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Interview with Katharine Brisbane

Katharine Brisbane is the co-founder of Currency Press, Australia’s performing arts publisher, with her late husband, Dr Philip Parsons. They founded the press in 1971 and she remained managing editor and publisher until her retirement in 2001. In 2000 she established Currency House, Inc., a non-profit charitable association with the brief to assert the value of the performing arts in public life and to raise the level of debate.

She was a theatre critic for 21 years, including a period as national critic of The Australian (1967–1974), a time of radical change that saw the rise of contemporary drama, film and music in Australia. She has published widely on the history and nature of Australian theatre.

How did Currency begin?

At the time I was the national theatre critic at The Australian. I travelled around Australia reviewing plays and then around 1968-9 we [Katharine and Philip Parsons] went off on ‘study-leave.’ It was a very exciting period around the world really, it was the beginning of the baby-boomer revolution and there were all sorts of experimental theatre going on and people were very interested in what Australians were doing. And there were no books, there was nothing really to tell them about the theatre—particularly the New Wave which was just beginning and we thought we should do something about this. We actually approached Angus & Robertson and they weren’t interested at all. So we thought well why don’t we start it as a subscription series as a hobby. And that’s how it started.

How did you first get playwrights involved?

I was personally well-known to them as I was a theatre critic and they were quite excited at the idea of being published. It was giving them tangible evidence that one could be a playwright. Apart from something in the back of a program you really had no proof back then. By the time we got our first title on the HSC list to be studied, which was Macquarie (by Alex Buzo) we started to see a way we could actually make some money from this.

What was the theatre environment like at the time you established Currency?

Out of La Mama in ’67 came the Australian Performing Group who moved to the Pram Factory and at the time there were all those people who went on to become Establishment, like Williamson, Romeril, Buzo, Hewett so there was a lot of activity. And of course in 1968 the Australia Council was established and there was a lot of marching in the streets lobbying for it. One of the first things the Council did was set up state theatre companies. We were just part of all this so we started at the right time. People wanted to see what was going to happen next.

How do you see the current works reflecting today’s political and social climate?

Well the plays used to very vividly reflect the climate in the 1970s and part of the way they did this was by going on stage quite quickly. I think that’s one of the problems today is that it takes a couple of years to get a play on stage, and even longer, so it’s hard for them to reflect the excitement of some new ideas. Through the 1970s there was no regulation at first and the film industry was really quite wild. There weren’t health and safety regulations either. Movies like Mad Max couldn’t have been made today without filling out a lot of forms.

What was the inspiration behind the name ‘Currency’?

It was because of the early play, The Currency Lass. The currency lads and lasses were the first generation born in Australia and they had a reputation for being sort of more self-reliant and knowing and knew the country more than the sterling generation before who were born in England. So that’s where the name came from.

What has been the most important aspect of Currency Press for you?

I suppose what the writers wanted to say was one the most important things for me and that’s included in the books as well as plays over the years. It’s recording our culture that is important.

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