Interview with Malcolm Robertson
DATE: 23 May, 2003
Interview conducted by Angela O’Brien
We’re going to be talking about your experiences at Melbourne University.
From the UTRC days, 1953, is that right?
MR: That’s right.
Fine, OK, good. Now what we thought we’d do is, in Jen’s experience what’s good is, if you can integrate my question into your answer just briefly, so, for instance, the first question I’ll ask you is ‘When were you at Melbourne University?’ so if you just say, ‘I was at for the purposes of editing…’. So can you also introduce yourself?
MR: OK. My name is Malcolm Robertson. I was a member of the Union Theatre Repertory Company in the opening season in 1953, and I stayed with the company for the next season and I returned to the company in 1961, where I spent twelve years with the company as a Director of Additional Activities, and then I came back to the company, which is now the Melbourne Theatre Company in 1971, as Associate Director, and I left the company in 1975. How’s that?
That’s great. And just tell me when were you actually studying at Melbourne University?
MR: I was never a student at Melbourne University. A student of theatre.
MR: I never studied. I came down to Melbourne for the first time in a professional theatre company called the John Alden Shakespeare Company, which played at the comedy theatre in Exhibition Street for four months with four Shakespearean plays and I toured professionally throughout Australia for that year. Then I went to England and spent a year in England and then I came back and when I came back I was asked by Elsie Byer, who was the general manager of the John Alden Shakespeare Company, to come down to Melbourne to be interviewed by John Sumner who was the manager of the Union Theatre, within the University, as he had set up this professional repertory company called the Union Theatre Repertory Company. And so I came down to Melbourne and I was interviewed and he offered me the job of stage manager, actor stage manager.
So just remind me what year did you begin?
MR: ‘53. The first year at UTRC, yes, yes.
And your background with the John Alden group, was that your first experience of theatre?
MR: Yes, I’d just been out of school. I went to school at North Sydney Boys’ High School and within a year I was in a professional theatre company, which was quite remarkable in those days because there was no NIDA and there was no VCA. There were no training schools, you learnt it as you went. I started on an amateur basis with the John Alden company in Sydney. They were doing King Lear at the St. James Hall in Phillips Street and I had a letter of introduction from the Minister of Education in Sydney and he said ‘Would you like to carry a spear in King Lear?’ and I said ‘Yes’. I was working in the daytime so we performed King Lear for four nights a week at the St. James Hall. At the end of that year, because of the success of this company, it was invited to become a professional company and the opening productions at the Comedy Theatre in December of 1951, I think it was.
The Comedy Theatre in Melbourne?
MR: Yeah. And that’s where we opened The Professional and we toured then to Adelaide, then to Brisbane, to Toowoomba, to Canberra, to Perth, to Hobart and Launceston, which was a year.
Did you say John Sumner saw you in a production?
MR: No, no. He didn’t but one of the members of the cast, Nancy Stewart, had worked with him when he was a stage director of a play in London called Who Was Sylvia? and she said ‘John Sumner’s coming out here to set up a professional repertory company’ and we all laughed and said that will never happen!
Why did you believe that it wasn’t possible for that to happen in Melbourne at that time?
MR: Well, the only theatre that existed was amateur theatre in Melbourne. It was the Melbourne Little Theatre and they did have at that time, productions once a year, by the Australian National Theatre which is now the National Theatre in St. Kilda. They did professional productions of opera, ballet and drama at the Princess Theatre. So there was no continuous work for an Australian actor except in radio. That’s where most of the Australian actors earned their living. For a young actor – I was 17 I think at the time – the only possible venue for a professional career was to be an assistant stage manager with J.C. Williamsons which was the largest theatre company in the world in those days, of professional theatre. But that was it. So it obviously from my parent’s point of view [chuckling] you know, your son wanting to be an actor, was in the realms of fantasy, so that virtually the John Alden company was the first kind, a local, an Australian company, had been set up professionally with Australian actors playing leading roles and people say you make your own life, but I was invited by John Alden to go. I mean I put on, I was music and affects in those days, and I used to put on the 78 records, with the trumpet call on the 78 record and then turn it up and…
How things have changed?
