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

Lindzee Smith

“ people would come up to me and say, ‘don’t just sit there being charismatic- do something!”

Interview/Conversation with Sue Ingleton

S The sticking point is - 'What do you want your story to be?"

L My story is simple as I am eternally grateful for the Pram Factory and the A.P.G. For me the La Mama period was more important in a way because we were swimming in the deep end, you know, really swimming in the deep end -no one knew really, and out of that the Australian writing thing grew-in the end the APG will be defined as a writer’s theatre- but also the performance style grew and behind all this also my ability to direct grew because I did get the chance to direct Chicago and White with Wire Wheels for that first Perth season and that was really our ‘coming out’ if you like. We got our first grants - and I remember applying for the first grant. I was living in George Street and everybody came down, we were sitting around the room, I think we got a thousand dollars or something, but there was a real feeling of unity in that group even though some people will tell you there was incredible bitterness, I think everybody was having a good time. I think everybody was having a good time even during the PF era; apart from the bummers, where else did you get a chance to express yourself at all, there's never been anything like it in our experience.

S I wonder what would have happened if you hadn't gone to America that first time? ... you would have been driven away anyway, you would have gone off...?

L I was always anyway a Chameleon in terms of whatever cultural style was happening, when we came back that first time we were hippies, or freaks or something, right? we were walking around with long hair and coloured jeans and ‘The Architect and the Emperor', right? whereas when all the punk stuff happened here we are in leather jackets and that was happening everywhere, there was nothing original in that, but there was certainly originality in what that did to the theatre, right? the external style reflected what was happening in the theatre, but it did give people a chance to do their thing.

The first time I came back I came back because… when your younger years seem like much longer things than they are now… I was away for two years or something in America the first time; I hadn't intended going there and… I just wanted to come back to see what was going on, I just wanted to come back.

We came back through India with Ted Heald and the PF was happening, but while I was in America the first time I did my thesis on Romeril, Hibberd and Buzo for my Masters. I did a production of 'Who', for Chrissakes in Santa Barbara, California- in the State Theatre!! One thing I always did by the way, was to take back what I learnt here to America and that explains the whole Motherwell thing in New York with the whole Daniel Keene and Rhonda Wilson fucking era. The couple of times I came back was because John Ellis, who was one of the Visionaries in this country in those days, gave me the chance to come back, he paid me, at the time I was living with you

S Did you stop at my place?

L Yes, I drove your car every day and did Kaspar and the Kroetz, each year after and the year Mao died we did ‘Fanshen’- remember the fantastic season in the Front theatre and that was when I was directing stuff with students - I was able to really do things that I liked with Kaspar. With Kaspar I was so into theatre as object and all these conceptual ideas, through Tim Burns and other people I had met I was able bring all those things together

Recently I went through this same experience in Perth with Autogeddon because I was working mainly with students there. If I have learnt anything, I do have a gift when I work with people, I am able to motivate and I am able to transfer ideas easily. Autogeddon was easy- it was as if I thought it and it happened. Even with projects these days I don't sort of manufacture projects they come to me and people come to me. Autogeddon was here at La Mama and that was one cast. The biggest thing is the LOCK OUT,' the lack of infrastructure for the avant-garde or for older people, ‘older people don't do new work,’ ‘older people don't initiate, older people have had it’, but that's not true. I was reading an article about Robert Hunter in the West Australian paper, and he said "artists never retire". What am I going to retire to? you never retire. After all this enormous energy has built up in you, you are not going to retire from that. My most recent work of any scale was a third version of Motherwell’s Dreamers of the Absolute, was instigated by David Kendall at the Adelaide Drama School…

I bumped into Kendall at Tim Robertson’s book launch and he said, ‘Are you in the country??’ Yeah. ‘What are you working on??’ Nothin’. ‘Nothing? I want you to come to Adelaide next year and do a production with my graduate students!’ Once there I realised I was working inside an institutional drama school that had no soul. I had everything at my fingertips, lighting, technical, costumes, sets - the set had no spark to it and then I introduced the spark- the target on the back wall… Back in the past the students who did Kaspar were open to anything- except taking all their clothes off! In the end they took their tops off. In Adelaide- when the terrorists died I had a bench down the back where the dead went ‘and for the rest of the play you’re there.’ So the audience would get a glimpse of them every so often- Oh they’re sitting down there? Oh right , they’re dead. Body marks were drawn on the floor where they’d been killed. With a Pram Factory cast I didn’t have to say anything but with these modern students I’d get questions like, what do I look like? Like yourself. What do I wear? What you’re wearing. I’d tell them to Research this person whose coming into your life. Go back from there. Why did he bomb the TSAR? You work it out!

