Wednesday, 01 December 2021

Aubrey Mellor: Playbox was a niche company (Part 4)

Written by

Malthouse Charlie Kinross banner 1200Above: Malthouse Theatre. Photo by Charlie Kinross. Courtesy of Malthouse Theatre.

In the closing instalment of her article on Melbourne’s Playbox Theatre Company, JASNA NOVAKOVIĆ focuses on Aubrey Mellor’s final years as artistic director, 2002 to 2004. To Mellor’s voice she adds the voices of Andrea James who reflects on the Blak Inside programme and of Tom Healey who puts an accent on the novelty of Inside 03: Technology Project. Play tours in Victoria and beyond, the Education Programme and the partnership with Victoria University as well as the gradual construction of new spaces are just some of the highlights. Read Part 1» | Read Part 2» | Read Part 3»

Blak Inside

The partnership between Playbox Theatre and Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-op. was five years old in 2002 and the plays by Indigenous writers had not only grown in number but in quality as well. They were authoritative accounts of the First Nations’ experiences, whether personal or not, of their struggles to find a meaningful place in Australian society and their visions of how to get there. Mellor, Artistic Director of Playbox, and John Harding, Chairperson of Ilbijerri, selected six plays that shone light on the issues plaguing people who identified themselves as Aboriginal. Quite diverse thematically and in form, they were showcased in what the Minister for the Arts at the time, Mary Delahunty, hailed as ‘the first festival of Victorian Indigenous writing’.

‘This is a welcome addition to the wealth of Indigenous culture shaping our nation and redefining perception of our identity,’ she wrote in a statement cited in the collection of plays published by Currency Press under the title Blak Inside.1

Well briefed, Delahunty saw the whole Blak Inside programme as ‘an industry trailblazer—expanding professional and creative boundaries’.

‘It involves a team of more than 40 actors, writers, directors and designers and offers traineeships in all areas,’ she wrote.

Andrea James today sees this ‘festival’ as a turning point in her career.

‘Blak Inside at Playbox was an exciting time for new and emerging First Nations theatre makers in Melbourne who were coming fresh out of VCA and Swinburne TAFE,’ she says.

‘While I’d been a part of a few First Nations playwriting festivals with readings, this was the first time our work was brought to the mainstage en masse.’

Spread over three weeks, the plays were showcased at Playbox and La Mama in Carlton, with Enuff by John Harding and I Don’t Wanna Play House by Tammy Anderson opening on 5 February. Approximately of the same duration, they mapped out the pathways at the time open to First Nations in Australia. Harding based his play on the idea of revolution, exposing the ways of manipulation that Aboriginal people have routinely been subjected to, without dismissing the vision of taking ‘the future in their own hands for the first time in 240 years’. Interestingly, Enuff also contained a line that resonated with Nowhere.

Colonel: This country is spiralling backwards to nowhere and has been for years.

Such nihilism is posited and rejected both by Harding and Hewett, in Harding’s case by an ironic twist showing that the Colonel is a mercenary.

Tammy Anderson’s play I Don’t Wanna Play House, premiered at Playbox in 2001 and revived in 2002, traces the life of a child at the mercy of adults. It is a life not without love but without stability. Popular music, a mother and her violent men (white, not ‘blackfellas’) and the escapes from them, a loving Nan whose house is a safe-haven, school and much more comes back to Tammy, now thirty-two and in her twenty-eighth house with two kids of her own. She has not lost the capacity to laugh and still loves ‘our country and western’. The play closes with Tammy singing ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’, in flashing lights with smiles and hope and dreams …, a testament to human resilience.

Belonging by Tracey Rigney which opened a week later featured a girl in her early teens torn between two worlds, indigenous people’s and white people’s. Cindy’s Pop tells her that bad apples can be found in both camps and a journey towards full realisation of the truth of that old saying is the substance of the play. It is a story about personal growth, with song and all the temptations a thirteen-year-old girl is likely to face as she learns to tell the difference between true friendship and ‘sista-girls’ merely on account of the colour of one’s skin. Rigney’s is another voice that calls upon Aboriginal people to take responsibility for their actions and, by implication, their lives. Belonging was her first play.

The encouragement for writing it came from Rigney’s script teacher Karen Corbett on whose advice she also attended the Australian Playwrights’ Conference, ‘with the help of the Centre for Indigenous Education at the University of Melbourne’. A few months later the First Victorian indigenous Playwright’s Conference saw Rigney among its attendees. But the excitement of having her play produced and published was like no other. Reading the Author’s Notes makes it still palpable today. Everyone received a Thank You, ending on a high: ‘A big debt of gratitude goes to both Ilbijerri and Playbox—you have given me what most young writers dream of, the chance to see their play performed. Thanks also goes to my sista-girls, friends and communities—just for being them.’

The ‘festival of Victorian Indigenous writing’ had a long genesis during which a number of sensitive issues had to be reconciled, Tom Healey recalls.

‘Blak Inside came about because Playbox and Ilbijerri had had a very potent, powerful and successful collaboration in the past, especially with Stolen which is if not the most important play in Australian history, then certainly in the list of top five,’ he says. (See Parts 2 & 3 of this story.)

‘It is probably the most widely seen Australian play in the world. Anybody who saw it said it was absolutely unforgettable, amazing, extraordinary piece of work.’

‘There was a great appetite with both companies, I think, but particularly Playbox, to try and further the collaboration. But these things are complex, culturally speaking, in terms of ownership and management and all that kind of stuff.’

The consultations revolved around the questions of how to present a whole lot of short plays written by renowned and emerging Indigenous writers that were not long enough to have a night on their own in the theatre.

Eventually, Jill Smith, who was General Manager at Playbox and very proactive, came up with the idea, ‘we can do a Blak Inside,’ Healey says.

Harding expressed, on behalf of Ilbijerri, the Cooperative’s pride in being part of ‘the dedicated team’ that carried Blak Inside through.

‘We view this special Season as another link in the forging of the Ilbijerri/Playbox partnership and an excellent example of our joint commitment to the staging and development of theatre skills among Victorian Indigenous artists,’ he wrote in the note from Ilbijerri.

With Blak Inside, Healey’s role completely changed. He became a facilitator, rather than a Co-ordinating Director.

‘It was about trying to make happen everything that everybody in the Ilbijerri wanted to happen in the best possible way, most inclusive and most respectful way we could possibly manage,’ he says.

Casting Doubts by Maryanne Sam played in week three of the Blak Inside season. Sam was a founding member of Ilbijerri and was an experienced playwright. Besides Playbox, her work was produced by Melbourne Workers’ Theatre, The Tide and OPA Productions, and she had written a national Handbook on the issues of Family Violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities. She also operated an artists agency called Indigenous Arts Management. Casting Doubts was a response to her experiences, she wrote in the Author’s Notes, ‘and the experiences of friends and colleagues as Indigenous performers and arts workers’ in the performing arts, film and advertising industries.

Sam’s play explored three major issues: the prevalence of historical perspective in films made by white filmmakers that offered cliched roles to Indigenous actors; the difficulty of finding work for actors who did not fit the ‘Aboriginal’ stereotype; and the need for Indigenous people to write and enact their own stories. Expertly composed and featuring five Indigenous figures to illuminate the complexity of the issues involved, Casting Doubts was directed by Kylie Belling, the founding member of Ilbijerri like Sam and all too familiar with the controversies addressed in the play. It is necessary to recall that Belling directed the original version of Harding’s Up the Road in 1991 and she was Ruby, a girl driven mad by years of dehumanization and abuse, in Stolen.

Paradoxically, an overview of the plays performed in the Blak Inside season of 2002 shows that Indigenous playwrights wrote about abuse themselves. Only, to the abuse of women they added child abuse. Four plays canvassed sexual and physical violence, I Don’t Wanna Play House in graphic detail, which means that the actors still had to play victim roles time and again. For, violence against women and children was and still is a wider cultural problem, not a historical or Indigenous Australia’s problem. The difference is, most of the plays written by First Nations have a happy end, for them and not for the Other.

Crow Fire by Jadah Milroy, which opened on 19 February, was by far the most intellectually developed, imaginative and dramaturgically sophisticated work performed in the 2002 season, duly shortlisted for the Malcolm Robertson Prize that same year. It was a play about Being but also about ideas that shape the state of being. Predicated on a symbol, that of the ‘brutally honest Crow, black Crow, spirit Crow’ whose cry was transcribed as ‘waar, waar waar!’, it embodied ‘a spirit that loves this land and hates this bullshit mono-culture called “mainstream Australia”,’ a young woman-figure called Dayna says in the dialogue.

Director Andrea James lived ‘the cultural fusion’ that Milroy was exploring, and she had ample opportunity of indulging her affinity for ‘mixing theatre forms and creating theatrical oddities and surprises’ in her transposition of the playtext onto the stage. For, Milroy infused urban reality with dreaming, daytime with Dreamtime. The Crow was a cultural icon, not just an imaginary figure. Dayna dressed up as one and walked the streets of Melbourne as would a Koala with a piggybank in its hands.

A young Aboriginal man, Dayna’s friend and an activist who takes a placard with the current news headlines to the doors of the Victorian Parliament House, says:

TONY: …whitefellas quantify Aboriginality by blood but we quantify by spirit…

Recognition of their way of being is what Tony campaigns for.

TONY: In the bush they have their language and stories, in the city we have the fight. That’s what keeps me alive, Dayna, the rest is a dream.

Having to share ‘a history of dispossession’ is not the only issue at stake, it is more than ‘a cause to fight’. Dayna, who has quit her government job, sums up what it is in a long monologue placed near the closing scene, highly poetic and peppered with imagery that marries Christian and Aboriginal mythical imaginations. It opens with, ‘There is a place I dream of, a Utopia, a Jerusalem.’

The journey towards Dayna’s Jerusalem is hampered by a constant struggle to fill ‘the gap of identity’ she, a white Aboriginal woman, feels. She needs to reconcile the past and the present in her body and her mind. ‘The dedication to saving Jerusalem makes us blacker than our fair skin would otherwise allow,’ she says.

We give them our grief and confusion, they give us the power of identity, the power of belonging, they give us spiritual treasure, sharing with us the knowledge of ages ... We make the demands, set the agenda, all for the sake of Jerusalem. And Jerusalem is falling.

Much rhetoric and all too little action to show for it is what Dayna deplores. But an awareness of what is amiss in the Aboriginal psyche is also expressed in her monologue. ‘We cannot be true because we do not know ourselves,’ she says.

