|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: October 20, 1993
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Looking back, when you first came to Australia, what do you think it was about Australia that made you decide to stay?
Australia! This was a ... a wide open country, friendly, most unusual, most unusual. The waterways such as I've never seen before anywhere. So much — well, a harbour I think leaves Rio for dead. , the ... I think the warmth of the people, I mean, the people who were the warm people not the, not the rednecks. But ... I think this looked like a place that was going to grow and had promise. I ... you know, I made a crazy jump in thinking when I first got here. I said, if any place was going to be the artistic mecca of the world in the 21st century, I think this would be the place.
You said that in the 1950s?
Yes, partly because of its isolation, strangely enough. Being away from a main current of activity where you have to, as it were, pit everything against what else is going and it's terribly active and there are an awful lot of people around you to tell you it can't be done. This looked as though it were a place that naively could go ahead and do it, to do the unusual. I could see the tennis players we were turning out, the swimmers, I didn't know much about cricket but I heard [laughing] we were getting tremendous cricketers here. And I said, this is a growing country, it's almost like uncultivated soil, that all it needs is a bit of sowing and a little nurturing. And it can be a fantastic place. And the more I saw of it, the more I convinced I am. I still believe that. So I want to be part of it, that bad?
What did the Australians think of you?
Well. It depends on which Australians. ... [interruption] ... Australians that toed the line and were quick on ... with mottos, were prepared to say to me, ‘you know, if it hadn't been for you, we would have been speaking Japanese.’ Now it couldn't have been for me because I had nothing to do with [laughing] the Battle of the Coral Sea. But I was stereotyped. I was cliche-fied. I ... I'm a Yank, therefore I must represent all of us, all of America. But after a few drinks, the very same people who cliche-fied me in one direction, would cliche-fy me in the other. It came out, quite frequently, ‘you know what's wrong with you septics? You're overpaid, you're oversexed and you're over here.’ So, there was a ... a kind of ambivalence feeling with many people. But there were others who were just as balanced and human as you find anywhere else in the world. You know, the difference between one nation and another is not qualitative. I think you find generous people in every country, you find angry people in every country, mean, sadistic, selfish, magnificent ... you find them everywhere. It's just the size of the groups that varies from one country to another. And I found a very large population, a very substantial population, of eager to learn, open, warm people in this country. And that little island, that, that focus was something that was most attractive. So you could leave the rednecks aside, every country has rednecks.
So you decided to stay and to obey the injunction you'd been given all those years ago by your singing teacher ...
... [interrupts] Pass it on!
.... and pass it on. And you set up a circumstance in which you could do that in the Ensemble Theatre and started sharing your knowledge with others here. Now, did you at any point regret that decision?
Not really regret. I ... I think I may have been tempted once or twice to go back. I ... always kept a weather eye open for how's McCarthyism doing these days. But , I think the most tempting thing was actually an invitation to go back and do a show on Broadway, which a friend of mine had written. It was Serenade which ultimately was made into a film with Mario Lanza ... to work with Gina Lollobrigida in the States and I admired her work and I'd like to have been able to do that. But no. It was much more interesting here.
So you were tempted by that but you said no. So in fact the opportunity came to go back, take things up where you'd left them. Why did you say no?
I think ... well, I might draw an analogy. What are you attracted to most? A crop that's all ready for ... for ... cutting down, or a field of promise? I found the field of promise much more interesting than a fait accompli sort of thing.
You wanted to be a pioneer and it was a bit late for that in America?
I don't know if I wanted to be a pioneer. You find yourself doing these things. And do the people come out here, wishing to work a piece of land, consider themselves pioneers? Or is this not thrust upon them? I don't know. I do ... I don't think so. I'd rather not have pioneered. I like to have just been able to live a quality life and if you have to do a certain amount of leg work in order to do it, fine.
So you decided not to go back but to stay and to develop this thing that you'd started here in Sydney. Could you tell me a little bit about the beginnings of that, who was part of the group and also something of the philosophy that I think was behind it.
