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Carrillo Gantner: An Arts Life tribute

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Carrillo Gantner might not be a name that many outside arts and philanthropy circles have heard of, but most of us have surely been beneficiaries of his influence in most areas of Australian arts — from circus to the visual arts. The actor/director/producer/farmer/cultural attache/city councillor/mentor/philanthropist/husband/father/grandfather recently turned 70. Last night in Melbourne a party was held to celebrate his “Arts Life”.

Among the 200 or so guests in the foyer of the Malthouse Theatre were artistic and festival directors past and present, actors, comedians, playwrights, philanthropists, former Victorian Premiers (at least two), former arts ministers (at least two), his current wife and ex-wives (at least two), and his children (at least three).

Speakers included theatre director Lindy Davies, comedian Rod Quantock, former Premier John Cain, former Premier and relative Ted Baillieu, Gantner’s eldest son Vallejo Gantner (artistic director of New York’s PS 122), and performers included the Flying Fruit Fly Circus and cabaret artist Meow Meow. Speeches were also made by Jill Smith who worked with Gantner for 14 years at Playbox Theatre and his first cousin Rupert Myer, who is also the chairman of the Australia Council. Their speeches are published below.

Jill Smith former general manager of Playbox Theatre

Theatre for Carrillo had a mantra: “Make the impossible inevitable”. Let’s not wonder where this mantra came from, let alone under what influence but it was, and remains a great mantra. And it is at the heart of the reason we are here tonight.

What follows may sound too ordered, but of course it was not and that mantra helped us find a way through the mayhem. Standing here Carrillo I am reminded of the time we farewelled you from Playbox.

Many of you will recall that night — a landmark night if only for Carrillo’s speech — all two hours of it — covering the personal and artistic; the highlights and lowlights.

The decision to ensure that you are not long at the microphone tonight is probably a very wise one. Your 14 Playbox years are now a relatively small part of your cultural life and by my calculation you would be in Mahabharata territory, needing at least seven hours to take us through it all.

And therein lies my challenge. I only hope I can encapsulate a remarkable pioneering arts life  in the short time available. Much as I would like to, I will not be giving endless anecdotes, nor long lists of names and dates.

But I will allow myself to get into trouble using the words ‘plays’ and ‘playwrights’. What I am aiming for are key threads and connections that have weaved their way across your arts life. But rest assured Carrillo, your secrets are safe… at least for this moment.

First, let me say I think very little would have been achieved if Carrillo had not kept his sense of humour throughout. This manifested itself in many ways and we have all enjoyed it, or maybe not. One of my first memories is from the early days of Playbox when he took us up to Russell Street to stand outside the MTC handing out our brochures, the front cover of which asked the question: “Tired of your current boring, expensive subscription?”

And then there was the sourcing of cartoons to include in the increasingly voluminous funding applications and acquittals. He said it was a test to see if they were actually read. There were also regular deliveries to funding panel meetings, including once, a cake with its icing marked — “their slice/ours”.

So where did it all begin? A BA from the University of Melbourne, a Master of Fine Arts (Drama) from Stanford, and a Graduate Diploma in Arts Administration from Harvard. His surprising Australian journey started in 1969 working with the Adelaide Festival. Then he was the first drama officer at the Australia Council followed by a few years as general manager of the Melbourne Theatre Company. Yes, that one is a surprise too.

But it was in 1976 when he joined Graeme Blundell and Garrie Hutchinson to establish Hoopla, later Playbox, that I see his Australian arts life truly beginning.

The company was formed “to do the things that others were not doing” and open to new ideas and artists. From this moment there were a number of what might be called ‘opening statements’ interwoven with pioneering high-risk and ultimately connected, roving adventures.

The first ‘opening statement’ was the launch of Hoopla at the VCA’s Grant Street theatre with two plays by women: Alma de Groen’s Chidley and Dorothy Hewitt’s Golden Oldies which made an unprecedented statement in a fledgling Australian theatre world.

Flushed with success and moving to the Playbox Theatre on Exhibition Street they welcomed the legendary Gordon Chater in the controversial Nimrod production of Steve J. Spear’s Elocution of Benjamin Franklin.

