Notes from a small island
The story of Tasmania’s state theatre company
Late last year, a group of curious Tasmanians boarded a small bus to take a vertiginous six-minute trip up Hobart’s Porter Hill, traversing a steep, narrow road rife with hairpin bends. Perched on the peak 1km away was their destination — Fort Nelson House, an architectural masterpiece high above Sandy Bay built on top of an abandoned fort by modernist architect JH Esmond Dorney in 1978.
Driving the loaned schoolbus was Charles Parkinson, the intrepid artistic director of the Tasmanian Theatre Company. With no home venue and little in the way of operating funds, Parkinson, a theatre industry veteran whose previous posts include directing shows for the Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide festivals and five years as artistic director of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, had hit on the idea of staging the cash-strapped company’s new show, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in the lounge room of the tourist attraction, billed as one of the great modern houses of Australia.
Parkinson did that 12-minute round trip three times that night, as well as on succeeding evenings over the 10-day season, patiently picking up waiting theatregoers at the carpark at the foot of the hill: “It was a bonus if they got up there early because they’d be able to admire the view, the best in Hobart, and have a quick stickybeak around the house before the show.” Once all were seated around the sunken conversation pit — the stage for the evening’s performance — the four actors would launch into Albee’s tense family drama.
This pop-up theatrical production was the latest in a series of unconventional venues embraced by the company (and many other independent theatre ensembles facing a funding crisis on the island state), taking in everything from old warehouses and memorial halls to empty storefronts in the middle of Hobart. It was a hands-on, collective effort. “No one was going to fund the show,” says the affable Parkinson, “so we turned to Pozible.” On the crowdfunding site, they raised $7057. Recycling timber from a previous show, Parkinson and technical director Max Ford built curved seating banks to suit the circular space.
The show, in its secluded, rocky mountaintop bolthole, was an unlikely success. ABC TV came calling, phones rang off the hook. “It sold out,” Parkinson says. “People were ringing up every day and I was saying, ‘Look, I cannot manufacture a seat for you.’ It was terrific for us. It said to the state government: we’re not going away.”
There’s ring of defiant triumph as clear as a bell as Parkinson tells this story months later, ahead of the opening next month in Hobart of the Tasmanian Theatre Company’s new show, Sick, an adaptation of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid by local playwright Sean Monro. A big burly figure in his 60s, dressed in all black offset with a silver stud in one ear, Parkinson’s tough carpenter’s hands speak of the hard graft that’s gone into keeping the beleaguered company — launched just seven years ago with the ambitious aim of serving as a de facto state theatre company — alive since it was effectively defunded in 2009.
Think hauling timber, hammering nails, wielding power tools, snaring wood paling fences for sets, running bars, designing posters — you name it, Parkinson has done it. “I’m not just the artistic director,” he says. “I’m also driving buses, building sets, building theatres, being involved in the marketing.”
The seeds of the Tasmanian Theatre Company were sown in 1972 with the establishment of the Theatre in Education Company in Hobart. In 1975, the Salamanca Theatre Company spun off as a separate company, eventually evolving into Is Theatre in 2002 under the directorship of Ryk Goddard.
In 2008, it was rebranded as the Tasmanian Theatre Company under the directorship of home-town boy Parkinson, a New York-born industry veteran with a successful stint as head of Albury’s HotHouse Theatre heading a long and varied resume. (Parkinson was one of only two participants from Tasmania invited to contribute to the Towards a Creative Australia discussion at former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit.)
The company was launched in a blaze of lights at a glittering red-carpet affair in Hobart’s Theatre Royal, with actress Essie Davis and then deputy premier Lara Giddings in attendance. Billing itself as Tasmania’s new full-time professional theatre company, it aimed to become a nationally significant company while remaining integral to the Tasmanian community.
Parkinson says the intention was to be regarded in the same light as state companies across the country. “We wanted to be a full-time professional theatre company with an emphasis on new work, particularly from Tasmanian playwrights,” he says.
