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

Sue: We were like a cell group, we were monastic

Jenny: But when you think about it, the earth, air, fire, water thing, the elements- whatever the balance in your whole chart -there’s something about four.

Rob: It was a very fine balance.

Robert Meldrum, Jenny Kemp and Sue Ingleton in conversation about the Pram & STASIS.

 

Rob: Fay (Mokotow) and I were both interested in dance and we went and bought a ballroom dancing book and we learnt it all out of the book and Bob Thorneycroft helped us but that was it. That was fun. I think was the best time I had with Fay - when we devised that routine, also because it involved us being physical which I think, for her was the hardest thing.

Sue: Remember when Fay used to cook the food on the bump out of the ‘Hills’ Arts Council country tour?

Rob: The jaffles...

Sue: She and Tony Taylor would cook the jaffles.

Rob: Her sense of humour and there was this glorious image of her being a mother hen getting people’s orders, I always felt that the Hills gave her a family-she did value that. It was a gathering that was different to any other

Jen:I didn’t have much contact with Fay.

Sue: I think Fay was a director not a performer. I think theatre was where she had to be but the pressures of the Pram- because everyone was told they should be an actor even Rose Chong who was a costume designer- she tried to do that, but I actually think her strength would have lain in directing, but you never got a chance at the Pram.

R: She did something extraordinary.

 

J: I think it’s nice to think of beginnings

It’s interesting you talked about the Portsea camp.

R: That was the beginning of Peer Gynt

S: We were doing the Rowena Balos workshop there and we’d done Stasis and the Sylvia Plath Show and we performed Sylvia down there for them.

 

J: I first met Rob at the Rowena Balos workshop at the MTC. Someone was saying ‘can somebody give him a lift’. And I realised it was going to have to be me-a little man in a sports coat!  I was the one who lived up there and I left a long pause for someone else to hop in and then I eventually thought they're going to find out I live there!

You know how Rob has his horn -rimmed glasses and crosses his legs and looked kind of speedy well he was like that and I was from the country..

R: -hippiedom

J: I'd been living in a panel van and he looked very urban. I’d been living in England for four years, doing theatre in London and touring round with Liquid Theatre (LT) and experimental theatre and I’d decided to give up theatre when I came back.  LT was about a whole lot of other things apart from being up on stage and so I thought I'd go back into the visual arts and the first place I wanted to be at when I came back was to be near the ocean, down in the Otway Ranges. It was a solitary process and then I realised it didn’t suit me very well and so, when I saw the advertisement I put in for Rowena Balos' workshop. I think I just scraped in but Rowena recognised that sort of thing, the Liquid Theatre thing-

S: Was it an audition process to get into that workshop?

J: It was a written process. I actually wonder if the people who turned up were the people who applied-

S: What a cynical a character you are!

J: So I applied for that as an entry point back into theatre- up to that stage I had been a performer. So I was accepted. I went along and on the first day there was this weird collection of people, John Gayden, Gerda Nicholson, Nancy Black, Peter Oysten, Russell Beadle,  Eva someone and also Wendy Robinson who was doing feldenkrais and Graeme Pearl who was doing Alexander technique. It was 1975.

 

R: And the course finished on the day that Whitlam was sacked. I came back from lunch and Nancy Black was in the car park, ashen faced and she said, 'Whitlam’s been sacked'. And it was significant because all of that innovative arts work  happened because of Whitlam - we were being paid to do that workshop. After that the first thing I did was The Hills Family Show.

 

S: During The Hills, where I was quite happily doing my old tricksy stuff, I remember Robert coming up to me in the dressing room and saying, whilst putting his hand on my arm -and I didn’t particularly, really connect-!

J: (laughter)

R: How come I manage to surround myself with all these gorgeous people who initially were all going urrgghh-!

S: No, we weren't going ‘urghhh’- You were very insular.

J: You play high status-

R: I don’t any more!

J: Oh no, no, perhaps you do- your answering machine can sound pretty-

S: Get him, Jen! Because you were- I always felt that you were slightly pissed off with people that you were frustrated and you were quite judgemental-

J: I think it was a defence mechanism, a slightly high status-ish thing-!

