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

Peter Hosking

I was surprised to be asked to contribute to the history of the Pram because I was never a member of the Collective. In fact I only arrived at the Pram when most of the people who made it famous had gone. But perhaps my impressions of that dying phase of Australian theatre might be interesting for its own sake and as an indicator of how that whole social experiment ended up.


I was never one of those people who was blessed with the knowledge of what they wanted to do with their lives. So I was in engineering at the age of 30 when I discovered the joys of performing. I came to the Pram Factory with a completely middle class set of values both in my upbringing and also in my own lifestyle at the time. I was married with two children living in a three-bedroom house in Eltham and was very much aware of the different life styles of the people whose world I wanted to enter. And very sensitive of the fact that they would be condemnatory of my life choices.


When I decided to quit engineering and try my hand at performing, I knew absolutely nothing about the world I wanted to enter, I wasn’t even a theatregoer. But somewhere I read that it was possible to get into Pram Factory productions by placing your name on an audition board. So I went there and started hanging around. I don't remember much about that time, I think it was fairly brief. I don't remember auditioning for anyone before I auditioned for Wilfred Last and that audition led to my first role.


The play was ‘Light Shining in Buckinghamshire’ by Caryl Churchill, and the cast consisted of Sue Ingleton, John Ley, James Shuvus, Richard Murphet, Ursula Harrison and myself. The whole rehearsal process was completely new to me as I had only done amateur theatre which rehearsed for a few hours at night. To sit round for hours to discuss things, to gossip, eat lunch together was a wonderful thing.  Coming straight from the public service, my automatic action at lunchtime was to flee the building to get away from a job I hated and people I wasn’t too keen on.  It took a long time to overcome that reaction and to chill out.  Then I discovered amazing things like the joys of eating green capsicum raw, and why John Koenig, the maintenance man, drilled holes in all the teaspoons - so that the junkies couldn’t use them for hitting up, after which they might get flushed down the toilet in a panic attack.  At least one toilet blockage was found to be caused that way.


Light Shining’  was my first taste of professional theatre and as such was a good introduction to the political aspect of an actors life. Not only the political aspects of life during the industrial revolution but also of the politics of interpersonal relationships as they were conducted at the Pram. In what was to be a precursor of life under an artistic tyrant, namely John Sumner at the MTC, I witnessed the persecution of the (politically) weak by the strong and saw life being made hell for one actor who was deemed to be the least aggressive perhaps of the cast. Why I was not chosen I don’t know, because I was completely insecure in my new environment.


In fact, the thought occurs to me as I write this (Jan ‘99) that I was witnessing an aspect of the Collective which was to have a profound effect on most of the performers who were associated with it. As I write this I am performing with Evelyn Krape and find her style be one of the most artistically stunting approaches of any actor I have worked with since the Pram. Evelyn spoke at the Performers Conference in Sydney recently and was asked what she learned from the Pram. Her answer was ‘nothing’. I am tempted to say to her that this is not true, that what she learned was that the stage is a war zone, a place where you look out for No. 1 at all costs and never let anyone get the better of you. What I see in Evelyn now is what I saw then. I am sure that anyone who writes about the time of the Collective will write about the power plays and the egos involved. And I am equally sure that these are what enabled the Pram to rise to the position in history that it has. However in my experience the atmosphere was one of mutual respect gained in battle - not with outside forces, but with each other. I guess this works well for some people but I think it probably destroyed as many performers as it moulded, and I don't buy the argument that that kind of conflict is necessary to mould a good performer. But then what would I know? I guess what I am saying is that the Pram was a much better training ground for the politics of acting than for the techniques of acting. 


 The politics of the Pram has always been a source of bemusement to me because, as I have said, I arrived there wary of my middle class background when I was in fact far more qualified to call myself working class than almost anyone at the Pram. I had been working there for a long time before I realised that people there drove better cars than my father had ever been able to afford and had as likely as not, been to a private school. And these were the people who were most vocal about the rights of the working class. As Sue Ingleton said to me many years later "we thought we knew everything and you knew nothing".  These times were good lessons in learning to look beneath the exterior being presented.  Far more important in day to day artistic life than in engineering.


