Australian Theatre History. The Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory
I was originally connected to the APG through friends and acquaintances I had made at Monash Uni. pre-APG days. People like Lindy Davies, Lindzee Smith, Jono Hawkes, Ponch Hawkes and John Romeril. When the APG was set up, I was overseas in Canada for two years (68-70), but I was kept in touch with what was happening through vivid and detailed letters from Lindy. When I returned to Australia in 1970, the APG had moved to the Pram from La Mama and the kind of work that was being done - the shows investigating the various aspects of Australian history - were not the type that I could at that time relate to. So my connections then were to the surreal improvisations of Tribe which were full of crazy humour and always seemed to hover between panic and terror. The people I got to know through Tribe were Alan Robertson, Fay Mokotow, Frank Starrs9, Jane Clifton, Carol Porter and Bob Daly.
Still I didn’t join the APG. I was working out at Rusden with John Ellis, helping him to set up the Drama Dept there. I saw stuff at the Pram and with the Rusden students performed at La Mama and in the Back Space of the Pram - and we were doing Street Theatre. So there was a kind of parallel interaction with the APG - a common response to theatre experiments that were happening around the world.
Then in 1974 I moved up to Sydney with my family. I worked as a postman and taught at UNSW and directed at some of the smaller theatres in Sydney. I was there about 18 months when Lindzee arrived for a visit and asked me to come down to join a subgroup within the APG that he was planning to form. I had known Lindzee for years. I had directed him and Lindy together in a Strindberg play at Monash. We had met up again when I was in Canada. Lindzee’s plans turned me on. I knew his aesthetic and politics were close to mine. I was sick of the theatre in Sydney - its overt and disconnected theatricality. I decided to go back to Melbourne and join him at the APG.
This was a huge and incredibly painful choice for me. It meant leaving my family. Things weren’t going too well between my wife and me. I wanted dearly for her and our two boys to come with me back to Melbourne. But it was clear after much talk that she felt at home in Sydney and if I decided to go to the APG I knew I would have to go alone. I was twisted up in confusion. Then Whitlam was thrown out. I joined a group in Sydney doing street theatre in our anger and disbelief. The group included Michael Price and Hellen Sky who were in Sydney for a brief period. It felt like things had to change. I had been hovering around the APG for years. Here was my chance to join it. I wanted to do theatre that made a difference.
On New Year’s Day 1976, the final looks of disbelief in the eyes of my two young sons embedded in my retina I got on my motor bike and set off down the Princes Highway. I cried all the way. My bike fell over three times in the traffic leaving Sydney. I got a high fever in Orbost. It was pouring with rain as I rode into Melbourne. I crept into a little room upstairs in the Tower in a corridor between Carol Porter and Robyn Laurie and emerged about a week later, fever free, wondering what I had done.
As it turned out I didn’t work with Lindzee for about a year. He was busy with other shows, then he went over to America. So I landed in Soapbox Circus - coz of my connections to Jono and Robin and Eddie van Roosendael and all those terrific people through the Tower. Here I was juggling and somersaulting and standing with Greig Pickhaver on the bottom of the human pyramid in parks and factories and abattoirs and lunchrooms, completely out of my depth, loving what I was doing but having no idea whatsoever why I was doing it. Not that it was meaningless, far from it, but it wasn’t my type of theatre - circus - somersaults hurt my neck. I did work with the Circus a couple of years later in the Pantomime that Bob Daly and Carol Porter and I co-wrote and co-directed, ‘Smack ’n the Dacks’. By then they had joined up with Sue Broadway and Tim Coldwell and Circus Oz was forming.
My first in-theatre show at the APG was Sisters. I directed it. It was a prison show written by a man but with an all-female cast. And the women at the Pram had got it together and invited me to direct - a man they didn’t know. Showed a trust on their part - and a desire for new blood, to be directed by a man they hadn’t already worked with. It was an amazing experience, a strong group of women, beginning to form their own separate voice at the APG. The rehearsals were unpredictable and fiery. I had to find a new way of working that suited the dynamic of the group. I remember going home each night to my flat above a shop in Brunswick and lying sleepless with anxiety about what I would do the next day. I don’t think that the end result was brilliant but it was powerful and new and the project felt important in other ways. It was one of the signs of breakdown of the power block that had controlled the company for years. Around this time the Women’s Theatre Group started and gradually the APG began to fragment into smaller units working within the one umbrella Collective.
