Thursday, 02 September 2021

Aubrey Mellor: We could be trusted with new work (Part 3)

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Malthouse TheatreThe Malthouse Theatre. Photo by Ian Laidlaw. Courtesy of The Malthouse Theatre.

In Part 3 of her profile of Melbourne’s Playbox Theatre under the directorship of Aubrey Mellor, JASNA NOVAKOVIĆ focuses on the company’s 2000 and 2001 seasons and their continued championing of Australian playwrights notably through their Theatre in the Raw and Inside programmes which supported experimental writing. Importantly, this article sheds light on the international exposure of new Australian plays and the collaboration between Playbox and Currency Press as seen by Katharine Brisbane and Nick Parsons.

One word was always at the back of Aubrey Mellor’s mind when planning a new season—diversity. He wanted people to come to Playbox not once a year, but every month, even every week if possible.

‘Most people go to the theatre once or twice a year. They spend on an expensive ticket to a big musical and that’s it,’ he says.

‘But going once a month to the theatre is for most people possible and so I wanted to offer them plays that they would come to every month.’

‘I think my biggest offer was eleven plays in the season and I wanted people to come to everything, so I looked for something different all the time.’

On the average, Mellor programmed nine new plays in a calendar year, every now and then prefaced by a return season of the last year’s hit. At the dawn of the new millennium, it was Secret Bridesmaid’s Business, Elizabeth Coleman’s play written in the style of soap opera which Mellor discovered while searching ‘for a commercial product’.

‘I thought, “Oh, this is going to sell like hotcakes.” And it did. It was actually quite good, and it played everywhere; there’s been non-stop production somewhere ever since.’

‘But then people got quite annoyed when I tried to do another slightly commercial play. You get criticism for that.’

‘But, I thought, “No, we should be encouraging commercial writers. Why don’t we have writers that are commercial? Why do we have writers that just depend on funding?” David Williamson is an exception, of course. But then he gets knocked for being “too commercial”.’

‘Generally, that’s another fault we have. Commercial writers guarantee box office success.’

The magic word here is ‘balance’, Mellor admits. Finding it is the problem that was ‘certainly in the forefront of my mind,’ he says.

Face to Face, David Williamson’s play first produced by Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, in March 1999, fitted that brief in more ways than one. It was consistent with the idea of ‘swapping productions’ with other theatres, making the need for diversity easier to implement in the context of new Australian plays only. At the same time, it had a commercial value not only because of Williamson’s popularity but also because of the novelty of theme.

The play had its genesis in an article Williamson had written for the Australian newspaper’s monthly Review of Books in the form of ‘an overview of key debates about emotionality’. Two directors of Transformative Justice Australia read it and the line of argument struck a chord with them, so they wrote a letter to the playwright.

‘It seemed only a matter of months before a draft of Face to Face was in the (e-)mail. Even in first draft, Face to Face powerfully portrayed the essence of a workplace conference in a heavy industrial setting,’ David B. Moore and John M. McDonald, directors of TJA wrote in the 2000 edition of the playtext-cum-programme co-published by Playbox and Currency Press.

Such deep understanding did not come out of nowhere. Decades earlier, Williamson had written an honours psychology thesis and was no stranger to the problem of individual psychology challenged by the complexity of relationships in communities. Researching Face to Face, he actively participated in a TJA workshop structured as ‘a conversation in a community of people affected by conflict’ for the purpose of transforming ‘the negative emotions associated with conflict into the positive emotions associated with cooperation’. He observed Moore and McDonald facilitating workplace conferences, and ‘talked through at length’ some of their case studies.

‘My aim has been to dramatize the process so that the play might alert more people to the fact that there is an alternative to simplistic law and order measures focusing on more jails and more punitive sentences,’ Williamson wrote in the Playwright’s Note.

Face to Face was directed by Sandra Bates, artistic director of Ensemble Theatre all until 2015, who sought to make the company a theatre for everyone, as Mellor did with Playbox.

‘If anything was relevant, I sought to programme it, which is not easy, because most playwrights are always behind the time,’ Mellor says. ‘Very rarely do they write about something that’s not like newspaper theatre, which I once used to do myself.’

‘So, I reached for anything hot or politically interesting, for the topical play, which was always David Williamson’s skill. Every year he would take a really popular topic that the audience wanted to talk about.’

Yet, despite his unmistakable ability to spot a corroded value and build a compelling social drama around it, Williamson kept attracting pure vitriol from the ‘connoisseurs’ of theatre, a live example of the enduring tall poppy syndrome in Australia.

‘Everybody attacked David Williamson claiming that he was “shallow, shallow”, he “never explored anything in depth”.’

‘But I discovered working on his plays, if you do one that touched on a controversial subject, you go into the foyer and the audience are all talking about it. And I thought, “Oh my God, he has liberated the people and they are all talking about this subject”.’

Ron Elisha’s play The Goldberg Variations introduced the audience to the vocabulary and practices embedded in Jewish tradition, liberating people to laugh rather than tiptoe around the subject. It was a comedy that kindled warm feelings, blended the quotidian with wisdom and added a poetic touch to experience.

First produced by Playbox Theatre Centre at The CUB Malthouse, the play opened on 24 May 2000 in Max Gillies’ direction. It had a cast of five actors and two animals present by name only, a dog called Trotsky and a turtle called Goethe. And that was just the beginning.

The characters were all members of one family, the Goldbergs, but the speech writer they went to for eighteen years was also a Goldberg. He was an accomplished pianist, blind. Each speech written by Sol Goldberg evoked intimate moments in family history, each folding with a few bars from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a reminder of the everlasting gifts of Jewish people to human civilizations.

The premise Elisha built his play on was that a speech writer had transformative power. S/he could persuade people to believe or do anything.

SOL: The task of the writer is to match the craziness of the speech to the craziness of the speaker. No mean feat but, if you do it right, you can get sixty million Germans to change their taste in shirts.

Witty retorts eliciting laughter that hardly allows the spectator/reader time to breath alternate in the dialogue with words of wisdom that go straight to the heart. Take, for example this one:

SOL: I myself have no home, save for that which exists in the hearts of those who hold me dear.

Then this one:

MENDEL: Name one thing that gets better with age.

SOL: Memories of youth.

Even in Jewish tradition, time has forced incremental change to age-old rituals and the agent of change is predictably the youth.

NINA: Friends, relatives, Rabbi Gershon: Being Jewish is about tradition. It’s about what our parents did, and their parents before them. And, whilst we are all perfectly happy to dispense with the tradition of being raped by the Cossacks, many of us still cling to the security of gefillte fish. Well, ladies and gentlemen, hold onto your skull caps, because bar-mitzvahs are never going to be the same again...!

While Ron Elisha conceived of change in terms of culture steeped in religion, Michael Gurr thought of change in terms of politics. His play Crazy Brave, first produced by Playbox on 28 June 2000, had at its centre a group of young people intent on subverting the status quo in a society still largely driven by imperial pretention, snobbery and greed. As usual, the director was Bruce Myles, but this time Myles also played one of six roles, a once prominent radical lawyer, now disbarred and pushed into poverty. A sympathetic journalist and an undercover agent completed the circle. The play began as a voice of protest but morphed in the end into an ironic comment. The one true believer in the inevitability of change fell victim of her idealism and ended up in prison. Everybody else continued with their lives as before.

At the time Gurr wrote Crazy Brave, he was drifting away from Labor. He had been speech writer for John Brumby and then Steve Bracks, he had written Bracks’ Ballarat speech that ‘set the stage for Labor’s reclamation of the regions,’ the Age recalled ahead of the launch of Gurr’s memoir Days Like These. Also to enter ‘Labor folklore’ were three speeches written ahead of the election night in 1996, one for each eventuality (the prospect of winning seemed so remote that Gurr scribbled a single ‘unprintable word’ on a sheet of paper). Bracks won not only that election, but Labor went on to win a 30-seat majority in the Senate. Gurr helped provide the Premier with some of his memorable lines for every victory-claiming speech.

When Mellor joined Playbox as artistic director in 1994, Gurr was Artistic Counsel for the company’s Theatre in the Raw programme. Running on two parallel tracks could not continue for ever.

‘When Michael's career took off, on top of his playwriting he also became a speech writer for the Labor Party and was keen to hand over the Raw work,’ Mellor says.

Theatre in the Raw started as a weekly play-reading, rarely staged. It was established by Malcolm Robertson under Carrillo Gantner and Gurr worked with the tireless literary manager to find scripts, ‘though he did all the casting and directing’, Mellor says.

The word ‘directing’ is a reference to the later stage in series development. Initially, it was kept quite simple.

‘The actors got together in the day and read the chosen play and in early evening would read the play (before an audience), usually seated on chairs, though later, standing with script on music stands.’

‘There were no programmes, no special lights, just actors on daily pay reading in the large rehearsal room, followed by a discussion.’

Not before long did the space where they ‘bagged the playtexts off’ become colloquially known as the Bagging Room.

