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

Lorna and Bill Hannan

 

BEFORE THE APG

 

Melbourne University circa 1950 had students who were attracted to the stage. They joined drama clubs, took part in revues, read plays and eventually some of them got in behind the newly formed Union Theatre Company, later to become the Melbourne Theatre Company. When Wal Cherry took to producing for the Union Theatre Company with a whistle to help control the hundreds of extras who would be part of the performance, enthusiasm was high.

 

Later Wal had a team of actors who were training as a group. They included the memorable young George Whaley. They trained in the use of the imagination and in being physically dextrous. To that end, some of them took up fencing. After putting on shows in halls round town, like St Peter’s Eastern Hill, they found a home. There they opened the Emerald Hill Theatre with a play by Bill Hannan "Not with yours truly". It was likened to Brendan Behan, probably because it included song and dance. According to the Cherry dream, "Not with yours truly" was the first step and Emerald Hill would pioneer a new style of Australian acting.

 

To survive, the new theatre had to put on other than Australian plays. Moliere and Brecht would attract a school audience and put bread on the table of the actors even if it didn’t put butter on the bread. Most people worked for very little and some worked for nothing. But eventually, Wal Cherry went off to Adelaide to be a professor of drama and there was a solemn gathering of friends of Emerald Hill Theatre in the dining room at 22 Shiel Street North Melbourne, where we lived. The object of the discussion was to work out whether Emerald Hill could be kept going. The answer was no. The theatre closed.

 

Some time later, Betty Burstall came back from New York with an idea about an experimental theatre. A place running at low cost where there would be plenty of opportunity for scripts to be rehearsed and read to audiences, or where scripts could be worked up for a bit of a season. Betty came to talk the idea over at another small gathering in the dining room at No 22 Shiel Street and La Mama was conceived. Betty commented that everyone who thought of opening a restaurant thought of people having a good time but not about how to get them to pay. Would it be the same with her La Mama? The various fairy godmothers and godfathers who enthused over the idea were confident that it would work somehow.

 

So La Mama was born. The space was soon colonised by a new generation of actors and writers emerging from Melbourne University. Names that would be remembered – David Kendall, Jack Hibberd, Graeme Blundell, Kerry Dwyer. David Williamson, Bruce Spence. La Mama could not hold the vigour of their ideas for long. The entrepreneurial John Timlin emerged from somewhere. It was said that he made his living from a weight toll machine. Whatever it was, he was generous then and is generous still, with time and enthusiasm if not with cash up to the level needed. Cash was always in short supply but that shouldn’t stand in the way of good things happening.

 

Once Timlin became linked to the enterprises of the group, "Marvellous Melbourne" went on upstairs in an old pram factory in Carlton. The dark stairway and plank seating were in a different tradition from Emerald Hill where various people like Robin Boyd had given the money to donate a seat with a little plaque on the back. It was poor theatre but it was lively and a new in- group was willing to put in effort and talent in even if they didn’t have money.

 

THE PRAM FACTORY

 

The old pram factory with the sign Paramount on the tower was cleaned and scrubbed. Its name stayed. "The Feet of Daniel Mannix" by Melbourne playwright Barry Oakley was advertised and put on in the space. For Melbourne there was a bit of a novelty because there was no stage. Instead there was the space that the actors occupied with seats surrounding it. "The Feet of Daniel Mannix" starred the immensely tall Bruce Spence as the beloved cleric and Max Gillies in a sort of green Superboy outfit as the oleaginous Bob Santamaria. A map of Australia with red arrows marking out the land and ocean highways that would be followed by the Communist Hordes lives in the memory of survivors from those early audiences. So does the underground machine that linked Raheen, home of Catholic Archbishop, Daniel Mannix, to every known plot and plotter in Melbourne.

 

In the eyes of some of Melbourne (we would all have hoped it would have been more) the Pram Factory was born. Even though it is no longer there, some still see it as they look over towards Drummond Street or walk in and out of the supermarket that marks the spot.

