This is one of the most complex projects we have undertaken and it has been in process for over two years. We have been so fortunate in receiving support and assistance from many people – first and foremost the playwrights and their estates, Currency Press, the many agents who represent writers, the current staff of Playbox’s successor, Malthouse Theatre, the Performing Arts Collection at the Victorian Arts Centre, Jeff Busby who gave us permission to use his beautiful production images and, of course, the staff of Playbox, particularly its General Manager Jill Smith, and its two Artistic Directors Carrillo Gantner and Aubrey Mellor.
The collection focuses on what I have come to call its ‘All Australian Period’ which began in 1990 with its move to the then newly converted C.U.B. Malthouse in Sturt Street, South Melbourne. It is important to acknowledge that Playbox has always had a strong commitment to Australian plays and playwrights, a tradition which Malthouse Theatre continues to honour.
But these were different times. The energy of this phase of Playbox’s life flowed from the ‘New Wave’ in Australian playwriting (and theatre making) which had begun in the late 1960’s, led by writers such as David Williamson, Jack Hibberd, Dorothy Hewett and many others.
As the 70’s went on and newer writers such as Stephen Sewell, Louis Nowra and Alma de Groen appeared, the work started getting larger scale and more epic. Plays like Sewell’s The Blind Giant is Dancing, Nowra’s Inner Voices and de Groen’s The Rivers of China were challenging their audiences to take themselves seriously in the political realm, and to understand Australia as a significant player in world politics and culture. This was an amazing time for artists (and audiences) in Australia; an outpouring of creativity across the board, and a sense of ‘right time, right place’ across the foyers, galleries and concert halls of the country.
I graduated from drama school in 1989, a couple of months before the opening of the Malthouse, and I remember that, as much as we were talking about the ‘global village’ then, it still felt like the true role of an artist was to do Australian work. It felt possible. It felt exciting. It was a different world.
The policy of the new Playbox was that it would produce not only almost exclusively Australian work (with some contemporary Asian content), but also that these works would almost all be world premieres. It was a heady vision. And for fifteen years, that is what it did. As a result, Playbox developed many brilliant voices: Joanna Murray-Smith, Hannie Rayson, Richard Frankland, Michael Gurr and Ben Ellis, to name a few. It programmed established writers, and writers of whom no one had ever heard. It commissioned works, including Ariette Taylor’s Sabat Jesus and Jenny Kemp’s Black Sequin Dress. The ongoing development work it undertook with readings, commissions and workshops was enormous in its scope and exhausting in its capacity.
I can’t let this introduction go by without acknowledging and celebrating the amazing partnership between Playbox and the Ilbijerri Theatre Company. This is a major part of its legacy, and speaking strictly personally, the most significant. The unforgettable STOLEN, CONVERSATIONS WITH THE DEAD, The BLAK INSIDE program were all a result of Playbox and Ilbijerri’s ongoing collaboration in this period, which produced some of the most powerful texts in the Australian canon.
I worked at Playbox as Aubrey Mellor’s associate for five years (1999-2003). I remember thinking then, as I do now, that the Playbox vision was an impossible but yet wonderful aspiration. Research and Development in any sector is a vast, speculative and risky undertaking. When it plays out in full public glare, there is nowhere to hide. This is a given in the theatre. There is only so much you can understand without putting the work in front of an audience, and to do that effectively you need to rehearse and present the work as fully as possible. Sometimes it was magic; sometimes it was heartbreaking. But it was an amazing time and it left us with a staggering collection of texts, many of which as I re-read them, are as vividly connected to us and our world now as they were then – some even more so.
It is sometimes difficult when framing a collection such as this to avoid nostalgia. I know there are many people in the industry who mourn this time, not just for the demise of Playbox, but for a period of great flourishing in the arts across the board. Speaking personally, I value the current scene - the writers, makers, actors, directors and designers – as much as I did then. The times are very different, and the theatre is responding accordingly. That, to me, is as it should be. Theatre is, by necessity, a fashion-driven form. As Heidi Klum continually reminds us, ‘in fashion sometimes you are in, and sometimes you are out’. Comes with the territory. But the writers’ works remain as evocative time capsules of the world in which they were written. They record what we cared about, what we were passionate about, what was obsessing us. As such, they are objects of enormous cultural value. They remind us from where we have come, and sometimes to where we might go. The Playbox texts are the legacy of a brave and passionate cultural experiment: an experiment that created a generation of artists. We are so proud to be able to collect and preserve them, and to know that they remain visible and available to be read and performed.
To every playwright, I say ‘respect’. This is a monstrously difficult form and the times are particularly stressful. Now, as then, we need vision and courage. We need leadership. The All Australian Playbox experiment was bold, passionate and visionary. These works are the living proof.