Notes from a small is­land

The story of Tas­ma­nia’s state theatre com­pany

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

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