When you are talking about these people you are talking about the people in the theatre who actually fulfill or carry out your ideas, if you’re an ideas person as a writer, or as a director or even as dramateur or theoretician you have got to have people, that's what theatre is about. Even now I am working on stuff that's just me, I still have the joy of working, say on Autogeddon, with an Ensemble, there have been three different Ensembles... no four, this is the Nightshift Theatre assignment in Sydney, there were three or four years there with Robert Cooney, which were very productive. People keep saying... Jono said to me ‘people keep saying... oh, Lindzee keeps doing the same old thing ...’ but Christ, the same old thing is now I do it better, and the same old thing is now I know what I am doing expertly, why are you going to jump on another thing, I mean painters paint the same old thing - I remember Robert Hunter has painted the white squares for thirty years, right?

Then there’s the LOCK OUT- Williamson being done at Playbox- and also the lock out by people who have made the jump to positions of power.

I didn't get nothing, nothing, or at the VCA- there's Richard Murphet and Lindy Davies the two people I started with at Monash, we did the Strindberg plays way back then, I couldn't even get invited down there to open me mouth, yet when I went down there one day to put up a poster for a show I was doing, Lindy was all over me like fucking shit on rats. This was when they had a bit of money. I'm not even interested in the money to tell you the truth.

I'm not interested in the money. PF gave many of us the impetus to do what we have done with our lives basically, and you have to assess that as being positive, otherwise you go insane. So I see it as a very productive, positive place, even though I know that the perception is of a darkness and fights and doom. I think there was incredible stuff emerging out of the place, from everybody.

When you talked about the Stasis thing just then I think my answer would be is that there was so much armour around people doing provocative or different work, if it wasn't just a standard play sort of thing, if people were trying to break new ground like Stasis were, or like Nightshift was, or like Circus Oz was or all the writers- there wasn't the give and take. Nightshift and Stasis never did meet - we saw each other's work but we never really were able - because of the defences… or even to talk about ideas together, about what you were doing, or about what we were doing the guts of the ideas, the intellectual sort of exchange was pretty well absent

S In the end I think we just had to protect ourselves - Stasis had to get out of the building because we couldn't work there, because we had shit poured on us morning, noon and night, so we got out of the building, found our own space and then in the end the work stood as our connection back ... that was all we could do.

L That was probably good for you, getting kicked out was probably good for you. I saw the thing at the church St Marks. I saw Peer Gynt, that was with the drums, right? I would have thought that in your minimalism there were connections with what I was doing with minimalism, but these words were never used in the PF you never talked conceptual things out loud really because they were pooh poohed pretty much. Because really the place did sort of actually return to its roots in vaudeville and the Australian play that was the sort of mainstay because we knew in the long run that was what was going to get an audience in there and that's why The Hills Family Show is the greatest commercial success that ever came out of there, because it was a welding of the roots of a great many of the people.

S Essentially in theatre though, isn't that the state of theatre when you are opening out to the public and you want public to come to your doors that's the sort of theatre people will rush to and the more difficult theatre, you will get an audience for sure but it will be smaller - that's the nature of the whole game

L Yes, that's the nature of the beast. Especially in a country like this, especially in the theatre where there is no tradition of the avant-garde. I always saw myself as part of what was called experimental theatre or avant-garde, or whatever. I always thought we were looking to do things in film later on as well.

S Here's the bizarre thing ... after we worked through the Stasis stuff, Rob and I did Back to Bourke Street, we went straight back into cabaret and vaudeville and we took all that with us!

L You as a performer were able to work in anything pretty much, not everybody was, well probably they were. I can imagine the people in Stasis like Meldrum or even Tony Taylor working in Nightshift under different circumstances

S Imagine getting Tony Taylor working in a Nightshift production - it would have been fucking amazing!

Did you ever go up to Tony Taylor and offer him a role?

L No - it was up to me, but I didn't, and that's why I regret it.

LINDZEE STARTS TO SHOW HER PHOTOS

(Autogeddon)

That's some of my latest stuff, that's why I'm showing you that and its a great Review- it got one of the ten best West Australian productions.

S If there is something you wanted to say about what you are doing now - is it what you have always been doing?

L Pretty much - I mean Autogeddon is a social play ... this is actually a more populist event. This is a poster from Nightshift in New York, that I have. Nightshift New York presents TRUE by James Purdie, that was ground breaking work too, right. Tim Burns did that poster. Here's Phil and I in White Niggers (Phil adapted Brecht’s play Jungle of Cities) It was the first amalgamation of the Phil’s group Dodge City Players and Me which became Nightshift That's me playing Mr. Shlink-from Yokohama and Phil playing Gaga There's a photo from it, I don't know who took it?

S I've got to find out about White Niggers because it doesn't appear anywhere. Where did you find these. Where's this, is it New York.

L Yes, that's New York, that's the whole thing of doing the same old thing, I do tend to do that, but I do it different each time. Oh, this is what I want to give you its very precious this.

S - when did you do this?

L Oh, that's when I came back two years ago, its La Mama, 13/7/97. That was Autogeddon at La Mama, that's from one of our films, that's from Carnage, and here, this is Red Love for example with Lulu Pinkus and Jan Cornall etc. This is the Fassbinder, but this actually had Nightshift and this about everything that was on in '77 ...

This is the production we did in a warehouse down in Fitzroy somewhere, that's Tim's piece at RMIT and there is a big interview with Tim in here, Cantrill’s Film Notes Edition on Nightshift -Nightshift Designs Season. There is some interesting stuff in here, because this is all history, that's me doing Fitzroy Yank ...Carnage- that's Tim in Detroit, that's us on the subway doing Why Cars?

S so this whole magazine is on you?

L This is Tim Burn's interview. There's a couple of things, but there's also Betsy Sussler in here too and her film. Closely Watched Trains. ... Dreamers, anyway you can have that if you want it.

++++++++++

S Yes, then the Pram fell into the trap of the MTC

L Yes, or any theatre company. Repertory- seasons and rehearsals pre-packaged…

S Because they got the grant and to justify the grant they had to produce the theatre

L Yes. The groups that inspired us like Living Theatre and stuff, they didn't have to do that. The Performing Garage never became a place where they had show after show, they worked for a year on shows then the show ran for ages. 'Squat' the Hungarian group that I worked with for two years they worked for two years on a production then run it for three. The Living Theatre would do one production and run for ten years, like Frankenstein, they would go to Italy or Brazil. The Wooster Group never toured. But that was New York and I was in Melbourne and that was the mistake I made, that's why I am where I am now, because there is no one else in the country who is like I am in the field that I am. To be constantly put in with the ex-radicals and stalwarts and veterans ....

I hate the terminology of Fringe. I am not on the fringe, I really do. I'm not a fucking fringe, it's either not serious or too serious. I see Bill Garner won the Green Room Award for that library piece he wrote, Bill Garner and Sue Gore won the Green Room Award for the best fringe production. They did a piece called something about librarians in the Melbourne Library.

The other hero of the Melbourne fringe is Daniel Keene and Ariette Taylor this Keene/Taylor project, but he's just cut off everything that Rhonda Wilson and I did for him, we launched that boy, I carted his work all over the fucking world, to Edinburgh, to New York and he doesn't talk to me - he came on with this 'tongue in cheek thing – you’re old now, you've had it' but it was real.

What is it that can only be done by that person, like a painting, what is it that when you see something that I have done, enables me to call myself an auteur/director - that's a Lindzee Smith production - this is the grandiose way of thinking of it if you are thinking of yourself as an auteur/director. Yes even if you are a good director, oh so and so, Jenny Kemp must have done that. The things that we have been working with, like light sources and working in darkness rather than light, and the whole thing of continuity of length, duration and doing things that go for a really long time, or doing things like the Kroetz stuff was, which was sharp and hard, those things are always there in whatever I do and only recently I moved out, well Dreamers was a sort of move into sound track, so those are the sort of things I have worked with as well as actor's performances, to be able to say that my work differs from everybody else's because this and this and this and the individuality of it. But it’s also work that has always been dominated by penury, even in the days in the PF. Certainly Dreamers wasn't dictated by penury neither was the production of Romeril’s Floating World or the version we did in Adelaide where we had everything we wanted, Corrigan was the designer.

I also must throw Corro in here as being a staunch, staunch person to work with, obviously not everybody can be a Corrigan but I had a very productive relationship with him and he has always been there for me in that sense and beyond the call of duty, as a person, not just as a designer, I think a lot of us found that, some of us emerged from the PF with a lifelong friendships as well, you and I for example.

A group of people you connect with and you will see them forever, so Corro helped enormously with some of the initial designs because he had been to New York too, we were taking a lot from the art world and from the innovators over there from the 70's not the 60's innovators like Jack Smith, Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman and those people,

S One of the criticisms, and this was one of Max's criticisms and he argued with you on this, he couldn't understand why you placed an idea onto a play like The Mother. The idea being an outside idea, that you moved the audience around, he could never see the value of what he interpreted as being an external idea being placed on a text and then the text forced you to-

L It wasn't an external idea for Chrissakes!

It was an idea which was wedded to the script, that's the way I've always worked. I look at the play- I looked at the text and saw immediately how the play had to be done, because of the way the words were on the page and it was the same with Brecht. The Mother is a play about working and that was the idea, it wasn't an external idea, it was an idea that grew from the centre of it like you would say your ideas for Stasis were, like peeling back the onion skin and getting into it. The idea of the audience moving was not the idea, the actors working was the idea, the fact that they worked and built the set as they went, but it also grew out of my readings and of the experiences of the people who worked with Brecht, who designed his work, it wasn't an idea I came up with from nowhere, it was a welding of ideas that I thought of.

The Mother might have been considered a failure because Brechtian expert Wal Cherry said it was, but I thought it was great, I thought the use of the space and everything was great- I remember reading, later in New York, one of those Australian theatre magazines; Wal Cherry was saying how little Brecht was done in Australia, he said, I saw one last year that was neither a success politically or artistically, ... that was mine.

S Tell me about all the women playing The Mother and that struggle with the casting

L That's an idea that's integral to the play, it’s called The Mother it’s not called a character's name, it’s called The Mother, so I thought what better idea to rotate the woman playing the mother, because this is a plight of all mothers, it’s not a plight of one mother. I got into a lot of trouble putting Sigrid in the play, but I thought that was what the group was about, I thought we weren't about specialisation and all that, why should she be the bloody secretary, why shouldn't she have a moment of glory on the stage and she had it and she enjoyed it and I thought she did a fucking great job, I thought she had it, if you put Rose, Carol, Sigrid and Robin together you do get very interesting collective of women and I just thought those ideas were not imposed but grew from my reading and understanding of the play. Another example was having AC/DC in the Front and Back theatre, same idea; they are two really different plays, DC kicks off out of AC and I thought a great idea we'll put AC in the front, behind and then back through the tunnel into DC and DC was this labyrinthine set with fucking posters on the wall, the bar, whereas the pinball alley was another set all together, so we didn't have to change the set. Bob Daly did the set and Bob Weis did the video stuff, the big huge wall of tv monitors, we had that huge twelve bank of videos, I mean we were even making fucking inroads into that at that time .

S I can remember at one of the collective meetings saying we have to fucking lock the back theatre because there are all those videos, someone's going to steal them!

