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

Jai (Jude) McHenry

In 1976 I was in second year of a bachelor of education in drama at Rusden State College in Victoria. Traditionally in second year the head of school, John Ellis, directed the major performance project. But for reasons I don’t remember exactly, it was announced that there would be a guest director that particular year – some guy called Lindzee Smith. Turned out he was from the Australian Performing Group, which was based at the Pram Factory in Carlton.

Big news. Exciting news, we were told.

Never heard of him.

So Lindzee turned up on day one and presented his proposal. He was asking us whether we were interested in the idea of performing a work he had the rights for, a play FANSHEN written by David Hare. Normally he should have been directing it at the Pram but he had talked the collective into letting him do it with us students, providing we opened it at the Pram Factory before the traditional season at the college theatre.

Was he kidding?

Lindzee was big on talking. He wanted to know who we were. He asked questions, lots of questions, hard questions. If we asked questions he’d say, “you work it out”. He was scary. He was funny. He was dark. He was inspiring. He was difficult. He was challenging. He was provocative. He was alarming. He was also, in short, totally fucking amazing.

After a few readings he asked us if we had preferences in roles. He considered our requests though I seem to remember it was cast pretty quickly and there were few disappointments. I was to play a bloke and he said I should cut off my hair. “Are you a fuckin actor or what mate?”  He said fuck a lot. We spent a couple of weeks learning our lines while skipping with an enormous rope in the rehearsal room. No meaning, no interpretation allowed. “Just learn the bloody lines so we can figure out where we’re going with the text”.

Didn’t he know already?

He took us away to Anglesea to rehearse for a while. We spent a lot of time telling stories about ourselves. He made observations, cast remarks. A few love affairs were launched. We meditated. We did Tai Chi on the beach. We sang. He had us trying to overtone, harmonically, Mongolian style. We played John Lennon’s Rock and Roll album and danced. We didn’t sleep much. Lindzee held court. We sat at his feet. Literally. I was hypnotised. I was 19 years old and my life was changing forever.

Once we had learned our lines we did speed runs of the text on a daily basis. He kept pushing us “faster, go faster”. We went faster. So fast, the text lost its sense, seemed to lose it’s meaning. Performance was impossible. No chance for acting, no possibility of loading the text up with “fucking acting school bullshit”. And then suddenly in that raw and stripped back state the sense of the piece cut through. Then we flew.

So we opened the show at the Pram. It was a big success. I was totally gob-smacked by the audience reaction. I played the bad guy and I had rehearsed my role without the faintest idea it was comic. My first lines brought the house down, wild raucous laughter. I was devastated. But after the show came the feedback. Apparently I was hilarious. It was a good thing. Smith was happy. I was relieved.

The next night I went out thinking I’d slay ‘em. I’d top the previous night’s performance. They’d love it. They’d love me.

They didn’t. I died! A couple of smirks and snorts but no belly laughs like I’d had the night before. Smith would not be happy. I was showing off. Totally not on.

I was sweating it after the show in the dressing room. What was he going to say? Smith was merciless in after show note sessions. He’d tear into anyone who fucked up, anyone who gave their ego a run. And I had certainly, royally, fucked up.

He ignored me. That was even worse. He didn’t give me one note. Not a word. Excruciating. I had to know. So I asked. He just fixed me for a second or two (I think so anyway – he was always wearing sunglasses) and then turning on his heel, muttered over his shoulder “Well ya won’t fuckin do that again will ya mate?”

The following year Lindzee directed us again, this time in Peter Handke’s KASPAR, also at the Pram. Peter Corrigan designed it. It was fantastic. I remember one day Lindzee and Corrigan were locked in a conspiratorial, whispered exchange in the rehearsal room at Rusden for what seemed like an eternity. Some of us wandered off to get a coffee and were told they were discussing how to tell us they wanted us to perform naked. Yeeeeuuuwwwww!

I was relieved to discover it was only the Kaspars who were being asked to nude up. I was a Prompter and thus exempt. Eventually after an hour or so of arguing the agreed compromise was that the Kaspars would perform naked from the waist up. I offered that as a show of solidarity perhaps the Prompters (four of us) should perform naked from the waist down – which would have been pretty funny as we were standing at music stands on elevated rostra at the back of the performance space. Wouldn’t those white legs and genitals look great peeping out from under the music stands? Lindzee didn’t go for it. Didn’t think he would – I was just trying to appear cool and unfazed by the nudity thing.