MR: How things have changed.
So in what capacity were you initially hired by the UTRC, by John Sumner?
MR: I was actor/stage manager. I was hired by John Sumner at the end of the first season. In those days there was six months professional season here at the Union Theatre, starting September going through to February, and to try and keep some sort of continuity for those actors, this is the first time the CAE, the Council of Adult Education, they used to do country tours with plays, and John negotiated with them to go out in the country for six weeks. So I came down here I suppose it was July sometime, no earlier than that – June – but this was after I’d come down to meet him and then he offered me the job of stage manager/actor with the company. Then I came back and the play that we toured through Victoria for six weeks was Pygmalion, which had been the first play in the professional season at the Union Theatre that actually drew an audience in. As you probably know, the first book written about it was that it won’t last a week and that was the attitude. That was the attitude when I first heard of it. Nancy Stewart had said, he’s going to set up this professional repertory company within the Melbourne University and I mean he just said well it just won’t happen.
Were they concerned that they wouldn’t get audiences?
MR: Ehm, yes! [laughter]. They were concerned that they wouldn’t get audiences. I mean the interesting thing was that without the Jewish audience in Melbourne it wouldn’t have lasted a week. Because we had a regular Jewish audience coming to see it, it gave the company some sense that it did have a future, and that was based obviously on the Jewish refugees who had come to Australia before and during the second World War.
And they were in Carlton weren’t they?
MR: Carlton, yes, and it was part of their heritage that they used to go to the theatre.
The cultural tradition?
MR: Yeah, yeah.
So that was most of your support base initially was it?
MR: Virtually, yeah, yeah. As I said Pygmalion, because it was a known quantity, was the first one that actually drew an audience of any size to come to the Union Theatre. It was directed at that time by John Sumner’s wife, __________ and Zoe Caldwell played Eliza Doolittle and Alex Scott played Henry Higgins in it.
And did you act in it?
MR: No, no. I came into the company at the end of that first season. The Pygmalion tour of which I then played, I think, the first bystander in that production and stage managed it.
And that was 1953?
MR: That was 1953, yeah.
I mean today we define the stage manager probably in a different way to how it was defined then? Can you just describe this role at that time?
MR: Well, when we got back to do, begin the second season, which opened with _______, we had to beg, borrow and steal everything for each production. I mean, I was the stage manager, there were two assistant stage managers, one was Peter Beatty and the other one was Sylvia Reed and we, whatever was required for that production, we had to go out and as I said, beg, borrow and steal it. We couldn’t pay any money for any props or furniture or carpets or whatever was required in the play. The sets were actually built here. There used to be, just across from the Union theatre, near the University House, there used to be a Nissan hut. There used to quite a few Nissan huts that were there during the second World War. That’s where we had a number of flats and there was two people working on construction, I mean there was very little construction, but we painted the flats there and that was part of our job too – the stage managers – to paint the flats. So that our day virtually began at 9 o’clock in the morning, going to antique places in Richmond or wherever to find the props, or the furniture required, and then we had to get here by at least quarter to 10 to set up the stage for the rehearsal that day, and then at 10.30 the rehearsal would start. That would go through to say, 4.30, and then we had to set up the stage for that evening’s production and the secretary, Margot Braybrook, would have to have a dinner break, so we alternated answering the phone for phone bookings, and then we did the evening show and we were the last out – we had to lock the theatre, so, you know, 11.30 at night and that was every day. We had one Sunday off a fortnight.
So it was a long week. And would it be the case that if you were stage managing a production you might also be acting?
MR: Oh yes. Most of us played, I mean, during that period I play Stephen Undershaft in Major Barbara and Peter Beatty was playing major roles and so was Sylvia Reed. I played in The Hasty Heart, in Born Yesterday. We virtually never went out during the day time to find props. We had to do it either before or during the lunch break.
