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

My time as a scrubber - the APG and me.

Alison Richards

I first heard about the APG in 1969 or 70.  I was involved in and around the Pram from 1974 to the last gasp in 1981, but only had the glory of Collective membership from 1978 through to the meeting which handed over to the ‘New Collective’ in 1980.  Although I saw or was a cast member in a lot of shows from the tail end of the golden years, by the time I formally became a Collective member the strains which eventually led to the APG’s demise were well and truly starting to show.  During that time money was tight; no one was guaranteed paid work, even though we were all expected to contribute to the shit work around the place.  I scrubbed an awful lot of Pram toilets, but given the competition for space and funding ended up doing almost as much theatre outside the APG as within it.  Nevertheless it was an incredibly important period in my life, personally, politically and artistically.  The choices and accidents of that time have indelibly shaped the person I am now and many of the friends I still have, as well as having a huge impact on the work I have done since.


News of the APG was part of the swirl of hearsay, scuttlebut, urban myth and sounds of exciting things happening somewhere else that is so much a part of life in Canberra.  Although Canberra had a lively arts scene in the late '60s, it was too small a town to rate a spot on anyone’s high profile national tour, so we relied on news reports and traveller’s tales for a sense of what was happening in other, more fortunate, places.  Our advantage was that news travelled fast, and people were always coming and going.  We knew as much about London or Los Angeles as we did about Sydney - still, in the heady brew of theatre, politics and left wing cultural activism that marked my public and intellectual life as a student, news of events in Melbourne had a special resonance. I was already committed to theatre not only as an artform but also as a vehicle for social change; I knew that in Melbourne there was a lot of activity with crossovers between street theatre, experimental theatre, film, dance, writing and politics.  Melbourne sounded like somewhere worth checking out.


In the summer holidays of my second year at uni I managed to convince my mother to let me get in a car with a strange man - a fellow member of SDS who had an old green MGB - and we went down to Melbourne for a conference which turned out to be at La Mama.  I felt a prickle of energy walking in to the empty room - it’s the same when I walk in now, though the space has shrunk with age and familiarity.  We talked about the new feminism and the clitoral orgasm, and I remember arguing with Albert Langer about the inevitability of revolution, but most of all I remember looking around at the tiers of rickety pine scaffolding and imagining the boards piled with people, literally hanging from the walls in their eagerness to be in the theatre.  I wanted to know about that, I wanted to be there, to see it and do it.


Back at uni, the Theatre Society hustled for copies of new Australian plays.  We did Dimboola  in the Mechanics Institute Hall in two-horse Tarago, and hired a train to get the audience there.  We did Chicago Chicago and took the characters to the Moratorium, and friends of mine did a regional tour of White With Wire Wheels


Occasionally the world came to us.  I remember sitting outside the ANU Union during the Aquarius Festival with a few other lefty, arty types listening intently to a dark haired woman marvellously strung about with kohl, Indian beads and large leather


discs, telling us about Tribe and La Mama and Bert Deling.  Then there was my brief turn as an underpaid actor and stuntwoman in Demonstrator, one of the most god-awful pieces of celluloid to qualify as Australian film.  I was naive enough as a radical student to accept a job playing a radical student - we were never paid the correct rate, the Taxation Department never got to hear about the tax the producers claimed they were deducting, and we were outraged at the cheap way they represented the ‘demonstrators’ in the narrative (dear, dear, what did we expect?) but we did get to hang out near such nascent gods and goddesses as Graeme Blundell and Kerry Dwyer.  Both emerged from the makeup van looking super cool in jeans and leather jackets, Kerry’s hair fashionably brown and straight.  She stopped for a casual chat.  Check the style, I thought.  Australian Performing Group, oh yeah?


