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

An audience remembers

Kerry Eccles

Turning the corner from Faraday Street into Drummond Street, Carlton in 1972 - 75, one stood in the brisk sweep of the winds of change.  The sounds of Australian theatre "Woman in a Dressingown" ... "Oh, oh, Antonio, left me alonio ... " warbled in the dulcet, British accented tones of Googie Withers, following the stentorian tones of John McCallum, delivering Coward's lovely line - "Don't quibble, Sybil ..." again, clipped, British upper class accent.

 

Over the frayed asphalt, up the grimy stairs, into the cavernous space of the Pram Factory.  Dusty, cobwebbed and roughly white-washed.

 

No proscenium, trestled seating.  Worse - no fourth wall.  The audience was to be scarily close to the actors.  This was a worry. The word was about of the Australian Performing Group collective.  A hot bed of political radicals, dope smokers, feminists, intellectuals, high profile university students and derelict artistic types.

 

By jingo, it may have been one of them selling the tickets, and sweeping the floors, and re-arranging the strange and menacingly obscure piles of props. There are three of us, crouched uneasily.  God.  Where is the rest of the audience?  Where will we look?

 

The lights dim, and it starts. "Marvellous Melbourne."  We rifle through the photo-copied program.  Writers - Jack Hibberd and John Romeril.  Not only can they write, they can hear, and see and think.  And most crucially, give voice to the mad, sensitive, solitary, quasi literate, extravagant, passionate, funny national character.  For the first time in theatre we heard our own accents, dreams, fantasies and horrors played out in our own language.  "Marvellous Melbourne." Then back to see "Betty Can Jump”, a piece emerging from the increasingly prominent group of women exploring women's issues, and consciousness raising, working to shape and extend primary, active roles for women in contemporary culture. These and such plays as "The Floating World" introduced the performers - Bruce Spence, Jane Clifton, Robert Meldrum, Carol Porter, Tim Robertson, Peter Cummins, Lindzee Smith, whose work has been seminal to the development of contemporary Australian theatre.

 

As the work produced extended both theatrically and intellectually, attendance at the Pram Factory became addictive, and audiences grew.

 

Two things were clear, in the late 70's.  The A.P.G. collective included a range of people whose work, gifts and commitment to their art, were to sustain much of Melbourne theatre for decades.

 

Secondly, their future audiences needed to be educated, to learn that theatre is more than dry-cleaned situation comedies and imported musicals.  Students needed cajoling, training and a willingness to be "magicked."  "The Hills Family Show" entranced my large group of migrant teenagers.  It was attended by boys and their families, who understood not a word of it, but warmed to the rambunctiousness and established the diminutive Evelyn Krape as Granny Hills, firmly in their minds as a great star. Many of those teenagers keenly followed Ms. Krape's career through the seventies and eighties, and are joyous in reporting a sighting of Max Gillies, Sue Ingleton, Jane Clifton, Clare Dobbin, Bruce Spence, Roz de Winter, and noting Peter Corrigan's design work.

 

Pram Factory audiences re-learned what makes theatre important.  The work strove to connect with audience.  Performance had an immediacy - at best, was visceral - with Peter Cummin's as Monk O'Neill, Sue Ingleton as a bereaved  mother in Caryll Churchill's "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire," Max Gillies as Scanlon, failed academic.  All provided audiences with the sharp realisation that they were witnesses to something extraordinary - that in that cramped space we saw work that gave the audience a voice.  Sometimes critical, funny, angry, intelligent, thoughtful, loud and clear, and still resonating, thirty years later.

 

Biography

Kerry Eccles was a long term supporter of the APG and as senior english mistress at St Joseph’s North Melb, Geoghan College and later, Eltham College she did drag hundreds of students through the portals of the Pram. She now muses over the abysmal state of theatre, with much gnashing of teeth.



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