'Buy Australian' catchcry fuels arts renaissance

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Wolf, Gabrielle. Make It Australian: The Australian Performing Group, the Pram Factory and New Wave Theatre. Sydney, Currency Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-086819-8163. RRP: $39.95

Make It Australian, by Gabrielle Wolf 'The APG (Australian Performing Group) helped bring about a renaissance in Australian theatre,' writes Gabrielle Wolf, author of Make It Australian. 'The 'New Wave' of the late 1960s and 1970s was the first major outpouring of new Australian drama since the decades surrounding Federation in 1901.

'At no other time has there been more plays written and staged by Australians ... Between 1968 and 1981, at least 350 Australian plays were produced in Melbourne alone. The APG contributed a third of them.'

Make It Australian is a fascinating account of writing and performance developed in two small drama 'spaces' in Carlton, Melbourne: first at La Mama and later the Pram Factory.

It was a time 'when theatre was central to the hot issues of the day, and a mirror for a country seeking a new image, enraging, exciting and always entertaining'. Robert Menzies was prime minister, so there was much for left-wing arts activists to agitate about. They thrive best, it would seem, under conservative governments.

The dramatis personae of Wolf's work include John Romeril, Geoffrey Milne, Barry Oakley, Max Gillies, Sue Ingleton, Graeme Blundell, Jane Clifton, Bruce Spence, Evelyn Krape, Greig Pickhaver (aka H.G. Nelson), Jack Hibberd, Barry Dickens and, on and off, David Williamson. Interviews, discussion of a wide range of plays and painstaking poring over stacks of 'minutes of meetings' form the fabric of her study.

While some readers may associate 'Buy Australian!' with businessmen such as Dick Smith, he was not the first to propose that consumers should favour the local brand. Not surprisingly, the arts industry has been a leader in raising the consciousness of Australians to what they could produce in their own backyard.

Initially, the idea that maybe, just maybe, the local product was inferior was not accepted as sufficient reason for preferring the import. If it was Australian, that was good enough — 'Make it Australian, make it local, tell our story!' But patrons were not always so accommodating.

The APG was an 'arts collective', in which everyone was originally considered equal directors and designers no more important or influential than the actors. New ideas and structures were at its heart, though many proved impractical and were quietly abandoned.

When Government grants started to flow, some at APG were conscience-stricken about accepting assistance from those they were warring against or criticising. Of course, they soon realised that it was not from politicians but all taxpayers that the funds came.

The Whitlam Government (1972—75) saw the arts awash with money as never before (or since). There was soon little for the collective to rail about. Coupled with that, the Pram Factory was sold and so, deprived of its 'home', by the end of 1981 the APG was no more.

Nonetheless, its role in the development of Australians' awareness of the importance of the home-grown product is undeniable. Many former members are active in theatre and allied fields to this day.

Although Wolf presents an overview of how things were, she concedes those actually involved would have a different slant. That said, this examination of a significant 'mover and shaker' in the development of the nation's writers and performers is definitely worth some attention.

Gabrielle Wolf profile at Currency Press

Richard FlynnRichard Flynn is a former teacher of senior English and drama at St Ignatius College, Adelaide. He has an online business specialising in copy editing.

Topic tags: Richard Flynn, Make It Australian, Gabrielle Wolf, book review, performing arts



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Existing comments

Thanks, Richard, for such a revealing look at one of the great movements in our cultural history. Regards after all these years.
Joe Castley | 17 May 2008


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