Australian Biography

Hayes Gordon - full interview transcript

Tape of 8

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

During this time in which you were establishing yourself on Broadway and things were going fairly well for you, what was happening with the political side of your life?

Well first, I suppose, I was pretty much in the spirit of post-war general feeling of idealism. I was part of the picture that said ‘now that we've fought the war let's see if we can't justify it,’ and I thought that now it was going to be a braver newer world. However, some reactionary forces were also rearing their heads then ... one act in the government wanted to pass a law, a Taft-Hartley law, containing unionism and things of this sort. So, whereas some of the veterans joined the usual veteran organisations, Bill Hammerstein and I helped put together, Bill Hammerstein, one other and myself, put together the theatre chapter of what was called the American Veterans Committee ... Colonel James Roosevelt, who was the president's son, decided he would form a veteran movement whose premise was citizens first, veterans second; in other words not claiming any special privileges, special pleadings for veterans, and we organised this theatre chapter and virtually every veteran who had worked on Broadway became a member. Garson Kanin, the works you know. And this fell apart partly because, strangely enough, the infiltration of some communist friends of mine that I'd invited to join, who shattered the organisation. So I left that particular project but in the meantime I was regarded as somebody pretty suspect, particularly as I became involved in the — what would you call it now — the black movement, the African-American movement. I was quite concerned that, in those days the respectable word was, Negroes, weren't getting a fair go. For example in Show Boat, it was discovered that the black chorus wasn't getting the same salary as the white chorus and Hammerstein didn't know this, this was all arranged by his business people. So I became the spokesperson for my friends who were the black members and brought it to his attention. He nearly fired the business manager as a result of it, of course the salaries were restored and everything was sweet after that, but I incurred another enemy and this sort of thing would keep going I think ... [I] could keep my mouth shut, you know, but particularly with regards to the people who aren't getting a fair go. It wasn't the case of now assume responsibility for people like this, but just get off their backs and let them do their own thing. So as a result of that, and a few other things I suppose, it was relatively easy when this scurrilous publication came out monthly — I think called Red Networks. I forget what it was called, but my name appeared on it, and the moment it did, suddenly I wasn't able to work, because up until then I had been going from show to show, I'd doubled, tripled, be doing a Broadway show at the same time I was working nightclubs, and doing television and going to classes of course. I was a very busy guy. Suddenly it all stopped in conjunction with my name being published and also at the same time I was doing a coast to coast one-hour broadcast. Al Goodman and His Orchestra and Eileen Farrell and myself were the singers called Music in the Air ... and Columbia, first of all it was an eight-week contract, and then Columbia Broadcasting decided they wanted to extend it so they ask me to sign a loyalty oath. And a loyalty oath is ... you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't, no matter what you say you can be pulled up on it and one of the things that was asked was ... not only have I ever been a member of any forbidden organisations — God knows, maybe the American Veterans Committee could be considered a forbidden organisation — but do I have any friends or do I know any communists? Damn right, I knew communists, one of them was trying to enrol me into the Communist Party, but I also knew fascists, among them incidentally a black fascist. So I wasn't prone to want to put my name down in any such thing. As a result, they said sorry, your contract terminates with the eight weeks. So even that disappeared for me, I found myself without work and to cut the dull details short, an offer came through from Australia, come out here and do Kiss Me Kate, so I grabbed it.

Did you know anything about Australia?

A little. I had been invited to come out to Australia sometime before. Hammerstein again suggested I come out and play Judd in the local production of Oklahoma!, but I was busy doing something else, so at that time I made a few enquiries about Australia and not only that but again, Bill, who had been in the navy and had been visiting various ports around here, was in the American Navy in the South Pacific, happened to mention that New Zealand ... beautiful place but it has no professional theatres. So he said, ‘why don't we buy a boat, load our respective families into it and sail across the Pacific and set up professional theatre in New Zealand?’ I did a little research about this part of the world so when I got the offer from Australia, I called Bill, who was at Paramount at the time. I said, ‘hey somebody else wants to pay the fare.’ He said, ‘well go have a look, you know, New Zealand is only this far on the map from Australia, hop across, have a look at New Zealand, if you still like it, maybe we'll still go there.’ I came to Australia — 17 years later, finally, I had a look to see what New Zealand was like ... but I had learnt a little bit about Australia including the fact that most of the population lived around the edge of it. It was a country as large as the United States and yet the centre of it was desert and my idea was, why, here we go again, you know, the Messianic character, ‘why isn't the centre used for raising crops, for cultivation, for making it fertile?’ ‘Oh there's no water, no water at all. Well there's water deep under, but otherwise there's nothing but hot sunlight.’ Idea. Back at the children's summer school remember I told you where we had projects, one of the other projects.

I thought you could see a giant project coming up.

Yes, one of the projects the kids did was to build a solar power generator. We build the carpentry portion of it, built the frame with swivel brackets and they all went around to various shops getting broken mirrors. We cut the mirrors to size and mounted this enormous panel with little bits of mirror and all focused onto a single spot, they blackened a great big milk can and put a hook on it with a tube coming out. Focused the concentrator onto the can, boiled the water, steam came out, kicked over a little I think. I forget the kind of generator it was, a little dynamo through a rectifier into a battery, charged the battery and they were able to use this in, again, lighting their dormitory. Well if little kids can make a solar generator why couldn't an entire country? So one of the first things I thought of was well maybe you could use all that sunlight to pump that water up from underneath onto the surface and make the land usable. So I was sure somebody had been doing this sort of thing and when I came to Australia one of the first questions I asked was ‘what are you doing about the sunlight, are you using it?’ ‘Oh no, no well, no not really’ but finally CSIRO, when I was in Melbourne, said ‘yes we've been working with sunlight, we've been doing sunlight concentration.’ I said ‘oh I would love to see what you have been doing,’ and I was taken up to the roof of the CSIRO building in Melbourne and there is a great big decking of very thin tubing and black tubes, catchers and little elongated reflectors. I said, ‘how can you boil water with that, how can you make power?’ They said, ‘oh no, no, no, it's not for making power, it's only for learning how to warm up water for domestic purposes.’ I said, ‘but you need power and you also need something to be able to pump the water etc.’ ‘Oh we won't concern ourselves with that.’ I couldn't understand it until one of them said in strictest confidence, ‘well you see, we are funded by the government and part of the pressures on the government have to do with coal and if any fuel process or any power process comes along which threatens the coal industry we may lose our funding.’ So here I was with kids who had made a solar generator back in 1939 [and] now in 1952 looking at adults that won't have a go at it. Well, do you know here we are in '93 and what do I hear? The people are using those same concentric mirrors out in the west for superheating water to make steam to create power to operate God knows what. Why couldn't it have been done years ago? All this research.

But it wasn't only in that sort of area that you came here and felt astonished and challenged, perhaps, by the fact that things weren't happening in the way you thought they could. Same applied in theatre, didn't it?

Yes it did. You know, this country had more positives than negatives for me. I didn't think I would want to live here but I certainly wanted to have a good look at the place. I wanted to live in New Zealand. But so many things, the dichotomy of influences is fascinating. I saw standards of theatre for example that were quite primitive, very primitive. I saw people behaving in a redneck sort of a way. I saw negatives that I thought would be off-putting but by the same token, I saw a lot of avid people who wanted to improve the situation, who were trying awfully hard in their own way to make a better place of it. You can't say it was nationalism in so much as we were going to do Australian things, it was just our lives that needed to be improved, we were so insular. So the avidity of these people said, in effect, to a very large effect I think, maybe I can help, maybe I can be useful and Maggie Fitzgibbon — the story has been told before, I'll tell it to you again — knew that a lot of the kids in the company would have liked to have been able to study with some of the people whom I had studied with in New York. They couldn't afford it, they couldn't go, etc. She said ‘this guy has worked with these people, why don't we pick his brains?’ so she organised classes backstage for kids in the company and the entire company came, not only this company came but the company across the road and the Comedy Theatre and people from around Melbourne in general who were professionals, they used to come and sit in classes. And the classes grew, the kids were curious, they wanted to know more. They were getting it second and third-hand from me, but at least they were getting it, and even after the shows closed they wanted to continue going. Now the fact that I could be useful of course was a great attractor and the fact that I could see these people growing and developing suggested this doesn't have to be an amateur country after all, you know, it can be a country that will be able to trade its artistry with other countries. At the moment we weren't able to do it, at the moment we, at that time, the only way anybody knew about an Australian artist was when they left Australia and went to England or went to the States and picked up what was going there, but we couldn't. We couldn't send our products overseas because it just wasn't up to international standards. So it became a sort of a hobby horse for me — now let's see if we can't help bring the local standards up to an international footing. And this became a long-range, Messianic project.

