Australian Theatre History. The Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory
THE PRAM FAMILY SHOW
The Australian Performing Group was above all a performer’s theatre. As one who was not an actor I always felt something of an onlooker, unsure of exactly what my role was. John Romeril, then a student at Monash University, had learned that I was writing a PhD on Australian theatre and invited me to give a talk about what I’d turned up to the group just beginning to coalesce at the Pram Factory late in 1969. From then on I was part of the APG, but there was no obvious slot into which I fitted. The role of the writers and directors was sometimes problematic in an actor-centred group, but at least they knew what they were! I said this once to Bill Garner, who kindly assured me, ‘Margaret, your place in this group is not in doubt.’ But what place? A kind of unofficial researcher, theatre historian, academic advocate, writer of comments for programs and newsletters, and a de facto ‘one of the boys’. I am still ashamed that I was largely unaware of the marginalisation felt by so many of the APG women until they began to speak out for themselves, concerned as I was with my own imagined marginalisation as a non-performer.
Today I think that if, long before the concept of dramaturge, the APG found a place for an unofficial historian-researcher it says much about the group’s central concern with ideas and history -- specifically with the history of Australian theatre and the APG’s own place within it. All significant theatre comes about through a group of creative people who happen to intersect with a pivotal moment of social transition. The APG members were acutely aware of their own moment in time, and to articulate their unique place in Australian theatre and their hopes for its future they wanted to know the past. Earlier attempts to create an indigenous theatre by Louis Esson’s Pioneer Players in the 1920s, and some of the Little Theatres in the 30s and 40s, had focused on staging dramatic texts. By contrast the APG found an affinity with the homegrown versions of popular melodrama and vaudeville, and drew directly upon those vigorous physical styles in its search for a mode of performance that would be intrinsically Australian.
Australia in the 1960s was a place quite a few of us had fled from as parochial, conservative, and seemingly unable to break out of an endemic second-handedness. In fact things were already beginning to stir in the performing arts, with the consolidation of subsidy and the establishment of the various state theatre companies. But despite their occasional Australian productions the new companies, far from creating something distinctively homegrown, seemed to perpetuate an essentially English tradition of well-made plays and conventional acting techniques.
Some APG members had not long returned from living abroad, bringing home with them ideas and stimulus from an alternative political theatre taking shape around the world in the wake of the 1968 student revolution, and new concepts of what performance could be from Grotowski in Europe and flexible spaces like La Mama in New York. The common source of these diverse new forms of theatrical expression was their creation from first-hand experience and discovery, not from established conventions.
Was that why some of us were drawn home just at that time, to create something that was truly our own? It was also that Australia was part of the most controversial war of recent times and our generation was implicated in it whether we liked it or not. In London in 1966 I’d seen Peter Brook’s production of US, which crystallised for me the impotence of protesting about the Vietnam war in a Britain that wasn’t part of it. Australia was part of it, and I left the theatre feeling that was where I should be. And when I came home I found a group which combined a passion about exploring new theatrical forms, a commitment to political action, and a sense of Australia’s theatrical past and future, in the Melbourne I’d always wanted to escape from.
But the Pram Factory’s most radical commitment at the time, and perhaps still, was not just to an Australian theatre at the forefront of social and political change -- it was its belief in the performer as a prime creator, not just the servant or tool of writer and director. Then, as in the past, most people wanting an indigenous theatre (the APG was not alone in this) thought it would emerge from the drama, and the search was on in the 1960s for plays from writers already established in other fields. The Pram Factory and its little mate La Mama round the corner are often remembered as stables for new Australian writers, and certainly the works of Jack Hibberd, John Romeril, Barry Oakley, and the early David Williamson are their lasting gifts to Australian theatre. The APG’s medium, though, was not primarily the interpretation of already written texts but the interactive theatrical moment between performers and audience. Only writers who were completely at home in that element of the unpredictable present and willing to explore it together with the actors could belong within the group. Starting from first-hand observation of their own Australian society, the Carlton playwrights and actors discovered new forms of theatre in its physicality, aggression, robust vernacular and oppressive social rituals, a mutual exploration which led to an explosion of plays full of raw energy and theatrical bite. Who would have thought that the machismo rituals of mateship and the vernacular’s repetitive patterns could give rise to such a variety of new dramatic voices -- the grittiness and wicked satire of John Romeril and David Williamson, the laid-back wit and elegance of Barry Oakley, and a poetic virtuosity ranging from oratorio to Goon Show in Jack Hibberd. The APG was right -- an Australian theatre and its writers would grow out of the quest for an Australian performance style, not the other way round.
