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

If You Don't Love Yourself 

Janie Conway

One bright, crisp winter afternoon with guitar case in hand I walked from the tram stop outside Melbourne University down Faraday Street, past Johnny’s Green Room and over Lygon Street, then ambled slowly past the early drinkers in the Albion hotel and turned into Drummond Street. The red brick tower opposite the police station loomed ahead of me as a combination of pre-audition nerves and some ominous preconception that my life was on the brink of change filled me with high-wired apprehension.

 

As I passed reluctantly from the brightness of the day into the semi darkness of the old Pram Factory the dank aromas of cement floors and brick dust combined with tobacco smoke and marijuana greeted me.  In a room at the back of the building, I sat down and tentatively opened my guitar case, pulled out my guitar and began to play to a circle of keen-eyed women who all listened attentively.  Loving isn't easy these days, was the first line of the song I sang. Closing my eyes to block out the inquisitive gaze of these enthusiastic women I sang a song that was an attempt to express something of the dilemmas of love in the early seventies when we were beginning to push at the edges of monogamous unions and move into what those of us who had actually tied the knot spuriously termed ‘open marriage’. When I finished the song I opened my eyes to find a number of the women in the small circle had tears in theirs. In spite of my years as a performer it surprised me that my song could engender such strong emotions. My own marriage had only recently collapsed and for seven years I had sung as a duo as well as in a variety of bands with my husband Carrl Myriad. This audition was one of my fledgling ventures into the world of solo performance and my initiation into the Women's Theatre Group.

 

I was on the precipice of profound change, one of those crossroads that you can see when you look back but which at the time you incorporate into your life while hardly noticing the metamorphosis that's taking place in your own psyche. I still recall this time with a profound nostalgia for the richness of what I experienced then.  The APG was a place where change was embraced wholeheartedly, where the personal was most definitely political and the spectrum of people's lives provided a rich panorama of experience to be plundered in our art. But the Women's Theatre Group took the personal and put it on stage in such a literal sense that the boundaries between private and public that had divided and fettered us as women for so long began to drop away.

 

My first appearance at the Pram Factory had been some months earlier in a musical by Steve Spears called Africa.  I had taken over from my cousin, Tina Jorgensen as the Spirit of Africa. With long white robes gathered under one arm I would tentatively climb a twelve foot ladder held steady by Jane Clifton and Jenny Keith. After carefully dropping the robes over the ladder, I would wait for the moment when the silver mask on my face would glint in the blinding white spotlight that lit up the specter of my presence and I would sing, "If you don't love yourself there's no-one can do it for you. If you can't be at peace there's plenty of wars, to fight, inside yourself," and then, in chorus with Jane and Jenny who were holding the ladder steady twelve feet below me, "And you'll lose, and you'll lose."  What no-one in the cast knew was that I was pathologically afraid of heights and yet somehow I managed to overcome my paranoia, night after night, and perched precariously at the top of a ladder I'd sing my song, while the combination of the heat of the spotlight and abject fear made my skin glisten with sweat. When the song finished the spotlight would go out and I would be plunged into blackness and in terrifying blindness I'd gingerly find my way back down to terra-firma. If I didn't learn to love myself in that show I certainly learnt to be brave.

 

I lived south of the Yarra in those days and that meant something in the tough world of Maoist politics that was revered so much by the APG. To be a dedicated leftist one really had to live on the north side of the river. Living on the south side was synonymous with being soft and wishy washy, a hippie rather than a political activist. We all wanted to change the world. Even though our methods differed, we were all arrogant enough to be sure the changes would be for the better.

 

When I separated from my husband, I moved into a large terrace house with my brothers, Mic and Jim Conway and my eighteen month old son, Tamlin. This was in the hey day of the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band and as both my brothers were catapulted into national stardom the house became central head quarters for a motley group of band members and an entourage of fans that seemed to grow and inhabit every corner of the house. Thus I moved out of my relatively sheltered married life into a hedonistic cocktail of music, theatre, drugs and sex that sat uneasily alongside my role as parent of an eighteen month old boy.

 

But I wasn't the only one. The APG collective was made up of a number of people who were juggling a career in music or theatre with parenting and with the added impetus of the women in the Women's Theatre Group the subject of child care became a major concern. In a rambling old house in North Fitzroy we set up collective child care arrangements that enabled many of us to have the freedom to work and parent as well as pursue a host of artistic dreams. It was a massive social experiment and although we were full of a high-spirited enthusiasm for the ideals we were pursuing, it was also fraught with hidden traps for the emotionally unwary. I remember being told by a frustrated lover that he couldn't help me look after my son if I wouldn't let go of being responsible for him. He was looking after him so I could have a break from parenting and yet I would hover anxiously round them both in my over-protective way, unable to let go of my protective mothering instinct. Reluctantly I accepted his advice. A few weeks later an emergency call was put through to the theatre and I rushed home to find Tamlin bloody-mouthed and missing his two front teeth. He had gone head first into the bitumen road off the handle bars of the bike he was being dinked on, but he was grinning bravely surrounded by a bunch of worried looking men from the APG.

