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

Dirt, diligence, danger, and a kind of democracy: at the Pram Factory and the APG 1978-1981

Mark Minchinton



I was twenty-two going on twenty-three, vaguely interested in theatre, and very interested in not working in the factory I'd worked in for the last five years. I'd given up trying to finish my undergraduate degree, when a lecturer rang me to audition for a production of Miss Julie that would be directed by APG director Richard Murphet, 'a professional director'. The last two words were enticing, since I was always leery of the world of amateur theatre that was University theatre.


I went to the Pram Factory as instructed. I had never been there before, nor even heard of it. My first seventeen years had been spent in the country, and most of my time in Melbourne in the outer suburbs attending university and working in factories. The inner city world was virtually unknown to me, and I was impossibly naive - a mixture of educated refinement, monstrous ignorance, and brutishness. (This is still the case.)


I waited in the deserted front office until Richard led me, along with the others auditioning, through the building and into the darkened Front Theatre. He stumbled around for a while finding lights then asked me to read something. He spent considerably more time with the others. I left convinced I would never hear from him again and was astonished when called and told I was cast. At last, I thought, a chance with 'a professional director' in a professional environment. 'Professional directors' and 'professional mainstream theatre', I later learnt of course, are much like amateur directors and amateur theatre except they produce their work much more quickly - Richard, and the APG, were something else again.


We rehearsed Miss Julie (which wasn't a Pram Factory or APG show - it toured schools) in the basement under the Back Theatre, together with mice, rats, and strange objects. It had a profound effect on me, the first time theatre had been about ideas. After Miss Julie, Richard said I should go to workshops for Traitors. I said, shouldn't I get some training? And he said, you don't need that. What would I have done if he had told me then what he told me later, 'I liked your performance style because it was jerky, and without flow, and brittle ... you see, I've never liked actors who act'? So I went to a few days of audition/ workshops that were held in the basement under the Back Theatre and was cast.


Rehearsals for that production of Miss Julie are still amongst my most satisfying of theatre or performance. For the first time, I was exposed to ideas through theatre or performance. Before that, ideas were found in the texts and the performance realised them. Rehearsals took place in the Basement space at the back and rear of the building, underneath the Back Theatre. It had red carpet, certainly mice, and probably rats. It opened up onto a workshop area where you could hear people building and talking constantly. People moved in and out of the building constantly. To me, at first, there was a curious mix of intellectual excitement, factory-like physicality, and slightly rakish drug taking and boozing. It was infinitely more interesting than the boring decorum of university and - now that I work in a university - it still is.




Traitors written by Stephen Sewell, directed Kerry Dwyer; assistant director Nano Nagle; actors: Jan Cornall, Bill Garner, Sue Ingleton, Wilfred Last, Jude McHenry, and me.


Jude and I were the youngest. The others were APG veterans. Fay Mokotow was cast too. On the first day of rehearsal the cast met in a small room, Fay was there, there was a lot of whispering and agitation, and Fay left, angry and crying. She never came back. I don't know what happened. Eventually, I got used to things like that. Eddy the drummer - I never knew his last name - who lived in the Tower building gave us a two or three hour briefing on the history of the Russian Revolution. Stephen did rewrites in the rehearsal room. I made a fool of myself talking about 'the dialectic' in rehearsal. Sue wore pyjamas to work. Bill divorced or was divorced by Helen. Wilfred shot at mice (and rats?) with an air rifle in the Front Theatre and ground lit cigarettes into his arm before going on each night. I thought, what's that sizzling and funny smell? Wilfred smiled placidly. Performances were electric when factions from various unions or the Party attended. Sometimes we'd leave the stage in absolute silence. After one performance, an old man crossed the stage to me reverently pick up a red flag left there. Playing Rubin, I had to sit 'in prison' on stage for most of the second act. Sick with flu one night I dosed up on beer, Benadryl, and codeine, fell asleep, and woke up into a nightmare about being caught in a spotlight in prison with hundreds of people watching me. I screamed. It was very effective for the audience.