‘When I arrived, I started to put more resources into Raw work and used it as a step towards developing plays we wanted to programme. But it also included unusual works that would never sell to big audiences,’ Mellor says.                    

The plays were subsequently slightly moved; sometimes it was a slightly experimental event with some visuals and the audience moving around the room.

‘The novelty of a playwright hearing his or her play for the first time and witnessing audience reaction was a big event for them. You can’t get such a special experience just from sitting in the rehearsal room,’ Mellor says wrapping up his recollections of the Theatre in the Raw series.

Tom Healey, Artistic Associate at Playbox in 2000, has more details.

‘Theatre in the Raw was a programme where people would come in for just one day, occasionally three,’ he says.

‘The one-day version was pretty scary because the actors would come in at 10am, we’d do a very quick reading and have a chat and then we’d show it (the play) at 6pm, or was it 6.30pm?’

With the three-day event more could be done, obviously.

‘Sometimes we would work one day and then have a week off and then a two-day workshop to sort of give it a bit more (scope for development), depending on where in our judgment the writer was up to and the text was up to,’ Healey says.

Despite its unquestionable merit to emerging playwrights, Theatre in the Raw heightened Mellor’s awareness of a limited use of readings, more so as the plays grew increasingly physical and/or visual. He wanted more time for preparing performances.

‘I also saw that one never knows the full potential of a play until one sees it in performance,’ he says. 

As a step up from Theatre in the Raw, he developed the Inside programme, which meant productions. It was sandwiched between the new plays by the writers familiar to both the Playbox subscribers and a wider circle of theatre aficionados.

‘The actors had to have scripts down and they had to have some visuals and lighting. And that’s a very different event when you put something under lights. The event gets magnified.’

Mellor sees it as nothing less than ‘magic’. ‘It’s a thrill that a writer remembers all their life,’ he says.

More importantly, in that unforgettable moment a play is put to the test and, as its weak points are revealed, the way forward or, rather, how to develop it further becomes much clearer than on paper.

The above is, however, predicated on one condition—that a play gets from the page to the stage.

‘The Inside season was also a way of getting rid of something that could form a “constipation”,’ Mellor says.

‘One of the problems with playwrights is that until their play is produced, it’s like an unborn child. They’ve got this pregnancy that they can’t give birth to and how on earth can you conceive your next child until you’ve given birth?’

‘So I wanted them (playwrights) to have an outcome where they could actually have a play produced and then go, “Phew, that’s good. I can kick off with my next work”.’

Tom Healey remembers that the Inside series came about because Mellor was ‘very frustrated by all this work coming through the building and lots of it never really getting anywhere’.

‘It was sort of felt that a three-week stand-alone season for that play was not going to work or that audiences were perhaps not there for it or whatever, and we were losing a lot of plays and a lot of good writers for that reason. Plus we had a lot of very young writers who were very interesting, people like Angus Cerini who’d gone on to being incredibly successful and who we really loved and we felt were really important for the industry.’

One more factor had to be taken into consideration to prevent the loss of audience interest.

‘Aubrey was always very aware that the company needed to bring writers through unless it was to risk getting stale,’ Healey says.

Achieving the balance was a tricky problem, as the Board tended to follow the safe path. Still, nobody ever objected to new topics regardless of the controversy raised nor to the plays by writers who experimented with form. Rather, the conversation that went back and forth in the company was centred on the question of identity.

‘We were supposed to be a cutting-edge contemporary theatre company, but we needed to retain an audience, we needed to some degree deliver what it was felt we had promised,’ Healey says.

Another sign of discordant expectations, receptions and visions was the disaffiliation of Playbox and Monash University that took effect at the end of 1999. Victoria University affiliation began almost immediately afterwards and was to prove fruitful, in a creative sense, to both affiliates.

The Inside programme formed a bridge between the recognizable and the new landscapes of imagination providing a clear outlook on the freedoms enjoyed within the company.

‘Once the basic parameters of it were tied off, which were essentially financial—X number of actors, X number of directors, designers, etcetera—Aubrey in a very generous way just handed it straight across and said sort of, “Do whatever you want”, which was lovely,’ Healey recalls.

The play to open the first Inside season on 5 April 2000 was Elegy by Jodi Gallagher, the playwright whose potential Mellor had recognised while observing closely the progress of Theatre in the Raw programme. Mellor introduced Gallagher to Healey and, of the five plays grouped in the series, Healey chose Elegy to direct.

The playtext went through several drafts for Gallagher to be able to distance herself enough from her theme and develop the only male role beyond the ephemeral.

It was an autobiographical play that had ‘a great density and a great delicacy at the same time,’ Healey recalls.

‘It was about the processing of grief, the rage of it as well as the sorrow of it.’

The presence of a much-loved person in one’s mind long after the passing informed the play’s structural composition. The scenes shifted backwards and forwards, from memory to the present (of the play) and back, and to grasp which was which was left to the logic of reason to decode. With the assistance of one device, though. Lighting designer Phil Lethlean used ‘naturalistic lighting’ to connote physical reality, while the memory scenes were much more back-lit and side-lit thus helping the audience to orient themselves in time.

‘By today’s standards the lighting was incredibly basic,’ Healey says, ‘but we were certainly experimenting with the colour palette.’

Nonetheless, the choice of palette was also limited, since the sets for all four programmes within Inside 2000 were fundamentally the same. Elegy had the following storyline:

Two sisters, the younger one totally subordinated to the other, are the central figures. One is immersed in books of fiction and hardly ever leaves her flat and the other, who is a drug addict, gets bone cancer. Their mother and the sisters’ mutual lover are caught in the web of interrogation that leads nowhere, for the resolution rests in the domain of psychology and can only be found within the Self.

‘It was one of my favourite shows that I did at Playbox, at least in the first Inside series,’ Healey says.

‘I had Mandy McElhinney in the central role (as Alice, the grieving sister) and Margaret Mills as Mel (the deceased sister), Sue Jones played the mother and Ken Radley played the boyfriend, lover. So, it was a terrific cast, very intelligent and strong and passionate.’

Programme two that followed a week later consisted of two plays even more experimental than Gallagher’s Elegy in terms of form. Samantha Bews wrote So Wet in response to the spirit of the times using multimedia, cultural icons and music to capture its main thrust. ‘I will not be satisfied with little things,’ says Silv, who shows a distinct tendency towards self-mythologisation recalling Roland Barthes’ theory of mythmaking in the contemporary western world.1

The play unfolds in a sequence of opposites: Silv’s interior monologue runs in fragmented sentences occasionally given the form of blank verse and the punctuation is used ‘rhythmically rather than grammatically’. Alternating with it is Silv’s dialogue with the outside world: her friend—a young and vulnerable lesbian of ethnic background, the males in her social circle and the internalised cultural icons of the day. Indicatively, the ‘I’ perspective changes only in a brief scene inserted in the denouement of the play to reveal the reason for Silv’s anxiety. In it, she becomes the object of gossip, rather than the subject who does the thinking, feeling and talking.

The emotions Silv goes through in the span of one night are colour-coded and it was Phil Lethlean’s task to design them in performance.

‘Projected images, video footage and recorded music are used to enforce a sense of image saturation,’ Bews explained in the Playwright’s Note.

‘In addition to this, the written images from the stories themselves can be used in the creation of a technological landscape of modern mythology.’

The language of myth surrounds luxury brands, role models like Madonna taken to validate the practice of image creation, and above all the ideal of liberation with its effect on workplace culture, behaviour and, ultimately, the state of being. Sylv’s accidental descent from the corporate world into the ‘real world’, where she is confronted by a homeless figure Rattie, leads to the following exchange:

R: all glamour and no substance

S: I was looking so much at the pictures I lost sight of the ground

R: you and the Pepsi generation

The delusions shaping the perception of reality originate, Bews showed, in the misappropriation of cultural icons and Madonna’s song ‘Geisha’ served as an apt example. In a versified Geisha Girl Number (a scene), Sylv addresses the mannequin  displayed in the Geisha Bar:

S: are you a Geisha Girl

G: I am a geisha

S: are you a prostitute

G: no. Geisha means beauty person.

S: I thought you were all prostitutes

Unsurprisingly, Sylv is dismissive of her friend Anna who anxiously argues, ‘I want love. it’s not stupid. I am allowed. It is allowed.’ At last standing firm, Anna leaves the scene to Sylv who, in the final act of defiance, washes off her weaknesses like dirt and, empowered by an extreme act of cruelty (she has killed Rattie), binges on ‘the early morning episodes of Bonanza’.

The dramaturg and director of So Wet was Nancy Black, Mandy McElhinney played Sylv, Fiona Todd was Anna and Geisha Mannequin, Ken Radley played three roles (Tom/The Man/Geisha Bar Guy 1) as did James Wardlaw (Tim/Geisha Bar Guy 2/Rattie). The composer was David Franzke.

