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

Laurel Frank

The first theatre show I worked on was ‘Betty Can Jump’, directed by Kerry Dwyer.

I had just finished an Arts Degree at university and heard that a feminist theatre project was being done at the Pram Factory. I did some historical research for it with Kay Hamilton and we went to the Mitchell Library in Sydney, as there was very little in the Melbourne collections. This was before Ann Summers’ influential book “Damn Whores and God’s Police “ came out, so she too must have gone through some of the same old cardboard boxes full of revelatory documents that we did. It was incredibly exciting to discover that hidden history of women in Australia and after two months we came back, laden with material about convicts, settlers and early feminists. The theatre group had, in the meantime, moved on into “consciousness raising”, dealing with deeply personal material and our research seemed a bit dry all of a sudden. Some of it was incorporated though and it was a marvellous show and a focus for the wave of feminism then breaking over Melbourne.

Kerry asked me to stay on at the Pram Factory but when I said I had no money or job, she found a wage for me of $60 a week, which was a luxury. I didn’t know what to do at first but started to do stage management, costume making and then lighting and sound, as these were the areas no one wanted to work in. There was an excess of actors, writers and directors that made it such a stimulating place to be, but no one was prepared to do the practical things. Two men who worked on the technical side, Ian McKenzie and Graeme Leith, taught me about lighting design and rigging and this became my major work for the next 5 or 6 years.

I also did some research for plays, particularly with the Hannan’s who were educators and radicals. The Pram was a collective where anyone could propose a project and lobby to get it up. I started a small puppet based project, researching different forms of puppetry and got a few collective members interested. There were talented people from other fringe groups wanting to break into the collective and the puppet group absorbed a few of these, particularly Alan Robertson from Tribe. Initially, we focussed on doing children’s theatre, as the Pram Factory wasn’t much interested in that area. We did a version of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ and toured schools and festivals. Then a kind of craziness broke through and we wrote scripts and devised new approaches to the visual element and added music. Our shows were called, ‘How Grey Was My Nurse’, ‘How High Was My Noon’, and we did them late night after the main theatre show. They were mad and funny and a lot of actors who were attracted to our little sub-group drifted through. Jane Clifton directed, Bob Thorneycroft and Hellen Skye choreographed. I was doing physical training, learning Tai Chi and yoga so I was drawn to the physical element of performance as well as the construction of the puppets. Our last show was an adaptation of Brecht’s ‘The Elephant Calf’, a more serious work that was very successful and we decided to end the project on that high.

Soapbox Circus was another project group that wanted to use circus and physical imagery to talk about politics. They used some of our puppets and there was a natural crossover between the two groups. I was performing with them, but also doing lighting and making costumes. We did a pantomime that ended my performing career when I fractured my coccyx during an acrobatic manoeuvre. I had also had small accidents on ladders and carrying lighting gear, but I think mostly we all suffered in silence and there was not a great sense of occupational health and safety.

Circus Oz was the amalgamation of Soapbox Circus and New Circus from Adelaide. I am still working with the company, as are Ponch Hawkes and Tim Coldwell, over 25 years later. There was tension between the two groups from the start, with the Adelaide crew wanting our resources – being tired of working off the back of a truck - and with the Pram Factory crew wanting the traditional circus skills and experience that they had. I think they thought we were a bit lightweight in our approach to Circus but the combination of the political ideas of Soapbox and the skills of New Circus was the defining formula for the success of Circus Oz.

I can still remember making our first tent in the basement of the Pram Factory, it was freezing and we had miles and miles of incredibly heavy canvas to feed through the industrial sewing machine. Tim had designed the tent and we did everything, putting in every eyelet and sealing every rope end. Sue Broadway claims there was a design on the wall but I don’t remember it, it all seemed to come out of Tim’s head. We all have bits of canvas from that tent now as mementos and they betray how crude the making was, uneven and layered stitching, patches glued over worn bits, they are almost sculptural. Soapbox had travelled relatively light, now we had steel truss and canvas and road cases and lots of wacky props and costumes. Touring was physically hard but it was exhilarating.

I am still the costume designer and maker for Circus Oz but I now work with a lot of other circus performers and groups. Circus is now a large component of the theatre industry and Circus Oz were important in helping to launch the unique Australian circus culture. But the politics and creativity came from the Pram Factory and its generosity in fostering the original project.

This website was developed by Suzanne Ingleton, with the support of the 
Australia Council for the Arts(research) and The Myer Foundation(website).

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