S: Whatever- something you were hiding behind, but that's fine because I'm sure that my relationship to people was probably - (burping)- I always put my foot in my mouth-

but you came up to me, just after we’d done the little play within the play, Romeril’s ‘The Accidental Poke’ and you put your hand on my shoulder and you said in this particular way ‘there is another way to do this’ and I remember being shattered by that because I knew he was right, but he threatened my ego, he threatened my safety net which was my ego-self performing and when he said that it was as if he had seen through my mask .

R: I have no memory of that-

S: But it really shattered me and I hated him for it. I resented him so much and so I just thought, well I was fabulous out there and I'm getting a lot of laughs.

 

R: I knew that everything that happened at the Pram Factory was because I was being asked to do things too quickly and to push- and if you didn’t come up with the goods then what was wrong with you? Why can't there be more time, and there was no one I could talk with about that, there was no one that I had a language with. I could identify these things that were surfacing in me, things that were so dissatisfying. That character of Clifton Hills was all the worst, negative side of myself projected out. I hated that part of myself. I don’t hate it now. It was probably the most dissatisfying experience I had at the Pram Factory because it was so removed from the kind of theatre that I really enjoyed doing- it was supposed to be an ensemble, I don’t think it was an ensemble at all, it was about personalities; it didn’t come from a text so there was nothing there to unite you, nothing outside of yourself

S: Don't you think it’s a mirror of how the APG was?

R: It certainly was a mirror to me and there was a competitiveness about it which I found an anathema - that was the thing I loved about our work as Stasis and you can’t be like that onstage, you can’t be trying to be better than everyone else as opposed to your work.

 

S: You remember you and Tony Taylor?

R: Of course, and Tony won every time, that's what I also hated, not that he won but that those were the parameters.

S: Max’s competitiveness was always seen as a humble stepping back but he was so competitive

J: Upstaging people?

R: I remember when I worked on all that early ABC children’s television stuff with Noel Price and after that he then offered Max and I an adult series, a writer’s series.

J: Why didn’t you take it?

R: Because I did not want to have to deal with that aspect in Max.  Because I thought that I know Max will always find some way- quite honestly, I didn’t want to be in that position with another actor where I know that I was being used. I didn’t want to have to be in that position with another actor-

S: And yet you were in Max’s TV show, ‘The Gillies Report’.

R: I know, it was awful. It did happen. It needed to happen and it all came out one day in the dressing room. It was Mark Little who finally said ‘Max, it’s your show, you want it to be your show, you don’t want anyone else to be in it, you don’t want anyone else- be honest, admit it’. The show was a disaster.

The only time I vaguely enjoyed The Hills was when we were improvising the show. The best part about the Hills was when we were on tour we would arrive in the town and they gave us a whole civic reception and we were all in costume and you could be outrageous, I remember I threw a tantrum, ‘who are these people?’ and stormed out and they loved it.

 

S: One of the highlights of The Hills was the thing between you and Tony and it got to the point of excruciating horror, with you banging on the piano and he screaming ‘I know!’ and you screaming ,‘I know!’

R: I know! and I used to take so long to get prepared. I used to get talcum powder and powder my hands and it was all ‘I’ll take as long as I like to do this’ and Tony would storm out and get excruciatingly desperate…

J: Did Tony enjoy that?

R: Oh yes, he loved it. But it was all to do with what I was going through myself. I was going through hell.

 

S: But I can’t remember how we got together to become Stasis?

R: It was all very precise. I knew that I wanted to use the Balos work. I'd been reading Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Gertrude Stein. And so I put an ad upon the Pram notice board- and it was amazing that the programming committee supported it- and I got you,  Jane Clifton, Carol Porter, Suzie Potter, Fay Mokotow, Yvonne Marini  and Roz de Winter and after the first day Jane dropped out and Carol dropped out -

J: ‘cos it was too slow-

R:  ‘cos it was too slow, ‘cos we were lying on the floor, - I think, at one point, Evelyn put her head in the door and went ‘urgh’ and went  out-

 

S: What did you do that first day?

