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Interview with Julian Meyrick & Gabrielle Wolf

Julian Meyrick is the author of See How it Runs: Nimrod and the New Wave. He is a theatre historian and director and until recently was Associate Director and Literary Advisor at Melbourne Theatre Company.

Gabrielle Wolf is the author of Make it Australian: The Australian Performing Group, the Pram Factory and New Wave Theatre, the first critical history of the APG.

In our author interview, Julian and Gabrielle discuss the rise and fall of Nimrod and the APG—and the lessons contemporary theatre makers can learn from the past:

Julian, what inspired you to write about Australian theatre history? What is your connection to Nimrod?

Julian: For me, it was partly an exercise in retrospective citizenship. I was born and raised in London with an Australian mother and British father, both profoundly nationalistic in their views—which made Ashes tours a lively time. When I was 25 I came to Australia to learn about my (literal) motherland. After a few years living and working here, I realised a number of things concurrently: a) Australian culture was unlike the European cultures I was used to, both in structure and sensibility; b) I knew nothing of its history; and c) if I was going to find out about it, I would have to do the research myself. Nimrod was not only an influential theatre, but one which had had a high turnover of personnel, most of these still alive. This made it an ideal ‘empirical referent’, as they say. As a theatre director myself, I felt like I was uncovering family history.

Gabrielle, what fascinated you about APG in particular?

Gabrielle: I was struck by how many of the significant participants in the contemporary Australian arts scene and the teaching institutions that are training new Australian artists began their careers in the APG. This theatre group intrigued me also because, as a child of the 1970s, I grew up with the legend of the Pram Factory. The immediate catalyst for beginning my research into the APG was attending a revival of White With Wire Wheels, a play by Jack Hibberd, which was first produced at the beginning of the New Wave. I wanted to discover more about the climate that produced this theatre and why it resonated with audiences.

Nimrod set out to revolutionise Australian theatre. What were its aims and how well did it accomplish them?

Julian: This is a very broad question—you’ll have to read my book! But it’s important to realise Nimrod had different goals at different times, that these frequently conflicted, and that they led to contrasting operating strategies. Nimrod was committed to staging new Australian drama, for example, but also passionately interested in the Shakespearean canon. It was nationalistic in tone and vision, but profoundly influenced by English theatrical models, particularly the English Stage Company (the Royal Court) and East 15 Drama School. And so on.

Gabrielle, do you think APG was successful in achieving its goals?

Gabrielle: The APG had many goals, which changed over the course of its life, and individuals within the larger group did not always share the same goals as one another. Some significant goals that the APG worked more successfully towards were the creation of a home-grown theatre—plays by, for and about Australians; the development of an alternative to what it regarded as establishment, conventional theatre; the running of a theatre collective according to the principle of democratic participation; the creation of shows collaboratively; and the erosion of restrictions on censorship of theatre. While it produced ‘community theatre’ for factory workers, prison inmates, school students and pensioners, amongst others, the APG never really developed a sustained ‘popular theatre’. The APG’s theatre fed into movements that were agitating for social change, but it is difficult to determine whether the work itself instigated change. Much as it tried, the APG did not entirely eradicate authority and hierarchy from the processes of theatre creation.

The APG thrived in the 1970s, but by the early 1980s the passion was spent and it folded. What were some of the forces that drove the company members apart?

Gabrielle: In the latter part of the 1970s, APG members split into a number of factions, each of which pursued different types of theatre and developed different philosophies. Practitioners had inconsistent ideas of what the APG should be and were no longer united by the same agenda. There were ongoing conflicts about whether the APG should be a writers’ or a performers’ theatre and about what roles directors should play. While some wanted to follow playscripts, other practitioners preferred to create shows collaboratively. Certain individuals wanted to focus on Australian work and others were interested predominantly in overseas drama. Pushes towards a bureaucratic, efficient running of the group focused on ensuring its financial viability were countered by pulls towards a concentration on the theatre it produced. Throughout its life, the APG was plagued by power struggles, which inevitably took their toll. By the end of the 1970s, the APG was no longer considered radical, an image that had previously united the group.

Nimrod Theatre lasted a little longer, but what happened to the hippest, hottest place to be in 1970s Sydney?

Julian: The end of Nimrod was a political event not a cultural inevitability. At the last, it produced more than its share of bad shows. But this in itself doesn’t explain the demise of the company. More important was the instability of its program formula. In the years following the death of the Tote Theatre in 1978, Nimrod was the de facto state company of NSW. After the STC started operating in 1981/82, Nimrod found itself losing market share to a near competitor while at the same time its cost structure was ballooning out. Yet there was no easy way to return the company to its boutique theatre origins. People loved Nimrod. But they got sick of throwing their tax dollars at its operating deficits.

