Pramocracy: The Alternative Theatre in Carlton, Melbourne-FINAL EDIT COMPLETE





 

 

PRAMOCRACY: THIRD ALTERNATIVE THEATRE IN

CARLTON, MELBOURNE

John Timlin

The Pram Factory is a focal point of much of Canton 's intellectual, artistic and political life. A refugee camp, housing dissidents of various political, theatrical and social complexion who find within its walls an attempt to forge a working structure which can effectively deal with the problems of theatre without the oppressions of hierarchical organisation.

In the beginning it was a loose assemblage of people most of whom emanated from the Melbourne University campus. The emphasis was theatrical rather than political though this was later to change with the input of the energies of Monash University denizens like John Romeril, Jon Hawkes and Lindsay Smith. It was a rough and tough group, heavily iconoclastic and unitedin its contempt for theatres like The Old Tote and The Melbourne Theatre Company whose consistent programming of plays derived from Broadway and the West End typified the cultural cringe then endemic in this country.

A playwright, Jack Hibberd, slunk out of the medical profession and in 1967 wrote White With Wire Wheels, his first play and one that still remains among his best. In 1968, at MelbourneUniversity, the Group presented a collection of short Hibberd pieces a programme entitled Brainrot An Evening of Pathology & Violence, Love & Friendship. It was our first major event and one which attracted favourable critical attention. 

From then, the Group, now calling itself the La Mama Group, grew in stature. It was one of (and loosely differentiated from) several theatre groups inhabiting an old shirt factory which was rented by Betty Burstall. She, having seen Ellen Stewart'sLa Mama Theatre in New York, and being impressed by its work, created a home, a suitablycrude theatrical space for what was to be the womb of the new wave in Australian writing and performing. In this role La Mama still persists, though, perhaps with less publicised fecundity than its early years. From here John Romeril, Jack Hibberd, Barry Oakley and David Williamson emerged. Alex Buzo's Norm & Ahmed was given its first Melbourne airing in front of attentive public and police. The performers were arrested and charged with obscenity. The offending line was the famous: 'You fuckin' boong'. They were convicted at one of Melbourne's funniest trials.

Later, during a La Mama production of John Romeril' s Whatever Happened to Realism, the actors were again charged with obscenity and, when police removed them from La Mama to thenearby Carlton Police Station, the word spread through the area till finally a mob of some hundredplus gathered outside the station chanting in unison, 'Shit, Fuck, Cunt'.

A certain notoriety now attached to the Group; the catch-cry 'radical' was often used, for, apart from its continuing work of presenting new Australian plays, the actors were performing in the streets, in factories, at strike meetings, leading the Moratorium, etc. The theatre had become politically more involved and more complex under the influence of the Monash lefties and, more generally, in response to the socio-political pressures aroused by Vietnam and conscription.

After the Group returned from its successful tour of Perth in 1970, factionalism became more prominent—in part personal and political; in part to do with theatrical ideas and ambitions. The larger group, now calling itself The Australian Performing Group (APG), wanted to expand theirwork and needed more space in which to do it. A warehouse of what then seemed mammoth proportions and cost was finally found and leased. It had long been a pram factory and that we called it. No pretension, no style you see. That was the style. 

The first production, Marvellous Melbourne, at the Pram in 1970 was group-developed in collaboration with writers Hibberd and Romeril. It was immensly successful, colourful, bawdy, invigorating, and left (we thought) the almost coincidentally produced Sydney-written The Legend of King O'Malley languishing in a fog of cliched commercialism.

In the sense in which the APG was then an 'alternative' theatre, it was so particularly because of its extravagant jingoism, its total rejection of the tried and foreign in favour of the new and local.That, however, was not the only variation—an acting style was emerging; one which confronted the staid, elocutionary professionalism of the English repertory theatre with its emphasis on precision of gesture, carefulness of movement. The APG style involved more physicalisation of images;more reliance on vigour and agility, more stress on communicating to the audience with the bodyrather than voice and prop. With an Australian content, too, we could deploy our vernacular, ourown rhythms and our own accents from the one language we did not have to import. It was, asThe Age critic then put it, ' Australia's most enterprising and energetic theatre company'. That was in August, 1970.