And in the first 15 months at their new home there were 21 productions of which 16 were premieres by Australian playwrights. Opening the studio theatre at the newly opened arts centre A Stretch of the Imagination was chosen with Steve Kearny in the role. In opening a major new theatre for Melbourne it recognised a play that was already seen, as an Australian classic as well as the contribution of the Pram Factory and La Mama. This moment further confirmed the company’s commitment to Australian playwrights.

And then in the grand opening of its new home here at CUB’s Malthouse  in what many deemed a piece of inspired lunacy — but was designed to make a clear statement about future directions –Carrillo launched a season of eight Australian plays.  Five were by women, seven premieres, and Away on its way to becoming a classic. It saw Hannie Rayson, Joanna Murray -Smith, Robyn Archer, Therese Radic and Tess Lyssiotis joined by Michael Gow, David Allen and Ron Elisha.

But in between these opening moments from the early days at Hoopla/ Playbox through to Playbox at the Malthouse-  and yes he did go to Beijing during that time but I will come to that later as sole artistic director–Carrillo oversaw a series of annual programs which ventured into the unknown. Many were new Australian plays, many with Asian themes or connections interwoven with the Australian premieres of the best contemporary plays from overseas.

And happily during his time at Playbox he enjoyed the opportunity to direct or be on stage as frequently as he could. His CV confirms he has in fact during his arts life been in 40 productions. These do not include  his TV and film credits. The one I like best a film called  A Wild Ass of a Man –– what a great title.

Under Carrillo’s guidance, Playbox also took off to various theatres across Melbourne including the National, the Palais, Dallas Brooks Hall, the Comedy, and Universal for the presentation of performances including Stephen Berkoff, Jeanie Lewis as Piaf, Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and major Chinese companies, alongside the now expected range of new Australian works.

When Rex Cramphorn joined Playbox as resident director in 1981, a loose ensemble explored Shakespeare and the company’s success saw a number of productions driven by Carrillo and Rex invited to tour interstate.

1984 –Carrillo’s last year in his first period with the company  — was a remarkable year with seven productions presented interstate across Sydney, Adelaide, the Northern Territory, Canberra and Tasmania. Rex’s production of Insignificance with Carrillo as Einstein, Kate Fitzpatrick as Marilyn Monroe and John O’May as Joe de Maggio broke box office records at the Sydney Opera House and toured widely.

1984 was also the year that the Playbox Theatre was destroyed by fire. That was a devastating day. But ironically it was the first time the dual portfolios held by Race Mathews, arts and police/emergency services, made any sense. Whilst the planned season could fortuitously be transferred to St Martins, Carrillo and the board led by Graeme Samuel immediately debated options for the company. Should it close? Should it find a new home or seek to be the resident company in the newly opened arts centre?  The decision?  A new life, in a new home, in the CBD.

They recognised that critical factors in the company’s success were not only Playbox’s commitment to a high risk contemporary, Australian program, but that it was taking place on the stage of a central Melbourne venue. John Beckett was enlisted to hunt down a new home and when negotiations on an old Flinders Street cinema fell through, he happened to travel past this impressive and highly atmospheric old Malthouse to see removal vans clearing the offices from this obsolete plant.

Ironically, this was one of the buildings the founding “fathers” had looked at when setting up Hoopla. Clearly the location was then CBD fringe,  and few could have imagined the residential transformation of this then semi- industrial area. And whilst the initial visit to the pigeon-infested ruin with Graeme was less than successful —  “You have wasted my time”,  are the words that stay in my mind, Beckett worked on plans, and he and Carrillo won Graeme over and he eventually secured the building through negotiations with John Elliott.

When Carrillo re-joined the company the project was shaky, but he returned with new energy, passion and vision. Together with John Beckett, Paul Maguire as project architect, Graeme as chair of the Board, and John Ridge as chair of the building committee, the renovations commenced in 1988. This makes it all sound incredibly simple but we all know otherwise. For example, the debate re heritage versus modern was long and hard as there was a cost to convert a 19th century derelict building into a contemporary arts centre. For a start it was covered in kalsomine and tar paper with 1000 tonnes of concrete and metal to be removed. But innovative solutions were used to preserve the fabric and feeling of the century-old bricks, cast iron and timber, alongside the design of the new theatres.