Make your doors mirrors, Jerusalem, so that we can see ourselves

     for who we are, not for who we have lost.

Only that will make us whole.

Only then can we belong, belong to ourselves.

     DAYNA pulls the photo of herself out of her pocket and whispers.

I promise.

Crow Fire closes with headlines on a different note. Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation has ‘bowed out, calling for Treaty’; and in Victoria thousands turn out to walk for Reconciliation. The date on the placard is December 2000. Next, a white man, who has quit his job as a banker, enters dressed as a CROW, dancing to the sound of sublime music. It may read like a mythical ending, but Milroy, James and the actors made it utterly compelling.

‘Jadah’s Crow Fire was poetic and culturally grounded and a long way from her home country,’ James says.

And yet, the play’s strong message got somehow lost in the critical reception of the production.

‘We were rehearsing new works within only two weeks with very limited design budgets—there was a huge expectation I reckon and unfair comparisons with other tried and tested works with fuller budgets and schedules,’ James recalls.

In the creative team ‘a great feeling of camaraderie’ prevailed, she says, ‘as we yarned with each other after shows and revelled in the complexity of our combined storytelling.’

‘There was fierce competition too, if I do recall. Let’s face it, the late ‘90s and early 2000s were still very much a “one Black show per season programme (if you’re lucky)” affair.’

A programme showcasing six plays over four weeks was without precedent.

‘While a lot of cultural groundwork had been made with the success of Jane Harrrison’s Stolen and the important relationship formed between Ilbijerri and Playbox, Blak Inside had the feeling of a Festival and brought together the most Blak faces I’d ever seen in a theatre foyer, ever. I was beside myself,’ James says.

The opportunity to observe Blak artists at work was equally rewarding to the Playbox Theatre Company.

‘It was an incredible experience for a white artist to be allowed to work that closely with those stories and those artists,’ Healey says in hindsight.

The play seared in Healey’s memory is Conversations with the Dead written and directed by Richard Frankland. It was commissioned by La Mama, Carlton, with funding from Myer Foundation, and first co-produced by Ilbijerri Theatre, Playbox and La Mama at the Carlton Courthouse, Melbourne, on 13 February 2002. The performance then moved to the Beckett, at Playbox. Six actors, one of whom doubled as the musician, played twenty roles.

Frankland dedicated his play to ‘anyone who has seen much grief either through their own eyes and soul or through the dreaming path of others,’ urging them to ‘Keep fighting the good fight.’ The play opened with a song.

‘Richard was the Commissioner on the Inquiry into Deaths in Custody in the late 1980s to early 1990s, which was a horrific experience. I think it’s quite public that he got PTSD as a result of doing that,’ Healey says.

‘He wrote this absolutely unbelievable play, a beautiful, extraordinary record of the stories he uncovered. It had a kind of Brechtian form, with songs, and it was very open and long and inclusive. David Ngoombujarra played the central role, and Andy Baylor and Lou Bennet sang.’

‘It was probably one of the most important Australian plays I’ve ever seen or worked on, completely different from Stolen, not nearly as slick, I guess, it was much more sprawling and “messier” but that was its great power.’

For Mellor, the opening night of Conversations with the Dead ‘remains probably the best night in the theatre that [he] has ever had’.

A return season followed shortly afterwards, presented in collaboration with The Department of Justice to coincide with the Reconciliation Week, 27–31 May 2002. Belvoir St Theatre showcased its own production of Conversations with the Dead in August 2003 for a month-long Sydney season, with Wesley Enoch as director. But the crown event was its performance at the United Nations in New York, with Aaron Pedersen as Jack, on 18 May 2004.

Healey remembers ‘this huge party, this massive indigenous crowd out there’ on the closing night of the 2002 Blak Inside season. For him and for so many others, it was a totally different experience, ‘an amazing experience’. Young indigenous actors like Melodie Reynolds and playwright/actor Tamy Anderson and Jadah Milroy were there together with Kylie Belling and Rachael Maza and Lisa Maza, ‘all these beautiful voices from all over Victoria came together’.

‘It [Blak Inside] was really extraordinary and very ahead of its time in one way, but also just disgustingly behind the times in another,’ he says.

James sees it as a milestone event, too.

‘It was an ambitious new Blak works programme with great performance outcomes that we hadn’t seen the likes of before Moogahlin Performing Arts’ widely celebrated Yellamundie Festivals that came much later.’

The season after Blak Inside

The main programme began in 2002 with a return season of two plays, Your Dreaming and Svetlana in Slingbacks, the latter performed in tandem with Post Felicity by Ben Ellis, winner of the Inaugural Malcolm Robertson Award. Jenny Kemp’s new work Still Angela opened in the Merlyn on 6 April and Milo’s Wake by Margery and Michael Forde followed on 8 May. Premiered at La Boite Theatre, Brisbane, Milo’s Wake was toured by Performing Lines.

Half & Half presented between 22 June and 12 July was the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project. It was the first play by Keene performed at Playbox since All Souls back in 1995 and a rare opportunity for Melbournians to see a new work by the master of poetic idiom outside 45 Downstairs, The Dog Theatre and other ‘alternative’ venues in and around the city.

Set in a kitchen gradually transformed into a garden, visually realistic but poetically metaphorical, it featured two half-brothers, estranged and then reunited, struggling to reconcile their emotions and rebuild their ties. Luke and Ned are both loners, whether by choice or not remains ambiguous until the end. The play is composed in three acts and in the last one the kitchen is overgrown with plant life. The younger brother, Ned, who has spent hours over crossword puzzles before finally mastering the skill of solving them, burns the lot, he burns words, only the plants, their mother’s bones interred in the kitchen/garden and birdsong remain. The absurdities of human situation transpire from every allusion to the irrationality of inner life, of feelings and psychological conflicts, showing how intense and meaningful, if painful, that whirlpool can be. Bringing it out from behind the shield of words was the task Robert Menzies and Dan Spielman executed brilliantly, under Ariette Taylor’s direction.

Half & Half won the 2003 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and Keene went on to become the most performed Australian playwright in Europe, mainly in France. In 2016 he was appointed to the rank of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. John McCallum considers Daniel Keene ‘the most important Australian playwright in the transition between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’.2

The 2002 Playbox season continued with three more new plays from renowned Australian writers. The Simple Truth by Michael Gurr was a two-hander exploring, like Keene’s play, the absurdities of life, only in a different fashion. It opened with a long speech veering from one topic to another—the taste of coffee from a coffee machine to international treaties and conventions to accountability of the police force itself, spoken by an ambiguous figure, one moment a policeman, the next an unattached male, then a lover, while the woman he questioned in the interview room claimed to be a murderess but was also a wife and lover. While touching on some social issues and their historical provenance, The Simple Truth was more abstract than any of Gurr’s earlier plays. It transcended geographical boundaries and left the question of guilt unanswered, passing the task of finding truth on to the audience.

An inclusion of a prose work adaptation in the programme had by 2002 become a Playbox tradition. Michael Gow’s dramatization of H.H. Richardson’s novel The Fortunes of Richard Mahony was a co-production with Queensland Theatre Company. It premiered at the Brisbane Power House before opening at Playbox on 9 September. The season closed with a new Joanna Murray-Smith play. It was arguably one of her best.

While argumentative, Rapture lay open some ontological questions presented in the guise of social values. The purpose of life commonly defined in terms of ownership—one’s house, car and job whether in the corporate sector, the media or art—was evaluated against ontological dependence on human relations, on friendship and family. What Murray-Smith eventually exposed was the blindness of inflated Ego and its self-destructive agency in the construction of reality. The mannerism in the use of language was gone and while the sentences which had beginnings and went nowhere were still used in the dialogue, they were infrequent and, importantly, were placed where finding words in a real-life situation would indeed be hard because of the intensity of feeling.

Rapture was, like Nightfall, directed by Jenny Kemp, who remembers responding ‘especially to Joanna’s forensic probing into the emotional depth and ambiguities of human nature’.

‘The plays demanded the actors build characters with implacable exteriors as a veneer over the cracks and flaws in their internal psyches.’

‘The language was rhythmic and needed to be almost musically drilled; it was only then that the meaning(s) that sat below the surface would emerge, and the character’s often painful truths be exposed.’

‘I really enjoyed the time I spent working on Joanna's plays and appreciated the trust she gave me with her work,’ Kemp says in an email.

The 2003 Playbox Season

The new season started with a co-production premiered at the Perth International Arts Festival the year before. The critics and the public had loved it, for Mavis Goes to Timor was a play celebrating one of their own. For the Melbourne audience, one more attraction was in store. The play co-authored by a team of three women—Angela Chaplin, Katherine Thomson and Kavisha Mazzella—opened on 7 February 2003 in a newly completed outdoor space, the Sidney Myer Courtyard. Its theme fitted perfectly the AsiaLink mission statement.

‘Like so many of us I was ashamed  and transfixed by the story of East Timor ... Mavis at 86 years of age refused not only to be silent, but also refused to be inactive. Through her tenacity and enthusiasm Mavis inspired others, including me, to act,’ Chaplin wrote in Director/Co-Writer’s Notes.

The idea for the play came from an SBS documentary of the same title. Far away in NSW Katherine Thomson had an equally strong response to the story, and the two writers invited composer Kavisha Mazzella to help ‘conjure up the very darkness and light of people’s hearts’.

‘I couldn’t have done it without seeing for myself the beautiful island, the savage wreckage, the bullet holes,’ Mazzella wrote on her part.

‘But I also saw and heard so much love and life. Everywhere kids laugh and smile the broadest biggest beams. The old ones, with their betel-nut red teeth, seem to gleam as they smile and nod at you.’

It is precisely the lived experience that gave Mavis Goes to Timor its aura of authenticity. Its creators had visited East Timor, they had spoken with Mavis. And yet the play was a work of fiction, only it was informed by facts. Mazzella called it ‘a hymn to the spirit of the people of East Timor’ but it was also a hymn to the kind, resourceful and entrepreneurial Australian women who took it upon themselves to do for the people of East Timor what those meant to protect them and provide for them failed to do.

Actual shipping containers—used for transporting sewing machines, fabrics and whatever else was needed to set up sewing centres for the women—had yet another purpose. They provided flexible performance space, as each container could open to reveal Mavis’ bedroom in Dili or her shop in Yarrawonga. The containers’ flat roofs also provided various performance levels and were used for some of the Dili scenes.