Did you get any assistance from J.C. Williamson?
MR: No. None at all.
Did you ask, or …?
MR: Well they wouldn’t have given… I mean the other interesting thing I think was that John Sumner was determined that our productions would be as good as the J.C. Williamson productions, so he would say well if they don’t do it, J.C. Williamson, we will do it on our sets.
Do it independently?
MR: Yeah, they used to paint the architraves on the sets. We actually put them on, you know, so there was that sense of competition. In terms of the money spent on productions we could come last in terms of the outlay on productions in comparison to J.C. Williamson’s. But that was his aim, you know, that the company would present them as well as J.C. Williamson.
Given that you had that sense of rivalry with J.C. Williamsons, did you try and distinguish the content and the plays that you chose from J.C. Williamsons, or did they overlap?
MR: They overlapped a lot. I mean Born Yesterday that we presented in the second season had been done as a production at J.C. Williamsons years before that. The idea was to balance the actual repertoire with plays that had popular appeal and then we did plays like Marching Song which probably nobody knows now! [laughter] But that was John Whiting and he was an English playwright and a very provocative English playwright, so we leavened the seasons with plays that stretched the audience. At the end of the second season we did a play called Spring at __________ which was an adaptation of ___________ Fathers and Sons. I can remember John Sumner standing on the stage and saying it’s good that we did this because it’s the first step to doing Chekhov. That was the sort of ethos of the company. I mean, this was the first company that actually paid Australian actors to perform and had a nucleus of a company. That had never happened before in Australia. It was an experiment. Just to survive was our reason for being.
But also you’ve suggested that goal of, in a way culturally educating your audience. Did that filter right through the company or was that exclusively sort of John Sumner’s goal?
MR: As actors we felt we were giving something to the development of Australian theatre. When he said it’s a step towards Checkhov, I said ‘oh, it would be wonderful if we could do Chekhov’. So I mean, we were dedicated to surviving as I said before. In that survival we were, I just hate getting up on soapboxes and ranting, but we were surviving. It was a wonderful sense that we were doing something that was going to help this development and the choice of plays. We always felt that when we went out on a limb with a play. I mean as you know there were very few Australian plays being presented at that time and we did a revue in the second season called Tramstop Ten. By that time Ray Lawler had joined the company and he was directing this revue but we put in Australian material into it and if you look at the charter for the company, it was always there that we would develop Australian playwrights. Although, quite honestly, most of us didn’t have great faith in Australian playwrights! [laughter] I had seen Rusty Bugles in Sydney at the Independent Theatre and I was absolutely knocked out by it. I was still at school when I saw Rusty Bugles. I don’t know if you know the play but it’s set in the Northern Territory during the second World War. I thought that was just fantastic and the marvellous thing – how strange it may seem today – but to hear our own accents on stage was the first time I’d ever heard it on stage because everything I’d seen was either American or English.
What percentage to your memory of Australian plays was produced by the company compared to overseas?
MR: In the time I spent in England, most of the plays, I mean I was in weekly rep. there for a period of time and of course every play we did was an English play written by an English playwright.
But when the company was in Melbourne?
MR: But the UTRC, you see, John in the first season did Vance Palmer’s play. That was in the first season of the rep. The second season, apart from the Revue, there was no Australian material. But then in the third season The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was done.
Tell me about your involvement with that?
MR: When I first heard it mentioned, Ray, he had joined the company with the expressed idea that he would write for the company.
