Australian Theatre History. The Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory
How do you separate the moments from the continuum of time? The experience of the APG first at La Mama and then at the Pram Factory is embedded in the folds of memory but some images are so bright they live with me in the present. I cannot say they are accurate images; they are what is filtered through my experience before and after.
The highlights start at La Mama - the free-flowing magic of female creativity in Calm Down Mother, unity of purpose and power in guerrilla street theatre for the Moratorium against the war in Vietnam. Later, at the Pram; the voice of a generation of women in Betty Can Jump, opening my third eye in directing Fassbinder's Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and completing an era in directing Traitors by Stephen Sewell. Other moments I witnessed from the audience must include Peter Cummins' spare, entrancing Stretch of the Imagination by Jack Hibberd, Carol Porter's vulnerable tutu-clad ballerina in the Women's Weekly show (or was it The Love Show?). A moment of rare beauty, rare because beauty was not on the checklist of our house style. Shivers run down my spine just thinking of the sublime voice of Granny Hills (Evelyn Krape) soaring eerily from off-stage to rescue Tony Taylor (Winston) from the terror of stage fright in the Hills Family Show. A moment to bring tears to the eyes and the hairs to stand up on the skin.
So. How did it all start?
Jerzy Grotowski changed my engagement with theatre utterly in 1967. I encountered him and a couple of his actors (including the angelic Riszard Cieslak- the most beautiful actor I had ever seen) during a two week workshop in Nancy, France where I spent a year studying and researching experimental and political theatre. Nothing in my life to that point could prepare me for the shock. Physical, emotional and spiritual shock. Twenty years later I was beginning to catch on to the purpose of the stripping back of all masks, the humiliation to destroy the ego, the training of voice and body to be perfectly lucid fluid channels for whatever the theatrical moment required.
But I had at least had a glimpse of a spiritual beauty, a simplicity and achingly tender expression of the soul as the natural ageless domain of theatre. I longed for theatre which was touched by this Grace, theatre of the Numinous.
I came back to Melbourne at the end of 1967 passionate about setting up a theatre company. My year in France gave me the confidence and the sense of direction necessary. I didn't know whether or not I was creative. I didn't know whether or not I could be an actress. And I didn't know whether or not I could actually create a theatre company. I only knew that I had discovered an enormous store of energy and if I did not use it, express it somehow, I would go mad. Theatre seemed the obvious place, for in the theatre enormous energy is not only tolerated but is actually necessary.
And of course, it was the right time. Many people shared the same dream.
Back home Graeme Blundell was scurrying about with his brief case, drumming up interest in a new Australian theatre. We had talked a great deal about this dream before I went to France, and we already had a very strong working relationship. We acted together in the Melb.Univ. Student Theatre production of Pinter's ‘The Birthday Party’. I was playing Lulu, trying to entice Stanley out of the house. He would not look at me while I was looking at him. As soon as I turned away, he turned to look at me. As he turned away, I would turn to look at him. And so it would go on. We never worked out the timing, we never made eye contact, and we just knew instinctively when the other was turning away. A moment of exquisite simplicity where time stood still. We always had the audience in the palms of our hands in that moment of total concentration and total trust. Epiphany.
So when I got back to Australia of course I became a regular at the Sunday acting workshops run by Graeme, Brian Davies and Alan Finney. I didn't mind that no one really wanted to know in those early days what I could contribute. I knew I was committed to the bigger picture of creating an Australian theatre. We didn't really know how big it was; we went forward blindly and full of enthusiasm. Everything started at La Mama.
The enormous fire of creative energy exploding out of La Mama from 1967 to 1969 fed the APG and the Pram Factory for 11 years - 11 years where every moment was an aeon lived in the intense present. We spun in a vortex of energy - a meeting of souls drawn like moths to the flame. It provided us with friendship, family, community, creativity, romance, sex and a social and political context. In the early days, it even satisfied on a spiritual level (although of course we would never have described it as such).
Summer of 1967-8.
Sunday workshops at La Mama. We danced ourselves silly. We improvised until we were empty and then we danced ourselves silly again. What for? For the fun of it, and because we were all passionate about creating an Australian Theatre. We were sick of a flabby second-hand theatre slavishly following the West End in London, sick of having to put on pommy accents to get on the stage. We wanted to create an Australian theatre about the unique experience of living in this vast land whose landscapes both internal and external were still largely unexplored and unexpressed. (By white anglo-celts.)
The sessions on Sundays gave us continuity and the chance to create a coherent group language. We flung ourselves into the improvisation and group exercises with total trust. We bonded as a group and created a theatrical cornucopia. It became clear that Graeme was the intellectual and directorial driving force but he was as blindly reckless as the rest of us - a theatrical magpie grabbing ideas from everywhere. It was as a group that we were potent, not as individuals.
We were all inspired by the new theatre groups springing up in Europe and the US - Richard Schechner, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, The Living Theatre, The Open Theatre and Grotowski. The TDR became our bible and the New York Village Voice kept us informed of a whole new culture emerging.
Betty Burstall, inspired by La Mama in New York, set up a daughter chapter in Carlton and began to nurture a whole new generation of Australian writers, actors, musicians, poets, performance artists and directors. Betty was very open and the work at La Mama in Melbourne was diverse and very much on the cutting edge. She would sit smiling gently in the corner of the space, ready to put the coffee on or add another log to the crackling fire. The atmosphere was cosy and welcoming. A number of groups began to form there, but somehow the Sunday workshop group dominated the space (creatively and physically) and for a couple of years we essentially moved everyone else out. After our first professional tour to the Perth Festival in Jan/Feb 1970 it was obvious that we needed more space; we needed our own space.
The New Theatre rented a space at the back of a big building around the corner in Drummond St, Carlton. The front space was huge, empty and full of memories of the days when it was a Pram Factory, a Dance Hall, a boxing venue and most recently, a printing establishment. We took on the rent of what became the Front Theatre and had many working bees to dismantle the wooden cubicles and hose down the walls and floors. We stripped off years of dust and grease with the high-pressure jet from fire hoses. It wasn't enough. We had to sand about half an inch off the floor to get below the deeply embedded ink stains.
That was the beginning of 11 of the most intense years of my life. I got married, had two beautiful children, got divorced, and had a couple of major relationships within that time, but the theatre was central to it all. It was theatre, which gave me the chance to explore, to search for meaning and to express it. Despite the pain and self-inflicted emotional torture, it was impossible to leave the APG and the Pram Factory. It was my defining identity.
So intensely were we all pulled into the vortex of the group that we rarely ventured outside of the Rathdowne, to Lygon St, Elgin to Faraday St square.
I at least lived in the next suburb. I took my children to pre-school and school, and shopped in Woolworth's, but for some, the block defined by Drummond, Lygon, Faraday and Elgin streets was everything. In 1979, Jon Hawkes was known to go to a party in NORTH MELBOURNE! The first time he had left the block except to go on tour for about 7 years.
Many people tried desperately to get into the APG, and we tried to initiate fair procedures to facilitate this. But we all knew without speaking whether someone was meant to be there or not, and this sense of having to be there was what counted in the end. It had very little to do with whether or not we liked someone, although that did come into it. It was an intuitive response. And so that strange beast, the APG, grew organically, transforming itself in an extraordinarily vital way. But I am leaping ahead. Let's go back to La Mama.
‘Calm Down Mother’ by Megan Terry sealed my fate in the theatre. Kim O'Leary, Lindy Davies and I acted in this short piece at La Mama; Graeme Blundell directed.
The play was cutting edge - from New York and created in collaboration with the actors of the Open Theatre by means of 'Transformations' or 'Metamorphoses'. These are essentially improvisations which 'expose those elements of personality beneath the role, which a human being assumes as his/her identity… We are aggregates of the most dramatic contradictions, but we try to present a consistent image. In Megan Terry's plays the multiple roles burst through to reveal the complexities of relationships… This is of course the challenge to the actor: to confront a series of wildly contradictory characters, shift shapes between a series of brutally splintered actions; and never reduce it all to a comfortable, easy line, a cosy solution."
We rehearsed at 7.00 am before work (or school for Kim, who was only 16) and then again in the late afternoons. We slipped into a stream of unlimited possibility; creating, discovering, exploring, with heightened awareness and exquisite sense of connectedness and wholeness.
We swam like mermaids in the sea of our female creativity and Graeme sat and watched, not judging, yet discerning all. He directed by not directing. This was La Mama the witches' cauldron, the beginning my passion for theatre as shamanism - shape shifting to crack open the constructed self and touch the numinous centre.
‘Calm Down Mother’ began with each of us improvising around an opening riff, which was then developed through the piece. Mine, significantly, was 'Hit! I want to hit! Hit! Hit! HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT!' accompanied by increasingly violent swipes at the air. What ecstasy! From the rage came a creative force on which the rest of the performance flowed effortlessly. In my everyday life I always tried to control the rage, but my gimlet eyes always gave it away and rage controlled me. In theatre the potential is always there to express and thus transform these difficult emotions, and in CDM, all emotions were allowed, and all were expressed. And what was left after the storm of emotions was love.
We were all in love with each other, and totally trusting.
The trust we built in rehearsal carried into performance. One night a drunken actor, David Mitchell, sat drinking from a flagon of red wine, his heckling becoming louder and more offensive as he became more and more drunk. I assumed a character who went and sat on his knee, gave him total attention for a minute or two. He quietened down. A scene developed around him, in which Lindy was able to lead him by the hand to the door, open it, usher him outside, lock the door, and resume the text without a moment's hesitation.
We were engrossed in all the levels of the play, so focussed that we could choose to allow all outside influences into the performance or blot them out completely. One night Lindy completed a speech with a grand flourish exclaiming dramatically, 'Mother!!' as she ground out her cigarette butt . . . into the back of my hand! She was oblivious. I looked at her in amazement, but I felt no pain.
We laughed about it later.
That season of plays also included a piece by Megan Terry for three men. Bill Garner, David Kendall and Alan Finney played together with an abandon that was truly breath taking. They delighted in taking flight on impulse into powerful improvisation and falling back down to the steady rhythm of the text. It was thrilling to watch their courage and openness, their pure innocent maleness. The balance of male and female energy sustained us all in a joyful embrace.
This was also the beginning of my relationship with Graeme. I was mixing the coleslaw for our big New Year's eve party, my hands sliding through the mayonnaise as Graeme sidled by. For the first time there was a frisson of sexual energy. At twelve midnight, we kissed. And kissed and kissed. We could not stop. The relationship shifted ground. I hesitate to say that it became more 'personal' because the relationship was always at the service of the bigger picture, the passion for creating our theatre. Our inarticulate attraction to each other blossomed into a sexual one; no more articulate, but very much more powerful because of the commitment to a bigger dream. We became a couple holding an energetic centre of the group that evolved into the APG. Every night we had a crowd in our lounge room in Carlton St talking laughing, drinking, arguing and above all dancing. We played the Beatles and Rolling Stones over and over again - along with Jose Feliciano (Come on Baby Light My Fire) and Diana Ross and the Supremes. This went on till the early hours of the morning- every night - very difficult for me because I had to get up and teach the next day. I wanted to HIT HIT HIT! Mostly I just fumed and banged on the bedroom floor directly above the lounge room.