Like in Graham Pitt’s Emma, the songs composed by Mazzella were sung by a choir, live, along with traditional music from East Timor and a song by Anito Matos. It was one of those theatrical moments hard to forget. For, the play had everything: it was topical, it looked and felt real, it was both captivating and moving to watch and, most importantly, it confirmed that individuals can make a difference.

God’s Last Acre by Vivienne Walshe opened on 7 March, in the Beckett, and The Fat Boy by Tony Ayers followed on 4 April in the Merlyn. The boy was not just fat, but also gay. First produced by Playbox Theatre in association with the Melbourne Comedy Festival, the play was directed by Tom Healey. All it showed was sadness, sorrow, misery. And human tragedy. So, the question remains: why Comedy Festival? It beggars belief that such a deep crisis of identity could be a laughable matter and the subject of comedy. The Fat Boy certainly did not close like one.

Ayers is a multi-award-winning writer and director, but this was his first play. In the Playwright’s Notes he wrote that Aubrey Mellor encouraged him to write The Fat Boy. ‘We wanted to serve more writers and a wider range of writers,’ Mellor says today.

The title of Stephen Sewell’s play, Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America: A Drama in 30 Scenes was not only long enough, but also provocative enough to raise a few eyebrows. The memory of 9/11 was still sorely painful and any criticism of the US was a highly courageous act. Co-produced with The State Theatre Company of South Australia, the play opened at The CUB Malthouse on 4 June 2003. 

Sewell gave the main premise to a university professor to articulate.

TALBOT: My point is that every nation is constituted by a set of myths about who we are and where we’re going, and those myths can blind us from the reality of what we’re doing and impel us toward our own destruction.

This issue was tightly bound up with the question of power and truth, and with whether political views and ideology had the capacity to overwrite the need for personal comfort and a secure future or it was the other way round. What really matters in life was the third question explored. And there were more. Clever, politically provocative and with strong points galore, the play was also long and wordy. While Mellor could not change that, he could make the reception a little easier and he did it by means of visual imagery.

‘Stephen is all in the words and he does not like his plays being cut. His plays are too long because he loves them long,’ Mellor says.

Sewell was the writer in residence when Mellor was at Nimrod, which is how they got to know each other quite well. It was important because ‘trying to get a new play from Stephen Sewell was not easy,’ he says.

‘This one [Myth, Propaganda and Disaster …] was about the Gulf War, and the Guantanamo Bay issue was big at the time and political paranoia was fascinating, so it was just something I enjoyed working with because I am very interested in politics on stage.’

To make all that dialogue easy to digest, Mellor had to do ‘the biggest, most impressive visuals’ he could.

‘We got this cinema light, a big movie projector, and we got all the sets into slides. Everything was projected and it was large, huge even. So, it was a full-on picture with every scene change and there were a lot of them.’

Visual changes kept the audience alert throughout the performance. ‘When you’ve got a wordy play, you add visuals in some way,’ Mellor says.

In those days, however, the required technical equipment was not always readily available. 

Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America was an important play that went into a Sydney season, but we could not do the projections there and we had a couple of different actors,’ Mellor says.

‘Stephen is now teaching playwrighting at NIDA. They now have a playwrights’ course,’ he points out in an indirect comment on the scrapping of such a course at Victorian College of the Arts.

Falling Petals was the second work Tom Healey directed in the main season of 2003. The playwright, Ben Ellis, had won the Malcolm Robertson Prize for Post Felicity in 2001. He was young and his central figures in Falling Petals were also young. Three of them were year-12 students but the first victims of a mysterious disease that struck the regional town of Hollow were small kids. Everyone in the town called it ‘child-ridding disease’.

Apart from the gruesome parody, the scenario is eerily familiar in the Covid-afflicted world of today. A local GP called Franz replies to a local journalist’s question whether ‘parents should report any rashes’ to him with,

FRANZ: I don’t want to cause any unnecessary hysteria. But it would be a good idea, if it is accompanied by flu-like aches and pains.

At first, the casualties are just small kids. For every lost one a petal from the cherry blossom tree planted in a nearby paddock falls to the ground. The perennial symbol of nature’s fertility thus becomes the symbol of death. The central question is ‘why’. While Hewett and Harding also reflected on it critically, Ellis takes another angle: his is the teenagers’ perspective. The intelligent and ambitious among them see Hollow as a place that bears no fruit, where big dreams and high aspirations have no chance of fulfilment. For them, sensitivity and compassion are the signs of weakness. But as the disease spreads Hollow is quarantined, no one can leave. Those who believed themselves to be invincible begin to fall too.

The ‘falling petals’ metaphor was conveyed in performance in all its beauty thanks to Healey’s ability to translate the poetic into the performative. As the petals fell forming a white heap that kept growing with each young life lost, the beauty of the image intensified as a comment on the parents’ resentment of their own children that the audience watched spread like another form of disease. If somewhat romantic, it was a passionate appeal from a writer convinced that the power of theatre was ‘to make reality of metaphor, add audience and then shake vigorously,’ as Ellis put it.                   

Ruby Moon by Matt Cameron, which opened on 25 July, also featured a  child but as an abstract or, rather, an archetypal figure set in a timeless, placeless world. Despite the intended context, that world bore distinct features of modern-day suburbia. The idea behind the play was borrowed from the fairy tale ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ whose origins can be traced back to pre-17th century but is best known from the versions by Charles Perrault and Brothers Grimm. Ruby Moon is a parable on the elusive nature of truth, on innocence and human psychopathology.

Cameron wrote four male and four female parts for two actors only, in the original production played by Peter Houghton and Christen O’Leary who donned coats and hats over the attire they wore as Ruby’s parents, and with each change of scene grabbed different props, altered their body language, voice and accent to create a new character. The action ran seamlessly, the spell of the fairy tale unbroken to the very end. And yet, Little Ruby was nothing but a mannequin in the closing scene, while the rocking horse swaying back and forth in the light of the blood-red moon could hardly be taken to signify an escape from the dark trappings of the adult world. Ruby Moon played across Victoria as part of the Playbox Education Programme and has had thirteen reprints since its first publication in 2003.

Interestingly, the play programmed next also reflected the real world through the prism of the imaginary. Yanagai! Yanagai! premiered at Playbox on 10 September 2003 in co-production with Melbourne Workers Theatre then led by Andrea James as Artistic Director. James also directed her play but during the workshop and development phase the director and dramaturg was Patricia Cornelius. Yanagai! Yanagai! is probably James’ best-known play to date.

At Playbox, it was seen as a continuation of Blak Inside aimed at increasing ‘awareness of Indigenous identity and cultural issues’. Sixty contributors answered the two companies’ appeal to support the Indigenous artists participating in ‘this landmark work—in particular, the Yorta Yorta Elder Performer, Cultural Liaison and Language Tutor,’ as stated in the programme.

The word Yanagai means ‘ go away’. It was used by Yorta Yorta people in protest against the intrusion of white settlers and their relentless degradation of country, violation of indigenous sacred sites and disrespect of First Nations’ beliefs, their culture and their way of being. James called it ‘a war cry’.

Yanagai! Yanagai! provides a forum for the Yorta Yorta language to be spoken into space again,’ James  wrote in the Writer’s Notes, ‘to flourish and thrive in a cultural ceremony written specifically to prove what Judge Olney could not or would not see—our traditional connection to our land. However threatened that line may be, it is there and we are here.’

The play was set in a mythical landscape on the banks of the mighty river Dhungula, which is the Yorta Yorta people’s name for the Murray. The audience watched the river form before their eyes in a ‘sparkling celebration’ of the once inexhaustible food source, the ancient trees on its banks floating in space, ‘as delicate and as wavering as our culture … forever in danger’, James wrote setting the scene for four storytellers to open the play with beautiful images of the lost world of plenitude. Images and spirits sometimes appeared in trees, they were ‘alive’, and storytellers moved behind and around them in performance.

The play was ‘timezoned in the dreaming’ where mythical thinking collided with a historical event—the court case to determine the legality of Yorta Yorta’s claim of Native Title over their ancestral land. The language spoken was first English then Yorta Yorta before reverting to English, the two languages occasionally alternating in assertion of the claimants’ rights and their distinct identity. The points in common were virtually non-existent except for the Tellers’ invocation of ‘our beautiful river’, a symbol of fertility as powerful as the Biblical River Jordan. Only, history has turned this river into a symbol of loss and endurance.

TELLER 3: This beautiful place—

TELLER 2: Gone!

TELLER 1: Not there anymore.

ALL: [together, quietly] Only here.

       [They close their eyes.]

TELLER 1: We are here.

ALL: [together] We are here.

Evocative of the chorus in ancient Greek tragedies that drew on myth and reality too, the Tellers stepped into a variety of roles but re-joined in the chorus when voicing shared feelings or collective experience.

The time-travel enabler was a Yorta Yorta superhero Munarra ‘thrown from the dreaming to save her land’. She walked through history in the company of two Dingoes, ‘her faithful companions’ with little to their credit except ‘a good nose’. She watched the arrival of a boat carrying a titled Englishman mockingly named Edward Curr who ‘brought the curse’, she remembered him lifting a gun at the sight of a small girl and an Old Man to ‘test the temper of the people’, and then walked through time trying to orientate herself in the unrecognisable landscape, catching just the sound of the wailing. It was their beautiful river Dhungula, the ‘blood in [their] veins’, crying. A herd of cows, alien creatures she stumbled upon—represented in production by ‘clunky wooden puppets’—lifted their tails and shat on cue polluting the environment, in sharp contrast to the image of Uncle, a Yorta Yorta elder, sitting in another scene at his usual spot on the bank of Dhungula, fishing. An embodiment of patience, he dreamt of catching the legendary Murray Cod that he had caught a glimpse of as a little boy. His dream eventually came true, but the old wise man releases the one-hundred-year-old fish back into the river and with this act the dreaming central to the sense of survival continues.

Mutual scorn of social rituals deemed sacred—tea ceremony to the settler and an ancient tree, the meeting place for Yorta Yorta—perfectly illustrate the depth of cultural conflict and worse, the clash of world visions. If the stump of that sacred, age-old canoe tree stands testimony to the futility of resistance and the impossibility of getting justice for the Yorta Yorta people, Curr’s ghostly homestead and Munarra’s refusal of servitude to the ‘rotting carcass’, the tea cups she breaks and her scornful speech suggest that the battle is far from over. The young generation embodied by Lyall, who works on the ‘land claim with those white fellas in the city’, may be naïve, but Yanagai! Yanagai! closes with the image that reads:

This is an important

ABORIGINAL SITE

It is an offence to

enter, deface, damage or

otherwise interfere with

this site

Penalty:

1. Up to $10,000 or 5 years jail or both

2. If the person is a body corporate, $50,000

Signed:

CNR Area Manager Yorta Yorta Clans Group

History has validated James’ vision.

