By Sue McCreadie
She’s been described as the doyenne of Australian theatre, the den mother of Australian playwrights and an elder of the theatre tribe. But Katharine Brisbane is also renowned for speaking her mind and she’s recommending some tough love for the sector.
“What I’m concerned about is where we are going with subsidised theatre and the effect that subsidy has had on the arts. Everyone is complaining about how bland the live arts are. The energy seems to have gone into television.”
Although she retired over a decade ago and turned 83 this year, she hasn’t stopped agitating for change where it’s needed. “I’d like to lead a contemplative life but that doesn’t seem to be an option at the moment.”
She lives and continues to work in a light-filled top floor apartment in a grand Victorian mansion in Redfern, surrounded by books and antiques, among them a grandfather clock that chimes on the hour. The building has been home to performing arts activities for the past four decades.
The apartment is four flights up and is reached these days by a compact home lift. On the floor below is Australia’s only specialist performing arts publisher, Currency Press, which she started in 1971 with her late husband Philip Parsons, a drama lecturer at UNSW.
Her son appears and offers to make tea. He’s Nick Parsons, a well-known writer/director who now chairs the publishing company.
When Katherine Brisbane retired as head of Currency Press in 2001, she promptly set up Currency House, a not-for-profit association that publishes the polemical and often provocative quarterly essay series, Platform Papers, and attracts a who’s who of the arts community to its breakfasts at the Museum of Contemporary Arts.
After training as a journalist in her hometown, Perth, she became a theatre critic, a role that spanned three decades and included a highly influential spell from 1967 to74 as national theatre critic for The Australian.
When she started out there was no subsidy. “It was mainly J.C Williamson, amateur theatre and the ABC orchestras.” Then came the heady dawn of the new wave of Australian playwriting and the establishment in 1968 of the first generation of the Australia Council. She became a member of its inaugural drama committee.
“The first period of the Australia Council was very exciting. We got a whole lot of new writers, composers and actors,” she says. “The state theatre companies were set up. And the arts centres were built. Then gradually a moral guardianship descended on the arts, insisting we should only do the high arts. Some people don’t believe me when I say that. They say it’s absolute rubbish, but it’s actually documented. ‘Commercial’ became a bad word, and you had to avoid that at all costs.”
The major performing arts companies – theatre, opera, and ballet – should be given six years’ subsidy and cut loose, she says. “Let the major companies go commercial. Instead of begging for sponsorship, they should start asking for investment.”
She won’t commit on whether the commercial sector’s long-standing call for tax concessions should be adopted. “My editors suggested I stick to principles,” she smiles. “There is a separate paper in the pipeline on the financial side.”
She expected her latest intervention to provoke anger, and it has. “I had a session at this year’s Australian Theatre Forum. There were two young men up the back shouting ‘How are we going to live if you make it all commercial?’ But this is typical. This entitlement,” she says. “I thought it was fascinating.”
It turns out the complainants did not have the full picture. “Of course, they didn’t let me explain that there would be still be money circulating. If the Australia Council was relieved of the responsibility for the companies, it could spend its money on individual artists and workshops, the things it should be doing.
“But I do say what I think, too often, don’t I, Nick?” He’s settled at a long table, occupied with paperwork. “My daughter is always telling me that.” Her daughter Harriet, described as her “best editor and literary advisor since Philip left us”, is an artist currently working as an academic in Edinburgh.
Katherine Brisbane says we have a great fear of freedom as far as the arts goes which has its roots in the colonial period. A long held sympathy for the larrikins of early theatre history is an interesting counterpoint to her cultured voice and refined demeanour. She argues that the comedians who did vaudeville were the “true democrats”, the ones who set in train the national character.
The rising middle class in the nineteenth century started going to Shakespeare and pretended they understood it, but they weren’t very educated and over time it all became quite snobbish, she says. “Some of what we call the low comedians became very prosperous and successful. That part of our history has been suppressed. Though of course they were all rather rude and people didn’t quite know what to do!”
She presses the broader point that to understand where we are today we need understand where we’ve come from. She’s worried that today’s directors don’t. The spate of revivals in recent years has been problematic for that reason. “They take the wrong bits out. I think that’s a real weakness. I keep publishing books about it but they are not reading them,” she says, gesturing at the 600-page tome on the coffee table.
It’s the Companion to Theatre in Australia, edited by her husband. He died before its completion. That and the earlier Currency House publication Entertaining Australia covered every major development in Australian theatre from colonial times. She laughs as she describes them as “mad” projects, “recipes for bankruptcy”. But she hastens to add that she was never a businesswoman. “I just made enough money to do what I wanted to do.”
Katharine Brisbane discussed culture and its value in Australia with David Marr at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival.