Australian Theatre History. The Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory

Meg Clancy

I grew up in Carlton, my parents were licensees of the University Hotel on the corner of Grattan and Lygon Streets. It was a strange adolescence. I would go to school in my convent uniform and when I returned home there would be SP bookies and bent coppers on the premises. I was required to do my bit, which meant pulling beers while still in uniform. People I knew were doing an RMIT revue and from there I discovered La Mama. At that time, I was friends with John Sexton who was a mate of Helen and Bill Garner. We often had meals at their house in Kerr St.  Fitzroy. A short time later I went to a La Mama Sunday workshop and there was Bill again. He was gorgeous and super cool.


Out of those workshops, which included Viv Curzon-Siggers, Brian Davies, Graeme Blundell, Alan Finney and Peter Carmody, developed the first play which was ‘ A Nameless Concern’ (it seemed to revolve around a coffee urn), written by John Romeril who came from Monash with Lindzee Smith and the Maoist tribe. Brian was trying to get up a group of actors together Bergman style. They had come out of  Hibberd’s play ‘Brain Rot’ performed at Melbourne University. Bruce Knappett, David Kendall and Graeme Blundell. I later heard that Knappet was in jail for attempted manslaughter. He got out August 1971 and couldn’t go back to law. A pity because he was a very talented man. Kendall, like Knappet at that time, was a heavy drinker too. He was brilliant. We were working mainly with improvisation. I was 18 then in 1968 and was classically trained by Elsa Holyoak. She had taught me drama since age 7. I performed things at Her Majesty’s and for Moomba but felt it was rather old fashioned.


Graeme Blundell was an Asst. Stage Manager at the Melbourne Theatre Co. I was quite in awe of him, he was very dynamic. He and Kendall would have these incredible conversations about TDR (Tulane Drama Review) and I wouldn’t have a clue what they were talking about and thought, ‘I’d better get a copy of that!’.


I was teaching drama part time at various schools. When I wasn’t doing that, I was at La Mama. On workshop days we used to do exercises based on The Living Theatre while Alan Finney would practise being a stand-up comedian. We graduated to doing text, Megan Terry and Jack Hibberd plays. We earned no money, but that did not stop us from taking ‘A Nameless Concern’ to Sydney to Clem Gorman’s place, a vile room in Paddington. It poured rain the entire time we were there. The outside toilet spewed effluent. As a consequence, flimsy boards were positioned between the theatre space and the lavatory. They too sank under the ghastly tide. Peter Cummins attempted to direct the play but John Duigan, Alan Finney, Bruce Spence and myself ended up doing it ourselves. That was ‘69. Clem Gorman’s group was doing touchy-feely stuff, no words. They loved working with us, with text. Hibberd wouldn’t let you change anything in his plays. He was very tough about that. Graeme may have talked him round in some cases. Romeril, however would rewrite anything. He would lope about the theatre with a portable typewriter tucked under his arm, hammering away at constant re-writes.


We held a series of auditions at La Mama for the new APG group, Geoff Milne was running them. Bruce Spence was asked to audition, at the time he was a student at the art gallery. Yvonne Marini was in that group and Wilfred Last. I remember I was still living at my parents’ pub when I was asked to do an interview with Howard Lindley, a journalist who was also one of our customers. Wilfred lived in the same house as Howard. He eavesdropped on my interview and I could see he desperately wanted to get involved with the APG. He was reluctant about performance, he wanted to be there but getting him to perform was sometimes like pulling teeth. Yvonne had been at NIDA and had earlier studied with a very good drama teacher at Maribyrnong High who’d also taught Jan Friedel.  I remember a very talented woman called Iris Walsh who came out of those auditions. Unfortunately she didn’t stay on for the APG.


We left La Mama and we were workshopping “Marvellous Melbourne” in Bouverie St. Carlton, in a ballet space. Margaret Williams came in from Monash during that period and talked to us in scripting sessions. She was an expert on Louis Essen.


For four months we did “Mr Big, “Brother Dave” and “Magic Martian Potato” for factory tours and schools shows. At night we workshopped “Marvellous Melbourne” and sometimes people would pay us to do social issues based theatre.


It has never really been acknowledged that Dot Thompson, who ran the New Theatre at that time, found the Pram Factory building in Drummond St.  She asked us if we would like to share the space as it was too big and expensive for just the New Theatre people.  They were using the back space for their productions. I remember  Jack Charles was working with them then. There was a Flea Market set up downstairs on the weekends. Some time after I left there was a parting of the ways and New Theatre got pushed out.


