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


The other day I ran into an old friend I worked with a lot during the APG days.


 ‘Jee-zuzz!’ he said, ‘I saw a doco on the APG recently. Those bastards didn’t include you and Joe. 'The Bob and Joe Shows' raised the standards of the place, man! You showed them artistic excellence!’ Yeah well, my old friend was shouting midst the bowels of backstage corridors in Melbourne Park. I buried my head in my chest and shoulders as we continued to swap a bit of bullshit.


It is embarrassing for most of us to talk about ourselves and some of us get left behind the fast talking, eloquent, famous writers who remember the APG/Pram Factory as a succession of their plays, or administrators who might discuss grants and piss-ups. The APG was many things. This is my story and my fond memories.


Upon reflection, Pram days were long discussions on society and politics, and a bit of acting theory and practice. This suited one side of me. At the time I was an armchair anarchist. I’d devoured two shelves’ worth of writers like Bakunin. I was a working class boy in a heady space receiving plaudits for my dance and choreography. I was always amazed at how a Pram show could pull itself together in the last few days of rehearsal when most of the last few weeks had been spent on polemical discourse.


Monday night Collective meetings saw intelligent people display both insight and vision and appalling, outrageous manners. Several drunken people stagger across my memory. So do a few very red sets of eyes, and wide eyes and some very small pupils, I remember Evelyn Krape and Jack Hibberd screaming at each other, Ev having a go at Jack’s lack of feminist awareness in his writings. A few minutes later, on the way back from the Men’s (collectively cleaned at the time by all except administrator Timlin), I thought I’d nick through a large storage space as a short cut back to my hard wooden seat. There were Jack and Evelyn, going for it. Hot Blood!


Delightful Australian plays kept coming in and we would delight in reading and performing them, because we could have first crack at analysing what they would throw up about the ‘aussie psyche’. It was great fun.


I was the ‘movement person’. I gave movement classes, trained and choreographed for the actors, made up ‘gags’ and routines, or ‘business’ if you like. It’s tempting to say I found Max Gillies’ routine-dyslexic, but I always enjoyed watching him get something going. I also tried to act once a year. I toured NZ as ‘Les Darcy’ and ‘Mousey’ in Jack Hibberd’s ‘Les Darcy Show’ and ‘One of Nature’s Gentlemen’. I was proud of my fights’ choreography until Paul Hampton walked into one of my left rips and broke some ribs. I acted and danced in Romeril’s ‘Dudders’ and he graciously called me Co-Director. ‘The Hills Family Show’ was probably the most fun. As I directed the return season, Adelaide and Victorian tour, I appreciated the transient nature of the theatre. My original character ‘Billy Hills’ was soon obliterated and pushed to oblivion.


I made up a series of Bob and Joe Shows with mime artist Joe Bolza, my dear friend from the 60’s, and Margaret Lasica’s ‘Modern Dance Ensemble’. This group did in dance what the APG did in theatre. Its ground breaking work was pre- APG, but it showed a lot of Melbourne audiences that Melbourne people could make up a good interesting nights entertainment, and in so doing generated a new audience.


I was one of about a dozen people at the start, but that soon became twenty or so actors, writers, administrators, techs etc. At one stage (was it thirty-three?) when it seemed to be getting unmanageable we had a three day conference where everybody had their say about  why they were in the APG? What could they offer? What did they want to get out of it? and so on. I told of how, after a two person show I did at La Mama with NIDA acting coach Doug Anders, I was asked by six people (Blundell, Hutchison, Dwyer etc) to join the APG as it moved from the tram tracks outside the Melbourne Town Hall, performing in and for mass rallies, to its final home in the Pram Factory in Carlton. At this big deal meeting I spoke of how I constantly thought of killing myself by slashing my wrists. At the time I was well-known (and liked) Australia wide, not only through the B&J shows, but also through my choreography for dance groups and even an award winning film company that I had with Joe Bolza, Max Gillies and Ivan Gaal. I couldn’t shop for our collective household in Lygon Street on Saturday mornings because I was waylaid, spoken to, asked for my autograph by - well, sufficient people to stop me from completing the shopping. All in, the Collective thought of me as happy, assured fulfilled and so, at that meeting, my honesty shocked my colleagues. Looking back, I think it may have had something to do with my poor diet!


Soon after the big-deal meeting we started a men’s group. We men had heard of the many women’s cell groups around Carlton and thought we’d better check if our consciousness could be raised. Mind you, we had heard the women even got down to the nitty gritty-ie the size of their men’s penises in their attempts at both honesty and secrecy. I think Wilfred Last and Robert Meldrum spoke at the first meeting. I was asked to speak at the second and told of expulsion from school, drunkenness, fighting (I boxed for a solid five years), including hundreds of street fights, getting girls pregnant, stealing and doing enough- just enough study to complete a Master of Science and Dip.Ed. The men’s group never met the third time. I heard later two men were physically sick!


Being a non-parent, my actions in and for the burgeoning APG were the closest I’ll come to nursing a baby. When the Pram’s Soapbox Circus met Adelaide’s Circus Australia they needed a non-biased person in the middle. Sue Broadway came to a poorly attended show by the Daedal Dance Company, of which I was the artistic director and after that meeting I directed the first Circus Oz Show for Moomba and the Adelaide Festival in 1978. I later performed trapeze with them. I learnt the performance side of many of the acts, and was later a very useful trainer-creator of community and professional circus.


The proudest moment of my life was reading Geoff Milne’s Nation Review review of the first Bob and Joe Show at the Pram Factory.


“Their language of expression is precise and limpid; their social comment is vigorous and lively... they have the audacity to use space, light and sound not as mere agents of accommodation, illumination and evocation. These elements are allowed to parade unashamedly as lively forces and to inflict the audience with personalities of their own... This is a show whose disarmingly professional expertise must set standards at the Pram Factory”


Thanks to Johnny Timlin in particular and the Collective for commissioning the show.


The men were always interesting, but I found the women inspiring. They worked so long and diligently for their ideals and a better world. The men had a lot of ideas, the women had it hard. The sheilas were open about their problems and often encouraged the men to be likewise. Laurel Frank was my number one inspirational figure. She got on with the job and she’s still getting on with it.


One Saturday afternoon after lunch on the back porch of the upstairs Pram (the Tower patio) non-specific genital disease and its rapid spread through Carlton bounced into the conversation. I remember trying to catch people’s eyes looking at other people’s eyes. I’m glad I wasn’t part of that Pram scene. Well maybe I was just once (which reminds me... thanks awfully for doing all this Sue!)


I was one of the Pram ‘originals’ still there at the end, when we voted in the new APG. I actually made a short list of fifteen from which twelve, I think were chosen. I thought of those long discussions, those long meetings. I opted out. I did help with ‘Kate Kelly’s Roadshow’ and some new APG works, meeting some wonderful people.


The APG was fabulous, bighearted, talented, hard working, wonderful, fun people. If I don’t forget that I was one of them, other people won’t.



Bob Thorneycroft lives in Lake Tyers teaching yoga and doing remarkable things. Veteran Iron Man.

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