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

Susy Potter

I was 22 and 3/4 way thru an honours degree in drama at Flinders Uni and this missive came from Melbourne, from Tim Robertson who’d been working there for a little while with the APG: ‘Susy, I’m writing a script with John Romeril- I need someone to talk to about all the physical look of it, someone who understands what I’m saying!’

The last thing we’d worked on together was ‘Danton’s Death’ with me as the designer, a project which never reached completion and as a mea culpa, he said, ‘would you like to come over and help out?’  It would be a year and half before I finally finished my degree. I went over to Melbourne just to do this Pantomime, called ‘Waltzing Matilda’. Bob Daly was the designer, he then went on and did ‘the flytrap’ murals at the Flying Trapeze Cafe. I was so fresh- I did costumes, drawings and managed to solve all the problems whilst others came in to construct the crazy pie machine and the slide.


I quickly found a place to live, in Gatehouse St, Parkville, my first communal house, but  it was not with Pram people. Later I lived at the auspicious old Bank building in Kensington where we used to have big parties. Later Robert Meldrum and Mic Conway took my place. I managed to live in every single room in that place. I was still only paying $32/week for mansion sized rooms. When I was really broke I used to vacuum the stairs and get $10 off my rent. In later years I kept on going past it and seeing it gutted until the only thing that was left was the tower.


 I didn’t become a Collective member for ages- when I finally applied I was actually rejected, well not rejected ‘we want to see how more committed you are,’ they said- I think it was to do with the fact that I was very unpolitical. I happily told people where I came from, my father was a Liberal member of Parliament in Adelaide, it was like walking into the lions den! I was very naive. They thought I was ‘slumming it’ and that I could go back ‘home’ whenever I liked! From the moment I did the panto I went straight on and worked and worked. Tim directed the first outside production of ‘Dimboola’ at the Chevron Hotel. The bride was Denise Ding Dong Drysdale. I set it in 1955 but I then made the terrible mistake of taking on the design of John Wood’s ‘On Yer Marx’ at the same time. I was a total pratt. Desperately, I did it all on my own and I didn’t get enough support.


There was always something about me- perhaps I could call it my naiveté? The Pram Factory was romantic in the wildest, weirdest kind of way and you got caught up in the romance of it. It seemed to be important that you had some kind of intimate relationship, sexual relationship, power relationship within the group so that you could have a power base and with that somehow you became more solid. It took me ages to realise that the people who had sexual relationships within the group had this base. There were people who stood strong in their own right, purely on their talent, like Max and there were sacred icons to like Bruce Spence. Wilfred Last, Tony Taylor and Bob Thorneycroft were loners in their own right who generated enough action. Tim was quite powerful at that time but really I had nobody except me. I wasn’t really looking for a liaison. I felt quite confident, maybe because I was beating off the dreaded Neil Giles at the time. I was ‘in’ and he was ‘out’. Maybe he wanted me as a doorway to the Pram


I really wanted to be a performer but I could also do the other stuff, design and props. I was another frustrated actor in the group and because I spoke with an Adelaide accent- my parents had paid an enormous amount of money to send me to PLC-! the Collective basically said ‘we can’t cast you’.  The first time I was turned down they said, ‘You can’t speak Strine’.  I remember the first time I ever felt accepted was auditioning for the NZ tour and Jack Hibberd said ‘this girl can speak strine’ but before that, whenever I auditioned for things I was always rejected, I didn’t get past the first audition. I realised fairly soon that other people sometimes had things already marked out for them.

I wanted to be in ‘Mary Shelley’ and I ended up designing props and making the masks. I remember having to go Watts shoe store in Lygon Street to get the club foot made for Wilfred Last’s Lord Byron. I spent days on the phone getting stuff cheap. I wasn’t involved in the Popeye Puppets. Laurel Frank and I were two different kinds of people and somehow we never really gelled. She had a team and she was already set up and going when I hit the place. There seemed to be something sexual too, some people found me annoying or embarrassing. I didn’t make what you’d call a lot of friends. I felt I was the lowest - ‘You can’t quite cut it- but you’re OK to be a dogsbody’.


Right from when I was very young I was a bit of a loner, someone who went away and dreamed by herself. There were people at the Pram who were genuine with whom I could talk to but they were few.  My main connection was Tim Robertson. Leaning on each other. And I would watch him direct and stuff and know exactly what he meant and that gave me enough support. Everything had to be communally owned at the Pram and I actually gave them use of my car and it got wrecked! People would bring it back after they’d run it into things, my dear little VW station wagon. The commune was great on claiming possessions.


