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

Ponch Hawkes


The first thing is that for most of us it was that time in our lives when we were building a foundation to become independent and free, the second thing is I suspect it wouldn’t have been like that, for all of us women, if feminism hadn’t come along.


I remember having this conversation with Kerry Dwyer- I remember the guys saying how fucking ‘mad’ she was for complaining and putting up her hand and saying the boys had all the power and you had that sort of -‘is she really being mad or is she right?’-feeling, and they all hated her because she was a powerful woman. She laid it on the line. I mean none of our lives would’ve been like they are now if feminism hadn’t come along at the Pram Factory. It would have been an entirely different experience..


Parenting split people into categories. Some people had kids but most of us didn’t. Those of us who didn’t have children had no other responsibilities, we never had to think about anybody else. We were completely independent. That was one of the reasons why we could be the way we were, we were single women. Then all that Women’s Theatre stuff came along and they were saying: ‘we have to have child care!’ what a completely radical notion. I remember that feeling when the women started doing the WTG work- all the fantastic actresses like Sue, Evelyn and Roz de Winter and all these amateurs getting to work with all these women- and everything we did was selling out every night! People were flocking to the Pram Factory, the whole joint was completely revitalised and I have this vision, a memory of these men, like Bill Garner going around, muttering.


The men didn’t know what they were doing anymore than anyone else did really.


Although it might have been construed that I was connected to some sort of ‘sexual power base’ through my relationships with Jono Hawkes and Greig Pickhaver I actually felt I was really on the periphery, doing some photos, very badly, and selling tickets and doing shit like that.


Then the Women’s Theatre Group came along and everyone wanted to be an actor! Suddenly we were flooded with millions of women and there were no technicians and I made this decision, I should be a technician because we really needed someone in that role even though I was the administrator and Laurel Frank was already a tech (she’d been taught by guys like Ian McKenzie and Arthur Hynes). And so between Laurel, Kelvin Gedye and whoever else was around, I took it on - out of an ideological position really.


I did it well enough to do Circus Oz overseas. I electrocuted myself once! As for the Pram photography- Micky Allan, Sue Ford, Ruth Maddison, Chris Berkman, Ian McKenzie had between them, been doing the photos. Ian was quite glad to stop and eventually in the end it was really left to myself and Ruth.


I lived at Falconer St. Nth. Fitzroy- the ‘Monkey Grip House’- with Helen Garner, Larry Melzer, Greig Pickhaver, Rose Costello and the kids, Rahnee, Noah and Alice. In 1975 Jono and I came back from the States to work on ‘Digger Magazine’ in Sydney. I left Jono in Sydney and returned to Melbourne and stayed with Helen who was also working on the paper in its North Melbourne office. Then I went to live in Cecil St. in Jean Bedford’s house with Paddy Garetty and Robin Laurie, then, finally I came to 743 Rathdowne St. Nth Carlton, where Greig Pickhaver, Larry Melzer, Ruth Maddison, Bob Daly and the kids were. Helen Deling’s (& Bert Deling’s) name is still on the gas bill. I never changed it. They once lived there with Dom and Suzie de Clario. Greig was at the Pram as theatre manager and doing a bit of acting, odd jobbing, I was going out with him at Falconer St. in 1974. The whole dope thing hit the scene- Steve, Gary Waddell, Phillip Brookes- I never knew what was going on. ‘Pure Shit’ was made just before I moved into Rathdowne St.


The Womens’ Theatre Group started in ‘75. We had a revolution. International Womens’ Year- I can’t believe that they gave us the money! Thirty-six grand from the federal government. I wrote Neil Jillett that letter and told him we didn’t want him to come and review us anymore. Funding seemed easy to get for the WTG. We got funding for International Womens’ Year, which went to shows and things like ‘Out of the Frying Pan Festival’ -


WTG was the happiest time for me. It was also that I was beginning to fall in love with Kelvin who was helping us with the theatre teching. He was just gorgeous, like he was, and so lovely. We met on this tour, ‘The Women and Work Show’ with Rose Costello, Robin Laurie and three other women from WTG. We did it in factories and prisons, in schools in Victoria and NSW. We went down in the mines in Wollongong. We were driving around in this Ford transit van and I persuaded everyone to give up smoking ‘cos I’d just given up smoking. It was the worst tour I’ve ever been on!  Two of the people who were ‘on’ together broke up.  There we were doing all this stuff in all different languages in factory canteens- all this stuff that people had never done- they thought we were complete maddies, women in overalls and looking like blokes! It was incomprehensible. Out of that came Soapbox Circus where we realised we had to make images, and stop talking.


I got on much better with the women at the Pram Factory.  I mean men like Max and Bill didn’t have any time for me, they were in their red wine drinking- Carlton-intellectual world.  Maybe we were still trying to please men in a way. I did despicable things to other women in the name of sexual freedom. You went with it, all this stuff you said you believed, all this rhetoric about being open and having free relationships. The consequences were it was very hurtful to people who then couldn’t say they were very hurt, or act hurt and who had to see you the next day or the same day, in the hall - and wear it.