So what were commissioned as a dramaturg for the company, or …
MR: Well he joined as an actor, then he directed for the company, but at the time he had come to the company he had written the Doll and we had heard about this play, about two barmaids and we’d thought, oh that’ll last a few days! [laughter] There were certainly a great negativity towards Australian writing by the actors. In fact when he did win the award which he co-won with another play, he had written another play called The Resignation and one of the members of the company said ‘oh, it must be The Resignation’ and they said no, no, it’s not The Resignation, it’s the other one’ and they said ‘oh gosh, that dreadful play’! So that was the general attitude. The other play that he co-won the journalist’s award was Oriel Grey’s The Times and I think that The Doll was so provocative that they were hedging their bets by not giving it the award, but also to Oriel’s play. So and again, when it was done, I wasn’t then with the company, we were at the end of the second season, I was invited to join The Elizabethan Theatre Trust and their first production was The Medea with Judith Anderson, an Australian actor who had gone to the United States and she came to do The Medea which was one of her most famous roles. So we were touring Australia at the time when The Doll was done here.
So you were involved in the Trust as well as the UTRC at the same time?
MR: No, no, at the end of the second season we did a tour of Twelfth Night again through the country districts of Victoria and that was when Barry Humphreys first came, and played Orsino with the company and Zoe played Viola, and Ray Lawler played Feste and I was acting Antonio and the Sea Captain in that. During that tour a number of us, Zoe Caldwell, myself, Marie Tomasetti, received letters, asking us if we were interested in joining The Elizabeth Theatre Trust. It had just been set up. For every pound that was raised publically, the Commonwealth government under Robert Menzies would give a pound also. Eventually they appointed, again, an Englishman, Hugh Hunt, to come out as Director of The Elizabethan Theatre Trust. The drama company was the first one off the ground and I was asked to be stage manager and again, hold a spear, in Medea. But we left the UTRC and John Sumner also left them, he became Manager of The Elizabethan Theatre in Sydney, and Ray Lawler then took over as Director of the Union Theatre Repertory Company. So we had nothing to do with the Rep.
But you returned to the UTRC.
MR: I did return to the UTRC in 1961. In the interim with the Elizabethan Theatre Trust I did tour with The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll for a year playing Johnny _______. Hard to believe – fifty years later that’s true. We toured through Australia and New Zealand.
So that would have been for a couple of years was it, or…?
MR: Well, this particular tour that I was on went for a year through Australia. We went right up to Cairns and to Broken Hill and through the country districts of South Australia and Victoria and New Zealand and played all the major capital cities again. At that time The Doll was opening in London and was a huge success so we ….
MR: Yes, and in Melbourne I think we played five weeks over Christmas. You just couldn’t get into the Comedy Theatre. It was just packed out for every performance and the same throughout Australia.
So that was from ‘55 to ‘56 was it?
MR: No, that was ‘57, ’58.
MR: That was being presented by the Trust and then I went to England again and then I came back to the Rep because I wrote a play called That A Way The Kings Go and it was presented by the UTRC and I came back for the production of it and I stayed at the UTRC for the next twelve years as actor/director, director of additional activities. Then I left in 1970 to become the first theatre consultant for the Australia Council for two years and then I came back as associate director for five years at the Melbourne Theatre Company which was what the UTRC had become.
Can you just tell us a bit about the production of That A Way The Kings Go?
MR: [laughter] It was a great disaster! When I was in London I had written a play, you know, I was living in a bed sit and I was just determined that I was going to write and I thought ‘what am I doing living in these four walls’, so it was called The Four Walls to start with and Ray Lawler was a mentor to me and he was living in London at that time. So much of the world is contained inside these four walls so I wrote a play about a struggling playwright in Australia and I’d written another play beforehand called North By The Coast Road and a number of television plays and, anyway, Ray said I should change the name to That A Way The Kings Go which I did and I first sent it to the Ensemble Theatre in Sydney which was run by Hayes Gordon, because I’d been impressed with the work they’d done before I left. I also sent it to Elsie Byer [?] at the Elizabeth Theatre Trust and she gave it to Robin Lovejoy who showed a director there and he reckoned he was very favourably impressed by it. He sent a good review of it, so I thought oh well I’ll send it to John Sumner. Then I got a telegram from John Sumner saying ‘we’d like to do That A Way The Kings Go’. So I came back you know Ray said you must go back for the production because you won’t learn anything from being away from the production so I came back for the production and it was a disaster [laughter]
Why do you describe it like that?