I was given an opportunity in ‘Stasis’ and I kind of fudged it. The work was too deep for me and I knew I was bit out of my depth. I know those guys were offering me a real opportunity... as a matter of fact it’s one of my most embarrassing memories ever. You know you always have this frightening thing you’re going to ‘dry’. I had to do the Sylvia Plath poem called ‘Stillborn’ and I stillborned myself! Halfway thru the second verse nothing came out!


I know I had some wonderful times. The Women’s Theatre Group was the first acting thing I ever did. If it hadn’t been for the WTG I would never have been able to do ‘Dudders’.  I was always designing. People’s opinion of me was ‘she can do a reasonable kind of job it you don’t ask too much of her!!’  I don’t think people knew how much I did-- going out to get a string of sausages, organise the bakery, get a certain number of pies, work the follow spot in between… To walk on that stage in the WTG pretending to be Joan Of Arc and even doing the most simplest of things- I can’t even remember what I did, but people talked about it! When I danced by myself as the housewife! I was ironing and they made me go on TV in NZ to play a gas stove -people used to crack up when I popped my burner! There was something there and you’d get this big kind of flow back. We used to have a women’s night on Thursday and the men would try and beat their way in.  The WTG was a most happy time because ‘Dudders’ was a fairly dicey show- everybody hated it. Timlin would say ‘Get out there, Potter, the whole things falling apart, pull it together!’  Timlin, who for some reason that I don’t know, now hates me, came into the dressing room after that first night and grabbed me by the elbow and said ‘Well, how does it feel to be a star?’ I didn’t think it felt any better than anything else. I’d experienced ‘being a star’ before that with WTG, and that was very satisfying.


I did have small starring things and we toured the best things out of WTG’s ‘Women and Madness’ to NZ along with the APG’s  ‘Mrs Thally F’. Hibberd got me that role. Auditions were horrible. You’d all sit around in the front room reading the play- the writers had enormous power and as I said, Hibberd recommended, after the reading of ‘Les Darcy’  that I was just right. I played a boy and his girlfriend. We took ‘Bull and Mousey’ with Wilfred playing the woman, Dolly. The NZ tour had Yvonne Marini, Fay Mokotow, myself, Bill Garner, Wilfred Last, Bob Thorneycroft and Inge de Costa, the musician. Romeril did ‘Thally F’ and as usual he was there changing things, always rewriting. I made the dummy for Thally and based it on the Stamina Man.

I auditioned for ‘Peggy Sue’ but Roz de Winter got it, she was a much better actress. Bill Garner was the male, he seemed to have a finger in every pie, he was quite powerful. Then I did the ‘The Golden Holden’, we also helped write it -we’ve got a film clip of it. I remember doing that wonderful speech: “jeez it was a great car”.


I was very unliberated, in a way I found it harder to cope with the fact that women didn’t like me. The only people who stuck up for me and appeared to like me were Sue Ingleton and Robin Laurie. Evelyn Krape was nice but she was too busy in her relationship with Jack Hibberd and somehow I always felt an outsider who had to prove themselves. It was a challenge, I was always kept so busy. It built me up rather than pulled me down... Fay was another quiet one, not the greatest performer either. There was a possible liaison between her and Max.  I don’t think Max was into it but she was besotted with him. People were laughing up their sleeves when Max and I shared a hotel room on tour with ‘The Hills’ -Max was a great one for the flannel pyjamas- but he’d grabbed me first as he didn’t want to be put into a situation with Fay.


The greatest hurt was when my membership application was rejected by the Collective.  I couldn’t be there as I had to meet my parents at the airport. I came back after delivering my parents to the hotel and Tim was waiting for me at Rathdowne St. He said, ‘you should have been there. Because you weren’t there you haven’t been considered to be acceptable to the group’ and to think I’d been working there non-stop for about 3 years! ‘People said they considered your commitment to the group to be ambivalent,’ recounted Tim, ‘ but they weren’t gonna throw you out -yet..’ After that meeting it was hard to come back, to face the Collective.


I was intimidated by those people who took over in the meetings. They varied. People took turns; mostly Bill and Max (who was so ambivalent- you got so frustrated because he tried to agree with everybody); the Hannans- they were an amazing team- they would bore you to death; people like Claire, they used to stand up and speak whilst at the same time holding onto their knitting, you always feared they were gonna come on over and stick it in your ear! They were knitting a lot of socks at that stage. Timlin was a great power base. He held the purse strings. The worst thing at the Collective meetings was when everyone (well not everyone) got drunk and they smoked  a lot. We’d discuss a motion and talk it off the edge of the earth and people drank to get through it. That’s where I learnt to drink. Quite a few people like Tim fell over into the alcohol area. How we ever made it home sometimes I don’t know.


