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


Tony Taylor

We moved into the building and commenced clearing it out. It was night. We ripped out the shelves which had stored pram wheels and springs and lots of dirt and just hacked it up and threw it all into Drummond Street. That was the main space, upstairs, the big space, the Front Theatre. There were stained glass windows on the street side and it had a wooden floor and it was longwise and I think had been, must have been a ballroom. And outside on the wall was a horse’s head, which made us think that down below were the stables (it would become the workshop and the horse’s head would eventually fall into Drummond St when the old girl was finally being renovated).


So we were filthy dirty and exhausted and there was a concrete room at the back of the building, which would become the Back Theatre, and it too was full of crap. In between the two spaces were the toilets and a back staircase down to an always filthy side walkway that lead out to Drummond St-anyway some genius noticed that there was a fire hose on the wall and that maybe we could send the contents of the back space down and out and into the- well, anywhere. And so we did. I watched three guys holding the hose spurting the detritus of the last tenants out into the night. And we detritus moved in.


Max Gillies, Claire Dobbin and Kerry Dwyer must have talked about me. They tutored me as a trainee drama teacher and I’d acted in front of them so my love for theatre was perhaps some reason why Kerry wrote me an invitation to take part in a workshop/improv which involved playing and a lot of stuff I never really understood, still don’t- politics.  So I went. I remember the only thing I could contribute was silly stuff... which is what I still do. During the daytime I was teaching drama at Brunswick High and trying to stay alive in the classroom. And yet going to rehearsals or performance when you’d already done a full day’s work was just… what we did. We all had day jobs.


‘Marvellous Melbourne’ was the outcome of the first work in the now scrubbed out, but not for long- Pram Factory.


It was a true one-off dirty bouquet. We constantly were thrown stuff from Hibberd and Romeril and mucked about with it. I was scared of Blundell. I adored and still do Bill Garner- I once cast a vote against him at a purge... I haven’t any idea what it was all about. I was reunited with Claire and Evelyn Krape with whom I’d worked in college. It was so exciting to be involved a new work which was to be fitted into our empty space with no idea how the audience would be seated. Constantly the spaces would be reinvented for each show. And there was the compulsory Bump Out for each show during which the wine, beer and joints would flow. They would flow in the ghastly collective meetings too. But more of that anon.


Sacred cows were what we were after and Marvellous Melbourne attacked the wowser lady in the 1880’s- land scams and prostitution. It was wildly caricatured - we all played scores of characters. I remember being appalled at my performance of a camp flag designer in version one. I was so inwardly ashamed of all that stereotype poncing. The mob seemed to love it but I always felt like going home and having a good wash. But then I hadn’t yet ‘come out’ so there was all that inner turmoil to contest and keep down. The APG wasn’t really a centre for gay rights and expression.


There were 3 of us who’d emerged from the wardrobe but we didn’t use the Pram to express our political desires. I didn’t think about doing that; unlike the women who joyously seized the opportunity and necessity to explore their sexuality and feminism and sisterhood. They were doing the most exciting stuff in the mid seventies and I was secretly envious of their work and bonding. And I was always falling in lust with the men. I moaned once too often during ‘How Grey Was My Nurse’ to Laurel Frank. She reminded me that it was less than easy for her to concentrate on the articulation of a giant puppet which we both operated when my body was pressed up against hers all night. But the men I fell for were drop dead sexy, and remain that way in my mind as I totter towards senility. I’ll never forget the time John Ley gave me a shotgun in the basement while we were gluing puppets together. I thought I was going to explode. I think I fainted and it wasn’t the dope.


Marvellous Melbourne caused a storm in the theatrical world of the staid old city. Such unriballed bawdry had not been seen before. And I was as amazed at our history as the audiences were. There was a court scene full of grotesque acting and free for all ad libbing. One night at a crucial moment in the trial the entire jury collapsed when some rostra gave way. I still remember Bill Garner banging the gavel and demanding that the house come to order.


