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

Memories in conversation

Martin Friedel and Jan Friedel (Fordham).

 

Jan: I haven’t yet detected whether I’ve cleared away any kind of bitterness or stuff.

I wasn’t in there thinking thoughts like that at the time. I wasn’t moralising about that. I was just thinking what a terrible waste given the enormous possibilities, but of course now it’s getting easier to see (and it’s taken a long time), to see the really good side of things. Back then we were in a completely different context. Now the Pram Factory would be a great joke. Now you’ve got to have your sponsorship and your marketing etc.

 

Martin: I don’t have any of those feelings. I just think the Pram Factory really just arose when it had to arise and disappeared when it had served its function and Australia is littered with institutions that have gone past their use by date and they become an impediment.

 

Jan: Martin and I met in a cafe.  I was a waitress. Martin was a hay carter in the Goulbourn Valley. We eventually ran Foibles Restaurant, in Carlton with Dennis Conroy. Martin came in every night smelling of hay and had his pasta every night. Long way to come for a cup of coffee

 

Martin: I had a fast motorbike

 

Jan: I had one too! I joined the Melbourne Theatre Company then and got a loan from John Sumner and paid for Foibles Theatre Restaurant. We had a big fight with Dennis. We pulled out and let him run it and gradually it ran downhill and it was burnt down probably by the landlords and we spent 5 years paying the bills. It was in our name. No insurance. Martin had to get a job. It had a lot of stuff in it. The piano and coffee machine. Dennis let all that stuff lapse. The reason why we fell out with Dennis was that he didn’t believe in insurance. He used to take the money home at night and put it under his pillow.

 

Martin: The first APG thing I saw was the season of ‘Brainrot’. I also saw ‘White with Wire Wheels’, I knew someone who was selling tickets. I still remember those shows and when the chance came to join them I thought, shit I’ll have some of this.  It was a bizarre experience. I could never go back to the lab after that. The first thing I did was to play piano and then I was asked to write some songs.

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Jan: Monthly music at la mama with the likes of Barry McKimm, Chris Hemensley, Chris Mann (Discurio). Jack Hibberd himself had very avant musical tastes, he knew more about it than me, he was always throwing these references to me in a way that was a licence for me

 

Martin: I had no idea how to become a composer and in a way no one was ever challenged in what they wanted to become -you called yourself a composer so that was what you were. Then you had to prove yourself. That was the same at la mama too. I just stumbled in there, into a laboratory where I worked. I was probably asked if I wanted to act in the next production but I ruled myself out which was probably a good thing to do, it gave me a chance without fear of failing because failing wasn’t high on the agenda and so in that sense there wasn’t that confining pressure of other things that you did and you either embarrassed yourself or you didn’t.

 

Jan: I felt frustrated by that lack of structure or guidelines. I like deadlines, a director to bounce off, to fight with and with ‘The Overcoat’ I felt I was in a morass of creativity. The director was frankly off his face most of the time and the person who had to build the set decided he wanted to be an actor and here I am building stairs and saying to myself ‘No it won’t fall over’.

Now, where I work most of the time, the actual product is the thing and I’m not saying that is right. In theatre the product is the thing, not the process. And there is a difference and both things have their favourable side. But to down tools and say, I don’t want to be part of this, just before opening night was pretty tragic. I was relieved to see that behaviour behind me. I’ve never got over the processes of the Pram Factory and I’m still accused of demarcation breaches. I pick up a table and it gets me into trouble. I never got over that sense that you have to be able to do it- all of it. But when you were committed to something (The Overcoat) I knew by opening night that that production, the whole process, had been let down and it should have been wonderful for it was quite ambitious. No one had thought about the acoustics or anything.

 

Martin:  Everything had to be committees. In a way the committees belonged to the people whose interest wasn’t so much in the theatre and when the Pram disappeared and they had no more interest in the theatre, they went back to their lives. They were able to run things though, they understood things because they understood how committees would work, how procedures would work, the formal arguments and all that sort of stuff.

I wanted to use musicians. The music was never seen as important so you’d get somebodies mate who’d played something and he’d be foisted upon you. In ‘The Overcoat’ they used professional musicians including Elizabeth Drake. In ‘Dragon Lady’s Revenge’ we had actors who just mucked around. I just felt that working in that environment to create music that was rough might be OK for that sort of theatre but it had its limitations. There were quite notable exceptions, but even so there were others which were quite abysmal. There was always a shortage of resources. We had no clout at all. The musos were paid though. Music wasn’t part of the main game and my interests were in that. With the exception of Jack Hibberd who had sophisticated tastes, and maybe one or two others, most of them didn’t know much. I was just on the periphery and the same too with some of the designers who felt that their work wasn’t part of the essential thing.

