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

Kelvin Gedye

 

I went to Swinburne in the early 70’s to do the film and television course. The most exciting thing that happened in the whole year and the thing that got me interested in theatre was the Arts School Revue. I didn't act but I got into set design and lighting. I hadn't had any real interest in theatre, up until that age I’d never even been to the theatre at all, but I found the whole thing of putting on a show was really exciting. I dropped out of the course after year one because I didn't feel like I really had a strong desire to make films. I was so young, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I ended up editing Scragg, the college magazine.

 

Around ‘71-’72 I got a job doing photography on the Melbourne Times newspaper, and I also got involved with this group who were doing variety shows every month or so at the Ormond Hall, called the Melbourne Artists Workshop. It was a loose collective, a whole ragtag group of people, one of whom was Mick Conway. I began doing poster designs and set designs for them and I think it was around that time that I met Hellen Sky and ended up moving into her house in Clifton Hill where Graeme Isaacs and Michael Price were also living. At that time too I remember distinctly going around to a house, maybe it was where Laurel Frank lived, but it had this backyard and there were these people making all these puppets and I thought, wow, this is pretty cool, and so I went to see them do their shows and that’s how I became aware of the Pram Factory.

 

God only knows how I was surviving in those days; at times I was on the dole or I was washing dishes in some cafe and I was getting a bit of money out of the Artist's Workshop gigs, taking photographs. One wonders now how one survived, strangely there was always enough to pay the rent and live.

 

Then in ‘75 I left Melbourne for Canberra where I got all involved with video and by the time I returned my interest was focused into the technical area of theatre- of lighting and set design. It seemed to be an area where not many people existed who had any aptitude for the practical, technical things. I saw an opening to get involved at the Pram. Arthur Hynes was really the only other technical person there; he was a fairly morose kind of character and he was there doing wiring infrastructure for the lighting and so I helped him out and then when Arthur left, there was the opening I was waiting for. I became resident technician somewhere in ‘75 and thus became part of the Collective.

 

It was around that time that the Womens’ Theatre Group was starting. I had a little bit of involvement in it but being a bloke it was always a fairly touchy area, it was kind of - go in and help and slip out the back door-, I remember being pretty uncomfortable about it, the vibe one picked up on! But despite some pretty heavy separatist lesbian stuff, I was totally sympathetic to the whole thing, being, myself raised by feminists. It was also around that time that I met Ponch Hawkes. Generally at the Pram I think I probably got on better with the women. I think a lot of the men were older than me and were from university and were much more sophisticated. Ponch and I had a great relationship for nearly ten years. I didn't have any sense of that relationship being judged in anyway by the Collective as politically incorrect or anything.

 

A men's group started and I went to one meeting but I never felt very comfortable with the whole idea.  In lots of ways I never felt I was really part of the Collective. I was rather an outsider and I think a lot of people felt very much exactly the same way and yet at the same time I felt part of the whole scheme of things and liked being in this amazing group of people.

 

Things like lighting and technical stuff were second nature to me. It was not something that frightened me, besides the technology at the theatre was not exactly difficult to comprehend. The artistic/design side I had to learn as I went along- I actually started to read a few books about lighting and began fancying myself as a lighting designer! My first full production was The Hills Family Show.  I then did the lighting and the sound for the Vic. Arts Country Hills Tour. Laurel Frank designed it and I worked with her on it. At the same time I was also interested in video and I spent a lot of time trying to video what was happening at the Pram. I got a camera from the Carlton Resource Centre which later became Open Channel. All those tapes have ended up at the Performing Arts Museum. Some years ago I attempted to try to get something happening with them, to get them transferred to a more recent medium but it’s difficult-  they deteriorate and fall apart so easily.

 

Before very long I had a full time job at the Pram and was on a full time salary which was probably $75 a week. I seemed to have enough to eat and pay the rent. Whilst living in Clifton Hill I got hepatitis, it went through that whole house, it wasn't from needles, it was the infectious one that you get from not washing your hands. I eventually moved out and started living in smaller houses, then I moved over to Prahran and lived in a house with Mick Conway.

 

I didn’t really know where I was heading. I was more interested in lighting, photography, and poster design, art and design. I don't think the role of lighting designer was given much credence at the Pram. It was usually just up to the director to do it or it was a kind of communal process where everyone would have an opinion, suggesting where what few lights we had should be! It was quite usual for the lighting operator to end up being the lighting designer.

