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

Pram Factory Recollections

John Smythe

 

For a middle-class boy from suburban Wellington New Zealand who’d worked in insurance for three years, done a year at university, completed three months national service then registered as a conscientious objector, toured schools for the rest of that year with the New Zealand Players Drama Quartet, gone to NIDA to learn his craft properly then spent a year as an actor/playwright-in-residence/tutor etc with the Melbourne Theatre Company, the APG at the Pram Factory was a bit of a shock. 

 

On the one hand, the place pulsated with great vision and commitment to new and distinctly Australian work that eschewed traditional conventions.  On the other, the haphazard collective structure doomed us to never fulfil our true potential because the dissipated energies and distrust of leadership would always make compromise inevitable.  And yet things happened that could not have occurred in a more conventional environment.

 

Was it genuine innovation or was our notoriety based on novelty value?  I recall Graeme Blundell, on the stairs of the Carlton Street house we rented, saying that yet another student wanted to do a thesis on us.  We’d barely been at the Pram for a year. ‘Maybe in five years time we’ll be something like what one of them believes we are now,’ he said - or words to that effect.

 

That was the problem, you see.  As an ‘alternative theatre’ in early seventies Australia, there was so much to be alternative to!  By 1972 there’d been a conservative federal government for 23 years.  The Vietnam war and the Australian policy of birthday-balloting young men into two years of national service, with the second year being spent on active service in South East Asia, drew a very clear line between conformists and non-conformists, socialists and capitalists, militarists and pacifists, male-chauvinists and feminists, activists and the apathetic. Everything was up for question.  Any conventional structure was suspect, including naturalistic proscenium arch theatre

 

Of course many of us were escapees from middle-class conformity.  This meant we were sometimes driven more by what we didn’t stand for than by positive goals.  And being young and radical, we thought everyone else should share our views - in a totally democratic, non-authoritarian, caring, sharing sort of way, of course. 

 

I recall a key moment in the rehearsal period for Don’s Party.  We’d called David Williamson to a run-through then settled down for a classic Maoist confrontation.  Actors, the women especially, complained about the attitudes of their characters (wimpy, unassertive victims or sexual predators) and the men (arrogant, male chauvanist and sexual predators).  These days we’d recognise it as a demand for political correctness.  At some stage I suggested that, if we accepted that our characters were accurately observed and sourced from the ‘real world’, we should simply work at making them credible and leave the judgements to the audience.  To my surprise it was David who turned on me first.  ‘It’s okay for you, Smythe,’ he said. ‘You’re playing the only really decent bloke in whole play.’  (My role was Mack - as flawed a character as any, in my opinion - but he got away with it by being emotionally vulnerable.) 

 

Williamson was nothing if not a political animal.  It may well have been that he was going through a radical cultural reconstruction himself, around sex-role issues especially.  Maybe his editorial perspective on the women characters - or his basic understanding of their true feelings and motivations - did require upgrading.  But something basic troubled me about that experience and I was yet to pin it down.

 

I also recall the horror some of the middle-class reconstructees felt when they realised our Don’s Party audience included middle-aged, middle-class matrons from South Yarra!  It was a genuine crisis for those reconstructees.  These were the same people, of course, who liked to take agit-prop street theatre down to the local Housing Commission flats, tell the residents how they were being ripped-off and exploited by the establishment, then retire to ‘the tower’ at the Pram to blow a joint or five.  But I’m not the first to recognise the arrogance of that in retrospect.

 

My big moment at the Pram was in 1972, directing Katharine Susannah Prichard’s ‘Brumby Innes’: a combined APG/Nindethana Theatre production.  Written in the mid 1920s, and based on the same experience in the nor’ west of Western Australia that inspired her more famous novel Coonardoo, Brumby Innes won the 1927 Triad Prize for the best Australian play entered that year.  Part of the prize was supposed to be a production by J.C Williamson’s (or the Tait brothers).  But the cast of 15 included 11 aboriginal characters and somehow it stayed in the too-hard basket until after her death in 1969.  (We probably have to be grateful they didn’t use white actors in blackface, which is how Showboat was staged on Broadway around the same time.)  It had taken collective member Margaret Williams to exhume the Brumby text, in the course of researching her thesis on Australian theatre, for any of us to know of its existence.  Before that we’d thought we were the pioneers of distinctly Australian theatre.  (She also handed me Louis Esson’s election satire ‘The Time Is Not Yet Ripe’, which I directed at Melbourne University, also in 1972 - the same year Gough Whitlam’s ALP was campaigning, successfully, on the slogan ‘It’s Time!’.) 

 

Perhaps this time our youthful arrogance stood us in good stead.  It didn’t occur to us we couldn’t do it. Aboriginal actors, Jack Charles and Bob Maza had formed Nindethana Theatre to do some excellent satirical theatre and now that entity drew in the Williams and Hoffman families from Preston, Marcia Briggs and Val Power - mostly experienced in some sort of entertainment and very ready to take on this challenge.  I also, at Graeme’s suggestion, cast wider than the current collective for the leading characters of Brumby and May and found MTC and Bellbird veterans Dennis Miller and Lynette Curran eager to get involved.

 

Anyone who thinks John Osborne invented the anti-hero with Look Back In Anger (1956) hasn’t read Brumby Innes.  Brumby is the quintessential arrogant, boozing, womanising, fighting, thieving, lying red-neck Aussie male.  He is the dominant beast in his outback domain and as such is deeply attractive to May, the flighty young debutante from Perth who’s been sent to her uncle’s outback station to keep her out of trouble.  She’s never encountered anything like him.  For his part, Brumby has never met a young face-painted, perfumed, flimsy-frocked woman like her before, let alone encountered sophisticated flirtation.  All the uncle can do, on discovering their powerful chemistry has been consummated on the chopping block in the meat shed, is insist Brumby makes a decent woman of her.  It is some time before it dawns on May that she is nothing but his brood mare and her job is to give him thoroughbred kids.