Paired up with So Wet in Programme 2 was Gabrielle MacDonald’s play Like a Metaphor, a short meditation on vagina, old age and hardly anything else. Written in the style that bore close resemblance to Jenny Kemp’s as in The Black Sequin Dress (see Part 2 of this story), it was basically a fragment not least because of the sentences cut short after the two or three opening words that carried no signification whatsoever. The philosophical and psychological implications of such writing may be a counterpoint to the equation of maleness with the penis, but the loss of the sense of Self inhering in a woman’s inability to reconcile herself with the scars of time on her aging body is deeper than that. For, the irreconcilability with impotence in old age is the irreconcilability with the proximity of death. The play closed with the following declaration:

I have a body but I am not my body.

I have a body but I am not my body.

I have a body but I am not

Like a Metaphor was workshopped for Playbox Theatre in the Raw in July 1999 and was produced within the Inside programme nine months later. On both occasions, the playtext was spoken/performed by Margaret Mills. The performance within Inside 2000 was directed by three women: Gabrielle Macdonald herself in collaboration with Margaret Cameron and Margaret Mills, a testament to the challenges of transposing the broken sentences of an interior monologue onto the stage.

The rationale for including highly experimental work in the main season was explained in the note From the Artistic Director at the end of the Inside 2000 collection co-published by Playbox and Currency Press.

‘With our Inside season we can bring you bold choices, and genuinely dangerous and surprising theatre—all at prices that encourage audiences to participate and support risk and innovation,’ Mellor wrote.

‘Another prime reason for bringing this exciting and diverse range of works together with the same company, was the lack of opportunities for actors. We are most aware that the demands of Inside 2000 are heaviest upon the actors.’

Tom Healey captured the excitement of dealing with heavy demands on actors in the message From the Co-ordinating Director.

‘As I write, it’s the end of the third week of rehearsal (out of seven). At any given time we have two rehearsal rooms running at once, often three and sometimes four.’

‘There are actors pelting from one room to the next, out of one world and into another. This is work that has to be done fast, with primary instinct and great courage, without the (relative) security of the standard four-week rehearsal period.’

Baby X by Campion Decent presented in Programme 3 offered a welcome relief from heavy experimentation. It was a comedy involving a lesbian couple who wanted a baby and chose their gay friend for a sperm donor. In the process leading up to birth, all the standard questions were asked, from deeply personal to those related to social acceptance. And all were resolved, as comedy has it.

This is not to say that Decent failed to experiment with form. He successfully interpolated excerpts from The Encyclopedia of Pregnancy and Birth by Janet Balaskas and Yehudi Gordon in the dialogue, the cast of four played seventeen roles, sound and imagery were used to connote a change of locale as did a ‘fast and furious’ mime. On top of it, images like the LONE SPERM conquers its shyness and steps into the light displaced naturalistic representation and by translating biology into humour heightened the play’s inherent theatricality.

Baby X was first produced by Christine Dunstan Productions in association with the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras at Belvoir Street Theatre, on 24 February 2000. Its Playbox Inside season started on 19 April 2000, and the director and choreographer was Noel Jordan.

The play to close the series examined the practice of biographical writing and the motivation behind it. Titled Violet Inc., it was split in two parts (not acts) conceived as integral wholes and given different headings, both folding with ‘The End’. In ‘Seeing Violet’ (Part One), the author Pam Leversha traced the process by which an outsider infiltrated the private lives of prominent artists. In ‘Tunnel Vision’ (Part Two), the go-getter assumed the role of biographer. Her take on the life of Violet, the deceased member of the artists’ circle, was informed by gender politics and eventually proved to be completely subjective and fundamentally false. Leversha’s was a bold critique of the biographer’s pursuit of self-interest, the reading public’s gullibility and the exploitative manipulation of truth.

All four programmes played in the Beckett Theatre, a week apart. For Healey, such an intensive process contained multiple incentives.

‘It is exciting, exhilarating, frustrating, terrifying, stimulating, rich, exhausting, upsetting, demanding, stupid, joyous, uplifting,’ he wrote at the time.

‘The whole notion of working on a project bigger than a single play is uncharted territory to most of us. … It’s all about a collision of styles and creative process and thus the potential for one world to inform another, for a rich creative language to emerge.’

The main season of 2000 continued with Debra Oswald’s play Sweet Road in the larger of the two theatres, the Merlyn. First produced by Playbox Theatre Centre on 2 August 2000, it was directed by Aubrey Mellor.

The title suggested a pleasant night at the theatre and, indeed, it was another one of Oswald’s works with a happy ending. But here is the rub. Along with mature protagonists, there were two children and a dog in it, which was not the only reason why directing the play was a challenge.

‘The difficulty about that one again was the problem with writers who think that they’re writing a movie when they write a play,’ Mellor says.

‘She (Oswald) wrote most of the scenes in the cars, so I thought, “Heavens! How’re we going to show all these cars?”’

When produced by Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre a few weeks after the Playbox season, Sweet Road was set in different locations, but such a solution held little appeal to Mellor. He had the characters in ‘sort of model cars’.

‘We were pushing cars around the stage; it was all on wheels. It was the most amazing thing and fun,’ he recalls.

The season closed with Meat Party by Duong Le Quy, which belonged to the group of plays Playbox produced in a bid to spark interest in Asian cultures. Two years earlier, the play had been workshopped at the Australian National Playwrights’ Conference in Canberra, in the Vietnamese-English translation by Lien Yeomans. Le Quy dedicated it to ‘the souls of those who died in all the wars on this earth with the hope that they will be reborn into a peaceful world’. Michael Kantor transposed this powerful call for peace from the page to the stage in October 2000.

‘I think it was one of the best productions ever seen in the Merlyn,’ Mellor recalls.

‘Michael filled the auditorium with small speakers amongst the audience and the constant sounds of whisperings and Viet-Cong music as would be heard by the Vietnamese people during the war.’

‘The production featured Umi the Butoh dancer and a famous Vietnamese actor who was a refugee living in Sydney. Unfortunately, his accent was very heavy and his English not clear, but images were shocking and powerful. I well remember the full cast staggering towards the audience each carrying a coffin.’

Le Quy’s play was set in the white sand dunes of Mui Ne, Vietnam, years after a Viet-Cong attack on an American military compound. Quashed by napalm bombs, it left an army tank half buried in the sand. Living in the tank was a crone who kept uncovering, cleaning, caressing and collecting human bones for years. She and a retired army officer, with one half of his face badly scarred from burns, were the physical reminders of the horrors of war. Its full extent was, however, fully revealed only in the denouement of the play. All until then, the tension built in the coming together of two worlds a generation after the war. Rigid ideological blinkers had begun to fall off and a critical view of communist ideals subjected to the test of time also brought back the memories of war victims portrayed as inherent forces of good. The sound of a flute played by an American soldier on the eve of the attack recalled one of them. The bones which were, for the crone, those of her children and a beautiful Vietnamese girl, who fought for her country’s freedom as a nurse but fell victim of fanaticism, symbolized those on the Vietnamese side. The massacre that took their lives is Le Quy’s ‘meat party’.

‘The play won some humanitarian award and this helped Duong get a Fulbright to study in America,’ Mellor says.

Playbox produced Meat Party after it had won the AsiaLink Competition in 1999. Rising Fish Prayer by Adam May had won it two years earlier (see Part 2 of this story). The prize was established because ‘it was very difficult to get any work from Asian Australians,’ Mellor says.

‘I had searched to find any Asian material at all, so we created The Playbox Asialink Competition for the best play with an Asian-Australian theme to encourage Australians with connections to Asia to write for theatre, and we programmed that as much as we could.’

The prize was ‘kicked off with money from the Myer Foundation, so it was basically Carrillo’s (Gantner’s) idea pushing it in the reach in the first place,’ Mellor says.

The competition was held every second year, as there were very few submissions.

‘It’s one of the huge nightmares about living in Australia,’ Mellor says.

‘We are geographically right here in the middle of Asia, but we all think about going to Florence and London next week.’ The remark was obviously made before the Covid-19 pandemic, but Mellor’s point is clear.

‘It’s so odd, for me, to feel very consciously part of Asia while most people don’t, and so audiences won’t necessarily support anything Asian at all,’ he says.

The sense of opposition from the public triggers the memory of an associated issue. A letter Mellor once sent out to all the playwrights he could identify, asking if they wanted to submit an idea for a play for young people, returned next to nothing.

‘Amazingly, out of about 200 letters out, I got only two responses,’ he says. 

‘So almost all Australian playwrights are not interested in Asia or in the next generation.’

‘There is much to learn about Australian theatre’s obsession with middle-class and middle of the road.’

Another award the company dealt with a lot was the Malcolm Robertson New Playwright Award established in 2000. It was to honour all the work that Robertson did with playwrights when he was Literary Manager at Playbox.

‘I thought of the award concept after talks with Ray Lawler who told me that he believed playwrighting prizes were essentially given to make writers go away,’ Mellor says.

‘Ray's ideal prize was an actual production—not money to go away with, not a reading or a workshop (though they automatically also occurred), but an actual fully staged production of the new work and so also a world premiere.’

