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

People always thought of me as a musician. I always thought of myself as a performer and artiste.

Mic Conway


In ‘73, just after Nimbin, myself, Red Symons, John Ley and Rosemary Simons set up the Melbourne Artist’s Workshop (MAW).  Before that, in the early 70’s I had performed at TF (Too Fuckin) Much Ballroom where it was housed in Brunswick St. at the Cathedral Hall Temperance Building or some such. It’s still there. Matchbox got picked up by John Pinder and his partner, Peter Andrew. We were taking the piss out of the rock scene. Let It Be Agency wanted a mix of acts and hired us as a fill-in while the bands changed over. We were down on the floor, not even on the stage. We used megaphones as there were no microphones, they were on the stage getting set up for the bands. They used us lots after that, but it wasn’t all easy- I remember how some nights we’d get howled down by skin -heads and sharpies.


MAW was set up partly to counteract the commercial rock scene, which was dominated by what later became Premier Artists, but also to enable visual artists who were contributing to the performing artists scene to learn self-management. John Pinder’s involvement encouraged us. MAW was a collective, with a committee etc but very democratic. People were really interested in it and for two years we ran our own concerts- in the style of ‘TF Much Ballroom.’ We got Ormond Hall in Prahran as our venue. Once a month for two years with no funding, no money, we did it all and it was brilliantly successful! It launched Skyhooks and Captain Matchbox, Ariel, The White Company, Peter Lillee et al (we were all very fringe). It was an amorphous group of musicians, actors and visual artists. We had great posters, classic posters!


I think that my whole trip, my focus, the entire time has been concerned with putting visuals together with music. When I was at school I saw Jeff Crozier, a magician who unfortunately later hung himself-  but he was fantastic, he was magic and it was his work that totally inspired and informed me-that’s what I wanted to do! I also wanted to take the piss out of avant-garde theatre and to somehow embrace the vaudeville traditions of my family and to combine that with music and visuals. In the early days I’d worked with ‘Tribe’. Tribe was a group that were weaving in and out of the areas that I yearned towards and with people like Alan Robertson, Doug Anders etc. I found the basis of my future work. In one of our performances I remember we were once headlined in Truth newspaper. There was Margaret, a woman from Tribe, who was playing a vamp on a sofa and all the guys walked in as Charlie Chaplin and had (simulated) sex with her to the song, ‘Who walks in when I walk out?’ Truth wrote it up as ‘Sex in Rock shows!’


At the end of ‘75 Captain Matchbox was going to do this tour to the USA with John Lee Hooker but it fell through. As I remember we had big trouble with our management! We ended up sacking our manager on Nov. 11th 1975, the same day as they got Whitlam. My brother, Jim had gone to the UK and I wasn’t intending getting another band together at all! I was going to do something else! I’d originally trained as an art teacher- that’s my ‘piece of paper’ and I guess I was looking to working again in that area but things began to move without my control. Helen Garner used to come down to MAW and I knew her from that meeting place but Helen was also writing for Digger Magazine and I remember she’d written this article about the Pram Factory. I went. I loved it. Also one of my roadies was John Koning and he was working at the Pram as a carpenter. Now John Koning and I had many times shared a dream of getting together a vaudeville circus with a political edge.  Captain Matchbox had performed at the Vietnam Moratoriums and were always a part of the counterculture, but Jon Hawkes and Robin Laurie had the same Idea- Political Circus. Soapbox Circus hadn’t begun but they were doing exploratory workshops and out of the blue they invited me to join them.


The first meeting of Soapbox was held in the Edinburgh Gardens, we had coffees and joints and we were mucking around with juggling and it just started growing from there. Jon Hawkes taught the juggling, at the time he wasn’t so good, not as good as he became later on! Anyway we got it up and running. It was natural for us- all the work I’d done with ‘Tribe’ and the fact that Matchbox had continuously been involved with various theatre troupes made it easy.


