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

Some recollections of Life in the APG.


Robin Laurie 


I was at Melbourne University doing Psychology 1964-66 but I got more interested in theatre and film.  I did a couple of performances with Kerry Dwyer, Graeme Blundell and Peter Corrigan in MU Dramatic Society but then I became more involved with film. I was president of MU Film Society whose members included Brian Davies, Chris Maudson, Alan Finney and Sasha Trikojus. We were heavily engaged with the French auteur theories of cinema- the ideas from Cahiers du Cinema with filmmakers like Agnes Varda, Truffaut, Goddard, and we’d hold Howard Hawkes and John Ford seasons at the Carlton Cinema which about 4 people would come to, incredibly unpopular at that stage but, like every thing else, those ideas moved into the mainstream. At that time I also made a couple of short films.


When I left Uni I went overseas in ‘67 to France, intending to study film at the Paris film school, but my French wasn’t good enough. Sasha and I lived first in Spain and then Morocco, being film extras, but after swearing we’d never go to England we ended up needing work so badly we went there in 1968. The revolution in Paris was happening, the Situationists were graffitiing ‘All Power to the Imagination’, ‘Be Realistic Demand the Impossible’ on Odeon walls, actors and directors were leading sit ins. There were huge anti-Vietnam war demos in London outside the US embassy.  I did some work with CAST [Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre] who worked with John Arden and Margaretta D’arcy. We performed at the demos and I went to some workshops.  I went to the Anti University that RD Laing and David Cooper set up. It was a very exciting and passionate time.


I came back to Australia in 1969 to find the workshops at La Mama happening with people I’d known from film and performance at uni and a whole lot of other people from Monash. Sue Neville had been working with Grotowski in Poland and we did Sunday arvo workshops with her, my first introduction to Skin the Cat. We wanted to do very physical performance. We all worked at jobs and did performances and workshops at weekends and evenings. There was no funding.


In‘69 I was the bride in the first performance of Dimboola, at la Mama, Bruce Spence was the groom. I went on the Sydney tour of Megan Terry’s Calm Down Mother and Sam Shepard’s Red Cross. We went up in a little bus and performed at Clem Gorman’s Arts Lab in a Paddington warehouse. We knew we were articulating an Australian vernacular in performance but we weren’t cut off from international trends and ideas.  All that was galvanised by the anti-colonisation movement that was happening all over the world. 


We read TDR and talked about the Living Theatre, and Bread and Puppet theatre in the US and discussed art and politics, Buster Keaton and George Wallace, Meyerhold, Brecht and Piscator, and the power of art to influence and change peoples’ attitudes and lives.  We wanted to take performance out of the theatres and into peoples lives. We performed Romeril’s  Mr Big the Big Big Pig at the May Day march at Speakers Corner, which is where the Tennis Centre is now.  We used big puppets and masks and group physical scenes. We knew that outdoor demos required a very different style to other performance.  People would only see an image for a short time as it moved past so we talked about Hit and Run theatre. We had a formation called the Flying Wedge, based on the police formation. We practised acrobatics and big physical images on old mattresses in the Exhibition Gardens. We always had music too. We did the moratorium theatre for the huge anti-Vietnam war demos. The demos were thrilling.  We felt like we owned the city. I remember we dressed up in black pyjamas like the Viet Cong. We wore white masks with the black pyjamas. We made all this ourselves, we were early multi-skillers. In one demo we were on the corner of Flinders and Swanston St. re-enacting the rapes of Vietnamese women -I was the Vietnamese peasant and John Duigan was doing push ups over me and an old lady came up and hit him over the head with her umbrella and said, ‘stop that you beast!’


Then at the end of ‘69 a group was selected to go to the Perth Festival and I wasn’t part of that group. As I remember it, that was when the name became the Australian Performing Group. We wanted it to be about more than what we considered an old fashioned, ‘talky’ and Anglo-centric idea of what theatre was.


But I’m just trying to think about the basis of a lot of those political ideas culture/ politics/ art -how did they fit together? Such  a radical confluence of ideas was happening with performers, filmmakers and musicians.   Brian Davies’ film, Pudding Thieves, later the setting up of the Carlton Film Makers Co-op, a huge ferment of a time. Tribe was around with Doug Anders. They were very influenced by Joe Chaikin’s work and did performances at La Mama where the audience looked through little holes in the  wall into the performance and they performed the Plague, dying horribly in audiences’ laps. I was friendly with them but I only got to work with them later on Bert Deling’s film Dalmas. I was living in a little house near the Greek church in Lygon St, with Peter Cummins, Red Symons and Eddie van Roosendael. At one stage I remember Red pushed Peter Cummins’ piano out the window. Maybe that was some sort of expression of cruel art. I got on well with Peter, we used to hang around a lot. He came into la Mama in ‘69.


Since the 60’s I’d always lived in communal housing around Carlton. I was an early ‘tower person’. Before that, in the early 70’s, I lived in Cromwell St., Collingwood with Margot Nash who had just come back from Adelaide where she became the bohemian poetry queen and the consort of the Red Angel Panic band. The first time I met Margot I was performing in a semi–improvised, science-fiction fantasy at la Mama. After the performance, during the discussion in which the audience were pretty vitriolic about the show, I met Margot. Then when Tribe did Punch and Judy at the National Gallery we were both in the audience and that’s when our friendship really started.  We’ve had an ongoing creative dialogue about art and life and politics for 30 years now. We sort of crossed over. She was into theatre and became a filmmaker and I was into film and became a performer.


So back to when I didn’t get chosen to go to Perth in 1969, (the chronology of all this is a bit all over the place), I went off on a trip to India with my boyfriend who was evading the draft. I returned and, after running the crisis drop in centre at the Buoyancy Foundation, a drug counselling and rehab organization, and visiting people inn jails and mental institutions, I worked on Bert Deling’s film, ‘Dalmas’. I acted and was also the assistant director, working with Bert on the script. It began with a fictional section about a private eye in seedy drug soaked clubs, that’s where Tribe came in, then we all went down to Lake Tyers, took LSD and left the camera on the table so that anybody could film anything.  Peter Whittle arrived at the lake wielding an axe and later said he thought it had needed livening up.


Then I got a job lecturing in film and television at Melbourne State College with Brian Sheedy, teaching film studies and half-inch portapak video. It always broke down. I was still doing a lot of super 8. At some point in here too I was involved with helping start up Melbourne Film Makers Co-op. John Hughes was involved in that and I think the first office was in the shop next to the Holdsworth’s Funeral parlour in Lygon St. where Country Road is now.


I reconnected with Tribe and we’d all go round to this big house that they rented in Toorak – in the downside edge of Toorak near Prahran. They had been joined by Jan Cornall, Alan Robertson and Carol Porter whilst at about the same time, Lindzee Smith and Jono Hawkes came back from America and moved into the Tower. We did performances with the band Spectrum, and saw Blerta from NZ who had a big performance element in their shows. Margot and I were still sharing the Cromwell Street house and we started ASIF, ‘Anarcho - Surrealist-Insurrectionary Feminists’ and put out two magazines.  Later in ‘78 we made the classic feminist experimental film We Aim to Please. There was much coming and going from Sydney with all the Digger magazine people like Marg Clancy and Michael Zerman. Digger was Australia’s version of Rolling Stone.


Slowly I was a moving back towards the APG. I wasn’t really aware of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ or ‘Betty Can Jump’. I missed Graeme and Garry’s exit and the split with David Williamson.


Peter Handke’s Ride across Lake Constance brought some of Tribe into the Back Theatre.  Alan Robertson was directing, Carol Porter and Red Symons and Jane Clifton were all performing.  Alan broke his leg in a motorcycle accident in the last week or so before it opened and I stepped in to get the show on. It was a great production. Then Arrabal’s ‘Architect  and Emperor’ sort of brought us all into the APG. Alan Robertson was building puppets and Carol Porter was working on masks. Linzee Smith was directing, Jono Hawkes and Max Gillies performing and somehow out of that Jono Hawkes and I fell in love and I moved into the tower with him and Linzee and their American friend Ted. Bill Garner and Isobel Rosenberg were living together in the tower along with Eddie van Roosendael, who was also Isobel’s husband of course. Isobel was an incredibly hard working and brilliant person, all those radio programs she did for 3CR, The Stick Together Show were wonderful.  Bob Daly, the designer, cartoonist, painter, banjo player, maker of anything you needed was there too.