We argued about theatre, and politics. But we were totally united as never before or since in our opposition to the war in Vietnam. Passionate resistance to the war in Vietnam was growing in leaps and bounds until it reached critical mass in 1970. I don't remember who suggested we do street theatre - maybe Lindzee Smith or Jon Hawkes (our radical left from Monash University). Maybe Graeme, enamoured as he was of Commedia dell'Arte. We spent the summer of 68-69 at La Mama making masks for street theatre. Maybe it was me - I was very inspired by the street theatre in Paris in May 1968
The creation of these images was extraordinary - more than twenty people turned up to devise and rehearse over a period of a few weeks
The group that came together was mostly Tribe, led by Doug Anders, and the APG plus various friends and helpers. It was a truly great collaboration. At first we did some intense brainstorming in the New Theatre space which they gave to us rent-free. Then after a week or so, the rehearsals needed more space. We began to rehearse in the Carlton Gardens opposite the house where Graeme and I lived at 30 (or was it 32?) Carlton St.
For days Julie Ewington and Margot Lindsay sewed the costumes (black Viet Cong style pyjamas) in our front room while we marched, cart wheeled, chanted and sharpened up our images on the grass opposite. The May Day march (May 3 1979) was a test run for the Moratorium on 5 May.
We assembled for the Moratorium march in the Treasury Gardens behind Parliament House. The sun was barely up when we got there. I have an image of Doug Anders burned into my brain. A tall thin man, he is silhouetted against the crisp early morning sky. The sun is shines through the leaves of the trees and hits the top of the big bass drum strapped to his chest. Boom Boom!! He strides through the milling crowd, gathering us up and signalling the beginning of a sketch. Boom! Boom! Boom!!
We were not the first to arrive, but we were certainly the most visible - our faces painted white, black and red gashed across our cheeks, running down from eyes and mouth. Around our heads we wore a red band. The pyjamas gave us speed and ease of movement and white sneakers gave us stealth and a spring in our step. We dispersed and re-grouped silently and swiftly. In true guerrilla style, we had strategies for moving through the crowd, for speeding through the terrain, and creating performance spaces. Some of the images were fairly static, others more dynamic - all simple. Vocally they were also simple. In some we repeated one phrase throughout like a mantra, in others we sang a well-known song or simply performed in silence. One image began with us marching, and gradually forming a circle, singing as we went:
'When Johnnie comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah!
When Johnnie comes marching home again Hurrah! Hurrah!
He hasn't an arm; He hasn't a leg,
He's an armless, legless formless egg
And we'll all be gay (fall down?)
When Johnnie comes marching home.'
We were all crouched down and rose together to explode up and out, as if bombed or hit by a landmine, leaving maimed tortured bodies writhing on the ground. Silently, the bodies picked themselves up and snaked out of the space to move on to the next site. Lindzee and Graeme ran ahead with signs saying 'Flying wedge', 'Free Zarb', 'Light at the End of the Tunnel', 'Flying Wedge', and 'All The Way With LBJ'. 'Free Zarb' was a travelling sketch. Five or six people with arms stretched out at shoulder height moved forward zigzagging from side to side, Zarb walked arms by his sides in the middle. Imprisoned. For 'Light at the end of the tunnel!' a number of people created a tunnel with their legs and one by one we crawled along the tunnel, and joining on at the end of the tunnel. There was no end to the tunnel. The sketches were all very simple, very physical; capable of being repeated endlessly. We all were able to take part in all of them, in whatever role.
The march moved down Bourke St, led by Jim Cairns and Sam Goldbloom. They were so tall and upright -powerful men marching for the good of humanity. I felt completely SAFE with them at the head.
The number of marchers swelled. At one point, the march came to a standstill as we listened to speakers. I looked back to Parliament House. Bourke Street was FULL. Jam-packed, stretching back as far as the eye could see with people united by one desire - to stop the war in Vietnam. It was overwhelming. Tears sprang to my eyes that such a force for the good could be marshalled and that I was standing in that force. Alongside me were the people I loved and worked with, as well as some with whom I would weave a very strong bond in later years at the Pram Factory: - Alan Robertson, John Duigan, Meg Clancy, Yvonne Marini, Bill Garner, Graeme Blundell, Lindzee Smith, Rivka Hartmann. Was Robin Laurie there? We were more than twenty strong. Sasha Trikojus filmed the whole thing. I remembered the Moratorium recently when 300,000 people marched over the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of Reconciliation. Hopefully that march will also prove to mark a significant moment, a turning point in the history of Australia.
Soon after the Moratorium, Australia began to withdraw troops from Vietnam. The Moratorium showed that the will of the people cannot be denied, and for us it was a potent expression of the inter-connectedness of politics, passion and theatre. Theatre with a function; to sustain a community, to unite and give energy to an important cause.
Betty Can Jump was a courageous, reckless piece of collaborative theatre which also grew out of a powerful political movement for change. It opened on 26 January 1972 - the first piece of feminist theatre. A small show; a giant leap of faith, filling the Pram Factory to capacity for a six weeks season and attracting rave reviews. It was the most successful show we'd had for some time and it grew out of an enormous groundswell of emotional, political and spiritual will to change the way we perceived ourselves as women.
Hundreds of women in Carlton /Fitzroy (our village) were saying 'Enough! We don't accept that we are the weaker sex. We don't want to be defined by men any more - we want to know more deeply, more fully who we are. We want to re-discover our historical past and re-tell it from a woman's perspective. We want to take our place consciously in the public world and change the way men and women relate to each other.' Women's Liberation meetings started in June 1971. We began to talk and talk - about our feelings our families our relationships and ourselves - Consciousness Raising (CR). At the beginning it was strange to go to these meetings without men, without a male perspective to structure our thoughts. Many women were afraid to come - afraid to identify with women, in case this was seen as disloyalty to the men in their lives.
Jehane Dillon came to a meeting in Rathdowne St in Carlton where 40 women were crowded into the front room and talked about her experience in feminist theatre in Boston. She offered to give us a session of the workshop exercises her theatre did to allow women (not necessarily actresses) to examine and share their experiences. We created images of ourselves as women and acted out our experiences and dreams. Helen Garner was there, and so was Micky Allan. We lived in a state of constant excitement. Most of the men in our lives were anxious, angry, scornful or just plain scared but we surged on anyway. They were heady times.
Consciousness Raising provided the forum for expressing what was inexpressible, unheard, and unrecognised in situations defined by male awareness. I felt powerful. I was also just pregnant, and maybe this gave me the greatest boost. I was driven to take action - driven by rage. Rage that in my own family, the boys were considered far more important than the girls, that in the theatre women were considered incapable of writing or directing, that the football dominated the TV and radio for more than half the week. Rage that female culture was not respected, and not nurtured. Rage that women had been subjugated to men. That history ignored the lives of women as if men were born fully-fledged at the age of 21, already full of testosterone and braggadocio. It was outRAGEous. And above all, rage that at the Pram Factory, where the APG moved in 1970 after the Perth Tour, women were being pushed into invisibility.
Sure we needed a more clear structure as we expanded, but with the development of a legal and procedural structure came a dampening down of the raw ecstatic power of the early days. The work became more conservative, and more male-dominated. That glimpse of a spiritual dimension of the theatre began to fade. The voice of the women became more and more feeble. We lost the immediacy of creating on the floor in favour of moves worked out at home by the directors and then imposed on the performers. The writers and directors were all male. Everything was seen from a male perspective, and the audience was assumed also to be male. The exquisite balance of those early days at La Mama was lost, and I felt it as physical and emotional pain.
My rage began to rise. It reached a peak during rehearsals for the second run of Marvellous Melbourne, the inaugural show at the Pram Factory. Ostensibly a group- created show, it was in fact John Romeril and Jack Hibberd as writers who controlled the content of the show, with Graeme and Max Gillies as directors making executive decisions about the form. (In Max's case coming in to rehearsals with the actors' moves already worked out). The cast had equal numbers of women and men, and yet scene after scene arrived in the rehearsal room with five parts for men, none for women; seven parts for men, one for a woman. Nowhere was there space for input from the women - we were patronised or ignored. The men could not or would not understand that there was a problem - of equal employment opportunity if nothing else. It's probable that the other women felt the same - I'm sure there were grumblings among us all, but no one else felt as strongly as I did. Mostly they were happy just to be doing something on the stage, perhaps because they were either still students or were fully employed at the Teachers College. I felt alone, unsupported and lost. I had not given up the comfort of a good job as a teacher to play male roles, and eventually I hit flash point. I stormed out of rehearsal feeling frustrated, betrayed and deeply hurt. And above all ENRAGED.
What to do with this rage? I was helpless.
After a few months of deep depression and overwhelming grief, I started to want to DO something. Fortuitously, synchronously, the Women's Liberation Movement opened the door of opportunity.
Carlton was a fertile patch with many students, artists, actors and academics beginning to wake up to a greater potential for women than we had been raised to expect. We met and began to speak about our rage, grief, and shame, our confusion and fear. Newfound courage and determination began to rise. I dared to believe it was possible to create a piece of theatre, which would give women a voice. Not just for us, but for our mothers, grandmothers and foremothers, as well as for our daughters and the women who would follow.
We were beginning to feel deliciously powerful. It was obviously time for action. Immediately. We had a theatre space. The next step was to recruit women. Helen Garner and Micky Allan were there from the start. It didn't matter that neither had done any theatre before -they were both committed to the ideas and had a great deal to offer. Helen was not yet known as a writer, but her letters were brilliant. She had been a theatre widow in the APG while Bill (Garner, to whom she was married then) was swept up in the creative vortex of La Mama and the early days at the Pram Factory. Now the roles were reversed and Bill was left holding the baby (Alice). Micky was already acknowledged as a painter with an exceptional sense of colour and form. Their enthusiasm and commitment were sure signs we were on the right track.
So with this trio at the core of the project we gathered in others. We put the word out. I dragged myself to the Women and Labor conference at Melbourne University, despite the nausea of early pregnancy and asked all women interested in the project to come to a general workshop at the Pram Factory the following week. We were amazed at the huge response. Sixty women of all ages and occupations filled the Back Theatre. In-groups of four or five we began to articulate what we felt needed to be said in a theatre piece. One man came along with a play he had written and with solutions to our problems. He was enraged when we wouldn't listen to him. A week later we held another such session, this time strictly for women only. We wanted to talk- and so we did. You couldn't shut us up!
