Charles Parkinson on Stage


Originally published in Tasmania 40 South, Issue 73, 2014

I have come to interview Charles Parkinson, Artistic Director of the Tasmanian Theatre Company, to hear about his vibrant career and discuss theatre and the state of the arts in Tasmania, but somehow we are talking about Churchill and Roosevelt. Churchill, Parkinson reminds me, when asked during World War II if he planned to cut arts funding to pay for the war effort, reportedly replied, “Then what are we fighting for?” Roosevelt’s New Deal, Parkinson says, included heavy investment in theatre.

“Roosevelt didn’t just do it as a diversion from the misery of the Depression, but to create jobs. And look at what it built.” Charles argues that investing in the arts is one of the best ways to stimulate the economy. But after decades in theatre throughout Australia and in the United States, Charles believes that theatre is much more than a great economic driver – it is critical to a healthy community.

Charles’ theatre career began at Smithton High School, on the Northwest Coast. Fresh out of university, in his first year of teaching, Charles directed his first stage production. By chance, the arts writer for the Examiner happened to be staying in Smithton with a friend whose son was in the performance. After being profoundly impressed by the performance, she wrote a feature article for the Examiner. The school principle was also impressed (“there’s only one thing school principal’s like as much as funding and that’s publicity”) meaning that Charles basically had free reign for the next three years to create bigger and better shows. 5,000 people came to his last show – in a town of less than 4,000.

Charles then went travelling and landed a job in a creative arts workshop in New Jersey. It was there he heard about a new international post graduate opportunity in which students could design their own Masters course then propose it to an assessment panel. If the panel supported the idea the student would then be assigned a supervisor and supported throughout their Masters. Charles pitched the idea of setting up a new theatre company in Tasmania – “and they bought it.”

Charles continued travelling in the United States whilst researching and thinking about the Masters he would soon commence. But when he got back to Tasmania, “They must have finally realised, shit we can’t afford this, the closest suitable supervisor is in Singapore!” They politely informed Charles that they wouldn’t be able to follow through with their offer.

“But by then I was all fired up, so I set up the Breadline Theatre Company here and ran it for 3 years.”

Since then Charles has been the Artistic Director for the Flying Fruit Fly Circus and CIRKIDZ and been the General Manager for Mainstreet Theatre. He has directed shows for the Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney Festivals and has worked for The Sydney Theatre Company, Nimrod, The Theatre of the Deaf and Zootango.

The word ‘theatre’ comes from the Greek ‘a place to view’. Having been involved in theatre for decades and in many different places, Charles has become acutely aware that the ‘view’ looking out from the stage is as important as the view looking in. “Culturally engaged communities are healthier communities, and in Tasmania where we have an aging population this is even more important.”

Whether at Smithton High School or on the biggest stages of London or New York, each piece of theatre is unique. It is a “live ephemeral experience that you can only get from sitting in a room with a community of other people committed to the unique never to be repeated occasion of a particular night in the theatre.” The next night or a different season of that performance will not be the same. One cannot say this of a book, film or piece of visual art. Ironically, this makes it harder for politicians to gain political capital from funding theatre and makes the medium more expensive than most other art forms to produce.

To Charles, theatre can provide a reflection of a community’s soul, an unquantifiable value to society that is simply about being a human being. It is this ‘reflection’ that makes theatre unique from place to place. Tasmanian theatre is influenced by the island’s demographics, such as the fact that so many young people leave and that we have an aging population. It is influenced by the unique environment and the fact that it is an island. Charles also laments that it is influenced, and not generally in a positive way, by the fact that “we have a culture in which what the practitioners are doing doesn’t seem to line up with the practice and philosophy of government.”

Tasmania has a small population and therefore small audiences, but it actually has the second highest per capita theatre attendance of any state or territory. The combination of small audiences and very low funding mean that ‘poor’ theatre is inevitable – not bad theatre, ‘poor’ theatre, Charles explains. “There is so little employment in the Tasmanian theatre industry that it deprives us of directors, lighting technicians, designers and composers who might otherwise practice here, and likewise of the opportunity to bring people in from elsewhere to ‘cross-fertilise’ with local practitioners.” People who elsewhere would make theatre their main profession, simply cannot in Tasmania.

But population is not the problem. Charles used to be the Artistic Director of HotHouse, based in Albury – Wodonga, Australia’s most successful regional theatre company. HotHouse has grown not just to be treasured by individuals, but by the broader community, businesses and local government. It has a strong commitment to ensuring remote and regional communities have the same rights to quality theatre as cities, and its successes staging co-productions, which bring in talent from around the country, have been a welcome boost socially and economically to the region.