‘We were not only looking for an interesting new play, but following Malcolm’s lead, we were also looking for an interesting new playwright. So, it became policy not only to name the best new play by the best new local playwright (a new writer previously not produced at Playbox), but also to produce that play.’

The one to win the Inaugural Malcolm Robertson New Playwrights Award was Ben Ellis’ play Post Felicity on the lost ideals of the 1968 generation, its complicity in the increasing dehumanisation of society and implicit refusal of the young to live in such a world. The script had a long developmental path. It started with a reading in Playbox’s Theatre in the Raw under the original ‘moniker’ Who Are You Mr James?, continued in the Bagging Room and, after co-winning the 2000 Patrick White Playwrights Award (with Small Mercies by Ailsa Piper), was presented in a reading in the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 1 Theatre on 22 April 2001. Playbox paid the young writer full credit for Post Felicity with a production in the Beckett Theatre a year later. It was paired up with Svetlana in Slingbacks by Valentina Levkowicz, the play considered for the VCE drama curriculum upon persistent advocacy of the Playbox Education team and restaged for a return season. But that was yet to come (see Part 4).

The 2001 Inside season launched with Public Dancing by Peter Webb on 6 June. It was a four-hander that opened with an insight into the young drug users’ way of life. Not before long, however, the dialogue turned into a confrontation of ideas about love, freedom and the Self. Some of the thinking was an unequivocal throwback to Nietzsche, who also inspired David Hayhow, the writer of Ancient Enmity with which the 2001 Inside season was to close. Take, for instance, the following:

SEBASTION:The presence of rules creates an atmosphere which allows the possibility of other rules not known about or agreed upon. The result is tension … I want to make love to life instinctually, without rules, I want a beautiful poetic union.

And in response to his lover’s rebuttal, ‘You don’t have a clue what you want, you’re a paranoid little city fuck!’, Sebastion says,

Balancing paranoia is an art, an exercise in sensory awareness. Separating the relevant from the irrelevant, everyone’s using bare minimum brain power, well I’m sick of the bare minimum, that’s easy. I wanna mutate, I might be scoring every day but at least I know what I want. And I want you Coral, it’s not enough to talk philosophy, you have to practice philosophy.

While Public Dancing was first produced by Playbox Theatre at The CUB Malthouse in David Symons’ direction, bang! a critical fiction by Margaret Cameron had a creative development workshop at La Mama first. It was a long poem spoken by Cameron as Cowboy, metaphorical and meditative, with a chest of three drawers that could be lit in various ways, a Cowboy’s shadow (either as a man or a woman) and a Light (the Lone Ranger—in rear projection) featuring as play figures too. It took Cameron nearly a page and a half to describe the setting and how it should work. The subject of illumination was again ‘a secret psychological life’ and the slips from the mind to the body, from the Self to the Other and vice versa. Cameron wrote, ‘The characters are me and youme and you the chest, me and you the shadow and the light, me and you the audience, then me and you in orbit, in relationship with … the unknown.’

‘It was a beautiful piece by Margaret who was very important to me when I was a student at VCA,’ Healey says.

‘She did a series of solo shows at La Mama, including one called Things Calipso Wanted to Say! which anyone attending La Mama in the late 1980s would remember, because it had about ten seasons.’

‘I always really wanted to work with Margaret Cameron and was able not only to get her to come in as an actor in the ensemble, but we also commissioned a new solo work from her. That was one of our early collaborations, with digital projection that was an incredible headache, but wonderful.’

One more short play by Cameron rendered in a poetic form, but more transparent despite the depth of thought and emotion voiced in it, followed in Programme 3 of Inside 2001. It was Knowledge & Melancholy characteristically composed in the first-person perspective, and in the Playbox production performed by Cameron herself.

The work had, however, developed in stages. It was initially workshopped at La Mama Theatre, Carlton, in March 1997 and then at Dancehouse, Melbourne, in June 1998. The first production of the full playtext was produced by the Deborah Hay Dance Company at the Zachary Scott Theatre, Austin, Texas, on 4 May 1999, as a duet.

Reworked into an interior monologue, the play watched by the audience of Inside 2001 unfolded as a dying woman’s song that only a couple of citations, brief as they are, can do justice:

Understanding loss

Is the recognition that we have loved.

But the roots of woman’s angst are deeper than that.

Perhaps I am arrogant

but I suffer this status quo

this expectation of the ‘normal’

and I do not find it so.

It neglects truth. It neglects beauty.

Knowledge & Melancholy was paired up with Seven Days of Silence by Angus Cerini, written in the absurdist mode and yet turning out to be anything but absurd in the end. The events took place over the period of seven days in allusion to the seven days in which God created the world, except that in this case it was the old man harassed by a young stranger who rose to the challenge, forcing the ‘boy’ to become a man—a creation no less significant in the real world of today than the Biblical one.

None of the above plays achieved the success of Svetlana in Slingbacks, though. Valentina Levkowicz’s play began taking shape in a workshop way back in 1990, with the assistance of an Australia Council Grant. It took ten years for Vitalstatistix to stage its first production at Theatre 62, Adelaide. At Playbox, it was presented as a stand-alone play in Programme 2 of Inside 01, 13-19 June 2001.

Svetlana in Slingbacks was a contemporary tragedy written in the style of realism, with occasional flights into the realm of fantasy justified by either mental illness or contemporary education that guided the imagination towards sci-fi. The protagonists were members of a dysfunctional family, first-generation migrants whose Russian-Jewish background had a major impact on their and their children’s well-being in the process of acculturation. Tom Healey played a minor role in it.

‘I played this hideous businessman who was very lecherous towards the older sister Sonya. There were lots of nazdarovya! (Eng. Cheers), lots of vodka shots and talking with my mouthful (He laughs). That was wonderful.’

The play to close the Inside 01 programme was Ancient Enmity by David Hayhow. Its protagonists were historical art figures at the turn of the 20th century immersed in the discussion of classical ideas of form and beauty that were increasingly subverted under the influence of Cézanne in France and Nietzsche in Germany. Enmeshed with the questions about art was the interrogation of ideas embedded in the foundations of Christian religion and patriarchal society. The Playbox audience  watched this mammoth play that lasted for three hours in Programme 4 of the Inside 2001. The director was Tom Healey.

‘Hayhow had an enormous dream about the world,’ he says. 

The dream revolved around the question, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ and it had for a scene ‘the eternal battleground between the sexes. And between the call of art, and the call of life,’ the Author’s Note informed the audience. What prompted the battle could be deduced from the Prologue already, with the opening bars of ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ by Richard Strauss streaming against the image of the index finger of God and Adam from ‘The Creation of Adam’ by Michelangelo projected on screen. As the music died, Rainer Maria Rilke appeared naked except for a large Russian Orthodox cross.

Ancient Enmity is set on the cusp of a huge change in the art world from the 19th to the 20th century, but it is also centred around Germany marching towards WW1 and then WW2,’ Healey says.

That is why the Harlequin figure he substituted in the Prologue with the Monkey (an actor in a monkey-suit), ‘this very Nietzschesque image that very much set the tone for what was to follow’.

The intended meaning transpired clearly later in the dialogue but catching other references to some  key moments in art and literature history required background knowledge.

Ancient Enmity centres around the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker and the competition of values between the ‘parochial’ Germany and the ‘cosmopolitan’ Paris. Paula and her soul mate Clara Westhoff, who began as a painter but then turned to sculpture, started their artistic journey at Worpswede, a village north-east of Bremen that remains an artists’ colony to this day. Founded by a somewhat older painter Otto Modersohn and his friend Fritz Mackensen in 1889, the Worpswede group began to attract plaudits by 1895, especially Mackensen who gave instructions to Paula and whose ‘sombre realism of both landscape and figure subjects, severe and simplified,’ was in sympathy with Otto’s ‘dark, almost brooding landscapes’. While she eventually married Modersohn, Paula reached her full artistic potential during her visits to Paris. There she met up with Clara by then married to Rilke and studying under Rodin, who suppressed Clara’s artistic individuality. In contrast, Paula’s style of painting, while initially heavily influenced by her teacher and later by Cézanne, showed over time a growing affinity with Expressionist art. Even though she was not part of the Die Brücke [The Bridge] group—by common consent the earliest ‘Expressionists’ in Germany2—Paula Modersohn-Becker received an invitation to take part in their exhibition shortly before dying from postnatal embolism at the age of 31.

Clues to important moments in art history abound in Ancient Enmity. One of the very few that can be deciphered by a key provided in the dialogue is precisely ‘the bridge’, a reference to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra read by four architecture students at their weekly meetings in Dresden. The decision to name their group Die Brücke is widely considered as a sign of the profound influence of Nietzsche’s ideas of art, God, morality and the Self on their own thinking and their art. For instance, Nietzsche’s rejection of the idea of afterlife that inspires over-earthly hope and of the separation of body and soul by ‘Despisers of the Body’ is essential for understanding the full import of the naked body in Ancient Enmity. The overarching paradigm is, however, the bridge which invokes the central proposition of Thus Spoke Zarathustra: ‘Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman [later translated as Superior Man and still more recently as Overhuman]—a rope over an abyss,’ reworded a couple of lines later, ‘What is great in Man is that he is a bridge [to the condition of Overhuman], and not a goal’ (as in Christianity)3. Paula Modersohn-Becker strove to overcome the condition of Woman she was trapped in, not only the academic style of painting.