Edward Bond saves the world and amateur theatre comes to the Pram Factory. Aarne Neeme, the wunderkind back from London, was brought in as guest director. There were few resources for him, and I suspect he didn't recognise any actors amongst the lot of us. Half the cast from University of Melbourne, half from the Pram, Maggie Cameron and me. If the hard core APG people didn't hate Aarne within a week and make his life hell it wasn't for lack of trying. Lots of mug acting. People in tears. Maggie doing her mad act brilliantly. Peter King appearing around the edge of the hessian and iron Trojan wall each night waving his hands and sounding like a demented bassoon. Me in black face and suggestive hump in the second act. As soon as Aarne left, which was after the first night, Wilfred and I reducing portentous three page speeches to their opening and ending lines to get it over with quicker. The only time I've gone onstage drunk, crying with suppressed laughter at first, and then with a bursting bladder. One night, the arrival of a drunken derelict up the Front Theatre stairs in the middle of the second act, ‘washorlthishcrapcrapcrapcrap? He was right. Fully armoured, Wilfred walks briskly off stage throws him down the stairs, crash, crash bang. Swearing from the street. Sounds of a fight. Silence. I am on stage, alone, for about five minutes. It's hard to improvise when you're a mostly inarticulate black-faced hunchback with a limp. Time for a tap dance? Wilfred reappears sans fibreglass breastplate. The drunk has punched his fist through it and been left in the street staring perplexedly at it stuck over the end of his arm. Years later, Maggie and I agree never to mention The Woman in public. Sorry Maggie.




Somewhere during The Woman or perhaps during Traitors I start attending Collective Meetings. People wander in and out, speeches are made, plans are hatched. I begin to see there are factions, cannot yet make out the differences between them, but begin to get the basic ideas - Australian content: good; working class (of which I am an unaware member): good; Mao: good; Unions: good; CPA: problematic but basically good; beer: mostly good; dope: okay; smack & smackheads: boring but tolerated; coffee: to be drunk in vast quantities; Tiamo coffee shop: to be referred to as Tamani's (which I still do for nostalgic reasons and to signal that I know something most people don't). Stewart's pub is a meeting point for many. I don't like pubs or social drinking and hardly ever go. Homo-social, anglo-celtic, verbal jousting dominates. Most of the members are at least ten years older than me and have come from different backgrounds: many seem curiously privileged in ways that later annoy me. Meetings are vigorous, rolling, brawling affairs. I become a member after a cursory interrogation. I think it was voted on in the Front Theatre. I am in the club.


Failing in Love Again


Polysexuality is in. Jan Cornall is a brilliant vamp, her libretto cutting, Elizabeth Drake's music and playing tremendous. I operate a spotlight in a haze of dope and sweat. The show is a huge success. Audiences cheer and stomp their feet. Meanwhile, I go on doing jobs in the office, reading Australian history and meeting old communists, occasionally helping to set up bits and pieces for Circus Oz or being part of human towers when they rehearse. I learn you don't have to be an expert or even particularly talented at something to do it, or at least begin it. This is liberating. Somewhere around this time I meet Jenny Kemp and Rob Meldrum in front of the building: I cannot work out their relationship to the group, they seem to be part of it without being part of it. Many members view them with extreme suspicion: wankers, they say. By now I've also seen a few shows, I can't remember when or what they all were: Barry Dickins in something about teeth; a Phil Motherwell season about low life in Fitzroy; cast members off their faces in various ways. Performances are dirty, dangerous, and immediate in ways I rarely see now.


Working on the box office and providing coffee at intervals I tell patrons that the tea spoons have holes in them to make it easier to stir the coffee or that we got them cheap. I clean up fits in the toilets before and between shows. I wonder now how any one ever felt safe enough to walk up the side lane on the concrete steps with the cute embossed pram logo to the back entrance. Collective meetings are becoming increasingly fractious as the group debates how it will perpetuate itself as people get old, move on, and leave - but not before fucking it up for others. Someone says the theatre wankers can have the Back Theatre and I wonder what's going on in the Front Theatre.




I am Zastrozzi. It's in the Back Theatre. I don't realise that by being in The Woman and Zastrozzi I am part of the decline of the APG in many members' eyes. Plays by non-Australians, directed by non-members. I get to strut around in thigh high boots and a fishnet singlet and to fence with Bill Garner. I don't know which is more dangerous. One night Bill gets too enthusiastic and splits my scalp with a sabre. Another night Tim Robertson interrupts me from the audience mid-soliloquy, That was great! Do it again! Gales of laughter. I am seduced by a member of the circus.




I am one of only two members of the 'old' APG chosen to audition for the Ensemble which will take over the group in 1980. The Ensemble were to be handed the building, the budget, and told to go for it - the old guard perpetuates itself by ensuring that nothing else can happen. We go through a one or two day obstacle course while most of the selection committee smoke dope throughout. At the end we have to do a solo presentation. I am last. I have something to do, but am so freaked out by the whole event and the smell of malevolence around it that all I can do is walk out and lie on the floor. After a while I manage to say, 'I wonder how long you'll keep watching me?' Someone says, 'Not much longer, I can tell you.' My body is already still. Now I am dead. I do not make the Ensemble.