I wasn’t at the Pram during its days of glory, the days that history will probably record as its days of theatrical power. My time there coincided with the period of gradual and then very rapid decline - 1976-1981. And yet it was a period that I loved for that very reason. Once the fragmentation began it was as if the myriad of creative energies that for all the early years had worked closely together to create the image and aesthetic and social force of the APG were released into their own distinct paths of creation. The Women’s Theatre Group, Circus Oz, The Puppets, Stasis, Nightshift, Wilfrid Last’s subgroup, there was so much diverse activity, apart from the main stream of the Pram which kept going, although with less success.
It was my sense that the Collective found it harder and harder to know how to keep all these new children under check, how to finance them all, how to house them all, how to and whether to keep them under some sort of quality control. Collective meetings were long and often quite tense with many spoken or unspoken agendas. All very fascinating. As Bill Garner - who floated easily between many of the groups, has been fond of saying, maybe the most radical and important thing about the APG will prove to be its attempts at collective governance. And this time, the time of its gradual explosion, saw it at stretching point.
I worked as much as I could across the board - although socially I was part of the dope smoking, coffee drinking Tamani push, not the alcohol drinking Stewart’s pub push. I wanted to experience as much of the Pram animal as I could. And also you had to keep in work to get paid. I had my stints backstage and on the front of house and on the toilets too. I worked in main theatre shows like The Overcoat and Dudders - not experiences I enjoyed; weird amalgams like Smack ‘n The Dacks and The Radioactive Horror Show - the latter of which I have fond, chaotic memories of; shows initiated by Wilfrid like Yesterdays News, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Sore Throats - all of which were gems, fresh, different, beautiful for actors, out of the run of APG material and experiences to treasure; and of course Nightshift.
I have to say that being part of Nightshift was an extraordinary experience for me. It was one of those times in my life when I felt right in the centre of where my energy wanted to be. I felt released creatively and excited by the potential of theatre. This was due to three factors. The inspirational energy and vision of Lindzee, the unpredictable, diverse and high quality people involved and the aesthetic (the content and the form) of the work we did. Lindzee returned from New York determined to cut another mould within the APG mass. Something more about the present, more urban, more in-your-face provocative politically and culturally. The image was one of the theatre terrorist - which reached its climax with the production of Phil Motherwell’s Dreamers of The Absolute, about a group of young Russian terrorists. Others within the APG laughed at the image, seeing it as the triumph of style over content. I never agreed with that. The image, the attitude, the stance was important as a statement. The monolith of the APG did need a breakaway cell within it, but Nightshift was more than that. It was also the conduit through which something Other, those at the fringes of the Pram, could find a way in. People like Phil and Shuv’us and Gary Waddell brought to the stage a quality of life experience and therefore a quality of live presence that was missing in a lot (not all) of the actor-driven shows that were then on. And in a sense that was the power of Lindzee’s vision - theatre as life, life as theatre, both at the edge of death. Of course what balanced that from within was Lindzee’s warmth and humour. The plays may have been bleak but the process was mostly fun, energising.
Heathcote Williams' AC/DC was the opening gambit. It was about electricity and was the electric shock to the system. It was about epilepsy, the power of seizure, the seizure of power (and in the middle of it all I, an epileptic, had an enormous fit). Phil’s character, Perowne, was the endpoint of the journey at the edge of death, just as Phil was the iconic figure within the group. The rehearsals were all about developing the force of presence and the ability to sustain it. It was electric the entire time, rehearsals were just a total turn on. It wasn't until we actually hit performance, hit those moments where somehow on the night you realise you don't know where to go, that we realised in fact Lindzee hadn't directed the play, what he had done was directed the rehearsals with this amazing energy that we all just got off on that and carried us into the play and we hit the play and we were, Oh my God! How are we going to do this every night? But that was fine and we did and it kept carrying us through. When our connection to the rehearsal energy became weak there was little to sustain us but trust in one another and performance desperation.