The APG style and its continuing evolution had much to do with use of space. We eschewed the conventional proscenium arch in favour of an open space, thus providing flexibility (the seating can be moved into any position) and a new and vibrant intimacy between audience and performer was thus generated. The style and space captured an audience and provided Melbourne with not just another theatre, a choice of play, but an alternative experience. For the actor, performance became three-dimensional—they were in the round; the audience could see them sweat, their tattered costumes mattered little, they had to deploy their bodies, their total physical resources to occupy the space theatrically. 

Structurally, in terms of organisation, the APG described itself as a 'democratic collective of actors, writers, designers etc'. It was, in the accepted wisdom of those days,one person, one vote. All shared in programming; roles were multi-functional—writers could act, actors write, administrators build the set. In the eyes of some particularly the women it was more one manone vote and the very looseness and almost organic, informal nature of its decision-making processes had the counter-productive effect of allowing too much power to accrue to too few people. There were few checks and balances.

The APG women (and others) worked on a group-developed show, Betty Can Jump, a dramatization of the plight of Australian women, then and in the past. It took six months to develop and ran for seven weeks to packed houses.

Successful though it was, and truly experimental, the production induced stresses into the group which necessitated a more formal structure. The membership had been defined in terms of Constitution forced upon the Group by the need late in the previous year to raise money from outside bodies. It stated that the APG was to be operated' according to the principles of participatory democracy'. In the world of theatre, this alone would be enough to differentiate the APG from others; making us a genuine and radical alternative through establishing a full 'measure of workers' control. However, just saying it, legislating for it at that stage, did not effect it. A crisis developed about direction and control,casting and money. It was felt by many that a small group controlled the APG and that it was they, and not the Collective, that dispensed favours, chose plays and cast them. A species of nepotism allegedly hid behind the facade of democratic intention and workers' control. In the midst of this crisis Jack Hibberd, one of the Group's founders and a member of the then Executive, resigned 'quite finally'. He returned one year later. His letter of resignation was accompanied by a document listing ten complaints some of which I quote as they pointedly illustrate the dangers of organic structures and informality both of which, in my view, have been pushed by many members of the  'counterculture' as the answer to typical capitalist authoritarian regimentation and de-personalisation. Such structures are inimical to the development of both individuality and communality. I list his objections according to the clause numbers of the original document. 

2 Political Posturing and Hypocrisies. In particular the failure of the leaders of the APG to stand up and be counted at last Sunday's seminar (on indigenous drama) discussion; theirfailure to articulate and state their position and that of the APG... a failure to attack establishment theatreand its representatives in public (only too willing to do it in private). An exhibition of moral and intellectualand political ineptitude and cowardice. 

8 Continuing Autocratic Control of the APG by a Power Clique who lurk behind the newly erected mask ofcollective democracy hoax. People other than the treasurer still sign the cheques they were signing ayear ago. New wage rise s and personnel are not referred to the executive.

10 Despair at and Boredom with the insidious whispering campaigns, the continual behind-the-backreputation attacks, personality assasinations, who's in this week and who's out next, loyalty obsessions,ad hominem and personal preoccupations INSTEAD of open exchange of ideas and evaluation of qualitiesand short comings as participants in a theatrical and political enterprise. Too much concern with pettyambition and the tedious and pointless intrigues of intra-group power politics. Most of this stuff plainlyoriginates from the power clique. Reform or ossification lies with them, with their ability to change theirpractices and ideas, or to resign. I don't see either happening, folks.