Living in Carlton, I had always been familiar with the building. There was the garage downstairs and the horse head on the tower. One of the old boarders who was living at my parents’ pub knew the place back in the 30’s, when it was a dancehall the ‘something something Ballroom’. He said there was a crim there with a wooden leg who used to sell cocaine to the patrons. He swore he used to keep a stash in the hollow of his artificial leg.


While we were rehearsing Marvellous Melbourne in Bouverie Street we were renovating the Pram. The first time we went into the building, we had to have handkerchiefs over our faces, the dust was awful, especially when we demolished the mezzanine floor. We’d go home with white eyelashes and black shit up our nostrils. Because we had very little money we hired industrial sanders and had a 24 hour roster, two people at a time, we had to complete it in 3-4 days. This same system was used with the sewing machines for making the original Circus Oz tent.


Once we moved into the Pram Factory we had long days. Get up 6.30, be at the Pram at 7.30, load up Romeril’s car, drive to Ballarat, perform in factories, do schools tours in the afternoon. Back to the Pram to do movement workshops with Alida Belair, then rehearse the next play and after that, perform “Marvellous Melbourne”, finishing at 11.30pm. It was exhausting and we did this for months and months.


I remember a time, just before the opening of “Marvellous Melbourne” when Yvonne Marini and I were in the basement car park (which subsequently became the Flea Market space) welding roster frames for the opening performance. I think Timlin or one of his offsiders had given us a basic lesson in welding.  The rostra were still being made as the audience were coming in. Neither Yvonne nor I had ever made a rivet or used a welding tool. I remember being furious with Kerry because she had spent the whole afternoon swanning around doing the publicity and delivering press kits here and there while Yvonne and I had black faces and were still in these hot sweaty metal masks 15 minutes before the show started. I recall Kerry driving up in the Volkswagen with full makeup on as Yvonne and I were sawing up bits of wood, so at least the audience had half a roster, it was a nightmare! That was the opening of Marvellous Melbourne.  It was after that production that Kerry expressed her feelings about the way women were being portrayed. She opted not to go into the second version because she felt that it was sexist and she was right. Evelyn only did the first season too since she had booked to go to Israel with Ros Horin.


We did not have the mandatory three-phase power required for theatre and so the health authorities tried to stop us from opening again. They didn’t like our kind of theatre. Remember the egregious Henry Bolte was still the Victorian Premier back then. We were closed down for two weeks then I don’t know how, but Timlin did something, maybe some money passed hands, but we were finally allowed to open even though we hadn’t had the 3 phase power fixed up. Graeme Leith, the then electrician and now owner of “Passing Clouds” winery, lived opposite the Pram Factory. One night in Chicago Chicago there was an art gallery scene, during which Blundell and I were off-stage. We smelt something burning and raced across the road to Graeme Leith’s. We got him out of bed and saying “Quick quick! The theatre’s on fire!” The audience were very good, very orderly, they moved down off the rostra and out onto the street while we pretended nothing was happening. Graeme Leith did a very quick repair with wire and chewing gum I think. We got the audience back in and the next day we got 3 phase power put on. It is a miracle there weren’t any accidents.


Someone had a good idea to go Bells Beach to rehearse Chicago Chicago for the Perth Arts Festival. Lindzee Smith and Jono Hawkes used to go surfing there. The plan was to camp at Bells and rehearse. Lindzee had a brother in Geelong who was in the police force, Lindzee was a Geelong Grammar boy remember. We were meant to be rehearsing in the Scout Hall but most of the time was spent surfing. There were days of constant rain and our tents got flooded out. I remember Peter Cummins kept dry by sleeping in the combi van he had kept from his plumbing days.


One of the reasons I left was because you were constantly fighting. Some of my liaisons were outside the group which meant I was seen as a bit of a traitor. By then I wasn’t living in Carlton either. It was viewed a bit dimly. I remember being attacked for ‘disloyalty’ because I was living in Prahran and complaining that the travelling was hard, specially late at night on public transport. Kerry used to come the heavy sometimes - ‘you’re living in Prahran, that’s your fault’. You felt you were constantly being put on the line, having to defend yourself within the group. Yvonne had a lot of that. She was very soft yet she could be quite tough when pushed into a corner. You were being tested all the time and attacked if you went in another direction to earn a bit of money, “You’re doing Crawford’s TV programs, you’re not faithful to the group’s ideals!’ It was all right for Graeme to do Crawfords’ stuff though!