Playbox’s new home opened in 1990. Whilst the Sturt Street tower had to be left for a second stage , the theatres, rehearsal rooms and administration areas were more than the company had dreamed of. And it was only possible because of the initial astounding CUB donation — the largest corporate donation to the arts at that time –the determination of the Playbox Board and staff, and the unique partnership driven by Carrillo between the corporate sector, philanthropists and government. It is unlikely such a project would succeed today.

To ensure the Malthouse was not built out by encroaching apartments, Carrillo also commenced negations with government and eventually the adjacent site was secured — and is now the home of ACCA, Chunky Move and the company’s workshop.  We now take this contemporary heart for granted and wonder what Melbourne would be like without this oasis.

Carrillo’s support for Australian playwrights was unquestioned but throughout this time his sights were also drawn to Asian arts, Chinese tea and silk vests. The doors to China had barely opened before Carrillo made his first trip. This was quickly followed by the first Australian Asian Theatre tour which paved the way to his lifelong exploration of Australian-Asian connections.

At Playbox he oversaw productions strongly influenced by Asian theatre styles and the company initiated and hosted training programs and exchanges. It was during this time he forged a partnership with Clifford Hocking and David Vigo. Clifford shared Carrillo’s love of Asia and had always had the capacity to sniff the international winds. So Carrillo was a natural ally.

To fulfil their ambitions there needed to be an independent legal vehicle. After much discussion they came up with the name ‘Playking’. Clifford with his dry wit said: “Well, that is better than Hock Box”. This partnership saw tours of leading Chinese companies including the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe, the Jiangsu Peking Opera Company and the Hunan Puppet Theatre.

It was during these tours that Carrillo negotiated for members of the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe to come back the Australia to train with the Fruit Fly Circus and Circus Oz. Carrillo also had a fascination with the work of Tadashi Suzuki. Having worked to set up a tour of the company to the Melbourne Spoleto Festival he created not only the opportunity for Australian actors to train with the master, but he also persuaded Suzuki San to travel to Melbourne to direct the troupe in the Chronicle of Macbeth. This production subsequently toured back to Japan. The King Lear production was also a direct legacy of this project and also toured to Japan.

In one of Carrillo’s greatest performances he surprisingly passed an ASIO overseas posting clearance, survived intensive language classes in the wilderness of Point Cook and, in arguably the highlight of his Asian engagement, he became Counsellor (Cultural) at the Australian Embassy in Beijing for three years from 1985.

It was during this time that he helped secure a cultural exchange which saw the first contemporary Chinese play, The Imposter ( If I were real), produced by Playbox and the Melbourne Spoleto Festival. He also directed a production of A Stretch of the Imagination at the Shanghai People’s Art Theatre –both were controversial in their own way.  Another landmark under his watch was the tour of Cho Cho San to Nanjing, Shanghai and Beijing following extensive touring in Australia.

He was both a governor and deputy chair of the Federation for Asian Cultural Promotion, and outside the arts he pursued his Asian interests as the chair of the Asia Link Centre at the University of Melbourne and as a member of the Australia-China Council.

Clearly, you are all aware there was a life for Carrillo after Playbox. As a first step he again surprised us with a tilt at public office and for three years from 1996 Carrillo was a councillor of the City of Melbourne. During this time he chaired the city’s Planning and Development and the Docklands Committees and was deputy chairman of the finance committee,  as well as carrying responsibility for cultural development. Not many people are happy to identify themselves as having worked on Docklands, but we should all be grateful Carrillo was part of what were the early days of the city’s cultural development.

Arguing the case for an arts and culture budget would have been an immense challenge but he laid the groundwork for what is now a major contribution by the City to the cultural life of Melbourne. During this time of course he was working closely with the Comedy Festival and was soon to become its chair. When Carrillo joined that board it was seven years old the festival was arguably still finding its feet. Carrillo guided it for its next seven, and now after 28 years it is one of the three largest comedy festivals in the world, alongside the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival. It is accessible, irreverent and diverse, featuring the best of the new and the established, and absolutely in synch with Carrillo’s humour and priorities.