L In Floating World there was the idea to put the barbed wire around the set - Romeril went berserk- why make them so obvious, but then it worked beautifully, it was chicken wire and we had those bits played outside the wire when they remembered the war. The audience was sitting on the deck of the boat, they were inside the wire-

I think all those sort of things were all terribly exciting, being able to do that sort of stuff, that was Corrigan again. The Architect and The Emperor with the papier mache mountain and the swimming pool and the diving board, that was Bob Daly and others. Carol Porter did those beautiful masks. That huge mask at the top when the judgements took place. The reason I did The Architect because I thought it was a great play and I saw two productions, one in Canada when I went with Richard Murphet; Richard and I went to the Stratford theatre together, when he was with his first wife, Mary. We thought, that's a grouse play and we talked about it afterwards, I think we were on acid or something. Richard and I usually were in those days. Then I saw it in New York, a Jewish production which was really regressive and so I came back and said that's what I want to do, I love this play I want to do it! I saw how it should happen, so I made the environmental production of it, which was an imposed idea, it's not written like that, so Max is very much a part of that and working with Max Gillies was special joy and another thing that I have got to say is that working with the actors was usually a joy when it was happening, I suppose it is anywhere, I mean this is just commonplace, but working with Max was special on The Architect and The Emperor, because I had never seen anyone work so meticulously like that in terms of setting up a gag or something. We used to talk about in the workshops and it was great watching him get his braces caught on shit and stuff that was wonderful.

All the actors I worked with really gave of themselves and they weren't necessarily people that were in my camp. Look at Floating World. I was working with Peter Cummins and he has never forgiven me to this day for making Bruce Spence - Les. Every time I see him now he says 'you took my part away' he got to play it of course with some Sydney theatre company. As a comic, he was fucking brilliant, he was perfect. You see Rob Meldrum was in that, we worked very well together, Jane Clifton and Eddie Van Roosendale, Bill Garner. Working with Bruce was brilliant- well look at the results of that, I think he was inspired, I think that was a real turn around for him because he was given a major part that he handled it brilliantly, I had him in a straight-jacket in the bed, his body was useful there, because they were talking about people who looked like him. It was a long extended part, he had done Mannix and Mary Shelley and all that sort of stuff, but he was very much in the masculinity spiel. Whereas Les had to be real for it to work and I think he emerged from the shadow of Max in that too. He'd done Beware of Imitations with Max so it was a liberating thing for Bruce and I didn't think I would get anywhere near that with Peter Cummins, I thought it was better to have Peter do what he did, the ships comic and to let Bruce find something different. I could see what I would get with Cummins but not with Bruce.

The casting was pooh poohed by a lot of people, Timlin and Hibberd didn’t fancy my casting Carol Porter as the Jap soldier because it’s a man, a male Japanese, right, but I thought she was a caricature, if you had of made it real it would have been racist, to make it sort of cartoon-like was perfect, so I think we were blessed having that sort of material to work with, this is probably anti-PF to talk like that, from this director's point of view working with actors

S That was the reality. This is the thing it is so hard to define the bloody thing, because it changes all the time

L Yes, it changes all the time, Like someone said to me once about getting a show on - I think it was Corrigan - if you’re not on the boat, you don't sail and that's what the PF was like. If you didn't go to the right collective meeting or the right programming meeting you missed the fucking boat. That's what life about isn't it, in the long run.

I remember in the production of The Mother, Evelyn threw up her hands in the air and said 'what's he doing now, what's he doing now, taking all the seats out?' and I thought that was the gem of thing that you could do it every time- you couldn't do it anywhere else, that you could take the seats out, and give everybody a little stool, right, you should do it. I must say that that was very influenced by Schechner’s Mother Courage but it probably had more scope at the Pram. She threw up her hands and said ‘you know, why do you have to do this? Every time you do something -you've got to do it different.’ She wanted a theatre with seats and a bloody stage.

But maybe she was thinking ‘why aren't I the mother?’ and yet when she and I worked together in the Earth Air Fire Water Show it was real good! We worked together real good, physically.

