In 2004, our most popular commercial playwright David Williamson decided to go into semi-retirement. His decision was on doctor's order's - as the Age reports today, "The pressure of coming up with one, sometimes two, plays a year had taken a toll, as had some of the vitriolic views of critics". (Hey, he should try being me for a few years). Anyway, he's back, writing a vehicle play for the rightly esteemed diva Carolyn O'Connor, which will premiere in the MTC's next season. You can hear the financial excitement crackle through the land.
Despite the awful strain of it all, there are compensations for being Williamson - his last play took $1 million at the box office. And without the annual Williamson play to bump up the coffers, the State companies went into mourning. This is about the economics of survival. As I said in 2004, on the occasion of Williamson's retirement:
The fact that our major theatres are funded so poorly explains why Williamson is a fixture on our subsidised stages. The MTC receives only 15 per cent of its funding from government sources, which leaves 85 per cent of its budget to be raised by box office and sponsorship. In 1996, the most recent figures I could find, the comparable flagship companies in France, the National Theatres, received 73 per cent of their funding from the State, 21 per cent through the box office and the remaining six per cent from other sales.
I'm unsure of the present levels of MTC funding, but they might be even less. Certainly, the STC's government funding amounts to 7 per cent. At this rate, our two largest theatre companies can barely be said to be subsidised. And while our flagship companies are so scandalously funded, it is unsurprising they should fall on Williamson's neck with cries of joy.
Nor, perhaps, is it surprising that the anxiety of underfunding should foster a fortress mentality that makes the State companies reluctant to enter the critical discourse on wider questions about theatre in Australia (such as Lee Lewis's paper on Cross-Racial Casting). But it's lamentable, all the same. And in the end, you have to feel a little sorry for Williamson, who seems to be carrying our State companies on his back. It's not his job, after all.