At the next meeting in four days time we started to work on theatrical exercises - partly to start the selection process for the six performers (some of whom would need a crash course in elementary stage craft), and partly to start throwing up material. In the absence of a text, and with no historical material to hand, we based the work on experiences of learning to be women, first sexual experiences, experiences of marriage and many more. The New York Women's Liberation Movement had a list of topics for discussion, which we used to get going. We rejected plays from the US and England 'Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven' might have been popular in London, but it was not our cup of tea.
We played word association games, acted out images 'As a woman I feel like . . .' 'I feel men are like . . .' we played with notions of power (masters and slaves), and acted out dreams and fantasies. We were intent on plumbing the depths of the unconscious as well as giving voice and form to the obvious. 'As a woman I feel like . . . ' gave us some wonderful material right from the first session, and we continued to develop this. Evelyn Krape felt like a cushion plumped up and then sat on. Claire as a teenager was a 'spiky pineapple in a bowl of perfect pomegranates'. Yvonne was a 'huge laugh that kept on going until it choked 'her. With super academic men Helen felt like a 'big pulsating heart just seething with intuition' and with stupid men, 'like a sharp glittering knife only a little bit out of its sheath'.
We examined the language as it refers to women, the clichés, and the taboos. All of this work had a freshness and rawness. We had no expectations - no blue print, no idea where we were going, but we had such fun going there. We laughed, we cried and we were astounded at the richness of our lives.
We gave ourselves four months to research, create and rehearse the piece, timing the opening night to co-incide with Germaine Greer's visit (The Female Eunuch was newly published - a great source of inspiration to us). It also meant that the show would be over by the time I gave birth (appropriately to a girl as it turned out!) due in March.
As the work gathered momentum we stepped up the frequency of the workshop sessions-demanding a stronger and stronger commitment from women eager to be involved. Many talented and enthusiastic women dropped away, but the final team, was very strong and very committed. The performers were Helen Garner, Yvonne Marini, Jude Kuring and Evelyn Krape. And Kristin Green. Claire Dobbin and Kristin, both taught at the Secondary Teachers College Drama Dept. Claire, Evelyn and Yvonne were in ‘Marvellous Melbourne’. Yvonne was NIDA trained and had been working full time in the La Mama Company for a year. Jude Kuring was from the Melbourne Youth Theatre based originally at the Secondary Teachers' College. The cast was young and energetic. Mickey Allan took on the design, helped by Helen Clemens (a mother of two); Laurel Frank (a University student) and Kay Hamilton (a teacher) undertook the historical research. Lorraine Milne helped find music of the era and Sarah de Jong (also a student at the STC became Musical Director).
The historical material proved to be a goldmine. We had more documents than we could deal with- about Convict women, the Female Factory, about the selling of convicts as wives. Alongside a plethora of documentation of women as victims, we had the articulate rhetoric of strong women like Vida Goldstein, and Louisa Lawson (Henry's mum). We wanted to bring this hitherto unacknowledged material to light, but it never had the force in performance that the more deeply personal material did. As Evelyn said in LIP (1978/9) 'Those nights we sat around passing documents. I found it terrific to see those documents in a time scale; to piece things together and then go out and create something; that was a real challenge but even though we were working in the dark, I never lost confidence.'
Quite soon in the process, it became clear that if we wanted to examine the repressive historical male attitudes towards women, it would be useful to have a man in the cast. A difficult decision. At this point Vic Marsh turned up with his pregnant partner Carmen Lawrence. The APG had been trying to entice him to join us since January 1970 when we met him on our first tour, to the Perth Festival. Vic was a very generous performer/theatre worker who was experienced in the kind of work we were doing. And he was prepared to bear the brunt.
Some of the women were initially resistant and anxious, but he soon settled in and was accepted. Sometimes he seemed more female than some of the women. We also had the double blessing of Carmen's brilliant mind occasionally clarifying some muddy patch.
It was great to have a more experienced performer for the deeper work we attempted with the historical material. One memorable night, the actors broke through to a powerful and confronting performance of life on board a convict ship. We repeated the scene over and over, finding deeper and deeper layers of pain and degradation with each run. Vic's willingness to enter the void allowed all the actors to find more profoundly what it was really like to be transported to Australia on a convict ship. The scene was spine chilling. By midnight they were exhausted and quite disturbed, so we let it go. Unfortunately, the vital centre of the scene remained elusive when we ran the scene again the next night- partly because the performers were inexperienced and partly because we needed a writer to structure what emerged from improvisation.
The process of making BCJ took us all through vast emotional changes -as we emerged from one challenge, our enthusiasm and courage rose again to see us to the next one.
The whole process was very emotional - and indeed we valued that. As women we were prepared much more to allow our emotions to come into play. I was dealing with the shock of pregnancy alone - Graeme (the father of my baby and my husband by then) had gone overseas six weeks into rehearsals. He wasn't there to influence me or undermine me, but he also wasn't there to comfort and cuddle me.
What we were doing was new. We were excited and terrified at the same time.
It was a celebration of being female as Yvonne said in LIP 1978/9, 'The kind of energy we packed into one hour, you normally need an hour or two to express. We were riding on that energy. It was an affirmation of being female and of reaching out to the audience, to the women in the audience.'
Many of the women who came to the early meetings continued to be involved backstage and front of house, relieving us of enormous pressure with their support. They operated the two slide projectors (Micky's design involved two screens showing slides continuously of images of women which underscored the content of the scenes, or contradicted it or made some other visual comment on their own.) The women served coffee, sold tickets, looked after children and generally gave support to the performers.
