William Newton Sheat, OBE, CNZM b. Hawera, 1 May 1930 - d. Wellington, 20 January 2021
Bill Sheat, a founding partner in Gibson Sheat law firm in Lower Hutt, was a lifelong vigorous advocate for an extensive range of art forms, and mentor to a number of charitable trusts.
He lived for and loved the theatre, and never forgot either a good play or a bad production.
He saw many world greats in performance but reserved his highest accolade for New Zealand actress, Pat Evison.
During his student years at Victoria University, Bill began to write, direct and act in varsity revues and extravaganzas between 1949 and 1967, and he much lamented their later demise and that of the political satire they had engendered.
In 1950 he had met Genevieve, daughter of High Court judge Wilfrid Leicester, and their marriage in 1956 would prove a long and happy one.
Bill was a student in drama classes taught in Wellington by emigrée Maria Dronke and was always aware of what a remarkable if modest drama teacher she had been. In recent years he was deeply moved to learn (through the biography of Dronke by Monica Tempian) of her extraordinary credentials as an associate of European theatre luminary, Max Reinhardt.
Bill was over the years involved in establishing Downstage Theatre, New Zealand Drama School, New Zealand Film Commission, Dowse Art Museum, Playmarket, Nga Taonga New Zealand Film Archive, the New Zealand Theatre Archive and National Dance Archive. He chaired boards of Royal New Zealand Ballet, QEII Arts Council, the Summer Shakespeare Trust and the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand.
Bill rated John O'Shea, pioneering film-maker and director of Pacific Films, as his most inspired and valued collaborator in developing the New Zealand film industry.
Bill was driven to apoplexy whenever he encountered self-serving bureaucrats within arts administration, and he remained bitterly disappointed at the country's failure to establish a national museum of theatre arts.
His record of successful ventures however is testament to how he was perfectly capable of driving projects through to conclusion, the shining example of which must be the saving of Wellington's Embassy Theatre from demolition, and then its magnificent restoration which he worked on with David Carson-Parker and Rex Nicholls. He was also earlier involved in saving the Opera House from demolition.
Bill was raised on a farm at Pihama, near Hawera. Always top of his school class, he won the Taranaki Savings Bank scholarship to New Plymouth Boys High which he attended during the war years. He told of how the train from Hawera to New Plymouth would stop in Stratford just long enough for the schoolboys to dash to the fish & chip shop for sixpenn'orth and race back as the train was about to pull out of the station. Just once they missed their train.
He recalled too the poultry farmer who supplied the Sheat family with ducks and chickens for their table, and also kept about 50 beehives on their farm. ("The beekeeper would give us kerosene tins full of honey which we decanted into large glass jars and I took those back to boarding school after the holidays. Wartime rations meant there was nothing to spread on our bread at school, so this way we could have sweet honey").
He told Allan Thomas, in an interview about music in Hawera, of his piano teacher Hugh Reid (nicknamed Hector FuzzBuzz), an elderly Scottish gentleman who used to drive his car round to visit houses and give lessons to children. During the war, petrol rationing meant he could no longer fill the tank so he bought a motorbike that was cheaper to run, but he came off the bike and was killed. There were tears in Bill's eyes to recount this story 80 years later.
His father, William Sheat, an Economics graduate, had strong socialist leanings. He stood initially as a Labour candidate for Egmont and Patea but was unsuccessful; later he won the seat for National which he held for seven Parliamentary terms. He worked for WEA (Workers' Educational Association) visiting Denniston, among other places, to give evening lectures to coal miners. He later inherited the family farm at Pihama and young son Bill did much to help out on the farm.
Bill always voted National, and enjoyed rarking up his many leftie friends about that. Dick Werry called him "the most socialist National voter I know", and Bill called Dick "the most capitalist Labour voter I know". Bill changed his colours in the 2020 election though, and was man enough to admit it.
As an enterprising young lawyer, Bill's first case in the Criminal Court involved a man who discovered that his wife and the gardener were having an affair. The husband hid in the garden of their house in Old Porirua Road, then shot the gardener as he came up the path.
