Panel discussion and open discussion: Angela O’Brien, Tom Considine and Gabrielle Wolf
Chair: Aubrey Mellor
Our session this afternoon is very diverse but all about what everyone insists on calling the New Wave. I think of it as the fourth wave. Angela O’Brien is going to be talking about the New Theatre and Mona Brand. Mona is very interesting because her connection with the great lefties links her back to the fifties, which I call the third wave. Gabriel Wolf is going to talk about the content of her new book from Federation through to the New Wave. This interests me because I always think about the colonial era as being the first wave when people were still trying to define what it was to be Australian. At that time there were many very interesting writers including our first woman, our Australian Aphra Behn. Mona Brand wrote an Aphra Behn play actually before Jules Holledge published Female Wit, which was the book that brought Aphra Behn to the attention of the contemporary world. Mona was on to that even earlier. Our ‘Aphra’ was a woman called Helen Lucy Benman who then wrote a play called Sixty Thousand Pounds, which was recently published in Richard Fotheringham’s huge collection of colonial works.
I like to think that all those people paved the way through the nineteenth century and then there’s the Australian pantomime right through to Marvellous Melbourne. Anyway Gaby’s new book is called Make it Australian: The APG, The Pram Factory and New Wave Theatre-the last chapter of an absolutely glorious history. So I’m a bit of a battler too and I don’t know who invented this new wave thing but it seems to be stuck with the academics and I don’t know of any practitioner who actually uses the phrase, The New Wave. I see it as the fourth wave. Then we have the wonderful Tom Considine who will talk about the Pram Ensemble but he’s also going to talk about La Mama and The Human Body, which takes us back to the actor. It goes back to what Jack and Max were saying about those times being an actor’s revolution, not director driven, which is very interesting. If we look at contemporary theatre – [Barrie] Kosky and [Michael] Kantor and Benedict Andrew – who are building a theatre of the future, a lot of what they are doing was actually done in some form or another before and we forget that as well. So The Human Body and thank God, someone is going to talk about the great Peter King, who was an influence on so many of us. But something was certainly going on around then. In Brisbane when I was a student we had The Tribe and Doug Anders and there were all the influences from Europe and America. We don’t call them group gropes any more; we call them crutch and armpit exercises. You would be naked from top to toe and have your nose up someone’s private part.
I do want to acknowledge that there was the Federation push, which blossomed in the 1920s with the Pioneer Players and Katherine Pritchard and Nettie Palmer and Louis Esson of course, and a bit later Betty Roland. The fifties mob was fascinating because not only did we get Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and Oriel Gray of course was joint winner with The Doll in that competition. In her wonderful biography and she reminds us of how the method acting came to Australia with The Ensemble in Sydney with Hayes Gordon and next year they are celebrating fifty years [The Ensemble], so it’s important to remind ourselves that The Ensemble Theatre was founded in 1958 and all that method stuff started coming through there. And it was all tied up with the New Theatre movement in Sydney and Melbourne as Oriel tells us in the book and I’m heartily delighted that that the New was there. I’d like to remind you of all the great women and seeing the legendary Betty Burstall who was here today, wasn’t that a great session, and it just reminded me of the theatre companies that created not only new Australian works but a lot of plays from overseas. They were certainly doing all the new plays that are highly influential now, with Irene Mitchell here at St Martin’s doing this extraordinary work, and in Brisbane there was Babette Stephens at La Boîte, and in Sydney there was the Independent Theatre with Doris Fitton and these companies all lasted such a long time. That reminds us that we were all reacting to this rather stifling British way of doing everything and I don’t know that we had any plan but we sure wanted to get rid of that. And it’s hideous when you see it coming back and you think just when you think the battle’s won back it comes again.
So it is my delight to try make some sense of all of this, these wonderful diverse people and then throw it open and there’s some entertainment in the middle of it all and I know some people have talked about Happenings and LSD fog at the Round House in Sydney, but I must say, it was always Melbourne, even when you were in Sydney. We’d go to La Mama Theatre and watch Bill Garner and Max Gillies and the most extraordinary things down here. We were inspired. Of course remember that Michael Boddy came back from Melbourne and got that version of King O’Malley going and John Bell oddly enough through the same influences through vaudeville. And that parallel thing of King O’Malley that happened which was the split into Performance Group and Nimrod. It was different and it had its own stable of writers but it never felt as in your face and always had a slightly polite element to it. The colonial stuff also happened here and the big Australian pantomimes were the end of it and of course the Pioneer Players were here in the 1920s. And Ray Lawler was here. As Ray reminds us that was his 10thplay, just as we need to remind ourselves that something always come before. And then of course the fourth wave, what you call the New Wave, so as far as I’m concerned they were all essentially, or at least three of the waves, from Melbourne.
So we are going to start with Gabrielle and then we’ll throw it open for discussion, so thanks very much.