Well, who was part of the group was ... well, without going into specific names, a mixture of experienced professionals and a few beginners who were just about to break in, people like Lorraine Bayly. But the thing they had in common was a fervour to make the place a nicer place to live in. They felt, as I did, that theatre could be a moulding influence and they wanted to do that sort of thing. They also resented commercial managements, the insecurity that goes with that sort of thing. They thought, if we establish our own operation, we have a base of operation, if we have to go off and work with a commercial management, fine, but then we can always come home to something. We have a base for operating. We also have a place where expatriates can come back and work in. We also have — and this was rather good of them, I think — we also have the sort of experiment which, if it worked, might encourage other such experiments. Because, after all, the only place one could work at that time and get audiences was with the big managements. There were only two or three at that time. We thought that if our experiment worked, this sort of cooperative theatre, maybe it would catch on, maybe there'd be more of it. And then we'd have the sort of thing that you have, for example, in some of the other countries, in Aus ... Austria, for example, in Vienna. You want to go to a show that fulfils a certain need, there is a certain play there. A different need, there's another play there. There's a wide enough spectrum to be able to cater to all tastes and appetites. And we thought the more theatre, even the more little theatres around the place, but polished, professional, quality theatre, the more we could fulfil the needs, the hungers, of people around. Better a display, a spectrum they would have available to them. And the more opportunity there was for work for us. So that was one of the things we thought in the back of the mind too. Oh, I'm sure there were other things in the philosophy but ... yes, one of the things was we looked at other cooperative theatres and we saw some of the traps. One of the traps is, at a particular point, the dedication begins to wane a little bit and people say, ‘I should be playing that role.’ ‘No that one, why is he playing that role, I should be doing that one.’ Or ‘I haven't been in about three shows ... I should be in this one, shouldn't I?’ And they start picking shows, they start choosing shows which are ... are rather self-serving. So we said, right. Business-wise, we're a cooperative. Artistically, we'll have to be a dictatorship. And this wasn't my own invention and this was something that Strasberg once told me. Strasberg was a fellow who used to march in May Day parades. He was quite socialistically oriented. He said to me one day, ‘you know, we go have cups of coffee together, we go to each other's homes, we ... we socialise.’ ‘But,’ he says, ‘when we're working on the stage, I'm Adolf Hitler.’ Now, I think I understood him. Because I don't think you direct by committee. You can't even select by committee. You've got to get a consensus of ideas, if you like, but a single operator has got to be able to put the whole thing together. They can choose the various elements that are going to go into it. But it's like painting a painting. I think a production has to be a one-man operation. So we said, ‘whoever is directing the show, calls the shots. And nobody else interferes.’ That was true when they let me do it, it was true when I let other people do it. We never interfered with their operation. So, to this extent, we were a mixture. We were an autocracy and a straight business operation. And I think this was the equation that worked for us.
How did the business work?
Well, at first everybody chip ... but there was ... nobody had to put any money into it. The only money that went into it really was my 35 quid that started the operation. Nobody invested in it. Nobody put a penny into it. But whatever we made at the box office was pooled back for perpetual, for the next operation, until we could get to a point where there was enough left over so that people could start getting paid. And even with that — excuse me — we put it on the basis of which of you really needs to be paid? Because if you're earning a living somewhere else, do you really want to draw the money? And they ... if they needed the money, they got it. Then bit by bit everybody got paid. So it was a progressive thing, where they invested their labour to create an operation. And 35 years on, here we are. We're still there.
What about you? Did you get paid?
So what did you live on?
JC Williamson's, the opera company, Channel Nine, 2GB.
Everything. Whatever. On GB I had a number of radio programs. I worked on The Atlantic Show, The Ford Show, The Stamina Show. The Stamina Show was a ... a daily sort of winged operation, with community singing, pushing Stamina clothing. And I don't know, a few other programs. I produced television. I had my own little production house.
What kind of television did you produce?
