Your Business: Reward offsets risk for performing arts group

By Gill South

ATC general manager Lester McGrath  hopes the company will have its own theatre in 2012/13. Photo / Michelle Hyslop
ATC general manager Lester McGrath hopes the company will have its own theatre in 2012/13. Photo / Michelle Hyslop

Many small businesses are operating in high-risk industries but they still do it because of the benefits they provide.

One of the riskier industries in New Zealand is theatre and the performing arts. The country's largest city has struggled in the past to keep its theatre businesses solvent.

The Mercury Theatre Company closed in 1990, the Auckland Theatre Company (ATC) emerging out of the ashes, with its first production in March 1992, led by actor Simon Prast and producer Teresa Sokolich.

The ATC, a registered charity, is in its 20th year, and holds more than 200 performances annually with a similar number of free or low-cost events as part of its education, participation and literary programme.

The theatre productions attract around 80,000 attendances annually, with a further 15,000 attending education, participation and literary events.

About 280 actors, creative staff and technicians are engaged annually by the company which employs 18 permanent staff.

"The Auckland Theatre Company is about fostering and developing the performing arts," says general manager Lester McGrath.

The company, based these days at the Mt Eden War Memorial Hall, is the only theatre company with a literary unit which nurtures local playwrights, supporting the development of 10 locally written plays a year.

This year, the programme, under ATC's artistic director Colin McColl, ranges from Bruce Mason's Awatea with George Henare, Black Confetti, by emerging new playwright Eli Kent, to child friendly, Sinarella, to be held at the Mangere Arts Centre.

The ATC is one of 10 regional amenities considered an essential contributor to the wellbeing of residents in the Auckland region and necessary to make the region a vibrant and attractive place to live in.

With a turnover of around $5.5 million, just under half of which is earned at the box office, the remainder coming from sponsorship, grants and donations, McGrath is hoping for the company to have its own theatre once again in 2012/13.

The new 600-seat theatre, which will cost $35 million to build, will be based in the Wynyard Quarter next to the new ASB headquarters, on the corner of Halsey and Madden Streets.

It will join up with a 200-seat studio and an outdoor area, with bars and restaurants.

Kiwi Income Property Trust owns the site and is the developer.

The ATC and its major stakeholders are setting up a new charity to raise the funds for the community cultural asset. Around $16.5 million has been pledged.

Long-term ATC funders include the Auckland Council, Creative New Zealand, the Lion Foundation, ASB Community Trust, TelstraClear and several other commercial sponsors and partners including Villa Maria Estate.

"The new charitable trust will develop and own the asset, with ATC as the tenant. ATC will also appoint a number of trustees to the Waterfront Theatre Trust," McGrath says.

Ross Green, founder of Kiwi Property Income Trust, and Villa Maria Estate chairwoman Karen Fistonich have recently joined the ATC Board with the intention of being appointed to the new trust.

The ATC presently hires venues such as the newly finished Q Theatre in Queen St or the SkyCity Theatre.

"There are a lot of challenges running your own venue," McGrath says. "But from a business point of view, your venue is your main point of contact with your audience."

McGrath is optimistic about the future. "We are seeing a huge growth in talent coming into and out of Auckland."

Meanwhile, the theatre continues to build its subscription base of theatregoers. Its Snap A Seat subscription has been popular where subscribers see all eight main billed shows at a special price, but only know the exact dates two weeks' before.

- NZ Herald

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