The Feet of Daniel Mannix was less than whelming to me. I was merely scenery but looked in awe at Bruce Spence in the title role. The relationship between the Catholic Church and The DLP was not my favourite subject matter. I’d learned what little craft I had from musicals and pantomime and comedy. We were actively encouraged to abandon the old order. I stopped going to the M.T.C. and J.C.Williamson’s shows and gave a lot of my musical albums away. I’m not an academic and I find anything but personal politics hard to stomach.  Consequently the Collective Meetings filled me with dread. It was like a cross between mini Question Time in Canberra and the Spanish Inquisition. Appalling bullying and self-aggrandisement. Factions and enemies.  The humiliation of seeing people voted out of the Collective and watching with dismay the rising number of good-hearted but pretty talentless odds and sods get voted in- Bill Garner said he’d never forget  (don’t know about forgive!) that I had been a party to his expulsion - I didn’t have and still don’t have a clue what that was all about. I think I addressed the meeting twice in all the years I was there. I made no sense and I stank with terror. I voted with my conscience once and Jon Hawkes took delight in sticking me on a pin for it. Wine in flagons and joints the size of bamboo sticks were at the ready. Many of the women knitted or did needlepoint. I started to do tapestry too but I don’t remember if I was game enough to whip out my latest cushion cover in the meetings. The men who had learned the Westminster system were in their element. And by the time the hours had dribbled into the early morning old foes would be screaming with mirth as motions got underidden and outmanoeuvred and whatever you do with them. With teaching the next day I probably overshadowed myself.  I actually blew up some time after and took an 18 months break.


Don’s Party was my third show. The very first production. I was cast to type as the horrible little conservative, Simon, and Blundell pinched a bit of me when the film was made. The set was quite amazing in that the audience sat opposite each other as at a tennis match and we made entrances from either end. I remember Bruce Knappet being late for ‘the half’ one night and it turned out he was in a cab on the way from the airport. He told us we should start and that he’d easily be there for his entrance. Well he didn’t get there so Yvonne Marini and I were reduced to playing word games. It was OK for a while but the audience soon saw through it and began to rustle with boredom and indignation. Thank Christ Knappet finally arrived and Williamson’s play was allowed to get on. There was an instance when Graham Hartley had to run up some stairs and photograph his wife in flagrante. He forgot his camera and it was so close to his entrance he couldn’t do the run around to the front to get it so we hastily made me up as a private investigator with beard and overcoat and sunnies. We ran up the stairs, making mad dialogue up, and whirling off again. We thought we’d done a great job in saving the moment. Blundell, who’d come in to check on the show was less than impressed. Don’s Party was a huge hit, it packed out the joint. When I got back from my ‘overseas break’ Williamson had gone, driven out by the serious heavyweights. Thank God I never got into the eye of any APG storm.


When I returned fragile and a bit out of it I was saved by the APG puppets. A group had emerged interested in getting into the old craft of puppetry and they gave me a job of helping create the dolls and co-writing the scripts. We did a lot of touring in schools with a show based on Lear’s ‘Owl and the Pussycat’, the latter role played with irresistable charm by Claire Dobbin. She was absolutely divine as the only live actor in the piece and the kids loved her. Later the Popeye Puppets would become an adult theatre feature in How Grey Was My Nurse, a rather ham-fisted but charming tale about manipulation using the Hollywood movie musical as a metaphor for fascism and manipulation of the masses. And then we really got to be part of the Big Guns by supporting the main event,  ‘The Mother’ by Brecht. We did a mad version of ‘The Elephant Calf’ .Some crits said we were better than the star piece!! I do remember having a ball with Hellen Sky as we played an entire army in a converted pram. It went arse over tit one night. Dolls and us all over the floor and members of the audience picking us up and pouring us back into the tank. What I treasure most of the puppet group was the camaraderie we shared in the garage up in Brunswick and later in the basement as we made up the scripts and songs while working with latex and papier mache and pulleys and strings and springs and paint. It was a very safe and kind atmosphere we made. I also wanted to bonk Michael Price so badly my balls went blue.