The accusations flew when the payroll got knocked off but nobody knows who was actually responsible. I certainly don't, it only happened once. There was one infamous case that I know of, I don't even know if I was here at the time I don't think I was, because I would have been involved in the fracas afterwards but if ever there were any crimes done of course people looked to the junkies

Half the time the junkies weren’t even Pram people they were street people. That was also one of the good things about the PF, those supper shows and late shows brought in the community of people it was an umbrella, you can't underestimate the number of external shows that went on, people came in from all sorts of theatre groups etc. etc. and did supper shows. It was a cultural kind of movement so with that you get the bad as well as the good and there were some bad bastards hanging around Fitzroy and Carlton in those days. The days of the Albion and that was also a tradition that had arisen at La Mama when you used to get drunks in the audience, breaking up the show and abusing you and stuff, so there was always that edgy feeling to it, but anyway there was one major payroll robbery, but other things I don't know much about it. Tony Taylor talks about someone selling a lighting board in the ABC TV Film, but I don't remember that happening, if it was a PF lighting board it would have been useless. But someone did nick the payroll out of the safe one time, but to this day someone is not owning up anyway.

You were part of the move to the loft at 303B Smith St where the junkies actually moved into their own little enclave really there didn't they.

S Well I was involved with you, and you were a junkie, you know ..

L Such a bad term - junkie

Junk is such an anti-social thing, it was the very anathema to what was going on at the PF which was supposed to be a social activity and so because of the nature of intravenous drug abuse people had to sneak off to dark places to do it, it’s not the sort of thing you do in a collective medium like smoking a joint or drinking alcohol, it’s different and needles do frighten people and overdoses do occur so there was a feeling I guess that they would be better off without it.

S What terrifies me is the loss of control you have over the drug, the drug controls you, that's the thing that just makes me go cold, it’s like you give your life away to it, your power goes

L Yes, and also because of its enormous cost you never get established financially.

S I was thinking about you talking about Jono and his Merc and I was remembering how you said once to me that you realised how much money had gone up into your arm-

L Yes, its true, absolutely true, you made a choice. Yes, I hear you mate, and Mercedes Benz doesn't really .....

S Let me finish - even if you had the money you wouldn't have a Mercedes Benz, you'd have your own theatre company or your own ensemble

L Or some clothes to wear

S That's where you would have put it.

L The people I could have gotten closer to but I never did. I worked with Robert Meldrum once when he was in Floating World but I was always empathetic to them as people. I had a bit of trouble with Roz (de Winter) mainly because she was so antithetical to me. I think it was amazing in the Golden Holden Show, she was Professor Rubber Glove, she had five pricks hanging down. She did a great job, she was so funny, but it was a bad production though. I just didn't know how to do it, I just couldn't get it right, now I've got it right with Autogeddon, that's where it’s led. In fact the Golden Holden is in it .

S What do you regret?

L It’d be easy to say in the infamous words of the little sparrow ’je ne regrette riens’ but I don’t think it’s true. I regret something but I don’t know what it is?

Regret, re-gret. It’s something we wouldn’t do again if we had another go at it, a choice we wouldn’t make again if we could rewind…?

I regret taking those bloody chairs out and casting 4 mothers..!! NOT!

What I’ve been doing is living the things I’ve been doing plays about all my life pain, death, negativity, suicide, poverty… I am what I am, drugs, albeit pharmaceutical- the chemist is now my man, but I hope that I can turn this into meaningful work – soon. As I did in my production of Smack Happy with Phil Motherwell a lifetime collaborator and friend and I say, with much sadness, underachiever.. which was commissioned by the International Conference for Harm Minimisation 2004 @ Trades Hall theatre. Carlton. Attended by over a thousand delegates. I am writing about art, poverty and dis-ease all of which have heavy lien on me at the moment.

S Right now what remains of the PF in your life?

L A number of friendships formed over 40 years of life in the theatre which after all began really at La Mama and the PF. These friendships have now become absolutely vital in my day-to-day survival. For half a dozen or so ex- colleagues from that school of hard knocks have emerged my half dozen or so priceless friends. They will remain nameless but without our shared experiences in a theatre that was seen as essentially anti human ----

they are all major Australian artistes who have gone all the way in art but now some of us are going all the way in life but they are there to clean up my shit (literally) wash my clothes, clean my floor, provide me with intellectual succour and sweet, firm friendship.

Biography

Lindzee Smith :see Dictionary of Australian Theatre- No Entry.




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