In 1973 my brand new husband and I decided to come to Melbourne to work.  We were determined to find out what was happening in theatre, and get amongst it if we could.  We signed up to do classes at the Claremont Theatre in South Yarra, and later joined the group as actors.  We saw as much theatre as we could manage, at La Mama and elsewhere, with the Panto the first show I saw at the Pram Factory.  I know it’s a cliché, but I really did feel a tightness in my upper chest as I climbed past the box office up the stairs to the theatre, and heard the rumble of a bunch of people happily expecting something special.  The show itself is a memory jumble - the Conway brothers’ band, Tim Robertson’s slicing satire and fractured images of the Queen, meat pies on a slippery dip and Evelyn Krape’s famous Gra-gra galah imitation - but I do remember laughing fit to bust, with a new sense of exhilaration at this merger of rambunctious fun and intelligent republicanism.  Yes, I thought, this I like. This’ll do me.


My new husband left his nice job as a junior executive and went to NIDA to learn how to be a director.  I was working as a tutor in Politics at the State College of Victoria, doing stuff with Claremont and getting involved in the women’s movement.  I remember meeting Robin Laurie in the college corridors and having the odd chat about theatre and film, but I think it was Sylvie Leber who spoke to me in the Back Theatre after I went to see Womens’ Weekly vol. 1, and invited me to come along to street theatre workshops.  So the start of my time at the Pram was spent as a passionately committed member of the Womens’ Theatre Group.  I wrote for ‘The Love Show’, and performed in the street theatre and documentary theatre projects while still trying to hold down my day job, until Steve Spears’ offer of what had been Jane Clifton’s part of Tea Drinkin’ Lil in the tour of Africa provided me with a convenient excuse to chuck in my academic career for the next decade and a half.


That tour was followed by another one as a founding member of The Magic Mushroom Mime Troupe (yes, really!) led by Michael Wansborough and Nano Nagle, which included my first show in the Back Theatre and a confrontation with an intense Joe Bolza, who demanded to know just what we hippy upstarts knew about mime; then in 1975 I too went off to NIDA to learn how to be a director - or at least, that’s what was supposed to be happening (at least I did get to learn something about mime from Joe, who was on staff that year).  In between tours I hung around the Pram and the WTG, learning about lighting from John Koenig and Kelvin Gedye, and beginning my fateful affair with father-of-my-child Neil Giles - but that’s another story.  I remember the Pram at the time as being a round-the-clock event.  Rehearsals, performances, meetings, markets, festivals, parties, and late night sessions which could have been all or any of the above and frequently were, all at the same time.  I just about lived there, and it was about as close to the perfect creative life as I could have imagined.


International Women’s year was in full swing.  The WTG had scored its first serious funding for a women’s season at the Pram, and I managed to talk NIDA into letting me come back down to Melbourne to direct Women X 3, a Back Theatre season of plays by new women writers Finola Moorehead, Jane Bradshaw and Di King (who partway through rehearsals changed her name to Di Queen).  Despite an insufferably patronising review by Len Radic, the season was a success and was a great pleasure to work on; Susie Potter did design miracles to ensure the space worked for the three stylistically very different pieces within a tiny budget, and there was generous exchange between all the writers and performers involved.


The experience probably gave me an unrealistically rosy picture of what it would be like to work at the Pram.  Although after finishing my course my first priority was the WTG, it was already clear that my personal sexual preferences put me on the wrong side of the separatist politics that had the passionate commitment of many of the WTG women.  I thought the broader socialist politics of the Pram would be more congenial and, besides, I wanted to do more in theatre than was possible within the WTG, so late in 1976 I set about the Byzantine business of becoming a Collective member.


Any APG member you can think of was and doubtless still is a fine upstanding individual with principles and integrity to match…  I can still remember Bruce Spence standing up in a Collective Meeting and swearing that he would rather work with someone who was a socialist than someone who wasn’t, no matter how talented they might be.  It was an exhilarating place to be, full of enthusiasm and debate, and then and now I am wholeheartedly behind the ideals it represented.  But I have to say that walking in as an apprentice member of the Collective – especially one who was a lone volunteer, and didn’t have longstanding ties to any one of the established groups within it - was like joining a school where the teachers were all on strike, and the big kids were practising on the little kids in the playground during an endless lunch break.  My experience at the Pram is probably one reason why after all these years I still haven’t joined the Labor Party.