Apart from Vic, no man from the APG could see any of our work until the preview. They all stormed in stony faced and sat in the front row. We were quaking in our shoes; I don't know how they felt. I did see how they squirmed in a few places, notably the more personal parts. They were also very uncomfortable in Past Carin', a scene which Helen Garner had pieced together from diaries of Pioneer women. It detailed a life alone with her children in the bush, with her husband away droving or shearing. Past Carin' is set to the same tune as Andy's Gone A'Drovin, and gives us the other side of the coin - a stillborn baby, birthed nine months after the husband came home for a few days. One of many still births. Helen sang it with true pitch and clear un-emotional delivery. At this point in the show, every night, women in the audience began to sob, tears streaming down their faces. The scene touched some shared inherited pain. Jack Hibberd dismissed the show as 'mawkish and sentimental'. John Romeril tried to be politically correct but was in fact patronising, and Bill Garner was shaking - perhaps with anger, perhaps with fear.
However, we women of the APG were quite clear at that time that we didn't want to separate from the men - we weren't interested in a separatist theatre group for women, and we were integrated back into the group quite quickly and easily. We also needed time to recover. ‘Betty Can Jump’ was exhausting - emotionally, physically and spiritually.
Graeme came back, Nellie was born and I lay in bed for a few weeks, panting from the enormous changes that I'd experienced.
Giving birth was the most powerful event of my life- I knew in the moment of Nellie's birth that my death was inevitable. So when I recovered my breath I wanted next to do a show about death. However, there were no takers. Feminism had turned a corner and many women at the Pram didn't want to accept the physical biological imperative of being female. Most of them were ideologically opposed to having children at all.
The APG was a dynamic group ever -changing, always trying to keep some balance between the vital revolutionary force that was our wellspring and the need to create structures to give that force some form.
Life went on. I acted in a couple of films and TV series, but with my second pregnancy, I started to want to slow down and spend more time at home.
Graeme made the movie, ‘AlvinPurple’ . I endured countless inane press interviews focussed obsessively on how it felt to be Mrs Alvin Purple.
The APG seemed a long way away.
I accepted an offer to do a play at La Mama. It was not an APG show. Jake, my son, was 9 months old, Nellie was 3 years old, and I wanted to be with them, loved being at home with them, but I was fearful of losing my place in the world of theatre. Graeme encouraged me and endorsed the play – ‘You Want it Don't You Billy’. Too late I realized that the play was a misogynist nonsense and that Graeme's agenda was totally different from mine. He was more interested in fame and other women, than he was in me, and creating a better world. My marriage became a nightmare and I lost kilos, performing in a play that battered me about and trying to look after two babies on my own.
We limped along in our marriage for a while, until I began to move back into the APG. Some collective members were wary of me - after all I was married to the enemy and a mother and bourgeois to boot, but I chose to be where the work was meaningful and sustaining.
Eventually, the marriage broke down. And inevitably, I became involved romantically with another man. At this point I observed that a couple has more power than two individuals. With this new relationship came greater possibilities to create work that fulfilled me. It also meant that I was part of the dance of the APG. We worked together, played together, and of course, because it was impossible to sustain relationships outside the group, we fell in love with each other. Sexually we were all pretty monogamous, but in a serial fashion. Every spring there would be a shuffle of partners. Most of these couplings were public, although one or two affairs lasted for years in secret. Everyone knew though. We were all intertwined with each other and there were very few real secrets. We lived a melodrama of passionate affairs, betrayals, jealousies and torture and loved every minute of it.
‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant’ by R.W. Fassbinder was a perfect show for our development. It took intense emotions by the scruff of the neck and wrung every ounce of amusement out of them until you could no longer believe that we had to be victims of our own melodramas. Petra gave us the space. To stand back, take a deep breath and have a good laugh at ourselves.
I had no intention of directing the play. First of all, because it was Lindzee who brought it back for the Pram from New York. He had ideas, one of which was that I would play Petra. I was excited. We programmed it for the season of Women's Theatre in 1978. It has an all-woman cast and to qualify for this season it also needed to have a woman director. Lindzee's American girlfriend, Betsy Sussler ,offered to sit in on rehearsals in a directorial capacity. She did not want full responsibility. I guess Lindzee was talking to her at home in the Tower. Or maybe she had too much of her own work to do. But after a week she dropped out. I wanted the show to go on. So I decided to direct and re-cast the show. Nano Nagle came in as Petra, and a brilliant cast assembled around her - notably Ursula Harrison as the silent Marlene and Carol Porter delicious as Karen.
Directing this show opened some part of me that I had only glimpsed before. As I started to get into the job, my mind became crystal clear. I was impelled to have my hair cut very short. And then in rehearsal, as I focused my mind on a particular scene being played out in front of me, a pencil thin stream of cool blue light beamed out of the centre of my forehead. Wherever it shone on the set, I knew exactly what to suggest to the actors to make the scene sing. It was exhilarating. This blue laser beam gave me accurate intuitive knowledge of how to direct the show. And day after day, week after week it guided me through. The show was a great success - artistically and financially, This was when I realised that directing was my path, affording me a far greater emotional, spiritual, mental and physical scope than performing. With this beam of intuition guiding me, the work unfolded effortlessly, and with total assurance and trust.