 

Twenty-five years later I would attend a reunion of the APG and what most impressed me was the way the children had turned out. As I watched Tamlin and his friends, Amos and Davey play in the house band for the night I smiled at my long time friend Marnie Sheehan, mother of Amos and Davey and bass player extraordinaire and remembered her, big-bellied with Amos, in the Women's Theatre Group show Add A Grated Laugh or Two. I had been musical director for the show and along with Inga da Costa, Marnie and myself had composed and played all the music. Add a Grated Laugh or Two was a show about women and madness and had been developed by the women in the show from a skeleton of ideas over a number of weeks through an intensive series of workshops. It was an exhausting show for everyone physically, psychically and emotionally, but even more so for Marnie who was in the last months of her pregnancy. One night, as I crossed the road towards the theatre, Ric Ludbrook beckoned to me from the taxi he was doing a night-shift in. 'Marnie's gone into hospital, her waters broke in the supermarket this morning,' he said with a pearly-toothed grin as he watched me plunge into immediate panic. 'Good luck,' he yelled and satisfied that he'd delivered his message he took off for a night's driving. A show must go on whether one of the members is just about to give birth or not. We had no time to get anyone else in, let alone rehearse, but with lyrics and chord charts pasted to every available space out of the audience sight lines the show went ahead and nobody seemed to notice the difference but Inga and myself. A week later Amos was born.

 

Not long afterwards Jane Clifton and I discussed putting on a supper show in the back theatre of the Pram Factory. We would do a bunch of our favourite songs and get some of our musician friends to play with us. Marnie, Eddie Van Roosendale and Andrew Bell were the musicians who joined us for the show. I had been taking electric guitar lessons from Andrew and he and I worked on arranging the musical repertoire which consisted of a number of golden oldies interspersed with some co-written originals from various combinations of band members.  We had our first full rehearsal in a huge five bedroom house in Greville Street Prahran where I had managed to lure APG members Graeme Isaac, Michael Price and Hellen Sky to live, in spite of it being south of the Yarra. We set up our rehearsal space in my bedroom and in a clutter of leads, instruments and PA we finally played through the songs with drums, bass and two guitars for the first time and our excitement about the supper shows began to mount as the arrangements came together.

 

Word must have spread across the river from the hallowed walls of my house on the south side, because both nights of the supper show were completely booked out. From these humble beginnings the band ‘Stiletto’ was launched. Stiletto rode a wave of popularity that was unprecedented for a band of its kind at the time. With its women-oriented lyrics and tough, loud, highly-arranged music we gained a strong following without really trying. We were simply in the right place at the right time, singing our gritty political interpretations of old and new songs.

 

At the same time other creative partnerships were being forged in our house on the south side including the seeds of an idea which was to grow into what is now Circus Oz. My brother Mic and other members of my household began to put together a travelling show with a blend of music, circus skills and political content. From this idea the metamorphosis that had begun with the Great Stumble Forward, blossomed into Soap Box Circus to finally bloom as Circus Oz. In those heady days of creativity and politics my life was rich and fulfilling as well as fraught with the lack of certainty that any change brings.

 

Years later I went to university and was surprised to find myself studying the life I had led as a younger woman as part of a tradition of Australian theatre and feminist politics. It was strangely displacing to be studying a life I had led as some passing period of history.  Then I attended a conference on Women and History and found myself listening to a paper about the Women's Festival which was held in the Edinburgh Gardens in 1975. I was part of a committee of dedicated women who put that festival together. It was strange to sit and listen to this narrative about a part of my life unfold, told by a person who had studied it as history and feel myself become a living relic. I wanted to jump up and yell 'I was there, I know about this, let me tell you what it was like!' But I didn't, and as various people discussed the idea of being in the forefront of things, of being at the coal face where politics and theatre meet, my heart began to burst with a terrible nostalgia for a time when I was, indeed at the cutting edge of life rather than studying it after the event - an event that has indeed become part of history now. But still the lyrics I sang at the top of a twelve foot ladder, all those years ago, are appropriate.

 

If you don’t love yourself, there’s no-one to do it for you.

If you can’t be at peace there’s plenty of wars to:

fight inside yourself

and you’ll lose



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