That’s not to say that the actors came first and the writers followed -- they arrived together and worked as a team in productions such as the first Pram Factory show, Marvellous Melbourne, a triumph -- not without tensions! -- of actor-writer collaboration. But the APG was never quite sure what to do about its playwrights. (Directors too, but usually they were writers or actors as well.) Intrinsic as they were to the group, their place was always somewhat ambivalent in a collective of performers committed to being intelligent creators in their own right. But as I remember it, the tension between writers and performers only became acute when some commentators began to see the writers as the group’s chief asset and the Pram Factory primarily as a workshop for playwrights to learn their craft. Rightly many of the the actors felt that this was missing the point!
Some of the APG’s most memorable productions were of already written texts, among them the two magical performances of Peter Cummins in A Stretch of the Imagination, directed by Hibberd himself, the bacchanalian near-anarchy of Dimboola, and the original Don’s Party staged in the round with the characters like insects observed under a microscope. I still remember vividly the high wire fence encaging the audience inside the prison camp of Romeril’s The Floating World, the huge puppet-machine manipulating an enthroned Archbishop in Oakley’s The Feet of Daniel Mannix, and three punchy women (Clare, Yvonne and Evelyn) as a trio of diminutive rain-coated gangsters in Romeril’s Chicago, Chicago. The Pram Factory’s premieres of these plays established them as a permanent part of Australian drama. But other landmark shows, such as Betty Can Jump and The Hills Family Show, were so much the creation of the performers themselves that they could never be revived. The collectively-devised shows, even more than the productions of scripted plays, have created the Pram Factory legend, just because they existed only at the Pram and now exist only as memory.
It’s often said that the power of theatre lies in its unpredictability, though most theatre performances these days have been rehearsed to within an inch of their lives and don’t leave much room for chance. At the Pram Factory one learnt to expect the unexpected -- the actor-audience configuration was radically different for each production, and even the public entrance doors changed from show to show. With the creative reins in the hands of the actors there was always a sense of danger in APG performances, and sometimes it turned into reality, in the ugly comments from the audience recalled by Helen Garner in her article on Betty Can Jump, or, more benignly, when Evelyn Krape as the outrageous wheel-chaired whip-cracking Granny of The Hills Family Show peed into her potty and tipped it ‘accidentally’ over the audience (me). (She was kind enough to whisper that it was only water!) The group’s work was often described as ‘rough’, but that suggests it was ill-formed or under-rehearsed -- rather it was craggy, unpredictable, nervy, on (the) edge.
For it was a tense group, and all of us remember it as being so. Every day when I turned the corner of Drummond Street I felt a sense of near-panic, until one day several of us compared notes and found that we all felt the same. It wasn’t so much fear as intensity -- the ideas, shouted at full volume, came bouncing so fast off other people’s, the giant egos (we all had them!) clashed again and again, and there was always the pressure to earn and maintain one’s place. Because there was no formal means of entry except by a kind of shared chemistry or osmosis through which one was either ‘in’ or ‘out’, everyone knew they were always under scrutiny by the group and answerable to it, that there was no guarantee of belonging except by continuing to be part of that shared commitment. That exclusiveness has been seen as a negative by those who would have liked to join the APG and were not accepted, or those who for one reason or another had to leave. It’s not an attractive quality to outsiders, but it was a way of maintaining a common wavelength, of ensuring that the creative dynamic did not dissipate, as so often happens with collectives. That sense of its own unique ‘messianic’ mission, as I wrote at the time, was the APG’s great strength, little as it endeared us to those who were not among the ‘elect’ or who saw it simply as a monstrous mutual egotism. Perhaps it was, but the giant egos were all put at the service of the group’s collective vision.