The early portents were good: its inaugural season kicked off with playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s Bombshells, directed by Robert Jarman, followed by a well-received co-production with Griffin Theatre of Tom Holloway’s Don’t Say the Words, a modern retelling of the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon. But then came hard times. In 2009 it was defunded as part of what Parkinson bluntly calls an Australia Council “bloodletting” across the small-to-medium theatre sector nationally, and in 2011 it lost its state funding.
An irate Parkinson launched a vocal media campaign, pointing to the company’s strong track record: in 2010-11, Parkinson says, it had had employed 76 artists and performed to more than 10,000 people with a program of 24 plays, including 17 world premieres and commissions of five new Tasmanian plays, alongside a successful mainland tour and several co-produced works in Melbourne and Sydney since 2008. After Parkinson personally petitioned then premier David Bartlett (“I said, ‘ Do you know how bad this looks? Your deputy premier launches a new Tasmanian theatre company and we haven’t even finished our first year of work and you’re defunding us?’”) the company’s $260,000 state funding lifeline was restored. The respite proved to be brief: a year later, the funding was cut again.
Since then the company has battled along on a fragile patchwork of project grants, donations and crowdfunding supplemented with $20,000 a year over three years from Hobart City Council as well as “selling tickets, running a bar, philanthropic support”.
Parkinson is greatly relieved the company has got some state funding — $115,000 — for next year’s program, but the situation remains tenuous.
It’s bred a tough, entrepreneurial company culture, he says — from producing shows on a shoestring (including last year’s well-received commission, Born from Animals, featuring three works by Tasmanian writers Holloway, Monro and Finegan Kruckemeyer), to staging shows in cheap or free venues. The pop-up ventures started after the company was rendered effectively homeless (and deprived of a vital stream of revenue) when it lost its role running the Backspace Theatre attached to the Theatre Royal at the end of 2013.
The inaugural venture was last year’s The Berry Man by Patricia Cornelius, which the Tasmanian Theatre Company staged free in an empty storefront in the middle of Hobart after obtaining permission from its owner, who also generously helped them obtain plywood and hardware.
“At one point he dropped in while we were building the set,” Parkinson recalls, “and said, ‘Jeez, mate, I can’t tell you blokes how many brownie points I’m getting at home for this’ — his wife was a theatre fan. He and his whole extended family came for opening night.”
Amid designing posters and doing the lighting design, Parkinson and technical manager Ford spent eight weeks building a 70-seat seating bank, with 95 per cent of the set being recycled from Born from Animals (Parkinson also managed to snare an old paling fence from a local school to build two stage cottages). There were weekend working bees, with Parkinson doing a deal with young theatre group Loud
Mouth: they could use the venue after the show ended, in return for their muscle.
Next month’s production of Sick, a contemporary play set in the Royal Hobart Hospital, will be the company’s fifth pop-up, this time in a huge old warehouse, The Goods Shed, at Hobart’s $500 million Macquarie Point redevelopment.
For Parkinson, it’s been an intense, often sapping lesson in the resourcefulness required for artmaking on a small island. He says there’s a stark disconnect between Tasmania’s wider public image as a rich, fertile arts hub — fuelled by the successes of David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art and its thriving literary community, spearheaded by Man Booker Prizewinning local Richard Flanagan — and the reality.
Look deeper and you will find an arts community floundering in a parlous economic climate (“the Tasmanian economy is crippled, plus we are at record low levels of state funding”) and fearful of the potential consequences of former federal arts minister George Brandis’s proposed radical reconstruction of the Australia Council funding model. The state’s Liberal government has been among protesting stakeholders making submissions to the Senate inquiry into funding changes, and new federal Arts Minister Mitch Fifield has flagged changes to the draft guidelines of the controversial National Program for Excellence in the Arts.
Inevitably, the community is also beset by all the problems of an island ecology: a small, widely dispersed population, a creative brain drain (Parkinson is thrilled that, for the moment at least, young gun Kruckemeyer is still living in Hobart “although he is commissioned from around the world”), and the lack of corporate and philanthropic support.
