Final curtain

21:12, May 03 2012
Hugh and Judith Neill
SHOW'S OVER: Hugh and Judith Neill are bowing out with their company Theatre Alive.

The doors are closing on Nelson community theatre company Theatre Alive, with its final production scheduled for June, Anna Pearson reports.

When the play The Firework Maker's Daughter ends on June 16, it will bring the curtain down on Theatre Alive after more than 40 productions in 12 years.

"As far as we're concerned, this is the end," says director Hugh Neill, seated beside his wife Judith in an empty Theatre Royal this week.

He hopes The Firework Maker's Daughter, produced in collaboration with Nelson theatre company Body in Space, will help Theatre Alive go out with a bang.

Hugh says it took much agonising and many sleepless nights to come to the decision to wind down, but the response to its most recent production, The 39 Steps, was the final straw.

He was extremely proud of the production and says, from his "totally biased perspective", every element worked well – the direction, acting, lighting, sound design and operation.


"The feedback has been fantastic. It was a wonderful show and one we're really proud of," he says.

But despite budgeting on 2000 patrons paying to come and see it, only 1100 turned up.

"It was very disappointing. It deserved so much better."

The Neills have funded Theatre Alive since its inception in 2001. The company took over from Fawlty Productions, a separate company the pair started in 1999.

Things started well. They staged shows in the old Theatre Royal for a couple of years, until it became too rundown to use.

The Suter Theatre, The Playhouse in Mapua and other venues sufficed until the Theatre Royal was given a new breath of life and reopened in 2010.

Back then, Nelson audiences still seemed to have a healthy appetite for community theatre, lapping up shows like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Four Flat Whites, Blood Brothers and Brassed Off.

But Theatre Alive's audience numbers have dropped significantly in the last couple of years, from 6788 in 2010-11 to 4963 in 2011-12.

Hugh says this has resulted in a drop of over $30,000 in turnover, which is unsustainable. The company lost $10,000 last year alone.

Moonlight & Magnolias and Flagons & Foxtrots were particularly disheartening, with audiences of 617 and 691 respectively.

"Overall we're about even," he said.

But it has been a rollercoaster.

"You have to face reality," says Judith. "You can't keep putting on shows if the audiences are not going to come."

Show business is not cheap.

Hugh, an accountant, says each production, consisting of eight or nine performances, costs a "ballpark" $25,000.

Rent is about $8000 and then add royalties, advertising, lighting and sound.

Theatre Alive has a core company of about 20 to 30 loyal actors and technicians, but Hugh says it's getting harder and harder to "beg" and "cajole" people to commit their precious free time to the cause.

But it's not all bad. Theatre is in the couple's blood. Without it, they may not have met in the 1970s, during a production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest.

They also performed with a theatre company call Garrick, which broke away from Nelson Repertory Theatre. Intimate shows with audiences of 50 were held in the gallery room at Chez Eelco cafe and the ticket price included a chocolate eclair and coffee at interval.

"It hasn't all been stress and worry. It has been really exciting to have this wonderful theatre to use," said Judith.

Hugh says he'd still jump at the opportunity to direct or perform with another company. "We do love theatre. We read a lot of plays."

Judith, however, won't be putting her hand up. "I am well into retirement age. I shan't be directing or acting again."

Hugh, who is also the treasurer for the Nelson Historic Theatre Trust, says there have been many highlights in Theatre Alive's 12 years.

At a recent visit to the doctor's, the receptionist joined the ranks of numerous others in saying how much she enjoyed The 39 Steps.

It took eight years to get the rights to Blood Brothers, another highlight, and performing in the refurbished Theatre Royal was up there too.

"It so easily could have been lost. There were people saying, 'Bowl the bastard' and we could have another Rebel Sport – God forbid."

Hugh says it's frustrating to see the numbers of Nelsonians that flock to book shows in the Nelson Arts Festival, yet won't support local theatre.

"This may be a somewhat jaundiced opinion, but there's a dwindling number of people who are interested in coming to watch and support good community theatre," he says.

"The shows that seem to attract the numbers – at the Theatre Royal anyway – are one-night tribute band shows at $60 a pop or tried and true musicals, which have been seen and performed in Nelson many times before.

"We will leave a big hole in the Theatre Royal coffers. We have been paying more rent than any user. It is sad to end like this, but reality has to kick in at some point and this is it."

COMPANY HISTORY Theatre Alive productions and audience figures

The 39 Steps (2012) 1105

Flagons and Foxtrots (2011) 691

The Twits (2011) 2550

Moonlight & Magnolias (2011) 617

Brassed Off (2011) 1539

Blood Brothers (2010) 1744

Four Flat Whites in Italy (2010) 1950

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (2010) 1555

Hair (2003) 2966

Take a Chance on Me (2003) 1018

Shop Till You Drop (2002) 1656

Kiwifruits (2001) 1600