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

Roz De Winter

I was an actor and that was it.  Confused and in a mess and that’s how I arrived at the Pram Factory. I’d had my long years of struggling to find my way as an ambitious young actor. I had no idea, and how can you as a young person, how deeply being an actor works into you. How much your emotional bodies or your spiritual bodies get touched and how strong you need to be or how open, and because I hadn’t understood that I had really had a hard time and I had cracked. I’d worked in Melbourne, Europe, Adelaide- all those places that I’d been in before I got to the Pram. I’d started working in the Union Rep Company and then I’d gone to Europe and trained and worked in England for 6 years and then to Japan where I worked with a Kyogen master for a year, then I came back to MTC and South Australian Theatre Co. SATC was the last place where I was a regular mainstream actor and director. I’d directed my first play, ‘Tree of God’.  Peter Batey gave me the job. Two weeks with a group of actors to create a performance about the History of Christianity! ‘Get a lot of music in it, darling!’ was Peter’s advice. And I knew I didn’t want a note of music in it; I wanted it to come from us. I researched and wrote it. While I was playing ‘Little Murders’ at night I was directing Christianity during the day. I went to the jewish church and I found the old music for the Song of Songs and I taught it to the actors and I taught them the le Coq mime things that I wanted them to know for the fight sequences and we worked with masks for the ‘everyman’ sequences. We later took it to the Perth Festival in 1972.


What amazes me is that I saw all that I’d done, and I was 34 or 35, and I had no concept of myself as a person with a deep need to go deeper into myself. All I ever saw was ‘I am an actor, I have to work next week, where’s it coming from?’ I was being hard on myself.


The first thing I saw was something with Bill Garner in it.  I arrived at the Pram Factory and Bill Garner turned around as we walked up the steps and said ‘ah the bourgeoisie have arrived-!’  In truth Bill was himself the bourgeoisie.


I saw ‘Bull and Mousey’ early on when we were rehearsing ‘Dimboola’. That was the first time I tuned into the energy of the Pram. Jack and Evelyn were so marvellous.  It was because of Jack that I began to work there, Dimboola was the first thing I did. At that point in time I was untouchable in theatre terms- I was unreliable. I’d had a moment in the rehearsal of a play where I wouldn’t come out from under a table and that was the end of that. Word was out that I was a loopy. Then sometime after my ‘table’ demise I was with Greensborough Little Theatre and I suggested that they do ‘Dimboola’ so I went to talk to Jack and somehow we didn’t end up doing ‘Dimboola’, we did ‘Sailor Beware’ instead but  a little later Jack suddenly rang me and asked me to play April in ‘Dimboola’ being directed by David Williamson at the Pram.  I was astounded and terrified. David was pretty relaxed after the directors I’d known. He had all these amazing people in the cast, these ‘personalities’ and he was just very subtle and he’d say things like, ‘well that’s all very well but what I actually want you to do is this..’!


Directing personalities Bruce Spence, Evelyn Krape, Bill Garner, Max Gillies, Kerry Dwyer etc. I was very impressed with the laid back attitude which was so absolutely different from the acting atmospheres that I was used to. And Evelyn was great fun and Jude Kuring was hilarious and Wilfred was reassuring and somehow it was possible for me to be a gibbering wreck in such a way that it wasn’t noticed that I’d come out from under the table! ‘Dimboola’ gave me back some reassurance. I was very surprised there was the possibility to continue working there.


I always enjoyed the contact with the audience. Fay was really good at that. Fay was the tiny bride and Bruce was the huge tall Morrie. She was very strong in herself and she’d come from this gang that had worked at Labassa- Tribe. She’d done ‘Ride Across Lake Constance’, she always managed to surprise me. In performance she would astonish me too for she had this extrovert streak, where did it come from? for privately I could never see it. She was so close and politically astute and suddenly there was this absolute child emerging - especially with Robert Meldrum in ‘The Hills Family Show’. She had this wacky sense of humour that she really hid away from the stage. When we did ‘On Yer Marx’ Fay was astonishing. She played the secretary, mad, up-tight, such an energy of contrasts to her off-stage self. I really liked Fay but I was a bit scared of her too, never quite knowing what would come out.  I remember her once pointing at someone who had just waltzed thru the theatre and said - ‘He didn’t eat anything cooked for two years and look at him - shining!’ and I thought, oh lord is that what we’ re meant to do?  It’s so strange when I think of Tribe and I think of Fay that I just can’t put the two of them together and yet they were.