The APG has sometimes been portrayed as a hotbed of Maoist extremists, though I certainly wasn’t one and don’t recall any ideological line other than somewhere ‘left of centre’. But it was a group of ‘true believers’. We believed that theatre was a basic necessity of life to which everyone had a right, whatever their education or social class, that theatre must grow out of first-hand experience of one’s own society, and that it must always be at the cutting edge of social change, something we all saw as necessary and urgent. Paradoxically, as passionate thinkers about what theatre is and might be -- ‘performance theory’ it would be called today -- the APG was also perhaps the most cerebral theatre ever to have existed in Australia. Most groups which place a high premium on intellectualising their work gear it towards a fairly narrowly defined audience, but the Pram Factory took out its shows to the non-theatre-goers in factories, high-rise council towers, and the street. Its demonising of the Melbourne Theatre Company was the other side of a belief in theatre as belonging to everyone, not just those with an interest in ‘the arts’ or those who could afford an MTC subscription. In fact those who couldn’t afford it were the ones who needed it most. Theatre as ‘culture’ was the APG’s bete noir -- elitist, effete, apolitical, and probably Pommie.
The Pram Factory’s nearest relation, apart from La Mama, is the original Nimrod Theatre in Sydney which emerged at just the same time. Both were encapsulating changes in Australia’s social fabric, both were staging the work of new irreverent Australian writers, and both drew on stylistic elements of broad popular theatre. But my impression (I must tread carefully, since I did not know Nimrod from the inside or see its earliest work) is that, much as Nimrod delighted in taboo-breaking, it never saw its role as a full-frontal guerrilla assault on bourgeois theatre and society as the Pram Factory did. The APG would gladly have seen the MTC bite the dust (in theory, anyway!) but I don’t know that early Nimrod sought the demise of the Old Tote. Certainly as a company of professionally trained actors it did not share the APG’s aggressive ‘amateurism’. For the Pram Factory ‘professional’ implied old-fashioned staginess, fossilised conventions, ‘technique’ instead of first-hand observation, everything they wanted consigned to the scrap heap. It was a surprise to me when I found that Nimrod’s professionalism was not at all like this.
What the APG meant by ‘amateur’, however, was not just a lack of technical spit and polish (something they were quite capable of turning on when they wished), but a qualitatively different relationship between performers and audience. At the outset the APG was quite literally a group of amateurs, with one or two exceptions. Most of its members had other jobs or were university students or dropouts, and few initially aspired to long-term careers in theatre. In the early days no-one was paid, and those who occasionally found outside acting work shared their income with the group. It was a true collective, and not just in the sense that all decisions, creative and practical, were made by the group as a whole. The collective structure was a paradigm of the kind of world it wished to create, interactive and egalitarian, with everyone a participant and sharer, and the performances enacted that relationship in microcosm. There was to be no invisible ring of expertise separating the actors from the audience, but a shared circle of performance embracing actors and audience together. The APG’s ‘amateurism’ was the natural extension of its collective identity. It’s a utopian vision out of favour in today’s rationalist times, but despite all sorts of tensions the APG made it work, both practically and creatively, over a ten year time span, which is perhaps its most extraordinary achievement.