As his next challenge Carrillo took up the presidency of the Victorian Arts Centre. He completely understood the central role this Melbourne icon could play in the city’s cultural life, offering a return on artistic investment, not just on bricks and mortar. He embraced the ‘P’ word and steered the centre’s focus onto its key role in programming creating budget lines and establishing a foundation to support programming in perpetuity.

This focus also drew the Arts Centre towards Asia and finally took form in the Kenneth Myer Asian Theatre Series and its associated endowment. It was a fantastic example of his astute philanthropic instincts. Alongside the programming, the Trust was wrestling with ageing infrastructure.  Under Carrillo’s watch there was a long campaign to interest the (state) government in a master plan for the precinct. The Hamer Hall refurbishment was marked as stage one of this overall masterplan and it is a sign of his tenacity that funding for Hamer Hall was confirmed before he left the building.

And so to the Melbourne Festival. We all know how much Carrillo would have loved to be the artistic director of either Adelaide or Melbourne, and I for one would have loved to see his festivals. Whilst that was not to be, at least he had the opportunity to be the chair of Melbourne’s. He will be disappointed he did not manage to get it moved to March, but he has had the opportunity to wrestle with a plethora of opinions of what the festival should stand for in a city so well served by its own artists and companies.

And now he is stepping back from all this. What do we make of this incredible story? When I look for words to describe Carrillo, I personally think of flamboyant vests, funny, fearless, persistent, passionate, loyal, unwavering in pursuit, and most often, ahead of his time.

In our lives outside Playbox making the impossible inevitable remains a central guide. Those who have been supported by him as chair talk of his unwavering advocacy and his complete understanding of the role of the chair and the board, a focus on long term horizons, aspirations and possibilities, steering away from the operational to let management do its job: “hire the chief executive, support the chief executive, and if you find you can’t, then sack the chief executive and find one you can”. That makes it pretty clear.

Navigating his way through six directors of Arts Victoria, 14 arts ministers and nine Premiers–let alone the Federal complexities with which he was heavily involved — it is surprising he achieved so much. Behind his apparent calm demeanour there were times when he had to be pulled down from the roof and the megaphone wrestled from his hand.

And so to his legacy. The ripple effects and connections go on and on. But a few striking examples. After the opening of the Malthouse the commitment to Australian playwrights, Asian influences and Asian arts continued with Carrillo, and then with Aubrey Mellor who shared the passion. Clearly as we are still enjoying the work of the company now called  Malthouse  Theatre, the company did not fold at the end of its first all- Australian season as many had predicted.

The risk of new work has remained at the heart of the company  under Michael Kantor and Marion Potts. But none of this could have happened without the very strong foundations laid by Carrillo in those early days. Ross Garnaut commented at the opening of the Malthouse that Playbox’s focus and understanding of Australia’s essential connections with Asia were pioneering and would live on. In a recent email exchange between Carrillo and Aubrey , he attached was a list of Australian plays translated into Japanese — a staggering 52 including indigenous work — of which 38 have had productions.

Cliff would be thrilled that Playking lives, continuing to take risks with support for Asian companies touring here and supporting historic collaborations such as the recent wonderful production of Cho Cho. And as we stand here tonight in the beautiful Malthouse now embedded in Melbourne’s cultural life it is fitting that playing in the Merlyn is The Good Woman of Szechwan — a new collaboration with Malthouse and China.

Then there is the circus legacy. As we have seen and heard today –not only through the work of the legends that are Circus Oz, The Flying Fruit Fly Circus — but also through NICA and the boom in circus and physical theatre companies, the bike routines, juggling, hoops and tower of chairs carry on as confirmed parts of their shows.

Fortunately Carrillo has also helped  preserve the Playbox legacy with the archive now at the Performing Arts Museum. It is worth a visit to understand how remarkable this history is with its hundreds of Australian plays and an unprecedented Australian/Asian theatre history.

This will not be  a story that goes away: Australian playwrights and Australia’s connection with Asia and the role the arts play in that are fundamental to who and what we are and what we can be as a nation. And can I say on Carrillo’s behalf —those who question it should take a good hard look at themselves. Carrillo has always not only understood this,  but  as an artist and administrator devoted his life to enshrining it, and that is what we are celebrating tonight.