By this stage of the game, joining the Collective was neither an easy nor even a particularly logical process.  You needed someone to second you for Associate Membership, then there was supposed to be a probationary period of four months or so, during which time you clocked up ‘flying hours’ on the basis of involvement in shows and doing your bit on the shitwork roster, after which you could be nominated for full Collective membership, and voted in on a majority vote in the next Collective meeting.  The funny thing was that even though this final step was pretty much a formality - the Collective itself was so large and unwieldy that opponents of anyone nominated would have had to work very hard to exclude somebody once they had got through their probationary time - the road there was a wild and rocky one.


Despite its collective rhetoric, the APG was heavily factionalised, around cliques and personalities as much as on political or theatrical principles.  Some people definitely had more influence than others; members of the original Collective had worked together, lived together, had sex, done drugs, fallen in and out of love, quarrelled with, competed against and supported each other for years before I came on the scene.  There was a whole lot of unspoken stuff, loyalties and enmities stretching back to who knows when, that a newcomer had Buckley’s of getting to the bottom of and kept tripping over all the time.


It is stating the obvious to say that most members of the Collective were of the same age cohort, and shared a generational culture that was both the strength and ultimately the weakness of the enterprise.  I was just that crucial five or so years younger than the youngest members of the established group, and so encountered what was, if not exactly a pecking order, then certainly a strongly established sense of ownership.  Many Collective members claimed a seniority that meant that I was alternately patronised and treated as a threat, in that genial way prefects have of treating smartarse first formers.  Then there was the problem that the APG had been created out of a merger between Melbourne and Monash university student theatre and political activists, and even though nobody ever said so, it mattered a hell of a lot which one you had been to.  As an out-of-towner I was behind the eight ball on that one from the word go.


I was particularly grateful to those people who did welcome me; these were either people who I had got to know and like from my work in street theatre and the WTG, like Ursula Harrison, Jane Mullett, Margo Nash, Ponch Hawkes and Robin Laurie, people whose interests in popular, physical and contemporary theatre I shared, like Joe Bolza and Bob Thorneycroft, Richard Murphet, Michael Price, Hellen Sky, the Conways and other people from the Matchbox/Circus Oz gang, people like Roz de Winter whose work I admired, or simply people whose practice matched their socialist principles, like Bill and Lorna Hannan, who exerted a strong ethical influence on the Collective despite their marginal involvement in the business of making theatre as such.  I also naturally gravitated to other out-of-towners, finding a haven amongst the ‘Adelaide push’ of mostly Flinders University graduates like Tim and Robin Robertson, Martin and Linda Armiger, Buzz Leeson, Andy Miles and Charmayne Lane, Neil Giles and Susie Potter, who managed to exude an air of quiet intellectual superiority on the grounds of having actually been trained in theatre under Wal Cherry, and many of whom contributed a great deal to the quality of APG productions.  These people became my friends (I lived for some time with Robin in the Hannan’s house in Shiel St. North Melbourne, with Max Gillies in his amazing corrugated iron ‘rocket house’ out the back).  Tim was our main conduit to influence as a member of John Timlin’s ‘inner circle’.


