Recognised . . . Pat Gunn is one this year’s Waitaki Citizens Award recipients

If you were to pull back the curtain at Musical Theatre Oamaru Children’s Theatre you would be likely to find Pat Gunn making magic. Ruby Heyward finds out why Mrs Gunn was one of the eight people recognised with a Waitaki Citizens Award this year.

Pat Gunn has played many roles in the world of theatre.

But you would never see her on stage, ‘‘ever’’, Mrs Gunn said.

For the past nine years, Mrs Gunn has put ‘‘tens of thousands of hours’’ into the Musical Theatre Oamaru’s Children’s Theatre, giving children a chance to stand in the spotlight.

Originally from South Otago, Mrs Gunn spent her adult life teaching on and off in Otago.

In fact, her introduction to musical theatre was at East Otago High School in the mid-1980s.

Rod Galloway, who was a teacher at the time, roped her into helping out with one of the school’s musicals, employing her talents as a pianist to help in the orchestra and band.

‘‘It was a real learning experience watching [him] put it all together.’’

For many pupils, the school production was a highlight of their schooling experience, she said.

It must have been one of her highlights too, because when Mrs Gunn left East Otago and became the principal of Macraes Moonlight School, she made herself a ‘‘little promise’’.

‘‘I decided that whatever school I went to, I would do a musical with the children.’’

She loved all the opportunities theatre offered children — the fun, camaraderie, overcoming of fears, taking risks, and the sense of achievement and accomplishment when it was all done.

Mrs Gunn and her husband Trevor moved Herbert when she became Maheno School’s principal’s release in 2002.

In 2004, she joined Musical Theatre Oamaru (MTO), formerly known as Oamaru Operatic Society, before retiring from teaching in 2006.

She helped out with the orchestral side of things and watched as ‘‘professional directors’’ put shows together, learning how to rehearse and ‘‘grow shows’’.

‘‘I never thought I could do it.’’

She never felt as if she retired. It just felt as if she left behind the things she did not enjoy about teaching and was able to do the things she really enjoyed.

‘‘It’s taking the good things with you.

‘‘It’s very fulfilling to spend your retirement doing things for other people.’’

Enjoying working with children, she and a couple of others started MTO’s Children’s Theatre arm.

‘‘We always realised as a society that if you don’t bring your children through, your theatre isn’t going to grow,’’ Mrs Gunn said.

‘‘Once you get them hooked, they stay really interested and want to stay involved.’’

Cast of characters . . . The cast and creative team behind Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Jr, Musical Theatre Oamaru Children’s Theatre 2021 production.

Its first production was in 2013, with Mrs Gunn involved as a writer, director, production manager and wardrobe designer.

She debuted with the self-written Superwolf to the Rescue — a ‘‘twisted’’ fairy tale.
Writing shows was fun, but it was a major undertaking.

After Mrs Gunn’s third show, the society started ‘‘buying them in’’ and more recently had been producing bigger scale Broadway Junior productions.

Since its beginning, the children’s theatre productions had grown from casts of 20 children aged 9-17 to productions of more than 40.

For Mrs Gunn, it was most rewarding to watch as formerly shy 9-year-olds came back each year, gaining the confidence to play major roles and ‘‘seeing them trust their ability’’.

‘‘We’ve got to see the potential that they have — it’s just amazing to see how far you can get some kids to go.

‘‘They become like family, so many of those children.’’

As children grew older and started secondary school, many returned to help with stage management, sound, lighting and props.

‘‘[You] go to your dress rehearsal and something magic’s happened, and then it all finishes and it’s gone.

‘‘It’s just an illusion. You’ve created this amazing thing and then it goes.

‘‘At the end of it you see this amazing production on stage and you think ‘how did that happen?’.’’

Last month, Mrs Gunn was recognised with a Waitaki Citizens Award, having been nominated by MTO.

To receive this award from her ‘‘own community was very special’’ and she felt deeply humbled.

‘‘There’s always someone in your life that just has that quality of being able to guide you in that right direction.’’

No doubt, Mrs Gunn had been that person for many people, but her inspiration came from the late Duncan Whiting.

‘‘He was an amazing mentor.’’

Next year Mrs Gunn wanted to start a process of delegating more responsibilities to others.

‘‘It won’t keep growing if I keep doing it on my own.

‘‘You have got to have succession for things to grow and other people do [things] differently — that’s the way things grow and develop.’’