How on Earth did they do it? Twenty years on, Playbox Artistic Associate Tom Healey reflects on the risk and reward that fuelled the ‘All Australian Writing’ era.
My ‘Story of M’ begins inauspiciously. I had a phone message from the then Artistic Associate, Kate Cherry – Would I come in for a coffee?
So, in I went. Kate was heading off for three months to the Director’s Lab at the Lincoln Center, she was looking for someone to keep her seat warm—Would I be interested?
Tom Healey; Playbox Artistic Associate 1999 – 2003
Day 1. It’s April. I arrive and there’s no-one on the Artistic staff there, and no-one in Administration had been let in on the secret of my arrival so I explain… I get some sympathetic looks, someone guides me to Kate’s ‘office’, and I sit down.
It’s a tiny redbrick cell, off to the right just before the greenroom. It’s 1999: There’s a stack of scripts on recycled paper, held together by a bulldog clip; There’s an 80’s push-button phone; No computer, no instructions.
Kate had explained that the job was kind of ‘reactive’—the sort of gig that a colleague once described to me as a ‘CouldYaJust?’ I figured the stack of scripts was my clue. I picked up the first one and started to read…
This was the first of what I reckon might have been as many as 500 unsolicited scripts that I read over the four years I was there (Kate ran away to the MTC with Simon Phillips so I inherited the job). Playbox had a policy which stated that the company would not only accept unsolicited scripts, but it would also read and respond to all submissions. It was a brilliant, weighty and somewhat foolish undertaking, but I was (and remain) moved by the sentiment of it.
It said 'Someone is listening'.
I started writing some notes—in longhand. I finished them and went looking for a computer that I could use to type them out and send them off. There was, it turned out, one central computer terminal with a single email account which everyone shared (and yes, there were some spectacular instances of personal emails flowing into this account but, to quote a classic Australian play… No Names, No Pack Drill). The very next day, I brought my laptop in, plugged it into the phone jack and off I went.
In my first week there I drove to Geelong to see Stolen on tour. It was a schools show and it is one of a handful of plays I have seen in my life that literally changed me: I walked in one person, and out another. I remember realising in my farewell speech years later that the projects I had the privilege of being a part of at Playbox as a result of our partnership with ILBIJERRI were the ones that meant the most to me. Twenty years later, my experience of being in the rehearsal room as an assistant on Conversations with the Dead with Richard Frankland burns in my memory as five of the most vivid weeks of my working life.
But they were tough times in many ways. We didn’t realise it at the time but we were experiencing a ‘Götterdämmerung’ of sorts. The ‘All-Australian, All World Premieres’ model we were working with was intended to be a triumphant expression of the raw energy and vision of the Second Wave, originated by The Pram Factory, La Mama, Nimrod et al. And when it worked, it really did that job. So many of the works that Playbox premiered – Crazy Brave, Sex Diary of an Infidel, Good Works, Love Child, Honour, Black Sequin Dress, Falling Petals among so many others, including Stolen and Conversations—were genuinely exciting and extraordinary. But here’s the thing: this industry, like all industries, cannot and must not conduct genuine Research and Development and expect a high hit rate at the same time. Thus, the very thing that defined Playbox and that gave it its identity and ‘edge’ was the same thing which eventually became a grave liability as the bite of the culture of Serious Economic Reform and its accompanying, bone-chilling lexicon of phrases like ‘solution-focussed ideas’ and ‘KPI’s’ started to make themselves felt.
Times were changing, tastes were changing. It’s my take that the Australia of the 80’s and 90’s which felt so flushed and radiant at the sense of being part of the Asia Pacific region (in my view the great achievement of the Hawke/Keating era) underwent a profound political shift in the late 90’s as the Howard government took hold. This is of course also the moment where the ‘information superhighway’ (our first attempt at naming what we now call ‘the internet’) started to surge forward and dominate.
(No possibility any company could survive for long without everyone on email in this brave new world…)
Crazy Brave (2000)
Sex Diary of an Infidel (1993)
Good Works (1996)
Love Child (1993)
Black Sequin Dress (1996)
The theatre of the Second Wave had been largely about seeing ourselves up there on stage… 'I’ve been to that party' was the delighted response of so many to seeing David Williamson’s Don’s Party. This sense of mimesis, of identification through recognition ceased to be so resonant as the Third Wave approached. The wheel had turned and the poetic/epic started to become our lingua franca. Change is—yes—painful, but also life-giving. The metamorphosis of Playbox into Malthouse Theatre meant that its charter as a contemporary theatre company could be genuinely honoured. It meant that the company was listening.
I feel lucky to have been there to see this change. I feel lucky to have lived through such a profound period of revolution: from our Colonial-British-Outpost identity of the 60’s, to the rebellious, opinionated flashy loudmouth of the 70’s and 80’s, to the culture which now seeks so hard to address the complex political wrongs of the past and grapple with the enormous cultural, technological and geopolitical challenges of the future.
Some companies assume the identities of their leader. What is Théâtre du Soleil without Ariane Mnouchkine, or Gilgul without Barrie Kosky? Some assume a foregone cultural imperative – The National Theatre of Great Britain, or The Berliner Ensemble. But here we are dealing with a more abstract ideal. In all three iterations, Malthouse Theatre/Playbox/Hoopla! has challenged itself to be the outward expression of a desire to speak to the form and content of its times, to be the voice of modernity, to sit at the leading edge of culture.
Falling Petals (2003)
My final day started in an equally inauspicious way. I’d resigned months earlier because I disagreed with the policy direction. I had thus made myself somewhat unpopular amongst some members of staff, so I’d planned to slip out quietly. But a couple of the many amazing colleagues I had over my time had organised a surprise farewell party which was peopled not by board members and stakeholders, but by the artists and colleagues with whom I had collaborated. There was a banner I was required to run through and a whole lot of people with sparklers. It was lovely and it made me reflect.
It had been a tough time. There was so much disagreement over what the company was doing and how it was doing it (and in actual fact it was only to last a little over another 12 months, which of course none of us knew then…) but in that moment of walking out I suddenly saw and understood how important the work of the company had been to me, how significant it was and, most importantly, the purity of the intention behind its making—no matter how flawed the results might have been.
In one of many attempts to ‘Engage Our Audience’ – a puerile KPI dreamt up at one of those corporate ‘Visioning Days’—it was decided that we would provide feedback boards in the foyer with textas, file-cards and drawing pins. It was trialled for my (very contentious) production of Ben Ellis’ Falling Petals. I still have them somewhere. Here are two that I remember:
Give me that hour-and-a-half of my life BACK!!!
You have floored me. How can I stand up again?
Job done, I guess.
(The boards were abandoned shortly afterwards).
Tom Healey is a director and dramaturg. He was Artistic Associate for Playbox from 1999 to 2003, and a member of the Malthouse Theatre Artistic Counsel from 2005 to 2006. His productions have enjoyed many nominations (and some wins) in the Helpmann Awards, Sydney Theatre Awards and the Green Room Awards.