 

When John Koning arrived the two of us decided to set up the workshop downstairs in the Basement and get a whole kit of tools together and create the infrastructure and provide technical support to all the shows- so the Theatre Maintenance department was born. We needed somewhere to store the sets and the seating elements and all that sort of stuff and so the Carlton Flea Market, which for years had occupied the ground floor space, got closed down in ‘76 and the Pram Maintenance department went into occupation. It was the most bizarre thing. We became almost institutionalised, like mainstream theatre, even though at the time I had no idea what that was like. Compared to the Melbourne Theatre Company which was a really big, wealthy theatre who would throw out all manner of materials which would outrage us (on occasions someone would hear that a set was being trashed and we would go and get it from their dumpsters) we were very conservation minded.

 

As time went on I got involved with the Soapbox Circus. I already knew Mick and Jim Conway from Melbourne Artist's Workshop days, I was a great fan of theirs.  They were the musical element of Soapbox and they needed a sound mixer.

So I left maintenance to join the circus and John Koning, who was more of a carpenter than a technician kept the theatre maintenance going probably with the help of people like Bayne Laurie and later, John Moore.  Soapbox, like everything else at the Pram was sporadic and spasmodic; in a sense it was just another project but the involvement became heavier, the commitment bigger -I was young, I was busy, I was like a pig in shit. I was 23, one of the youngest people there. Soapbox Circus transformed into Circus Oz and I went along on the ride and because of my relationship with Ponch, who was doing the lighting, it was easy for me to do the sound. I also performed and played bass guitar at times, rode the unicycle and worked in the human pyramid. I enjoyed the performing side but I didn't really feel it was my comfort zone but I enjoyed it and it was good to understand what it was like for performers to be up there doing things. I remember performing in New Guinea and my pants splitting open whilst I was doing a balance and all the kids laughing their heads off, crazy things like that; getting injured in Canberra, a back injury with Alan Clark. There was a trick where, as I was riding the bicycle, he would jump on my shoulders as I went past and that’s when I hurt my back. I didn't wear a brace, but I had back problems for about a year after.  Once Circus Oz really got rolling I was pretty well gone from the Pram. My involvement with the circus thing went on for nine years.

 

I think my favourite show was The Hills Family Show because it was humourous and accessible. I also felt there was an undercurrent of feeling of resistance at the Pram  to it, because it was seen as a terribly commercial show and it wasn't really about anything political, a cop out. I was a country boy, I hadn't gone to university and I wasn't politically aware, I didn't really understand a lot of the Collective politics even though I sympathised with it. Even though I found it fairly strange I could see the good in Romeril’s stuff and in Nightshift and Stasis. I could see where they were coming from and I always felt they were very entertaining but the thing about The Hills Family was its extra-ordinary accessibility and of course its box office success proved that.

 

I was the youngest person in the Collective and not terribly politically aware or self confident, so I didn't have much to say and it sure would have taken a lot of courage to say anything at Collective Meetings despite the genuine feeling about it being like a big family. I remember a lot of those meetings when it was all very tense and went on for ever and I kept thinking what was the point of all this? All these arguments and amazing speeches and people going off at each other. I suppose I was just witnessing the power play and the shifting directions of the group.

 

I never was really into the pub thing, I wasn't a drinker at all, I used to go to Tamani's for lunch and stuff like that and go out and see local bands. I mixed for Jane's band, Stiletto on occasions and because I knew Red Symons, from the time he was involved in the theatre, he offered me the job of doing the lights for Skyhooks  but in the end some mate of Shirley's got the job so I missed out. That could have been my big break - it was one of those moments in one's life, if I had got the job ... who knows!

 

The Circus Oz collective was very much like the APG Collective, there were certainly people who had more power than others. We had collective meetings at which I attempted to have a voice, but ultimately what was on my mind and probably why I have ended up in big commercial theatre was that I believed we were there to entertain. The show was about a whole lot of people in a space being entertained, and that entertainment doesn't mean they were laughing all the time, it could bring a tear to the eye, or ideas that we agreed with being espoused, political messages that were uplifting, whatever-! was entertainment as well. I didn't see a division between politics or comedy. I always felt that if we did shows with the Circus that were too slanted towards pushing politics or some obscure, way-out idea someone had dreamt up, it didn't work well theatrically and that was a downer for me. One of the best shows we did in my time, was the show we took to the United States for the Olympics. I distinctly remember this meeting we had, I think it was at Ponch's house in Carlton and there were about four or five of us, myself, Tim, Jono and maybe Ponch, just a handful of people. We had been offered the job in the States, but we didn't have a company, so we had to create a company and a show in about three months and what we did was bring in some of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus. There were three or four of them, I can't remember all their names, and we basically created a show that was the best of what we had done up to that time. All the best bits. No experimental stuff and it was incredibly successful - we were on the verge then- if we had played our cards right we could have been in the big International League.