The Pram Factory has become a legend, but a legend never grows just out of ideals. If the APG could be at times exclusive, self-righteous and a bit too consciously aware of its own importance, the shows at the Pram were stunningly inventive and achingly funny. Before writing this I looked again at the video of the APG’s reunion at La Mama in 1990 (?), which I was unable to attend. Perhaps it’s impossible to revive an ambience, but these all seemed such nice serious people! Interviewed singly (in case they punched each others’ heads in?) they had none of the abrasive slanging and fiery exchange that sparked off ideas with such extraordinary prolificity. How did they ever come up with shows of such inspired lunacy, so full of joyous nonsense and surreal incongruity, visual images that stay in the mind forever, inventive music and songs belted out by lusty untrained voices -- will I ever hear singing like that in the theatre again? -- yet always with a social and political clout that thumped you in the guts? The Pram Factory shows always started from raw observation of the world and made theatre out of that moment of new perception. It’s a childlike quality in the truest sense, and though not all the shows worked equally well, their sheer delight in play tapped into the most elemental creative source of all theatre, not just once or twice but over and over again. It was the shows themselves that created the legend, with a bit of help from the mystique surrounding the place.
Thirty years after it began, is a ‘legend’ all that’s left? Those of us who remember the golden days of the APG know we were present at something extraordinary. It’s a great privilege to be part of the moment when a whole set of previously uncontested forms and assumptions is tossed out the window and something new and significant is born. Some people are still nostalgic for that intensity and lament its loss in theatre today, but one can’t live the moment of birth forever. The APG’s peculiar context of social, political and theatrical change and its combination of gifted individuals drawn to each other by a shared vision only happens at times. It’s not easy to describe that experience without sounding like an old loonie leftie wallowing in the glorious past, but it really did happen! And though some feel that its vision for a distinctively Australian theatre has been lost, that same physical energy and larrikin irreverence are still going strong in theatre with a passionate need to communicate the experiences of youth, or immigrant communities, or Aboriginal people. The APG still stands as a witness and a warning that living theatre must be born out of first-hand perception, that it must reach out to all kinds of audiences and non-audiences, that it must honour the performer as a true creator, that it must have an urgent and compelling reason for its existence beyond just theatre-making. And that there’s no need to wait for subsidy to get things moving.
I left the APG in 1972, partly because I felt the writers were sometimes getting a rough deal, unfairly cast as a privileged bourgeois ‘elite’ oppressing the performer ‘proles’. But that was only half the reason;the pressures of finishing a thesis were quite enough without the added tensions of the group. I moved from Melbourne to Sydney in 1973, and so missed the extraordinary proliferation of offshoot activities in the next few years. Most of all I regret missing out on the emergence of the women as creators of their own work, something I would love to have shared. And I wasn’t around for the wake when after ten years the APG decided to write itself out of existence, its instinct for the historical and theatrical moment true to the last.
I don’t often see Pram Factory people these days, but when I do there’s still a bond. Something was shared then that has become a permanent part of us all. The last of the great collectively devised works that I saw was The Hills Family Show, the swan song of a family of old-style travelling performers keeping the vaudevillian tradition alive (just!) with a series of appallingly bad classic variety acts. That show, with its characters created by the performers themselves, its deliberately ‘unprofessional’ surface masking superbly timed performances, and its characters’ backstage bickering, ego-tripping, near-disastrous moments on stage, and underlying unity in keeping the show going, encapsulates the APG itself. It was a family, with all a family’s tensions, quarrelling, rivalry, affection, solidarity and inescapable kinship, and though its members have long gone their separate ways, it still is.
Biography After completing a thesis at Monash University on Australian drama, melodrama and pantomime, I joined the School of Drama (now the School of Theatre, Film and Dance) at the University of New South Wales in 1973, and taught a variety of subjects, including Australian Theatre/Drama and Women and Theatre, until my retirement at the end of 1998. I’m still completing research on aspects of nineteenth century Australia popular theatre.
