PAUL PANCKHURST ponders the city's fickle audience after a flop that spelled the end for a stage company.



Who killed Leah? The gender-swapped version of the Shakespeare tragedy sank like a brick in Auckland, and the fledgling New Zealand Actors Company went down with it.



In a letter to creditors owed more than $100,000, the liquidators of the theatre company blamed bad reviews for shockingly poor ticket sales. Audiences at Sky City fell to as low as 80 people before the show was canned part-way through its run.



In general, the critics did not like Leah. In particular, this newspaper panned it.

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However, a previous show staged by the New Zealand Actors Company had encountered and survived bad press.



Playwright Roger Hall recalls that ticket sales for the company's production of his A Way of Life took a hit after a bad review in the Herald, but picked up again through positive word of mouth.



Wellington-based Grant O'Neill, the general manager of the New Zealand Actors Company, is no theatre novice and has been around flops before. But - apparently like the rest of the company - he is puzzled by the scale of this disaster, calling it one of the "mysteries of the 21st century".



Putting aside the arguments about the show's artistic merits, could other factors have played a role?



It wasn't that the ticket prices were higher than usual, since a cheap Saturday matinee did not sell either, says O'Neill.



It wasn't a lack of marketing. The images of Geraldine Brophy in the lead role, with a tall white head-dress and slices of cucumber over her eyes, were hard to miss.



The show was much-anticipated. In the build-up to the International Festival of the Arts in Wellington, the well-known painter Helen Clark did her bit, describing this as the one she was looking forward to. And it wasn't wiped out by another show.



"There was nothing up against Leah in Auckland," says O'Neill.

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One theory is that the New Zealand Actors Company reduced its potential audience by opting for an unconventional treatment of King Lear. "People by and large prefer their Shakespeare straight," says playwright Hall.



Also, while the company previously had a national hit with A Midsummer Night's Dream, that play is light, bright and easy on the audience. Lear is not.



Paul Bushnell, who watches over theatre for National Radio, remembers just how promising Leah seemed when he attended a so-called "show and tell" last year, where prospective performers pitched to the arts festival organisers.



Alone on stage, delivering a monologue, Geraldine Brophy was "simply wonderful".



When Bushnell saw the show at the festival, the magic was gone. While the production values were "terrific" and some of the performances "stunning", the story was confused and the strength of Brophy's performance dissipated. The staging overwhelmed the story. "It was a really, really interesting failure," says Bushell.



Vacant seats after the interval signalled a problem, and Bushnell heard audience members making comments to the effect of, "a lot of this just doesn't make much sense".

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The Auckland season opened on March 20 at the 700-seat Sky City theatre. It was immediately in trouble, and while the reviews were bad, word of mouth did not help either.



In rough terms, the break-even point was 400 people a night, says O'Neill.



The company's budgets and forecasts took into account the possibility of smaller than expected audiences - but nothing on this scale. "It was out of the ballpark," says O'Neill. In terms of audience estimates, "we weren't out by 100 a night, we didn't even have 100 a night".



Set up by director Simon Bennett and actors Tim Balme, Katie Wolfe and Robyn Malcolm, and incorporated in February 2000, the New Zealand Actors Company was a limited liability company with charitable trust status. According to the foursome, the profits from two tours of A Midsummer Night's Dream and one of A Way of Life were reinvested in the company.



According to O'Neill, the company's productions were in the $400,000 to $600,000 band, with Leah costing about $480,000.



Creative New Zealand stumped up $50,000 for Leah. Asked if the theatre company consciously "bet the farm" on Leah, knowing the show could kill the company, O'Neill says the company bet the farm each time it staged a new production. It relied on project-by-project funding, and a single failure could have meant curtains.

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Leah could be seen as a risk, says O'Neill, but so was the Roger Hall show, both as a new work and a historical drama from a playwright best known for comedy.



"Received wisdom is that a new New Zealand work is truly the most risky thing of all time, while a classic like Shakespeare is a guarantee."



O'Neill says that after A Midsummer Night's Dream the theatre company surveyed audience members and discovered that most were unusually young - meaning under 40, young for the theatre - and most rarely went to the theatre.



In other words, the company seemed to have discovered what O'Neill terms the "holy grail of the performing arts" - a new and young audience. Surely, a slickly advertised Shakespeare-with-a-twist might appeal to such an audience? They might not know the play, since Lear is not as well-known as, say, Romeo and Juliet, but they would know the "Shakespeare brand".



Surely, the core theatre crowd would come along, knowing a new Lear was no small event in Auckland (Ian Mune's production was the last one). The company and O'Neill thought they had some understanding of Auckland audiences. They do not think that any more.



O'Neill names three shows that could have expected bigger audiences in Auckland. "Why didn't they go to Hunchback? Why didn't they go to Douglas Wright? Why didn't they go to Underwater Melon Man?

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"I don't get it. I don't get it at all."



The sad part is the death of a company that tried new things and took theatre to the provinces.



Roger Hall salutes the company for taking risks, but says it may have taken too big a risk too soon in offering an innovative, "festival" production to a wider audience. "It was perhaps too early in their history to go for that."



However, he also says that many regular theatre-goers would have enjoyed Leah, and questions whether the critics said enough about the show's strengths.



"It's very sad the company's failed," says National Radio's Bushnell. "What they had achieved was pretty remarkable."



Simon Bennett did not return the Herald's calls.

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Tim Balme left this message: "I presume it's about the New Zealand Actors Company, which is in liquidation, and so I don't have any comment to make. So, we'll just leave it at that, eh? Cheers. Bye, bye."



Sky City entertainment manager Roberta Tills says, "I'm devastated for them."



She thinks Puppetry of the Penis will do much better.