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

Carol Porter

Tribe was where I began. Alison Ware and myself went to a summer school of drama at Brighton Girls School where, initially, Jim Sharman was teaching the course, but then Jim had to leave to do something else so Doug Anders took over the second half, and it was out of that that we formed the Melbourne Tribe. It was a totally new concoction from the Queensland original. Doug Anders stayed on in Melbourne and  the group  that formed around him included Bob Daly, his wife Barb, Fay Mokotow, Jan Cornall, Alan Robertson, Bruce Spence- who was with me in art school at RMIT and myself. The first show we did was ‘Saturday’ by Barry Mc Kimm at La Mama, that was the one that was made up from newspaper stories and ‘Programme A and B’, which consisted of ‘Serpent’ and ‘Viet Rock’, and we subsequently took that show to Adelaide. The cast by then included Jude Kuring and Jan Bucknall (who is now in America), Bruce Webster, Jane Clifton, Lutz Presser, et al.

 

A whole stream of people who eventually were going to veer into the Pram kept working at La Mama for a number of years. Bob Thorneycroft and Joe Bolza did ‘My  Foot, My Tutor’, and Fay Mokotow did a  production of ‘Punch and Judy’ with Michael Price and Alan Robertson. I think it was on Fay's initiative that we did  Peter Handke’s ‘Ride Across Lake Constance’, she’d read the script in a TDR and she really wanted to put it on. I remember we went to an APG meeting and asked if we could do it in the Back Theatre Space. ‘Lake Constance’, in ‘73 was the first time I performed at the Pram. The cast included Red Symons and Jan Cornall. I remember it was a gorgeous set, Stephen someone from RMIT who was a friend of mine did the set. Just before ‘Lake Constance’, I was performing with bands alongside the work with Tribe. Then I had a break. I got married to Bruce Woodcock the musician who lived in a double decker bus. I don't know why I got married, maybe because it was something to do. It lasted eight months and then it was over.  By then I had lost touch with Tribe, who had gone on and done other things. Later Doug Anders moved to north Queensland and lived on a commune for twenty years. He came down to Melbourne a couple of years ago and we had lunch but I didn't connect with him after that.

 

The next thing I was involved in at the Pram was the Women’s project. Womens Weekly ran for three weeks and it was the first 10.30pm slot show that was made by women. The group planned to change the content every week leaving the show structure open enough to allow new performers and ideas to flow in but the resounding success of the first show made them decide to repeat it unchanged and then to start work on the second series which was to be about love. I believe ‘The Love Show’ actually grew out of the culture of the sub-shows which we were doing at La Mama. They were late in the evening, with the likes of Cosmo Topper and Peter Lilley. We created shows from a haphazard method of collecting old sheet music and inventing these kind of mad scenarios based on really old songs. These performances were so successful that we took some of those shows into the Back Theatre late-night.

 

Women’s Weekly, Volume I and ‘The Love Show’ were based on that kind of format, loosely structured around songs and skits.

 

The Women’s Weekly idea came out of a meeting arranged by women from the Australian Performing Group collective. “After ‘Betty Can Jump’ we thought things would be different", said one of the APG women, but it was pretty much a fact of life that the plays were with all male casts or women being offered decorative or supporting roles. Women who came to that first meeting included full time actors, housewives, musicians, painters and people who had never performed or been to consciousness raising groups in their lives. They were huge hits, those shows, they were just huge.

 

I was awe of people like Kerry and Graeme. I guess they were slightly older than I was and I had gone to some workshops that they ran at La Mama which were brilliant. I was full of admiration for them. Tribe was almost a hobby theatre group, not that we didn't do it all the time but we didn't get heaps of money for it. We rehearsed constantly but it was a bit sort of ‘hippy’. We lived communally in a house in South Yarra and although we worked a lot, I guess we didn't see ourselves as a main stream theatre group. The Pram Factory certainly seemed more main stream than we were.  So I was in awe of those Pram people.

 

The structure of the Collective was really intimidating to me. I remember that I never said anything public at collective meetings- ever, so I guess I didn't have a lot of input as to the way the place was run. I often left Collective meetings in a bad state because I felt powerless as I just couldn't articulate my feelings. I always had a problem with that and so often I would storm out of things which is not a great way to resolve your anger or to resolve anything really. I was always sitting there amongst all the people who had gone to uni and they were really smart- they’d been taught how to think in a way that I felt I had never been taught. They were very intimidating, they would stand up and they were tall, they were big, they had presence and they would pontificate and I would be sitting there going ‘I do know about this but I can't actually mount an argument’. People took on the mantle of being speakers for the rest of us. 

 

I remember a time when some people started putting posters up outside the Pram saying what wankers we were. They were quite good, they were printed in one colour they said things like 'A bunch of wankers', it didn't continue for very long so it was probably someone who had got pissed off with us. I know that if you were an outsider you felt like it was a closed shop and inside there was this elite group of people.