R: I put you all lying on the floor in the front theatre, feet to the center, and started to image the sun and all that stuff. I remember Jane- it was too slow-

J: I remember in Peer Gynt rehearsals Sue saying  ‘what are we doing? I’ve got to pick up the kids in half an hour and we’re still lying on the floor!’

S: If I hadn’t done that we’d still be lying on the fucking floor!

J: Yes, thank god for Sue!

S: Here’s my memory. I remember being in Tilley's Space down in Faraday St ( an overspill warehouse floor that was occasionally used by the APG) . Kerry Dwyer was there and Yvonne Marini, Roz de Winter and Suzy Potter and you said ‘We’re going to do all this work’- and I remember, as we sat on these chairs in a circle, doing all this vocal and breath work, I remember thinking, ‘Thank fucking christ someone is teaching me something!’

R&J:  ahh great

 

S: There was this deep yearning in me. I knew on my cellular level that if I didn’t find a teacher soon I was going to go fucking mad 'cos I could not rely any more on this ‘instantaneous energy’ thing. No one was helping you, no one ever helped you at the Pram Factory because no one knew how to, there was no method -

J: They weren’t trained directors-

S: Alongside that moment was the sheer terror of ‘oh, oh my god, is this what I’m going to have to do to get to some other side of performance?’ because performance, performance was what I wanted - and I was also interested in ideas. Kerry didn't come back for the next one, I think she felt she’d been there and done that and she didn't want to work with Robert - who was low status-

R: Although I appeared high status-

S: So she left and there was left us, Roz, Suzy, Yvonne and me and you teaching us .

R: I was going to direct it but Yvonne decided she was going to move out, she didn't want to do the work so she’d sit out and watch and so I said I’d rather be performing so that's when she became the Witness, so that was the beginning of that terminology

J: What terminology?

R: The witness

J: Oh that fucking thing!

 

R: We needed to find another name because we couldn’t use the word ‘director’- that was the beginning of the thing of always working with the awareness of audience as a way of understanding how to work

S: It also made us really intuitive and inventive, it made us truly responsible because there was no director taking responsibility. It was the beginning for me of owning the work.

J: It was a necessary extreme to go to because the work had expanded. When I was working with Lindy Davies and Nico Lathouris in the asian play. I sat outside and became the witness and I was paralysed.

R: What was your experience of Peer Gynt?

J: I was a witness, an outside eye. And I think that I was beginning to direct-

S: But I've got pictures of you teaching us, all of us lying on the floor! The teacher/ director in you grabbed hold of that work all of that and I used to love those warm-ups.

J: But it was also in application for you. I think that what I learned as a director that it’s the warm-up process that forwards the work, it was geared to the work and you’d start to feed in stuff, and the impulse work became a basic structure for working, a modis operandi which in a way is to support the actor being the creative element. The other extreme model of being a director is to say ‘go there, do this and block it’. But we weren’t doing that. The actors were in a position of making offers. I was in a position at times to just say ‘that's fantastic’ and ignore that- what works from out there. Causing the actors to be creative and intuitive and empower them.

 

R: The processual work became geared to the actual days work. If you looked at the Pram Factory model either they didn't do it at all, or they’d bring in the Chinese stuff - 

J: And they’d separate it-

R: -and we’d do that and it was completely unrelated, Chairman Mao's exercises and then we’d start on Floating World.

J: And nowadays the actors come in and do their own warm-up and I've just noticed that  the period between the warm-up and rehearsals starting, that's actually always been where real discoveries are made, it’s to do with the intuitive work, the parameters are lifted, the end-gaining goes and discovery happens.

S: I remember usually that when we arrived in the mornings one of us would be ‘off’-

J: What do you mean?

R: Roz had just crashed her car or something-

 S: -and the whole part of that warm up would have to deal-

R: with that person-

S: -with that energy there or be about bringing their energy up or going into their energy and running with their energy and taking that into the structural part of the play-

J: That’s a very good point, Sue

S: Whatever energy you’ve got within you today is the energy to work with and it might be different to yesterday but it’s going to be a layer for that character-

If you’re tired and you’ve had a really bad day, allow your character to have that energy- everything changes.

