The Auckland Theatre Company

The Auckland Theatre Company

In the City of Sails, The Auckland Theatre Company is thriving, fuelled mainly by locally written plays, almost two decades after it rose from the ashes of the city’s previous professional company.

It stages everything from a black comedy about penguins being decapitated, to Maori drama, to commercial musicals.

In the early 1990’s Auckland’s Mercury Theatre was at death’s door. It needed $150,000 to fix a roof, but the local council wouldn’t pay.
“Basically that sank the Mercury. It had been around since the mid 1960s,” said Michael Adams, the ATC Marketing Manager.
All was not lost. The Mercury Theatre’s subscribers moved to the newly formed Auckland Theatre Company. It started in a 200-seat venue.
“The third season marked what ATC has been about, (it) was entirely New Zealand work. Ever since then about 40% of the program has been New Zealand work,” said Adams.
The ATC learnt from the mistakes of the past.
“One of the stumbling blocks for The Mercury was its full time company of 60 performers, designers and staff,” Adams said.
“ATC didn’t follow that model. It came out purely as a producing company. We have an admin staff of 16, and everybody else is contracted to the company, although we are now pursuing a home venue.”
From a small beginning, the ATC grew and grew. By the end of the 1990’s it eclipsed The Mercury Theatre’s aggregate of 50,000 ticket sales a year. It now sells around 80,000 each year.

The company’s repertoire embraces commercial musicals or plays, international works and New Zealand drama.
“We tend to look at our work in different strands, and market it in different ways,” said Artistic Director Colin McColl.
“Our mainstage subscription season, plays the Melbourne Theatre Company would do, we do in a 450 seat theatre. Then we do Showtime, unashamedly popular work with broader appeal for theatre-goers who see a couple of shows a year and want to be entertained.”
“We do playwright Roger Hall a lot. (New Zealand’s equivalent of David Williamson.) He is incredibly popular. Last year we did Four Flat Whites in Italy, which played to 18,000 in four week season … or musicals, like our Christmas show Oliver!, in a 700 seat theatre. We can market it to a much broader audience.”
This year, the musical Cabaret will be performed in a Spiegeltent.

ATC tours its more commercial shows. This year's offering is Stepping Out, last year it was Four Flat Whites in Italy.
McColl explained that across New Zealand there are many large grand opera houses, often in very small towns, available for touring productions.
“We can thank the JC Williamson company, which built large Victorian and Edwardian theatres in towns as small as 35,000. Often they sit there empty.”
Last year’s runaway touring success was Roger Hall’s Four Flat Whites in Italy.
“That was 100% sold out in Auckland, the North Shore, and all of the four centres we toured outside Auckland. We got to our last centre, Tauranga, where it was finishing, and didn’t do any advertising because the people from the other markets who couldn’t get in had driven over,” said Michael Adams.

“We have our art house or festival brand, usually Kiwi stuff for a niche market, work in conjunction with different festivals, sometimes they have very long shelf life,” said Artistic Director Colin McColl.
“One we just did, Hatch (a black comedy), is about the plight of the Penguins. It was about a businessman, Joseph Hatch, who murdered three million penguins. It also played in Tasmania,” he said.
“He owned a South Island oil rendering plant in 1920. It was the first big conservation issue, which attracted attention in the London Times and from HG Wells. He went on a lecture tour to pitch himself as a Kiwi bloke trying to make a buck. He shows all these slides of decimated penguins,” he said.

ATC is making inroads in developing its younger audience.
“We invite senior students into our Ambassador program, so it’s a point where young kids can start to decide to come to the theatre on their own and they can get their friends in cheap as well. That’s been running here for about ten years now, and 15% of our audience is under 25, ”said Michael Adams.
“We have two forum shows. The older audience tend to ask questions about the theme and the moral of the play. Then the next night the kids come, and they will critique or ask questions about how it’s staged, and why the lighting is done like this, and why the costumes are like this, and why the theatre looked like this, and how the actors have approached the roles, as well as the theme,” he said.
Michael credits New Zealand’s national theatre curriculum for engaging a whole generation of young people with the semiotics of theatre.

Creative development includes a festival for 18 – 25 year olds where three new works are presented.
“The plays are written by young people, produced and performed by young people for young people,” said Adams.
“We’ve also got a Literary Unit, which is charged with developing new New Zealand scripts – commissioning works, taking scripts that are sent to us and giving it a playreading, or workshopping,” he said.
The latest success story from that unit was the ATC’s first production this year, Le Sud. It was based on the premise that the South Island had been colonized by the French, and the North by the English, and the two were independent states.
That was not so far fetched, as the French did set up a base, but they were six months too late.
“(Le Sud) was a 100% full, and set a record for our first slot. We could have played another two or three weeks,” he said.

This year has been a bumper one for The Auckland Theatre Company despite the GFC.
Le Sud and The Importance of Being Ernest, have done phenomenal business. Interestingly the recession hasn’t affected us, in fact it’s been really good – we did plan our season for a downturn – lighter, with more comedies and smaller casts, so that our risk was limited,” said Adams.

Image- Four Flat Whites in Italy

Originally published in the July / August 2010 edition of Stage Whispers.