Fluctuations can’t stop Currency’s rise

Nick Parsons remembers the mounting piles of books on the kitchen table. They were new-minted Australian plays published by Currency Press, the new-minted company of his parents, Katharine Brisbane and Philip Parsons. Setting up a business selling local plays might sound like one of those jokes about how to turn a large fortune into a small one, yet last week Currency clocked up 50 years, not just of publishing, but of championing the health of Australia’s performing arts more generally.

Katharine Brisbane. Photo by James Morgan. Top Photo of STC’s 2019 production of Cosi by Jeff Busby.

Wind the clock back to 1971, and suddenly audiences were baying for Australian plays and voices on our stages. If the new wave of local drama was the chicken, establishing Currency Press to publish the likes of Alex Buzo and David Williamson was the perfectly-timed egg.

Katharine Brisbane’s first inkling that genuinely Australian plays were hatching came much earlier, when she saw Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in London in 1957. She hurried home, became theatre critic for The West Australian and married Philip Parsons. Soon after they moved to Sydney, where he lectured in drama at UNSW, and she, in 1967, became The Australian’s first national theatre critic.

They founded Currency because Brisbane thought the exciting new plays she was seeing deserved a life beyond one production. With Parsons teaching full-time and only able to help with editing, the bulk of the workload fell to her. Neither of them drew a salary for the first seven years, and many people told them they’d never survive. Brisbane says she supposes she knew better because she was reviewing all the local plays. Asked if there are playwrights she’s particularly proud to have championed, she replies, “All of them! David Williamson, of course, was our money-spinner, and all his early plays were a big thrill for me, particularly The Club.”

Louis Nowra joined Currency’s stable in 1974, when he was so poor as to have no telephone at his Melbourne home. He heard from a friend that Brisbane wanted to reach him, rang her from a phone-box, and she confirmed they were publishing Albert Names Edward. Even better, he says, they sent him $50.

Nowra insists Currency singlehandedly raised local dramatists to the same literary significance as novelists, to be studied in schools and universities. Another impact was equally important: “Before Currency came on the scene,” he explains, “it was almost impossible to get your plays performed after the premiere, because, literally, they vanished.”

Fellow playwright Joanna Murray-Smith believes plays help capture the nation’s character at a given moment. “What Katharine Brisbane so wonderfully and rather courageously did was commit our dramatic writing to that archive for posterity,” she says. “If it weren’t for her, I think the general morale of Australian playwrights would be at absolutely rock bottom.”

Nick Parsons’ childhood included countless theatre outings with his parents. “My form of adolescent rebellion was to get interested in film,” he says. Indeed film and TV constituted much of his subsequent career, although he never strayed too far from the company that his mother ran until 20 years ago, and which he has chaired since his father’s death in 1993. Along the way came such reforms as on-shore printing, which facilitated starting the Current Theatre Series in the 1980s, whereby texts of new plays were included in theatre programs. Remarkably, Currency could turn manuscripts into a printed plays in six weeks. “No other publisher in the country could do anything like that,” Parsons says. “They generally took six months or so to publish a book.”

Louis Nowra. Photo: Adam Knott.

The Current Theatre Series can create headaches for writers, however, who must submit a text before it’s finalised in rehearsal, and hope there’s a subsequent edition for updates. Nowra tampered with Summer of the Aliens and Cosi between editions. He was acting in Aliens in Melbourne while Cosi, set in a mental institution, was rehearsing in Sydney, and got a shock on opening night. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve made a great mistake, here,'” he recalls. “I had scenes outside the asylum, and I could feel the audience’s attention dissipating.” Nowra cut those scenes for the standard edition. “The audience has told me this is the way they want to watch it, and they were right.” He also made changes to The Language of the Gods after a much longer time-lapse, and regretted it. “You just can’t go back,” he says. “You were another person, then.”

Murray-Smith is more inclined to keep tinkering. “When Honour was recently done at the Ensemble in Sydney,” she says, “I made changes to the play that addressed things that I had worried about from the time of the original [1995] production… Of course the moment that you solve a problem, you desperately want that to be part of the printed script, because often that’s the way foreign companies come to your plays, and you obviously want them to be reading the optimum version. So because a play is never finished, the play script is really capturing a moment in time of the play’s evolution, but not really the play, itself… I suppose you could say there is a philosophical question at play there, which is: should you accept the play at the time it was written as a permanent representation of who you were as a writer at that time? It’s complicated.”

Joanna Murray-Smith. Photo supplied.

By the time Deborah Franco, who handles marketing, joined in Currency 1984, they’d moved to proper offices in Paddington, before relocating to larger premises in Redfern in 1998. With 80% of sales being educational (mainly secondary schools), a key part of Franco’s work is dealing directly with teachers and curriculum devisers. In recent times they took over their own distribution, having a warehouse in Canberra, with close to 500 books in print. Beyond plays, these include works about theatre, film, music and dance. “Katharine has always been such a great advocate for the performing arts in general, and their importance in our lives,” says Franco.

Brisbane was involved in establishing the National Playwrights’ Conference and the annual Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture, and she founded Currency House, a not-for-profit performing arts advocacy project, publishing the Platform Papers essays. Another extracurricular Currency activity is next March’s Australian Playwrights’ Festival, a Franco brainchild, after a 15-year absence of any such an event. “The Sydney Writers’ Festival pretty much ignores dramatists,” says Parsons, “so we thought we need to do something for our authors and for the industry generally. It’s part of Currency Press’s ethos that we don’t just do the business that’s in front of us; we try to put things back into the industry whenever we can.”

Murray-Smith has seen this from the inside. “They’re really passionate champions of Australian playwriting,” she says. “Katharine belongs to a generation of true believers in Australian literature, amongst whom were my parents, and I know those people well: they are dogged, brave, determined and prepared to put an ideological imperative ahead of commercial profits… I just think it’s a shame that in Australia there isn’t more recognition of people like Katharine. People in the know, of course, are hugely admiring of her and what she’s achieved, but she is a national treasure, and everybody should know her.”