 

Jan: If we’d been able to harness the amount of energy that was expended, in other ways-but then Timlin would have had to spend more energy marketing. I wasn’t a member of the Collective -I was never asked to be Associate member. We just wanted to do plays and stuff. We did go to meetings and did roster work but I wasn’t a member  and I didn’t ask to become a member - it seemed like people spent so much time arguing.

 

Martin: The politics was so boring- who’s getting the money or who’s doing what. Timlin or Hibberd rushing in to defend some position or other, it was self-fun for them, self- interest disguised- it was a continuation from the pub. They’d be there working it out and they’d come to the meeting and put plan A or plan B into action. It was basically like a schoolyard. To win your point of view was a big victory and it didn’t matter if it was worthwhile or not- the boys and footy team mentality.

 

Jan: I felt uncool.

 

Martin: I felt excluded by this slightly aggressive form, the stuff that happened in the pub, acknowledgement by insult- I wasn’t good at it and by the time I got something smart out in reply everybody would be somewhere else. I didn’t make friendships amongst the men. The ironic thing is half of them couldn’t kick a football over a fence. I’d played football for a country team, I knew then that Jack couldn’t even lift a football up!

That culture of drink I found really hard to relate to. For a lot of the men that was the engine room. That was a weakness too because it became a sort of secret clandestine thing and if you weren’t part of it you couldn’t become part of the artistic thing. There were a whole lot of things that weren’t transparent in the end that leaked over  into what happened in rehearsal and that’s one of the things that caused its downfall. And that’s why la mama survives. But la mama’s just a space - not run by one group and the Pram was people in a space.

 

Jan: I think that the co-op thing, bouncing off one another, didn’t work as a way of getting plays together and I find that sad. It was much more satisfying when we did productions with a director.  No one directed ‘Dragon Lady’s Revenge’. I was called into question politically but I was criticising artistically and I was questioned by Max and Wilfred on my political intentions. When I left the Pram to do Restoration Comedy at the Melbourne Theatre Company I was called a traitor by Max.  I didn’t care as it was such a joy to go into a process of structure with a director, and a writer who’d been dead for 300 years! I was wrong because eventually I realised it is about finding a new audience and with the MTC the same people were coming and nothing was changing about them. I remember feeling crushed by Max and it was sad as we were very old friends.  I wanted to proceed with my singing but there was no way to do it at the Pram. It never occurred to me, to us, to create a show at the Pram.

 

Martin :I was searching for my own musical language that was the important thing for me. I could have taken a doctorate in research fellowship in the sciences. If I had taken that I’d have disappeared. La mama and the Pram was a powerful experience and if you had some talent you couldn’t retreat from that anymore and despite everything, the carping, I found that really satisfying and exciting the feeling of self


DENIS CONROY’S RIPOSTE

Greetings Suzanne,

Ah!...........those heady years of symmetry cocooned in space and very much given over to creativity and delusion and ultimately riven apart by false credo, what can one say? The good old days?  The baby-booming years where the 'pram' could not be seperated from the 'factory', nor La Mama from the nursery of nascent energies that were replete with bustling episodes of creativity, all defining the contemporary framework that was (then) Carlton were interesting for me. This however was, foremostly, a time memorable for its dramatic content.........it was all within reach................that crazy/wonderful world ! Moving on as I must to the issue that my son Max brought up with you, namely, the purported historical account of Jan Friedel's recollections of her connections to Foibles Theatre Restaurant (which is linked to the Pram Factory in the subject of this 'interview') I have to say that I take umbrage at the misrepresentations and total lack of veracity (in this interview) as far as the truth is concerned. Jan's blatant manipulation of the facts is accepted as fair-game when an opportunity to perform herself as star-quality-du jure-actress Jan, ego-du jure-Jan who does what she does to serve her self interest.  If I had the right to reply, I would correct the facts thusly: Jan and Martin Friedel never ran Foibles (Martin was a junior partner). Jan and Martin didn't fund Foibles......if Jan borrowed money from the M.T.C., it was to support a lifestyle ? I found Jan manipulatave, untrustworthy and 'pushy' and she wanted to be treasurer........I would not allow that and therefore the rest became the 'summer-of-our-discontent' .....yet reverberating al these many years ? The metaphysician Immanuel Kant said neither space nor time can be empirically perceived, and I would go along with that. Those strange times had their very own dynamic.......like every other strange time........!.......and I learnt much in the passing.........and perhaps foremostly it was the realisation that 'awareness' evolves under conditions born of critique faithful to truth (and that is 'that' which prevails ?) and whilst not needing the 'empirical' to sustain me, I do however need and value the existential line that runs through the Carlton of our memories, knowing that it must have been the work of some laugh- deity who set in motion some of the more bizarre practices of an age in which so many inhaled 'what' ?.......and exhaled what opinions ??.......to what end?......to hog the microphone and spread malice (as in this case) was the exception, I believe !    

Denis A. Conroy



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