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

Rod Moore

I heard about the Australian Performing Group through Peter Cummins. We were both in the Colac Players and we used to go down to Melbourne and watch things there at La Mama. It took an hour and a half in an MGB; we’d leave Colac, which was the end of the earth, zoom down to Melbourne, get pissed, watch theatre and then crawl back to Colac with a hangover. At the end of that year I resigned from the education department. 


At the seven plays over 6 weekends I did the lighting. I was stuck up the corner of la Mama. This was when la Mama built strictly illegal seating platforms in the corners beside the chimney that stayed there until ‘Norm and Ahmed’, and when they couldn’t get us for obscene language on Norm & Ahmed, they got the fire department in and made us pull the seating down.


I was about 28, single, from Colac and I’d been in the Colac players for about three years. Peter Cummins and I -  it was where all the refugees went .We would do straight theatre- ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, ‘Our Town’. Then I auditioned for La Mama. I think Peter snuck in just before they decided to hold auditions. Jan Friedel and I auditioned together.  It was really traumatic psycho-drama. Graeme Blundell, Allan Finney and Brian Davies- the triumvirate- they’d throw something at you, like a broom, and you had to be a different persona. Brian was lovely guy, I think he was more interested in film than in theatre. I remember Graeme sitting there passively through the whole audition thing, and me thinking am I making an impression here? I drove back to Colac and for three days afterwards I was all sort of jittery and I couldn’t work out why and then it dawned on me-  I’d revealed all about myself to total strangers! I think they read the Tulane Drama Review in secret and thought ‘there’s an idea, we’ll try it out on somebody’. That’s certainly where we got the ideas for the street theatre and the masks. I know Graeme took stuff out of it all the time and perhaps Lindzee Smith. If you look at ‘Norm and Ahmed’ that pretty much sums up my relationship with the heavies at the APG. Lindzee played Norm. The reason I played the role of Ahmed was, I reckon that I was in a position to do a bit of number five (the dark makeup). I looked the part. My forte is character acting. There might have been a bit of Cooley (Don’s Party) in me at that age, it was a bit of caricature but David Williamson said I was exactly like the character he wrote about.


Norm & Ahmed went to court for the obscenity trial but it kept playing. We don’t know who reported us. Arthur Rylah was the minister. It was very exciting. We had to perform the play for the magistrate so that he could determine whether the words were in context. ‘Fucking boong’ were the last words in the play. Then there was the performance in the car park. Cummins was a policeman and he came out and stopped the actors then the real police came out and took them all off to the Carlton police station. The audience followed chanting and howling.


In 1969 I moved to East St. Kilda then East Melbourne. It was an advantage, not being in Carlton- you could have your own life- I also had athletics which occupied my time as well. I was running professionally by then. It helped to be fit.  Athletics training would be in the evening, from 5-7pm then I’d go into the Pram and perform. Otherwise we’d be rehearsing one thing whilst performing another- so many things in such a short time- it was heady stuff! Breaking new ground, allied to a cause- Australian theatre and new forms of theatre.



At the time of the move into the Pram Factory building I was also Treasurer of the group so I had the cheque book. We had to pull down heaps of stuff that was in there, sand the floors, contract someone to build the seating. The seating was timber. Could have been some steel. Then we got a grant from the Arts Council for ‘Marvellous Melbourne’. It wasn’t very much and we did the normal thing, budgeting for the show: Ok we can spend this much, fill the theatre to 60% but if you jump ahead to ‘The Feet of Daniel Mannix‘ we were really in financial trouble.  Bruce Spence was contracted to do some film shooting in the middle of the season and we knew that ‘Mannix’ would not being able to play for two weeks. So Garrie Hutchinson and I put an ad in The Age newspaper saying ‘Mannix’ will close due to lack of finances and there was a great hullaballoo. The lady who was the head of the Arts Council (Dr.Jean Battersby) flew to Melbourne and we had big discussions in the Pram and suddenly, from then on we had funding! There was a great cover story in the Age at the same time. Garrie handled the publicity and I did the budgeting. I think by then I’d got acting out of my system and I felt I was getting bad roles- John Wren in Mannix.  I was totally miscast! I was in The Compulsory Century, oh that was shithouse!  Growing a beard and doing this diatribe about education out in the Back Theatre.  A Night in Rio & Other Bummers-  roller skating in the nude. Some of the purists at the Pram didn’t like that at all. I got a sense of it- the playwrights didn’t like it at all. Tim Robertson wrote it. I lost the only sheet of negatives.