 ‘Light Shining’ was also my first close association with a junkie and I was educated to the fact that a junkie would rely on Paracodin, a children’s cough mixture to ease withdrawal whilst trying to dry out during the rehearsal process. The side lane leading to the Back Theatre was always littered with paracodin bottles.  Never saw any needles though.  I guess they never threw them away in those days.


By the time I arrived at the Pram Factory the drug element of the local community had hooked into the fact that the political aspirations of the Collective meant that junkies were sheltered from any form of censure. This meant that they were free to come and go and make use of the facilities in a way that would not be tolerated anywhere else. When Shuv’us helped himself to a cheque out of the office to finance a trip home to Hobart there was never any suggestion of punitive measures. Or even of hopes of recouping the loss. I can't help feeling that in the days before, when the Collective was strong, that this would not have passed without being acted upon. It was a symptom of the fact that the Pram was no longer a healthy organism. It was more like a person in the last throes of cancer. The Ensemble represented an attempt at major corrective surgery.


Before the idea of the Ensemble was mooted, I was in a play which was to remain my favourite production for many years and still represents probably the second best time I have ever had in theatre. Zastrozzi meant long hours of sword practice and working on a script which was a delight. Every night we performed to full houses in the Back Theatre and on the last night to a standing room crowd as well. Every night we fought with the swords inches from the audience and to this day I marvel at the fact that no audience member was ever injured. We were all totally dedicated to the sword work and I think we must have looked pretty good. The cast included myself, Amanda Muggleton, Tony Rickards, Bill Garner, Lisa Dumbrovski and the director was Paul Trehair. 


The only other production I did at the Pram was Roger Pulvers’ translation of ‘The Two Headed Calf’ and I don’t recall anything significant about that at all.  None of the cast were APG members and some weren’t even Melbourne people. I was involved with the Ensemble in a support capacity - selling tickets, taking productions photos (most of which can be seen at I remember sitting in the office counting the takings one night and Tim Robertson walked in. I said ‘I thought you were watching the show’ (which was still in progress), he said ‘I can’t (or don’t like) watching theatre.’  That meeting always made me feel better about my own reluctance to watch other people perform. On another occasion when I was doing the books, Hollywood Dave strode into the theatre while the show was in progress and shouted ‘Anyone here order a taxi?’ and ran out.


My predominant memory of the Ensemble was of what a mismatched group they were - all in the interests of creating conflict I suppose. That was certainly achieved.  The amazing thing was that they managed to band together enough to achieve anything of worth. I really enjoyed ‘Kate Kelly’s Roadshow’.  And some strong relationships came out of it - Richard Healy and Danny Nash as the Routinos, and Denis Moore and Val Levkovics as husband and wife.


Twenty years down the track there are very few people I met at the Pram in my time there who are still performing, and I think that is significant.  I can’t speak for the people there before my time, but I think most of those I worked with were just people on their way to somewhere else, and the Pram was the means to explore something and then move on to whatever it was they looking for.  Having stuck with acting for over twenty years now I still have no idea if there is anything that I want to move on to.   And it’s worth noting that without the Pram I would never have met John Timlin and been taken on by Almost Managing Actors Agency.  It’s also worth noting that having gotten me started with Crawfords etc, the other really good thing that ‘Almost’ did for my career was to go out of business - that slack kind of Pram attitude to management didn’t really work in the long run.  Misogynism was a big part of ‘Almost’s’ problem and I think, despite or maybe because of all the hard-line feminism, it was also present in the Pram.


I’ll leave it at that. There’s been a big gap in the time between starting and finishing these ramblings, I hope they’re not too disjointed.  I heard Louis Nowra say on the radio the other day that the legend of the Pram has got completely out of hand. I know what he means and I hope we won’t succumb to the temptation to say ‘Things were much better in my day’.  Sure the Pram was a springboard and sure it was unique, but let’s leave it at that.


When I think of the ramp on the mezzanine floor of the Tower building which was lowered down by a winch to get horses up to the second level, it really reminds me of how much that building belonged to another age if only it had been preserved and the Pram did too.



Peter Hosking is still acting professionally.



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