Afternoon stuff. Actually I was involved with the first Late Show. Alec Kellaway was the nominal producer and I sort of put the things together but this was before Bobby Limb came in. Bobby Limb used to be a guest artist on it. Then when Bobby came back from England with a lot of material, he took over the show ... but the afternoon shows were everything from Graphology to Medico. We, we pioneered incidentally ... we got a real live doctor on the ... on television, probably the first time anyone ... it was called Medico and we talked [about] a different problem each week. You know, high blood pressure, cancer, whatever it was.
Hyp ... yeah, hypochondriac’s hour. You could draw ... you could design your own symptoms as you went. That, that was a lovely show. When we have time, one day, I'll tell you some of the things on it. We got kicked off that, by the way. We got kicked off the air because of it.
What? Were you stirring again?
Yeah, I was stirring again ... we became the unofficial mouthpiece for the then BMA, which was the original Australian Medical Association, this was the British Medical Association. And one of the Doctor Hunters — there was John Hunter and his brother — said, as a topic for the ... for soon, why don't you take the problem of phenacetin. Phenacetin is killing 36 people a year in New South Wales alone. Now phenacetin was the thing, the P in APC powders, the Bex powders and a few other things, a deadly poison ... and it ... destroyed people's kidneys. So, I thought, okay, we'll do a script on phenacetin. I put a script together. We sent it to Canberra. Canberra Department of Health had to vet each one of these programs and this one came back with a little marginal notation, like, ‘Good on you!’ You know, the first time they commented on it. And we went to air with what seemed a ... relatively mild program, you know, if you have a headache, don't overdo the thing, don't overdo these lollies, take them sparingly, read the directions very carefully on the back and if headache persists see your doctor. Because phenacetin can be a dangerous drug when taken at large doses. We were off the air, got a little summons to up and see the head of the station. ‘Ahh,’ he said, ‘Boys, you're off the air.’ ‘What did we do?’ ‘Well, sorry, I can't tell you’ but ... we had a 26-week contract. This was the 23rd week. ‘We'll have to pay you off for the rest of it. We can't use you any more.’ Later, he confided in me that we were ... we were halfway through the program when the producers of APC were on the phone blowing, ‘they go or we take our advertisement.’ So we went ... about two or three years later, it finally got into the press. Then it became a big issue and phenacetin was banned and we now have Panadol. P.S. The great big stock of phenacetin that we had in this country that wasn't used, you know where it went? Africa! ... [laughs] ... Yes, an African pharmacist here told me about it.
So one way or another, even though you were taken off the air and it had its ups and down, you made your money outside the theatre and donated your time, a considerable amount of it?
Well ... [interruption] ... ... just quietly, most of the money too. See, I was supposed — I shouldn't be telling you this — I was supposed to send maintenance for my daughter. So her money went on the theatre. ... [laughs] ... Tape recorders, lighting equipment, productions. So she, in effect, virtually has a big investment in that theatre ‘cause that's where her maintenance is. But, yeah, I ... I took care of myself from my salaries. I was earning good salaries for Australia. And also putting the money into the company. So, you know, this ... this was the time when everybody else was putting their efforts into the company. We all chipped in.
And what happened with your teaching. Was that also donated?
Yes, for quite a while. It, well, obviously everybody in the company got their teaching for nothing. But then we started charging and it was because actually the students said, ‘Let's charge. Because we only value what we pay for.’ You know, two people would start a scene, prepare a scene, then came class, one of them was off at the beach and the other one said, ‘There's no compulsion on the other one to come. Why should he bother?’ So they started paying money and the first money I think was something like 50 cents a class, a three-hour class. And we accumulated all the 50 centses and at the end of the year we threw a Christmas party with it. Only they didn't need the money. But bit by bit, as we began to accumulate more teachers at the school, we had to pay them, we had to pay for other rehearsal space. So it becomes a paying operation now. People have to pay for class.
So people took out of it what they needed and if they didn't need things they didn't take it out of ...
At the beginning. Yup.
So that was from each as he is able, to each according to his need.
It sounds like communist, does it?