PRAMOCRACY: THE ALTERNATIVE THEATRE IN CARLTON, MELBOURNE
The Pram Factory is a focal point of much of Carlton’s intellectual, artistic and political life. A refugee camp, housing dissidents of various political, theatrical and social complexion who find within its walls an attempt to forge a working structure which can effectively deal with the problems of theatre without the oppressions of hierarchial organization.
In the beginning it was a loose assemblage of people most of whom emanated from the Melbourne University campus. The emphasis was theatrical rather than political though this was later to change with the input of the energies of Monash University denizens like John Romeril, Jon Hawkes and Lindsay Smith. It was a rough and tough group, heavily iconoclastic and united in its contempt for theatres like The Old Tote and The Melbourne Theatre Company whose consistent programming of plays derived from Broadway and the West End typified the cultural cringe then endemic in this country.
A playwright, Jack Hibberd, emerged from the medical profession and in 1967 wrote White With Wire Wheels, his first play and one that still remains among his best. In 1968, at Melbourne University, the Group presented a collection of short Hibberd pieces, a programme entitled Brainrot – An Evening of Pathology & Violence, Love & Friendship.
It was our first major event and one which attracted favourable critical attention.
From then, the Group, now calling itself the La Mama Group, grew in stature. It was one of (and loosely differentiated from) several theatre groups inhabiting an old shirt factory which was rented by Betty Burstall. She, having seen Ellen Stewart’s La Mama Theatre in New York, being impressed by its work, created a home, a suitably crude theatrical space for what was to be the womb of the new wave in Australian writing and performing. In this role La Mama still persists, though, perhaps with less publicized fecundity than its early years. From here John Romeril, Jack Hibberd, Barry Oakley and David Williamson emerged. Alex Buzo’s Norm & Ahmed was given its first Melbourne airing in front of attentive public and police. The performers were arrested and charged with obscenity. The offending line was the famous: ‘You fuckin’ boong’. They were convicted at one of Melbourne’s funniest trials during which the judge occasionally nodded off.
Later, during a La Mama production of John Romeril’s Whatever Happened to Realism, the actors were again charged with obscenity and, when police removed them from La Mama to the nearby Carlton Police Station, the word spread through the area till finally a mob of some hundred plus gathered outside the station chanting in unison, ‘Shit, Fuck, Cunt’.
A certain notoriety now attached to the Group; the catch-cry ‘radical’ was often used, for, apart from its continuing work of presenting new Australian plays, the actors were performing in the streets, in factories, at strike meetings, leading the Moratorium, etc. The theatre had become politically more involved and more complex under the influence of the Monash lefties and, more generally, in response to the socio-political pressures aroused by Vietnam and conscription.
After the Group returned from its successful tour of Perth in 1970, factionalism became more prominent – in part personal and political; in part to do with theatrical ideas and ambitions. The larger group, now calling itself The Australian Performing Group (APG), wanted to expand their work and needed more space in which to do it. A warehouse of what then seemed mammoth proportions and cost was finally found and leased. It had long been a pram factory and that we called it. No pretention, no style you see. That was the style.
The first production, Marvellous Melbourne, at the Pram Factory in 1970 was group-developed in collaboration with writers Hibberd and Romeril. It was immensely successful, colourful, bawdy, invigorating, and left (we thought) the almost coincidentally produced Sydney-written The Legend of King O’Malley languishing in a fog of clichéd commercialism.
In the sense in which the APG was then an ‘alternative’ theatre, it was so particularly because of its extravagant jingoism, its total rejection of the tried and foreign in favour of the new and local. That, however, was not the only variation – an acting style was emerging; one which confronted the staid, elocutionary professionalism of the English repertory theatre with its emphasis on precision of gesture, carefulness of movement. The APG style involved more physicalisation of images; more reliance on vigour and agility, more stress on communicating to the audience with the body rather than voice and prop. With an Australian content, too, we could deploy our vernacular, our own rhythms and our own accents from the one language we did not have to import. It was, as The Age critic then put it, ‘….Australia’s most enterprising and energetic theatre company’. That was in August, 1970.