The place really needed a Messiah, didn't it?

No, it ... it’s ...

I was being facetious I was actually going to ... I realised that I haven't given a nice clean question about the theatre and so I'll ask you a question again and you can answer it, and we'll work it in with it.

Feel free.

Yes, I just wanted to say that when you came to Australia as part of the production to be in Kiss Me Kate, did you look around at the theatre then and what did you think of it?

Amateur, amateur, but sincere, willing, eager to do the right thing, but just without the tools, without the practical know-how to be able to do those sort of things. I mean, even years afterwards — I hope Lee Robinson wouldn't mind my quoting him — but Lee Robinson ... who tried awfully hard to launch a series of television, well a television series, raised money I think from Bond and did his utmost to put together a lovely sequence, a lovely series, and then tried selling it overseas. And the feedback he got from countries that didn't speak English were great, let's use it, but if I remember him correctly saying, he said, ‘whenever I get to an English-speaking country, they admired the photography, they admired the scenery, but they said there were only three things wrong: the stories were lousy, the direction was lousy and the acting was lousy,’ and this was many years after I got here, you know, but that sort of innocence of world standards prevailed for a hell of a long time. It's only fairly recently that we've begun to make in-roads, so you know, harking back to the kids at Her Majesty's Theatre, I think they began making in-roads.

So what year was it that you arrived in Australia?

What do I ...

What year?

What year ... Oh, the beginning of 1952, shortly after New Year's.

And this old teaching impulse found an outlet again. So, at the same time that you were on the stage, you were also running these little classes. And how did that develop, where did that go next?

Well, when a show closed we went to borrowed halls, to people's living rooms, to empty restaurants. Wherever there was a place vacant enough and large enough to assemble a bunch of people. By the time the ... well I'll jump ahead to 1958 — at that time we were having classes in my living room when I was living in North Sydney on Ridge Street. Sybil Thorndike, Dame Sybil Thorndike now, then decided she wanted to come and sit in on one of the classes so she came down to my living room and there was hardly any room for her to sit — there wasn't any room because people were sitting on the floor, on the edge of the sofa, on pillows — so we opened the French doors and she sat out on the deck peering over everybody else and saw the people going through their hoops. And afterwards we discovered she'd been crying and, she insisted, this has got to be seen by the general public and at the same time, by the way, she asked would we accept her grand-daughter as one of the students, grand-daughter Jane ... her son and I were usually at loggerheads in some ways. So I said, ‘yes if John approves I'd love to have her.’ John didn't approve so her grand-daughter didn't come to see us, but we got the idea, you know, that if Sybil is fascinated by it or interested in it [then] maybe we can get through lay-public. So we formed what we called the Ensemble Theatre and tried out a couple of productions in Cammeray Children's Library, on a couple of weekend nights when they were closed, and found that the audience took it, these two nights — we said ‘let's go from here’ and we grew.

So when did you decide to set up the Ensemble Theatre and how did that come about?