Hibberd 's letter of resignation was cathartic; the antipathies within the Group were thrown intothe open. A new Executive was elected, a programming committee established, an Administratorappointed after a Committee was formed to investigate the question of who got what, when,where how Max Gillies, the founding Chairman of the Group (and a persistent democrat) was relected and he and others like Bill and Lorna Hann an activated the process of reviving andupdating the Constitution, the conditions of Membership, casting procedures, etc. That wasin August 1972 and the process continues; the structure is forever evolving, changing accordingto the theatrical and external and internal political needs of the Group. I see no end to this unless welimit the number of members or become just another 'establishment' repertory theatre. We should build for continual change. 

Democracy in the theatre is hard work, itmeans interminable meetings, and is not necessarily compatible with 'excellence' of production.I think, however, that in spite of its frustrationsand the time it takes for decision making, thealternative for actors, writers, technicians, administrators is very real. The alternative is jobalienation and a greater degree of insecurity. What the APG does offer is some degree of controlover one's work and there have been few of uswilling to totally desert the lebensraum of that concept for the oft-proffered oasis of stardom andthe buck.

It is true that, at this moment, quasi-revolutionary politics are not uppermost in the minds and activities of most members. We have become more pragmatic, acquiring the business and political know-how which enable us to aggressively deal with government agencies, entrepreneurs, Actors Equity and the bank. These developmentsare in large measure the result of our theatrical success, our growth, but also derive from a realor felt change in socio-political circumstancessince conscription ended, since the Labor Partytook office. Like blotting paper, we have absorbed the apparent fact of the reduced dichotomy between Left and Right and our programming reflects that The Group is less (excepting the semi affiliated Women's Theatre Group) issue based, less polemical, less didactic. Street theatre (apart from an intensive pro-Australian Labor Party campaign during the 1974 election) is pretty well in abeyance and the weight of our propagandist work is taken almost entirely by those of our members working in Community Theatre projects. Their work is toured through institutions the prisons, hospitals, orphanages and through factories and schools. In general, the content of these projects is more politically active than is now the case in our Front Theatre programme though it isinteresting to note that the Community Theatre projects are much harder to put together; it is more difficult to get actors for these than for plays staged in the Front Theatre.

However, the relative decline in the vigour of thepolitical stance of the APG has been matched bya more intense exploration of the possiblities ofcommunality. We acquired 'The Tower', a vast residence sharing a wall with the Pram Factory.The inhabitants are all to some degree affiliated with us and they live together on a species of income sharing. There are now two other, moreformal Economic Unions, income sharing groups, made up mostly of Pram Factory members. Someactors give back to the APG money they earnfrom films, television, etc, money that is in excess of the $126 per week top APG pay. In generalwe are moving towards being an integrated arts collective. A film company has been establishedand, although there will be outside investors, the APG will control it and it will employ predominantly APG personnel in the making of a featuremovie based on Barry Oakley's play Beware of Imitations. This is a further extension of workers'control into an area notorious for its hierarchism.It was Hitchcock who compared actors to cattle! We have established an Agency for our own writers—Hibberd, Romeril, Bill & Lorna Hannan, Barry Oakley, Tim Robertson and non-membersfriendly to the Group e.g. Peter Mathers, Craig McGregor, Peter Carey, Laurie Clancy, and wehave now extended this to include our actors anddirectors, thus ensuring a greater degree of control over our work with the added advantage of keepingthe usual ten per cent within the Group.

These various moves reflect the nature of the APG; they flow from our own experience of working as a Collective. Each month the full Collective (about fifty people) meet and at these meetings matters of general policy, membership qualifications, constitutional issues are discussed. The Executive and Administrator's report are heard, accepted, amended or rejected as the case maybe. Each Saturday morning an elected committe e plus the elected Executive and, ex-officio, Administrator and Theatre Manager meet to discuss programming. The meeting, like all Pram Factory meetings, is open to all members. Recommendations from this committee go straight to the Executive which either approves or disapproves the Project. Given approval, a Project Diector is elected whose responsibility it is to advertise and convene meetings of those interested. From within the Project Meeting a director emerges (sometimes elected) and he/she together with the Project Group (which normally includes the writer) via discussion, audition or, sometimes ballot, arrive at a cast, design and stage staff. The procedure is quite open and has done much to eliminate the 'whispering campaigns, reputation attacks, personality assassinations', etc. which Jack Hibberd described in his earlier-quoted document. The catharsis therefore continues—there is no power clique a resolution of disparate elements has been obtained. 