The APG style and its continuing evolution had much to do with use of space. We eschewed the conventional proscenium arch in favour of an open space, thus providing flexibility (the seating can be moved into any position) and a new and vibrant intimacy between audience and performer was thus generated. The style and space captured an audience and provided Melbourne with not just another theatre, a choice of play, but an alternative experience. For the actor, performance became three-dimensional – they were in the round; the audience could see them sweat, their tattered costumes mattered little, they had to deploy their bodies, their total physical resources to occupy the space theatrically.
Structurally, in terms of organisation, the APG described itself as a ‘democratic collective of actors, writers, designers etc’. It was, in the accepted wisdom of those days, one person, one vote. All shared in the programming; roles were multi-functional - writers could act, actors write, administrators build the set. In the eyes of some – particularly the women – it was more one man, one vote and the very looseness and almost organic, informal nature of its decision-making processes had the counter-productive effect of allowing too much power to accrue to too few people. There were few checks and balances.
The APG women (and others) worked on a group-developed show, Betty Can Jump, a dramatization of the plight of Australian women, then and in the past. It took six months to develop and ran for seven weeks to packed houses.
Successful though it was, and truly experimental, the production induced stresses into the group which necessitated a more formal structure. The membership had been defined in terms of a Constitution forced upon the Group by the need late in the previous year to raise money from outside bodies. It stated that the APG was to be operated ‘….according to the principles of participatory democracy’. In the world of theatre, this alone would be enough to differentiate the APG from others; making us a genuine and radical alternative through establishing a full measure of workers’ control. However, just saying it, legislating for it at that stage, did not effect it. A crisis developed about direction and control, casting and money. It was felt by many that a small group controlled the APG and that it was they, and not the Collective, that dispensed favours, chose plays and cast them. A species of nepotism allegedly hid behind the façade of democratic intention and workers’ control. In the midst of this crisis Jack Hibberd, one of the Group’s founders and a member of the then Executive, resigned ‘quite finally’. He returned one year later. His letter of resignation was accompanied by a document listing ten complaints some of which I quote as they pointedly illustrate the dangers of organic structures and informality both of which, in my view, have been pushed too far by many members of the ‘counter culture’ as the answer to typical capitalist authoritarian regimentation and de-personalisation. Such structures are inimical to the development of both individuality and community. I list his objections according to the clause numbers of the original document.
2 Political Posturing and Hypocrisies
In particular the failure of the leaders of the APG to stand up and be counted at last Sunday’s seminar (on indigenous drama) discussion; their failure to articulate and state their position and that of the APG … a failure to attack establishment theatre and its representatives in public (only too willing to do it in private). An exhibition of moral and intellectual and political ineptitude and cowardice.
8 Continuing Autocratic Control of the APG by a Power Clique who lurk behind the newly-erected mask of collective democracy hoax. People other than the treasurer still sign the cheques they were signing a year ago. New wage rises and personnel are not referred to the executive.
10 Despair at and Boredom with the insidious whispering campaigns, the continual behind-the-back reputation attacks, personality assassinations, who’s in this week and who’s out next, loyalty obsessions, ad hominem and personal preoccupations INSTEAD of open exchange of ideas and evaluation of qualities and shortcomings as participants in a theatrical and political enterprise. Too much concern with petty ambition and the tedious and pointless intrigues of intra-group power politics. Most of this stuff plainly originates from the power clique. Reform or ossification lies with them, with their ability to change their practices and ideas, or to resign. I do not see either happening folks.