Parkinson cites the company’s loss of its Cascade Brewery sponsorship after the beer company was sold: “It’s all very well for the federal government to say the arts need to find more corporate sponsors, but I don’t know anyone outside of Ten Days on the Island and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra who are getting any kind of serious cash sponsorship.”
Small positives exist in initiatives such as the recent launch of the inaugural Tasmanian Theatre Awards, dubbed the Errols, to reward theatrical talent, he says. Another recent bright spot was the success of Jonathan Biggins’s play
The State of the Tasmanian Economy for Jarman’s Blue Cow Theatre company. But generally, the situation is grim, particularly for the Tasmanian theatre industry, the “poor relation” in the local arts scene.
Parkinson points to the tenuous situation of Terrapin Puppet Theatre, an internationally acclaimed group that relies heavily on multi-year funding for international touring. “As its chief executive Kevin O’Loghlin said at the Senate inquiry, there are kids in Queenstown, Tasmania, who are seeing the same show that kids in New York are seeing. They’ve been one of the great success stories of the small-to-medium sector and it would be criminal for them to not get funding.”
Tasmania’s visual arts sector has the support of philanthropists such as MONA’s Walsh and Penny Clive, as well as schemes such as the Collect Art Purchase Scheme, a 12-month, interestfree loan scheme to enable the purchase of contemporary local art from participating Tasmanian galleries (“It’s been brilliant, a lot of work is sold through that,” Parkinson says).
But theatre has no white knights or generous schemes. “One of the things is that it is bloody expensive, and it’s ephemeral — it’s not like a sculpture you can buy or like public art, which a politician can launch and put a plaque on it.”
There is negligible commissioning money to be prised out of flagship events such as the Ten Days on the Island festival (renamed the Tasmanian International Arts Festival this year): “It’s the baby festival of Australia,” Parkinson says. “To run a state-wide festival on $2 million a year is not very much.”
He says MONA’s success is a double-edged sword. It brings vital tourist dollars but it also tends to suck up the state’s tiny, specialised creative labour force when it hosts its MONA FOMA and Dark Mofo festivals: “We know not to program anything which coincides with these events.”
He also says that MONA’s international success masks the not-so-glowing state of the rest of the island’s art scene. “While MONA has had massive positives for Tasmania generally, the problem is that lazy journalists and lazy politicians have gone: tick, the arts are in great form in Tasmania. So for those of us who are not benefiting from that, you have to make a lot of noise to be heard and no one really notices.”
Parkinson says MONA being given state government funding of $1m annually for three years for the Dark Mofo winter festival “was a bitter pill to swallow at a time when we are being told there is no money for the arts. The government would argue it’s not arts money, it’s tourism money, but money is money.”
Should Walsh be spreading his largesse, then? “A lot of people say that but I jump in and defend David because he supports contemporary music and visual arts, those are his interests, and I don’t think anyone should expect him to support something he’s not interested in. It’s the same with Penny Clive. It’s just unfortunate for us that there is no multimillionaire philanthropist who loves theatre — if there is, we’d love to talk to them.”
Parkinson says the company’s chief legacy lies in its commissioning of new plays focusing on Tasmanian stories, including Born from Animals, Kruckemeyer’s The Boy with the Longest
Shadow, the Sex, Death and a Cup of Tea program of four plays by Debra Oswald, Sue Smith and others, and next month’s Sick. “But can we keep going on in this piecemeal fashion? While I’m there, I think we can, but I fear that when it’s time for me to go the company will fall over. And if we do, we lose something that’s been around [in various forms] for 40-odd years, and that has been delivering since 2008 such a wide and varied range of work.”
Sick opens at The Woolshed, Hobart, on Wednesday.
I FEAR THAT WHEN IT’S TIME FOR ME TO GO THE COMPANY WILL FALL OVER CHARLES PARKINSON
Charles Parkinson, main picture; scenes from Tasmanian Theatre Company productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, top; Born From Animals, above; and The Berry Man, below