 

Auditioning processes were pretty weird. I auditioned for ‘Peggy Sue’ but I didn't think I stood a chance, because Jack Hibberd didn't like me very much. There certainly were factions inside the Pram. I was in Romeril’s things because that was political and I liked political stuff, that’s why I joined the Circus.  But I was never in anything mainstream except I was stand-in bride on Denise Drysdale's nights off in ‘Dimboola’ at the Chevron.  I never performed in any Hibberd plays but I did do the design for ‘Nellie Melba’ at the National Theatre. There were many people that I never worked with, I never performed with Max, there was no great cross-over of performers. I remember doing the set for ‘Failing in Love Again’ but I really wanted to be in it. They didn't want me, they didn't think I could sing- they were probably absolutely right! 

 

I got equal pleasure from performing and creating sets and posters, that’s why I kept alternating backwards and forwards.  Performance I loved because you lose yourself, or gain yourself or whatever. I always felt that I was never more truly alive than when I was performing, probably downhill skiers feel the same way! It’s like being on the roller coaster and having to deal with whatever comes, I really enjoy that, you have to do it instantly and you have to make it work. 

 

The rehearsal process with Tribe was just a lot of improvisation and that is how you arrived at what you were actually going to perform, so because I had started with that method I just continued it at the Pram, improvising around ideas and themes and feelings and images. Not being trained theatrically you just pick your way through it.  I always felt that I didn't know how to do it properly so I always felt a little bit like an impostor.  I would never have called myself an actress or a performer, I didn't feel like I knew how to do it. I think it’s also true that we prided ourselves on the fact that we weren't trained and that we had found a unique way of expressing ideas without a director doing that for you.  There were people who were trained, of course and I think that's why I was a bit in awe of those people too; like Max-  I felt that they had secrets that I didn't really have, that's probably silly, but I did do some Tai Chi workshops with Laurel! 

 

I would have met Lindzee Smith in January '74 because that was when we did ‘The Architect and The Emperor of Assyria.’ I designed the costumes and the  masks with Bob Daly also doing the set.  Then Lindzee directed me in ‘Floating World’ in September of that year.

 

I admired Lindzee intensely, the way he committed himself to his vision but mostly because I found him intellectually really stimulating and I thought that he took risks with performance and with the choice of works that were done and I found that really exciting. I forget which way our relationship came about. I probably had a personal relationship with him before I actually worked with him. I found that I learnt heaps working with him and the thing about working with Lindzee too was that he always allowed input from the actors; it was his vision always but he was very generous, he would always say ‘ok, that's interesting too’ which was good. Lindzee chose to perform the works of really clever and talented writers and I thought his creative vision as to how you could perform the work was extraordinary; he always allowed the performers to have their own input in the way that they saw the work, so it wasn't a one-way street.

 

I really enjoyed working with people like Phil Motherwell in ‘AC/DC’ and with Shuv’us. It was their absolute rawness that was fantastic to work with, it was really dangerous, it added a kind of magic spark to the performance. Nightshift got a lot of criticism for its dark vision, its ‘outsider’ status. It was grim and male, but I also liked the excitement attached to the ‘outsider vision’. Obviously I enjoyed working with some performers over others. I think it’s as simple as the way you like some people better than others. Some people give out a lot so you escalate the level of danger in performance

 

I just accepted the drug scene as something that they did. It did piss me off when some people were really out of it during performance. It muddied the territory, it didn't illuminate anything and it was actually annoying.  Phil seemed to overcome it so it didn't affect his performance as much as other people, but it just made people cloudy, unclear about what they were doing.  The performance is a drug really, it is such a high. I remember though once when I was doing ‘AC/DC’, I was back in that shitty little dressing room and I was asking myself ‘why aren't I a hair dresser, why aren't I a hair dresser?’

 

Looking back at some of the characters I played they do seem very dark and highly emotional. I guess I always played against that.  In ‘Michi’s Blood’ the character just emerged, because Kroetz’s text is so sparse, because it is hopping back and forth you don't have a chance to get into a rhythm of a character, it was sort of like ping-pong.  Playing Myra Hindley in ‘Pre Paradise, Sorry Now’ by Fassbinder was even more a matter of detachment. I just let the words run it.  I don't remember having any judgement of them or any attachment, I don't know why, but maybe that's how you do perform that.  She was trying to get out of gaol a while ago. I read about that, and I thought, ‘gee, Myra Hindley. I know her!’

 

But that's another thing, I used to love to do the research, I know it totally contradicts what I just said, but I am remembering things like ‘Floating World’ where I read all this stuff about Japanese soldiers. I loved finding about another life or another world.  You could do so much reading and thinking about it, it was a way of learning

 

I didn't do so much research in ‘Dreamers of the Absolute’.  Some things I really got involved in and other things I didn't.  That's interesting because maybe ultimately I didn't like the people. I played Dora Brilliant in Dreamers, she was a mad bomb thrower, they weren't even Trotskyites- it was before that, they were pre-Russian revolution.  There was a lot of upheaval at the turn of the century, lot a bomb throwing by disaffected middle-class people. I think Phil Motherwell is really complicated.  I think he is a mad genius in some ways. Sometimes, to me, Phil is like a man from another planet or from another time, he probably shouldn't be in this time because he is more suited to an older era, last century I think.  He’s extremely gentle but he has been in the most ungentle of situations, at the centre of such violence and criminal activity.