Kelvin and I were so hopelessly in love. People could be very cynical about that - and were. Being openly ‘in love’ at the Pram Factory was sort of taboo. It was threatening to the ‘detachment’ we were all meant to have - all that crap we went on with, suppressing our feelings.  Laurel once said to me ‘it was about 5 years before you two came out of it’.  She used to come everywhere with us, holidays and the like, we just really liked one another.


I never lived with any of my partners. Kelvin and I worked together for ten years and we always had separate rooms on tour if we could possibly afford it- and I’ve never lived with anyone since I lived with Jono and I’ve always been in a relationship, pretty much. Very radical. Some people would argue it’s an inability to commit but other people would say it’s extremely sensible. Two houses stuck together would be good because travelling to and fro can be a bit of a drag, leaving one shoe behind for example. I always had my own room with Jono. How could you live with someone and not have your own room?


The Womens’ Theatre Group was really the place where I found my first base of power. It just revolutionised the way you thought. You started from a different base point, then you saw everything differently. You put yourself in the place differently. It didn’t make me think all women were great actors or anything, I could still see that some people were much better than others. It didn’t entirely dull my senses.  It didn’t make me see that the boys weren’t fabulous at doing the acting thing it just made me look at the way they had control of the organisation and what that meant. Although some other women were powerful within the organization of the Pram it was absolutely a male structure. In the WTG it wasn’t only the organisation that was totally fascinating but really it was the context of the material that the people were doing. You were going to these consciousness-raising groups and then you were doing this work and people were coming along and telling you that the work had changed their lives and at the same time it was changing yours. I mean ‘Women and Children First’, what a show!  I don’t know how I’d feel about it now, but I just remember those exquisite stories and those exquisite screens that Carol Porter had made- I just remember it was like somebody pulling these curtains off you, peeling another layer, and all night it was just this process of like, ‘Oh God! Of course!’


The demise of the WTG was inevitable. It suffered from the same sorts of factionalism as any other body. People who had been involved in that group went on to do all sorts of wonderful things. The WTG people wanted full control and wanted the Pram women out! It was OK, we just went back to the main body of the Pram Factory but the Pram was forever changed by it.


Then we were all doing Circus! From 1977 onwards, beginning with Soapbox Circus. It was all of our lives, it took out quite a lot of energy and it took out a whole group of the people (from the Collective). What a legacy of the Pram Factory, what a legacy, over 21 years. Circus Oz is one of the major organisations that is funded by the government. It is also one of the major organisations that has least funding per person than anybody else. It is one of the two organisations that isn’t in the red and our business plan! - fourteen thousand  dollars you’d pay to have a consultant come and do a business plan- we did it ourselves! We did it in the way that the Pram Factory and Circus always does things, which is everybody talked about it, the general manager etc. and then the people went away and made stuff and put it all together, in our own way, with pictures, and now they’re touting that around as the Ideal Business Plan. It is so hilarious, after all this pressure from the funding bodies to change the way we run things, incredible pressure to change! And we have changed. We have a position called General Manager now and Artistic Director, like everybody else. But it’s hilarious, I think, that within all that the Circus maintains its own position, culturally. I’m still on the Board which consists of four outside members, two positions for members of 5 years standing or more and 2 positions from the working company, people on the floor. I’m an outside member. I still do the photos and Laurel is still doing the costumes. And there we were, on the front of the Royal Auto RACV Magazine!


The hardest thing for me at the APG was thinking. I was surrounded by really, really bright people. I always felt like I was on the periphery of it, because, of course, the actors were the stars in the currency and I was never going to do that and I felt a lot of admiration for people who could, also I felt people were a lot smarter than I was. Then I became a technician and techs are never as important as the actors.


I think I was happy -a lot of the time. I don’t remember how I had money or how I earned it. I mean it was just fabulous- we did such interesting things! It was such a different life from living in Collingwood. Oh god, what an interesting life! I’d already been living in the States for a couple of years and it just seemed that life had all these amazing quests to be made and goals to be achieved. It felt like I was doing new stuff all the time and then the photography stuff was so exciting for me. To know this is what I’m meant to be doing! I had a darkroom at Falconer Street that Larry Melzer had started up, so I was doing ‘Digger’ at the same time as the Pram. Journo photography. It was such a big life, lots of things were happening. All that stuff at Falconer Street, plus living in a house with three children. Life and art were utterly integrated. I’ve tried to maintain that and keep that as an ideal in my life. People say it’s a luxurious, baby-booming notion. What am I meant to say? I’ve got no money, I’ve had a really happy work life. What else can you say?


 Looking back now the part that shits me is every time someone reads my CV, the thing they want to talk about is the Pram Factory and while I feel like it was really pivotal in the way that I’ve described, I also feel that millions of other things since then have been pivotal as well. But I find it really odd, that’s what people always want to focus on. I had a fantastic time but you know, I’ve done a whole lot of other really interesting things since then. It’s partly because of the foundation of the Pram but really it’s because I was brought up the way I was, the parents that I had, that whatever it was that I’d decided to do I could. But the Pram was extraordinary.


Ponch Hawkes is a professional photographer whose work exists in the National Gallery.... She is still Circus Oz’s official photographer



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