R: The other thing about that experience was to do with very different energies and preoccupations. So there was Roz with a fantastic foundation in analysis of text and that image of her sitting there and we’d all get up to work and she’d still be there, sitting-

J: Then she’d go, ‘perhaps we could try this’, and desperately we’d all go- ‘oh, that’s a good idea’-!

[peals of laughter]

R: I remember it was Roz who alerted us to that part where Peer carries his mother across the stream, it was Roz who had gone home that night and got stoned and came in the next morning and started alerting us to all the sexual references  regarding  the water and slippery stones and I remember going ‘oh my god’ and my stomach turning over.

J: She should be at the VCA doing script analysis with a mind like that

 

S: Remember how we would throw the coin to divide the roles up and that first throw in the first scene I was Aase and she was Peer, which meant she had to carry me over the stream! Here I am, the great big mother and she was the small boy and she had to carry me over the steam and she was so thin and I said, this is fucked!

J: That's actually quite beautiful isn’t it, the small boy and the big mother.

S: But I think I looked at her and said, well that’s fucked because in truth I think, really I wanted to play Peer -

J: aah-

S: -and she did it and she got me on her back and she did it!

J: Of course she did.

R: But that must have been a valuable lesson in learning something about surrender,  about not holding onto things because that very process meant I ended up playing Aase in the death scene-

S: In the death scene.

R: In the death scene, to your Peer Gynt- yes- if anyone should have played Aase it was Roz!

J: What about later on in Antony and Cleopatra! You playing Cleopatra!

R: I got great reviews for my Cleopatra!

J: Roz and I used to shake in our shoes in case we got Antony!

R: I was telling Sue the other day about talking to Stephen Costain after he’d seen Antony and Cleopatra  at MTC and  he was talking to a couple who were saying they had enjoyed it but ‘the most amazing theatrical experience of my life was seeing four people do this play in the Back Theatre of the Pram Factory.’

J: In floppy pink clothes!

S: -I made those clothes!

J: I remember those clothes with horror, those floppy pink pyjamas!

 

S: Remember the opening night of Peer Gynt standing behind the curtain in St Mark’s Hall and raising our arms-

R: To the death!

J: But we all did that right throughout, in Antony and Cleopatra, didn’t we?

R: If we weren’t saying it we were feeling it!

J: It's an interesting combination of people isn't it? How different we all are to each other, how different Roz and you are-

S :-but each brought a part to the whole. The fact that we fought all the time, the fact that we loved each other too.  When you and Rob went off together, were you lovers then?

J: No, but we weren’t really, were we Rob?  We were just soul mates,  we wore the same clothes and we just became soul mates to such an extent that of being so inside each others skins and bodies and sharing everything, that was such a natural expression.

 

R: We must have worked on Antony and Cleopatra the whole beginning of 1977 and we used the Shakespeare School workshop to support us

S: We were learning about the play.

R: That was a very difficult time for you, Jen. You got quite depressed.

S: You really didn't want to act.

J: Roz and I found it like, really stressful - at least Roz was an actor. I had huge doubts.

I found it incredibly stressful. I was depressed about that one-

S: Why didn't we let her off the hook?

R: Because she was essential.

S: No. She could have been a director.

R: No.

J: I think Sue’s got a good point. Essentially we were somewhere else, we were into everyone doing the same thing.

S: We were into controlling each other quite a lot.

J: It was interesting that I was outside in Peer Gynt

S: Yes, but by then we’d already started rehearsing.

R: The other thing was a practical thing- we needed four people in ‘Antony’.

J: You could have got somebody else!

R: We tried! Remember Peter Finlay coming along to audition upstairs at St Marks Hall? We talked to him and we did all this stuff and after he left we all looked at each other and we realised we could not bring anyone new in.