In reflecting on the premiere production of Yanagai! Yanagai!, James points out that ‘much of the groundwork for the play had been done through hard sweat and tears independently and then later with the company support of Melbourne Workers Theatre.’

‘When Playbox approached me to premiere Yanagai! Yanagai! in co-production, I was suspicious and very protective of the play. I felt a huge responsibility towards my family and the Yorta Yorta community as our land claim court challenges and setbacks were raw and very real,’ she says.

‘We assembled a cast of mostly Yorta Yorta actors with a variety of skills and experience and a fierce determination to set the record straight.’

‘I fought hard for Yanagai! Yanagai! to be more than a tick-the-box Blak play in a mainstream programme and we milked the skills and expertise of the design departments and workshop to bring the work to life. It was truly awesome to see the whole Yorta Yorta world of the play come to life in the big Merlyn Theatre. Our designer, Adrienne Chisolme, worked hard with the workshop to engineer these enormous life size red gum trees that would fall in the second half.

‘The play was audacious, sometimes unwieldy and driven by cultural imperatives that were bigger than Playbox’s at that time.’

‘It was part of a much bigger picture of the work we [Playbox] did with Indigenous people,’ Mellor onfirms.

Indeed, Yanagai! Yanagai! was remounted in 2006 and it toured the UK, a favourable reception leading to the showing of this and other plays by James not just in Australia and the UK, but also in Paris and New York. 

‘Andrea has now had a big success, which is wonderful,’ Mellor acknowledges.  

James is Griffin Theatre Company’s ‘brand new Associate Artist!’. She attributes her steady climb up the career path to her early work at Playbox.

‘During Blak Inside I felt lucky to be introduced to a professional theatre space within such a culturally friendly and rich environment. It held me in good stead when I was to return to premiere Yanagai! Yanagai! in 2004,’ she says.

‘To Playbox’s credit—and influenced in large part by the commitment and fundraising clout of Jill Smith—Playbox very slowly cemented itself as a place for risky new First Nations plays that held spaces in their programme for us again and again at a time when First Nations plays were rarely sighted on mainstages.

‘It was one of the stepping stones for the great beautiful Blak wave of First Nations play and screen making that we are currently enjoying and will hopefully see the end of “tick-a-box” programming. The immense talent and drive of the First Nations playwriting community Australia wide has always been there and we’ve forged our own pathways against enormous barriers despite the continuing lack of stages for our work.’

Inside 03: The Technology Project

Between Yanagai! Yanagai! and Tom Wright’s Babes in the Wood, a satire of Australia’s collective identity as a construct, Mellor programmed three works under the banner Inside 03: The Technology Project: Sprung by Cazerine Barry, with Nancy Black as dramaturg and co-produced by Vitalstatistix; The Collapsible Man created and played by Gerard Van Dyck in a surreal vaudeville setting designed by Hans Van Dyck and Nik Pajanti as lighting designer; and Mr Phase by Christopher Brown played by the artist, with Thomas Howie as co-writer/technical director, Margaret Cameron as director/coach, David Franzke as sound designer and Adrian Hauser, video. All three were showcased at the Melbourne International Arts Festival in mid-October.

‘One of those I remember particularly well is Mr Phase which Christopher Brown, a wonderful actor from VCA made,’ Healey says.

Without providing any specifics, Healey begins painting the big picture. By 2003, there was ‘a sort of hum in the air’, he recalls reflecting on the profound change under way in the art world. Performances played in car parks, in sheds, on sites never considered to have artistic value before, some went to La Mama.

‘All of them (works) were informed by digital technology, by post-dramatic form, and by a genuine reinvention of the relationship between artist and technology, but also between performers and audience, most particularly to do with story-telling,’ Healey says.

Sometimes part of the story was told live and part of the story was told in digital form and sometimes three or four stories were running at once—pre-recorded as well as live cross.

Like the Playbox young Artistic Associate, Mellor was highly interested in the creative potential of technology in performance. The spirit of the times was changing rapidly and with it there was a growing tendency towards subversion of the classical elements of drama.

‘Aubrey and I were both fascinated by that, and we were also looking for a way to advance what we had done with Inside,’ Healey says.

‘He [Mellor] would kind of go: “So, we’d done that. How do we move this forward?” And obviously you do not move forward by just doing more plays. You have to keep reviving and reinventing the form.’

For reinvention to measure up to expectation, it was necessary to try and expand the audience, not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of literacy with different forms of work composition, different modes of performing and different ways of interacting with the live performance.

‘The technology used in that particular season is really cheap and readily available today—it’s pre-smart phone—but in those days a digital projector was a very valuable kind of thing and there weren’t that many technicians around who knew how to use it,’ Healey recalls.

‘Once we started to use the interface with the lighting board and the sound board problems multiplied. We had analogue this and digital that and they couldn’t speak to each other, and we had all those junction boxes trying to make these things speak to each other and rehearsals continually breaking down because the projector wasn’t working or whatever.’

‘A 9-year-old can do it now, because the technology has got so much simpler and more available. But in those days, it was a bold experiment.’

The audience responded  in diverse ways. Some were a little mystified by it all, others were appreciative of the artists’ attempts to keep up with the latest trends in Europe and on the east coast of the United States exemplified, for instance, by Elizabeth LeCompte and her work with The Wooster Group. The Melbourne Arts Festival had the capacity to promote such experimental work and improve audience literacy in the sense defined by Healey. At the same time, it provided a much wider forum for Australian trailblazers in the sphere of performing arts than Playbox alone could.

The inclusion of Inside 03: The Technology Project in the festival programme meant legitimation of novel ideas and/or new treatments of familiar themes—Cazerine Barry’s Sprung on the dream of home ownership conceived as a ‘cinematic dance theatre’, Gerard Van Dyck’s The Collapsible Man on the imperative of coming to terms with uncertainty in life demonstrated by ‘the slapstick characters of American 1920s silent films’, and Christopher Brown’s Mr Phase on the influence that the language of advertising and celebrities have on innocent minds, presented in the form of a satirical ‘collage of stand-up, monologue and physical theatre’.

‘The Inside series allowed us to offer more work to actors and directors and stage managers, technicians and designers. It served also as a way of finding new talent in many fields,’ Mellor says.

Healey remembers how excited Mellor was by these ‘young writers coming through’ and how concerned about how to programme them he was.

‘Inside programmes were seen as a great alternative and I really believe they were,’ Healey says.

‘It was a really interesting experiment, and it went somewhere towards ameliorating a kind of tension between the contemporary artists who wanted to work at Playbox at the time and an expectation coming from certain corners that we shouldn’t go too far so, you know, we might lose the audience if we rush down that path.’

‘It was hard to gauge, it was a difficult moment in that way, and I think Aubrey was doing something really interesting and adventurous. I mean, they invested a lot of money into the Inside and it had a terrific outcome.’

Jill Smith, who managed the financial affairs, was added to The Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2003 for her services to theatre.

On Actors and the Rest of 2003 Season

Babes in the Wood by Tom Wright was no less innovative than the Inside series, but in a completely different sense. Wright explained at the time that ‘the driving force’ behind his play was the colonial-era panto, quite distinct from ‘the more anaemic version that limped through the twentieth century’.

It’s hard to say where the colonial panto stops and music hall/variety/popular theatre/vaudeville begins. It shared the same sense of unpredictability and improvisation. It drew on actors’ individual skills and diverted from the plot as much as it served it. It was above all interested in spectacle and surprise. It was as much for adults as it was for children, no, more so.

In composing Babes in the Wood, Wright worked playfully with the stereotypes borrowed from fairy tales, notably The Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, as well as with Australian iconic images, both human and animal (wallaby and emu), creating a pungent satire of the concept of authentic Australian. The role of Aunty Avaricia, owner of a settler’s home called Australia Felix (or A Clearing in the Bush), allowed Max Gilles to display his comical skills to the full extent, drawing laughter even when the bite of irony was at its sharpest. Julie Forsyth, who played Boingle (wallaby) and Francis Greenslade who played Flapgherkin (emu) had a rare opportunity of transposing animal energy into human behaviour at the level of visibility, while Caroline Craig and Lucy Taylor excelled in the roles of children, especially demanding for Taylor who played a boy. Under the baton of director Michael Kantor the performance had colour, it was wonderfully imaginative and dynamic, and the designer Anna Tregloan, lighting designer Paul Jackson, composer Iain Grandage and choreographer Kate Denborough all contributed to making the closure of the 2003 Playbox season an unforgettable event.

It is worth noting here that most of the artists collaborating on Babes in the Wood had participated in previous Playbox productions. Caroline Craig played Tania in Ben Ellis’ Falling Petals, Max Gillies directed The Goldberg Variations by Ron Elisha in 2000 and he collaborated with Guy Randle in the creation of Your Dreaming, winning the Best Actor award for a role in the play in the 2001 Greenroom Awards. Francis Greenslade was in the Playbox productions of Hannie Rayson’s Competitive Tenderness, in Robert Hewett’s Waking Eve and in Aidan Fennessey’s Chilling and Killing My Anabel Lee. Lucy Taylor appeared in Jenny Kemp’s Still Angela, before relocating to the US where she played in The Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair, to name just one of her outstanding credits.

Mellor maintains, however, that Australian audiences don’t like seeing the same actor again and again. ‘We like to see different different different all the time,’ he says.

This observation brings up the subject of sustainability of ensembles in Australia. ‘With ensembles, you have to carry them over the gaps between productions and I did that at Nimrod,’ he says before highlighting a problem.

‘Often with ensembles, some people have terrible roles and they are very unhappy. In some European companies, they sit down in their dressing rooms playing cards because they have nothing to do.’

How to give all actors in an ensemble the roles that exhibit their full artistic potential is always a problem. There is also the question of funding.

‘You have to think, “Can I keep them all employed for the whole year?”,’ Mellor says.

‘Robin Nevin tried it for one year. She got special funding, special sponsors, and they had an actors’ ensemble, but the only time it really worked was when the wonderful Barrie Kosky did The Last Echo and he managed to use them [actors] all very well. But most of the time they were not happy either.’