You were running something that looked like, I mean, that was a part of the cooperative movements of the time that were trying out these ways of doing things in practical mode. Looking back now, and over the long history of the structure, that was much more a cooperative structure than we're used to operating with — is there anything you learned from your experience there about those kinds of organisational structures?
Yeah, yes, a few things. , we ... it's a subject that can be gone into but I ... I think one of the things one learns is that fervour, when you have to put yourself out to back it up, usually doesn't last very long ... very few of the people stayed the distance. I think the only two people who are still associated with the Ensemble as of this time, 35 years on, would be Lorraine Bayly and myself; even at that, we're just associate members. We're not even active participants. But the other people, as they began to see how much hard work was involved with this, their brainwashing activities, I think were prone to want to drift away and do other things. And, you know, great! Because after all, we were a ... a base of operation and though these people drifted away, they could come back at any time they liked and work with us again, it was like establishing a ... a nest for them.
What did you do with people who came wanting to act ... who really didn't have talent, and who could contribute in other ways, but were never satisfied with that and really wanted to act?
Well, that's a loaded question — have you stopped beating your wife yet, yes or no? , first of all, any ... anybody with a modicum of talent can act, but how well they can act is another story. Or how hard they want to work to refine their acting, that's the real story. But a lot of people, even with acting talent, decided they would rather do something technical. Now my wife, for example, could have made a wonderful actress if she had persevered. But she decided she was more interested in the sound aspect of things. So she ... she became our best sound technician, the best one we ever had and then, after we got married of course, she cut that out too. But she could have been a fine actress ... a lot of people decided they didn't want to act. Saw what was entailed in acting and said, you know, even though I understand it and appreciate it and could do it, there are other things about theatre I prefer. Some of them became critics, some became writers. Some became teachers. A couple became psychiatrists and [laughing] psychologists. But, they're very talented. One of the most talented actresses we have around now, Sharon Flanagan, is a psychologist and when she's not working on stage, she goes working with brain-damaged people.
So you were never in conflict with anybody about what they wanted to do and your feeling that that wasn't right for them?
I never made judgements for them. No. I said ... ‘This is the score. This is the industry as you see it. These are the risks. This is the danger. These are the demands. These are the ethics that go with it. You take your choice. You want to do it, do it. You don't want, well ... But if you're going to do it, you've got to stay in condition, you've got to apply yourself, you've got to keep learning.’ You know.
So what was the ideal that bound people together long enough for them to keep up the fervour, the enthusiasm to keep the thing going?
... [sighs] ... I think basically the fact that they could see the changes in the audience, before their eyes. You see there were ... it's very very hard to know whether an audience has really got the depth of something which is substantial, which is so heavily sugar-coated with amusement ... you don't know whether they've only got the amusement or whether they've also got substance behind it. It's terribly hard to see it on the spot. But in an intimate theatre, you have a better chance of seeing it right then and there. And also we had occasions where we would get feedback from delayed reactions. h, the ... well, Brian Syron who just died the other day, did a production, directed a production of Fortune and Men's Eyes, which addressed the problems of the penal system. And this was a hot issue at that time. And once a week after the show, people would stay back and discuss the thing and ex-prisoners came. And social workers came, politicians, journalists, everybody came and got into the ... got into the act. And shortly after that, the actual re-examination of the penal system in New South Wales began taking place. Well, when fervent people look to see what theatre can do and it can do a thing like that, they say, ‘Hey I wanta shake the earth too. I wanta move it a little bit.’ And they join in if they see that this is what they can do. But then after a while, ‘me’ gets into it. Yeah, but what's in it for me? ... unless you have a strong conviction.
There's also the fact that times change. And in the ‘60s and ‘70s a lot of people were willing to think very much about changing the community through ideas. What happened when the Ensemble hit the ‘80s, the decade of me and greed and so on?