Hibberd’s letter of resignation was cathartic; the antipathies with in the Group were thrown into the open. A new Executive was elected, a programming committee established, an Administrator appointed after a Committee was formed to investigate the question of who got what, when, where, how. Max Gillies, the founding Chairman of the Group (and a persistent democrat) was re-elected and he and others like Bill and Lorna Hannan activated the process of reviving and up-dating the Constitution, the conditions of Membership, casting procedures, etc. That was in August, 1972 and the process continues; the structure is forever evolving, changing according to the theatrical and external and internal political needs of the Group. I see no end to this unless we limit the number of members or become just another “establishment’ repertory theatre. We should build for continual change.
Democracy in the theatre is hard work, it means interminable meetings, and is not necessarily compatible with ‘excellence’ of production. I think, however, that in spite of its frustrations and the time it takes for decision making, the alternative for actors, writers, technician, administrators is very real. The alternative is job alienation and a greater degree of insecurity. What the APG does offer is some degree of control over one’s work and there have been few of us willing to totally desert the lebensraum of that concept for the oft-proffered oasis of stardom and the buck.
It is true that, at this moment, quasi-revolutionary politics are not uppermost in the minds and activities of most members. We have become more pragmatic, acquiring the business and political know-how which enable us to aggressively deal with government agencies, entrepreneurs, Actors Equity and the bank. These developments are in a large measure the result of our theatrical success, our growth, but also derive from a real or felt change in sociopolitical circumstances since conscription ended, since the Labor Party took office. Like blotting paper, we have absorbed the apparent fact of the reduced dichotomy between Left and Right and our programming reflects that. The Group is less (excepting the semi-affiliated Women’s Theatre Group) issue-based, less polemical, less
didactic. Street theatre (apart from an intensive pro-Australian Labor Party campaign during the 1974 election) is pretty well in abeyance and the weight of our propagandist work is taken almost entirely by those of our members working in Community Theatre projects. Their work is toured through institutions - prisons, hospitals, orphanages and through factories and schools. In general, the content of these projects is more politically active than is now the case in our Front Theatre programme. It is interesting to note though that the Community Theatre projects are much harder to put together; it is more difficult to get actors for these than for plays staged in the Front Theatre.
However, the relative decline in the rigour of the APG’s political stance has been matched by a more intense exploration of the possibilities of communality. We acquired ‘The Tower’ a vast residence sharing a wall with the Pram Factory. The inhabitants are all to some degree affiliated with us and they live together on a species of income sharing. There are now two other, more formal Economic Unions, income sharing groups, made up mostly of Pram Factory members. Some actors give back to the APG money they earn from films, television, etc.; money that is in excess of $126 per week, top APG pay. In general we are moving towards being an integrated arts collective. A film company has been established and, although there will be outside investors, the APG will control it and it will employ predominantly APG personnel in the making of a feature movie based on Barry Oakley’s play Beware of Imitations. This is a further extension of workers’ control into an area notorious for its hierarchism. It was Hitchcock who compared actors to cattle! We have established an Agency for our own writers – Hibberd, Romeril, Bill and Lorna Hannan, Barry Oakley, Tim Robertson and non-members friendly to the Group e.g. Peter Mathers, Craig McGregor, Peter Carey, Laurie Clancy, and we have now extended this to include our actors and directors, thus ensuring a greater degree of control over our work with the added advantage of keeping the usual ten per cent within the Group.
These various moves reflect the nature of the APG; they flow from our own experience of working as a Collective. Each month the full Collective (about fifty people) meet and at these meetings matters of general policy, membership qualifications, constitutional issues are discussed. The Executive and Administrator’s report are heard, accepted, amended or rejected as the case may be. Each Saturday morning an elected committee plus the elected Executive and, ex-officio, Administrator and Theatre Manager meet to discuss programming. The meeting, like all Pram Factory meetings, is open to all members. Recommendations to the committee go straight to the Executive which either approves or disapproves the Project. Given approval, a Project Director is elected whose responsibility it is to advertise and convene meetings of those interested. From within the Project Meeting a director emerges (sometimes elected) and he/she together with the Project Group (which normally includes the writer) via discussion, audition or, sometimes ballot, arrive at a cast, design and stage staff. The procedure is quite open and has done much to eliminate the ‘whispering campaigns, reputation attacks, personality assassinations’, etc. which Jack Hibberd described in his earlier-quoted document.