It came about from the class, an acting class in '58, taking place in my living room. Sybil Thorndike came in to sit in and watch the kids, and she was moved by what she saw, and suggested that this ought to be seen by the general public. So we said, ‘well, if Sybil, who is a good critic as well as theatrical, can be moved by it then maybe the audience can.’ So we tried a couple of performances of some one-act plays, Tennessee Williams plays, at Cammeray Children's Theatre, Children's Library I should say, on nights when they were closed, on weekends, and found that the audience took it and away we went. Simple.

Did you feel the need to have a theatre of your own?

No, no, not really.

But you got one?

We got one out of desperation that was ... it was a makeshift sort of arrangement. We used the most primitive form of theatre, which is theatre in the round, and you don't really need a theatre for it, just need a hall large enough to be able to seat people around and actors to be able to work in the middle. So, we hoped that the actors would develop their skills enough so that we could go on to work with large commercial managements and infiltrate, as it were, there. But as that wasn't the case we decided we'd have our own.

And what did you feel you were doing with all of this, Hayes, I mean you'd come out to Australia to star in something and to have a bit of a look around. It was an escape from an impossible situation back there in New York, but you were beginning to develop something ... were you conscious of that, did you know what you were doing?

Well, when you are very close to something, it's terribly hard to keep perspective if you are in the middle of things. What I did know was that, bit by bit, so many of the students were improving their standard of workmanship, that they were in fact rubbing off onto other theatricals, and other theatricals were picking up things from them. That the thing was spreading. I said, ‘that's lovely, it's lovely to see maybe in time we'll have a standard of workmanship which will be comparable to the rest of the world.’ Why not? We turn out the best tennis players, the best swimmers, the best cricketers. Why can't we turn out the best theatricals, and the technicians already were quite brilliant. The one thing I found here was amongst the techs, their design, their workmanship, their discipline, their execution, was equivalent to anything I'd seen anywhere else.

Why do you think that was?

I don't know, I don't know.

You don't have a theory?

I'll have a theory about anything, I'll probably propose one. In fairness I don't know, it's just what I found. maybe it was because they had the film industry to fall back on because there had been a good film industry here. They had radio which had refined itself to an extraordinarily high degree of finesse. , you had people who watched what was happening in the world scene and they could get films and analyse and pick up ...

... on the technical side, but not on the performance or the scripting as you were saying.

No, no.

What do you think that you brought to these people, that you had that they needed?

What my teachers gave me, I just passed on, there you come, there you are, Ruth. I just passed on what somebody else gave me. It's a language, it's a syntax that is known everywhere in the world amongst actors. And making it available in this country, incidentally, it was not always easy to make it available because there was great resistance against it — the people who were entrenched in what we call amateur acting or ham acting, did not want their little patch disturbed in any way and, incidentally, nasty names were found to describe this syntax. Method, you are a method actor, now what the hell is method? There was resistance but basically what it was, was an attempt to introduce some refined tools of trade to the actors. I mean musicians can define their tools of trade, painters can, painters know what it is that they are going for when they put something on canvas. They know that the thing has got to conform to their concept of perspective, proportion, mass, colour, hue, chroma, saturation. They can pinpoint these things precisely if they want to, if they want to discuss them, if they want to refine them. But what could actors say? You know, louder, softer, faster, slower. Or somebody passing judgement on it saying, ‘I like it,’ and somebody else saying, ‘no I didn't like it,’ but what is it you like? What are they doing? Now actors needed to be able to define what it was they were doing more accurately so that if something wasn't going on, right, you didn't have to throw the baby out with the bath water, you just fixed that something. Well the rest of the world seemed to know about these things but we in Australia were still relatively innocent. So what I think I helped propagandise was the tools of trade as well as, incidentally, exercises for sharpening the skill of handling these tools bit by bit, and I think it's been useful to an extent.

You came from a particular tradition of acting which ... and you have learned your lessons in New York so that although there was an international currency in acting, there was also traditions that were different, and the New York tradition had particular characteristics to it which, say, the London stage didn't ...

