Katharine Brisbane was a fledgling publisher searching for new Australian plays when in the early 1970s she arranged to meet a young playwright. He arrived, leather-clad and long of hair and leg, and handed her three scripts.
The Coming of Stork, The Removalists and Don's Party were destined to become landmark works for David Williamson and Australian theatre. Back then, they were unperformed and unpublished. ''I was amazed at this treasure I suddenly had put in my hands,'' Brisbane says. ''The language was very tough and I remember writing to him and saying 'I don't know if the theatre can take this language yet', but adding, 'Hang on, things are changing'.''
Many things have changed - beyond Williamson's fondness for black leather - since the Australian stage erupted with the raw exuberance that characterised the late '60s and early '70s. When Brisbane and her late husband, Philip Parsons, founded Currency Press - incorporated 40 years ago today - they established what has become the country's oldest independent active publisher, which continues to make an indelible mark on Australia's culture. Playwrights, performers, directors and others will gather at Currency's Redfern premises today to celebrate the press's unique achievement.
''We knew nothing about anything when we started,'' Brisbane says. ''Except we knew we had an extraordinary efflorescence of things happening, but not how to make a book or how the industry worked.''
In an era that is beset with business plans and marketing strategies, it is hard to imagine a publishing enterprise surviving today if it were fuelled simply by a passion and commitment that the nation's theatre culture was worth preserving.
Brisbane, then national theatre critic for The Australian, and Parsons, a drama lecturer at the University of NSW, had just returned from overseas study leave in the late '60s when the seeds of their enterprise were planted. ''There's always a moment when you get back from abroad when you see your own country and what's happening in it,'' Brisbane says.
The conservative Menzies era had ended and opposition to the Vietnam War was growing. The cultural landscape was transforming as the government began funding the arts, and a new form of theatre was emerging. Until then, theatre had either been simply amateur or commercial. ''There was no real Australian theatre, except vaudeville and variety shows. So this was something quite new and it just reflected the times,'' Brisbane says.
First off Currency's press was Alex Buzo's Macquarie. More than 900 plays by more than 500 playwrights have followed, including Patrick White, Ray Lawler and Louis Nowra and, more recently, Tom Holloway, Kate Mulvany and Tommy Murphy. Plays remain the core of Currency's work, but it also publishes cultural histories, critical studies and reference works. At 79, Brisbane remains a forthright cultural commentator.
Over the decades she has seen the quality of theatre, production values and marketing budgets increase. But not all this has served the art form. ''There have always been patrons for the arts but people didn't expect government to be responsible for entertainment in a way. Performers expected to live an up-and-down life,'' she says.
''They've always been slightly outside society and what we've done is make them respectable and bring them inside society.'' Has this new-found respectability blunted the edge of theatre? ''I think it has,'' she says. ''We have civilised the performing arts, in particular, more than I would have liked.''
Asked where she would look for the raw energy that characterised the first wave of Australian playwriting, Brisbane suggests indigenous theatre. ''Aboriginal theatre is more important than what we have seen in white theatre for the last 20 years,'' she says. ''But again, it's becoming a bit civilised … the big tragic stories are about the abuse that goes on in the outback [communities] and that hasn't been talked about [on stage].''These are not the only stories missing from stages, which have been slow to reflect the ethnic mix of contemporary Australia.
Since retiring as publisher a decade ago, Brisbane has continued to stimulate debate on the performing arts through the non-profit Currency House and the publication of its quarterly essays, Platform Papers.
She is encouraged that audiences for theatre remain strong and to see Australian works being revived, including White's The Season at Sarsaparilla , directed by Benedict Andrews, and Belvoir's forthcoming production of Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, directed by Neil Armfield. ''Years ago, revivals of Australian plays tended to just reveal that they were out of date, but the directors are a bit more knowledgeable now,'' Brisbane says.
She also welcomes the emergence of a star system in the theatre and the greater prominence of actors. In recent years some plays have been written as vehicles for them - most recently Lally Katz's Neighbourhood Watch, starring Robyn Nevin.
''For years I could never understand why the actors' names were never mentioned in the promotion or, if they were, they were in alphabetical order,'' she says.
''Now we have people who have been promoted as stars and that's rather good because it gives them a challenge. We've got some really good actors who choose to work on stage and see the stage as a discipline.''