The catharsis therefore continues – there is no power clique – a resolution of disparate elements has been obtained.
Some, both inside and outside the Group, argue that, as the Collective enlarges, it will wither theatrically – resolution, lack of specific personal leadership will result in theatrical compromise, art will atrophy on the APG political vine.
As Yvonne Marini, sometime actress and presently our secretary, says: ‘We don’t talk about theatre anymore – our work is not developing; we should push for more discussion about our style, where to go from here’.
And that partly encapsulates the so-called identity crisis. We must experiment again, test ourselves against differing material, differing roles. An ensemble of actors continually working together has been a long expressed desire. Getting off the treadmill of repertory theatre is another but, so far, due to lack of money and, perhaps, Collective will, we have not achieved this. But the way forward is not backward – the Group could no longer tolerate personal leadership or any form of thespian guruism. The Collective is what we made it and it will do what we make it do; we must find theatrical identity through it.
From outside our processes must seem strange; even intimidating. Some actors want the leader figure, others can’t bear the meetings, the delays whilst consensus is achieved. Many find the APG too polemical and moralistic, too rule-ridden. (After all what theatre company in the world would ask a writer like David Williamson or an actor of Graeme Blundell’s quality to leave because they had not made a ‘significant’ contribution to the Group’s work over the past nine months? Others, probably would have kept them even if only for the kudos of their attachment, no matter what the involvement.)
This seeming masochism is, however, germane to democratic participation; workers’ control of the theatre. The fact of stardom, fame etc. cannot entitle one person to have a vote affecting the lives of others whilst they are, possibly, so distant from the theatre as to be ignorant of the issues, arguments and personalities.
The Collective has, in this respect, tightened somewhat – if a member is absent from four consecutive monthly Collective meetings, membership (subject to appeal) lapses and the privilege of priority for employment disappears. This, of course, allows us to change;; those who opt for the security and comparatively high pecuniary rewards of lengthy film, television or theatre contracts are exercising their choice and, by so doing, effectively resigning and creating space for others, thus injecting new blood and, potentially a new theatricality into the Group.
Somehow, for journalists, Arts Council people and theatre workers outside, there is something difficult about accepting the actuality of democratic control in the APG. They want to believe in leaders, authority figures, etc. They find the oppositionist stridency of the APG somewhat uncomfortable, the postures that emerge from its moral well-spring
difficult to live with. Doubtless, its stance on many issues can transmute into image-making rhetoric but there is a certain purity of intention, not yet fully articulated theatrically, which may enable the group to persist and withstand the fiscal and critical difficulties which always are at the jugular of innovative, anti-establishment theatre groups. In March 1972, in a letter to the Group, sometime member, Margaret Williams, now a critic and academic at the University of NSW, wrote:
‘… I think that what is in many ways the Group’s strongest quality is also its least endearing quality – at least to those outside it – namely, a kind of (dare I say it?) arrogance; a messianic certainty of its anointed role as custodian of the Australian drama … I think that quality is an asset, and it may well be that that is the magic talisman which will keep the APG alive and kicking where so many other groups, equally committed, have failed …’.
Drama is a communal art. It needs writers and actors and technicians and ticket sellers and designers and painters of walls. Without each other, not one of these people would be meaningful. In so far as the APG is an alternative, it is so because its political form is such as to give each person a share in deciding what affects another. It is frightening to each of us at different levels, for different reasons but, for those of us who choose to remain, it is the best way to work; trust is the only way in which the theatre can take those risks necessary to create something new.
This website was developed by Suzanne Ingleton, with the support of the
Australia Council for the Arts(research) and The Myer Foundation(website).
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