I went to see Cirque du Soleil, Jono was with us and he absolutely hated it and I could see why he hated it, I know why those traditionalists hated it, but I could also see its merits. There were good things and bad things, the same as with Circus Oz. Even though Circus Oz was obviously connected by the threads of the people who were from the APG it was like a child which went off and married another group who were in another circus stream and they went off and did something else. No matter, to me it was always a continuation of the APG. It grew out of the idea of politics in theatre.

 

Some great things I remember, those times in the Tower- like Bill Garner’s thirtieth birthday where he asked all those over thirty to cross the line. Half the people crossed the line. There were so many special moments of communal activity, such a mixture, a crazy bunch of people who were all part of this extraordinary thing. I loved the bump-outs, the big change overs. It would be the last night of the show and there would be thirty or forty people and we would all have had to come in, everyone would be there, and we would tear the whole set apart and move the big seating modules and go up and down stairs and rearrange it all, there would be the new and the old show. It was like a jigsaw puzzle, it was huge and it was incredibly chaotic and yet amongst all the dust and the noise there was an amazing communal spirit that was really remarkable.

 

In many ways those big seating elements and the way they could be rearranged was actually brilliant and very practical. For every show the theatre was really transformed into a new space. There was a whole art about how to fit those seating modules together. I remember at one stage making cardboard models of the modules so that we could figure out how we could rearrange them on paper and make the whole thing a bit easier. I think that was a bit of the magic somehow of shows in that space. The audience would arrive and they wouldn't know where to go. It gave such an element of freedom to the productions. There were times when we chose to have almost all the seats somewhere else and there would be this huge open space, it was fantastic to walk around the space. You go to the Arts centre, to the Playhouse and it’s always the same space, you go to the Studio and it’s the always the same space, the sets don't change. The Playbox attempted to actually design a modern theatre, it attempted to have flexibility but it was so over-designed in a way, it was never really good for any particular thing.

 

I really enjoyed my time there, I just thought it was incredible.

It was really sad when the Pram wound up, I was around at that period but not involved much when the new ensemble came into being. I watched the whole process of trying to create a new group, the hiring of these young hopefuls who were going to be the new performing group and how disastrous it all turned out to be in many respects, it was clearly the beginning of the end at that time. Everyone was moving on, with some people becoming famous and going into commercial stuff but all the time people were getting older and having kids and wanting a real income and things like that and the whole momentum of the place was grinding down but amazingly the Circus was becoming stronger.

 

At the Pram I was into lighting design, visual design, photography, all areas which interested me and now I find myself in the audio realm which is so far removed from that. I remember back then if work with the Circus was sporadic I would pick up work at the Last Laugh, doing sound and lighting and it was around that time that I met John Scandrett, with whom I now occasionally work. He had a sound company and was there to install some new system at the Laugh. I left Circus Oz, in '87 to work on Cats with Scandrett at the Comedy Theatre. That was my first musical, it was like my first big show and it was wild. For some years then I went between Circus Oz and doing the odd musical, ‘Cats’, ‘Oliver’ and shows like that in the 80's.

I think the thing about the sound, for me as an operator, is my direct involvement with the show yet because it is a technical job nothing is focussed on me, I'm at the back of the house and I like that. Live sound, especially when you are mixing with a band, or mixing for a musical you are really right in there, your hands are actually grappling with the whole shape and size and eventually the sound of the show, the sound of any show whether it is acoustic or electronic or amplified is where a lot of the information occurs.

 

Probably the longest thing I did was Cats in Melbourne, then I went on tour for nearly a year as well, then I did Les Mis for a year then Phantom for a year. I really enjoyed working on all the big shows and by then I was right into being the sound person and I had the best modern equipment. The professionalism of the company was something that I’d appreciate because at the Pram even though we all moved in different streams with varying degrees of  competence, even though it was rough theatre, there was always an incredible  conscious attitude of professionalism and dedication.



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