‘So, for one, we are not used to them [ensembles], we have no history of them, and they are very expensive. Two, many people resent it. We had an ensemble of eight actors at Nimrod and everybody wanted to be in that ensemble, and they began to get very grumpy. In the end, people turned against Nimrod because they couldn’t get employed.

‘So you think, “Oh my god, you’ve got to keep an open-door policy.” It’s very very difficult. It’s a big and complex subject.’

At Playbox, the casting policy was tied to the programming policy.

‘You can’t support new work and actors together in the same degree. One has to have priority and the writer had the priority,’ Mellor repeats.

Returning to Babes in the Wood, he says: ‘That show was amazing’. And Jill Smith simply states, ‘I loved those shows’, the other one being Terence O’Connell’s adaptation and direction of Minefields and Miniskirts in 2004.

Ruby Moon and Minefields and Miniskirts (see below for more) were just two in the long line of shows included in the Playbox Education Playlist.

Education Programme

Christine Lucas-Pannam, appointed Education Liaison Officer in the second half of 1991 to design an education programme for Playbox, recalls the position was facilitated by Monash University which was at the time affiliated with the company. Her account of the programme’s beginnings and how it developed between 1991 and 2000 is reproduced below in full.

The Victorian curriculum was undergoing a number of changes including the introduction of two VCE subjects, Drama and Theatre Studies scheduled to commence in 1992. It was my role to liaise with the VCAA to plan ways Playbox could support teachers and students undertaking these new streams. From lengthy meetings to numerous conversations and interviews with teachers throughout the state I planned a series of workshops and presentations to be run throughout the school year. In designing the program, I made the decision to broaden the appeal beyond being exclusively VCE focused and to attempt to engage younger secondary students with the performing arts. This objective could potentially have a dual function of encouraging young theatre going practice and potentially scaffold them for future VCE studies.

The other aspect of designing the program was to seek out and recruit suitable artists to run the various sessions. This was, at times, a difficult process. There are many talented and skilled artists and theatre practitioners, but not everyone is able to articulate their processes in a way that is digestible for students and teachers. As much as possible, we attempted to use those who were involved in the Playbox season, but some were unwilling or refused to make their involvement relevant to the tasks the new curriculum demanded. As a result, in the early stages there were a few hit and misses, but gradually a reliable pool of workshop facilitators and speakers was established over the years.

Another aim of the program was to present plays for possible inclusion in the VCAA Drama and/or Theatre Studies playlist. This was often a tricky process as at the time Playbox had a focus and commitment to Australian work and many plays were being premiered and not known by the selection panel. At times, scripts presented were incomplete or in draft form and it was essential to keep in regular contact with playwrights and our dramaturg on the intended direction of the plays under consideration and to liaise with the VCAA. Another aspect was scheduling. Sometimes there would be a fabulous play that would suit and engage a younger audience, but it was scheduled too late in the year or the bulk of their run occurred during school holidays. Over time the suitable scheduling of these sorts of plays was given consideration and implemented when practicable.

Initially, I provided background Notes for all plays in the Playbox season, but this became untenable and not always worth the effort when there were only a few takers. Background Notes then became the domain of plays exclusively on the VCAA Playlist. These notes were specifically targeted in providing the students and teachers with relevant information to support their performance analysis task and incorporated the language and concepts outlined in their curriculum.

In an attempt to encourage teachers to bring their students to plays other than those on the playlists, we offered Teacher Preview tickets. This provided interested teachers with a complimentary ticket and the opportunity of purchasing another ticket at heavily discounted rate for one of the preview nights. This was hugely successful and also provided me with a wonderful opportunity to connect with teachers throughout the state in a convivial setting and on a face-to-face basis.

Other initiatives that fell under the auspices of the Education Program was a brief collaboration with The Age when we ran The Age Playbox Young Critics Award. Students entered their review of a Playbox show and the winning review was printed in the paper and the student was awarded a Playbox subscription for one year.

The future of the Education Program was under threat when the partnership between Monash University and Playbox dissolved as the wage of the Education Liaison Officer was funded by the university. Jill Smith in her wisdom saw the enormous benefit and potential in the continuation and expansion of the Education Program and sourced funding for this role to continue. Her commitment to securing a place for the Education Program within the company structure and to make it part of core company business rather than something ancillary, was instrumental in its longevity and success.

Margaret Steven, who was the Playbox/Malthouse Education Officer from 1994 to 2006, has more details.

‘The guiding principle for the Education Programme was to bring as many young people into The Malthouse as possible, to see shows in the Playbox seasons, to experience theatre from front and backstage, and to form connections with the company. Ideally, we were helping to create the audience of the future,’ she says.

The four components comprising the programme Pannam established with the support of Smith and two ADs, Gantner and Mellor, remained the same for the duration of Mellor’s term in office.

Workshop Programme

School Group Bookings

Background Notes for Shows

Work Experience Programme

With the launch of the VCE and the introduction of two separate subjects: Drama and Theatre Studies, the whole way drama teachers viewed taking their students to the theatre ‘changed quite dramatically’, Steven says.

A committee selected by the VCE Board of Studies compiled a ‘Play List’ each year from a variety of theatre companies in Victoria. It meant that the plays on this list and pretty much these plays only were those the teachers and their students would attend. The Play List thus became a very powerful marketing tool for selling tickets.

‘I remember very interesting conversations with both Aubrey and Jill about which of the plays they were considering for the following season might be appropriate for the Play List,’ Steven says.

‘Aubrey and Jill were both very supportive of the Education Programme and genuinely keen to encourage young people into The Malthouse. Accordingly, they liked to ensure that there were plays in each season that would be of interest and relevance to young audiences (aged 15 +).’

Those deemed suitable in the seasons leading up to 2000 included Rayson’s Falling from Grace; Enright’s Good Works; Gurr’s Jerusalem; Harding’s Up the Road; Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues; Harrison’s Stolen and Williamson’s Face to Face.

For Steven, one of the most enjoyable parts of the Education Officer role at Playbox was compiling ‘Background Notes’ for teachers and students for those shows in the season they were expected to watch.

‘We had the luxury of creating background materials for plays written by living and often local playwrights, and so were able to interview them about their inspiration and process as well as the stories, themes and characters they were exploring. We also interviewed the directors and designers of each of these productions, and sometimes an actor from the cast,’ she says.

‘I had the pleasure of interviewing, among many others, playwrights Hannie Rayson, Michael Gurr, David Williamson, Jane Harrison, Debra Oswald, Alana Valentine, Matt Cameron and Andrew Bovell; directors Aubrey Mellor, Bruce Myles, Kim Durban and Kate Cherry; and designers Trina Parker, Judith Cobb and Hugh Coleman.’

One of the big challenges the Education team faced over the years was finding ways of introducing students to the depth and wealth of creativity that took place at Playbox without focusing only on the VCE curriculum.

‘I remember running a session for students called “Meet the Playwright”, where Michael Gurr and Hannie Rayson talked about their writing processes and then read together from each of their plays,’ Steven says.

‘It was an amazing thing to witness two such accomplished writers talking and reading together—even if there were only three small school groups in the audience! I wish it had been recorded as a very valuable resource.’

Efforts to offer a wide variety of experiences for students and teachers continued. The ‘Year 10 Day at Playbox’ was another very successful workshop bringing Year 10 students in to work on a range of theatre skills over a whole day.

Some facts about The Young Critics Award also emerge from Steven’s recollections.

‘In 1998, the Age newspaper co-sponsored with the Playbox Education Programme The Age/Playbox Young Critics Award,’ she says.

‘Students in Years 10 and 11 were invited to submit 500-word reviews for plays performed during that year, and an award for the best review was presented at The Malthouse at the end of the school year.’

After the dissolution of partnership between Playbox and Monash University at the end of 1999, a partnership with Victoria University was forged and ‘the Education Programme joined forces with the Drama Department at Vic Uni to run 3DFest, a Tertiary Drama Festival,’ Steven recalls.

‘This highly successful festival gave tertiary students the opportunity to create and present new short plays at the theatre at the Footscray Campus of Victoria University. Four finalists then performed in The Merlyn Theatre at The Malthouse and the winning group had the added opportunity to work with artists at Playbox to further develop their work.’

Like so many people before, Steven singles out one ‘particularly rewarding project’—the play Stolen.

‘We were privileged to witness the profound impact that this very important play had on the many students attending the production,’ she says.

‘In later years, Stolen was included on the study list for VCE English, and a decision was made between Playbox and Ilbijerri to remount a new production, directed by Rachael Maza, specifically for English students. Twenty-eight thousand students saw the production between 2001–2004, which had such power to affect hearts and minds.’

Large student numbers had much to say about the ties built with drama teachers.

‘Over the years, the Playbox Education Officers were able to form strong relationships with drama teachers from all over the state. Many of these teachers brought their students back year after year to see Playbox shows and attend Education Programme workshops.’

The Education Programme received rewards from Drama Vic (the state Drama Teachers’ Association) for education resources as well as from Victoria University for the 3DFest Programme.

‘For me, the highlights of working as a Playbox Education Officer included being part of a company dedicated to the creation and production of new Australian plays and seeing so many new works brought to life on stage,’ Steven says.

‘It was wonderful to work with an Artistic Director [Aubrey Mellor] and General Manager [Jill Smith] who were genuinely interested and supportive of young people being part of the life of the company.’

‘Finally, seeing so many young people come into The Malthouse to be so engaged by theatre and theatre-based workshops—and hopefully for this to be the start of a strong relationship for them with the theatre—was wonderfully rewarding.’

Meg Upton joined the Playbox Education team in 2001. She came straight from a teaching career in drama and dance ‘with little knowledge of how an arts company works,’ she says.

‘I inherited a well-established programme and shared a role with Margaret Steven. It was a steep learning curve.’

‘The company had one computer when I began, and we had to book time on it in order to send emails. All school bookings were done over the phone and confirmed by mail to teachers as were payments. It was very strange thinking back.’

In a company the size of Playbox, role sharing was often part of the job. For the Education team, it meant working with every department—artistic, management, literary, production, ticketing, marketing, front of house. They needed ‘to create strong communication lines’.

‘Education was never part of the artistic team, but conversations were had and our opinion was asked, especially when tickets needed to be sold! Reminding staff that shows for young people can’t be retrofitted was a constant,’ Upton says.

Among her highlights, Upton cites the creation of a yearly education programme and brochure in consultation with the artistic team.