As we all know behind every great man there is a great woman — and in Carrillo’s case there have been several. To his wives, partners and girlfriends, his PAs who managed to make sense of it all, his friends outside the arts who offered respite, and most importantly to (his mother) Neilma who has kept all the threads together — we all say thank you. Everyone here tonight has been touched to a greater of lesser extent by Carrillo’s arts life and we know our own arts lives are all the better for it.


Rupert Myer, chair of the Australia Council 

I have been asked to speak about my dear cousin, Carrillo, and his contribution to philanthropy. Predictably, I have also been nicely, indirectly, instructed by him not to talk about what he does and I’ve been reminded that he doesn’t like being called a philanthropist. That’s made it easy!

It’s best to defy the guidance, I thought. So, ‘Give and Let Give’: Carrillo’s Philanthropy.

As a way to understand the pleasure that he gets from it, I want to speak of his attitude to it, the language that he uses for it, the care he exercises in practicing it and the advocacy he gives to it.

We are here because Carrillo is much loved and admired, by his whole family many of whom are present tonight, his friends, the arts sector and the broader community.  He is loved and just a little bit feared.  He is free, beholden mostly only to his own conscience, independent in thought and action and transparent in his decision making, on occasions.

He casts his quick and easy wit and very occasional grumpiness far and wide.  Like a Booroola Zinfandel, he is full to the brim with fortitude and prefers the road less trampled.

You never have to ask him the question, ‘what do you think?’

Those of us who have shared a boardroom table with him know that he can spot a split infinitive at five hundred paces.  He can move a comma and sharpen the entire meaning of a sentence.  He can conjure up a single word that does the job of a dozen.

If he is ever late for a meeting, his boards rush to approve the minutes in his absence before his grammar classes can commence.  But, of course, we really can’t wait to discover what he’s found.

Carrillo exercises a generosity of spirit in his remarks.  Avoiding corporate speak on every occasion, he prefers words and expressions that might stimulate imagination. Rather than speaking obliquely, for example, about Victoria’s regional galleries and their contribution and significance, he says that they ought to be thought of as a ‘necklace of jewels across the State’.  What a fine way to think of them.  Suddenly, they sparkle and shimmer and do wonderful things to our senses.

He carries into such a complimentary observation all of his ‘everywhere’ from the small galaxy of philanthropic trusts and foundations, arts organisations and government entities that he has served and led.

In his personal philanthropic conduct, he demonstrates respect for family elders, past traditions and future generations but is not burdened by them; he gives a twist to the priorities of others; he crosses art forms, geographies, languages and cultural divides; he is at once Beijing and Bermagui, McAllister Springs and Avenel, small, medium and large, big end of town and far from it, names on the wall and hands in the cement.  His soul inhabits these places and they become part of him and he of them.

For Carrillo, it’s not just about the money; but, to the relief of all, it is about the money too.  He brings to his contribution an attitude that conveys a deep appreciation of what philanthropy should be, can be and should not be. I love his remark that philanthropy ‘isn’t just expressed by handing out cash; it’s expressed by the good that people do for their fellow citizens and their communities, through time, treasure and talent’.He asserts that the ‘real philanthropists’ are those who give ‘generously of themselves when they have so little in the way of material wealth’ and that the ‘morality’ of giving lies with them.

On philanthropic motives, he cautions us that ‘warning lights should be flashing’ if the ‘selfish joy in the achievement of good ends… leads the giver to feel especially virtuous or noble’.

He makes a sharp distinction between the role of a trustee as a steward engaged in the administration of someone else’s philanthropic act, and personal giving on one’s own account. And he brings a practical and informed critique to the growth of the grant evaluation industry.  He says that he has never ‘met a grant recipient who said they had wasted the money they were given or that the donors were less than brilliant for recognising their special qualities with the grant’.

So, what might Carrillo say to the aspiring arts grant recipient? Perhaps make sure that your enterprise is ‘business-like but not like business’, that there is evidence in the proposal of ‘value with values’, that the role of the professional artist is defined and artists’ fees are included in the budget, that there is a clear and convincing expression of original and smart creative energy, and finally, that it’s two Rs and two Ls.

[box]Main image: Carrillo Gantner with former Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu at the Malthouse Theatre July 15, 2014. Picture by Jim Lee.[/box]

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