I nearly may have if I hadn’t rebelled against by Roz de Winter. She, Price and I had been cast as a variety of roles in Mary Shelley and the Monsters. One of our responsibilities was to create a chorus of harpies which represented the drug hazed, sex-obsessed world of the Percye Shelley mob on Lake Como.  All the leads were insanely trying to keep up with Tim Robertson’s looney outpourings which he usually threw at them after sitting up all night typing in a little back room of the Front Theatre. Meanwhile we three flailed and failed to come up with anything of any worth. At the end of rehearsal one night de Winter summoned a meeting in the darkness of a wintry basement and chastised us for not working as a team. She then turned the subject to the mystery of sex and that perhaps the secret of the chorus was its innate sexual energy. She then suggested we strip and continue to explore this theme on the smelly old gym mats that littered the floor. I regret not doing this now as it meant that I perhaps could have brained deWinter and had my way with Price and even created a choral masterpiece for two. As it was both he and I thought it a very bad idea and we closed the meeting. The harpies remained an annoying trio with little to say or do. Mary Shelley  met with mixed reactions but I think it’s a weird and wonderful piece with a splendid gothic atmosphere woven into the hippie drug culture. Wilfred Last, another of my lust buckets, was just wonderful as Byron. And Robert Meldrum as Polidori, was hypnotically good.


Max Gillies wanted to do a project on comedy. He gathered Evelyn Krape, Sue Ingleton, Rob Meldrum, Bill Garner, Fay Mokotow, Bob Thorneycroft, Buzz Leeson and me and we started to chuck around ideas. It came to our notice that TV had been a part of Australian culture for 15 years. So a ‘whatever happened to those old vaudevillians?’ idea was thrown into the ring and we decided to create a group who had been displaced by the box. Thus was born ‘The Hills Family Show’ It was the oddest piece of theatre I’d ever been involved in. First we had to create the characters from scratch and we did it in a series of imaginative question and answer sessions in the basement- asking our characters all sorts of questions to build up three-dimensional personalities as well as giving them familial relationships. So many compromises- ‘Oh well, if you are ninety-six then I must have been born in Taree-’  etc.  But it was starting to become so exciting to work on. We all had to choose the acts we would feature in. I instinctively went for the side of my entertainment world that I secretly coveted- the lounge act- creepy, oddly sexual and ultimately embarrassing. Evelyn went for the oldest equestrienne on the planet. Sue was the matriarch with the worst Irish accent you’ve ever heard and the clunkiest stand-up routine which she delivered sitting down at a battered old piano. I’ll never forget her red straw wig, her swishing satin skirts and her long boots as she exploded onto the stage earbashing the cast and the audience alike. Her nemesis was Gillies’s character, Fitzroy. He was the sad alcoholic, no longer able to disguise his blackouts, skill loss and shakes. There was a great dignity in his hopelessness and yet he had a strength which united those characters who lay in his camp- the vaudevillians.  Ingleton, Mokotow and Meldrum, who gave an unashamedly brave mincing flounce of a performance as the incredibly effete Clifton all had designs on ending the evening’s entertainment with an offering to the Gods of Thespis. A ballet, choreographed by the golden boy idiot, Jacques Jete, Bob Thorneycroft’s invention.  Of course throughout the evening spats of all sorts would repeatedly undermine and halt the proceedings. We opened with the company bursting into the space, late. A superbly dry performance by Leeson gave the audience the opportunity to know that the APG was at risk of severely undermining its credibility by allowing his ‘family’ to do a one off.


I think it was Max who came up with the idea that the family would not have understood the notion of an open space.  They would end up looking at the back of the curtain thinking the audience was ‘out front’. With Ingleton shrieking like a cross between a banshee and Boadeicea we burst upon the hapless audience like a tornado. I pushed Evelyn on. We never missed the opportunity of flinging her about, letting her crash, topple out, stand on and totally dominate that chair. She was an amazing physical being. Tits and arse- for days she transformed into a tiny mouse of a woman who was the ultimate power behind the family, berating our amateurish behaviour and finally hounding us in shame to forget about our petty rivalries. It was her physical transformation into Fanny that had us all gob-smacked. She used 10 red lines on her hands to denote old age At interval she would sit with genuine old ladies, they would hold her hand and she would sympathise with their ailments and trials and none of them saw the young woman who was only a layer of powder and a fox fur away. I loved my Granny Hills. She saved me in my act after a wonderfully mean and spiteful Clifton had left Winston in his spotlight of shame- ‘And yes I know how lonely life can be-’. Her bell-like but spidery little voice would prick the poignant bubble and Winston had some arms to run into.  Fay was the sad serious artiste, Antigone. She had to suffer the indignation of a recitation from Ibsen with her silly mother prompting from behind a screen while an errant spotlight increasingly plunged her into embarrassing holes of darkness. Her ballroom acts too were often sabotaged by the ineptness’s of her partners. She was the Margaret Dumont of the family. Bill Garner was a dry, droll, sad, serious failure on legs. His attempts to control the chaos always failed.  He was the announcer of the company. His triumph of ridiculous rhetoric came when it was discovered that slack Winston had failed to sell the programmes before the show. So Adelaide bossed us into the action of getting out amongst the crowd and flogging the same. Bill would gravely intone, ‘And now the next item on the programme will be The Programme’.