The dialogue also provided enough clues for grasping the signification of the Harlequin figure that popped up every now and then, either in frequent invocations of  Cézanne or in a direct reference to his ‘Mardi Gras’ paintings (‘Pierrot and Harlequin, Mardi Gras’) shown in performance using a slide projection on the white set. These and other visual images complemented verbal arguments all along, contributing to a fuller understanding of the concepts and artistic principles discussed. The French Master embodied the point in time when the past and future met, ideas collided and art embarked on a new trajectory, further and further away from the principle of representation.

As Paula visits Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in Paris, she sees a Cézanne for the first time and ‘just goes into this rhapsodic crazy trance,’ Healey recalls.

‘We showed that painting in production—she had a white costume, and we had the painting on a slide projector and it was moving all over her dress; she was sort of swimming in this painting. It was amazing.’

But to spot a reference to romanticism from two allusions to ‘a blue flower’ (the symbol of beauty used by Novalis in Henry von Ofterdingen) or ‘a urinal wall’ (in reference to Duchamp) and other allusions to the key moments in art history provided in the dialogue, the spectator had nothing to draw on but personal education. This particularly goes for references to Lou Andreas-Salomé featured as a ‘Russian femme fatale’ and Muse, not as the world’s first female psychoanalyst who treated Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s desire to marry her, as a symptom of transference, is implicitly attributed to physical attraction alone, with no suggestion of an intellectual bond.

Rilke too was smitten by this delicate beauty with diverse intellectual interests. For him, she personified the Russia he visited in his twenties and its spirituality that moved him deeply, leading him to believe that the widespread stigmatisation of the poor and ‘modern inability to love’ can be attributed to the ‘constant construction of identities imposed on an individual by others’4. Rilke dedicated his first through-composed cycle The Book of Hours to Lou Andreas-Salomé.

‘There is this incredibly passionate argument in the play about art and politics, women particularly,’ Healey says, ‘so that the audiences watched the play from two angles, from its own timeframe but also from ours.’

‘The play finishes with a beautiful requiem for Paula Modersohn-Becker. Some 35 or 36 of her paintings just came up on the white set, very slowly, and then the actor, James Brennan who played Rilke, began speaking this beautiful elegy poem that Rilke wrote for her (Requiem Für Eine Freunde), so you have Rilke and Modersohn-Becker together at the end. It was epic!’

‘We had a great cast, Sarah Norris who played Paula and Miria Kostiuk who played Clara and Brian Lipson who played Otto Modersohn. David Francke did the sound, beautiful sound, and Christina Smith did the set. It was a very fancy production.’

And yet some people didn’t like it at all. Healey, however, remains very fond of that production. He enjoyed the challenge of it, and he liked that an Australian writer was thinking about art and politics as being the underlying forces of society.

By the time he joined Playbox, Healey was working much more as a director than as actor, but he accepted a couple of roles within the Inside programme when the company ‘just could not afford another actor,’ he says.

‘I also got to play a very gay arts curator in the second part of Violet Inc. who was assisting in making this exhibition happen (of Violet’s letters, edited by the biographer of course), which I had enjoyed enormously.’

The memory segues into the perennial argument of what comes first, ‘chicken or the egg’.

‘Aubrey would always argue that the writer is at the centre of theatre, and I don’t disagree with that necessarily,’ Healey says.

‘But Aubrey was also historically very interested in actors and acting, as I was and remain so, and we were very conscious that this kind of European model of repertoire theatre—where  actors are doing more than one project at a time—there  was an audience for that as well.’

Mellor attributes it to the company’s perseverance in honouring Australian talent.

‘We had built up a loyal subscriber base of audiences who were genuinely interested in new work, people who took pride in being at the first production of premieres, so we conceived the Inside seasons as in-house seasons, experimental and try-outs,’ he says.

‘We did not seek to develop new profitable plays, though sometimes an Inside play would prove popular enough to warrant a tour, for example, Svetlana in Slingbacks.’

What the Inside programme made also possible was to compare the shows, directly. For, at the end of weeks three and four a marathon performance was held in the courtyard.

‘We would do programmes 1, 2, 3 and 4 in one day. So, the audience turned up at midday—I think it was—and got out of Ancient Enmity, which in Inside 2001 played last, at 11.45 pm or something like that,’ Healey says laughing.

‘People turned up for the day, everybody brought blankets, we got it catered. It was absolutely remarkable.’

‘I would love to do it again. I mean, I love theatre when it turns into an event.’

Work with emerging playwrights is inherently driven by the idea of excellence. It was years before, while he was at Nimrod, that Mellor became aware of the lack of interest in the ‘old’ Australian plays. Everybody wanted the new and ‘better’ Australian play, but ‘nobody knew how to make it better,’ he says.

The directors, Mellor included, ‘made it up as they went’ and playwrighting courses were scarce.

‘So the writers didn’t know how to do it and we had no dramaturgs who knew how to help the writer,’ he says.

‘That was something I was aware of, but I couldn’t do anything about it until I got to Playbox.’

One of the key decisions Mellor made at Playbox was to bring Oskar Eustis, the dramaturg for Angels in America, out to Australia.

To explain why he still considers it important, Mellor returns to the process of play reading.

‘We had a set of people, mostly young directors, whom we paid to read the plays and give comments. We had a whole network of readers,’ Mellor says.

‘And then, we had a literary manager who would be coordinating where the scripts went to, what script went to whom, and every script was read, I think, three or four times, never just once. And then, they (literary managers) would coordinate the feedback.’

Mellor would not ‘allow just any old reader’ to talk directly to a writer. If the reader was finding ‘really interesting things’ to say, he was introduced to the writer and the two would form a relationship that was valuable ‘for the next hour’. More often than not, however, the writer was protected from ‘just another opinion’. The literary manager would extract all relevant comments from the reports and then send them to the writer. When the work sparked sufficient interest, the literary manager would alert the artistic director to it.

‘I had several different types of literary managers, and I would then have short lists, first from my own hunting but also from the literary managers,’ Mellor says.

‘When we brought Oskar Eustis out, I invited all literary managers from other companies and from our company and all our readers. Oskar just did sessions with them, and we asked him questions and he gave us input.’

One of the topics discussed was ‘the second act syndrome’. What happens in Act Two, after you come back from the interval, is often the problem with Australian plays, Mellor says.

‘The second act has to do a lot of different things. It is not a continuation of the first act, but most playwrights think that the story just goes on. The second act should do all sorts of other things.’

More precisely, Act One charts out the story that contains hidden clues and then in Act Two something unexpected happens and the audience goes, ‘Oh, I see. This is awesome,’ Mellor says.

‘If you go, “Oh, my God! I knew it, I knew it” with excitement deep down inside you, the seed had been planted and suddenly something happens on stage and the idea blossoms into something marvellous. It’s something that everybody should know.’

John Romeril was certainly aware of it. A young and beautiful girl of his play Miss Tanaka, with which the main 2001 season was launched, appeared apparently for the first time in Scene Nine, even though she had been there, in front of the spectator’s eyes, from Scene One. Like Love Suicides (1997), the play was based on an old story but no less relevant today than in 1930, when Xavier Herbert wrote it. The spotlight in it was on pearl trade ‘in a pre-plastic era’, when Australia was supplying ‘80 percent of the world’s pearlshell needs’, Romeril writes in the Playwright’s Note.

I knew Herbert had been a life-long opponent of white Australian racism. He’d bravely criticized the treatment of Aboriginal people, and the way hard-working, law-abiding “foreigners” were discriminated against. Because I shared his vision of a “multi-cultural” Australia, back home I read the stories I’d first heard of in Japan.

‘Miss Tanaka’ enthralled me. It had the virtues and technique of an Australian yarn, a form I admire enormously. But there was something very Japanese about it too: he (Herbert) had written a role for a female impersonator, shades of the onagatta roles in Kabuki!’

The play was set in Broome at the dawn of WW2 and the pearl divers’ ethnicities were painted with vibrant colours, putting a stamp on local customs and the way of life during the lay-up. The boundary between the real and the imaginary was again blurred and the language of performance a hybrid of realism and Bunraku puppet theatre, highly poetic and awash with imagery. The cast of five actors, two puppeteers5—one of whom (Heather Monk) was also Puppetry Director—and two musicians, Junko Sakamoto and Toshi Sakamoto, recreated the realities that put the diver’s endurance to the test, revealed their camaraderie and a longing for going back to the place of origin, for going home. The view was the young company owner’s, conceived by Romeril as a British Jew who knew a lot about pearl evaluation but nothing about the business thrust upon him. His ‘education’ began on the job and stretched well into the night when gambling, drinking, opium smoking and brothels were in full swing. Reverie and romance balanced it all.