I recall our Perth season at the Hole in the Wall theatre. Once we got to there, we earned  sixty-five dollars a week.  It was stinking hot and John Duigan and I didn’t want to fly and so we took the train over. It’d be different now but then I found it really boring. The trip took three days and two nights.  When we arrived and got out I remember thinking, “Are we standing in the train exhaust?” It was just the WA summer heat.  I’d left my partner behind in Melbourne. As the only single woman I was lumped in where everybody else was a couple and sleeping in a squat. Bill and Helen (Garner) in one bedroom, Kerry and Blundell in another, Margot and Lindzee(Smith), Jono and Lorraine ‘Ponch’(Hawkes) they all had a room and I was under the copper with the fucking redbacks! I felt as if I were persona non grata. While the single blokes were in another house somewhere on the other side of Perth - Cummins, Spence, Duigan, Rod Moore, Martin Phelan. It was all right to be a single bloke but I felt I was just tolerated.


The theatre was so hot but we couldn’t have the fans on during the show, they were too noisy. Kerry and I used to wear these little towelling shifts. We’d rush off to the ladies, wash them, wring them out and put them back on and within half an hour they would be as stiff as a board! There was a dreadful man, Baden Powell, incredibly right wing. He was the organiser of the Perth Festival which had brought over Lila Kedrova to do The Guardsman at the Playhouse in Perth. The straight cream of society would follow Kedrova to these arts functions where the mayor, Tom The Cheap Grocer, would be in attendance. We APG ratbags in our stiff shifts, long hair and bushy beards (and that was just the women!) would stand up the back making loud snide remarks. We were obliged to attend these dreary functions and did so most reluctantly. Then one day Baden Powell came with his entourage to see one of our shows. As he left he said, ‘I thought they were a bunch of hippies and no-hopers but you’ve got to admit they’re not bad are they? We did well in inviting them across.’


After the last night of ‘Chicago Chicago’ in Perth there was a party. I must have been sensible for once and gone home (to the copper). That night Bill was having it off with Margot Smith and Rod (Moore) was with Helen Garner when Lindzee walked in, saw what was happening, could not handle it, so stormed out, took a whole lot of amphetamines, jumped on his motorbike and rode all the way back to Melbourne non -stop! Not long after that Lindzee and Margot went to America.


Once we moved to the Pram Factory, other people came to us from Bouverie St, the drama teachers’ training place. Max Gillies, Claire Dobbin, Tony Taylor and Evelyn Krape. Lindy Davies too, but she had been with us since early La Mama days. As a result of the Monash Maoist influence, we became more and more politicised but there were others who were unsure about the politics - Peter Cummins, Alan Finney, Bruce Spence and Martin Phelan. The reds went over to the Pram Factory and the people who were still wavering, stayed at La Mama until finally they saw the light and came over for David Williamson’s Don’s Party.  Romeril was much more political than Hibberd who was more influenced by  European theatrical traditions.


In the summer of ‘71 we did an Adelaide tour of Hibberd’s Customs and Excise. We drove over in Kerry’s Volkswagen. There was Yvonne, Rod Moore, Blundell, Garner and myself. We stayed at the home of Tim Robertson who was working with Wal Cherry at Flinders Uni, where we were performing. Hibberd and Martin Armiger were there too.  Tim and his wife, Robin lived in this charming house in the Adelaide hills where their pet horse used to stick its head in through the kitchen window and demand attention. It was a bit unnerving.




In March, back in Melbourne, we were still researching for the second season of “Marvellous Melbourne”. This involved having all our parents talk about their experiences of growing up in Australia. We spent a Sunday afternoon at the Garners’ house listening to their stories. I still have in my possession an interesting if somewhat condescending document from that day written by Helen and Kerry.


By now Kerry was putting together a women’s show and Rivka Hartman’s mother asked us to perform this piece at the National Mutual Theatrette. Ponch Hawkes was in it and I think it was the only performance thing she’d ever done until then. She was Jono’s wife, and always seemed to be on the margins, but she just blossomed after that.