The Women’s Theatre Group was my first direct involvement with the Pram Factory. I think my feminism was heavily influenced by anarchism, Emma Goldman, Alexandra Kollentai, the 1871 Paris Commune and by Franz Fanons Black Skin White Masks- about the internalisation of oppression. I like the group creative process; I love nutting things out, listening and talking and moving and I believe really strongly that the group is more than the sum of its parts but I also believe the stronger the people in it, the stronger the group.   There was a big anarchist household at 999 Drummond St.; Paul Dixon and Ann, they were the king and queen of the anarchists, if that’s a contradiction in terms, and they moved to the UK, to Brixton. We had the Free Store in Smith St. Collingwood for a while. There was a gang of anarchists and crims who lived there.


I first performed at the APG with the Women’s Theatre Group in the first couple of Women’s Weekly shows. They were a sensation and a huge success.  They were revue/sketch style performance.  People (men mostly) kept saying patronisingly what a relief it was that feminists could be funny. After we’d done the 2 Women’s Weeklys in revue style, we knew the energy needed to renew itself.  A small group of us got together; Jenny Walsh, Carol Porter, Evelyn Krape, Claire Dobbin and me. I think this was ‘74. Out of this came Women and Children First. It was group- devised. We researched and brought stuff in and Jenny wrote. We were talking about women’s lives, mothers and daughters, fertility, violence and sexuality. The same areas but coming at it in a very different way, more theatrical, experimental  and poetic. It was a small group and it allowed us to bring our individual interests to bear. We did a lot of good things in that production. Carol and I brought in a Japanese Red Buddha Theatre soundtrack, the set was very beautiful, Japanese sliding screens  which Carol had  made out of dressmaking patterns on wooden frames, which enabled shadow play. I’ve always had an interest in cross-cultural, archetypal and indigenous stories so there was a sense of cultural differences which definitely departed from the previous specifics of inventing/claiming the more masculine larrikin Australian culture.  Then Jenny wrote a piece, ‘My Real Mother’ which had a very poetic quality… ‘my real mother rides a steed through the clouds...’ it became a ritual incantation of yearning and fantasy, ‘my real mother...’ There were still connections to the Women’s Weekly style with vampire children attached to mother legs.


Then came the time when the WTG wanted the APG women out, and as the Pram women left the group the WTG made the move down to Tilley’s Space, the warehouse in Faraday Street, and that’s where they did the Power Show. WTG continued in a much more radical, separatist form. I remember the big debates that if you took the theatrical ethos seriously you were therefore taking a masculine ethos seriously- valuing work and a certain sort of work by standards of excellence of artistic criteria was deemed to be a male ethic. In 1974 WTG devised the film about menstruation called Seeing Red and Feeling Blue directed by Jane Oehr.


Supper shows, weekly or monthly events with bands, performance art, poems and puppets in the Back and Front theatres, filtered strongly through our lives. We introduced Chairman Mao exercises at one of them.  We were very impressed with the story that all workers in all factories China did these exercises twice a day.  I found the Chinese record with the marvellously melodramatic symphonic music for the exercises at the Kalkadoon bookshop and we performed it at a Supper show as a half satirical dance piece.  The exercises then went into the alternative theatre warm up repertoire.  I remember the first version of Skyhooks with Steve Hill, then there was Martin Armiger, who came over from Adelaide with Toads Nightly, and later Terry Darmody’s band, The Gents. It was a very open environment to try things. People did wild and wacky things. Heaps of that going on and because we lived there we were responsible for the building and we went to everything.


I didn’t have much personal stuff. I had no furniture. I had a few clothes. Because we were in the Tower you never needed much. The fridge was there, the stove and then there were the things that people in the audience would leave behind! You could work in the office, you didn’t need a car, we had access to the Pram car or later the Circus Oz car.  A choice between the battered old kombi or the battered old Holden station wagon.


Being a feminist I must say that I was utterly defeated by the domestic aspect of living in the Tower. I liked the idea of communal eating. All of us together. Sometimes there’d be a huge meal, 10-15 people eating in the lounge, but no one would do the washing up, that’s probably why we ended up eating out all the time at Tamani’s. We had to deal with all the cups from the office and from all the different group meetings too.