I went to the opening of the Adelaide Festival Centre with Romeril’s ‘Floating World’. I was the ship’s crew and the stage manager. The Studio Space had never been used before - it was still wet! Peter Corrigan, who designed ‘Floating World’, also got me to go to Sydney, ‘fly to Sydney- I’m in big trouble!’ He was doing an opera in Sydney and he needed some fool who would work 48 hours straight on it. He was trying to get into my knickers, the bastard. He thought he could buy me for a Chinese meal! He took me out to a Chinese meal and said ‘how’s about it?’


 I was in ‘Pharlap’. Greig Pickhaver, possibly the worst actor you could imagine!  came over from Adelaide and we found this role for him. He was the voice-over, the race-caller. We had to recreate the Melbourne Cup on stage and he did the racing call! He was also working on 3CR and that later turned into HG Nelson. We had to add an extra name onto the play’s title ‘cos we were having great trouble selling it. ‘Pharlap -it’s Cinghalese for lightning you know’. We were a big deal in Perth! We went to the races and I had to dress up as Pharlap’s jockey in 108 degrees.


I got to know Phil Motherwell  in ‘Pharlap’ . He was really gentle and somehow he recognised that I found it hard. Everyone was bit scared of him. I did nothing in Nightshift, I wasn’t radical and also I hated what they did. I found it quite painful to see them raging up and down and bludgeoning each other.  It was supposed to be this style of thing that was ‘natural’. I remember the time that John Willett visited  us, the whole Collective all out the back on the patio, talking about Brecht. Lindzee Smith had organised that.


I was the designer for The Overcoat and that was terrific for me. Hibberd got me that job. I remember we had to pay the muso’s union rates but I used to work for $90 a week. I made a really strange space in the Front Theatre. I tried to build a German expressionist style tower with no room to make it in. I used to have to arrive before everybody and nail bits of rope down and heat up the washing machine.  Then Peter Cummins and I had to empty dry ice into the hot water in the washing machine. Cummins used to boast that he could wee on command. He was brilliant in that. Peter and I were friends. Strange, I seem to fit with the non- fitters. Although Motherwell appeared heavy because of his heroin addiction he never showed me any of that side of himself. I must say, though, cleaning up after the Nightshift, you’d go in there and find things like syringes stuck in the scenery and stuff!  The way the place was treated...


The cops used come in to the supper shows and stuff and they would beat a way thru the leagues of dope smokers and say ‘Have you got a liquor licence?’ and nobody ever got prosecuted. We got prosecuted for the strangest things- saying ‘fuck’ on stage. I wasn’t a druggy, I was never cool enough. I was a floater. I belonged, in as much as every production I did was partly me, even the bad ones that you dragged yourself into, even though you knew they were going to be bad. You also knew when things were going to be good, like Waltzing Matilda and the Hills Family Show. As a set designer you were always testing yourself against a production- how much money you got, how far you could make it go. You did FOH and cleaned the toilets and put out the Harris coffee- hideous! I was always in overalls, it was a kind of uniform, we all had a uniform. Mickey’s Moomba was the last thing I did. 1979. Mickey’s Moomba was an Ok show but a bit dicey. Jane Clifton was in it. George Dreyfus wrote the music and a rockn’roll band reworked it, Martin Armiger might have been in it. I think one of the reasons Jane disliked me so much was because I couldn’t sing rock’nroll.


For me the APG was this enormous kind of family and when it dissipated and died like that it was very hard to absorb. The Pram Factory was in free fall and wasn’t going anywhere - the central core worked on but by that stage we were shedding and people were casting around for what to do next.  I was having a bit of a breakdown, my father having just died in front in of me. I went away, to India, with the Rajneesh. I didn’t become an orange person - but when I came to back to Melbourne the Pram Factory was going too. The Collective in the last gasp had handed over to various people, like Bob Baines. They had picked the Ensemble.


I was fairly desperate, actually I didn’t know what I was going to do. I started feeling very weak and funny and started getting palpitations and Bob said ‘you’re just suffering from depression’. The family was going. I’d been left behind- I remember hanging onto him saying ‘don’t be scared!’


I became a freelance worker, props and set dressing and then I got a job at ABC doing props, sculpture but I found it hard to say goodbye to that structure because I didn’t know what I was going to do without it. We weren’t terribly nice people either. There would have been a lot of people like me who were butterflying against the edges.  How easy it was to rebuff people...


Suzy got married and divorced and now lives with her daughter, Zoe, in Melbourne.


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