Jono had planned that I would get a band together but I had no intention of calling it Matchbox. We had called the first band we had The Vipers. It had had Graeme Isaacs and Peter Mulheisen in it but no one knew who The Vipers were and so we finally agreed to make the change to Matchbox, to capitalise on the name that it already had. But in Soapbox we weren’t anything to do with the old Captain Matchbox, different members, different music. I remember the day when we got Jack Sara, a Mauritian violinist. He was as mad as a frootloop. We held these public auditions for a violinist and for the whole day we’d sat there and they’d paraded through and none of them was any good and then the very last guy that came was Jack. But before he came in this friend of his knocked and entered and said ‘you’re going to use this guy, he’s brilliant!’ and we thought ‘why isn’t he telling us himself?’ and then in came Jack and of course he was fabulous, brilliant! He simply had this communication problem! A verbal communication problem  - if you got one sentence a day, you were doing well. Sometimes he would swoop around like Svengali, the next he’d be hiding and you could hear the sound but not see him. He later joined the Hare Krishna’s and stopped playing and became a cook. The new band was Graeme Isaacs, Rick Ludbrook on sax, Peter Mulheisen on bass, Gordon MacClean on drums and Mick Fleming on mandolin. When Jim came back from Europe he joined.


The early days of Soapbox were full of demos in the City Square for uranium mining and aboriginal land rights and East Timor. When Whitlam got sacked and Fraser came in I made these latex masks of Fraser- my artistic training! We used them in our shows. I remember when we were doing a show at Monash University and Fraser was due to come out there. I remember they had this glass walkway that Fraser was going to come down and what happened was someone had left a security door open and Mick Fleming went in with Hellen Sky and I think Michael Price. They were wearing the Fraser masks. Fraser was down the end of the hall and they headed towards him and Fraser freaked and ran off into the ladies toilets. In the news it said demonstrators had entered the building and Fraser had had to hide in the ‘back room’.


I remember playing in Sydney in ‘77 for Gough (then in opposition) at the Labour Xmas party and Frank Hardy was there too and Soapbox had been hired to perform for Whitlam and even though I loved Gough for many things, we were very critical of him because of the policy on East Timor. Of course we performed the Timor show and it caused absolute hell with Whitlam- what an ego he had. Frank Hardy, however, thought it was the best thing he’d ever seen.


The Soapbox Trade Union tours were incredible. They were set up by Paddy Garretty. We were politically hot. It partly ruined my career in lots of ways. What most record companies saw was this comic novelty band and even though as Matchbox we’d been at Springbok demos, now people were horrified and came up and asked us what we were doing! We toured everywhere, I remember working in the railways sheds at Redfern, now a theatre space. Jono and Robin were very aware that we were performing in a multicultural workforce and communication was everything. The music always got through to the audience and the circus skills always illustrated brilliantly without much words. Greig Pickhaver did trade union tours with us. Michael Price was there. Richard Murphet directed it. He was terrific. It was great for me to work with these people.


People warned me the APG will ruin your relationships and I said, well I won’t let that happen to me. I remember I stood up in a Collective meeting and actually said I’m  committed to this Collective and I’ve heard that it can interfere with relationships and I’m not going to let that happen. Ha ha. Of course at the time I was in a very tempestuous relationship with J.  She was very keen that I join the APG. She was very unstable. I also know that Kelvin had a relationship with her before me, not as extreme as I had. We’d have these screaming, fighting matches then we’d have a fuck and everything would be Ok- then we’d fight again… She drove cars and smashed them up. We lived in this house in Hawthorn.  It was doomed. Carol Ruff, Michael Price, Rick Ludbrook, everyone left the house which was eventually physically demolished by the relationship. Graeme Isaacs saved my life. On the behest of my sister he rescued me. They took me away and hid me in Greville St. I hadn’t slept more than two hours for six months. There was this guy living there as well as my sister, Janie. Unfortunately J found me. She was very smart. The first night I was there I crashed and I woke up at 4am with someone strangling me! She was a very strong woman. Luckily someone had heard and called the police. There were cops and ambulances and eventually I was whisked away to the Dobbin’s for peace and tranquillity. Sometimes I used to stay with Margot Lindsay too. J would calm down by the time she found me and we would talk it out. She was definitely manic with delusions. She ran rings around me intellectually. I was so besotted, I worshipped her. She was the first person I was monogamous to but she thought I was unfaithful. She accused me of having an affair with Jack Sara with whom I eventually did because I was being accused of it! I had nightmares for eight years. I jumped the fence for two years, I couldn’t go near a woman. People warned me that at the Pram there was this kind of gossip thing there, people knew about everyone’s relationships - I’m totally into gossip and I wanted to hear about everyone’s relationships but I didn’t want them to hear about mine. But of course my relationship became absolutely big news, completely over the top! My work suffered. I didn’t cope.