So why can’t a theatre company in Tasmania enjoy the same success and provide the same benefits to its community as HotHouse? According to Charles, the key difference is that in Tasmania, theatre is poorly supported by government, the business community and the local media. The saddest moment in Charles’ long career came in 2008, when shortly after launching the new Tasmanian Theatre Company with great fanfare the Tasmanian Government announced it was defunding it. The decision was eventually turned around, but it was a despairing moment that highlighted the vulnerability of the little funding the arts in Tasmania does receive. Charles points out that when this is considered within the context that Tasmania has the second lowest per capita arts funding of the states and territories (approximately half that of the ACT) and that Australia spends the second lowest of a percentage of gross domestic product of any developed country on the arts, it makes Tasmanian arts very poor indeed.

“The quality of arts in Tasmania is not a reflection of the government’s investment in it. It is despite the government’s lack of investment in it.”

MONA has clearly been a wonderful boost to the arts in Tasmania, but according to Charles, it has caused politicians to think “The arts in Tasmania are fine, we have MONA” and our media to think “we need to report on Tasmanian arts, we better report on something from MONA.” At the time of our discussion, Tasmania was less than two weeks out from a state election and none of the political parties had released their arts policy. Eventually the three parties did release them, all of which focussed heavily on potential economic and employment opportunities rather than the broad ranging, often intangible, societal benefits of the arts.

According to Charles however, there are huge missed opportunities to generate employment, income and an export industry that would all boost the local economy, due to insufficient arts funding in Tasmania. A report from the Creative Industries Innovation Centre was recently released showing that the creative industries in Australia represent 6.2% of total Australian employment and $90.2 billion total annual revenue, including $3.2 billion in exports. But the most important finding was that for “every dollar in turnover generated by creative industries results in 3.76times total revenue for all other industries in the Australian economy.” The creative industries have a greater economic multiplier effect than any other industry. These figures suggest funding the arts is more akin to investment than subsidy. In other words, as Roosevelt perhaps knew – if you want to stimulate the economy, invest in the arts.

Tasmania is well-positioned to develop and exploit creative industries. Charles points to Denmark, a small country with few natural resources, but one of the highest standards of living in the world and argues their success is primarily because they have supported their creative industries. Of course, ‘creative industries’ not only include traditional arts, but also web and game designers, industrial designers, advertisers and architects. “These are the kinds of people who can work from anywhere in the world. If we were fully NBN capable, why wouldn’t they choose to live here?”

Charles believes we should make a commitment to the creative industries as being a fundamental and critical part of our economy. He was one of two Tasmanian representatives at the Towards a Creative Australia as part of the Prime Minister’s 2020 Summit. Charles explains that of around 100 great ideas at the Summit, only a few got up. One proposal that Charles, along with Hugh Jackman, pushed heavily with then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, was the idea that every federal department should have to spend a certain percentage of their budget on creativity. They weren’t arguing for a large percentage and pointed out that many departments probably already were. For example, clearly the health and defence departments already spend a lot on creativity via research and development, but Charles argues it should be “named up” to promote better recognition of the notion of creativity and its importance across all facets of society. This was to become one of the majority of good ideas that stayed on the shelf.

Culture is a network of human relationships, as Eduardo Galeano pointed out in Days and Nights of Love and War, providing us with essential “testimonies of what we are, prophecies of the imagination and denunciations of what prevents us from being.” Despite the demonstrated economic stimulus created by better supporting the arts, to Charles, the often difficult to quantify or intangible benefits to communities and individuals within them, are every bit as important. “If we are to have a well-rounded civilised community, then theatre is part of a cultural jigsaw that is critical to the social well-being of that community.” It’s just one piece of the jigsaw, but it’s a critical piece. It helps collective pride and confidence, forming part of a rich and complex culture.

The arts also stimulate the economy with efficiency second to no other industry. Former premier, Jim Bacon saw these benefits when he ignored his treasury department and made Ten Days on the Island a reality. Today’s political leaders must ask themselves a simple question: “Are we prepared to be the only state in Australia that doesn’t have a full time professional theatre company?”

Charles’ ambition for the remainder of his long and diverse theatre career is straight forward, to turn the Tasmanian Theatre Company into a treasured and major player within the Australian theatre scene.