Romeril dedicated the play to Noriko Noshimoto, then Artistic Director of Spare Parts, ‘who first ran with the idea’. It was jointly produced by Handspan Visual Theatre and Playbox Theatre at The CUB Malthouse, with David Bell as director and script collaborator.

The Sign of the Seahorse, the illustrated children’s book by Graeme Base adapted into an opera, followed on 1 March 2001. It was coproduced with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and played at the Concert Hall, Victorian Arts Centre, testimony to how far the Playbox team was prepared to go in challenging the conventional idea of dramatic theatre and its boundaries.

One more work played at the Victorian Arts Centre that season, Your Dreaming by Guy Rundle, a commercial production which went on to tour Australia for several years. But the play Mellor chose to direct and scheduled for a regional tour just after its premiere season was Salt: A Play in Five Helpings by Peta Murray. It opened on 16 March in the Beckett and the choice of a smaller of the two original theatres at Playbox was deliberate. For, Salt was an intimate play, it required an intimate atmosphere for the main thread of the narrative to reach the audience with full force.

To some extent, Salt recalled Emma Celebrazione! produced by Playbox in 1996, for it had food preparation in it, the recipes were provided in the dialogue and the theme was family. In Murray’s case, however, the focus was on mother-daughter relationship, fraught as it often is, veiling a deep bond under the surface. Mellor’s first memory goes to the cast.

‘I had the joy of working with Julia Blake and Paul English and Victoria Eagger, again an ex-student of mine who has turned into a nurse and is now looking after COVID patients in Melbourne!’

Mellor wanted the ‘magic’ in performance, so they built a black velvet wall which had openings in it for the food to completely disappear.

‘Most things you can’t do in Australian theatres because they’ve always got the exit lights on, which is a disaster,’ he says.

‘Anyway, we designed the set to be a black box with only the wooden kitchen table present. The back wall had windows in it that could be opened from the front; and within the openings, like a cupboard, were shelves that could be stocked from behind.’

‘I used a magician’s trick of my father’s covering the entire wall with thick black velvet. Unlike woollen black drapes which catch light and turn grey, velvet does not catch light. Thus, the actors could reach into the darkness and magically bring out an eggplant or lemons or the humble potato, whatever was needed for the next chapter.

‘Stage management continually cleared the shelves and reset new props—all unseen—from behind the wall. The wall was solid, as the velvet was smoothly glued onto the plyboard surface.’

The objects would thus appear as if out of nowhere and the table was all lit.

‘I’ve never seen that in the theatre again, so I felt it was quite an innovation. I wish I had a video of it,’ Mellor says noting, almost as an afterthought, that Peta Murray has stopped writing. ‘I wish she would write another play,’ he says.

Each one of the five scenes in Salt unfolded in the sign of a particular vegetable and a recipe received from a dear granny or a mysterious person who, as it eventually turned out, had a lasting impact on the  mother’s psychological well-being and, by projection, on the daughter’s as well. Yet this alone would not have been enough to make Salt a significant work. Rather, it was the third figure simply called THE MAN, abstract and with no fixed identity that took the play to a level beyond entertainment. He was a constant presence, an eponymous male haunting a female mind, an anchor. The skill with which Murray built this figure, extending her exploration into the province of the unconscious, gave Salt the depth it needed to transcend the familiar peppered with triviality and enter the sphere of reflection.

Leafing through the playscript published by Playbox and Currency Press reveals that, beside the programme in centre pages, inserted in it was also a list of six art centres Salt toured to in 2001:

Salt toursTours listed in the playscript-cum-programme

I Don’t Wanna Play House by Tammy Anderson, the play that the Playbox audiences watched at The CUB Malthouse next, had a return season within the Blak Inside series, which is why we will defer shining a light on it and turn attention instead to the double bill featuring the work of Australian playwrights who had begun their respective careers at the Australian Performing Group and had close ties with La Mama, Carlton. One is Jack Hibberd whose play Three Old Friends launched La Mama in 1967, and the other is Barry Dickins who had more work produced at La Mama than anywhere else.

Their plays viewed by Playbox audiences in the winter of 2001 were Insouciance by Dickins and The Prodigal Son by Hibberd, and they bore remarkable similarities. Both were three-handers, both had ‘The Psychopathology of Everyday Life’ (Freud’s paper Hibberd cites in the dialogue) for a theme, and both featured monstrous women and their male victims within the nuclear family. Daniel Schlusser, who had directed several premiers of plays by Hibberd, also directed The Prodigal Son, while Tom Healey directed Insouciance.

Rather than analysing the artistic means used by the doyens of Australian theatre as a reminder that women are perpetrators of abuse too, an angle possibly assumed in response to feminist literature and so pertaining to gender studies, there is another contention to raise in the context of theatre. It concerns a firmly entrenched view of the hierarchy of Melbourne theatre companies that both Healey and Mellor refer to when reflecting on the Theatre in the Raw and Inside programmes.

‘There was—as there still is—La Mama, which could take people to a certain level and then, if you were a playwright, you would either go onto independent work or to Playbox and from Playbox to MTC and, in the case of people like Joanna Murray-Smith, to television and film. So, we (Playbox Theatre) were an important part of that “food chain”,’ Healey says.

Mellor says pretty much the same thing. He kept an eye on La Mama, because there he would spot the new writers that he could ‘use’. ‘So we were one step up from them,’ he says.

‘If you were a playwright, you would get a Theatre in the Raw event, then you might get a La Mama production and then you would get a Playbox production, and then—like what happened with Joanna Murray-Smith and Michael Gurr and Hannie Rayson—you get a Melbourne Theatre Company production, and you arrive at the state theatre level. So that was the structure that we were very aware of and it gave them (the writers) a career path and something to work their way through and towards.’

While necessary and fruitful to a certain degree, such a hierarchy also allows some remarkable talents to fall by the wayside. For, value has historically been associated with the familiar, especially in an art form that entirely depends on audience patronage. Yet break throughs in art are made by artists who break the rules, and contemporary iconoclasts would arguably have a greater chance of survival in an environment in which La Mama, The Playbox (now The Malthouse) and MTC had the same ranking. An acknowledgment of difference free of ranking would, by extension, raise public awareness of the companies’ respective roles in creating taste often mistaken for value, and fresh, bold ideas would have a greater chance of infiltrating dominant trend(s) and destabilising safe choices. How to avoid championing experimentation for experimentation’s sake that often results in work of little or no intrinsic value is another question.

Three plays Playbox included in the main season of 2001 exemplify the full range of possibilities open to artistic directors. St Kilda Tales by Raimondo Cortese, a co-production with Ranters Theatre, St Kilda, was commissioned by the then Melbourne Festival director Jonathan Mills. The play does not have ‘a conventional plot’, the audience is forewarned in the Writer’s Notes,  and ‘[a]s in real life, there are no real beginnings and ends. Things happen sometimes with consequences, sometimes not.’

What Cortese found exciting was ‘the anarchic complexity that underlies everyday existence’ which led to the composition of a play as unstructured as existence itself outside the daily routine. But unlike in life lived, the lack of structure in a play and the mishmash of idioms spoken by St Kilda’s diverse community produced the impression of rambling that went on and on. One issue followed another—parochial Australia, a fractured father-son relationship, obsession with money and much more—simply came up and went. Listening to 81 pages of such dialogue called for a virtuoso director, Adriano Cortese, to make St Kilda Tales intelligible to the audience. ‘[T]he “live” dynamic between actors’ that the writer put much faith into made a dubious contribution to it.

‘The script has been stripped of literary excesses in order to provide a very simple flow of dramatic action,’ R. Cortese wrote.

‘The disordered and anarchic energy of the actor is embraced and welcomed as the essential ingredient of what moves us when we experience theatre.’

Whether anarchy equals a ‘simple flow of dramatic action’ was the question left to the audience to answer.

This Way Up by Elizabeth Coleman, first produced by Playbox Theatre at The CUB Malthouse on 21 November, was written in the style of naturalism, a polar opposite to St Kilda Tales. Coleman’s new play could serve as a textbook example of a superbly crafted work that draws on an age-old theme of inter-personal relationships spiced with romance and contemporary journalism practice, with suspense building into a climax before the happy end. Coleman had Catherine Hill, the dramaturg and play’s director, to thank for reaching if not exceeding the success of Secret Bridesmaid’s Business (1999) and the cast comprising Mandy McElhinney, Luke Elliot, Marian Haddrick, Stewart Morritt and Lynda Gibson did play a large part in it.