 

Leonardo Radish alias Len Radic, somehow turned from student editor of Farrago into drama critic for The Age newspaper, became the long term bete noir and friend of the playwrights and actors. New scripts were produced by a team of writers who hardly stayed together for long enough to be called a team at all. David Williamson was suspected of using tape recorders at parties and meetings in order to get livelier dialogue and action than he could dream up. Jack Hibberd sometimes laughed at his own jokes even before they were uttered but at least he kept them coming and insisted that writers had a place in the whole show- a view that some of the actors contested. Barry Oakley emerged from time to time from a house in Richmond said to be full of children and eschewed ideas of collective writing, production, performance and living but he still wrote scripts, then as now in pen on paper. No typewriters, computers or word processors to get in his way then or now. John Romeril looking cadaverous but burning with ideas was capable of produced square yards of script overnight. When he spoke, some bristled; others listened. Bill Hannan wrote an early piece but was later willing to be a pen for the actors and produced structure and script out of their improvisations. Tim Robertson came over much later from South Australia and wrote some pretty wild stuff that some enjoyed and others felt was anarchic. So much for the house writers, but as far as the action is concerned, they are in the wings and some got a walk on part at best.

 

A small group, centred on Graeme Blundell and Kerry Dwyer, kept the place going for a significant period. They got grants for shows. They had more ideas than they could use in the time available. Graeme was a consistently strong actor and Kerry could be compelling.

They invited me and Bill Hannan to do some theatre for schools. Out of this came "The Compulsory Century" a piece to celebrate a hundred years of compulsory schooling in Victoria and "Hacket gets ahead", a piece for school audiences with room for participation.

 

In another development, more radical in its message, some women got together to do a women’s show. The heat of International Women’s Year was not yet on Melbourne but there were many women with fire in their belly and a burning need to say and show what women were and what they could do. "Betty can jump". If we were able to see a performance today or read the script, would it be as charged with change and message as we like to think it was? It is hard to say but for many, there was the time before "Betty can jump" and the time after. The Women’s Theatre Group later broke free and perhaps the message was not as theatrical as it could have been but it was a Big Event. Women walked proudly, shrugging off their "oppression". The word "chairman" disappeared for ever and we all became persons.

 

Dates are not my strong suit but another group wanted to colonise the Pram Factory. "The Great Stumble Forward" said to be Maoist, seen to be a street theatre group, hoping to earn their place as agitprop street theatre players. They came in bright colours. Some stayed. Some left. Their colourful political rhetoric meant a lot to some but was as easily donned as a new scarf by others for whom it was only a plaything. The group was getting bigger and its management was no longer an easy matter of agreement amongst a few. In the spirit of the times, all concerned became members of The Collective.

 

Let us move forward to the archetypal time of the Collective. The Collective included everyone who was involved with the place and its organisation. It met on Monday nights because on Monday the theatre was dark. People cooked for a brethren of twenty to thirty and in a mixture of agenda, speech, performance and tantrum, the group as a whole tried to solve questions of style, programming, budget and future direction. We all sat in the seats on or around the set of the current show.

 

Everyone was supposed to be treated equally in or out of meetings. If you weren’t in a show you took your place on the roster to provide tea and coffee to theatre goers. You served and washed up. You took your place on a roster for front-of-house. You ushered and tried to deal with vexatious members of the audience.

 

We ate the food we prepared for each other. I remember Greig Pickhaver’s apple pie made in big flat oven dishes but when I close my eyes and try to picture it, I see apple and rhubarb pie. Who can remember?

 

There was persistent smoke as various people lit up. There were bottles of beer and wine. There was some fulmination and a lot of enthusiasm. Budgets, reviews and applications for funding all got close attention, some closer than the scripts of the works we put into the space.

 

It was the era of collectives. Most members lived in shared households of some sort. Some belonged to income sharing groups. There were food collectives with shared shopping arrangements, any number of support groups and now a work collective. The rhetoric was strong and probably allowed some to get away with lip service to the ideals they publicly espoused.

 

For each production, there was a different configuration of the space, a different arrangement of the seating and a bump-in as well as a bump-out. Bump-outs were usually well attended. The different designs meant that there had to be a different Safety Plan for evacuating the theatre in case of fire or other disaster. I am disaster-driven and drew up many such plans.

 

‘The Compulsory Century’.  For this show, the first act was in the main space. The second act was in the Back Theatre and turned into an audience discussion of the education issues of the time, as they saw them. For the last act, the audience went upstairs again into the theatre and at the end, threw streamers into the air in celebration.

