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

Jack (Jean) Weiner

the pre-amble

My first experience of the Pram Factory was with Rod Quantock’s ‘Sennitt’s Ice Cream Showin the small, dingy Back Theatre in mid-1974 - a bunch of mainly never-to-be architects putting on a revue show of mixed calibre. The show was not a hit, but a few APG members and representatives of the public did get to see some of the seminal contributors to the Melbourne comedy scene. We went on to become the ‘Razzle Dazzle Revue’ performing mainly at John Pinder’s Flying Trapeze Café in Fitzroy.

 

I slowly became disgruntled with the group; their sense of humour and mine did not gel. Friends invited me to see a show at the Pram: ‘The Hills Family Show’. I hadn’t laughed so much in years. THIS was funny. This was the sort of show I’d like to be part of! Here were actors working their butts off. Here were people with timing and talent to burn. It was exhilarating.

 

I went back to Razzle Dazzle doing the best I could in the circumstances. One night at the Flying Trapeze there was a table of mainly APG people, including Max Gillies whom I recognised from the Hills show. After our show he pulled me aside and asked me why I was playing second fiddle to the others. I was flattered but it made me realise that my future was obviously not with Razzle Dazzle. Soon after I quit and went back to the architectural world and drafting.

 

Months passed. I saw APG people wandering around Carlton more often than not garbed in overalls of various hues. The Pram Factory seemed to be like a beehive with workers in uniforms buzzing in and out of it at all times of day. Yet they didn’t seem to pay much heed to the rest of the world; their world consisted of the Pram Factory, Stewart’s Hotel and, of course, Tamani’s. Sure enough it was there that I ended up crossing paths with one of them over a caffe latte. It was Jack Hibberd.

 

I had completely forgotten the encounter when months later a message arrived from Jack requesting me to audition for his new play. The audition was relatively painless with little competition; the part was mine. Rehearsals for ‘A Toast to Melba’ were to begin the following January. I was given a script and asked go away and familiarise myself with it. That was no mean task. From its sixty-odd pages I compiled a list two pages long of words I’d never heard of or whose meanings I was unsure of! The man sure enjoyed playing with language, but without ostentation. This was going to be a real learning experience. And the more I became familiar with the role, the more I had the feeling Jack had written the part with me in mind, even to the point of naming the character after me: Gottlieb von Snitch - ‘Snitch’ (short for ‘snitchel’ or more properly ‘schnitzel’) was my nickname at school (pretty obvious with a family name of Weiner!).

 

So I, too, was to become a member of the Pram Factory! I was to be sucked in to that vortex of creativity.

 

the amble

My introduction to the maelstrom was facilitated by Tony Taylor who came around to see me. They were looking for a pianist for ‘The Double Bill’. Was I available? Sure. So with music in hand - it was November 1975 - I entered the inner sanctum, to be confronted by the most remarkable cast of animated people and 7ft high puppets. I watched in amazement as the results of genuine hard work and imagination cavorted or wheeled gracefully about the performance area. The enthusiasm and determination of the cast members to better their performances, their willingness to take directives from the director, their zeal in trying to overcome the limitations of these puppets, and their eagerness to learn and rehearse their dialogue and songs was infectious. Work was achieved here at a level undreamed of in my previous theatrical experience. These people were serious - seriously enjoying themselves, as well.

 

the walk

Rehearsals for Melba duly started in the Back Theatre. The hard work was really beginning. Not only did I have dialogue and movements to learn but I had to memorise a dozen or so piano pieces to accompany Evelyn Krape who played Melba. I was no concert pianist and my sight-reading skills were rather poor. I knew I would make the occasional slip, but again I felt Hibberd, as playwright, was prepared for it. At one point early in the play, Gottlieb cautions Cecchi, Nellie’s early singing teacher, over some matter. The latter returns the censure indicating he will act accordingly “only if you promise to play the right notes!” And, of course, I/Gottlieb did play the occasional bung notes during the season.

 

On one occasion, while at the National Theatre in St. Kilda, I had so completely lost it that I was scared Evelyn wouldn’t even be able to maintain her melody line. I had no idea where I was on the score because the dots on the page looked more like hieroglyphics than notes. I was beginning to panic. The more I tried to improvise and correct what I was playing, the worse it got. I just wanted to disappear, to be gone, not to be suffering this utter embarrassment in front of hundreds of people. Suddenly, in my head, I heard a woman’s voice softly telling me: “Du calme, du calme.” I don’t know if it was the memory, emerging from my subconscious, of my French mother or grandmother quietening me when I was a babe, or whether it was a guardian angel sitting on my shoulder, but I have been ever thankful of that message knowing that there is always some aspect of oneself that is in control. Needless to say Evelyn stuck to her guns and I somehow found my place. What had taken place in less than 10 seconds had felt like a lifetime.