‘This included which programmed plays would be suitable for schools, and on some occasions championing particular plays to be given additional education seating capacity for schools,’ she says.

‘I remember having a long discussion with Aubrey about Svetlana in Slingbacks, a show that featured in the 2002 season. Margaret and I thought it would be a brilliant show for students. We lobbied and advocated and eventually it was programmed for 2003 as an education show, one of the first programmed specifically for schools.’

‘Most shows that were part of a schools’ market were part of the whole company season,’ she says.

Just between 2001 and 2004, they were: Miss Tanaka; Salt; Milo’s Wake; Mavis Goes to Timor; Yanagai! Yanagai!; God’s Last Acre; Ruby Moon; and more.

The creation of 3DFest in partnership with Victoria University was another highlight for Upton. It was ‘a unique programme that ran from 2002–2008 and attracted students from Monash, Melbourne, Latrobe, Ballarat, Victoria University, Deakin, RMIT, NMIT, Swinburn and VCA.’

‘Over 500 participants across the years performed and the alumni for this event is significant,’ she says.

‘Aubrey took a keen interest in the programme recommending “judges” and offering personal feedback in the very first showcase in 2002. The investment cemented the partnership with Victoria University, who remained a partner beyond the Playbox years.’

‘Importantly, we had to bring artistic and production on board in order to use the Malthouse venues, Merlyn and then Beckett, for the showcase event. I remember the first one in 2002 (when) we filled the Merlyn to the surprise of Aubrey and Jill Smith.’

Upton attaches special importance to the workshop programme at Playbox, which ‘during Aubrey’s time,’ she says, focused strongly on the curriculum for Years 9–12 and included ensemble, devising, monologue, acting, movement, design and behind the scenes tours.

‘We curated it and artistic and management signed off on it. It was always part of the Company’s thinking, but we did fight for spaces to run it and needed to ensure the production team was fully on board in terms of bringing young people into the venue.’

Teacher workshops providing professional development in direction, acting, directing and designs was another feature while Mellor was the company’s Artistic Director.

‘We were able to utilize the production team, production creatives and core company members to deliver these,’ Upton says.

Kelly Clifford joined the Education team last, but she was already part of ‘the Playbox family’ since she also worked as Assistant to the General Manager and Receptionist. Her feeling of affiliation towards Playbox began developing years before, while participating in the Education programmes as a teacher and attending the theatre seasons as a subscriber.

‘Every time I would visit, I imagined/dreamed of the opportunity to work there—to climb the wooden stairs to the mysterious administration area,’ she says.                                    

‘To me, it was the creative hub of Melbourne, with new ideas consistently being explored, shared and shaped. When seeing a Playbox play you never really knew what to expect, love them or hate them. There was always something to talk about after watching a Playbox play.’

Kelly assisted with the development and implementation of several student workshops that ‘took place in the Bagging Room or Tower spaces’.

‘I always felt very special coming down the stairs to meet the teachers and students, who were both excited and nervous about being there at the Malthouse as a part of the Playbox Education Programme,’ she says.

‘The biggest joy of working in the Education team was being able to sit with the school audiences to view shows, to see the reactions of the students and teachers—often with the teachers wondering if what they were seeing was appropriate for their students.’

‘And Meg would spend hours interviewing the cast and crew to develop the most comprehensive teachers’ notes I have ever seen.’

The programme Kelly ‘remembers vividly’ was the 3DFest, which she describes as a creative springboard for many young artists, with students accessing the Playbox theatre spaces to explore, make and create.

‘Overall, there was a real awareness within the Company, especially from Jil and Aubrey, of the importance and value (of guiding) young people through the education programme, of giving them access to theatre making experiences and performances to fuel creative expression especially as they might become the future artists, producers and sponsors. It was seen as a highly valued part of what the Organization did,’ Kelly says.

The 2004 season was the tenth and last with Mellor at the company’s helm as Artistic Director. But the Education Programme continued to develop with the creation of Arts Immersion (2006–08), a partnership between Playbox, The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) and Chunky Move Dance Company as a precinct programme for Year 9 students.3

The 2004 Season

The Ishmael Club by Bill Garner and Sue Gore, the play to open the 2004 season, had an educational aspect to it too. It was a lesson in history featuring three artists of whom Norman Lindsay is best known today. His sister Ruby Lind(say) and Will Dyson whose drawings were, as the play shows, not only published by the London press but also praised by the critics form a trio bound by more than ideas, talent and vision. All three earned their living as ‘pen-draughtsmen’ [sic.] in the early 20th century, but The Ishmael Club formed in the late 1890s was a male club. Founded by writer and publisher Randolph Bedford and the Lindsay and Dyson brothers, it drew into its fold proud outsiders who identified themselves with the illegitimate son of Abraham, Ishmael the outcast, and met at a Melbourne inner-city café to discuss their ideas, read or perform their work and ‘mock the establishment’. Each meeting began with rituals composed by Norman Lindsay around Joss, an idol inspired by Richard Marsh’s popular novel The Joss: a reversion (1900).

The play opened with the once popular song ‘I Was Dreaming’, setting its framework firmly in the realm that Yanagai! Yanagai! and Ruby Moon and Babes in the Wood as well as many other plays Mellor had programmed before also explored—the input of dreaming into the logic of reason and its capacity to drive human action.

It is 1925, WW1 is over, some artists are dead, others have returned to Australia, and Fasoli’s, a restaurant and wine bar at the time considered Melbourne’s ‘leading literary café’, is run by Vincent Fasoli’s daughter Katharine Maggia.4 Portrayed as a handsome, warm and unpretentious woman, she is there to welcome back Norman and Bill, but dramaturgically her voice helps expose the misogyny that female artists fought relentlessly in order to get access to galleries, the press or any other channel available to promote and sell their artwork. The female artist is Ruby, Norman’s late sister who married Dyson and left with him for London in 1909, while the chief exponent of misogyny is none other than Norman himself, portrayed as ‘the most selfish person on earth’ competing for attention all the time, an elitist to the point of misanthropy and a staunch conservative as indeed attested by historical records and, above all, his cartoons reinforcing the racist and right-wing political commentaries in The Bulletin.

Wonderfully irreverent, playful and evocative, The Ishmael Club perfectly captures the Bohemian spirit in Australia at the turn of the 20th century, scornful of dominant social values but not of classical art forms. Proclamations such as ‘artists have no moral purpose’ and ‘the politics of the Club are republican’ contradicted by Norm’s repartee, ‘But consideration of politics is prohibited’ segue into declarations of ‘the Ishmaelite faith’ encapsulated in, ‘we worship friendship … and genius!’ Discussion of working-class ethos vs. the ethos of ‘the bloody fat man’ as in Dyson’s caricatures and of gender equality comes to the height in the dramatization of the artists’ London years in Act Two. Shifts in time and place, from London back to Melbourne continue till the end, each revisitation of memory opening a window into the growing private and ideological tensions between Norman and the Ruby/Bill couple.

References to the artists’ books and publications that took their pen-and-ink illustrations are deftly inserted in the dialogue in testimony to their respective ideological positions, from Norman Lindsay’s illustrations of Straus’ Satyricon, his little-known book Creative Effort and the now famous The Magic Pudding written in Melbourne during WW1 (while Dyson was at the Western Front with his drawing board) to Dyson’s own book Artist among the Bankers, his work at the Daily Herald where a whole page was earmarked for his caricatures on a daily bases and a citation from H.G. Wells’ review: ‘Mr Dyson is the Samson of English draughtsmen. Massive force and vitality. A really great and fearless artist.’

Evidence of Ruby’s steadily growing artistic reputation comes from her first drawings accepted by the London Opinion and then a commission for more than a hundred drawings featuring the Naughty Sofia [spelling in the playscript] figure for the Suffragette at the height of the Vote for Women movement led by Mrs Pankhurst, when Ruby was already a mother of a new-born girl. Twenty years later, Mrs Maggia reads from a newspaper clipping: ‘Ruby Lind’s delightful art has made occasional appearances in our magazines, but in Naughty Sofia she shows herself an artist who, in happy fancy and extraordinary beauty of line and design, has no equal among contemporary pen-draughtsmen.’ Songs, evocations of food and wine at Fasoli’s contrasted with Ruby’s disinterest in culinary arts, peppered with insights into the characters’ private lives and practical challenges of a high libido on both sexes help alleviate the debate around issues such as respect vs. respectability, egalitarianism vs. elitism or socialism vs. capitalism that continue to drive social and political tensions worldwide.

The Ishmael Club closes with a toast to Ruby Lind who died during the Spanish flu pandemic, to friendship and to deeply held beliefs that marked an era in the history of western art. An illustrious cast included Robert Menzies as Norm (Norman Lindsay), Asher Keddie as Ruby and Brett Climo as Bill (Will Dyson) in both productions, while Faye Bendurps played Mrs Maggia in the original 2003 production at the Melbourne Trades Hall (by Commonplace Productions), while in the Playbox revival six months later it was Susan-ann Walker.

Night Letters, an adaptation of Robert Dessaix’s epistolary novel, was an ambitious project, so bold that a fund-raising performance proved necessary. Held in Adelaide on 1 March in the form of a catered function hosted by Robert Dessaix, it played under the title of Vernissage in allusion to an artwork preview or a private performance of sorts.

At first glance, the adaptation held a big promise. Rather than following the same story line as in the novel, it had the structural composition analogous to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the book Dessaix’s letter-writer was reading while staying at a Venice hotel. Act One bore the title Purgatorio, Act Two Inferno and Act Three Paradiso. The dramatic treatment of content, however, left much to be desired.

Dessaix wrote his novel in the style of post-modern narrative, whereas in the adaptation the idea of post-dramatic form was taken literally. Extreme fragmentation of characters and events created the impression of messiness, which is an image associated with inferno and purgatory but hardly with drama. What is more, the treatment of certain characters betrayed cultural prejudice. Writer Susan Rogers, for instance, turned the handsome young Italian waiter Emilio, an object of gay males’ desire, into a go-between, a messenger, a pimp. In the novel, Emilio and his mates show nothing but disdain for predatory hotel guests, as implied by their vicious bashing of a German professor, a historical figure, left not only with broken bones but also without his precious possessions. This existential and ethical position was turned upside down in the play, betraying a complete misunderstanding of Italian ethos and, worse, the presumption of cultural superiority over an emblematic non-Anglo-Saxon figure (handsome Italian).