The aesthetic of Nightshift developed in the shows that followed. A naked, raw mise en scene (eg a spotlight or slide projector light against a brick wall) that highlighted the individual on the edge, surviving through sheer force of presence. I started to direct sometimes with, sometimes alongside of Lindzee, drawn to communicate my own perspective on the world we (all of us, actors, designers, musicians etc) were creating. It is a world, a kind of theatre that I am still trying to create. It began for me long before Nightshift, but Nightshift was a major influence on everything I’ve done since.
As the Pram unwound, so did Nightshift. Lindzee and Carol went to New York to live and although Nightshift continued over there, the short moment of intense activity at the Pram was gone. But I believe - and this is probably a highly prejudiced view - that it is out of the fragments of the decentered APG - Stasis, Nightshift, the Women’s Theatre Group - that the seeds for the future years of Melbourne theatre were planted.
I directed the final show at the Pram, the final APG show - after the abortive new ensemble experiment and just before the building was closed down. The Bedbug Celebration was by a writer who had never been performed at the APG, John Blay. It contained one old-time APG actor, the irrepressible Bill Garner. The rest of the cast were newcomers - Will Zappa, Ross Williams, Di Greentree, Reg Gaigalas. The play was a rewrite of Mayakovski’s classic. It looked back to the Soviet times of Meyerhold, somehow reminiscent of the social and political experiment of the original APG. It looked forward to a sci-fi world 50 years hence, one of the loss of individuality to a microchip style living. The present was under defined. It seemed not to exist. The play seemed perfectly placed as a requiem for the APG. The great modernist world-shaking experiments like the APG were gone, to be replaced by the slippery relativities of the post-modern world.
I had painfully closed one phase of my life to join the APG. And when it closed another phase was over. I have a photo of me standing against the wall on the day the Pram was being auctioned. Tim Robertson came in with the coffins and they did a fake auction. There’s a picture of me standing against the wall looking so black- there’s another phase of my life gone. And you start again and go on. That particular phase was tough yakka, unpredictable, often very tiring but in retrospect it was above all magical. It’s so awful now to go and see what’s there! It’s so awful! Shopping centre and car park!
My joy and great luck, of course, was that out of the seeds strewn by the dismantling of the Collective came the most luminously influential force of my entire life, my relationship with Jenny Kemp. Jenny was a member of Stasis and in that role was therefore nominally connected to the APG. But she wasn't a member of the Collective. She was one of those animals that skirted around the edges of the great Pram forest, unwilling to enter its dark, dangerous depths. I had seen her acting in Antony and Cleopatra and standing bravely in the foyer of Peer Gynt of which she had been- I call it the 'outside eye' given the general APG fear of the director. We got to know one another outside of the context of the Pram - back at Rusden again where I had started my adult working life. But our relationship was developed during the last traumatic days of the APG so I always think of the Pram as the crucible for our love and our strong creative bond. We are the children of the Pram - the union of two of its most powerful offshoots, Stasis and Nightshift.
When I look back at the time I was there, this seems to me to be the most perfect union of opposites - opposites which even at the time attracted one another through the force of their creative energy, as the relationship between Sue Ingleton and Lindzee proved.
If I’d missed being part of the APG, I’d have missed experiencing one of the great experiences of alternative theatre. I think it was one of the theatre experiments in our century that was really important. I talk about that to my students a lot. You can read all those articles in overseas journals about theatres in Europe and the States but the APG was absolutely up there with all of them. I felt greatly honoured and historically privileged to be part of it, even in those latter years, and to have known the people, all the people that I loved who were there, and not just those with whom I’m still friendly. And the building- I loved the space, it kind of brought us all together- all the frustrations of it - the living it, the living of it, the fact that a lot of people were there, a significant sub-section of society. The whole social function was theatre, that was what brought us together, it was the heart, the social heart and it doesn’t happen any more- theatre as a social heart and I treasure that even still; as being a possibility of what can happen in our society. I’m just waiting for the pendulum to swing, if somehow it could happen again, but to have missed it! I would have been very, very sad. I really treasure Lindzee for having drawn me there and made sure and said Richard, come on for Christ’s sake and get on the bandwagon!
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