His was the mind reading act and he was saddled with me, Winston, as his shabby scrawny assistant. The act itself came out of a book on magic and illusion written in the early part of this century which Garner had in his exhaustive collection. It involved us ‘transmitting’ mental images of objects across the cosmic space without the aid of anything except our true telepathic skills. What it really involved was the systematic memorisation of over 200 objects that one might expect to turn up in a theatre. These were all tabulated and endowed with a word cue to give the receiver, Sandringham, the precise object. We had to learn this stuff in less than ten weeks. Bill had a brilliant idea of using the time to retrieve the hidden message by exterpolating the clouds and mists of time rising and slowly clearing the foggy image to reveal the object in the front of his mind. Once a sock was thrown from the audience. I had to clap the foul thing to my mind’s eye and transmit the clue. Bill went into a spiel about the mists being particularly strong that night. We had to resort to spelling in phrase form to transmit unusual items. One night I was able to transmit a paper plate of salami, cheese, tomatoes and Sao biscuits. It took about 5 minutes but we did it.


I was a horse in Evelyn’s wheel chair act. I was a dancer in one version of Fay’s ballroom act. I had to come out and save Fitzroy’s ventriloquist act after he fell into a drunken torpor. The main set pieces were a closing tap routine to ‘I Got Rhythm’ after which Granny was knocked out or fell off a bank of seats; Romeril’s very funny pastiche of The Sentimental Bloke and a ballet which turned into a rumble- we did as well as we could to really dance. We wore blue tights and flowing tops and Bob took us through rigorous training in the art of spotting and leaping and turning out into all sorts of positions. He reminded us that we had to dance as well as we could for our characters to look hilarious. Of course the ‘vaudevillians’ did all they could to subvert the ‘artistes’. One night Max tore his foot open just before the ballet and I’ll never forget the sight of the stage awash with bloody footprints.


Granny would explode at us as the ballet turned into a gymnastic free for all and contritely we would regroup and play the Lynch Family Bells, donated temporarily by the Grainger Museum. Sadly they did not survive theft by the drug addicts in the Collective or fire in the basement. A poster in the foyer of His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth always makes me feel guilty when I see it.  The Hills was a smash. I wrote most of the original songs and am particularly proud of ‘When Ya Gotta Go Ya Gotta Go’ which I tapped out in five minutes at the Pram piano one lunchtime. Mal Dobbin provided the sad musical twist for the ending of this song which was the finale.


There were four versions of the show and tours around Victoria, to Adelaide and Sydney.  In Adelaide we followed another vaudeville pastiche into the same space which was disastrous for us. Critical comparisons are odious. But houses had picked up steadily through word of mouth and by Saturday we were turning people away.  Then Max did something you should never do in the shower-  he dropped the soap. His back seized up and he had to be taken to hospital. I will never forget the sight of Max sobbing as they took him away. He knew that that cancellation was a disaster from which the box office could not recover.


Sydney was another mad experience. We performed the show at the Bondi Pavilion, a magnificent twenties edifice right on Bondi Beach, but then a dreadful white elephant. No one went there, ever. But we didn’t know that. For most of the six week season we played to very poor houses. I think the show never sat anywhere as well as it did there. We used the Autumn weather to begin the show right on the beach. Fay would come in with flippers on straight from the ocean. She would do her opening number in one flipper that she could not remove. I’d be screaming hysterically for Gran who I was convinced had died in the surf. We interpolated a lot of Sydney atmos including the appearance of a rubber shark in the ballet at the end.