 

‘Hacket Gets Ahead’. A show attended by school kids where audience members were asked to take part in a handicap event where the poorer and more distanced you were from English, the more likely you were to come last in the race. Students donned public school blazers and stood an inch or two from the finishing line in order to be certain of their Right to Win

 

‘The Hills Family Show’. A winner with actors and a winner with audiences. After many hours of workshopping and improvisation, actors got together a show whose script was then written under their direction by Bill Hannan. The show starred most of the cast in scenes mostly of their own devising but as a supposed family of old troupers, they had some members of the audience remembering when they used to tour the countryside. The opening scene where they had arrived late and were bowing with their backs to the audience was memorable.

 

Some kids shows, the scripted pieces by Bill/Lorna Hannan were: "Fat among the Stars" starring Tony Taylor with a mob of puppets who staged a space race. "Turn his bones to silver and gold" encouraged a young audience to take care of the earth. A dance opera about brooms and mops finding a useful place in a house where there were few machines made no special point but was fun. Some of the performances were at The Pram, others in a small children’s theatre in the Jigsaw factory in Richmond. The kids of the Collective, the Pram kids, or those of a certain age, worked with Tony Taylor and a few other actors to put on, "Or I’ll hold my breath until I turn blue". Some of the cast went on to be performers.

 

STREET AND C OMMUNITY THEATRE

The Collective or various of its members performed at a good number of rallies. The old City Square was the scene of demonstrations in favour of East Timor. Principally there was The Timor Show whose five person high pyramid was meant to be a traffic stopper in the days before the cars were either banned from Swanston Street or allowed back in again. Versions of The Timor Show went to factories.

 

Different groups at different times worked with the Anti Cancer Council to produce an anti smoking movie "Dags with Fags", a school show about a foolish character "Supersmoke" and a number of vignettes about why women did or did not go to doctors’ when they  suspected they had breast cancer. This was social conscience stuff with actors turning their abilities to amuse into a tool for research and a way of capturing audience imagination as a way of changing ideas and attitudes.

 

WHICH THEATRE?

The thing that attracted me and Bill to the APG in the first place was that it did Australian theatre.  Every play was the world premiere of something by an Australian writer or developed by the group. It turned out, we found when we joined the group, that these two kinds of theatre were sometimes at odds. Performers wanted to develop pieces and writers wanted what they had written performed.  Publicly, the Pram was usually referred to as a writers’ theatre, which served to raise the hackles of the performers who reckoned they were still just the cattle for writers and directors and managers, as they were in conventional theatres.

 

Basically, we didn’t care which of these two kinds won any particular day. What we cared about was that it be Australian.  The greatest energy seemed to come from group developed shows, but the more enduring theatre came from writers.  The only profitable (in the ideological sense) settlement was to have both.

 

In reality there were half a dozen different kinds of theatre at the Pram.  There were plays written by playwrights; performances developed by performances and writers; performer-only developments; street theatre for occasions; non-Australian scripts; and hosted performances of things others wanted to put on, usually in the back theatre. Most of these had their own rationales and their own backers. We didn’t see the point of putting on the non-Australian stuff. It blurred the focus and ultimately could deprive the Pram of the contribution it would be remembered for.

 

 WHAT IS STRONG IN THE MEMORY

The constant companionship of people at the time with ideas

 

The passion with which they were held and defended, terrible differences that meant some people behaved as if they would never understand others – rather like a family which in a way it was.

 

A source of lifelong friendships.

 

Some of the Pram kids still know each other and perform together (Hannan, Garner musicians) The aged see each other behind greyed hair at parties or at each others’ shows (Bill Garner’s, Sue Ingleton’s, Evelyn Krape and Jack arranging a commemorative season of ‘Stretch of the Imagination’ in a space in Carlton.) Ian McKenzie and Paul Hampton live near the Hannans and have regular neighbour contact. McKenzie lit a show for Shelagh Hannan’s Xylouris Ensemble. Paul Hampton directed Kyklos a music and dance performance put together by Mairead Hannan. John Romeril has been able to provide scripts for several of these people. Ponch took Lorna’s election winning photo portrait and gets to click the shutter on increasing numbers of Hannan grandchildren

 

What happened at The Pram changed us, the people there, changed theatre for a while. It gave us an experience of theatre not to be had anywhere else in Melbourne then and not repeated in any theatre since then.



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