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

In the beginning I wouldn’t have considered it as a career.

 

Max Gillies

 

I got into architecture at Melbourne Uni but as I didn’t get a commonwealth scholarship so I couldn’t do it. Instead I enrolled in an art teacher’s training course but luckily a teacher rescued me and said  ‘don’t do that, that won’t get you anywhere. Do an arts course’. So I did, at Monash, then I ended up at the Secondary Teachers’ College. I’d been involved in student theatre since the early 60’s- doing such productions as School for Scandal at the Union Theatre, Melbourne and ‘The Doll’, with Kerry Dwyer playing Pearl and myself playing Barney, at the Secondary Teachers College in ‘61. That was directed by Ron Danielson who then started the Drama Department there, but before that we were running a communications skills course and  every teacher trainee had to do it.

It was the year after I went there that they established the first drama course, ‘66-‘67 and within two years the course had exploded and become the most popular course - students included Evelyn  Krape, George Spartels, Tony Taylor, Paul Hampton, Maggie Cameron -

And new staff came: Claire Dobbin, Lindy Davies, Peter Green, Paul Stevenson, Kristin Green. Woofy bloody people! So we started having these extraordinary meetings and Ron would chair them, and it was there that I got my training for ‘Meetings’!

 

In the late 60’s a number of things happened.

There had been other moves to establish a theatre company after Emerald Hill (Wal Cherry) and in the late 60’s John and Lois Ellis, coming out of the Rusden Campus  created the Melbourne Youth Theatre which was the first independent young people’s theatre since the early 60’s. A serious rival to the MTC. The MTC was pure English rep theatre. Unadventurous. The times were shifting. Then Betty Burstall came back from New York with this great idea - something was going to happen! La Mama started in the last few years of my time at the College. I remember it was at the same time that we opened up the Open Stage, our own theatre in Bouverie St. It was so busy that I didn’t go to everything at la Mama.. I was directing Arden plays, Sgt. Musgrave’s Dance et al with Su Dance designing sets for me so while la Mama was getting going I was involved with these students. I knew of Tribe and I’d seen their work.

 

Politically, and concurrently with these theatrical developments, there was this wave of revolution all round the world; Paris, London, and the anti-Vietnam demos and by ‘68 we had student revolution. All the students started dropping out. All my best students started dropping out! So I drop out too. I get mixed up with the APG and I think ‘what am I doing teaching?’

So in 1970 I gave up teaching.

 

Once I joined the APG I didn’t have time to do anything else. I made a choice to spend all my time at the Pram Factory. This seemed to be what all those six years before had been heading for.  When I came in they had just received a small grant for six months to create a show which became ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ .

In the first days and weeks we had to dismantle this forest of rough-hewn wooden divisions in the main theatre. It had been a storehouse. We had working bees, peeling this stuff off it and this bunch of people were the Marvellous Melbourne workshop group.

We did a proper production. Graeme and I co-direct. Whatever that meant. It was a local cult hit.  The idea.  Helen Garner was the recorder in Marvellous Melbourne. She transcribed a lot and was an active participant, we got our parents to talk about their childhood. Romeril came up with the idea that we go back to 50 years before to rediscover our history, and there emerged parallels with Vietnam. A lot of that text work had evolved before I came into it.

 

The APG was really got going by Blundell, being a magpie around the place by bringing the most unlikely people together. Blundell brought the Hannans into the Pram for the Compulsory Century.

 

An eternal challenge was how do you get something on, dealing with the practical problems of direction and content yet remaining mindful of the need to retain the individual’s integrity? Everybody can’t be standing on their creative dignity every moment.  The directors had no power. I went along with the prevailing ideology that the director was suspect.

Two regrets I’ve got. We didn’t face the question of the director, who does make some discoveries about the work and about our own contribution.  There were a lot who were no good and one or two who were inspirational directors. To have an artistic director of the whole group contravened the ideology of our structure. A practice so prevailing outside, it has to be addressing some production need but we said it shouldn’t exist. The performer had the numbers. It was an actors theatre.

The other thing we didn’t acknowledge were the writers -we were very suspicious of the writer, we grudgingly admitted we needed text, words, but rarely did we accept them.

 Writers did direct their own work. For example I think Jack directed some of his work- The Overcoat..

 

I found the Collective meetings and the organisational structure quite heady and I enjoyed the game and how it was done. I could always see how someone was manoeuvring that but trying to open it up In a way I’d spent the previous six years practicing for this.

 

Evelyn used to have trouble with Jack over some of his material, she found it a bit offensive and Evelyn took it on to talk to him when we were having trouble with this scene in the APG revue. It was people living in high rise flats and we thought it was condescending, we thought people don’t talk like that. Jack had said he’d been a doctor and worked with these people and Ev, in the middle of this argument went and rang the bugger up and they had this row over the phone, she’s screaming at him and sometime after that we go on a camp, a weekend in Warburton and I remember Jack and Evelyn sleeping together! I was gobsmacked by that.

 

No body would ever have given you artistic direction.

Whatever the art or the craft, how you developed it was up to you. We believed everyone should be able to be an actor.

There were different offshoots and by the middle there were definite strands, we were never very good at cross-fertilisation. There was Stasis, there was Lindzee with Nightshift, there was Popular theatre, pantomime, circus! All these different things creating a total picture that ran for ten years without a core, without a Guru. I would have acknowledged perhaps at the time that that was its weakness, but it was a uniquely Australian thing!