Word economy prohibits further analysis of the play. Night Letters had twenty roles and a dozen of supporting ones played by a cast of ten, with Chris Drummond as director. A co-production between State Theatre Company of South Australia and Playbox, it was developed in the On Site Theatre Laboratory and presented at the Adelaide Bank 2004 Festival of Arts, opening at Playbox on 1 April 2004.

‘It was a big, expensive production. But collaborations are important,’ Mellor says.

‘I think I managed to collaborate with every theatre company mainly as a sign of good will. It was like saying, “You’ve done something that’s of national importance. Let’s move it.”’

‘Everybody was thrilled but it wasn’t easy. Sometimes we could have toured a play had the actors all been available and willing.’

Ian Wilding’s Torrez was another co-production, this time with Griffin Theatre Company and Black Swan Theatre Company, premiered at the SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney, on 29 April 2004. A complete contrast to Rogers’ adaptation of Night Letters, it had a cast of three and a powerful story to tell that pulled the heart strings of many Australians, male and female. The action revolved around a newly retired footballer figure, fictional but close to reality enough to associate a sports hero prone to excesses with  a real-life figure. What contributed to the sense of veracity was the entwinement of character weaknesses and strengths: violence as well as sexual exploits perceived as an entitlement with a sincere passion for the game and desire of love and family.

The figure of Torrez’s manager Fox embodied the manipulative side of the Big Game at play even in the aftermath of the footballer’s brilliant career. Act Two brought onto the scene a new figure and a new perspective, that of the fans. The old man Adams walks into Torrez’s house in the middle of the night. All he wants is an autograph, not for him but for his daughter who has taken an overdose. The synergy of action and emotion, critique and sympathy, inspiration and destruction along with the allusive and yet open-ended closure made for a gripping drama. For a reviewer, Wilding’s demythologisation of the game was quite overwhelming.

There have been many Australian plays about sport, but perhaps none that deliver quite as many shocks as this one. Torrez just might make you want to take your kids bowling rather than off to a game of football.5

For Peter Docker, the role of Torrez was his 18th in a new Australian play since graduation from VCA. He was in Debra Oswald’s Sweet Road (Playbox, 2000) and Richard Frankland’s Conversations with the Dead (Playbox/Ilbijerri, 2002), among other plays for a bevy of Australian theatre companies. Marco Chiappi, a founding member of Hoist Theatre Group, was Fox the manager and Andrew James, whose long list of credits included a role in the long running hit musical Buddy!, was the old man Adams.

Sources of Funding, Tours and the Lost Prizes

Mellor never programmed musicals. He did not want to compete with commercial producers.

‘Commercial producers need the musicals to survive,’ he says. ‘If they produce musicals, they can make a good living and they don’t have to lose their houses.’

‘Most of the producers in Australia have lost money because our state theatre companies have undercut them. They’ve got funding and yet they turn around and do musicals like, for instance, A Little Night Music. ’

Mellor is referring to the MTC production of the musical by Hugh Wheeler and Patrick Quentin that he understandably attributes to the Artistic Director’s anticipation of ‘a bigger box office’.

‘At Playbox, about one third was state government funding, which is why I primarily programmed Victorian plays, for they were always the majority,’ he says.

‘There was me being honourable, principled, thinking, “if the money is coming from Victoria, I’ve got to invest back into Victorian playwrights.”

‘I would have preferred to do playwrights from other states at times, but I didn’t. I always had that proportion clear.’

Another third of revenue came from the federal government, that is, from the Australia Council, and the last third came from the box office.

‘I was very interested in the box office,’ Mellor says.

‘When I was young, if we didn’t have good houses, we didn’t get the new shoes and we certainly didn’t get treats with our food. But when the box office was good, then we got new clothes, new shoes and we had treats with our food to eat and toys, etc.’

‘So, I was very aware of the box office and very aware that Shakespeare lived mainly from the box office. The box office I greatly respect, you see, and I think that’s a real huge problem in Australia.’

One of the things Mellor is most proud of achieving with the support from Jill Smith was to turn Playbox from an idea into a niche company.

‘We were specifically funded as a niche company to do Australian plays,’ he says.

‘We would be funded three years ahead as a niche company, which is an unusual word [niche] for the Australia Council to use. But we fulfilled a niche,’ he reiterates.

‘[There are] many things I’m proud of within the Playbox years, but that one is terribly important: to be recognised nationally for fulfilling an important role, especially when you are recognized with money,’ he adds with a chuckle. By ‘you’ Mellor is obviously referring to the company into which he invested all his creative energy between 1994 and 2004.

But there was a catch. With the policy of showcasing only new Australian plays, the company could never count on a good box office. The deficit had to be plugged somehow and one way of doing it was to offer spaces for hire. As early as in 2002, printed on the last page of the Playbox/Currency Press playtext-cum-programme was an advertisement for six venues in The Malthouse:

     The Tower

     The Bagging Room

     The Kiln

     The Hoopla! Room

     The Samuel Gallery

     The Shell Room

‘The Merlyn and Beckett theatres are also available for conferences, seminars, product launches…,’ the ad read.

Another way of plugging a hole in the company budget was by touring plays. In 2004 alone, four plays were showcased in fourteen regional centres. Still Angela played before the audiences in Hobart, Tas; Redfern, NSW; and Perth, WA. Ruby Moon was performed in nine regional centres in Victoria, and Stolen could still be seen in Echuca, Frankston, Mooroopna and Ballarat.

‘I am very proud of tours,’ Mellor says, diverting the conversation to ‘a huge reputation’ Playbox had in Asia. The anecdote he tells first, takes him back to Tokyo.

‘They used to love [the company’s name] because they knew of Playboy. They would put their finger over part of the x and Playbox would become Playboy, and they would laugh. So I thought, “There’s an international joke,” this game with language.’

‘The Asian partnership’ was by then a tradition. Established by Carrillo Gantner while Playbox was still staging the classics, it started with The Chronicle of Macbeth performed in Tokyo on 21 May 1992, and King Lear performed in Tokyo, Nagoya and Seoul in late 1993. When Mellor took over from Gantner as Artistic Director, the collaboration took a new turn: two complementary projects, The Head of Mary and The Floating World were watched at the Tokyo International Arts Space and at Playbox, as part of the respective Art Festivals (see Part 1 of this story). The complex logistics of such a project prohibited another attempt on the same scale. The following year (1996) only David Williamson’s play Sanctuary toured to Manila and Kuala Lumpur, while Jane Harrison’s Stolen played in Tokyo, in 2002.

In total, the company went on 213 tours between 1990 and 2004 (source: AusStage), regional tours by far outnumbering international ones, as might be expected. The list lengthened with the merger of two programmes, Education and Touring, that took Mavis Goes to Timor to eight venues in Victoria and one in Western Australia. On 2 April 2003 I Don’t Wanna Play House played in Swansea, followed by six more shows of Anderson’s play across Tasmania. Stolen had another two performances in Colac and Frankston which, with earlier tours, makes Harrison’s play one of the most widely watched works of theatre in Australian history.

In the meantime, the 2004 season continued with Minefields and Miniskirts, the production Jill Smith loved. It was ‘huge, and one of the best designs ever seen in the Merlyn; so beautiful to fill the auditorium with silk lanterns,’ Mellor recalls. The credit for design goes to Catherine Raven, although the overall effect would hardly have been the same without Phil Lethlean’s lighting design and Rod Davies’ sound design.

An adaptation of Siobhán McHugh’s ‘wonderful book’ composed of interviews with fifty women, the play opened on 14 July, with Terence O’Connell as director. The cast was scaled down to five women, who in one way or another served in the Vietnam war and were revisiting their memories in a sequence of monologues interspersed with songs. As the narratives unfolded, the shadows of war descended upon the audience deepening with every scene and every detail painted with words. A journalist spoke about misogyny in the then male-dominated profession, about torture and air raids she witnessed while the peasants kept ploughing their paddy fields and the US Embassy held a reception at the Saigon Majestic Hotel. A nurse spoke about the wounded and the dying, an entertainer about the realities of her role and a rape, then there was a volunteer’s story, a Vietnam Vet’s wife’s story. Some were borrowed from McHugh’s book, others had to be imagined for the play to have ‘a beginning, middle and end’, O’Connell wrote some weeks before the start of rehearsal. In the poetic closure underscored by Alana Scanlan’s choreography, the women’s narratives assumed the tone of eternal truth.

ALL: [together, singing]

            And the seasons they go round and round

            And the painted ponies go up and down

            We’re captive on the carousel of time

            We can’t return, we can only look behind

            From where we came …

‘It wasn’t until Minefields and Miniskirts that audiences began to talk freely about the Vietnam war,’ Mellor says.

‘This was helped by Dorothy’s Nowhere, which featured a traumatised [Vietnam] Veteran and by Nicholas Flanagan’s Burning Time (1996). These three works were deliberate programming to help swing the tide against the shameful silence and finally play an important role in Australia’s coming to terms with a sense of guilt and pride and loss.’

Minefields and Miniskirts went on to tour all over Australia, serving its theme in the same way Stolen did,’ Mellor says.

Talk of the play on an Asian-Australian theme draws a comment on the loss of AsiaLink prize.

‘That prize was very important. And it’s so stupid to let go of it, because now the Asian writers are just starting to come through more strongly,’ he says.

The Frail Man by Anthony Crowley won another award that is also long gone—the Malcolm Robertson Prize. Introduced to honour the work that Robertson did at Playbox as Literary Manager, it was awarded to a new playwright for his/her first play.

‘Malcolm Robertson gave his life really to Melbourne theatre and new writing,’ Mellor says.

Keen to give credit where credit is due, he points out that Gantner made the realization of some great ideas possible, ‘but Malcolm did the yakka. He read the plays, he talked with the playwrights, he gave them the feedback.’

‘So I should give much credit to the late Malcolm Robertson, who was also a lovely director, when he had time.’

It is no surprise then that Mellor took it upon himself to direct Crowley’s premiere play. One hundred and two pages of the published playtext together with the introductory ‘Legend’, in fact stage directions as if written for a school ‘concert’, trigger a hasty response: the writer’s inexperience is self-evident. But only a few scenes into the play, it becomes clear that intertextuality is Crowley’s principle of making meaning. It is shaped by other texts, primarily by Hamlet and Australian convict history, the interconnections between them influencing the recipient’s interpretation of the play. Onto this layer Crowley builds another—the effects of the unconscious on the line of reasoning, behaviour and eventually the body. Woven into these relations is from the start an emblematic figure, a faceless Muslim woman ‘crushing our precious garden’, Gristlefuck, one of the convict figures haunting the present says.