[Editorial comment: Gabrielle Wolf reads from her book, Make it Australian: The APG, The Pram Factory and New Wave Theatre. The Chair, Aubrey Mellor introduces Tom Considine. The first part of Tom’s paper is reproduced here. A second section is appended to the transcript for Day 1, Session 2. A paper on Peter King will be published elsewhere or is available from the author via Double Dialogues.]
In developing this paper I have analysed three points in the trajectory of the New Wave in Melbourne from its inception in the late 1960s through until the late 1980s. The first of these is an encounter between The Human Body, a group formed in Sydney in mid 1968, and the La Mama group. This encounter occurred in late 1968. The second point is the founding of the new Pram Ensemble in late 1979. The third point is a production directed by Peter King, Usurper of the Plains that occurred in Melbourne in late 1989. Peter King, one time interim organizer of the Pram Ensemble, founded the company Going Through Stages in 1988. Usurper of the Plains was the company’s first production and King collaborated with a number of artists he had worked with previously and who would go on to form the nucleus of the group for following productions.
Most of the terms used here (wave, point, trajectory) create interesting problems. ‘Wave’ suggests notions of periodicity, amplitude, resonance, interference, ricorso and high points and low points with their attendant value judgements. ‘Point’ conceals the elements of duration and process in the three events. ‘Trajectory’ comes from a root that implies movement over water but also can mean a perception transmitted to the mind. I will look at three documents that attempt to show the form and pressure of the body of the age and these are also in complex relationships to the events they describe.
Part One: Interference Patterns 1968
The first of these ‘trajectories’ is documented in an article ‘The Human Body, John Allen reports on experimental theatre’. This was published in Masque (Feb-March 1969).Masque was published in Sydney on a bi-monthly basis from October 1967 to June 1971. The magazine was edited, designed and published by John Allen. In the third issue, Jan-Feb 1968 Allen explains the significance of the title in his editorial,
There have been many enquiries since we began as to why we are calledMasque, and why we are spelt that way. The Masque was an early theatre form which united all then known aspects of the arts – writing, dance, music, stage effects, lighting and scenery. It was a strong early form of total theatre (Allen 1968).
Allen’s identification of the masque as total theatre pre-dates E.T. Kirby’s introduction to the influential Total Theatre (1969) which makes the same point. In another publication from 1968 edited by Allen, Entertainment Arts in Australia, he concludes the book with a section titled Looking Forward in which a number of significant theatre personalities respond to the concept of ‘total theatre’. Sir Robert Helpmann, Graeme Blundell, Kenneth Rowell, Madge Ryan, John Tasker, George Fairfax and Stefan Haag are the slightly off-guard respondents.
Allen’s own version of total theatre is outlined in his Masque editorial:
We are on the verge of a new form… mass media, pop culture, the population explosion, the sexual revolution – the terms which are bandied about reveal the vulgarity, the ugliness, the neuroticism, but perhaps above all the robustness of life in 1968. We need a theatre which is equally robust, perhaps even vulgar, ugly and neurotic (Allen 1968).
Efforts to create this new form are described in Allen’s article on ‘The Human Body’ (1969). This group was formed in mid 1968:
The Human Body was conceived over coffee around the middle of the year. Parental responsibility must go to Clem Gorman, who had been plugging along with playwriting workshops at P.A.C.T. and Judy Gemes, who had graduated as a production student from N.I.D.A. and promptly gone overseas to learn what theatre was really about (Allen 1969: 29).
Allen suggested a visit to a group in Brisbane, named Foco (Cuban for a guerrilla encampment). This encounter is documented by Clem Gorman in a section of Allen’s article. Gorman describes the space (in Brisbane Trades Hall) and lists the participants:
Tribe: leader Doug Anders, Di Neale, Brent, Barbara Bacon, Barbara McCarthy, Di Fuller, Ross Gilbert, Robin Gurner and many others. Four visitors from Sydney: John Allen, who co-ordinated the Vietnam Environment, Judy Gemes, Hugh Williams and Clem Gorman (in Allen 1969:29).
The project itself is described as a
Vietnam Environment, using the whole of Foco, and bringing in many outside people, poets, readers, painters, architects, environmentalists, dancers. At its centre an American young-anarchist anti-Vietnam script called American Atrocities in Vietnam (in Allen 1969:29).
Allen gives us his vision of the event,
When I saw the potential of the building I wanted to use everything – pop, fighting, stairs, fire escape, film, music, sound, action, violence, blood, symbols of life, advertising, the comic strip approach to reality and the reality of the comic strip (Allen 1969:29)
A detailed analysis of the successes and failures of the event completes this section of the article. Part of this includes a manifesto from Clem Gorman. Very different in tenor is the account of the meeting with the La Mama group in Melbourne. The representatives of The Human Body on this occasion were John Allen, Judy Gemes and Steve Harris. The weekend began well enough:
On the first day we had a long and enjoyable talk to Graeme Blundell, one of the directors of the group (Allen 1969:31).
The Human Body later attended a small party organised for them to meet the La Mama people. The conversation at this party was described by Allen as
Very verbal theories on all kinds of psychological kicks which seemed to us irrelevant and boring (Allen 1969:31).