The trust was absolutely necessary because there were by this time various factions within the Pram Factory. We had the Tower push which eventually crystallized into Soapbox Circus (later to form Circus Oz) and Night Shift. These people liked drugs and were radical in their politics and life style. They were death seekers and death defiers. Then we had the Irish Catholic heavies, mostly men, who were committed drinkers. They spent days at Stewarts, the pub on the corner of the block. John Timlin, the administrator, virtually ran the office from the pub. The third main group held the middle ground. They loved lighthearted popular musical theatre. They were also more moderate in their vices. I was among a small number of free radicals that were not particularly identified with any of these groups, but could move between them to a certain extent. The price we paid for this freedom was exclusion from the discussions in the Tower kitchen or Stewart's pub where the real decisions were made. A traitor was the next landmark at the Pram.
I have to be honest and say that my nemesis in those years was the Irish catholic men. They all seemed middle aged, dealt in intrigue, number crunching, and not accessible unless you were prepared to hang out in the pub. The heavies were openly hostile to any women with a bit of fire. The hostility was mutual - it spiced up many interchanges till we learned to accept each other and get on with it. They were after all my tribe - being of Irish catholic stock myself. It was not until I went to Ireland many years later that I realised what was missing. The lightness and lyricism of the Irish in Ireland is what these heavies have lost. Is it the pain of separation from the old country that has left so many Irish in Australia dour, melancholic and bearing grudges for generations? I longed for the ecstatic soul of the Irish; the grace, the charm, and the joy - the ability to dance and sing.
In the chaotic early days of the APG at La Mama, we had all that. We also had the ability to be open to each other in our feelings and perceptions of each other. Rather than secret, number crunching meetings, we would clear the air with Balls-Ups where the whole night was devoted to acting each other. I loved being Meg Clancy so I could dance, and from time to time lift my leg, knee bent slap my thigh and shoot the lower part of my leg out in front of me. Or Lindzee, barrel chest leading as I strutted around, arms pinned to my sides. And then I would act Meg acting- the Woman from the ‘Man From Chicago’, or Lindzee acting in ‘Who’. This was the fast easy and creative way to give feedback- we all laughed and took note.
At the Pram Factory, this was no longer possible. Too many people, and too many entrenched factions, and too many hidden agendas. With the clarity of institutional structure came the sophistication to manipulate these structures and the possibility of abuse of power. It had to happen of course, but there was always a tension between the bursting forth of the creative wildness that began it all, and the immediate impulse to trap it, order it and beat it into submission.
‘Traitors’ captures exactly that dynamic, even though it refers to Russia ten years after the Revolution. Stephen Sewell won our Playwriting competition in 1978 after submitting a synopsis and two scenes for ‘Traitors’. It's rare that a project is satisfying on many levels simultaneously. ‘Traitors’ was one - passionate, political, emotional, intellectual. Not spiritual, and yet in the playing and in the music, set and lights, the spiritual dimension was palpable.
Stephen arrived from Brisbane, trembling, suitcase in hand. I could see he was terrified. He came first to my house, a huge rambling terrace in Fitzroy - 7 people living communally; three children, 4 adults, all involved in theatre, dance, and music. Raw boisterous energy spilled out of every doorway. We were pretty tough - on ourselves, and on each other. More challenging than nurturing, was our style, not just at home but in the wider culture of the Pram Factory and Carlton. Smart talking, joking, critical and sharp.
Stephen came upstairs to a small room I had set aside for him. From the moment he opened his suitcase I sensed that we had to rethink the accommodation. Everything was neat and ordered - shoes neatly wrapped in newspaper, shirts folded and stacked tidily just like they do in the movies. This was a man used to being cosseted and protected. Immediately there was a cultural divide to be negotiated. How would he cope with the intense scrutiny of his play? Tomorrow we would begin to tear it apart before re-assembling it. This was our practice, to workshop the text and enter more fully into it and at the same time make it our own. Our own writers were used to the chaotic rough and tumble of workshops, but it was clear that Stephen would need some comforting. Luckily Fay Mokotow offered very kindly to take him into her home. She looked after him with great tenderness even though I knew she was bitterly disappointed that she was not cast in the play.
The cast we had was great. A great cast. There were many disappointed people amongst the collective members but what to do? We had Bill Garner with his sharp mind, quirky sense of humour and lean bendy body; Sue Ingleton full of passion for life, warm gutsy, funny; Jan Cornall, very creative, original, witty, musical and more powerful than she knew; Jai Mc Henry sharp, open, clear, very creative and shining with a purity hard to identify; Wilfrid Last, everybody's dreamboat, inarticulate, brooding, self-destructive charismatic, and new-comer, Mark Minchinton- passionate, intellectual, fearless, young actor.
One of the first things we asked Stephen to do was to go back to his original synopsis of a play about two women, and try and strengthen the parts played by them in the story. ‘Traitors’ is placed historically ten years after the revolution in Russia, and deals with the shift from Lenin's leadership to the excesses of Stalin's rise to power.
Co-incidentally, the APG was at a point ten years after our revolutionary beginnings and it was clear that we had to make similar choices between solidifying institutional power and keeping the spirit alive. It was of course much more complex than that both in Russia and even in the Pram Factory. There were over one hundred members of the Collective - and more than one hundred true perspectives on any given situation.