S: Alison Richards was also yearning to be in the Stasis group, she asked but she couldn’t get in. I said it was closed-

R: It was closed- that's probably why it died-

 

S: We were like a cell group, we were monastic

J: But when you think about it, the earth, air, fire, water thing, the elements- whatever the balance in your whole chart -there’s something about four.

R: It was a very fine balance.

J: We were not exploring the role of the director we were exploring the role of the actor. I  had that at NIDA, I did the acting course at NIDA and I should have been doing the directing course.  And then we did the work later with all those strong actors, with Lindy and Nico and it was again the same thing.

R: And yet, at the same time it was obviously feeding you an enormous amount.

J: And they (Lindy and Nico) used to say, ‘its so different when you go out of the room and go to the toilet’ and I’d reply ‘Well, good!’

S: Were you directing them?

J: No, I was the Witness!

R: And that was the final insult

J: I was the director but what they were exploring was how the actor could be autonomous and generative.

 

S: At what point did you actually take directorial power?

J: ‘The point isn’t to tell you’.  I think it was to do with the fact that it was my own writing.

R: I have a memory of being in the big space downstairs at St Marks. I have such a distinct memory of you, Jen, absolutely being able to relocate me at a point where I had completely lost it, couldn’t find connections and that’s significant because that means that you were then becoming absolutely instrumental in being able to know-

J: be functional-

R: -be functional, know what was necessary in order to relocate me and I remember being really appreciative of that but also probably quite impressed by that at the same time.

S: Weren’t you inside that play?

J: No, I was outside.

R: And then there was Elizabeth Drake who came in at the end, with a handbag!

 

J: Then, after the Pram I was directing out at Rusden with John Ellis we’d bring in the plays to the Back Theatre like ‘The  Woods’ by David Mamet. But also for me at that time, because we didn't have a designer, the auteur thing was happening. The vision from inside was becoming three dimensional because my base is so visual, the seeing of it out there was easy.

 

R: The first time I worked as a director was at Rusden. ‘Minor Irritations’ with all the chairs and all the people. That's where I met Kate Legge and in 1980 we moved into Moor Street and that was exploration work! Lindy was teaching at the VCA and we were on the dole.

S: You had another life outside the Pram, Jen that you protected very clearly.

J: I think I was quite remote from it all.

R: I remember when Peer Gynt  had opened, you went off down to Barramunga and we thought, how could she do that?

J: But there comes a time when you have to go. We also had this philosophy about not having a director. In a sense me leaving was I'm not actually needed now at this point. It was also about what is the role of the director in this? How much are you needing my feedback every night. It nice to have a witness out there but-

 

R: Why didn't the work continue? I think it was so subjective there was an absence of a whole lot of objective views on it that we were the last people to be able to judge. I remember the day we stopped putting up posters for Peer Gynt and we’d got really depressed. There were no bookings, we lost confidence.

J: Then there were the people who saw it, like James McCaughey who thought it was absolutely marvellous-!

S: Every now and then I’d come across someone who’d say, ‘I saw you in this hall doing this play with these big wheels. That was Peer Gynt. And I’d say how privileged they were to see it because it’s gone and so few saw it.

 

R: -and then we got the Melbourne Times at the end of the year and there was Suzanne Spunner’s award for Stasis- the best piece of theatre for 1976. And Lindy Davies, whom I didn't know, she saw it at the end of ‘76 and then she went overseas and when she came back someone asked her what’s the best piece of theatre you’ve seen? and she said ‘Peer Gynt’.

 

J: Why did we stop? that’s an interesting question for this conversation. Why did we stop?

S: I think I’d had it. You and Roz kept working on the Grimms fairy tales.  Rob and I went off into Cabaret and did  Back to Bourke Street-

R: But we continued the work on-

S: I did Dimboola - the movie- and then I got sick and then I did Light Shining  in Buckinghamshire  which I just adored. Taking any thing from Stasis and placing it back inside the Pram Factory was so empowering. I’d found the stillness. I'd found the centre and then I did Traitors and that was the culmination for me and then I left and I left in my full power.

The conversation petered out at this point…


Rob Meldrum


Suzanne Ingleton



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