MR: I suppose I hung my heart on my sleeve. I mean it’s very difficult, writing. You know to be objective about it. I don’t think I saw the play on the stage as I had written it. There were a few casting decisions made because it was a semi-permanent company so I had to compromise on a number of the roles. So there was a sort of exuberance of life in the play that didn’t come out. Neil Fitzpatrick I thought did a terrific job as the young writer but Ray did say at one stage that he’d received worse crits for The Doll than I got for the play but it certainly emptied the UTRC. As you probably know when you’ve got a play that people don’t want to see, it’s like pulling the plug out of a bath. I used to sit in the Union Theatre and think ‘oh pull the curtain down and put these people out of their misery’!. It was a very chastening experience and very difficult for me. Obviously you know you’ve written a turkey! [laughter] And John asked me to stay with the company and I had to decide whether it was the right thing or just run away and hide myself. But I did stay with the company.
Were you then employed as an actor or a stage manager?
MR: Actor/writer, I’d graduated from stage managing then. That’s probably the wrong thing to say. My daughter is a stage manager! I mean what the stage managers do today is extraordinary, particularly where my daughter works in big musicals, you know, they are the stars of the show.
Did you write any other plays for the company?
MR: I did an adaptation of The Doll’s House for John. At one stage I was the lecturer in drama at the Australian Ballet School and I wrote a play for them because at the end of the year we would present a drama, no dance, and I thought well best thing to do is to write something so that you gave everybody an opportunity. I wrote for television, which was the first, at UTRC there’s a television documentary which was showing down at the Arts Centre just recently and I wrote that.
No other plays were produced?
MR: No other plays, no.
What do you remember as the key productions of the UTRC in the sixties when you were there? The most significant?
MR: There was a time towards the late sixties where the company really had, I thought, terrific possibilities. George Ogilvy had come to the company and he was directing. There were a number of productions. By that time we were at the Russell Street Theatre and alternating between Russell Street and the UTRC.
What year was that that they went to Russell Street?
MR: They started in, must have been, about 1960. We did Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which was a huge success during the sixties.
Were you acting?
MR: No, no. I was not acting in it but it transferred to The Princess Theatre and I did the actual transfer and put it into The Princess Theatre because John Sumners was overseas. He’d directed it. There were productions of The Three Sisters that George Ogilvy did. There was a production of Albie [?] again a delicate balance which I thought was one of the great highlights.
What about the ones you were involved in?
MR: The ____________ Under The Sun. I haven’t mentioned the Strand play yet have I? [laughter]
What was the _________UnderThe Sun, tell me about that?
MR: That was a Peter Schaeffer [?] play. It was huge and we did it on the Russell Street stage which was very small. It dealt with the conquest of the Incas by the Spaniards. It was one of the jewels in Great Britain’s National Theatre crown at that time. After the debacle of That A Way The Kings Go there were no Australian plays being presented until we went to Russell Street and did a revival of The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll . One Day Of The Year was virtually the last Australian play done by the UTRC that was a success in itself.
Were you involved in …?
MR: No, I directed the revival of The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and they did The Shifting Heart which was a Richard ________ play and at the end of that season they did The Ballad of Angel’s Alley which was a musical which was quite successful. But virtually, its very difficult to say what the climate was. In the late sixties La Mama opened and there was a general feeling within the UTRC that it was a larrikin type theatre, which didn’t conform to the idea of the well made play. I’m digging my own grave here aren’t I?! [laughter] Certainly there was a much more conservative attitude towards Australian writing. I mean if you can understand that the three playwrights that were successful in Australia went overseas and didn’t come back. You take those writers away, you’re left with Malcolm Robertson trying to write a play!