I am recruited to play trumpet and narrate for Bruce Spence's one man show. This is my first real encounter with Timlin (he is always Timlin, not John) and now there is another mysterious force to contend with. I spend weeks relearning the trumpet and take to the stage puzzled, terrified, and exhilarated. We tour Canberra, Victoria, and South Australia. I am unclear what's going on at the Pram. The Ensemble loses members before it even begins. There are huge fights at Collective Meetings between older members who have climbed out of the woodwork, continuing long term members, newer members like me, and the Ensemble, who are justifiably paranoid. I meet Denis Moore when at a meeting I say something innocuous and he turns, locks me in his laser blue stare, and froths 'I heard what you fucking said, I'm watching you, I'm fucking watching you, I know who you fucking are'. Denis was a little tense then. He had reason to be, as the Ensemble gets pilloried by both insiders and outsiders. It is a good time to be on tour.




I come back from tour to find Timlin somehow running the place, or at least he's in the office a lot. I don't know how this happened. The place is in uproar, it's like late Rome. I agree to go in Cloud 9. Peter King makes me watch men on beats in the Edinburgh Gardens. The show is a success and Ensemble morale climbs a bit. (Not because of me, it was just the right show at the right time). Timlin talks to me about joining the Ensemble, I think he wants a spy and that even if I'm not the Ensemble will think I am a spy and say no. Besides, the internal tensions are too much. Somewhere around here I somehow become Chairperson of the group. The Emperor awaiting his assassin. Collective Meetings are by now only long drawn out brawls. Various drunks and junkies turn up from time to time. Chairing meetings is impossible. No one can remember who is actually a member and I am detailed to cull the lists - to work out who should be able to vote and who cannot. Chairing a particularly nasty meeting I have had enough. As people argue and fight I write on a piece of paper: 'I have looked at the lists and seen who is out, and who is in, and I'd rather be with those who are out. I resign.' I leave the paper on a desk and leave. I don't think anyone noticed that I had left for about three hours.


I don't know if my resignation was accepted or not, I didn't go back for some time. I did other things. Eventually I came back to work on a show in the next season, but left after disagreements with the director. There was a long fight to save the building from the developers, but I don't think anyone had that much heart for it. I went to the last show in the Back Theatre. Smashed on mushrooms and dope, the play was incomprehensible to me. The windows had been shattered for the show and the theatre felt like a bomb site. Geoffrey Hutton from the Australian fell asleep on my rigid with paranoia shoulder throughout the second half. He snored, snuffled, and dribbled. I didn't go back until they tore down the back half of the building. I climbed through what was left, took a fragment of poster off the front wall, and walked away.


I spent about three years at the Pram Factory, about two years as a member and board member of the APG, and about three months, I think, as chairperson. I worked on five shows as an actor and on about a dozen others in many different capacities. I wrote grant applications, vetted scripts, attended meetings, listened a lot, had arguments, drank too much coffee, and smoked too much dope. I was completely out of my depth. The work environment was filthy, unregulated, confusing, sometimes dangerous, sometimes hostile, sometimes benevolent. In the APG I had my first real encounters with dance, architecture, circus, community arts, performance art, feminism, environmentalists, collective decision making, self government, card carrying communists, junkies, Tai Chi, and Earth worshippers. I made a fool of myself many times. The Pram Factory and the APG was a refuge for misfits, for incredibly dedicated artists and activists, and for power hungry manipulators who could find nowhere else to practise their skills. Sometimes these were the same people. They made things seem possible and reinforced in me my opportunism and irreverence. There was not a lot of decorum. There was a sense of freedom and possibilities. In the market place of the nailed down, quality assured, aluminium and blonde wood new millennium with its professionalised institutions held in place by quality assurance audits and market place strategies, the memory of that particular blend of dirt, diligence, danger, and a kind of democracy sustains and inspires. At the university where I work, sitting in unbelievably dull committee meetings peopled for the most part by acquiescent drones, I silently thank whatever god there is for my experience at the APG, which left me with the imaginative space to dream, to resist, to make new things, and with the knowledge that better ways are not only necessary but possible.



Mark Minchinton has been a performer and performance maker for the last twenty years or so; since 1992 he has taught in the Performance Studies course at Victoria University, Melbourne where he is a Senior Lecturer. He has played a major role in the introduction there of postgraduate performance studies by performance practice.


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