Partly because we were opposite the cop shop, the front door was always open, even at night, and the odd drunk would wander in. I remember one night we were all sitting around telling our life stories and an old drunk came in and sat on the couch with his eyes out on sticks. We never kicked anyone out. All sorts of people came and stayed.  It was pretty wild sometimes.  At some stage the front rooms in the Tower all got taken over by the Pram Factory administration as offices and a hole was punched in the wall through to the theatres.


In ‘75 Jono, Lindzee and I went away for 6 months. We went to see all our heroes and heroines. We travelled across the US, three long-haired hippies in a combi van in Alabama was a bit scary. We visited the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Living Theatre in Detroit and the Performance Group in New York. We stayed with a friend of Lindzee’s in NYC who had a bath in the kitchen We met Richard Schechner but interestingly, meet your heroes and you see that the work they’re doing is not necessarily any better than your own, different and inspiring, but not better. Then we went to the UK and India.


I missed the 1975 big International Women’s Year at the Pram. On my return I worked in WTG community theatre touring show Women and Work with Rose Costello and Krissa Wilkinson. I think I replaced Yvonne Marini.


I only ever performed in 3 scripted plays. The first one was Sisters by Robin Thurston, the women’s gaol play. Richard Murphet directed Sisters. Then I did Romeril’s Golden Holden, about the history of GMH and its nefarious dealings here and in the US.  We smashed old car parts hanging against the walls with sledge hammers and yelled ‘break out, break out’. Phil Motherwell’s Dreamers of the Absolute, directed by Linzee Smith was about an agent provocateur in a terrorist cell in early 20th century Russia. Ahead of its time it was a very stylised and moody piece with a great set by Peter Corrigan and a great soundtrack by Wilbur Wilde. I loved doing all these plays. Up until then I had never really worked with a director. We were opposed to the idea of directors, we wanted performers and writers to have control.  I did the lights for some shows and worked on set painting and props for others. I won’t go into all the other inspirational performances, Fassbinder and The Mother by Nightshift, AC/DC by Heathcote Williams, The Hills Family Show, Peter Lilley and Toppa’s Mechanics in a Relaxed Manner, other people will do that.


In ‘74 or maybe late ‘75, we had a very shambling group that performed large physical pieces in parks called The Great Stumble Forward.  We only did a couple of performances. Anyone could be in it, you just had to turn up at rehearsals on the back patio at the Pram the day, or the morning, before. Then in early ‘76 Soapbox Circus was born. It came out of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor and Jono’s ‘Digger’ connections. Journalist Jill Joliffe came and talked to us at the Pram and told us what had happened in East Timor. We wanted to do something.  I think for me it was the first time I was really conscious of being a part of Asia. We started practising acrobatics on those mattresses in the park again. Mick Conway and Rick Ludbrook came along. The Timor Show was a 20 min piece that went into factories and onto the streets and was performed at demos.  It was based on Meyerhold’s bio-mechanics; we did big physical tableaux dressed in white and sang songs.  We learned Foho Ramelau, the East Timor national anthem of the new independent government... and out of the Timor Show grew Soapbox Circus. In the beginning, as we toured tramways depots and factories with the Timor show there was Larry Meltzer, Jono, Graeme Isaacs, Greig Pickhaver, Bill and Lorna Hannan, Hellen Sky, and Carolyn Howard. Bill taught us Greek and Italian songs for the multicultural audiences we knew we’d get at the workplaces. Then the bigger Soapbox show emerged, the Matchbox band re-formed and became a central part of it all and we toured all over Australia for 2 years. We juggled and did balances on the back of semi-trailers in outback Queensland, we brought Balmain town hall to its feet with the Timor show, huge beer barns in Perth rocked to My Wahine in Wang and the fabulous Spagoni family, trainers of ludicrous kangaroos, camels and elephants, was born. Moons and bunyips rolled across the stage and the Revolutionary Suicide Chorus limped on and off in old army great coats, swathed in blood soaked bandages, wearing Mao caps and singing Stirring Songs in Many tongues. Matchbox played great music.  We did the big demos like the anti-uranium demo in the city square with 40 thousand people in the audience.  Thrilling. I think part of that popular theatre movement for me was challenging the separation of comedy, movement, dance, poetry music and spoken word.