It’s interesting because most of what we hear about that period is what the people at La Mama thought of the UTRC and their opinions of the conservative UTRC. What was the view from inside the UTRC?
MR: I actually moonlighted from the UTRC and directed plays at La Mama because I thought that was important. That there was something like La Mama happening because nothing else was happening. I used to run a Saturday morning club at the Melbourne Theatre Company and I also used to do seasons of one-act plays in the day time for Years 7,8,9 – youth theatre. What I tried to do was always incorporate in the seasons, one Australian play. Now there were a limited number in the books that they studied but there were some like The Willow Pattern Plate by Kylie Tennant, but I introduced plays by Ray Matthew, The Bones of my Toe and a new play by Lawrence __________, A Slice of Birthday Cake, and Friday Night _________ because I thought this was important to try and keep some sort of contact with Australian writing happening.
In professional theatre in Melbourne?
MR: Yes. We did them twice daily, one at 10.30 and one at two o’clock. The same four plays for a two week period on the set of the production that was running at Russell Street. But I got a phone call from Betty Burstill, saying would I be interested in looking at some scripts and the story is famous, I walked three nights running along Faraday Street trying to find out where this theatre was and I couldn’t find them. I kept ringing back and saying where is it and eventually I thought well it must be at the end of this carpark, so I went and knocked on the door, and there was Betty Burstill and she said ‘I’ve got ten scripts. Would there be one that you like?’ so I went and read them and there was one called _________ Where Are You? written by Barry Oakley and I said, you know, I’d like to do that, but I knew this would not be greeted with open arms at the UTRC where I was being paid. I used to direct under the name of Garibaldi up there and so you know to answer that question which you asked ten minutes ago! [laughter] I didn’t feel neglected or whatever at the UTRC because I knew I was doing this other at La Mama. So I was expressing my belief in Australian theatre here and I knew this was exactly what we needed in Australia, and in those days I think it was five shillings to get in to La Mama with a cup of coffee.
Compared to the UTRC?
MR: Well, I can’t remember. I suppose two pounds or something like that, probably. Gradually that changed, obviously.
MR: Yes, subscriptions came in. They were a blessing in one way and they were a curse in another way. In the sixties, when we did Henry IV, part 1, which we did in the Murdoch court at the Arts Centre in the gallery and we opened at the theatre in Perth, at that stage I felt the company, I mean the actors were wonderful actors, there was a wonderful sense of the company taking bigger steps forward. There’s no company there anymore and that’s happening everywhere – in England, with the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. In those early days, it was often said if we just got another few thousand dollars, we could have a company of fifteen. That was always one of the great objectives and it never came. It never happened. The true sense of what we started with at the UTRC, when we did have six actors, one stage manager, two assistant stage managers, we were a company for six to ten months. Quite frankly today, I just don’t know, certainly there’s much more work for actors in this country, but the younger actor, I just, I mean, how does he or she exist? Unless they are in a television series or ….?
Well it’s interesting because now we are seeing a bit of a growth in grassroots theatre in Melbourne.
MR: Yes, yes. I don’t want to be elitist but there’s a difference between earning a wage on a share basis. I mean I still work on a share basis, I mean, I’ve done plays, I think the last one was two years ago at La Mama, and still on that share basis. Profit share or whatever comes through the box office. There you are talking, you are lucky to get a grand and that’s what is it, nearly two months, you know you were only earning a thousand dollars. So it doesn’t pay the rent.
Now I’m quite interested in the place of the URTC in the life of Melbourne University as well. What sort of role did you see the theatre playing at Melbourne University?
MR: Well, what I’ve always believed, George Paton who was Vice-Chancellor. I mean he was the guiding force virtually in setting up the Union theatre and his brief was that within a University there should be a professional theatre company. Which happens in the United States, not so much in Great Britain, and what I believe, because, let’s face it, it was a theatrical desert here, and for a university to actually spread its wings and have a company within it, that other people are coming in to university to see, you know, a general public audience are coming in to see, I think that’s a very important aspect of a university’s life. I mean certainly there was a great feeling within the university at times that the UTRC was throttling university theatre. It certainly was not in our minds.