 

I probably moved into the Tower because I needed somewhere to stay. I think I’d been living with Sally Ford in Nicholson Street (with Gary Waddell and people like that) and I came home late one night and there was a strange woman in my bed. I said ‘what the hell are you doing here?’ so that was it. The first time I moved in I was living with Lindzee in the top of the Tower and shared his space and the second time was when I came back from New York and I moved down to the room beyond the back patio.  I went to New York after ‘Dreamers’ closed at the end of '78 because Lindzee said it would be a very good thing for me to do.  I was really interested in performance writers who were also designers and creators of their own plays. There was Robert Wilson and a whole range of people who were both creators and builders of the space that they then directed  in. They appealed to me because I was never really an initiator of things. These people interested me because they were the creators of their own worlds.  So I applied for a grant from the Australia Council to investigate their works. Lindzee was over there at the same time along with Robert Cooney, an Australian who’d been working there for a while, so we did some performances there.

 

Robin and I were the only women in the Tower at that time and we weren't really that much of a civilising influence, we didn't clean up or do very much, we were like the rest of them.  Robin and I did work together, quite a lot. I did the Soapbox National tour from August to April '76 and I did ‘The Golden Holden’ with her. I did the sets for ‘Sisters’ and we did ‘The Mother’ and ‘Women and Children First’ and ‘The Love Show’. We did recognise each other as support but I feel that Robin and I never got really close, too many blokes around probably, there was Jono and Lindzee for starters, they had a very exclusive relationship. It was hard for women to enter that relationship but that's like any close relationship, there are times when that's all that's happening and there are times when that's more inclusive but I think also, for me, I never had any particular friends. I was just there and there were heaps of people around, and that’s probably true of me generally. I find it hard to form really intimate relationships with people, even though I admired Robin enormously and respected her intellect I don't think I got as close to her as I could. In hindsight I think I was rather male oriented rather than female in spite of doing and believing in a lot of the feminist stuff. I have become much more fond of women as I've got older, and much less close to men whereas probably in those years I had many more men friends than women.  That was true ever since I went to art school. I came from a male household.

 

From the time I decided that I wanted to be an artist I thought that you actually had to put away female-type things so that you could just focus on the thing you wanted to do and that's what I was doing; no cooking, no child-minding, no children, nothing that would get in the way, which was a particularly male way of being creative. I probably still haven't escaped it. I'm not very domestic, the work’s always interested me more than anything else that's going on and there’s a lifestyle associated with that.  It's a love of work, of doing things. I don't think I've got a burning passion to create, to always be creative, but I want to always be working and doing things, even if its working on someone's else's thing- I’d rather be doing that than anything else.

 

If I were to think of my happiest moments they would be in the plays. I just felt so happy, so on top of everything, everything coming together in performance, they would be the most magical moments. There is a different kind of satisfaction from designing. And the other side of the coin, the despair? I think it is the same thing, its when you are in a performance and things are crashing.

 

There were the nights when the cast outnumbered the audience and there were nights when nobody clapped. One moment when I felt that I had betrayed myself was during Womens Weekly.  Margot Nash and I were doing a skit about someone called Bean and I was mucking around with this egg thing and I just took off with the egg thing and I left Margot way behind and later I was really ashamed, it’s that thing of upstaging someone really badly and not giving them their space and their own moments. 

 

I did enjoy doing some solo stuff like ‘Snow White’ in ‘The Love Show’ but I think I way more enjoyed the interaction.  Some of the best moments I've had in theatre were with Shuv’us, in ‘Michi's Blood’. He was a very gentle and generous performer.

 

I suppose my other most destructive moment was ‘The Radioactive Horror Show’, it was my one and only directorial gig and I failed miserably on practically every level. I really loved working with Romeril on it though. He would go into the little room under the mezzanine and he would be in there all night going tap-tap on the typewriter, and come out with reams of stuff, most of which we couldn’t use! I just found him inventive, flexible and amusing to work with, even though I did the job so badly I really enjoyed working with him. He is the playwright that I most admired at the Pram. I remember the opening night of the ‘Horror Show’ was actually three hours long and we didn't have an interval and it was the first time we had actually run the whole thing through! I was dying and I just thought I can't do this and I left! I think I might have even gone down to Anglesea or something, I just left them.  Later I thought, Oh God, what a coward.

 

Without the Pram experience I would probably have been an artist or something.  It is really hard to evaluate.  I did more performance in New York but again I didn't know where to take it. New York is such a reality check. I started to do totally different things there, I became politically active in community housing and other things. 

 

Without the Pram I would probably have found a bunch of misfit people who had some ideas and wanted to do stuff.  It gets harder now when you don’t really have the confidence of youth, and I think you get more conceited when you get older. I regret it in some ways but I'm not really unhappy with the choices I've made either. I am now designing street posters, not just street, posters for interior as well, posters that comment on both social and political issues and I enjoy that but I would perform again if something came along because the highs are incomparable.




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