 

Hibberd directed rehearsals firmly yet always consulted with the actors, experimenting with movements while trying to get the maximum dramatic or comic effect. I soon realized how cooperative the APG in fact was. There was a maturity of work practice and an enthusiasm that went beyond mere professionalism, and I was proud to be part of it. 

 

It was stinking hot that January. We were all feeling it, clearly none more so than Jack, the erudite doctor, striding around the concrete floor, script or cigarette in one hand, sometimes a warm beer in the other, his chuckling laugh resounding from the black masonry walls of the Back Theatre, all the while looking incongruously like a candidate for the Burma Railway, girt only in a pair of sagging Y-fronts and thick black glasses. What a vision! Nothing pretentious about this guy, and he maintained the respect of all.

 

The show premiered to critical acclaim at Theatre 62 as part of the 1976 Adelaide Festival. I was extremely nervous. It was the first time that I was performing in a real play in a real theatre, and it was the first time that I was playing classical music in public!

On return to Melbourne, we played, as mentioned, at the National, a vast auditorium seating over 800. Actions and dialogue could not be performed with any degree of subtlety if they were to be adequately received in such a cavernous space. For me, the play provided a great learning experience, and part of theatre craft is knowing exactly what’s going on on stage even when you’re backstage.

 

I was in one of the dressing rooms behind the huge main stage; the performance was in front of the curtain, quite some distance away. I was chatting quietly to another cast member, with the sound of the performing actors coming thinly through a loudspeaker. After a while, a protracted period of silence from the loudspeaker registered in my mind and I suddenly realised that I should have been on stage minutes ago. I had missed my entry. Damn! Evelyn - again - was on stage on her own, though I knew that as Nellie in her boudoir, she had enough experience and craft to bide her time and make it look as if it was meant to be. However, I also knew that Evelyn would be seething inside. She was the prima donna of this production and I had left her alone on stage in a potentially very embarrassing situation.

 

I grabbed the frock I was to give her and in the gloom rushed across the acres of the unlit main stage with its fly tower looming ominously above like dark storm clouds. Bursting from the wings, I stammered “Your dress, Madame.” “Thank you, Gottlieb. That will be all,” came the scripted reply. Evelyn/Nellie was still facing the audience. The fool Gottlieb, being alone with Nellie, decides it an opportune moment to get down on his knees and ask for her “arm in marriage.” Nellie spins around, glowering: “Don’t be ridiculous, Gottlieb.” The look in Evelyn’s eye as she looked down at me was absolutely withering. In that instant, not only did Nellie become “the woman of [Gottlieb’s] nightmare”, but Evelyn had become mine.

 

I exited feeling so ashamed. How could I make it up to her? I felt that simply apologising after the show would have been too easy and ultimately inadequate. I had to present her with some physical token of my contrition. As I was to be on stage so often during the remainder of the show, I sent somebody off to buy a box of chocolates. And while on stage, each time I caught Evelyn’s eye, all I could see was the vitriol.

 

The show eventually finished and at the first opportunity I contritely presented Evelyn with the chocolates. “What are these for?” she enquired. “Well, you know… I missed my entrance when I bring you your dress!” “No, you didn’t!” “I didn’t???” “No! Your timing was spot on, but I’ll take the chocolates anyway. Thanks.”

 

I never missed an entrance after that.

 

the run

Daytime rehearsals for the next show got under way while Melba ran nights. The wish I had made was to come true. The Hills Family Show, 3rd edition, was to do a Victorian Country Tour, and I was to play the new role of Richmond ‘Bluey’ Hills, billed as the world’s oldest child prodigy! The cast was prodigious, too, and included Evelyn Krape, Max Gillies and Tony Taylor (who were also in Melba) as well as the dynamic Sue Ingleton (who had directed the 1996 Mebourne University Architects Revue - my first real taste of theatre), along with Bill Garner (the sceptics’ clairvoyant),  Robert Meldrum, Fay Mokotow, Jon Hawkes (entrepreneur-juggler-road manager and Master Mind player extraordinaire), Laurel Frank, Kelvin Gedye, Susie Potter, David Healey tour manager and Tom(?), the non-APG truck driver, who for four weeks, thought he had joined a circus! He had a ball.