We didn’t have Collective meetings as such back then. I remember when we got Timlin in to administrate. We were spending all our energies in the theatre, everything was taken up by performance, set building and so on. We had to have someone to take over the administration for running the theatre. Timlin was a business man and he and Blundell used to drink at Naughton’s. The plan was for Timlin to focus on the financial administration and the getting of grants. He was a big chap, an ex Footscray footballer. Chris Berkman & I both remember having enormous difficulty in getting served at Stewart’s and the Albion. We seemed to be blocked out by a wall of broad male backs which belonged to Hibberd, Timlin, Lindzee and others. All the major decisions were made in the pub with Graeme and Timlin, it was always a fait accompli. It was a myth that the Pram was worker controlled back then.


The entry of the Hannans was the beginning of the end of the Pram Factory. They were educationalists who came in ‘71. I think Kerry went out courting them when we doing schools tours, maybe she thought they had wonderful intellectual ideas but they weren’t theatrical. I left in August ’71. I was working so hard. It was a very special period of my life and everything ever since has been rather dull by comparison. My world was exciting but shrinking. It had narrowed to Stewarts, the Pram and two blocks of Carlton, except for sleeping in Prahran. I was only 21 and had enormous energy. What I was doing was really important and significant but I just had to get out for 6 months, to get a point of comparison, unfortunately I didn’t get back in time.


I went to London and worked in the West End doing Tony Richardson’s production of ‘I Claudius’, then went to Spain because my partner could not work in England. We were on our way to Chile to help Allende but in the meantime the coup d’etat happened and were stuck in Spain. I couldn’t work in theatre because Spain wasn’t a member of ECC at that time. We went to Andalusia to finish a film script, which in the end we couldn’t get up. We didn’t have any money to get home so ended up running an English school. I was working  with an Anarchist Theatre Group, which had started during the Spanish Civil War. I ended up running their library and teaching English to women in high-rise flats while my erstwhile partner was going loudly mad. He would routinely take 4 or 5 Mogadon a night, drink 2 bottles of vodka a day and in the end had to be committed. I desperately wanted to come back, I was homesick, I missed the Pram and my father was dying, but I could not get back. It was a very sad time. When I did eventually I get home I was devastated. There was no home base! No Pram Factory left and I thought, “Oh no!” because the memories of it had kept me sane for all those years. Now it was gone.


I’d been away from late August 1971 until ‘83. Back in Melbourne I was just working as a gun for hire - a freelance actor. It was awful. It’s not the way I liked to work. I really worked best in a group and especially with APG people. They could anticipate everything, you could throw anything at them and know they were going to pick it up and run with it. You developed a wonderful short hand. I never ever felt the same thing in any theatre ever again. When you do one-off plays you just don’t get that cohesion, that in-house style. I felt I’d done all the hard yards, was instrumental in establishing the Pram Factory, did all the really hard early work, then bad timing. For a long time after I kept kicking myself and felt very bitter and resentful until finally I was able to let it go. What a relief! That came about with the Pram Factory reunion in ’93 and later with the launch of Tim Robertson’s book on the Pram.

I made the decision that I wouldn’t do theatre again. I tore up my equity card after thirty-two years, that part of my life was over. I’d gone through appalling stage fright, the usual cliché of not getting much acting work due to being a middle-aged female and the parts were simply not there. I moved to Sydney, got a mortgage and thought I can’t live on ten thousand dollars a year anymore.


Back in 1969 we were arrested for obscenity on stage. We did a protest anti-censorship play out the front of La Mama.  John Duigan, Bruce Spence and Peter Cummins were dressed up as cops. My character was Life on Stage. The actor cops arrested me for saying “fuck” on stage. Immediately after that, the real cops jumped out of the audience and arrested me as the actor cops. Blundell jumped over the fence because he did not want to be arrested again. He had gone through that already during Buzo’s play “Norm & Ahmed”. We were marched down to the Carlton police station together with the audience who stood outside the jail chanting the lyrics of the “offensive” song ‘shit, fuck, bum, cunt, bugger off will ya!’ while the band ‘The Semblance of Dignity’ continued playing.  Meanwhile Garner got us a civil liberties lawyer to get us out. Rivka Hartman, who was also involved in the play, had access to a good Silk. When we got to court, our civil liberties lawyer rode on the QC’s tails. The magistrate let us off saying “The actors were sincere if obscene, making a point about censorship.” Ten years ago, there I was in the same Carlton Courthouse in a Ray Mooney’s piece and I was playing a judge. What a closing of the circle.  The irony is that now I am working as a Government film censor. Poacher turned Gamekeeper perhaps?


Meg Clancy lives in Sydney and now works at the Film Classification Board


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