These were the preliminaries to the theatrical encounter.
The next day we went to explore the town and after a good movie (Belle de Jour) and a satisfying meal at Pelligrini’s we, unfortunately, exchanged a few harsh words with the local constabulary, who objected to our wearing cloaks.
We decided to work with La Mama and do very little talking, but we felt this event was of sufficient interest to chat about the relations between theatre and life in an increasingly fascist state. This was of course disastrous. They had decided we were condescending, were trying to force a view of the world on them which was naïve and untenable and that we had unconsciously set ourselves up to be arrested.
And so, they decided to set up a dose of ‘Melbourne violence’ for us to handle. The event was a loosely structured series of abstract activities, meant to give expression to whatever was in the air. It did – it gave expression to violence and real confrontation (Allen 1969:31).
The next section of the article is Judy Gemes response to this event. This written in a stream of consciousness style with citations from Dostoyevsky, Bob Dylan, Marshall McLuhan (mmcluhannnnnnnn), the Beatles and Buckminster Fuller. She begins,
HANG UP…HANGOUT…LOOK AROUND…UNDERNEATH…BEYOND…WORK IT OUT… FORGET IT (in Allen 1969:31)
The La Mama people
Use the word as their major tool…they get to know each other, others, ideas…through verbal analysis, they perform play scripts, they are concerned with developing a uniquely Australian form of theatre, they are very concerned with external forms, their visions are of dramatic effects (in Allen 1969:31).
The workshop situation was seen as a climax to a dialogue:
They came prepared to defend themselves…we didn’t anticipate that… the event was monstrous…horrible…successful in that it gave visible life to a real situation (in Allen 1969:31).
The article concludes with Allen:
We have a closed establishment, cutting its own throat by blocking the paths to contact with its life blood, the lunatic fringe. The smallness of the scene and the people in it makes it difficult, but if the museum theatre of the past is ever to mean anything again it can do so only in relation to a living contemporary experimental theatre- lunatic and offensive if need be! (Allen 1969:32)
This is followed by a psychedelic spiral and the words …message ends.
[Editorial comment: Aubrey Mellor then introduces Angela O’Brien, whose paper on Mona Brand is published separately in this edition. After the papers were presented, the following discussion took place.]
What’s in your book?
The first chapter looks at the early history of the APG and the second chapter looks from 1967 to 1970 and then each chapter builds on and delves into the APG and its dynamics. I wasn’t able to analyse every play that the APG did and I mostly concentrated on ones that APG people wrote and mostly Australian plays. I should emphasise that I’m a complete outsider to the APG and I am sorry that I had missed the whole APG time and it was one of the reasons I was so interested. I was just a baby. I say in the Preface that a lot of people probably disagree with my interpretation of what happened and I think it’s important to remember that anyone in any situation has a different perspective from anyone else. I looked at a whole range of sources and I talked to a lot of people who are here today but yeah there will be quite a few people who disagree with my interpretation so it will be interesting to see what other people think of an outsider’s viewpoint and what they think happened.
Is there anything in there that is controversial?
Yeah, I hope I haven’t unravelled anything that is too distressing. I understand that this is something that has been wrapped up in nostalgia and legend and I grew up with that as well.
It’s great that many are still alive so was it a massive interview process?
I interviewed ten people. And I’m sorry I couldn’t interview more people but there were time restrictions and ultimately you know you can’t speak to everyone and I think my interviews represented quite a diverse representation.
And who’s publishing it?
I should mention that the New Theatre was around the time that the actors were being arrested in Melbourne, so when they came to arrest us backstage there would be twenty people all sitting there with the same masks on and there was a wonderful comment from a colleague who said that had the new theatre done nothing else…
Can I just say that this was an absolutely fascinating session but I just wanted to say something about the phase ‘the New Wave’. That phrase was started being used in the 1970s and the intention was always….
Who started using it?
The academics and the critics.
It’s like the phrase ‘The Lucky Country’. The original, the New Wave doesn’t mean the first wave. It was yet another wave and that was the original intention of it. It was ironic. It was like Edna Everage’s line about what was so wonderful about living in Australia is the marvellous cultural renaissances that we keep having. Your excellent little pocket summary in your introduction about the 1920s and the history was exactly the point in saying here’s another wave. And when are we going to stop having waves all the time? When were we going to have a steady surf and I think we’ve got a steady surf now.
That’s terrific John. Any other quick summaries?
Woman in the audience
I just would like to say that this excerpt of Mona’s play On Stage Vietnam is very natural and it would be wonderful if that play could be put on now and taken on tour around Australia.
Working with Mona and looking at the agit-prop pieces she wrote and later Here Come’s Kisch, was very interesting. Mona Brand was working in that style that we later called the O’Malley style. Interestingly she was there before O’Malley.
But do you know her work reminds me too of what Joan Littlewood did in Oh What a Lovely War in the early 1960s. So it picks up what was happening there and the transition from the fifties.
Okay so today was partly the boys’ day and we’ll go on to the women a bit tomorrow. Thanks everybody.