A large trunk full of incriminating love letters had been found in the shed, and Bill had these brought to Court as Exhibit A. The judge would not allow the letters to be used in evidence as such, but Bill had reckoned that wouldn't matter since the jury could see how many letters the trunk contained. Bill likened it to a crime of passion such as known in Italian law, and the murder charge was reduced to a verdict of manslaughter.
Bill chaired the Royal New Zealand Ballet board from 1975 - 1990, which included the years of Harry Haythorne's artistic directorate, and he proved the most focussed and successful chair the Company has ever known.
Across many decades of attending the ballet, his favourite productions remained Gray Veredon's A Servant of Two Masters, a commedia dell'arte delight, and Patricia Rianne's The Nutcracker with Jon Trimmer as Drosselmeyer performing real conjuring tricks. "You could sense magic in the air" Bill always fondly remembered.
When he and Gene travelled with the Company to China in 1985, it was Bill who recognised Rewi Alley in the foyer, and took him backstage to meet the dancers.
In 1973 he received an OBE for services to the Arts (some time later the RNZB sent him a letter addressed by some auto-programme "Dear Mr.Obe ..." which greatly amused him).
In 2011 he was awarded CNZM, and in 2020 was made Wellington's Arts Icon for
In Geoff Murphy's film, Goodbye Pork Pie in 1981, Bill was cast as an extra, a policeman. He was to stand on the corner of Lambton Quay and Bunny St to try and prevent the yellow Mini from speeding through. Fat chance, but Bill had other worries as he knew that fancy dress was okay but that impersonating a policeman in a public place is a criminal offence.
The filming schedule was running late, crowds of people had arrived at Wellington Railway Station and were headed for some gathering at the Civic Square. A number of them stopped at Bunny St corner to ask Constable Sheat for directions, but he knew that to tell them would be to impersonate, and hence to break the law - so he mimed them the way.
Gibson Sheat were our family lawyers. When my mother died, I had to sign some estate papers which required me to swear on the Bible (Bill processed this during the interval of a play at Circa Theatre we were both at one evening). Some time later Bill confessed that the Bible he had produced was in fact a copy of Alice in Wonderland which he happened to have in his car that evening. The law apparently just required that I believed it to be the Bible, which I had, so all was well.
Bill turned 90 on 1 May 2020, during the Covid Lockdown so the planned family celebration was cancelled. In September, an event was held at The Long Hall, Roseneath, when Bill gave an interesting talk on The First Theatre in Wellington, founded in 1843, by James Marriott, in Manners St on Perrett's Corner.
This would prove to be Bill's last public presentation but he did not merely talk sentiment and nostalgia. Despite obviously failing health, he included fighting words for a feasibility study for a Museum of Theatre Arts. If ever one is established, it should surely be named for Bill Sheat.
The Circa Theatre season in December of Hen's Teeth's The Older The Better was sold out and the waiting list queue stretched around the block. A ticket was found for the ailing Bill who somehow dragged himself there, and he enthused for days afterwards about the astonishing artistry on harmonica of 92-year-old Coral Trimmer, sister of Jon Trimmer, the dancer Bill so deeply admired.
Those who worked with Bill Sheat, and that's many hundreds of people, know that what he taught, by work and by example, is "to be continued". A new Dance On Trust annual award in his name will be given to an outstanding dance graduate demonstrating commitment to New Zealand, to be selected by Anne Rowse, Kerry-Anne Gilberd and Sandra Norman.
When his wife Gene died in 2008, Bill took his broken heart and turned it into art.
As Derek Firth, fellow lawyer in Auckland, remarked: "Bill's passing is truly the end of an era - for the arts, his firm, his family and his friends".
He is survived by his brother John, sons Graeme and Terry, daughter Cathie, and their families.
Vale to Bill, auld acquaintance, a cup of kindness and a jar of honey...
• Acknowledgments: Terry Sheat, Graeme Sheat; New Zealand Theatre Archive oral history with Sarah Gaitanos, New Zealand Film Archive video interview with Peter Coates; Anne Rowse, Dawn Sanders, Sandra Norman, Turid Revfeim.