Australian Biography

Hayes Gordon - full interview transcript

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Hayes, when and where were you born?

Boston. 1920. 25th of February ... I'm sorry, I have a little difficulty remembering, I was a little child at the time, it was a very severe winter and ... and my mother had to be carried three blocks overhead by stretcher, in order to be able to get past the snowdrifts ... a very interesting place, Boston, you ought to go there sometime.

And could you tell me a little bit about the particular job that you had — and I'll ask you a question about this in a minute — but the job that you had when you were working with the settlement, when you were at the settlement and you were asked by an education group to look after — and I'm about to ask you a question about that — to help them with their project. You became very well known around Boston for the project you were working on, the projects that you taught youngsters with at the settlement. Did that lead to anything else?

Yes, the ... an experiment by Louis Agassiz Shaw on education dealing with exceptional children is tackling the thesis — do exceptional children necessarily have to be mal-adjusted? It was assumed they did. I was invited to join the team and I was the youngest one on the team. Everybody else was either a PhD or a professor or something of the sort. And I was the junior on the team of four tackling these kids using project work. Project work became the nucleus of the kind of education they adapted for this project.

And who were the kids?

Little geniuses from all parts of Boston, all sorts of backgrounds, starting with the age of eight and taking them up year by year, up to the age of 14. I was with them for about three of those years.

I was born February 25th, 1920, in Boston, in a snow storm. The snow drifts were so high that the ambulance people had to carry my mother overhead for three blocks to get to the ambulance. And I've been a snow baby ever since.

Tell me about your mother, what kind of a person was she?

Nice lady. Very homey person, she grew up ... her first job in New York was as a furrier worker. She worked with a furrier. And she was ... well, how do I describe her? She was ... a conscientious, devoted, dedicated, hard-working person who bore a grudge. I mean, when my father and she broke up, she never forgave him. She was a ... the other side of her, she was a vindictive person, but in so many ways she was an open-hearted, generous, extremely dedicated person.

Was she only vindictive towards your father?

Yes, strangely enough ... [laughs] ...

And how did you feel about that?

Not very good. Because I loved them both. And I idealised my father, he was a great guy. He was a bit of a hero. He had once disarmed a burglar bare-handed as it were. He became a bit of a legend around the place. But he was a wiry, intelligent, talented guy, who worked as a house painter. But after he got cancer, of course, that went out the window. They were both on welfare, by the way, on the dole. And most of my association with them was while they were still having to depend on handouts.

Your mother wasn't well either.

No, no, she was a chronic invalid.

So did they ... I mean, did you see them grow old?

No, no. They both died at the age of 50 and I was out of the city at the time. I was in New York, on both occasions ... well I was at their death beds. I came back in time for that sort of thing. But I left while my mother was still about 40, 35, 40. And I had to go on and seek my own fortune in New York, you see.

So as an only, much-loved, child, did you feel guilty that you'd been away when they'd been ill ... [interruption] ...

Oh, guilt is my middle name. Yes, the guilt of that and the guilt of other things really drove me into psychoanalysis [laughing], would you believe. I spent three and a half years of psychoanalysis expunging this guilt.

The guilt relating to your parents?

That plus a few others I'd picked up along the way. My job in the army, for example, was propaganda. And I hadn't seen combat but the people I was working with had. And on the one hand, I felt, ‘Wow, aren't I lucky not being in that situation,’ but the other hand I said, ‘They're doing the job I should be doing.’ And it nearly wrecked my career, as a matter of fact, because after the war, I went looking for other people's wars to fight to make up for. And my manager stopped me and said, ‘Unless you decide that your motives are honest, that you're really concerned with other people's battles, I'm not letting you go.’ And she forced me to go to psychoanalysis [laughing]. I found my motives were that I was still carrying guilt.

So what war did you try to go to?

Oh, some war in the Middle East. You know, pick a war, any old war [laughing]. If I thought people were getting the wrong end of the stick, I thought, ‘Let's get in there and fight.’

Were you worried that people might have thought you were a coward for not going?

I was more worried that I might be a coward. I was more concerned about what I would feel about it. Yes. Yes. I mean, I don't have to live with other people, but I have to live with myself.