In the meantime of course we were spending more and more time hanging around the Pram. There was a group of artists who Lindzee seemed closer to than others. Nightshift. I can remember him talking about working with Nightshift and thinking that must have been because they worked at night, after he’d finished rehearsing with us. I was a kid. A baby.

I knew they were using drugs. I was fascinated. They were all beautiful, wild, brave, scary people. I wanted to be like them. But I was terrified of needles.

I was in a constant state of awe. I’m sure I walked around with my mouth hanging open.

The Pram Factory…………

I so much wanted to be there and couldn’t quite believe I was there. I felt naïve, unworthy. I died my hair flaming red like many of the other women. And I cut it. I hacked at it myself. I spent my student allowance on R.M. Williams and black leather. I hung in Tamani’s, drank coffee and ate mountains of pasta and white bread. I smoked camel plains and ringed my eyes with black kajal. I loped. I sneered. I faked it. 

Somehow I always felt like I was slip-streaming.

I had a fling with Larry Meltzer, a photographer and actor at the Pram. He was a good bit older than me. But then, everyone was. When he left to go travelling I moved out of home and into his room in Rathdowne Street with Ponch Hawkes, Ruth Maddison, Alan Robertson and Greg Pickhaver.

I didn’t last long. My domestic negligence provoked a house meeting (actually there were a few of them) and I was shown the door. I didn’t want to, but I knew I had to go.

I remember Helen Garner was seeing Greg P at the time. She had just finished writing MONKEY GRIP. She came around a lot. She was always carrying a notebook, a diary. I remember sneaking a look at the contents of one she’d left lying on the kitchen table - Helen had the most beautiful, elegant handwriting. In homage I started to keep a diary too and I filled dozens of those little black and red books. But I also remember burning them all a few years later in Hobart, in a huge fire in a forty-four gallon drum in the backyard, when Shuv’us and I thought the cops were going to come for us.

I had been infatuated with Shuv’us from the first time I saw him. He was one of the Nightshift push. He would come to shows, to parties and, to my mind anyway, he always looked on the edge of things. He always looked as though he was waiting for something or someone. Of course he was. Distracted. He was beautiful. Helen immortalised him in Monkey Grip of course and her descriptions of him do him much more justice than any I could venture. I saw every show he did with Lindzee. At that time he didn’t know I was alive.

Kerry Dwyer cast me in TRAITORS by Stephen Sewell. I was in love with Sue Ingleton. I was in love with Kerry. Goddesses. I was in love with the whole cast, with the work, with the place. I remember rehearsing one scene with Sue. We’d tried getting it to work but had hit a block. I felt it was me, my fault. My character Ekaterina was infatuated with Sue’s character Anna. Too close to home for me.

We were lying on the floor reading, she was teaching me to read. I had my head in her lap. I thought I’d pass out. Floating in a sea of patchouli, sweat and cigarette smoke. I was sure I must have been burning red. I couldn’t do what they wanted. I was overcome. Finally Sue suggested we start things more at a distance, physically. They loaded me up with books. Hard-covers, really heavy. We played the scene. Then Kerry told me to turn and face the audience, and then Sue too. A filmic close-up. We continued the scene that way. A book dropped, punctuation. Electricity. Nailed it. And I was so relieved not to have to look at Sue anymore. In her gaze I felt naked. 

I was immensely proud of TRAITORS and humbled to have been a part of it. Kerry’s direction was razor sharp. We had an amazing cast and hugely creative technical team. I can remember sitting in the dressing room in the first week reading the revues with everyone. Thrilled. We’d done a good thing. I was an actor.

Around the same time I started to flirt with heroin.

I was cast with Shuv’us in a Sam Shepard play BACK BOG BEAST BAIT, which we performed in the back theatre. We clicked, Shuvs and I. Somehow I knew this was dangerous. I knew that dope-wise this was the big league. I don’t know that I was actually ready to play but I knew it was a way to be around him. I leapt. No turning back.