So we attempted merely to clarify the historical story, simplify it where necessary for the play. We found a spine of the play, which spoke directly to us of our experiences, at the same time as it sketched something of the passion and struggle in Russia. This melding of the two epochs, two histories gave the production great immediacy and penetration. Everything came together harmoniously to serve the whole. Architect Dave May gave us a beautiful set inspired by the Constructivist mode of revolutionary Russian Theatre of the time. Large steel mesh screens pivoted around a central fixed point, with a third screen free-standing, and movable to give us the possibility to suggest many different locations - a room, a library, an art gallery, a train etc. All changes were done in full view of the audience, with their own music creating the atmosphere for the next scene.
The play was cinematic in its structure - short scenes that dived straight into the action and emotion. Andrew Bell wrote a sound track that underscored both the political drama and the subtle play of emotions. It was hauntingly beautiful and very powerful.
Eddie Van Rosendael came in from the Tower, the legendary golden- boy drummer to whose beat I had often danced, but to whom I had never before spoken a word. He filled us in on the historical background to ‘Traitors’. Tony Watts, on loan from the Melbourne Theatre Company designed a very cinematic lighting design.
We found an acting style, which also suggested the language of cinema. One scene between Anna (Sue Ingleton) and Ekaterina (Jai) began with them talking to each other face to face. A long shot. Sue continued to talk to Jai, facing the same way, Jai turned to us in the audience as if we were Sue and the effect was to give us a close up of Jai's face. It was a moment where time stood still. The audience was creatively involved in reading the scene, totally drawn into the imaginative heart of it. Sue offered to teach Jai to read. Jai had an armful of books. As this agreement was reached, the tension between them increased. One book dropped from Jai's arms. An electric moment. So much was suggested, so little said.
I also loved that scene because, at the end, Sue turned and left the theatre through the door to the dressing room, the office and the Tower. It was the first time I recall we used that door as a part of the set. We used the space so creatively - each show finding a new solution spatially to problems of the play that I thought we had already exhausted every possibility.
Stephen was a very literal-minded person, and I suspect he was too tense to see how magically his text supported the creative endeavours of the actors and director. He was particularly upset that we didn't use props, wanting to anchor the text in the everyday objects. We made a decision to do without props, to speed up the many scene changes and to streamline the whole production so we could focus on the emotions and the ideas.
There is a scene where two men were playing chess, and rather than have to deal with all those little pieces, we simply painted a chessboard onto the floor. The set was painted a kind of steely mid- grey, and the squares of the chessboard were slightly darker. With the lighting, the form became clear. The whole theatre was painted the same grey, so that there was uniformity - no break between the play and the rest of the world.
It was a show where the text, set, lighting, music and performances created a separate entity, and I felt confident that the show would hit the mark night after night because it had been born- it had a life of its own.
At this time, my work was beginning to reach beyond Melbourne. During the run of ‘Traitors’, I went to the Playwrights' Conference in Canberra and made some connections. I found that it was possible to take the methods and discoveries of our 11 years work out into the wider world of theatre. The APG was a hothouse, but the time was approaching for the plants to survive in the garden, on their own.
At the same time, I was exploring my love of cinema. ‘Traitors’ opened the possibility to explore the language of cinema in the safe environment of my theatre. I was accepted into the Stage to Screen training course for theatre directors to make the transition to film. This was a yearlong part time course with the AFTVRS in Sydney and it gave me the leverage to fulfil my dream of moving to Sydney with my kids.
I am happy that ‘Traitors’ was my swansong at the Pram Factory. A cycle was complete and I learned enormously in the eleven years I was part of it. In fact I was the only person who was consistently there from the beginning to the end. It was great to be part of history - theatrically and politically. I learnt about group dynamics, about how power can be used or abused; I learnt about sex and love, about giving birth and about commitment. I had been extremely fortunate to have all that in Melbourne, and it was time to make space for someone else. Many other people were leaving at the same time. A diaspora naturally evolved. I came to Sydney. Bruce Spence, Graeme Isaacs, Tony Taylor, Fay Mokotow and David Williamson came soon after (as did Graeme Blundell. Elizabeth Drake, Jan Cornall and Stephen Sewell). Sue Ingleton went to England with Rick Ludbrook; Bill Garner went to New York, as did Carol Porter, Lindzee Smith and Tim Burns. The Circus was about to embark on a lifetime of touring. Time for me to have new adventures, new challenges that would ensure that my own creative, revolutionary spirit could express itself freely and joyfully.
Sydney, with its wild beauty and balmy subtropical weather beckoned. I could not resist and have continued to grow and learn tremendously over the last twenty years. The seeds planted in those years at the APG (La Mama and the Pram Factory) continue to sprout and flourish in extraordinary ways.
After the implosion of the APG, Kerry moved to Sydney in 1980. She directed ‘The Wedding’, a 25 min film starring Geoffrey Rush, Noni Hazlehurst and Robert Meldrum. The film opened the Feminist Film Festival in Sorrento, Italy in 1980.
Then followed 15 years of freelance directing in a wide variety of theatres and groups around Australia, including Belvoir St Theatre, Griffin Theatre Co at the Stables, Sydney Theatre Company, The Performance Space, Legs on the Wall in Sydney, Adelaide Festival, and Troupe Theatre in Adelaide, Perth Playhouse, Salamanca Theatre and Zootango in Tasmania, Fourth wall in Byron Bay, and the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne.
1996 to 2004 saw a dramatic change of direction. After having spent 11 years training in energy healing and psychic development, her work as a healer took her first to Ireland, and then to Italy and Sardinia where she developed a wide network of students and clients.
Her work now is dedicated to leading sacred journeys in Australia and overseas.
She is training as a Funeral Celebrant.
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