Well, residue of the red ... the same things still were there, but there was less of a tendency for some of the people of the Ensemble Company to extend themselves. Just less. Less ... and, well, one can't resent it, one has to see it as changing times. So we accommodate accordingly. We ... instead of distributing the work to everybody, we concentrated the work in the hands of a few and then the others did what they possibly could, but they weren't doing things fully. In the old days, the actors would get through their job and went out and washed dishes in the cafeteria ... went around sniping, putting up posters in the middle of the night. Now, it became more specialised and a lot of people didn't want to do that kind of thing. So, we said, ‘Okay, we'll hire people to do it. Or a few of you want to do it.’ Everybody was expected to read plays and report on them. Then it became concentrated, one or two people did the play reading. We had a play reading committee. So you accommodate. You fit in with the times.
Did you feel a little sad though that the ideals that had been there when you set it up had changed?
... [sighs] ... No. Look, ideals are not set in concrete. Ideals are there to be able to do a job. And as a job changes so your accommodation of it has to change. I don't think ... I don't see it's a terrible thing. No. I mean sometimes when my back was to the wall, I thought, and I could have used a little bit more support, I think I did grit my teeth and say a few nasty words under the breath but ... no, no ... there was a small internal palace revolt at one time where there was a strong divergence of opinions. So, we parted company. I didn't leave, they left, and the show kept going on, you know. But beyond that, nothing terrible.
When it was inevitable that they should go rather than that you should go ...
I don't know whether it was inevitable or not, but as I was calling the shots, I decided they should go.
The reason I ask that is that in quite a lot of cooperatives, the very system that sets up to make sure decisions are made democratically, can sometimes mean that the founder is the one that goes.
I know that to be the case in a number of instances, quite a number. And having seen this happen I decided not repeat it.
In looking back over those years and, again, still talking about the system and the way you operated with a very cooperative and loose grouping of people, was that as much part of what you were trying to do as the actual theatre of ideas that you were wanting to operate with?
Yes, and I'd like to elaborate just a little bit on it. It's not some ... simply a theatre of ideas — there's a trendy expression that occurred since we operated; had we started with it we would have used it, that’s a consciousness raising — that's a lovely term — I think we were concerned with that ... we wanted ideas. Well, we wanted insight, we wanted emotional interplay between people. We wanted imagination focused in productive ways. We wanted ... we wanted a civilised community. And we did what we could pushing in that direction.
And the way that you structured your company was part of that notion of a civilised community.
I think so.
Do you think it would have worked as well, if you'd had a traditional structure to the organisation?
Well, one of the things is the initiatives of the various components must not be coerced. They should be freely given. It is not a matter of taking from them, it's a matter of inviting them to give. And the usual structure is one which places demands, arbitrary demands, on people so they feel ... they have to come, they have to because somebody expects it of them. Here the expectations were simply their own. And I think that was a big component in the ... organisation and survival of it. It was a giving operation instead of a taking one. Something else: it was not a star system. It wasn't one where they said, ‘I am the nucleus of the world and everything revolves around me, including the audience.’ They said, ‘The audience is God and we are here to provide the audience with their vicarious adventure.’ So it was more self-effacing than the average theatrical's approach to things. And the people who joined us were that way. They were ... prepared to do something to the audience. And in a normal structure, I don't think you get that.
Now your role in all of this, although you didn't appropriate to yourself the title and money and so on that normally might have gone to someone who founded a theatre, you nevertheless had a lot of influence as the guru of this group, that they looked to. Did you ever feel ... I mean, how did you feel about your role in relation to it all?
There ... there have been ... I keep hearing back the occasional inference that either I am the head of a cult or it is Hayes' theatre or some sort of thing and I ... first of all, I don't like the idea. Secondly, I would hate the responsibility even if the idea were possible. I don't think anybody has a right to do that. The ... the audience is the thing. The theatre was never called the Hayes Gordon Ensemble. And the classes were never called Hayes' classes. They were the classes, Ensemble classes, Ensemble ... the unit, the group, was there ... occasionally people ascribe to me characteristics that have no business being there. And, I think that goes with the territory. Every now and then you have to try to refute it as best you can, but don't make too much of an issue of it.
So you would feel uncomfortable at the idea of being seen as a star or a ... ... [interruption] ... ...
... Oh yeah. Mmm. No, that terrifies me.
[end of tape]