We got up a season of plays by Phil Motherwell and by Barry Dickins in the front theatre. Shuv’us and I were at this time (well at least I was) falling in love. And I had by then well and truly overcome my fear of sharp pointy things.

We took the Motherwell/Dickins season GIVE THE SHADOW A RUN to Adelaide. Phil was shooting a movie STIR not far away with Gary Waddell and they came to see the show one evening when they were in town.

As part of the season Dickins was performing one of his pieces called THE ROTTEN TEETH SHOW, which relied heavily on his dentures for laughs. He was pissed before the show and got into a spat with Motherwell in the carpark. Punches were thrown. Barry went down. He was hysterical, “Me teef! Me teef! What am I supposed to fuckin’ do now? He’s broken me fuckin’ teef!” We dragged Phil and Barry apart. The audience was arriving and some were standing around laughing, thinking it was part of the show.

Luckily Barry found some blue-tac. The show went on.

Between the booze and the drugs I have no idea how we held it together.

Things were really starting to sour back at the Pram. I seem to remember more and more cracks opening up. Fatigue. Things had always been tetchy between certain cliques but it was becoming increasingly nasty. And funny. I remember one day coming in to find Shuv’us and Phil in a rage because John Koenig had drilled holes in all the teaspoons to deter shooting up on the premises. Oh really! But not just the junkies were pissed off. Lots of people were miffed. The spoons were unusable. And what about interval? What were the audience supposed to make of those holes?

Mark Minchinton and I were asked to audition for the Ensemble, which was to inherit the fruits and take the wheel of the APG and the Pram Factory. I got in. I wanted it so badly but finally sitting around the table with this group of people I figured I’d be spending a large part of my life with, for who knew how long – well, I knew I couldn’t do it. I felt too much a part of the old guard. This new thing felt sanitised, diluted, soft. And I couldn’t shake this feeling we’d been slipped a poisoned chalice.

I resigned the next day, our first day together as a group. There was much anger, bitterness. There were insinuations, accusations. I was a traitor. I was ungrateful. I was letting everyone down and undermining the success of the Ensemble. I walked away. I left the building feeling unbearably sad.

So the Pram wasn’t home anymore. Lindzee and Carol had gone to New York. The Circus was taking off and juggling wasn’t my thing and I was scared of going upside down anyway. I defected. I fled Melbourne with Shuv’us. We drove to Sydney. I was glad to get away.

For the next couple of years we travelled between Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart producing our own work under Nightshift’s auspices. We toured up and down the east coast in my little green beetle loaded up with scrappy bits of set, an old slide projector and a dodgy brothers sound system. Most of our worldly belongings were shoved into the backseat and boot.

Eventually I was forced to sell it, the car – a dope debt. My mother was mortified.

Finally we wound up living in Hobart where we built a new theatre space in the unfinished rehearsal rooms in the back of the Theatre Royal. We worked like dogs for nothing, did it all on the smell of an oily rag. I think there was a small grant, peanuts though. We launched the place with a season of short works by Dario Fo and Franca Rama, and Heathcote Williams. We worked with local artists and actors, Mary McMenamin, Greg Methé, Ilonka Craig, Les Winspear. It was a howling success. Extraordinary really, considering we were stoned the whole time. Well Shuv’us and I that is….

But both of us were getting sick of the dope. We had been in trouble with the law - hence the melodramatic diary incineration - and despite the success in our work we were feeling things weren’t going anywhere. And, in strange synchronicity, during our time in Hobart the Pram Factory was finally sold. We would have grieved if we hadn’t been so out of it.

In time our relationship fell apart and Shuv’us and I went our separate ways. Soon after, independently, we both cleaned up our acts. Lucky ones I guess.

I left Rusden in 1978 and have worked consistently for nearly thirty years in theatre.

And I feel that the work I did in that space in Drummond Street with those extraordinary, insane, courageous and creative people has been artistically and politically at the core of everything I have done since. I owe them much.

I grew up there.
I cut my teeth there.
There I found my strength.
My purpose.
My passion.

A word comes to mind - Thankyou.

To everyone.

But I think most of all to Lindzee.
He led me there.
For me at least he kick started it all.

 

Biography

Jai McHenry now lives in France

This website was developed by Suzanne Ingleton, with the support of the 
Australia Council for the Arts(research) and The Myer Foundation(website).

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