School of English, Film, Theatre, and Media Studies, 2017
Minnie Maria Dronke (née Kronfeld) was a German-Jewish actress, writer, and director. She passed away in Eastbourne in 1987. The Dronke Prize for Drama is her legacy at Victoria.
“Upon receiving the Dronke Prize I felt both surprised and honoured ...The idea that I was being put into a category with such a group of theatre academics and practitioners was a true delight,” says Stella Reid, 2010 recipient.
The Dronke Prize for Drama is awarded yearly to an exceptional theatre student, whether in acting, directing, design, playwriting, criticism or research.
Previous winners have gone on to local and international success, including director Stella Reid, writer Ken Duncum, and Trick of the Light Theatre co-founder Ralph McCubbin Howell.
Maria Dronke was “a woman of particular beauty, and a voice of extraordinary quality," (Tempian 2011).
Born in Berlin in 1904, she had her stage debut there in the Meistersaal concert hall at age 20. By 1933 she had worked with director Max Reinhardt and taken leading roles on stages across Europe.
But with Hitler’s power on the rise, as a Jew she was in grave danger. She left for England in 1938 without her family, and just one month before the war broke out they were reunited in New Zealand.
Eleven hundred Jewish refugees relocated to NZ during World War II - out of potentially ten thousand who applied for safety.
Maria had married lawyer John Dronke in 1931, and stepped back from her acting career to focus on raising her two children. However, John’s legal training wasn’t recognised in NZ. “Maria turned overnight from an upper middle-class wife ... to the breadwinner of the family,” (Beaglehole, n.d).
Maria was gifted with intelligence as well as beauty: she graduated top of her class at high school and had been teaching voice since she was 17. With her good knowledge of English but no job offers for the refugee family, she set about creating her own business.
The Maria Dronke Studio was at a rented house in Oriental Bay and offered lessons in “dramatic art, verse speaking, [and] voice production”. Also offered was, “healing of impediments”, (Evening Post 1942) presumably a stutter … or a Kiwi accent.
Bruce Mason wrote, “[Maria] was appalled by our rough island noises and set herself to turn them into music. She succeeded remarkably” (Tempian 2011).
She began teaching just two students, but word of her talent quickly spread and she opened a studio on Lambton Quay in 1951.
Many of her students became prominent players in New Zealand theatre. When she wasn’t teaching, she was acting, directing, and producing everything from readings at home to large-scale productions.
She studied at Victoria in the early 60s, obtaining her Master of Arts in English in 1963. In 1980 she was recognised as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her work in the performing arts.
“To receive the Dronke prize was a great encouragement to continue making theatre,” says 2016 winner Lucas Neal. “You don't get much official recognition as a theatre maker ... it’s strengthened my belief in my abilities as a designer and theatre practitioner.”
The previous winners I spoke to all commended the huge impact Victoria's theatre programme had had on their practice. “It is immensely hard for me to separate my Vic education from my developing methodology as a director and deviser,” says Stella.
Cassandra Tse, joint 2014 winner with Emma Robinson, adds that her own interest for writing and directing developed through her time at Victoria.
“It was a really fantastic place to study theatre … [in] that it allowed each student to study multiple disciplines.” Multi-faceted learning? It seems that Maria Dronke’s legacy lives on.
Maria Dronke changed the lives of many New Zealanders, and in turn the New Zealand theatre scene. “She virtually created the solo poetry recital in New Zealand” wrote Bruce Mason (Tempian 2011).
She introduced European culture and plays to the suburbs of Wellington, bringing her old home to her new one. Maria’s impact can still be felt today - just look up some of the winners of the Dronke Prize.