 

We didn’t have the guru. It wasn’t like the Living Theatre nor like the English theatre with their Joan Littlewood’s etc- all of those gurus had feet of clay and I don’t think there is a way of expressing the truth uniquely in the theatre. Certainly there are elements that are important like the communal activity, whatever passes between us, the ideas in the air, the shape. For all that, I think craft- whatever that is- is fascinating and there are performers that respond to Lee Strasbourg’s  methods as a school of acting but personally I think it sucks. I think it’s gone into the American culture and young people do a version of whatever ‘method acting’ is.  There is a set of craft skills that you can appreciate and I would have liked to have had more workshops. Rowena Balos did a few. It was a combination of need. If we needed something in a production we’d get someone in- or someone had a bee in their bonnet they’d want to do it, like Joe Bolza’s mime workshops. I would have liked there to have been more structure around how we did things, how the institution ran, how we accommodated each other.

 

I ponder now as to how we could have had more structure.  The most obvious and singular structure was the Meeting and there were two major forces within that. First was the Collective Meeting- to turn up once a month to show we were a group and the second was the Programming Committee and that’s where the power was, that’s where what we did was worked out. If we’d just had programming meetings and then had other activities that you could join in, do self -run courses, productions, projects etc it would have been different.

I used to argue with Jono that I didn’t like this Collective thing, this is a Maoist kind of thing, I said, what we are is a theatre Co-op. We are people with some mutual interests and some antagonistic interests. The one thing we share is we have an available space -that came clear to me after Marvellous Melbourne when I thought, here’s a building- we’ve got to learn how to run it, keep it going and we’ve got to be able to work and administer ourselves.

 

People were prepared to live together but not share their income. But sharing your income was liberating! For many years I was in an economic union, along with the Hannans and others.

 

I remember being absent at the end of the Collective when the big decisions were made that we’d hand on the baton to the Ensemble. I thought this was a crazy way to do it. You couldn’t artificially create what we had done. It was Bill’s initiative and I liked the logic of it but suddenly we were embracing all these methods from the ‘out there industry’ that we’d always rejected, we were auditioning people from all over the place. The building was sold the year after. The ensemble was set up and then it failed. The building had always been under threat, I remember when we did the Sonia Knee and Thigh Show Peter Corrigan was coming in with development drawings, the building was already under threat, even then.

 

I had the best ‘undirected’ training. I can argue now with Lindy Davies and Rob Meldrum regarding this, but going back to my memory of the Teachers’ College I know how I learnt by doing. I know how you learnt from others whilst you’re doing, you picked up skills from the people you were working with.

 

When I left the Pram I was bereft, for a long time. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done in the years since without that experience, but there’s never been the same feeling.

When you’re hired to do a job, that’s what it is. I hate the fact that they call themselves companies. They’re not companies, they’re production houses and you’ve got to work with people and if you’re lucky you get some creative rapport and then you never work with them again. If there’s any ideology about theatre after all these years it’s the ensemble. A lot of my stuff since those days has been solo stuff but that’s not the essence. It’s like a band.  What’s important is that everybody be somehow equally empowered as a participant. You don’t get this when you’re a hired gun. One irony is everybody went off and did their own careers. The Circus was one major thing but its not like the American group theatre of the 30’s, there’s no major body of dramatic literature that came out of it, there’s no film record or tv record but interestingly there are individuals- that’s what’s interesting if you get a complete list, such folk as Greig Pickhaver who was part of the Pram Factory, Laurel Frank-

 

One person who was maligned and felt maligned was David Williamson. I remember David’s involvement in The Sonia Knee and Thigh Show. Of all the people, the rhetoricians and the wordsmiths -there was Romeril who was the champion of the group, proselytiser and the propagandist of the thing, firing missives from whoop whoop; Romeril’d sit in a workshop and there would be a decision we’d do something, he would go away and write it up and send it back, and it would have no relation whatever to what the group had said, there’d be rheems of it and we’d tear it up and so he’d go away  and start again. I love Romeril and it was heady stuff that he would give you.

David was so conscientious about it, he actually took the job of being the dramaturge for the group process very seriously. The ‘freeway sketch’ was always lovely to play, it had real characters, a beginning, a middle and end and he had conscientiously done what the group required of him. No other writer was ever able to do it. That’s not something David will be remembered for. Ironically of all the people, he felt most offside. Because he was regarded as writing plays for the bourgeoisie. We were stupid. Our audience was the same audience.

 

I hate the ‘down time’ now. There was never any down time at the Pram. You were always engaged in something. I remember operating the lights for a couple of shows, The Mother, for example. I thought this was a crazy way to do the Mother. I think Lindzee should have bitten the bullet, and made a decision that someone was going to have to play the Mother, there was a committee playing the Mother! It seemed to me to be a real pragmatic compromise on Lindzee’s part- he wanted to be the guru, Lindzee lived it, did it, and he had people around him who were devoted to him.

I’m a conservative. And I thought trucking the audience around was the imposition of a director’s idea on the text which has nothing to do with it. This is a good idea, to have people move around the theatre, but not for this play. In The Architect and the Emperor. Lindzee was bringing the threads together of Hawkes, from this hippy guru world, the naked Hawkes/adonis, Hawkes with his neurotic, citified, demonstrative acting and me! A different kind of theatre altogether.  I always used to have arguments with Lindzee thinking he’d imposed and idea on a text. I was always aware of the gulf between the differences of approach to theatre, from Lindzee through to Stasis. I could always appreciate the product coming out but I could never participate in it.

 

Despite claims otherwise, there was a lot of social inhibition. We hadn’t liberated ourselves.  Our inability to acknowledge the audience after we’d done a show was typical for me of that real problem. We didn’t know how to welcome people into our theatre or acknowledge them for coming. We were so arrogant on our behalf, we saw it as being humble, we didn’t really know how to say ‘thankyou’.

 

In the beginning I wouldn’t have considered it as a career.

It was a rich life:

 

Biography

Max Gillies continues to practice his art, is married with two children.

 




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