I think the next thing I did was to work with Popeye Puppets. I was going to write a script for ‘the Owl and the Pussycat’. I’m so glad they didn’t let me do that because what they did was so beautiful. I remember Mickey Allan’s involvement and Graeme Isaacs in the wonderful moon. Then we did ‘The Elephant Calf’ sharing the space with ‘The Mother.’ We made soup for the audience, vegetarian for Eileen Chapman who was in The Mother. What attracted me to the puppets ?- I got to perform and no one had to look at me.


I remember an incident in the Women’s Theatre during ‘Add a Grated Laugh or Two’ where I was playing with my realities and one of the women, Caroline - a woman who was coming through an immense personal struggle -said to me ‘you don’t really believe that, I love dirt, do you?’  and I was stung that she’d got right to the heart of it. There were women who had values and there was the actor, me. I was so grateful to the Women’s Theatre, those women could stick it, they had infinite reserves. I remember their voicing those concepts of childcare for women, ‘are you coming to the demo on Saturday, what are we going to do about childcare?’ Rose Costello was a towering, vibrant energy .


In Collective meetings I used to watch other people. I was bored to sobs and I kept thinking I shouldn’t be bored to sobs although I was actually fascinated. After a while I think some women picked up on the fact that I was a pain! I had the feeling of being judged and not deserving that. I’d never sat through a power process before. It was actually great, I remember I just kept thinking, I don’t know what is really happening here. It was the hidden agenda. Something would happen in a meeting and a week later you’d meet someone in the corridor and they’d have this grim look on their faces and they’d say ‘well that’s not going to happen now and you know why!’


I just wasn’t up to it and it could have been wonderful. It was weird to have been there and yet not there.  I think if it was now I would have been fully there. I’ve had dreams fairly recently of revisiting that whole scene and being happy there and I thought, it was possible to enjoy that and I chose not to! I walked through the dressing rooms and looked at these wonderful and wild people and I was not overladen with fear the way I used to be. Now I would certainly have a few words to say about how meetings were conducted.


I remember wonderful breakthroughs like the occasion when Paul Hampton stood up in a meeting and read an Agenda of a Failed Person at the APG (that was my perception of it, he might have called it a Brechtian agenda, but that’s what I heard) and he did it so positively, he laid it all out as an actual document for examination by the collective- how it is to be not the person who is chosen for those parts and he actually laid it all out. I was so impressed that someone could come out and say, ‘Look do you know how I feel here?’ To be honest and not just watch other people. Paul’s agenda was taken quite seriously. Ah well, they said, we have to address this -how will we incorporate this into the minutes? Perhaps we should put a project up? Hilarious. Paul is now a qualified Alexander Technique teacher. But nothing changed or maybe it did, the place started to disintegrate at one level - it’s now a supermarket which is pretty second-rate.


I’m very glad I was there before the putsch happened. There was a lovely flavour around the time of ‘Dimboola’. Timlin changed things. The actor’s agency changed things.


‘Stasis’ was an absolute watershed for me. I’d been very nervous of the Rowena Balos’ voice method and the invitation was there to do the training, or apply to do it, but I was very nervous -I’d experienced Rowena, how strong she was as a woman, the year before at the MTC and I’d tasted that cheerful strength. I didn’t want to be exposed to it, didn’t want to be vulnerable- under the table! I absolutely am very sorry now that I didn’t do it. So when Robert came out with his proposal, it was just manna from heaven! It was wonderful work, it was slow and subtle and Robert had infinite patience. He would stand there softly commanding ‘no, drop the jaw, just drop the jaw’. It was irritating at the start, it was so slow and difficult one felt stupid and we’d never get it and then Robert would say ‘no endgaining, no endgaining’. I had never experienced anything that spoke to my body like this work- not the Le Coq mime or the Japanese work - or if it had been there I just hadn’t understood it. I had never experienced anything that spoke to my breath and remember I hadn’t started yoga at that time. To feel these things starting to work inside you, the imaginative quality of it, the visualisation work and the trust beginning to grow. I had huge moment there, a cracking apart- it was wonderful. Who knows where life would have been without that. And the dope! We have to remember to put that in. I know when Sue and Rob had gone and Jenny and I were alone it was enormously big in pushing through. We used it shamanically, as a doorway. I remember that was how I got the feeding process in Antony & Cleopatra. I went home one night after rehearsal and got stoned and it all became so clear.