Ah, Timlin.  I found out about Timlin’s influence when at Richard Murphet’s invitation I volunteered for the Programming Committee, only to discover that its meetings were at best irregular, and its decisions held very little weight.  Timlin and the blokes - because they were almost all blokes - of the inner circle exercised a pervasive if not absolute dominance over programming within the APG, and had pretty much a monopoly on the image the Pram presented to the outside world.  Timlin was older than the average Collective member, and had not been around from the very beginning, but as the Administrator he was definitely the business brains of the outfit. Given that he also doubled as agent for the stable of writers who had established the Pram’s reputation, Timlin’s pragmatism and driving determination ensured that his view of the Pram as a writer’s theatre became the benchmark against which other values and other ideas about performance had to struggle for airspace and resources.  He could always be found at Stewart’s pub, where the back bar was also known as Timlin’s office, and where the APG inner circle mingled with the blokes of Carlton’s literary, legal and minor criminal push.  Others are better placed to speak of this sanctum than I.  I only went in there once or twice, not being given to beer and cigarettes and racing talk, which of course did my nascent career in the Collective no good at all.  Nevertheless you couldn’t exist at the Pram without dealing with Timlin, and he was kind enough to me, at least in the beginning.


As a budding Collective member, I was keen to get my foot in the door, and jumped at the chance offered by Timlin to act, sing and dance my way towards Christmas in The Dudders, a dinner theatre piece about Yanks abroad in wartime Melbourne co-written by Timlin and John Romeril, that was supposed to repeat the early success of Dimboola.  I later heard that Timlin had cast me to spite Fay Mokotow, and that I was later cast in It’s A Mad World, My Masters  to spite Ev Krape - if that is true I was innocent of it at the time, although it might explain the decided lack of enthusiasm with which I was greeted by the leading women actors and directors of the APG, women who I had known through the Women’s Theatre Group and who had - up till then at any rate - been reasonably supportive.  I still have a clear picture of the day the headshots were being taken for the APG Agency, coming up the stairs to be confronted by Jane Clifton barring the way, who curtly informed me that only full Collective members were eligible.  My membership was up for the vote at the next Collective meeting, but it was grace or a catfight, so I left with as much dignity as I could - and years later still grit my teeth when I see what turned out to be the once only APG Agency mugshot poster up on someone’s wall!


Despite these undercurrents, doing The Dudders was fun.  Susy Potter and I had a good time together as ‘the girls’ in The Dudders, a partnership we repeated later playing jockeys and other character parts in Steve Mastare’s play about Phar Lap, It’s Cingalese for Lightning Y’Know.  I also had a chance to brush up on my acrobatic dancing skills with Bob Thorneycroft, and got to know the wonderful Bob Daly.  The only real downer was being dropped on my head by Bill Garner in the middle of a jitterbug routine - the floor was slippery, he was supposed to steady me as I cart wheeled across his knees, but he missed.  I still have neck problems as a result - but that was long before the days of Health and Safety, and who should I sue?  I doubt if Bill’s millions would make it worth my while!


My own interests lay more in exploring theatre forms and processes than in carrying on as an actor with the ‘Timlin line’ of Front Theatre shows.  I wanted to make theatre in the community, though I was also concerned with contemporary acting and compositional techniques.  I took part in whatever performance training opportunities presented themselves, and attended Circus Oz/New Circus workshops whenever possible, although I had already decided my work was leading more towards physical theatre than circus proper.  However, even after my Collective membership had been formally approved, it was clear that it was going to be an uphill battle to secure acceptance amongst those who saw my ‘junior’ status as an excuse to exercise sibling-style dominance.


Not only that, but the APG itself was entering a period of aesthetic stalemate.  There were no clear processes to ensure either group renewal or coherent programming directions, and plenty of reasons for people to defend territory they themselves held only tenuously.  Although the ‘Timlin liners’ undoubtedly held the cards in terms of money and influence, the size and success of Circus Oz together with the pull of longstanding friendship and work links meant that there was considerable sympathy within the Collective for the claims of more experimental projects such as those proposed by the Stasis and Nightshift groups.  And anyway, with the Collective exercising ultimate voting power, no single group could get up the numbers for a putsch.  Unfortunately, this led to a situation where it was difficult to make headway without conflict, and where bruised sensibilities were often the order of the day.


I managed to score a Director’s Development grant from the Australia Council, and proposed a show by and for young unemployed people, which became the highly successful The Young and the Jobless.  The cast was chosen from auditions run all over Melbourne; it was the first time the APG had run a project on this model, and it clearly filled a need, being revived in the next two successive years and finishing with a NSW-based production lead by Roland Manderson and Celia Moon.


