Father and son Rob and Geordie Brookman are joining forces in Adelaide to run the State Theatre Company. They talk to Michaela Boland
GEORDIE Brookman is exhausted. With only a day’s notice he has agreed to meet at Adelaide’s fabled Italian cafe Parlamento and even though it’s only just past midday he is pretty much slumped at the table. He smiles and offers a warm hello as he swiftly orders coffee but his eyes have the glazed look of someone who is running on adrenalin.
Little wonder. Months ago the 31-year-old freelance theatre director accepted the task of producing the ancillary entertainment at the Adelaide Festival’s club, Barrio, so he has been working late each night wrangling props and people, then logging time in the festival office during the day.
He is also preparing to begin rehearsals for a production of Martin Crimp’s The City with Nowyesnow, the independent production company he runs with his wife, playwright Nicki Bloom. In addition the couple has an 11-month-old baby, Theodore, who hasn’t seen much of his dad lately.
Then there’s the big one. On February 27 Brookman was named as successor to Adam Cook as artistic director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, where he is set to follow in the footsteps of legendary names in Australian theatre including George Ogilvie, Jim Sharman and Simon Phillips.
He doesn’t officially start the job until the end of this month but already has turned his mind to choosing next year’s plays and who will direct them. He needs to begin locking down key cast members for those plays and to select set and costume designers. ‘‘ Programming at this stage of the year is already a fair way through,’’ he says, acknowledging, however, a certain level of panic.
STCSA is the only Adelaide theatre company with an annual subscription season and each year it has usually produced one or two plays with a large interstate company. In 2010 it staged David Harrower’s Knives in Hens with Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre and it partnered with Queensland Theatre Company on Michael Gow’s first play in a decade, Toy Symphony (Brookman directed both in the last year of his three-year stint as the company’s associate director).
Nothing unusual there: co-productions have always been in play as a way of sharing costs and cross-pollinating creative talent. But the change in leadership at most of the nation’s leading theatre companies in the past five years has brought increased interest in collaborations. Theatre companies also are stretching their boundaries by working with dance, cabaret and music artists, and partnering with local fringe and arts festivals to piggyback on their marketing heft.
Brookman wants to see plenty of this at STCSA. ‘‘ Collaboration is incredibly important and certainly we’ll be engaging the company as heavily as possible in the national conversation,’’ he says, although he is coming late to those conversations for next year. As he launches into that web of possibilities, he knows that in three short months his debut season will need to be pretty much settled. Then, in October, he will present his program of eight or so plays for the scrutiny of the industry, STCSA’S 3369 subscribers and thousands of single-ticket buyers.
Looking ahead to that moment, he says: ‘‘ I think I’ll be nervous, excited and, hopefully, quietly confident.’’ That confidence stems partly from his running mate. At the same time as his appointment was an- nounced, his father, former Sydney Theatre Company general manager Rob Brookman, 58, was appointed STCSA’S chief executive.
Brookman Sr is also wrangling with the logistics of his new job, confirmed within just a few weeks of the positions being advertised. Sydney-based at the moment, Rob is staying with Geordie. He has come to Adelaide for the festival but has locked himself away during the daylight hours to complete two consultancy reports ahead of starting the role.
When we speak a few days later Rob says of his situation: ‘‘ In a weird kind of way this is fulfilment of a childhood dream.’’ When he was a member of the University of Adelaide Dramatic Society in the 1970s it shared its Union Hall with the professionals from the newly minted State Theatre Company. ‘‘ At that time I thought, ‘ One day I could do that,’ but it’s taken quite a long time to get to that point,’’ he says.
He is something of a legend in South Australian arts. Since graduating from Adelaide University in the early 70s in a city where premier Don Dunstan was engineering a vibrant arts infrastructure, Rob has worked with most of the city’s bigger arts organisations. He directed the 1992 Adelaide Festival, was program director of Adelaide’s Festival Centre and was founding director of the world music festival Womadelaide.
Then in 1999 he moved to Sydney where, as general manager of STC, he was yin to artistic director Robyn Nevin’s yang. At the nation’s biggest theatre company he implemented the changes advised by Helen Nugent’s review of funding to the performing arts. He also steered the funding, construction and launch of the Sydney Theatre and managed the first few seasons of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton’s tenure as co-artistic directors.
After retiring from STC two years ago he has undertaken a handful of significant consulting jobs, including working with stakeholders and the Barangaroo Delivery Authority on potential roles for the arts in the Sydney harbourside precinct.
At STCSA he will have oversight of a company with about one-quarter the turnover he managed in Sydney. ‘‘ It’s a very different scale of operation, which is something I’m looking forward to,’’ he says. ‘‘ One of the reasons for stepping down from STC after 11 years was just the sense of not being able to continue at quite that pace, and as I pointed out to people I lasted five years longer than anyone else.
‘‘ A smaller company like this, you still have to work incredibly hard because there are less people to generate the work, but it’s not going to be quite the same frenetic pace STC was. We were opening a show roughly every 21/ weeks.’’
Rob did not apply for the Adelaide job when it was advertised late last year after Pamela Foulkes signalled her intention to move on. His interest was piqued, however, when the job was re-advertised in January with the additional advice the board was interested in applications from a team after Cook also signalled his intention to leave.
STSCA’S chairman, businessman John Irving, said the chief executive’s position was re-advertised not because the earlier job applicants failed to entice but because so many of them expressed concern they didn’t know who they would be working with. After eight years as artistic director it had become known Cook was not sure how much longer he would continue.
Irving says the board received ‘‘ some brilliant applications and some great ideas’’ but ‘‘ we could not go past the combination Rob and Geordie put to us . . . Most people regard Rob as the very best theatre administrator in the country and Geordie is among the very best directors.’’
Geordie says he can’t remember if he or his father first suggested they apply for the jobs. ‘‘ We’ve always talked about how good it would be to work together but I thought he’d mentor me or something,’’ he says.
Now they are to work shoulder to shoulder, with the son chiefly responsible for creative decisions while his father oversees finances. Geordie, though, expects their roles to overlap. He describes himself as having a good head for financial management, having spent so many years freelancing, and adds that Rob is ‘‘ very much at the creative end of being an arts administrator’’.
He shrugs away the notion
it may be