The man who spearheaded the multimillion-dollar campaign for a new waterfront theatre is leaving Auckland to become executive director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Lester McGrath has been at the helm of Auckland Theatre Company for 11 years, growing the organisation into a flagship cultural institution for the region and country as well as raising $36.5 million for the ASB Waterfront Theatre.

The 675-seat theatre opened in 2016 and now attracts audiences of up to 120,000 annually. It's one of the high points in a 30-year career during which McGrath has worked in Australia and Britain, mainly in theatre but also presenting and touring dance, concerts and commercial entertainment.

"When I started we were working out of a rehearsal room which leaked, which was noisy and which had pillars all through it so there was never enough room to rehearse," says McGrath. "People said we would never be able to build the ASB Waterfront Theatre but we proved them wrong and now people flock to it; for a new venue to attract that many people shows it has been a phenomenal success and to be part of that journey is very satisfying."


His memories of outstanding theatre shows and working alongside a great team at ATC are peppered with the "hair-raising occasions" like, when still hiring other venues, ATC was forced to move shows when the Maidment Theatre was closed because of a fire.

Widely regarded as one of the country's most experienced performing arts managers, McGrath says it was time to take on new challenges: "I look forward to working with the team at the RNZB to deepen the company's engagement with stakeholders, and bring outstanding dance to audiences of all ages across Aotearoa."

McGrath acknowledges the ballet company has faced some challenging times in recent years, but feels those issues have been put behind the organisation which has an extremely bright future. He says research has shown him that the RNZB is loved "up and down" the country.

"If I can make a contribution to that future development, it will be an honour and a privilege to go down and work with them."

RNZB chair Steven Fyfe described McGrath as an outstanding fit for the company with proven leadership and business success together with an enthusiasm for classical dance, while its artistic director Patricia Barker says she's looking forward to working with him.

"With Lester's extensive knowledge of the arts and his home-grown passion for New Zealand, along with his proven success, I look forward to ever-greater achievements for the RNZB."

Celia Walmsley continues as the RNZB's interim executive director until McGrath joins the company in the New Year. It is currently preparing for a seven-week season of The Nutcracker which will see the company perform to more than 25,000 people in theatres from Auckland to Invercargill.