I appeared at the Collective meeting and called for the formation of a project group; a core of people responded, including Claire Dobbin, Wilfred Last and Alan Robertson.  But then the rub; despite the fact that I had already been involved in successful community theatre work with the WTG and the Magic Mushroom Mime Troupe amongst others, and had developed a solid record as a director, I was considered ‘too inexperienced’ to run an APG project.  I needed ‘mentoring’, which effectively meant that Clire and Wilfred were to lead the project, and I was relegated to the position of assistant director on a project I had conceived and was committed to.  I was resentful, not because I was ungrateful for their interest or doubted their skills, but because the deal was presented to me as a fait accompli, and because objectively their experience was not so far in advance of mine that some other more collegial division of labour couldn’t have been worked out with a bit more thought.  As it happened, Wilfred pulled out after the first few workshops, and my sense of having had a status game pulled on me was reinforced by the fact that Claire, whose educational drama skills were indeed useful during the rehearsal period, was the face of the production for pre-production publicity and then left me and the young cast to take the show around Melbourne in its performances to community groups.


I don’t wish to imply that I was somehow a lost innocent lamb in all this.  I was just as pushy, loudmouthed, opinionated and obnoxious as anyone else, and just as guilty of being heedless of the feelings of others.  I’m sure there are as many stories to be told by others about me as I have retailed about my own difficulties - for example, I was asked to do the report to the Collective on Max Gillies’ revival of A Stretch of the Imagination, and full of feminist zeal gave it a real roasting.  Why, I asked, are we still bothering with this overblown, overwritten paean to chauvinism?  What on earth are we doing raising to iconic status the meanderings of a sex-obsessed loser complete with wee and fart jokes?  and so on.  I still don’t like the play much, but these days I’d try to be more careful of the feelings of the people who obviously cared about it and had put their sweat into making it happen.  Sorry, Max.


I guess the point is more that, while I was pushy enough to do reasonably well considering, and robust enough to get out and make other opportunities when doors at the Pram were hard to prise open, the Collective, by then at any rate, simply wasn’t very good at organising its own internal processes in order to encourage new ideas and new people to emerge.  In the end, that inability inevitably led to stalemate, and to the final decision to disband rather than split or renew.  The thing that really struck me in the time I was there was how cavalier the people with the power were about the energies, not to mention the careers, of others.  Mates looked after mates, but the APG marched on the energies of far more than its leading lights.  The real strength of the place lay in the people - some of them Collective members, some of them not - who were always there and always generous, and few of whom got a lot of acknowledgement.  Some of them I’ve mentioned already, others, like Eve Glenn, Ruth Maddison, Helen Clemson, Robin Leuba or Linda Achren were a part of the Pram’s collective life as artists in their own right, or as wives and partners of APG members and associates.  Helen Garner of course has won a reputation of her own, but there were talented people like my friends Anita Coombs, Jacqui Kerin and Yoni Prior who were more or less ignored in the crush.  In this context, I’d like to mention the late Caz Howard, who suffered rebuff after rebuff and then went on to a brief but glorious few years at Theatreworks.


For most of 1978 and 1979 I made my own work, a lot of it in cabaret with Faye Bendrups and Neil Giles.  I was well aware that my relationship with Neil was politically a bad move; he wasn’t blokey, didn’t drink at Stewarts either, and wasn’t part of the inner circle.  Both of us had links with the world of the circus, and with people in the Stasis group including Rob Meldrum, Sue Ingleton, Roz (Suarupo) de Winter and later Jenny Kemp, through Neil’s residence in the legendary old bank building in Bellair Street, Kensington.  I had done some support work for Stasis, and wanted very much to be accepted into their exploratory work in performance.  Their decision not to include me was a bitter blow; I accepted it, but after that realised there probably wasn’t a whole lot going for me at the Pram, and that I should look elsewhere if I wanted to develop as a theatre artist.


