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An actor’s life

The career of the late Bille Brown highlights the hazardous effects of bureaucracy on the arts

23 February 2013

9:00 AM

23 February 2013

9:00 AM

In the past 40 years or so, hundreds of millions of tax dollars have been poured into Australian live theatre. But the public is not aware how remarkably little of it makes it into the hands of the performers, and how precarious is the life of the professional actor. That is not due to a lack of good intentions from politicians or the public, but to the fact that much of the money spills into bureaucratic and ideological sands. Arts officials are not becoming rich rather than merely comfortable. It’s just that actors are generally poor.

Take the death and career of Bille Brown. Actors throughout Australia suffer the problems Bille faced, although those in Sydney and Melbourne inhabit a bigger profession. Bille made his home in Brisbane, but the problem is national.

He was not a household name like Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush and Hugh Jackman. But he was a much-loved one. His death last month at 61 was reported by the ABC Television News, the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. In Brisbane, the Courier-Mail devoted a substantial editorial to his death and the Premier appeared on television mourning his passing.

Aside from those with careers in Holly-wood, Bille must be counted among the extraordinarily successful. Principally a stage actor, he was versatile: an actor in 46 films, a playwright, a director — even an adjunct professor. (His favourite read was The Spectator. Bille loved its language and its writing, but Bille loved language and writing in general.)

Bille came from a very modest country background in Biloela in central Queensland, and it is a tribute to the state education system of the 1960s that his grounding in English Literature was so strong. He might not have been so lucky today.

He had an international career. He wrote a panto for the Royal Shakespeare Company (and was a member of it), had another performed at the Old Vic for Ian McKellen, won an Olivier award for his portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West in the musical The Wizard Of Oz and appeared on Broadway with Derek Jacobi. He was spotted at Stratford by John Cleese and was engaged by him. He was no matinee idol, but an actor for distinctive ‘character’ roles.

Bille toured Australia as Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss, and most recently was cast as the monstrous Bruscon in Thomas Bernhard’s The Histrionic. Friends joked that Bille’s whole life was a preparation for that role.

He had the respect of influential people and yet theatre gave Bille an irregular income. His sexuality was touched on in his obituaries but marriage and children would have probably meant giving up theatre. Had he taken up teaching (the first thing he did after university), Bille might have had a limited but secure life. He never owned or could afford to buy a house or a car. This was not due to a lack of focus or industry. Bille drove himself hard and grasped every opportunity keenly.

Bille would not have swapped his insecure life for a secure life outside acting. Making his home in Brisbane was a financial mistake, but he did not confine his professional life to Brisbane or shun opportunities elsewhere.

Brisbane had earlier seen a lot of Bille and wanted to see much more of him. He was last seen at the Queensland Theatre Company (it named its experimental theatre after him) in his play The School of Arts. People might have wondered if the man after whom the theatre was named had died some years ago.

In the early Seventies Bille came to Brisbane to get his BA, but Alan Edwards (the first artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company, founded in 1969) engaged him and Geoff Rush. This meant a staff of four, including the office manager. Edwards was often thought of as an old-fashioned colonial repertory actor but he sustained a year-round company which employed actors. He carefully watered and fertilised theatre talent.

The QTC had a huge program that ran for almost the whole year. Bille said that its financial success depended on two pillars, Shakespeare and musicals, and that these paid for more esoteric theatre. There were almost double the number of productions there are today, but many more actors were engaged; Shakespeare, musicals and the classics being labour-intensive. Although the QTC was not strictly an ensemble, Edwards aimed to provide work to allow Brisbane actors to keep body and soul together.

After Edwards retired and Aubrey Mellor left, a newer approach reflecting the arts bureaucrats’ agenda emerged. No musicals were performed and classical repertoire such as Shakespeare quickly dwindled. In a short time there were 45 employees, none of them actors. The baffling ideas of process, distrust of popular work, gender and social engineering favoured by the officials overruled whatever the QTC’s artistic directors thought or did.

Bille was diagnosed with bowel cancer 12 months ago. He kept this to himself because of what might happen to his chances of work if it got out. He was offered the demanding but great role of Bruscon by the Sydney Theatre Company without it knowing of his health crisis. He would attend chemotherapy in the morning and do his gruelling performance at night. His commitment and the challenges he faced are heartbreaking.

Bille gave no sign of thinking his hometown owed him a living as an actor. But the subsidy to the QTC alone is about $4 million a year. No actor appears now to get more than one engagement a year. (To be fair, the current artistic director was appointed only recently.) If there were more performances of some more popular repertoire it might make life easier for professional actors. We need exposure to such artists to allow us to enrich our common imaginative life.

Ideas of productivity seem as alien to our public arts officials as they are to the bureaucrats who have taken control of health and education. Much subvention produces scant or no result. Labor may be too sympathetic to the bureaucratic narrative, but the conservatives often show little appetite to roll it back. In Edwards’ time, there were only four persons in the Queensland arts commissariat. There are a multitude today. Should not scarce arts funding be spent on supporting quality and audiences and not on empty social programs? And is not support of performers infinitely more worthwhile than that of the secure lifestyle of officials?

Neil Thompson is a Brisbane-based barrister.

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