Crowley’s frail man is more than one person, but the chief exponent is a 42-year-old CEO of Australia’s largest IT company, handsome, intelligent. He dies of cancer but the play closes with a flashback of him addressing his very first shareholders’ meeting.

SAKEN: We have to be brave. We have to…strike the vision, hold the vision and not allow ourselves to become victims of fear. Of…blind, unimaginative rationalism. If we can, I promise this company will grow beyond our wildest dreams. The journey begins. Goodnight.

The cast of eight, led by Paul Bishop as Stephen Saken, played eleven roles, the designer was Shaun Gorton, lighting was by Paul Jackson and sound by Russell Goldsmith.

‘I wrote The Frail Man thinking how frail we all are. How easy it is to lose your way when you’re afraid,’ Crowley wrote in the Playwright’s Notes.

‘When those we look to for leadership—on all sides—prove just as weak and only too eager to indulge our lesser angels for political opportunity. Frailty that diminishes all we aspire to and allows denial to become an acceptable alternative to the truth.’

The Malthouse Adaptations and Other Construction Work

Mellor is no less proud of ‘a lot of building’ that Jill Smith and he managed to achieve. When he joined the company, the Sturt Street end of The Malthouse was still ‘just a shell, with three ovens, no roof, and lots of pigeons, and the workshop was a corrugated iron shed at the other end,’ he says.

‘Jill was working on raising the money for the front tower. I well remember the designs and getting the high ceiling on the tower room, the skylight in three fake chimneys, and the mezzanine connection to the gallery.’

Playwright and director Robert Reid fills the picture with some dry facts.

On 14 December 1995 Victorian Minister for the Arts, Haddon Storey, launched the converted Front Tower plans for renovation by R&L Collins for a price of $720,000 which included the installation of an elevator to improve access.

Work was delayed to the end of November with an official launch date estimated for January/February 1997.

When completed, the Sturt Street end of the building had a ‘kitchen and café downstairs and rehearsal/function space upstairs, and the peaked roof with “chimneys” was added,’ Jill Smith says.

‘Access was via a narrow staircase or from Bagging Room rehearsal space. I think some acoustic treatment to stop noise bleed between the two rooms was added later. There was also a lift but not directly accessed from foyer.’

The foyer was extended into Kiln but the foyer design ‘honoured the heritage of the building with the timber highlighted and a carpeted floor covering [for acoustic] and slate floor areas.’

All throughout the Mellor years, The Tower room was used for functions and rehearsals, but it also served a wider purpose, as groups of people could go in there and sit around and talk or brainstorm ideas.

‘I loved that we had writers dropping in and they could talk to directors also dropping in,’ Mellor says.

Free photocopying was available, actors were around. They could all have a drink together and talk in a relaxed atmosphere. ‘Everything springs from the meeting of ideas,’ Mellor says.

‘If you have a meeting place first and foremost for artists, and they know that they will meet interesting people if they go there, that is every bit as important as the performances. That’s where the germs of all these ideas come from.’

Mellor still thinks Playbox did not have enough rehearsal rooms, even after the adaptations.

‘We had the big room [Bagging Room], a smaller rehearsal space [Hoopla! Room] and we would rehearse sometimes on the stages, but it was not enough. We should have built more into the gallery next door, only Chunky Move was there.’

Other small organisations were using parts of the 117 Sturt St building upgraded in 1992, with funding from Arts Victoria, to create new offices and open the first of Melbourne’s Arts Houses.

‘About four small theatre companies that were all community theatre were operating their administration there,’ Mellor says.

‘They didn’t have rehearsal rooms at the Arts House. But having a complex with accommodation for the administration for different small companies—this is a fantastic way to help your community!’

‘And it was wonderful to have colleagues all having meals and coffee in the popular Malthouse foyer.’

When the ACCA building was completed in 2002, it included offices and rehearsal space for Chunky Move as well as the new set workshop for Playbox, while the old workshop became storage and small set work.

‘I well remember arguing for the workshop to have a large space, as I imagined the future would need another theatre. At the time, it was a well-designed safe workshop for our carpenters,’ he says.

More of the long-slit windows were needed for light, though. This practical feature was sacrificed to the aesthetic qualities of the exterior defined by the rusty iron that would change its patina as it aged.

The question of aesthetics brings back the memory of reconstruction of one of the defining features at the Sturt Street end of The Malthouse building.

‘It was of architectural interest to try to reproduce the three chimneys at the top, which were all long gone, but were part of the original building from old photographs,’ Mellor says.

Sadly, the matching roof and chimneys at Dodds Street end never eventuated.

The three chimneys Mellor refers to feature, in a stylized form, on the front cover of the 2003 Playbox season brochure.

With Mavis Goes to Timor (2003), the ‘sunken floor’ in the space between Malthouse and ACCA affectionately called the ‘ashtray’ found a new function. From then on, it would host an occasional performance and not just smokers and gossip.

The Swan Song

More than a month passed before the opening of a new play in part two of Mellor’s last season at the Playbox Theatre Company. The tempo was seemingly slowing down, but only those working behind the scenes knew how hectic the preparations were for the handover of company to the much-hyped younger team. For the audience, the offering of a play by Michael Gurr meant a known quantity laced with surprise and Julia 3 did not disappoint. Its title was an allusion to character transformation spurred by free choice and the power to exercise it. The play opened in the Beckett Theatre on 3 September 2004, and the director was Bruce Myles.

In Julia 3, Gurr reflects the world in the eyes of a recently widowed rich woman. Every morning she reads the (news)papers and the more she goes through, the more the stories look alike. Julia chairs a foundation established by her late husband with a lofty aim of serving the arts, literature and science. With the timeframe shifting between ‘six months ago and now’, abuse of the position of privilege as well as the controversial aspects of philanthropy including the selection criteria and dubious outcomes—if any, come to the surface. This perpetuum mobile drives the change in Julia from service to the establishment exploited for the satisfaction of desire to covert political radicalism.

Gurr explored the effectiveness of subversive action in The Simple Truth (2002) but his closure there suggested a disillusionment with anarchic tactics. John Harding broached the theme of social and political rebellion in Enuff (Blak Inside, 2002), closing on a more affirmative note but without envisioning an outcome. In Julia 3, the choice of political solution is unequivocal and presented as efficacious. In the post-9/11 world, however, assassination of the key figures held responsible for the tragic stories that fill the newspapers is no more called anarchism but terrorism.

Gurr was playing with ideas as much as with form in this play. Three generations of men compete for Julia, but the dominant perspective is never destabilized. The opening belongs to Julia, the youngest of her lovers enters the scene oblivious to her as does the oldest, Julia’s independence confirmed by keeping her voice separate even when in dialogue with her lovers, the recipients of grants.

Bruce Myles, who had directed the majority of Gurr’s premieres, also directed Julia 3, with Judith Cobb, designer and Glenn Hughes, lighting in the tightly knit team again. Before playing Julia, Kate Fitzpatrick had appeared in three Playbox premieres: Insignificance (1983); Post Felicity (2002); and The Fat Boy (2003). Todd Macdonald, who played Charlie—a writer around thirty years of age, was in The Language of the Gods (1999). Greg Stone, who played Joe—a cancer researcher in his forties, was the then current Artistic Associate at Playbox and his extensive work for the company included musical direction of Nowhere (2001) and acting roles in eight plays, the then most recent being Myth, Propaganda and Disaster … (2003) and Rapture (2002), while among the earlier ones were The Black Sequin Dress (1996), The Head of Mary (1995) including Tokyo Tour, and Good Works (1995) including national tour. Peter Curtin, who played Leon—an art evaluator in his fifties, was in another Sewell play, The Sick Room (1999), and in Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento (1991).

The season closed with The Call, an adaptation of Martin Flanagan’s biography of Thomas Wentworth Wills who ‘revolutionised colonial cricket’ in mid-19th century and opened the way for the evolution of Australian football. Flanagan called it ‘an interpretation of an historical drama in the manner of a work for theatre or the screen’.6 The play was staged in the Beckett Theatre in Bruce Myles direction and was included in the Melbourne International Arts Festival programme.

The lights faded to black permanently at the Playbox Theatre Company after four performances of Tokyo Notes by Oriza Hirata, a Seinendan Theatre Company production showcased in Melbourne thanks to ‘the Asian partnership’ Mellor nurtured assiduously for the duration of his incumbency.

‘I wonder how many people remember it,’ Mellor says with a hint of nostalgia.

‘Sometimes I think, it would be lovely to have a talk and get a group of subscribers together who saw most of the seasons and get some feedback. Because I don’t think we really know.’

‘You do all this work, and you don’t get any feedback.’

What Mellor says next sounds like an afterthought: ‘Just talking to you today makes me realize what a terrible thing it was to lose that niche company.’

 

Endnotes

1. For the spelling of ‘blak’, see https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2020/05/07/why-blak-not-black-artist-destiny-deacon-and-origins-word-1

2. John McCallum, Belonging: Australian Playwrighting in the 20th century, Currency Press, Strawberry Hills, NSW, 2009

3. For more on the Playbox Education Programme, see the paper Upton wrote with Naomi Edwards in 2015, at https://currencyhouse.org.au/node/43

4. John Arnold, ‘A night at Fasoli’s ...’, in Notes and Furphies, vol. 6, April 1981, pp.5–6

5. The Age, at https://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/torrez-20040601-gdxy9w.html

6. Martin Flanagan, The Call, ETT Imprint, Exile Bay NSW, 2021

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Robert Taylor for generously supplying me with the playtexts I had to read, but did not have in my own collection, to jog my memory and for assisting me in finding whatever information or images proved hard to track down. My special thanks go to Jeff Busby who gave me his permission to use so many of his photos in Parts 1–4 of the Playbox story without which none of them would have been published. More images came from David Tredinnick who helped me document visually numerous plays, among them Yanagai! Yanagai! and those produced in 2004. I would also like to thank my editor, Elisabeth Kumm, for giving me all the space I needed to retrieve the fascinating history of The Playbox Theatre and pay tribute to those who made it a breeding ground of new Australian work for the stage. Many more people have contributed to shaping this story and who they are can be seen from the attributions and credits provided as a reminder of their legacy.

Read 658 times Last modified on Wednesday, 01 June 2022
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.