by David Lawrence and published by Victoria University Press.

As an Advisory Trustee of the New Zealand Theatre Archive Trust, Bill was a prominent and active supporter of the recording and archiving of New Zealand theatre history. He also helped to develop and sustain the New Zealand Dance Archive, as part of his continuing passion for retaining New Zealand’s cultural history.

bill sheat book launch

In 2015 he launched Geoff Murphy’s book A Life in Film, published by Harper Collins. Geoff’s first two features Goodbye Pork Pie and Utu (both supported with finance from the Film Commission when he was chair) are key works in the history of New Zealand cinema.

In 2017, as a long-term supporter and contributor to the Ballet Foundation, he advised the Board of the Royal NZ Ballet following management difficulties that spilled into the public arena.

In 2017-18, he was Associate Producer of a documentary feature film directed by Peter Coates on the life of Raymond Boyce, New Zealand’s pioneer stage designer.

In 2018 he was an active participant in events to mark New Zealand’s first Theatre Week. In the same year he spoke at an event that launched the restoration of the ground-breaking 1976 independent TV series Winners and Losers, made by Roger Donaldson and Ian Mune with assistance from the Arts Council under his chairmanship.

In his book Whatever It Takes: Pacific Films and John O’Shea 1948-2000, author John Reid writes that it was Bill Sheat who urged him to write about John O’Shea and Pacific Films, a subject which was long overdue. Bill was a trustee of the Pacific Films Trust, which worked to ensure the preservation of the pioneering Wellington production company’s scores of films.

Bill’s continuing engagement with live theatre, opera and ballet performances as well as the annual film festival made him a fixture in Wellington’s cultural landscape. The last show he saw was The Older The Better at Circa, before Christmas. His underlying philosophy over seven active decades was to enable talented New Zealanders to make their living in the arts rather than treating that part of their lives as an optional extra.

When he was getting up at four in the morning to write lyrics for university revues, before starting a day’s work as a lawyer, he realised “it was vital for people in the arts to be able to work full-time at their work. We have hugely talented people in this country – I thought that we had to make it possible for them to live and work here to make it an exciting place to live. That involves them being paid to do these things. If I had an underlying philosophy about the arts over the years it was this.” (Law Society profile, 2015.)

Bill’s organisational and legal skills (spanning entertainment law, intellectual property and charitable trust structuring) helped shape many local organisations. As a long-term member of the Hutt Rotary Club, he was a trustee of the Capital Cardiovascular Trust and the Heart Trust Hutt, which he chaired in recent years.

Bill was an honorary life member of the Downstage Theatre Society, Wellington Repertory Theatre, the New Zealand Theatre Federation, and the Hutt Valley Chamber of Commerce. In 2010 he was granted a Hunter Fellowship by Victoria University in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the university over many years, including his leadership of Summer Shakespeare.

What a cultural hero that man is. He didn’t invent theatre and film in New Zealand, but we wouldn’t have what we do without him.
– Stephen Stratford, October 2015.

There can be few branches of the arts that have not benefited from Bill’s energy, experience and knowledge over the past 60 or more years.
– Chris Ryan on Bill Sheat, in a Law Society profile, February 2015

He is so much a part of all of his areas of interest that it is impossible to imagine a function at which he would not only be present but also contributing to the continued advancement of the arts and law communities. Not for himself, but for the outcomes he achieves for others.
– Hugh Rennie QC.

His interest in all things Aotearoa and the Arts over a lifetime of support has sparked and sustained many many institutions and projects … Bill has a huge knowledge and keen personal interest in developing young artists. In the 30 years in which I developed and ran Footnote Dance, Bill was a very positive constant.
– Deirdre Tarrant CNZM, MNZM.

Read also:
Saving and creating Wellington theatres


  1. Andy Foster, 20. January 2021, 19:00

    It was with great sadness we learnt of Bill Sheat’s death. His passion for life and projects such as saving the Opera House will resonate and influence way beyond his 90 years and we honour his lifetime of advocacy and generosity.

  2. Gillian Manolis, 24. January 2021, 17:36

    It is with sadness I hear of the passing of Bill Sheat, an amazing man and supporter of the arts across the entire spectrum of ‘arts’. I fondly remember his support to me when in my roles of General Manager of Wellington City Opera and later General Manager of the Opera House. RIP Bill Sheat. My sincere condolences to family and friends.