MR: We wanted to partake and be here and we felt it was important for the whole of the structure of Melbourne, Australia, that this was happening within the university, and it still is part of Melbourne University. Just before UTRC in the early fifties, there was a great flowering of university theatre, with the setting up of the Marlowe Society and the Newman players. When I first came here this was attributed to the soldiers coming back from the second World War who came back and they were much older. Their instinct was that being at the university they wanted to contribute to university life and it wasn’t just getting a degree, so they created a very vibrant university theatre. I do believe that the UTRC in setting that up, did draw some of the blood away from, but John Sumner used all his guile to bring university students, I mean Wal Cherry who was director of the theatre for three seasons, he came from university. Barry Humphreys was an undergraduate. When we did Twelfth Night in the second season he brought in undergraduates to work in the production.
Do you remember any other students who were involved?
MR: Brian Westmore, Richard Trehare, Sylvia Reed were at the university.
So they were students concurrently with UTRC?
MR: Yeah. University students came in and they were ushers and so forth, so that we built, David Kendall was another, who came through the university.
Tell me, did David Kendall participate in URTC productions?
MR: Yes. As an actor, not as a director. He joined the URTC, well when I was there as director of additional activities, we had to go down after the end of the evening show and put the set up for, and he used to do that with me. He worked in a number of productions. Then he went to a drama studio in London. So there was always I felt that, one gave to the other. Certainly there was alot of angst against the UTRC, that it was inhibiting, you know, why wasn’t the money going to student theatre?
Who were the proponents of that group who were objecting to the UTRC? Do you remember?
MR: [laughter] Yes! Well it was virtually the nucleus of the Australian Performing Group. They were, this is.
Before they went on to be part of the …?
MR: Yes, Graeme Blundell, although he worked for the UTRC. Jack Hibberd, I mean they were the sort of, the Carlton push were very vocal in their, Peter Corrigan, Lindsay Smith and they obviously came across to La Mama. They wanted La Mama to be exclusively their province and Betty Burstill – to her dying honour, said ‘no, it shouldn’t be the province of just one company, it should be open to anybody who wants to come as long as they are not doing a drawing room comedy play. I was moonlighting from the MTC to do plays there. Eventually they said well OK we’re not going to be the permanent company and they went around to get them to come. In those days you had tables, you sat down at the gingham table cloth. I put it into the one-act play season and toured it through ….
____________________. Yeah it’s a great play.
What was the response of the UTRC to the students who were objecting to the apparent failure of the UTRC they felt to respond and to encourage and to involve students in the company?
MR: Well, I think the ethos of the UTRC, when it went to the MTC, was that it was breaking its apron strings with the actual university, so as you know, the last production that was done by the MTC, which I directed here, was Twelfth Night, when they re-opened the Union Theatre with the renovations. In fact they were still banging away while we were performing Twelfth Night because we were also doing it for school audiences during the day at the Union Theatre.
What year was that?
MR: That was ‘68, ‘69 and that was the last production. Then we went full-time at the Russell Street theatre and eventually went to the Athenaeum and went to St. Martins and into the Arts Centre. It was I think a natural progression and alot of that angst had gone round the corner to the Pram Factory and become The Australian Performing Group, which was always, again, that was the antidote to the MTC, and what the MTC was doing and eventually when I became associate director of the MTC and decided to do a public theatre season. Originally they were going to have an American play in there and I pushed for an all-Australian season. We did open with Jugglers Three at the Russell Street Theatre which I directed and it was a runaway success. From then on the Australian play became a very important part of the repertoire of the MTC.
So in addition to actually inviting students into some of your productions, did the UTRC run any other theatre activities for students, any workshops…?