We must distinguish between tools of trade and product. Product can be an opera, a naturalistic presentation, a film, a television show, a radio show ... it can be drama, it can be, it can be, poetic, it can be lyric, it can be a different presentation each time and the style of each presentation is its own unique characteristic, but the basic tools of the trade that go with these things are universal. You use the same tools in television that we use in film, that we use on stage, we use in selling for that matter. The basic tools are fundamental. And it ... it got muddled up because people thought that what I was teaching was naturalistic theatre through the tradition of Broadway theatre, the tradition of anti-Shakespearian theatre. No, what is used in Shakespearian or Brechtian or any other theatre is fundamentally the same basic tools. The same as saying when you have to change cameras, when you shoot a Shakespearian presentation, and you are going to shoot you know, a Chekhov or something, it's the same camera.

But the teachers that you'd been exposed to in New York had developed a way of expressing and articulating some of the things that actors had always done, that made it particularly communicable.

Yes, and I must add each of the teachers was quite different than every other teacher. In fact there were frequently competitions between teachers. Somebody said ‘the fundamental motivational technique is belief in the situation’, and somebody else would say ‘no, the fundamental technique for motivation is, as if’, and somebody else had another hobby horse to ride. Basically, because I'd worked with a lot of teachers, what I was able to say to the people around here is, look, there are many, many ways of motivating, you take your pick. You want to identify with a character feel free, if it works for you feel free, but here is a technique, here is another technique, here is another and I didn't take sides. See Strasberg didn't get along with Stella Adler and Sandy didn't like somebody else and Bobby Lewis hated somebody else. It didn't make any difference, each of them had something to offer. What I tried to do was gather up what each of them was saying and say, here is the repertoire, stick a pin in it and decide which one you are going to go for.

So you didn't teach the method, you just taught as many methods as could be used.

I don't think there is the method, I don't think there is such a thing; each school is a little bit like Christianity, each sect says, we are the Christians. I think that was nonsense. I don't think there is the method. The method in its purest form is the actor's grammar. Now, you know, with English grammar we can write novels and biographies and everything else, now it depends on which school you go to as to how you are going to learn that grammar. Some people insist that you never split an infinitive, and other schools say look, it's perfectly acceptable to do so, but still fundamentally it's grammar.

Which teachers in New York did you study acting with?

Oh quite a few. Strasberg of course. Sandy Meisner, Howard Da Silva. I set up a school for Howard and just as I set up a school for Moss Hart I studied with all the teachers that we dragged in to work with Moss. I worked with Alfred Lanz [sp?]. Oh, I can't think of them.

Was Lee Strasberg the great teacher? I mean, that's the name that everybody hears, how did you feel about that?

He was called the great watchmaker. He could dissect a performance, take a performance apart like no other person I knew of. And the joke went around New York — he’d take it apart all right but could he put the watch back together again? Yes he could do that as well. He was the most analytic and I think the most discerning and intelligent of the lot. The others had an awful lot to offer. Very frequently in specialised aspect of things. But his, I think, was the largest, most embracing thing, and I must add here that I was fortunate in studying with him at the time when most of these things were coming into focus. Because I believe from others who worked with him later that Lee became a little bit ... rather peculiar, and began to believe in himself as a cult figure or something of the sort. I've heard descriptions of some of the classes that were nothing like the ones we had. But when I was with him I think it was an eye opener. Real, real discovery.

Now when you started teaching yourself and you started the famous acting groups, acting at the Ensemble with these really keen people working with you, you used ... you were very eclectic, you used any background, you were there to teach them how to act. Did you start evolving your own school in a way? Did you start developing methods and getting ideas about the way to go about things, which were particularly characteristic of that little group?

Oh well, look I have ... each person develops their own modus operandi and I have one modus operandi, one mode to, for example, direct. It's no better and no worse than any other, I suppose, but it's one that works efficiently for me, especially when you work with short periods of rehearsal and especially when you work with people who don't have the world perspective-type background. I develop my own usual rehearsal techniques where we sit on our bums for about a week and a half analysing ...

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 4