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

Lorraine Milne

1969

I was a 3rd year music student, living in Women's College (now University College) and had just been elected chairperson of the Ormond/Women's Drama Group (members included John Duigan and Charles Kemp).

 

We were part of that annual round of college productions of tried-and-true conservative theatrical fare - a cheeky little "comedy of manners" always went down well! Then I met Graeme Blundell who was fired up with the idea of directing Ubu (Alfred Jarry) with a new translation by Geoffrey Milne and music by Gerald Lester and Janet Laurie (both brilliant musicians). I believe it changed the face of "College theatre" forever. At the end of 1969 I met Jack Hibberd who had arrived back in town (from Europe) in time for the first production of Dimboola at La Mama. Extraordinary stuff!

 

Summer of 1969-1970

Geoffrey Milne and I went to Perth and staged some of the first street theatre seen in that city. I knocked out my first tunes for the theatre and, along with Vic Marsh and members of the UDS, we ended up performing on the wharves at Fremantle… all of this resonating from Melbourne and La Mama.

 

1970

Ormond/Woman's College, Melbourne University, commissioned a play from Jack Hibberd (Klag) which was directed by Graeme Blundell with my first full theatre score for the ‘Epic Smoking Band’. I also played piano and smoked my way through the show. Magic! During that year the core group of La Mama actors/directors/writers were transported into the space at the Pram Factory and the APG was secured.

 

Marvellous Melbourne kicked the thing off with Gerald & Janet as composers. They came up with a fantastic song ("Song of the Brothel Keeper - Madame Suspendue") and then pissed off OS. When the Health Dept. closed the show down, it gave the group a great opportunity to reshape the show and I copped the guernsey to write a whole bundle of new songs and put a band together. We reopened early 1971 - it was a huge success and the music collected a couple of great reviews.

 

The music, by Lorraine Milne, is now the best thing about the show. The splendid anthem 'This is Melbourne's Moment of Glory', has exactly the drum beat of patriotic optimism of 'Land of Hope and Glory'. There is a fine aggressive work song: 'We lift and heave the whole bloody day'… These and others, like the music-hall rhythm of the parliamentarians' house of retreat, are strong clever pastiches of the period which stay in the memory...."

            (Katharine Brisbane -- The Australian)

 

By this time I had completed my degree and was working at Music Branch (Education Department), teaching music in inner suburban Primary schools as well as writing, recording and publishing new songs for kids. I was learning about multi-track recording, composing and performing music for kids and theatre, and being exposed to some of the great wine makers of this country. Geoffrey Milne and I, living in a rambling old joint at 200 Brunswick Road, Brunswick, were heavily into collecting, cellaring and drinking wine as well as cooking dinner for groups of mates. We shared this love of food/wine with Jack & Jocelyn Hibberd. The APG did consume large amounts of my time, but I definitely had other things happening outside.

 

In reflecting on those heady days, I have a great sense of the dichotomy of the place in that the feeling that we achieved something is completely balanced with memories of the crap. Despite the fact that I was there from the start, and wrote and performed the majority of the music for those first four years until I was thrown out of the Collective in 1974, I was never really part of the main "political" life or power struggles (thank christ!).

 

For instance, in 1971 when we were about to open The Feet of Daniel Mannix, the women were really angry because they had been consigned to the Back Theatre (Betty Can Jump time). Some of the shit that flew came from the criticism that "Mannix" was an all-male affair. Strange really, as I happened to be the composer and keyboardist on that production. Obviously I didn't count! (Or was it musicians who didn't count? Were we just "useful things"?) Actually this didn't (and still doesn't) bother me a great deal as I always saw myself as a musician first. In both the theatre and the recording studio it was my knowledge/understanding of music that mattered, not the fact that I happened to be female or espouse left-wing politics or any other ideal/ism. I'm certainly not suggesting that the rhetoric was not important - it was ESSENTIAL to the very nature of the group - but there were so many agendas operating it was as if we were constructing a 20-voice fugue! Very messy! I was more interested in the theatre we were creating and what I was contributing. I didn't even try to pretend to understand "The Manifesto". Let's face it - I, along with the majority of the members, was middle class. There was no way I could really relate to the class struggle. Also, I was not into dope or any of the related forms of botany and thus definitely not "cool".

 

Of course there were many funny and magical and brilliant moments - theatrical and otherwise. One of them I recall came during the 1972 APG Revue #1 - definitely NOT one of our finer moments and fraught with the actor v writer struggle. This anecdote involves Max Gillies who was delivering a monologue about being a flame thrower in Vietnam when some pissed tosser rose from out of the audience and stormed...or rather, staggered onto the space engaging Max in a dialogue about the finer points of flame throwing. Max managed to weave this character into the action so beautifully, so cleverly, so cunningly, that the audience thought it was part of the action. Brilliant! I'm glad I was there at the piano that night (despite a review by James McCaughey which used the music as the example of just how bad the show was!).