Soapbox went out as the political arm of the APG. We thrust ourselves into other people’s spaces. Those Soapbox gigs were heavy work, sometimes two or three shows a day. It was scary sometimes, I was the so called ‘star’ because of the TV I’d done and I didn’t believe in the ‘star’ thing anyway but people would focus on me. I became the front man. It felt like I carried that image for the whole group. I never really thought I’d get bashed although I always thought there was an ASIO person out there just watching, taking notes.

It really was shit money, looking back I don’t know how we survived. We lived in share houses paying around  $20-$30 a week and we were barely scraping the rent. But money was different then.


Even though I was part of the APG I always was very much on the fringe. I was a member but I wasn’t a really active participant. Collective meetings were interminable. The members seemed to take forever to make decisions about things that I would’ve thought one person could make. The more they went on the more I started to think that maybe an enlightened dictatorship was the way to go. I didn’t have a voice there. I used to have quite a powerful voice in the Melbourne Artist’s Workshop. I didn’t feel out of it, to the contrary I felt quite well loved, but I hadn’t been there at the beginning, I hadn’t paid my dues. There was a structure in PF and really people thought of me only as a musician. I always thought of myself as a performer and an artiste.


From out of Soapbox Circus came Circus Oz. It was a coming together of New Circus with Soapbox Circus and in the middle of it was John Pinder. New Circus had done a season at the Last Laugh Restaurant which belonged to John Pinder.  I didn’t know anything about Tim Coldwell, Sue Broadway or Jack Daniels and the others, Pixie and Jim Robertson. The cross fertilisation was terrific. Acrobats and trapeze, slackwire acts etc. That’s what I was into and really loved, this was the ultimate- unfortunately the band didn’t think so. They wanted to step out. Be a band.


That’s why we only did one season the first season -in Adelaide. We made the tent and took it to the Adelaide Festival. But also in 1978 the band also released this album which the APG had funded called  Slightly Troppo. We needed to promote the album at the same time that Circus Oz needed to build the seats and I was in the situation where I had to make a commitment to the band or be in Circus Oz. I couldn’t do both and I just wanted to be in Circus Oz,  but in reality, without me there would be no band , but without me there was a Circus Oz, so I made a decision which I’ve kind of regretted for a long time afterwards. The album was not a success, the  Matchbox band kicked on for a couple more years and there were a couple of truck accidents and that was the end of it. It was kinda weird for me because my love was for Circus Oz. Artistically that’s where I really wanted to be. I never saw myself as a musician. I was always halfway to being a performer. In retrospect I should have gone with what I wanted to do but at the time I felt my obligation was with the band.


I tour a schools show now and I bring my own kind of view of things into the schools where I perform. I’ve got the National Junk Band. I’ve always wanted to have this band, I haven’t had a band for 12 years. It makes me so happy and that’s it, I got it together for fun. I’m doing all the things that I could never get Matchbox to do. I’m writing songs about things I want to say. It’s got an ecological edge. Recently I saw the Sold On Bunkum Circus  (Saltimbocca). It was Circus Oz with lots of money and no heart and no soul. I hated it. I loathed it, yet people were saying it was the best thing they ever seen. Circus Oz- what they’re doing now- is just so much better and with a comparatively miniscule amount of money.


I’d like to finish on the story of the teaspoons with the holes. Everyone was dumping on Nightshift because the teaspoons in the theatre were constantly black underneath from the smack they would be heating up. John Koning, applying lateral thinking from the carpentry area of the Pram Factory decided- he didn’t ask permission, he just did it and I really admire him for that, it was very brave thing to do- he decided to drill a very small hole in all the spoons so they could consequently hold, not water and smack but sugar, from out of which I would carefully pick the mouse droppings before the audience arrived.



Mic Conway is married with two daughters and practices his art.

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