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

Where did I begin?

Phil Motherwell

Phil Motherwell

Where did I begin?
I knew a few people in the group when I was a bit younger I knew Romeril and the general milieu of ratbags, beatniks of one description or another. He was living in Prahran. I was interested in theatre I’d been writing and acting in my own plays at la mama and in the back theatre I did an adaptation of Brecht’s ‘Jungle of Cities’ we didn’t call it that, it had a few names. I cut it down to 5 characters ( Dead dog wasn’t that, that was part of another season of seven short plays) based on Diogenes and Alexander the Great The guy lives in a barrel. This was the Brecht one I rewrote it filmically I was interested in the crossover area of theatre and film. From reading Eisenstein and theories on montage and the visual arts, Dada etc I travelled through Asia. Through reading I connected to the European influence but I am anti-American, savagely anti-American.
I grew up in Melbourne. My dad and mum were lefties, working class, they weren’t intellectuals but they were interested in culture. We had this great book ‘The Arts Book’ My dad wrote away to the Herald for it. I can still remember looking at big colour paintings of Raphael and Tintoretto and all that renaissance stuff. There was one particular painting of Hermes flying over London - a sixteenth century etching of London with amazing architectual detail, you could go in and work out where places like Salisbury Court and the French embassy were before the Great Fire. And there was Hermes sitting above the whole thing. That image of Hermes became ‘Mr Bastard’, the novel I wrote, that’s who he is. It’s something I identified with, it’s everywhere. Hermes, Mercury the messenger, the archetype, it really shapes your experience.

‘Pecking Orders’ was my first play at the Pram. It was a surprise when the Pram programmed it. Lorna Hannan championed me through that, I guess she just thought it was a good idea. Lindzee was going to work on ‘Pecking Orders’ but he got sick and Alan Robertson directed it. He did a good job too. It wasn’t much of a play, it really wasn’t ready to go on. I’ve actually done a new draft of it. I worked the idea up and it now can be done as a two-hander, a woman and a man- in the pub. It’s still version ‘A’, it’s still got that weird fucking trip in it. I got it to a really interesting place using the ritualism of the main character where he’s talking about power in a more realistic way, more engaged.
Pecking Orders was also the first thing that Shuv’us did at the Pram, he was really good. I think that Shuv’us was better at the start, when it was all new to him. Familiarity bred contempt and he just wiped his boots on it in the end. I remember when I was in a show with Jane which Shuv’us was directing and I remember him was sitting up there with his feet on the lighting box, reading a paper, skagged out of his fucking brain whilst we were trying to get this fucking thing on. It was the last thing he did at the Pram. I made a movie with him too. The Battle of the Grimaces. A duel of face pulling. I sold it to the army!- the defence academy in Canberra. I shot it for less than $20 and I didn’t steal anything! 15 minutes long. No sound. Subtitles. 16 mm. It was based on an episode out of a very funny book. This thirty-eight year old guy wakes up in this sort of dream and a figure in a mortar board and academic robes is sitting at his desk and going through everything with a red pen there and he says ‘this will never do, you have to go back to school’, and he finds himself sitting at a desk in primary school with all these little boys who don’t seem to notice that he’s any different to them. He has this duel of face pulling with this other child. The film I made is just the duel of face pulling. It becomes a battle between good and evil.
A lot of the Nightshift stuff we did together was a lot of fun, like ‘Cowboy Mouth’. I never forget the night Danny Kramer attacked me. It was after the show had opened and I was feeling a bit funny about playing the woman. I’d sort of made the decision really quickly and I wasn’t really mentally prepared for being a female in public. So there I was about to go on and suddenly there’s this guy attacking me for doing it - right before the show - so I got the baseball bat out and when he saw me coming, this thing in a feather boa, eye patch and lipstick-! he took off.
I believe Shuv’us is selling antique books in a market in Tasmania. You’d love to have tape recordings of people talking about what they believed in then and play them back to them now.

We came out of the Dickson crew- they turned to music organising pub gigs. Martinis, pizza shop.