 

Then there was the rehearsal for He Can Swagger Sitting Down (1973). Max once again. Playing George Wallace with Jude Kuring playing a character called Miss Pussy (!) Costumes by Laurel Frank (I think). The actors were wearing whatever bits of costume were available at the time. The bottom half of Miss Pussy's costume was finished so Jude slipped into it. The two actors were standing at either end of the space facing away from each other. The action required that they turn to face each other accompanied by Max's line: "Why, Miss Pussy!" Max spun around to be confronted with Jude wearing only the bottom half of her costume. "Why! Miss Pussy!" never sounded so committed again. And while Laurel kept saying that the costume was not finished, Jude kept insisting that she loved it just as it was. In the office one night after a show had come down, Jude needed one of those going overseas-type injections and Jack, as resident doctor, obliged. But when he asked for a bare arm, Jude stripped down to the waist. Jack's retort was typically Hibberdian!

Perhaps the hardest night I've ever spent in a theatre was during the filming of Dimboola in 1973. Every time there was any kind of technical problem (and there seemed to be a million of 'em) someone would shout to the band (Lionel Driftwood and the Piledrivers) to "play something". By the time we'd knocked out "Darktown Strutter's Ball" about 47 thousand times and staggered out of the Pram at about 2 am, I had bleeding fingers - literally!  It was not a pleasant experience. However, when John Timlin sent a notice (1997?) re the availability of video copies, I took him up on the offer and bought it. It's brilliant! Appalling sound, but the performances from everyone are extraordinary. That’s what it was all about. I treasure my copy and I treasure that I had the privilege of working with such talent.

 

At an artistic level I consider that my contribution to the APG was as successful and as shitful as anybody else's, whatever their role. And I'd like to place on record my deep appreciation to two of the musicians who were always there and who gave their time so willingly - Dick Dufty on banjo and Chris ("Skins") Finch on drums. Thank you both!

 

But the thing that really saddens me most was my demise. Late 1974 and my marriage was falling apart. I was not a happy little vegemite and didn't have the energy or mind to attend collective meetings and, strange as it may seem, missed three consecutive meetings. The notification that I had been thrown out of the collective came in the form of the Minutes from which I quote (including the list of those present):

 

COLLECTIVE MINUTES OF MEETING - 16th September 1974

 

PRESENT:             Fay Mokotow, Lindzee Smith, Claire Dobbin, Laurel Frank, Arthur Hynes, Eileen Chapman, Wayne Stuart, Jenny Walsh, Bruce Spence, Wilf Last, Evelyn Krape, (left 10. 50), Suzy Potter, Lorna Hannan, Bill Hannan, Robert Meldrum, Carol Porter(left 9.10 returned 9. 25), Barry Oakley, Bill Garner, Jane Clifton, Greig Pickhaver, Jon Hawkes, Michele Johnson, Peter Cummins, Roz de Winter, Phil Molan, Bob Thorneycroft (came late left 9.15), Peter Dyke, Bert Deling, Alan Robertson, Graeme Issacs, Michael Price, Tony Taylor, Paul Hampton, Sigrid Von Borke, Neil Giles, Robin Laurie, Peter Corrigan, Jan Friedl (came late)

Visitors: Cocoo Baba, Martin Armiger

Apologies: Max Gillies, Sue Ingleton, Kerry Dwyer, Lindy Davies, Chris Wilkinson, Ursula Long, Tim Robertson, Jack Hibberd, John Timlin

In the Chair: Bill Hannan

Taking Minutes: Lorna Hannan

These Minutes went on to report on the usual array of business (Constitution, Minutes, etc.), then the following :

MEMBERSHIP

Rod Moore wants to suspend his membership because he is working outside the group.

Lindy Davies has received no letter and her membership could not be discussed             at this meeting.

Lorraine and Geoff Milne's memberships have lapsed.

Etc...

THAT WAS IT! After giving four years of my time and talent to the group, there was not even a "Thanks for your contribution" or "Are you OK?" or even "Get Fucked!" It showed me the truly "caring attitude" of people who purported to be champions of the underdog, the working class. What a joke!! And it's even more "poignant" when you consider the following motion put up at the Collective meeting of 20th March, 1973.

 

MOTION: After 9 months non-involvement with the APG members would automatically become non-members and would have to re-apply.   M. Allan/ B. Spence... CARRIED

 

All I can say is... Thanks "comrades"! I never went near the Pram again.

 

Biography

Productions (composing/performing/recording/arranging)

Marvellous Melbourne (1971) Lyrics: Jack Hibberd and John Romeril

The Feet of Daniel Mannix (1971) Lyrics: Barry Oakley, David Williamson, John Romeril

APG Revue #1 - The Sonia Knee and Thigh Show (1972) Lyrics: Jack Hibberd, David Williamson, John Romeril, Claire Dobbin, Wilfred Last

Dimboola (1973)Lyrics: Jack Hibberd

 

Waltzing Matilda - A National Pantomime (1973)Lyrics: John Romeril and Tim Robertson

 

He Can Swagger Sitting Down (1973)Lyrics: John Romeril

Hacket Gets Ahead - The Compulsory Century (1974)Lyrics: Bill & Lorna Hannon

The Les Darcy Show (1974) Lyrics: Jack Hibberd

Nellie Melba (1976) Lyrics: Jack Hibberd

Shows for children (Lyrics: Bill & Lorna Hannon)

1. The Last Motor Show

2. The Magnetic Martian Potato

3. Mr Popinjay and the Happy House

The Hills Family Show

On Your Marks (John Woods)

 



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