Katharine Brisbane AM 1932

Katharine Brisbane

In 1954, aged 22, she joined The West Australian as a reporter.

In 1959 she became The West Australian’s theatre critic.

From 1978 to 1980 she was The Australian’s Sydney theatre critic, and The National Times’ national theatre critic from 1981 to 1982.

In 1971, with her late husband, academic and theatre director Dr Philip Parsons AM, Katharine founded Currency Press, a family-run niche publishing house dedicated to promoting the work of Australian playwrights.

Currency Press is now Australia’s oldest independent publisher. In its 40 fruitful years it has published more than 900 plays by more than 500 authors.

Katharine Brisbane has been aptly described as ‘the den mother’ of Australian playwrights.

In a life dedicated to Australian theatre, she has been a perceptive and respected reviewer, a zealous advocate for the industry and its people, and an adventurous publisher of Australian plays and performing arts history.

During her studies at the University of Western Australia, Katharine was involved with drama society productions. In 1954, aged 22, she joined The West Australian as a reporter. She went to London in 1955, but homesickness – resulting from seeing a touring production of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – drew her back to Perth.

In 1959 she became The West Australian’s theatre critic. From 1967 to 1974 she was national theatre critic for The Australian. This gave her a unique perspective on the nationalistic revival that is still often called the ‘new wave’ of Australian theatre. She was a determined and passionate supporter of distinctively Australian theatre, and a champion of the ‘larrikin’ style of the early 1970s, which had earthy echoes of vaudeville and popular theatre of earlier times. Katharine joined the Australia Council’s first Drama Committee in 1968.

From 1978 to 1980 she was The Australian’s Sydney theatre critic, and The National Times’ national theatre critic from 1981 to 1982.

In 1971, with her late husband, academic and theatre director Dr Philip Parsons AM, Katharine founded Currency Press, a family-run niche publishing house dedicated to promoting the work of Australian playwrights. Their timing was perfect.

‘What was exciting was that you felt that you could make a difference,’ she explained. ‘There was change to come and you could be part of it. It happened in the film industry, music, Aboriginal activism; every aspect was being questioned.’

Currency’s first title was Alex Buzo’s Macquarie. Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous and David Williamson’s Don’s Party were next. Currency’s roster of contemporary playwrights now embraces – among many others – Jack Hibberd, Peter Kenna, John Romeril, Steve J. Spears, Patrick White, Barry Humphries, Joanna Murray-Smith, Ray Lawler, Louis Nowra, Michael Gow, Alma De Groen, Stephen Sewell, Paul Capsis, Ron Blair, Nick Enright and Nick Parsons. As well, Currency has championed black writers such as Robert J. Merritt, Bob Maza, Jack Davis and Jimmy Chi, and reached back to honour earlier playwrights such as Louis Esson, Alfred Dampier, Katharine Susannah Prichard and Edward Geoghegan.

Currency Press is now Australia’s oldest independent publisher. In its 40 fruitful years it has published more than 900 plays by more than 500 authors. Playwright Katharine Thomson says: ‘Our plays are studied in schools and kids grow up reading Australian plays, only because of Currency Press.’ And Currency has branched out to include biographies and film scripts, music and historical studies.

In 1991 Currency published a lavish coffee-table book, Entertaining Australia. This was a forerunner to 1995’s massive Companion to Theatre in Australia, with its 650,000 words and 1200 entries. It remains the only major reference book on Australian theatre. In 2003 it was joined by the similarly authoritative Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia.

In 2000 Katharine established Currency House, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to stimulating and advancing the quality and enjoyment of Australian performing arts. To fulfil this role Currency House hosts lectures and forums; it also publishes a select range of significant cultural history and reference works and the quarterly Platform Papers series, which addresses contemporary issues.

In 1992 Katharine Brisbane was a founding member of the Australian National Playwrights’ Conference, and Chair of the Australian National Playwrights’ Centre from 1984 to 1990. She won the Australian Writers’ Guild Dorothy Crawford Award in 1985; in 1992 she and Philip Parsons received the Sydney Critics’ Circle Major Award for services to Australian theatre. For her work as a critic, Katharine was made an Honorary Doctor of Literature by the University of New South Wales in 1994. She received the National Book Council’s gold medal in 1994. In recognition of her services to Australian drama, Katharine Brisbane was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1993.

Director Wesley Enoch has described her as ‘an elder of our tribe’ and academic Donald Pulford once said, ‘If Katharine Brisbane didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent her.’

Katharine’s son, dramatist and director Nicholas Parsons, is now chairman of Currency Press, and her daughter, Harriet, is an artist.

 

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