 

Meanwhile Brumby’s other crimes - carnal knowledge of an underage aboriginal girl, shooting at and wounding the ‘young buck’ she was promised to, not to mention his stealing of unbranded cattle - see him carted off to court.  And he gets off scot-free while the blacks get locked up for assault and burglary!

 

What excited me about this play was that it got to the heart of all the issues - sexism, racism, class injustice and rape of the environment - by accurately observing what was so, honestly recording it in a well-constructed, richly textured story then leaving the audience to come to terms with it in their own way.  As a piece of political theatre it could not have been more powerful.  When I read her later work, written after she’d joined the Communist Party, I realised how diminished such writing can become when polemical standpoints intrude.  Now I knew why the pressure on Williamson to make his characters more politically correct had troubled me so. 

 

Perhaps this is the most valuable lesson I’ve taken from my time at the Pram: that it is not the role of theatre, film, television or any other story form to show good people behaving well.  Stories allow us to go to places we’d never go in real life. They offer safe spaces for us to stretch our awareness of what it is to be human, to confront our fears, explore our fantasies and hold the proverbial mirror up to nature.  Without them we’d be emotionally and intellectually stunted at best, and at worst we’d go insane.  That said, it’s important to add that a reasonable definition of insanity is ‘the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality’.

 

The accuracy of Prichard’s writing was brought home to me when I went to the nor’ west of WA (in the early 80s) to do research for a film adaptation of Brumby.  She’d written the local Ngaala dialect of the South Pandjima as she heard it and when Currency Methuen published the play in their National Theatre series, they retained her spellings while adding notes, a glossary and more ‘accurate’ spellings by a West Australian academic, one Carl von Brandenstein.  Having traced the few surviving members of this sub-tribe to a bush meeting in the dry river of the Yule River, I asked about the songs, corroborees and mythological material Prichard had included in her play.  When I pronounced words as von Brandenstein had written them, they looked blank.  When I said them as Prichard has written them, they understood immediately.

 

But back to the Pram Factory.  It seemed to be an unwritten rule that anyone succeeding at any one thing, like directing a play, should then do other things to prove they were no better than anyone else and preserve the egalitarian nature of things.  And I was only too happy to take on such tasks as stage managing the Bob and Joe show, helping out with publicity on other shows and, of course, taking my turn at front-of-house duties.  It was while doing the latter that my idealistic faith in all we were doing took a battering.

 

Heavy red velvet curtains separated the performance space from the foyer space.  On the day in question rehearsals were in progress for a women’s revue, being group devised by the newly formed women’s theatre group.  Latish in the afternoon, respecting their right not to be interrupted, I very quietly crept into the foyer space and started collecting up dirty coffee mugs and glasses to take them away to be washed.  As I was doing this, an improvising performer rose into view over the back of the seats, climbing into the bio-box in the process of exploring some performance dynamic.  She saw me and screamed.  I was discovered and roundly harangued for invading their sacred space.  My crime was that I was male, nothing more, nothing less.  Stupidly, I chose to feel gutted and guilty.  The quest for freedom can get quite oppressive sometimes.

 

My final memory of the Pram Factory is not a good one.  Nor is it very clear.  As I recall it Barry Oakley had asked me to direct a new play of his called Seizing Power, we’d put together a project group and had it accepted by the collective.  Knowing some project participants had other priorities in their lives, like parenting responsibilities, I determined we wouldn’t have rehearsals where everyone turned up every day and half of them sat around while others did their bits.  We’d all be better served by being called when needed and only then.  So I asked people when they’d prefer to rehearse and when they couldn’t, divided the script up into blocks and worked out a comprehensive rehearsal schedule.  But when I handed it out, assuring everyone it was negotiable, I was accused of being authoritarian.

 

I’m afraid I remain convinced that small disciplines, like rehearsal schedules and arriving on time, create enormous freedoms.  Conversely, waiting around for one person to turn up so work can begin can dissipate energy hugely.  But be that as it may, my ‘fascist’ actions and my inability to overcome my guilt-laden defensiveness did not make for a good rehearsal environment.  Oh, I also think I made the mistake of having a vision for the production and working with the writer and the designer to get us mutually aligned without exactly group-devising the concept.  By the third week key people didn’t have their books down.  Then a cast member was arrested and imprisoned for possession of cannabis for supply.  We found a replacement but somehow the collective energy just wasn’t there to make it happen.  The final scene played out like something in a gangster movie.  I was bundled into the back seat of John Timlin’s V8 and driven around Carlton while faceless heavies around me got me to understand and accept that the production was cancelled.  An inevitable outcome, perhaps, but a strange way of achieving it that, to this day, leaves me feeling there was a subtext I was not privy to.

 

Maybe that was symptomatic of the general disintegration that began sometime after the euphoria of the Whitlam government’s election had worn off.  Having been so anti everything for so long, it became apparent that, to all intents and purposes, we were now pro-government.  This was anathema to any self-respecting radical.  And how could the pre-eminent alternative theatre be pro-government?

 

We split four ways, as I recall.  The women focussed on the WTG, the Marxists earned their bread by setting up Circus Oz, the ‘artists’ (Stasis)went off to do esoteric but extraordinarily accomplished minimalist productions inspired by Sylvia Plath and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, and the populists remained to pursue the Hibberdian/Romerillian dream of popular theatre for the people.  Me?  I went and wrote scripts for Crawfords then took off overseas for a year before returning to Sydney.

 

Biography

I’m now back in NZ, freelancing as a writer, actor, theatre critic and corporate communications consultant.



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