Inspiration for writing? text images?
I would use stuff but I love to explore ideas and follow them through a lot of the stuff is about power. It’s different every time. How I write it depends on what I’m doing. Usually I just type it up from handwritten notes and if I dry I just go back to hand written notes and that’s enough to get you going. I always do a few drafts and I think that’s when you really do the writing.
I was really pleased to be there at the Pram. I never saw myself as a member. At the very end I became a member. I saw myself as under the umbrella, the united front. I was very loyal to the place. I remember I had a big falling out with Lindzee over ‘Dreamers of the Absolute’ because he wanted to give it to Blundell at Playbox. I was furious over that. I wasn’t going to let him near it after that. They’ve since done a play of mine in ‘88, ‘Steal Away Home’. It wasn’t bad, it was watered down a bit. Geoff Hooke directed it. It could have been a lot worse. Ross Thompson was in it but he was a bit too old to play the young male but he was great as Aunty Pat.

I couldn’t imagine not being in my plays, that was why I often wrote with me in mind to act. Acting was my bread and butter because I didn’t make much from writing. I’d usually try and get a job in it once I’d put it up. There were times when I wasn’t in the work such as the short plays which included ‘Dead Dog’. Wilfred directed those plays and I didn’t act in them. I never had a woman ask to direct my work, I would‘ve been quite happy if they had. No women directed because there weren’t many around. I wouldn’t have minded having a woman direct it.

First play that was not my own that I acted in was ‘Pharlap’. We toured it to the Perth Festival and it was fun. Susie Potter was great fun in it, she was real old trouper, it was like being on rep tour. It was hard work. We did it one night at Fremantle gaol. We were asked, and we thought, well why not? It was horrible, it was a real mistake. They threw us in with the worst prisoners. They were all really heavily tough and weren’t strong on english either, it was a bad place. I felt bad about doing it. Four screws took us in who were like young christian brothers and none of the men would talk to them, no one spat on them but you felt like it wasn’t too far away. We ran an hour over time. I remember Claire Dobbin coming off at the end, she’d tried to leave the stage, she was weeping and everything she did they were slaggin’ her. They hated her but they loved me. Everything I did. While she was copping it I was really playing up to them. They were vicious to her.

Heathcote Williams and Sam Shepard were the two language playwrights at the time and were very important to me. AC/DC was a great experience. After that I did some stuff with Wilfred, a Barry O’Keefe play, ‘Mad World My Masters’ and then the film of Dimboola. I was Sniper, a new character created for the film. I was a sort of milk bar lout. I didn’t have much idea of the character, had no idea what I was doing so I thought I’d start with the costume. I had this bodgie haircut which wouldn’t stay up, so all the time I’m brushing it back and sticking shit in it. This girl, Little Miss Desert, sixteen years old, sitting up on the back of my tractor- I don’t think she’d ever seen a man so interested in his appearance but she thought I was for real, she was relating to the character, so he was there in the end. I got knocked out twice at the ‘bucks turn’ and I remember this one particular day, there I was all made up with a black eye, sitting talking to Laurel Frank when this girl turned up on the set. Not just any girl, she’d been my first love and she was on her way to an ashram in India or something and there I was, her old boyfriend with this black eye. She thought I’d been in a terrible fight, couldn’t work out what I’d done with myself! But at that very moment Laurel and I were discovering that she’s actually my second cousin, her mother is my dad’s cousin, they used to swim together in the Yarra down at the Kodak Factory!- we discovered that this day during the filming along with the girlfriend from the past!.

The drug scene. I was getting urine samples done every second day. I was on methadone then. My use was minimal. It’s in control, I’m on top of it but it causes me a lot of trouble. I can’t see a way of ever getting off it. It’s not an issue with me, it’s a reality in terms of the writing. It gets in the way of the acting though. I’d be dirty on someone who was doing it while they were acting. You get your system to the point of where you’re not going to be ill but you can’t get so topped up that you’re stoned. It happened to me and the show didn’t go on. I was ready to go on stage in ‘Pecking Orders’ and this mate of mine passed me a syringe with a lethal dose of cocaine- just before the show- and I did the whole show really intensely but on a whisper! I couldn’t breathe. It was horrible. That ended things between me and Alan Robertson. It’s the same as a mad lover who comes running into the theatre with a tomahawk, it’s just as destructive.