 

It was a circus - travelling from town to town in the dead of winter. We’d arrive from the previous town hopefully by midday, find the hall, set up the seating for 300, put up the backdrop, position the props and costumes, rig up the sound and lighting, maybe tune the piano a little, then (if we were lucky) there was time for a small siesta and a bite to eat before putting on make up and costume, warming my hands up in a sink of hot water for a minute, then diving into another live-wire performance. When the show had finished, it was off with the greasepaint and on with those overalls, with everybody helping to demount the seating and scenery, and pack it in the truck along with all the rest of the gear. We’d get back to the motel knackered but still buzzing with energy, only to repeat the whole exercise the next day. Occasionally, though, we played two nights in a town, giving us a well deserved respite.

 

‘The Hills Family Show’ was always successful wherever it played and we always enjoyed performing it, even on one bitterly cold night in Wodonga. We had an understanding that if the cast and crew outnumbered the audience, the show would be cancelled. It was a privileged and most responsive audience that night: a one-on-one situation. They went away with a special feeling, charged with the energy normally given to a full house. And I sensed that the cast and crew also went away with a special feeling, knowing that their generosity had been truly appreciated.

 

It is the reciprocal contact between actors and audience that makes theatre, particularly comedy, so special, so immediate and gratifying, so human, so present. And the ample opportunity for improvisation in this show made it all the more alive for both actors and audience – as if the orchestrated mayhem of family members wasn’t enough! If only we had been a real family though; we could have challenged that famous American family show – the Marx Brothers. However, we all had other roles to play.

 

the marathon

Arriving back in Melbourne, there was no rest after the gruelling tour. It was straight into rehearsals for David Hare’s ‘Knuckle’, directed by Paul Hampton (or was it Alan Robertson?). I had three minor roles to play. The heaviness of the topic – banking, armaments and politics – seemed appropriate for Melbourne’s bleak August nights.

 

During the day I was rehearsing the next scheduled production, ‘The Overcoat’, Hibberd’s Brechtian adaptation of Gogol’s original story. Long, twelve-hour days, six or seven days per week. Tim Robertson directed, with assistance from Jack. Another APG stalwart, Peter Cummins, played the central role of Kak. Evelyn Krape played the domineering wife of the one-eyed schlemiel of a tailor (my role). Peter had a huge role to play and I was in awe of the calm and methodical way he went about piecing his character, dialogue and actions together until finally he had built a solid portrayal of the whimpering little government clerk. But I was to realise that Cummins’ patient workman-like approach was not just applied to theatre.

 

Later in the season, when Peter and I discovered that we both kept fit by jogging, he invited me to join him on a run – from his house in Fitzroy, through East Melbourne and Jolimont, past the MCG, across the Yarra, around the Botanic Gardens, and all the way back again, a distance of maybe 12 kms. Another case of the hare and the tortoise. I was used to running a couple of laps of the Exhibition Gardens two or three times a week. That day I was attempting more than my week’s maximum mileage in one go.

 

No sooner had we set off than I observed our completely different running styles: he took short little strides with low knee action – almost a shuffle; I was more of a loper – longer, stronger strides. He maintained his quiet speed no matter what. I wasn’t used to the slower speed nor the terrain, much of which was on hard pavements, though I thought my being fifteen years his junior might be useful. However, despite my youth and the interesting if unfamiliar scenery, I found that my running style really didn’t suit the sort of distance I was tackling. In fact, we were around the back of the Botanic Gardens when my body came to the conclusion that I’d run far enough. I announced the fact to Peter who said he’d continue on and that we’d see each other later at the theatre. He shuffled off, accumulating distance little step by little step.

 

 I wasn’t out of breathe - it was just that my legs were giving way and my feet were in agony. Home was at least 5 uphill kilometres away. I tried walking but found it was less painful to jog slowly. But the pain would increase, and I’d revert to walking only to revert to jogging shortly after. I finally staggered through my front door feeling much like the messenger who brought the news to Athens in 490 BC, though I hadn’t completed even a third the distance he’d covered. I was still a wreck and plunged into a warm bath.