MR: Well, we ran workshops. I did the first workshop up in the Des O’Connor room, you know, at the back. And that was for students at school. From my memory there was never any concerted effort to have workshops for students at the university.
Did only school students participate in those workshops?
MR: Yep, yeah, yeah.
So did the UTRC use the Melbourne University rehearsal rooms for their actual …?
MR: Oh yeah, yeah, we used to rehearse. I can remember rehearsing After The Fall up there and in the early days it was on stage because there was no rehearsal room. It used to be an art gallery up there. So we rehearsed on stage for all of the first and second season and the third season and then when the art gallery left and they had that rehearsal room then we would rehearse up there.
Was there any competition from the students for the spaces?
MR: Well, we were in the last term and that was exam time so there was virtually no clash as I can remember, in terms of the students wanting the facilities. The cleaners come into the theatre and we used to be rehearsing, and they wouldn’t stop [makes cleaning noises], so that was a major thorn in our side at times and the the box office went underneath the auditorium and I remember a number of actors saying ‘we can’t work with that noise coming from the box office’
Was it possible for the students to use your equipment and props and scenery? Was there any loaning of….?
MR: Well, yes. That was part of the charter. It became less and less outgoing to the students as the company became, and we had wardrobe mistresses who didn’t like their costumes going. We used to leave alot of our stuff here and when you’d get back the next year from Russell Street, some of the stuff, you know, was all over the place, ‘cos our main storeroom was underneath the theatre.
And students had access to it?
MR: Yeah, yeah.
So it was more an illegitimate borrowing?
MR: Yeah, exactly!
And did you actually see any student productions?
MR: I did. The Murray Sutherland award. There was a number of awards given. It was called the Murray Sutherland awards. I think there was about four or five of us on a panel and we went and saw all the university shows. I saw lots of university plays. I was not on the panel all the time.
It was …?
MR: An annual award for student theatre. We had to select the best actor, the best actress, the best production and so forth. From my memory it was going right through from when we started the UTRC but it had nothing to do with the UTRC. I was on the panel in the sixties.
And was the panel all selected from UTRC members?
MR: Oh, no, no. It was selected from the Union management.
Tell me about the types of student productions that you saw?
MR: As always some were very, very good and some were very, very bad.
Tell me about the better ones. What were the memorable productions?
MR: I’d have to go back and have a look at my… I think I’ve got all the programs.
Does anything stand out?
MR: Not at this moment but certainly a number of the actors went in and became professional actors from it and David Kendall’s Othello, I can remember that.
How did they present it?
MR: It was on at the Union Theatre. Patrick McCaughey was directing plays. I mean I saw a Hamlet – when they were renovating the Union Theatre they had it in a marquee outside. Peter Curtain played Hamlet and Peter Corrigan did the set for it. I have the programs at home.
So it wasn’t that impressive?
MR: Hamlet wasn’t impressive I didn’t think.
You mentioned some students that went on to become professionals. Who were they?
MR: Well Girda Nicholson [?] Who else? Putting me on the spot here! David Kendall of course. Jonathan Dawson was a writer. Graeme Blundell, Martin ______. Most of the early Pram Factory or the Australian Performing Group were students here. It’s very much like what I felt in the university in the last few years, there was a great flowering of activity and worth here at the university in terms of the students.
At the time the sorts of productions that the students chose to stage for that Murray Sutherland Award. Were any similar to UTRC productions at all? Could you see the influence perhaps of UTRC productions on that student theatre?
MR: My immediate answer to that would be that they were doing it against whatever the UTRC stood for. You know that their theatre was very much different, their approach to it, and that’s good, you know, because the MTC is the battleship and it needs to be continually threatened.
How was it different? Was it different in the style of production?
MR: I mean most of the time you’re dealing with plays at the UTRC or the MTC that come from overseas or revivals of classic texts, I mean, when a classic text was done at the university by the students it was a far more adventurous, sometimes, it fell flat on its face, but I mean it was always challenging the status quo.