About the same time as the ‘Mannix’ was on, Graeme Blundell went to England and theatre in England was the stuff about collectives and democracy and when he got back it was about the Collective making decisions, about programming, all very democratic, and Bill Hannan, from his union background knew how you exploited the processes of democracy. Bill Hannan had no idea about theatre at all. Theatre depends on ideas- there’s the acting and the business and everybody had roles to play and people aren’t going to come and see poetical diatribes, they’re coming to see plays. 


And there came a time when gradually the people who’d been there from the beginning Graeme, Kerry, Garrie, myself would be round at Stewart’s pub or somewhere and we’d be wondering ‘where is everybody?’ and they’d all be round at the Hannans and he’d be giving them meals;  Max and all the other people were there and what he was doing was caucusing. Then came the collective meeting where they threw it all open and all the executive positions were up for grabs. The elections were held. John Timlin became the administrator, I think I remained there to do the treasury stuff. Graeme more than anybody else was responsible for the success of la Mama and the APG because he could direct and no one else could to the same level that he could and he had the ideas and he could articulate them better than anybody else and after these elections and Bill Hannan’s coup again we were at Stewart’s and we said what the fucks happened here?


Timlin came in at the same time as a supporter of the Pram Factory and he did the business stuff and he used his company to help weld the seats and he helped to set up the Pram so we could have donations etc. I don’t know what people’s view of the Pram Factory was but I think it went into a period of gradual decline. I worked there for a few more months then I left. I was pissed off. I think it probably coincided with a loss of interest in acting, and I think after that period of time I was pretty much exhausted by it -going flat out five years ‘69-‘72. I must have resigned. It was mainly a statement about how I recognised that other people were making statements.  Someone had to come in and take over the books. No one begged me to stay! People were becoming more mainstream. People had to earn a living. I remember I got $100/week in Norm & Ahmed.

I was pretty politically naive before I joined the Pram. My favourite times were in Norm and Ahmed, Christie in Love, Dimboola and Don’s Party . The Waltzing Matilda Pantomime I did not enjoy much at all. I was Johnny O’Keefe, the kangaroo, flopping around in those huge plaster feet in 100 degree heat. Mannix was a great play but I didn’t enjoy my part in it, I wasn’t comfortable in it. Compulsory Century was diatribe. Just rhetoric and no drama. I got caught up in the movement basically trying to get Australian theatre on the stage and a new radical form of theatre and at the same time there was the politics of Vietnam and lot of ideas coming out of TDR and la Mama in New York and the San Francisco Mime Troupe- and the sheer luck that you had a group of people from Melbourne Uni and a group from Monash Uni and they collided-.


When we were at La Mama the meeting place was the Albion pub and when we moved to the Pram it was Stewarts pub but as I was still running I never drank a lot. I always lived out of the area. I had another life. My relationships were basically outside. Within the group it was fairly easy to make friends but always at a certain level. Peter Cummins remained my closest friend.


I now work with Victoria Uni research work and lecturing and the National schools network. I lecture in broad context of education. I still follow causes. The network is about reforming schools and in my own life, having been in the theatre, one is more conscious of oneself, physically. Under stress you recognise your body’s signals from those physical aspects of acting and the psycho-drama of those early days of la Mama, it’s the key to processing your own stuff.


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