Some, both inside and outside the Group, argue that, as the Collective enlarges, it will wither theatrically resolution, lack of specific personal leadership will result in theatrical compromise, art will atrophy on the APG political vine. 

As Yvonne Marini, sometime actress and presently our secretary, says: 'We don't talk about theatre any more our work is not developing; we should push for more discussion about our style, where to go from here'. 

And that partly encapsulates the so-called identity crisis. We must experiment again, test ourselves against differing material, differing roles. An ensemble of actors continually working together has been a long expressed desire. Getting off the treadmill of repertory theatre is another but, so far, due to lack of money and, perhaps, Collective will, we have not achieved this. But the way forward is not backward—the Group could no longer tolerate personal leadership orany form of thespian guruism. The Collective is what we made it and it will do what we make it do; we must find theatrical identity through it. 

From outside our processes must seem strange; even intimidating. Some actors want the leader figure, others can't bear the meetings, the delays whilst consensus is achieved. Many find the APG too polemical and moralistic, too rule-ridden. (After all what theatre company in the world would ask a writer like David Williamson or an actor of Graeme Blundell's quality to leave because they had not made a 'significant' contribution to the Group's work over the past nine months? Others, probably would have kept them even if only for the kudos of their attachment, nomatter what the involvement.)

 This seeming masochism is, however, germane to democratic participation; workers' control of the theatre. The fact of stardom, fame etc. cannot entitle one person to have a vote affecting the lives of others whilst they are, possibly, so distant from the theatre as to be ignorant of the issues, arguments and personalities. 

The Collective has, in this respect, tightened somewhat—if a member is absent from four consecutive monthly Collective meetings, membership (subject to appeal) lapses and the privilege of priority for employment disappears. This, of course, allows us to change; those who opt for the security and comparatively high pecuniary reward s of lengthy film, television or theatre contracts are exercising their choice and, by so doing, effectively resigning and creating space for others, thus injecting new blood and, potentially a new thericality into the Group. 

Somehow, for journalists, Arts Council people and theatre workers outside, there is something difficult about accepting the actuality of democratic control in the APG. They want to believe in leaders, authority figures, etc. They find the oppositionist  stridency  of the APG  somewhat uncomfortable, the postures that emerge from its moral well-spring difficult to live with. Doubtless, its stance on many issues can transmute into image makin grhetoric but there is a certain purity of intention, not yet fully articulated theatrically, which may enable the Group to persist and with stand the fiscal and critical difficulties which always are at the jugular of innovative, antiestablishment theatre groups. In March 1972, in a letter to the Group, sometime member, Margaret Williams, now a critic and academic at the University of NSW, wrote:

  '... I think that what is in many ways the Group's strongest quality is also its least endearing quality—at least to those outside it namely, a kind of (dare I say it?) arrogance; a messianic certainty of its anointed role as custodian of the Australian drama I think that quality is an asset. and it may well be that that is the magic talisman which will keep the APG alive and kicking where so many other groups, equally committed, have failed...”.

 Drama is a communal art. It needs writers and actors and technicians and ticket sellers and designers and painters of walls. Without each other, not one of these people would be meaningful. In so far as the APG is an alternative, it is so because its political form is such as to give each person a share in deciding what affects another. It is frightening to each of us at different levels, for different reasons but, for those of us who choose to remain, it is the best way to work ; trust is the only way in which the theatre can take those risks necessary to create something new.

 

 


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