 

I don’t remember much of the show that night, only that my performance was completely flat. I had absolutely no energy. Cummins, the bastard, gave a typically solid performance. I was depleted and very sore for several days and my stomach started to ache persistently, to the point where I took myself to the doctor. I had developed a duodenal ulcer, brought on by non-stop strenuous work and aggravated by the long hard run. It was time to take a rest; the marathon was over.

 

 over the hills…

‘The Hills Family Show’ was to do a five-month interstate tour – Adelaide and Sydney, then a return season at the Pram. The term ‘economic rationalism’ hadn’t yet been coined; nevertheless it was decided to streamline the previously streamlined production. Sue Ingleton, Rob Meldrum, Fay Mokotow, Jon Hawkes and Susie Potter did not participate. Rehearsals began in early January. Acts had to be modified or refined; new business had to be invented to take advantage of the different spaces we were going to perform in. After four weeks we were ready to go. It was February, 1977.

 

There we were at the new Tullamarine airport – the wackiest family, in full costume, on our way to Adelaide. The traditional family portrait was taken before we boarded the plane. Once aboard, Tony Taylor let loose. None of us knew that Winston was such an uncontrollable flyer! The flight attendants had a nightmare, what with Bluey also threatening to vomit every ten minutes and Granny (Evelyn) hamming it up as the fraught mother hen, so concerned with her family’s welfare, while in the meantime Bill Garner’s Sandringham wandered up and down the aisles, trying his hardest to sternly bring us into line. Uncle Fitzroy (Max), needless to say, continuously plied the attendants for alcohol. God we had fun. Of course, the actual point of the exercise was that the local press were waiting for us on arrival in Adelaide.

 

Regardless of our antics, the show was very well received and drew good crowds. Despite the searing heat, we felt comfortable, many of us having been there a year before with Melba. Summer in Adelaide gave way to autumn in Sydney. Perfect weather. Packed houses at the Bondi Pavilion. Rave reviews. Lying on the beach by day; performing beside the beach by night. And getting payed for it. Pretty idyllic really! Pity our season had to end after six weeks. It was then back to the Pram and winter in Melbourne. “Zuch a kontrast, ja?” (Thankyou, Gottlieb). More packed houses and rave reviews. But again the good things came to an end.

 

and far away

It was not just the end of The Hills, it was also the end of the APG for me. I had decided to discover my roots in France, and while there, improve my theatrical skills by attending an institution of recognised international reputation. The school was overcrowded, the pedagogic methods backward, the work ethic of the students deplorable, and I ended up depressed as hell. I had jumped out of the Pram and landed with a thud on the streets of old Paree. Boy, it made me realize just how fortunate I had been: I had learnt more about theatre in two years with the APG than Jac the Caq could have taught me in a lifetime!

 

 Looking back at those heady days from the 21st century, I realise what a truly wonderful and successful experiment the APG was. As historically important in its own way as the Bauhaus, or the Heidelberg school of painters, or the art movements in Paris in the 1880s or New York in the 1950s, it was not a ‘school’ with the associated great master and pupils but rather an original movement with many extremely talented, imaginative and competent people expressing themselves in whichever artistic medium while attempting to keep ego problems to a minimum - something which could only happen in a consciously collective environment.

 

No permanent theatrical paradigm shift eventuated, but that it lasted as long as it did is a testimony to the energy, vision and idealism of those that participated in what was essentially a social and political experiment, promoting theatre as education and popular entertainment. And it could only have happened when it did because of the broader social conditions that gave youth a voice, one which hasn’t cried as loud and with such unison since. The APG shone brighter and brighter as it attracted more talent, but like all stars it grows to supernova stage and collapses; its legacy is the light that still persists. Twenty years on, Circus Oz still exists; numerous Pram Factory actors are still working in film, TV and theatre; some of its plays are still performed. Then there are our memories. But looking back at the depth and strength of the talent and imagination in the APG, I am certain that had the Pram Factory happened in London, New York, Paris or Berlin, its impact would have been far, far greater on the world stage. But then, unfortunately, I wouldn’t have been part of it; I was living in Melbourne.

 

Biography

With Paris and London an ancient memory, and subsequent acting work providing diminishing returns, Jean completed a BA(Hons)in philosophy, after which he spent a year in an Indonesian whaling village as artist-in-residence and anthropological assistant before returning to Uni in 1996 to do a Masters in Fine Art, and he’s been painting full-time since then, with an exhibition  in New York in September 2000.He is now back to his beloved piano, with an intensity bordering on lust, that and the tango!

 




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