Holy Day by Andrew Bovell was, by contrast, a very dark play. It opened a hole in the wall of silence erected in the common belief that ‘what is not spoken will eventually fade,’ to cite a line from the dialogue. And what was to remain enveloped in silence was white Australia’s treatment of its First Nations. Composed in five acts like a Shakespearean or, rather, a Jacobean tragedy, it featured no less cruelty than Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and, while set in mid-19th century, had ‘resonant implications for our present and future position as a nation,’ director Rosalba Clemente wrote, position ‘not only to the truth of the holocaust that occurred in this nation, but to the ongoing hierarchy of abuse and racism we encounter today in so many shapes and forms.’

Holy Day was first produced by the State Theatre Company of South Australia on 21 August 2001, and it opened at the Merlyn Theatre, Playbox less than a month later. It was a ‘fit year’ for the play theme.

Clemente was appointed Artistic Director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia the year before and one of her first steps was to reposition the company as ‘a parent body to innovation and the development of new Australian work’. In the Director’s Note she wrote that she found the money by foregoing an associate director, investing it in three projects: an adaptation of Robert Dessaix’s novel Night Letters by Chris Drummond and Susan Rodgers, Drowning in My Ocean of You by Fiona Spott, and Holy Day by Andrew Bovell.

‘This is how the establishment of the Theatre Laboratory came to be,’ Clemente wrote.

Among the stated goals, one stands out in particular. It points to an attempt to accept risk as an unavoidable aspect of art practice, the view pursued by Playbox too.

‘On a company level we aim to bring these new works to full production level, extending our commitment, stretching the margins between low-risk and high-risk artistic endeavour.’

In its developmental stage, Holy Day was workshopped at the Australian National Playwright’s Centre and indigenous consultants were brought in. It comes as no surprise, then, that on the opening night in The Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, indigenous actors Rachael Maza and Melodie Reynolds played indigenous roles. Both were tragic heroes. Kerry Walker, for whom Patrick White had written several roles, played Nora, a white woman left to her own devices in her fight for survival, who expects absolute obedience from a stolen aboriginal girl. Mandy McElhinney played a complex role of a missionary’s wife forced to admit the indigenous people’s indifference to her faith and moving on after losing everything, even her baby. Dino Marnika was the murderer/abuser and Cameron Goodall the mutilated/abused youth, while Peter Docker and Frank Gallagher played more level-headed white men, one unable to prevent the massacre and the other unwilling to get involved. The designer was Cath Cantlon, Mark Shelton renowned for his work in theatres across Australia did lighting design, and Bernie Lynch, who was the song writer and producer for Eurogliders, composed the soundtrack for Holy Day.

But the play which forever remains close to Mellor’s heart is Nowhere by Dorothy Hewett. And for a good reason. For, were it not for Mellor, Hewett would never have written it. The story she often told is recorded in Notes from the Playwright, in the Playbox and Currency Press edition of the play:

‘Two years before I had vowed to an audience of three hundred at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival that I would never write another play again, but then Aubrey was on the phone reminding me that Playbox was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, and would I write a play for it. I was ill and in pain and unable to write, but afterwards guilt and pride took over and I rang back: “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll give it a go,” I said.

That night I picked up a notebook and biro and began Nowhere. It took me three days and nights to finish the first draft.’

Hewett had not written a new play since The Jarrabin Trilogy (1995). Despite being a commission from MTC and Black Swan Theatre, it was never produced. What is more, she received no feedback whatsoever, she said in an interview with the author of these lines back in March 2000.

‘Dorothy (Hewett) was of course ahead of her time, she really belonged to the later wave of more complexities,’ Mellor says.

‘I had a long history with Dorothy, and I was aware that her big plays weren’t being performed. People say, “stop doing certain playwrights” after a while. They are not a novelty anymore.’

‘I was also aware that she had big visions and she always wrote for large casts. So I said to her, “if ever you can think of a small cast play, I’ll do it”.’

With that proviso in mind, Hewett composed a play for five actors, assigning two parts to one of them. The role of an 80-year-old  pensioner Josh, ‘once a Communist, [who] jumped rattlers all over the country in the Depression’ she wrote specifically for Peter Cummins, a septuagenarian like her with whom she shared ‘political views, historical time and theatre influences’. And she managed to ‘entice’ Cummins from retirement.

Mellor says it was he who suggested that a ‘homeless girl’ who runs away from Bull, a skinhead and drug dealer, be profiled as Aboriginal. Hewett called her Vonnie and the role was assigned to Leah Purcell whose background was indeed Aboriginal.

‘We went to the Varuna Writers’ Centre at Katoomba arranged by Jill (Smith); all the actors stayed there,’ Mellor says.

‘I got them all from three different states because I wanted the premiere to feel a bit national, rather than just Melbourne.’

‘We stayed there two or three nights with the wonderful Louise Gough as dramaturg, and we went to Dorothy’s house, and we rehearsed the play in her big living room and Dorothy lay on a Chesterfield taking notes.’

Nowhere is set on the edge of a showground in a small town once called The Torrent, but after the completion of the Snowy River Scheme the river it was named for turned into a trickle and the town became Dry Torrent. Josh lives in a ‘flimsy shack’, while a Vietnam veteran reliving the horrors of war in his dreams uses an old Holden for a home. Into their lives walks Vonnie, her feet in blisters from running away from her abuser in the big city. She is going nowhere and that statement, going nowhere, becomes a refrain that keeps recurring until the end.

‘With Dorothy Hewett’s Nowhere, the idea of putting a Vietnamese veteran on stage and the audience actually sitting there and watching it without fleeing, was another big step forward,’ Mellor says.

The first step was made with Burning Time, Nicholas Flanagan’s play Mellor directed in 1996. In Nowhere, the memories, public protests and personal traumas the Veterans lived with, not infrequently ending up homeless, was a much more confronting experience to watch.

The opening night on 17 October 2001 was a big event. Nowhere was included in the Melbourne Festival programme and Hewett was brought down for the occasion, which was a no-mean-feat given her reduced mobility. But with the support of her husband of forty years, Merv Lilley, she made it and Mellor arranged for the first row of seats in the Beckett to be taken out and a chaise lounge be placed there for Hewett to be able to recline during the performance. The chaise lounge was red velvet.

 ‘She sat in the front row, on red velvet as a princess, which is how I wanted to treat her,’ Mellor says.

‘They treated me like a Queen of Sheba’, Hewett used to say later.

This was not only because she was a preeminent playwright and a brave soldier of the Australian avant-garde. Hoopla Productions, as the company was called before becoming Playbox Theatre, opened with Alma de Groen’s play Chidley followed by Hewett’s The Golden Oldies on 19 January 1977. It too had ‘the quality of a dream’, Graham Blundell who directed The Golden Oldies wrote in an essay published by Currency Press, as an introduction to the playtext. Together with John Romeril and David Williamson, Hewett was also the patron of Playbox at The CUB Malthouse for more than a decade.

In her late years, Hewett could only observe the world from her house, confined to her bed and her chaise lounge by arthritis in her lower spine. And yet engaging with the world was a must for her. The three main protagonists in Nowhere were representative of three generations, allowing Hewett to take a historical perspective on past events, political visions and the unrealised potential of Australia. Memory was also a bond shared with Aboriginal cultures, with the dreaming. Part of the dream of Australia that belonged to its entire population was also Mrs Mac (played by Jan Friedl), the social worker who came onto the scene in Act Two in the company of the Sargeant (played by Damien Richardson doubling as Bull). It drew a terse comment.

JOSH: Always been a country of lags and screws.

Music and poetry played a large part in the stream of memory as in most of Hewett’s plays. She was a poet, after all, and the once popular song ‘The Rustle of Spring’, played on an old ‘player pianner’ Vonnie had dragged from a rundown School of Arts, fed into nostalgia that permeated most of the play. It was nostalgia for the times when people believed in the power of art to help change the world.

JOSH: School o’ Arts. They was all over Australia once, built to educate the workers. We ‘ad political discussions, music, plays, poetry readings and lectures. They did a bloody good job. Made us less like a country of ‘illbillies.

While Josh, Snow and Vonnie sing ‘The Rustle of Spring’ several times in the play, it is not on the note of nostalgia that it closes with. Rather, the metaphorical nowhere turns into a promise and Josh alone stays put, forecasting triumphantly: ‘The floods are comin’.

JOSH: What did I tell youse? She’s comin’! The Torrent’s comin’! She is comin’ to sweep us all away, sweeten the waters and green the land agen.

As Josh sings ‘I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night’, the song about the death of a labour activist who ‘Goes on to organise’, the sound of church bells mingles with the sound of rain and the river in a closure characteristic of fertility myth that follows the exemplary pattern of cyclical regeneration/renewal of nature and of humankind. Echoed in the closure is also Nietzsche who maintained that the humans must go ‘under’ (or down like the sun), that is, they must abandon old systems of value for the ‘Overhuman’ to emerge. Hewett’s final direction in her manuscript reads:

Blackout, only the sound of the rain and the river. Then very softly “The Rite of Spring” and the sound of church bells play faintly, as if under water.’