Coming to the word Stasis- choosing from the Sylvia Plath poem, Stasis in Darkness and loving the energy of the name and then the terrible shock the day we opened the dictionary and read it! How could we have got it so wrong! It’s interesting, lately I’ve heard that  word Stasis referred to as containing energy, even more than containment of the seed. Robert Dessaix uses it as an energy, a force.  Actually I think we should have called it ex-stasis- that was where we were more then.


In Stasis, what we presented as our show was far less that any of us had ever experienced at that time. We thought we had to give them the razzamatazz, the tits and the teeth! and what we gave them was our work. Our dreams, other people playing our parents, our archetypes, it was very dangerous and needed such support! Amazing moments in the Plath poems how words didn’t need to mean what they had to mean. Total anarchy with words. ‘The RED geranium!’


Then miraculously Jenny arrived. I remember the day that Jenny first walked into that upper room where we were working on the Rowena Balos stuff, the Tilley’s Space. She came in with her spunky, short haircut and her big grin, such a different energy in that huge, cold, filthy space.


After the Antony and Cleo we got a gig as artists in residence at RMIT and that was when we split up.  Rob and Sue went off together on a completely different tack, ending up in vaudeville with ‘Back To Bourke Street’ whilst Jenny and I kept at it and oh, did we have a different time of it! That’s when the dope was really interesting. We did a gig at Fairlea Womens Prison that was a real breakthrough number for us. We were touring our Grimms fairy stories and we’d had this long day working in St Mark’s Hall and we had to do a performance at Fairlea that night and I just wanted something more from Jenny. I wanted chaos and she kept saying ‘we’ve got to go, come on!’ and she came round to my house to pick me up and she had her gear on we had both independently decided to say ‘fuck the costumes, fuck all that; and so we chucked them in and that performance was a real ripper and I finally got the courage to really go for it, to allow all my sexuality and total spontaneity with the text and they allowed us to continue, they didn’t suss us. You feel the women really knew, really knew where we were at in the blackness.


Then Rob came back in and worked a bit with us and after I’d gone to India he worked with Jen. I was already gone by then though.  I had become shocked into some new space. I went to India quite quickly and Jen was left with Robert which was quite wonderful really. When I came back she said she would never work with me again. She no longer saw herself as a performer but to me was she was always a very interesting performer. Because of her intense focus on sexuality and how important it was that that should be always totally clear. It was amazing the courage that came through, I think we made Grimm’s a lot more sexual than they were meant to be


After Jen said she didn’t want to work with me again and I began to see where she was which was a very different place from where I’d left her. I didn’t consciously think that I wanted to act and work but I was hurt when she said that. At that time she was doing her first plays and she’d obviously come into a very clever area, a very conceptual area.


I had come to understand all that process of my life as process and that being an actor had always been a backing off from life and not facing myself. Without the Stasis work I don’t know what would have happened but with it I could begin to get the flavour of real and India with Osho was so deep. I also had a new name, Suarupo. When I did get back to acting I don’t think I brought much of it along with me. I worked at The Mill in Geelong with Richard Murphet and Jenny but I was a mess. Sometimes I think that there’s still some mileage in the acting stuff but I don’t have the energy.


And so what’s important to me right now? I’m still in half. It seems to me that Suarupo has the good time and Roz goes to school and pays the bills. Suarupo means self-nature (the essence) but then nobody can pronounce Suarupo. I’m doing art and that’s been so overdue- to bring some visual joy out which was being stifled as much as everything else- and there’s lots of work to do. I don’t know if I’d have the guts to expose myself in front of an audience again. I dream of teaching, of working with young people and having the confidence of giving them the taste of what fun they could have. I’ve got what they call chronic fatigue. I cant rely on myself to turn up at seven, its partly because I’m two people but I think both people have got chronic fatigue.


Latihan a spiritual exercise, part of a Subud practice I’m involved in, a process of surrender and that’s the closest I’ve come to that time with Stasis. Sometimes in Latihan I get a conscious moment there which is just so much more a sweeter experience than theatre ever was.


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