Gabrielle, how did you research the developments and frictions inside the company?

Gabrielle: I consulted a wide range of sources including APG playscripts, advertisements, posters and programs for plays, theatre reviews, practitioners’ correspondence, minutes of APG meetings and APG newsletters, and I interviewed former APG members.

Julian, what was the most difficult part of your research?

Julian: Realising that the polarised images of Australian theatre as either a) essentially derivative or b) nationalistically unique did not explain the facts. Little I had gleaned about the profession as an apprentice director proved to be accurate. Which is not to say I got told lies. But the truth turned out to be complex, mongrel and synthetic. Nothing had simple causes or effects. Official discussion of the period tends to view its irruptions as both inevitable and unproblematic. Yet no-one in Australian theatre in the 1960s, as far as I could tell, had any inkling of what lay ahead. Sometimes, as a historian, the challenge is to restore a sense of the contingency of events—the mess, the interdependence, the defiance of category.

How did the demise of these iconic Australian theatre companies impact on future generations of theatre makers?

Julian: The passing of any company is less important than how its legacy is construed. In theatre, the art work disappears with the moment, so this legacy is often the only thing informing future generations of what came before. Nimrod died—a fact that is neither here nor there. However, the circumstances of its passing reveal a society in thrall to shallow notions of change and continuity. There was no sense of historical loss, no period of mourning. Rather Nimrod’s demise was treated as of organisational significance only. Australian theatre was ‘upgrading’. This attitude to history is so stupendously infantile and destructive it beggars belief that educated men and women could seriously hold it. Yet it is only one particular instance of Australia’s attitude towards the past generally, its own and other people’s, which is pathologically amnesiac.

Gabrielle, what do you see as the main influences of APG on contemporary Australian theatre?

Gabrielle: Partly due to its prolific output of Australian drama, the APG helped erode the cultural cringe and open up audiences for Australian playwriting. Australian plays are now staged regularly, actors use Australian accents and their characters speak in the vernacular. The APG moved away from the proscenium arch and many contemporary Australian practitioners similarly produce their work in unconventional theatre spaces. The APG helped change some audiences’ expectations about how to interact with theatre. Circus OZ began within the APG and still survives. The APG’s work helped lead to the erosion of censorship restrictions on theatre.

30 years on—what is the legacy of New Wave theatre? Have we succeeded in creating our own national theatre?

Julian: People who talk or write about the New Wave often feel compelled to pass judgement on it, and inevitably this involves a stance on its avowed nationalism and the legitimacy of national imaging in culture per se. This debate—let’s call it ‘the identity debate’—ultimately leads nowhere, I’m beginning to think. A more interesting and nuanced approach is to accept that the idea of a ‘national theatre’ can, on occasions, be a truthful project, productive of certain processes and outcomes. Yet in identifying what aspects of the New Wave are still influential today, we need to go beyond labels and analyse the truth conditions of theatre generally. In this way we see that the New Wave’s understanding of theatre as politically central, socially inclusive and formally plastic is still radically galvanising. It is the ideals, more even that the body of work, that command historical attention and respect.

What do you think contemporary theatre makers can learn from the past?

Gabrielle: The APG showed the value of taking risks and experimenting with theatre, of blending different dramatic forms, and of rejecting restrictions imposed by dramatic tradition. It also demonstrated the potential for collaborative theatre creation and ensemble performances. The APG highlighted the benefits and difficulties associated with running a theatre collective. It showed the possibilities for creating community theatre and using theatre as a vehicle for protest and for bringing socio-political issues to public attention.

Julian, what, in your opinion, are the most exciting developments in Australian theatre today?

Julian: Today, as in the past, the energy and ideas are at the cross-over points. When any theatrical enterprise draws creative inspiration from two logics/situations, the results are stronger and more interesting than when it draws from just one. Nearly every time this is confused with a particular aesthetic configuration or ‘look’. But it is the creative ambition that is compelling not merely the results. You often find cross-over work in the interstices of institutional practices—the margins of international festivals, the studio programs of major companies, fringe work that doesn’t accept its fringe status etc. This view sits in opposition to the accepted cultural vistas that valorise either the centre or the edge—mainstream practices or so-called avant-garde ones. But the action hasn’t been there, if it ever was, for some time.

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