The sound of Stravinsky’s famous work which celebrates the renewal of nature, while rejecting the law of harmony that ruled supreme in music and art in general, accompanied by church bells is the moment in which the fortune of Dry Torrent turns. For, floods peak and recede, leaving the fertile soil behind. It follows that Hewett wanted the eponymous small town (also the setting of The Man from Mukinupin and The Jarrabin Trilogy) to have a future.

And yet, in the printed version of the playtext the music with which the play closes is ‘The Rustle of Spring’. Small town is bogged down in nostalgia and so in the past!

Whether this misinterpretation of Hewett’s intention warrants a new edition of Nowhere is an open question.

Playbox and Currency Press have co-published a huge number of Australian plays. The deal was clinched by Jill Smith, Mellor says.

‘Carrillo published a few plays with staples in them, rather like Yackandandah Press, but Jill and I wanted Currency quality with quality binding.’

The ‘deal’ was an extension to the Current Theatre Series that had begun with Patrick White’s Signal Driver produced in 1983 by the South Australian Theatre Company under the directorship of Jim Sharman, Katharine Brisbane recalls. Despite being a Nobel Laureate, White was still considered as a risk and the publication of his new play ‘unlikely to cover its costs’.

‘We had been seeking a way round this problem and came up with the idea of supplying the text as the theatre programme and charging the theatre company for a basic thousand programmes,’ Brisbane writes in an email.

‘In this way we covered the first printing cost of the programme and gained publishing rights for the future.’

But there was a catch: the playwrights would hand over their text while still in a draft form, that is, before it went into production.

‘So, while we were editing and formatting for the printer, the writer, director and actors were making changes for the stage. Thus the published version was not the final one, nor was the second likely to be, or even the third,’ Brisbane says.

‘The changes were not large, but they were important and inconvenient, especially when it came to school study (which was well entrenched in our system by 1983). We tried to avoid trouble by leaving the second edition as long as possible.’

‘Another drawback was that publishing rights to the plays were not always available to us, so we quickly confined the territory to Australian works that were available.’

St Kilda Tales by Raimondo Cortese and Your Dreaming by Guy Rundle were not among the available.

‘In my time the scheme was useful to us in that audiences gained familiarity with the reading of playscripts, but it did not have a major impact on the cashflow,’ Brisbane says.

Brisbane retired from Currency Press on her 70th birthday in early 2002 and Nick Parsons took over as Chair. While he was too young to be involved in the creation of the CTS, Parsons’ memory is that ‘the inspiration came from a similar series that Methuen did in the UK. We simply copied the idea,’ he says in an email.

More details emerge thus creating a full picture.

‘It was possible because we were able to receive the manuscript six weeks before opening night, make amendments up to two weeks before, and still deliver the books to the theatre by opening night—which at the time was quite a feat  when most publishers took six months or more to bring out a book,’ he says.

‘We were aware that new writers deserved to get their work in print, but it was hard to justify the publication costs unless a title had already had several productions and perhaps stood a chance of making it onto the HSC curriculum. But the CTS model was different.’

‘We could do what was then a short run—2000 copies—and half of those would be taken on firm sale by the theatre company for sale in their foyer. The other half we would sell through normal outlets. The firm sale to the theatre meant that the book broke even regardless of other sales, so essentially we could publish as many as we could manage in a year without affecting our profit and loss. These days with print-on-demand the runs can be shorter, but the idea is still the same.’

Parsons admits that the main issue in the early days was getting the plays to the theatre on time and without major errors. ‘These days our margin for error has increased a lot, as plays can be printed and delivered within 24 hours,’ he says.

New technology has had small effect on one editorial policy, though. If a CTS title goes into reprint, a standard edition is often brought out, as was done for instance for Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife.’ Recall, Purcell played Vonni in Hewett’s Nowhere.

‘The CTS remains a key strategy for discovering and encouraging new writers and new writing,’ Parsons says.

‘As far as Playbox goes specifically—their policy of producing only Australian work sets them apart, with Griffin in Sydney—as a key partner for us in supporting Australian playwrights.’

‘They did the hard work of developing these plays, honing them into texts that could be performed again and again. Our role was to fix that work in the public imagination as it were, make it available over time, so that its life and therefore its impact on our culture could be preserved and extended.’

The Current Theatre Series was not restricted to Playbox, however. ‘We have done editions for Griffin, STC, Belvoir, MTC and a few other companies,’ Parsons says.

He winds up with a tribute to Mellor.

‘Aubrey has made a unique contribution to Australian theatre, from his early work for NIDA as a young graduate to his numerous productions for Playbox and other companies, and later as Director of NIDA. He is a brilliant director, and we owe him a great deal.’

Katharine Brisbane says that Currency Press ‘never thought of the CTS publishing programme as being international’. Jill Smith and Aubrey Mellor saw the potential. When Oskar Eustis was shown all the published plays Playbox kept in its collection, he said he had no idea there was ‘all this Australian literature’ available in print.

‘So from that moment Jill and I began consciously to push Australian plays overseas,’ Mellor says.

‘And then, we could send those scripts off to major libraries in the world, so we spent a lot of money doing just that to help promote us. Some of the embassies also had huge and wonderful Australian collections, all Playbox and Currency Press publications.’

‘We promoted all Australian plays, not just those produced by Playbox,’ Mellor says emphatically.

‘There is now a fund at the Australia Council thanks to all our work and we did get Australian plays produced overseas.’

Stolen by Jane Harrison and Nightfall by Joanna Murray-Smith were among the most frequently performed internationally. The two plays opened within days of each other in Tokyo, in December 2002. Nightfall was getting its second production in Japan’s capital and Mellor thinks ‘it is still the most translated Australian play’. Stolen was Playbox’s second production at Tokyo International Festival.

‘It was an extremely important trip in terms of our relations with Japan. A double event in Tokyo for any international company is unheard of,’ he says.

Honour was having its second production in the same year (much commented upon in Japanese media)—this time by Bungakuza, the oldest and largest contemporary theatre company in Japan.’

‘And Stolen was given a prestigious position in Tokyo International Festival; it was Playbox’s second Tokyo Festival production.’

The first one was Romeril’s The Floating World in 1995.

All four plays were translated by Keiji Sawada as were Romeril’s Miss Tanaka, Keene’s Silent Partner, Nowra’s Radiance, Williamson’s The Removalists and many more. Dr Sawada obtained his PhD Degree from Macquarie University, Sydney and is Professor of Australian Studies and Theatre Studies at Waseda University, Tokyo.

Jill Smith recalls an event she witnessed during the London tour of Stolen. The then Prime Minister John Howard was there with State Premiers and some Federal Ministers for ‘some Australian anniversary’ and there was a function at Australia House. Outside, the protesters with ‘Say Sorry Howard’ banners were making their presence felt.

‘I was handing out flyers to the protesters and then went to the reception,’ Smith says.

‘Steve and Terry Bracks and Federal Minister Peter McGauran came to see the show in London and were very teary at the end.’

‘As a result of this sold-out season, they (the ensemble) went back for a regional UK tour.’

Stolen had another return season at Playbox in 2002, but it was not the only play to shed light on indigenous people’s experience. Six more plays were performed at the beginning of the season and all six were published by Currency Press in a collection titled Blak Inside.

 

To be continued

 

1. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Translated by Annette Lavers), Hill and Wang, New York, [1957] 1995

2. For more, see Peter Lasko, The Expressionist Roots of Modernism, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2003

3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Translation by Graham Parkes), Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, [1885] 2005, p.13

4. Peter U. Beicken and Victoria Finney, ‘Rilke’s Russian Encounter and the Transformative Impact on the Poet’, University Libraries: Drum, digital repository at the University of Maryland. https://drum.lib.umd.edu/handle/1903/15682?show=full      Accessed on 23 August 2021

5. Bradley Byquar played Kazuhiko (Mr Tanaka’s son whose late mother was Aboriginal) and Miss Kitso, Tam Phan was Mr Tanaka (a prematurely aged and crippled diver), Jeremy Stanford was Mott (the owner of a pearlshell company), Tony Yap was Hanif (a diver) and Yumi Umimare was Sakamoto (another diver). The puppeteers were Megan Cameron and Heather Monk.

 

 

Read 340 times Last modified on Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Jasna Novaković

Dr Jasna Novakovic

Jasna Novaković is an award winning arts journalist, with particular interest in investigative journalism, as the documentary ‘Yugoslav Theatre Today’, with which she represented Radio Yugoslavia on Radio Cyprus, demonstrates. In parallel, Jasna wrote theatre reviews for RY and feature articles for print media, including the specialized theatre gazette Ludus. After migrating to Australia, Jasna completed her MA in Communications (1996) and her PhD Thesis on the dialectic of myth and reality in Dorothy Hewett’s plays (2006). The greater part of her teaching experience at Monash and Curtin Universities is, however, in the areas of journalism and new media. Jasna’s articles, reviews and translations are published in Overland, Southerly, Australasian Drama Studies, the Australian Studies journal, Hecate’s AWBR and in Mostovi (Engl. Bridges), among others. Brian Friel’s Translations played in Jasna’s translation at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre from 2009 to 2011.