That realisation was reinforced by the infighting that erupted around my production of Arrabal’s The Garden of Delights.  Lindzee Smith was the magnetic pole around which the ‘experimental’ wing of the APG gathered, and I was very impressed with his approach and capacities.  Lindzee had been generous with his help when I and fellow NIDA graduate Jacqui Kerin (at that time married to Joe Bolza) developed a vocally experimental production of Peter Handke’s Self Accusation as part of a double bill with the physical theatre of Joe and Bob Thorneycroft, for a late show in the Front Theatre.


However, when in 1979 I made a move to mount a production of The Garden of Delights  on the strength of what was left of my  Director’s Development grant, Lindzee, Carol Porter, the rest of the Nightshift group and it seemed half the Collective raised an almighty stink, on the grounds of Arrabal’s decadence, my political unreliability, the dead certainty that it wouldn’t get an audience, and anything else they could think of.  I couldn’t help noticing that many of these people had themselves been involved in the earlier production of Arrabal’s The Architect and The Emperor, but clearly something – although it was never clear entirely what – had changed their minds in the meantime! Eventually I did get it up, and it had the biggest attendance figures of any show in the Back Theatre to that point, so there.  But it was an ‘outsider’ production; the brilliant design by Soosie Adshead, the soundscape by Chris Withers, the performances of Charmayne Lane, Glenda Lum, Robert Thompson and John Murphy got only grudging nods from the rest of the APG, and I was hauled up before a Discipline Committee to be rapped over the knuckles by Jono Hawkes for using an old flat with one of Carol Porter’s cartoons from The Love Show on the back, despite having gone through all the right processes and being told none of it was sacred.  Such were the reminders of what it was to be a new chum, even two years down the track.  Or maybe it was an indication that I’d finally arrived?


Anyway, without actually resigning from the Collective I moved on, first to a guest spot teaching at Rusden State College, and then to the USA and UK on an Australia Council study grant.  I came back in time for the last ever meeting of the Collective, where I applauded Bill Garner’s noble recommendation to dissolve, and hand on to a new collective. I still think it was noble, even if the new collective fared no better in the end than the old. It was also of course an admission of defeat, an acknowledgement that the divisions that had beset the APG weren’t fixable by any normal methods of negotiation, but sometimes you just have to cut your losses.


The strongest thing I think I have taken out of those years is a deep commitment to collaborative structure and process.  As a community arts activist, and later an academic in theatre studies, I have developed what others might well think is an obsession with fairness and with consultation.  Collaborative processes demand an incredible range of skills, and there is no guarantee they won’t come apart at the seams, as I know to my cost.  But in an era when we are constantly being fed the line that socialism is a dead duck, it seems to me that it is more than ever important that we look hard at what we have to do to make it possible.  When I joined the APG, I thought I was joining an experiment in living socialism.  Even when it was more like a location workshop for ‘Lord of the Flies’ I responded to the ideals behind it, and most of all wanted to figure out how it might be possible to make those ideas work better in practice, complete with battling egos and all - because I am under no illusions that socialism will magically make egos disappear, including mine.  I still carry with me something Bill Hannan said to me quite early on – that while an insurgent is happy to think in the short term, real revolution means digging in for the long haul.  Even when the haul looks longer than ever, I find myself quite cheered by that thought.


Oh, and just for the record, the last show ever at the Pram wasn’t The Bedbug Celebration.  It was The Mushroom Troupe’s late 1981 production of Savage Love, book Neil Giles, music Faye Bendrups and Ash Wednesday, design Peter Corrigan and Sarah Curtis.  I know because I directed it, and performed in it.  And I also know because we were in the middle of a performance when ‘interests associated with the developer’ set alight a large pile of tyres cunningly piled up against the side of the building, and tried to burn it down.  Whether or not we were supposed to go with it, I am not in a position to tell.  But I’m still here.  So far.



Alison Richards is in academia


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