The intervals of the The Hills were always part of the show. No going back to the dressing room for tea and a smoke. The feuds had to be kept alive. And I had popcorn to make. Every night just before interval I’d put the gas on under my always scrubbed, stainless pan (yes we did all our own prop setting and repairs etc) and Windy would serve hot popcorn which he’d administer through knitted brows of fury in between throat tearing screaming fits with Antigone. The tiny audiences genuinely had walked into a madhouse. But in the last week or so we were discovered by some loyal fans and the Sydney season closed with excellent word of mouth. We did one more run of The Hills at the Pram. And there was a rumour of a revival of the show for the Melbourne Festival in 2001. I got excited about it for one brief shining moment but maybe the memories are best.


Talking of scrubbing, that was all very well on paper. Part of our responsibilities as collective members was to ensure the place was clean and tidy for the throngs of bewildered and often alienated audiences to enjoy.  So there was a cleaning roster. You had to scrub and polish the loos and kitchen and sweep and dust the stairs and shake the fetid rubber seating every time it was your turn. What I discovered was that I was doing the work for countless other slobs whose concept of cleanliness was medieval. I knew the phrase, ‘a lick and a promise’ from my scrupulously clean grandmother. Most cleaners did just that. So much for collective ideals. Invariably they rise and fall on the back of good intentions. Oh, and how do you explain to an audience member the holes drilled in the teaspoons when they were helping themselves to sugar for their repulsive coffee, brewed from pantyhose-like bags in those two foul smelling urns? Drugs.


So often you’d come in a find a sound system gone. Ripped off and sold for whatever was going up what arm. But then we were reminded constantly that drug users had rights and that their choice was to be respected, understood and then ultimately condoned. How deep and lost were Shuv’us’ ice blue eyes? He’s another I actually found very sexy as of course did Helen Garner.


The Tower was the bastion of sex, drugs, partner swapping and the place where we knew the ripest plotting went on. I think I was jealous of the Tower people. What a social experiment. Who was screwing whom? Who was in torment? Who was on with more that one at a time? What happened when the gig was up? You’d see people sobbing with angst or talking in doorways. I went home to a family home, shared household or wherever. The Tower people just went up. There was a lovely rooftop patio that I really loved and someone had tried to start a garden but it was really a dusty, sad affair. The kitchen was a disgrace.


While intrigue was rife in the Tower it was also fuelled in the Courthouse where Timlin  held court. Lots of political talk, Pram and State and Federal so obviously the music- theatre poof was often at sea. As I said earlier I was often a peripheral force at the Pram. The work itself was when I came alive.


It started to go bad for me after the Hills. The last show of which I was very proud was the first version of Back to Bourke Street with Claire, Evelyn, Elizabeth Drake and me. We took delight in finding old Aussie songs and stringing them together in a little parlour evening in the Back Theatre. We raided op shops, piano stools and libraries to come up with what was finally a celebration of the mediocre. It never really worked anywhere else. Fools Shoe Hotel was a mess, notable to me mostly for the unwelcome sexual attentions of that horrible Jonothan Hardy. A sad, tacky little show. And the awful Ship’s Whistle. It’s interesting that the gradual importation of talent to fill roles either in shows or in the collective itself indicated that the original impulse for the APG’s existence had run out. I left in 1978 for a trip overseas and never went back.


I was appearing in a show in Melbourne in 1987 when Monica Maughan asked me if I’d like to see what was on the old Pram site. We’d had a meal in the restaurant on the corner of Faraday and Drummond opposite what had been The Love In and she walked me down towards the Pram. She told me to look across the street as we walked ‘cos that side had changed little, if at all, in the years since the place had collapsed. We reached the Carlton Cop Shop and she said, ‘OK, turn around.’. I faced a dreary, brick veneer trades entrance to a mall, so devoid of any character, of any vibrancy or interest. But as I stared up a ghostly picture came across my eyes and there she was, the old`Pram, the mad writing, the tattered posters, the horse’s head. And then she faded away. Like us all.


P.S  I have the old brass lock from the front door. It was abandoned at the bottom of the front stairs the day the lock was changed. It is covered in ugly grey matt paint on one side, but on the other is an exquisite filigree of brass, shiny and as new as it once was when first fitted. I love that lock.

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