I did used to go to the Collective meetings, usually brought something to drink, but I didn’t vote. I wasn’t a member.
I never cleaned the toilets or did front of house because I wasn’t a member. When I became a member they shut it down on me! I was there at the last Collective meeting. I remember laying on the ground, drunk, saying something about how they could kick me to death if they were going to put me out of work. I saw the Pram as an alternative world. I could see it going. I knew it was the end. Theatrically it was going round in circles but as a cultural umbrella it still had a use. In hindsight it was probably a big mistake to let it go.
Since then I have done some performance. I worked with Ray Mooney in ‘Every Night, Every night’ at the Carlton Courthouse theatre. And some film work. If I write a play now no one would put it on. Lindzee might. I’ve yet to get a royalty check from Lindzee. I never went to New York. I went to Asia twice. Not much of a traveller really. Always too poor.
The Pram Factory was where I learnt everything I know about theatre .How else would I have learnt that stuff? Lately I’ve been getting more into studying, academia. I’ve enjoyed studying. Plus I think and feel more confident about travelling too, say if I could teach. That’s the big thing about travelling, how do you get by?




30 December, 1946 – November 9, 2014

The last time I met Phil Motherwell was just the other day in a tram shelter in Lygon Street, Carlton. It was the perfect spot for two elephants of the theatre to reminisce. He was brilliant at everything, I have to say. Plays and acting at The Pram Factory in Drummond Street and over the road at La Mama, where those organ-stopper eyes of his made the audiences gulp. No mean feat that.

He was not so much tall as perpetually high and not so much wound up as historical, his acting style was passionate and slightly intimidating. He eyeballed the crowd in this challenging way as though they may like the opportunity to front him outside. His language came straight off the street with just a hint of gutter.

His play-themes were intricate as overdoses; I acted in one of Phi's plays and had to somehow portray a morphine-distributing General Practitioner called Doc Holiday. I'd never even seen morphine.

Having laughed and wept through his plays and read his manuscripts for novels over the decades we were friends, the lump is in my throat as I write this because he was inimitable and beautiful and droll. He certainly suffered and he certainly triumphed with his poetics presented to grateful full-houses.
In 1980 he appeared on a charge of heroin possession at the old Collingwood Court and I went to be a character witness with some of my Carlton intellectual mates. Motherwell was standing in the open in the remand cell and I heard him say to himself 'Oh, not them!' (meaning how could the drunkards assist him).

But he had Robert Richter appear for him, who informed the magistrate that he had a very sick client indeed and that heroin was simply a sickness.
Phil got off.
I know that once he attempted to stick up the old TAB shop in Moore Street, Fitzroy with a clothespeg. That shop had already been robbed that day and the cops just chucked Phil in the back of the van and he did a week.

Something fabulous has died with him that is completely unteachable; it is the fantastical and uncanny dramatic ear of the true romantic poet who can use an alchemy to translate the street into Theatre with a capital T for Talent.

He was not really the underdog that he tried to play. In reality, he was an historian and a rememberer who could mimic characters from the past – out of the mud and the woodwork, out of the prisons – and place them centre stage where they belong. He was too good for Poor Theatre and it is an everlasting disgrace that the wealthy theatre companies wouldn't touch him with a barge-pole.

One of my best memories of Phil was one night in the mid 1970s in Carlton. I popped into The Albion Hotel for a few pots with my girlfriend Rhondda Johnson and Motherwell was dining on grilled snags and salad with my father Len and his mum Gert who had just turned 90. She really liked Phil and shouted him a jug.

It was just so incongruous to see my dad and nan with such a rebel, but he was always a toff and he truly relaxed with my mob.

I wasn't his best friend by a long mark, but over 45 years we put on a lot of plays together, and he always had time for me and time for his friends of Carlton and Fitzroy and Collingwood.

When I sat with him a few days ago he was labouring with his breathing in that depressing tram shelter and told me he had to take it slow.

He wrote down his home phone number again for me, as I had lost it in my wallet because it's got so many holes through it; like my heart now he's gone, I dare say.

A celebration of the life of Phil Motherwell will be held on Monday, November 17 at La Mama, 205 Faraday St, Carlton, from 3pm.

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