Popeye Puppets, with Laurel Fank, Alan Robertson, Hellen Sky and others was another one of those genius things that came out of the Pram. I think it could have been the Muppets of Australia. The bunyip moon and elephant came from them. Soapbox did a big classic pantomime in the Front Theatre with Richard Murphet based on the story, Gamma Gurton’s Needle. Matchbox were the umpires, I was the principal boy and Jono was the Dame.


1978 after Soapbox, we started Circus OZ.  That’s another story but in the beginning it was an APG project.  It was supported and funded by the APG and we built the tent and the poles in the basement after the panel beaters moved out.  We also built a small gym there. The fearless and boundless experimentation, the Australian vernacular, the comic and slapstick, the poetic and the surreal, the physical daring and cheeky delight, the commitment to an ensemble of performers, to group devising, feminism, anti-racism and political satirical elements that informed the early Circus Oz had their roots in that early APG ethos.


In some ways, at the APG, I always felt a bit on the periphery yet ironically I became the chair- maybe it was a position that no one else wanted at the time or maybe one of the skills I’ve got is the ability tp go to the heart of what someone is saying and to see both sides of things. I could try and explain Nightshift to Timlin or Ev and vice versa. I was also not scared to speak up at meetings.  The meetings were every month up to 50 people would be there. They dealt with things like which projects got funding from the APG budget, what was going to be programmed in the now 3 theatres with the basement functioning, (where Mick Duncan lived for a while with his dog and Barry Dickens stayed) who was doing the cleaning roster and front of house, and what colour we were going to paint the toilets. We tried to run them based on consensus.  The meetings were fiery and tedious, fascinating, ghastly, inspiring and necessary. There were cliques of various kinds and groups and sectional interests and some people spoke louder than others.  We introduced processes learned from feminist Consciousness raising groups into running the meeting: like once you’ve spoken once you can’t speak again ‘til everyone else who wants to has spoken.  People got drunk, knitted, spun wool, fixed their bicycles, shouted, doodled,  argued, performed, cried, stormed out and slept through them. I loved them and I loved the moving of the seating modules after each performance season.  It was something that could only happen if everyone helped and worked together.  It was hard, physical work and there was nothing to argue about. Huge, heavy seating banks were pushed at terrifying speed though the Front and Back theatre space.  I loved how we could totally transform the relationship of the audience to the performance and the space.


The APG held a competition for a new play and had some funding for a prize. Richard Murphet and I read all the plays and we selected Traitors as the winner. It was a great production and a very early Stephen Sewell performance.


At the end I was part of the process of auditioning people for the Ensemble, trying to keep things going. I think, like most of us, I had not really understood or thought through what was involved. I think I felt ambivalent about the Ensemble. Sometimes I’d think it was possible to keep it all going - I think I really didn’t want to let things die- but I never envisaged myself as being part of it. I thought I could see how it might work and even after it didn’t, I wondered if we’d made different choices whether it might have survived. In retrospect it was a pretty strange idea. The ensemble had a pretty difficult time I think.


I wasn’t around for the building auction. I was away on tour with Circus Oz. I do remember they promised us a theatre in the new building but the Comedy Club wasn’t much of an option and doesn’t even exist now.


Biography May 2005

Robin Laurie continues to work in community theatre, comedy and contemporary physical performance. She has researched, directed and devised large-scale bilingual performances with the East Timorese, Italian, Arab and Warlpiri (Lajamanu, Northern Territory) communities and worked with the Filipino Mindanao Community Theatre Group in Australia and the Phillipines. Most recently she researched and directed  KAN YAMA KAN with Asylum seekers, actors musicians and a 30 person choir, THE EAST TIMORESE COMEDY PROJECT, was performance director for  EATING THE CITY where 20 communities made a map of Melbourne out of food and the audience ate it and directed SQUARE with Mairead Hannan, an archival and contemporary Irish music and dance performance with video artist Cazerine Barry.  She dramaturged PASSPORT TO HAPPINESS for Ten Days on the Island, a performance in a shipping container with a refugee from Sierra Leone Thomas Cauker and a video artist Martyn Coutts and she writes a bit. The wheel has turned full circle and she is currently writing and researching a documentary film on circus in Australia with Mitzi Goldman. She is a recipient of the Ros Bower Award and a Feldenkrais practitioner.

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