So going back to your parents, you felt bad that you'd been away during the years that they were declining ...

Yes.

But you were at both their death beds.

Yes, got back just in time.

Did they ever reconcile?

You mean between themselves? No. No. It was hostility to the end.

Did this affect your own faith in marriage?

Not really, no. I'd seen pretty ... unfortunate marriages and I was working especially at the settlement house because we had a plethora of them coming through. But I also saw some good ones. And every lousy marriage I saw, I said, you know, I'm not gonna make that mistake. They're ... in other words, you learn from people's mistakes. And you almost draw a common denominator. This is the sort of mistake one can fall into in marriage. I thought ... I thought I knew the secrets of a good marriage. So I went ahead and married early and my first marriage fell apart. This one, this one is right.

Your present marriage.

Yes.

What do you think was wrong with your first one?

How much time do we have? ... [laughs ... interruption] ... No, I think in summary I married too soon. I married around the time of the war, and the pressures were on including, you know, if I never come back what am I leaving behind, on her part, she figured, you know, unless she marries now, she'll probably never have a chance to. So it was a panic sort of thing ... haste and regret ... what's the thing they say about it ...

And when did you meet your present wife?

Here in Australia. And what a lovely reason for staying in Australia. Now, she was ... she was working at the Ensemble as a ... well, first as a student. Then as a technician. And we got on of the same wavelength. That was it.

And what year did you get married to her?

Seventy.

But you haven't had children?

No, not with this marriage. I did with the first one.

You had a daughter with your first marriage?

Yes. She's now a social worker. A very lovely person, a very nice person and she even has a son. She has a 21-year-old son. I have a 21-year-old grandson!

So, but Hayes it's always, it strikes ... I'll start that again. Hayes, you're somebody who's always been a great teacher, a figure that people have looked to for guidance. One might say a natural parent. When you left your wife and child behind, she was a little girl then. Did this ... Was this a big thing for you to do, to give up that parenting role?

[sighs over] Oh yes, yes indeed. Yes. But one of the things one learns in show business is to adapt ... the nature of acting is adapting from job to job very, very quickly, adapting to new communities. And I think I probably had it easier than other people in the same circumstance but it was a wrench. Of course it was.

Going back to the settlement house, while you were there and during this period of intense development that you went through during your adolescence and teenage years, you became quite well-known for the work you were doing with young people doing projects and having them learn through projects. Did this lead to anything else?

Yes. I was picked up by an educational experiment from Harvard University. They were conducting an experiment to see whether exceptional children — in other words, geniuses — had to necessarily be mal-adjusted because they were so troublesome around schools and so forth. So they embarked on a seven-year project taking the same kids year after year and watching them develop. I worked with them for three of those years. They started with the kids about eight years old and went on through around 14, I suppose, on average. And the upshot of the experiment was quite obviously that they didn't have to be mal-adjusted at all if you just give them their heads and give them a chance to fulfil their potential. And my job with them was to create the projects that they would be working on. And each person contributed to the project and they were all in a unique way. And it was a ... quite a marvellous experiment. But I was a project specialist. My team-mates were professors and PhDs and so forth. I was the token junior.

Was it something [of a] forerunner of the Ensemble Theatre, where the projects were plays and you kept people from getting mal-adjusted by being part of it?

No, the Ensemble Theatre didn't start out to be a therapy group ... [laughing] ... thank you very much.

However, you did a lot about teaching and education?

Oh yes, yes, yes. I learned well, you know, I don't have a degree in education but I probably learned as much as most of the well-qualified certificated teachers did. I was learning from the experts, I was learning from the top people. And I ended up teaching. You know ... student teachers. I was teaching some of the student teachers from Harvard and Boston University and a few of the others. Teaching them project work was a speciality.

Now going ahead to the war and were ... you were called up, drafted into the army for the Second World War. What was the first thing you were asked to do?

Take basic training ... [laughing] ... And in the middle of it I was pulled out to do a show called Winged Victory. Moss Hart was putting together a propaganda show. And he gathered about 300 people from Hollywood and Broadway and I was one of those people. And we did the thing on Broadway. I ended up leaving ... pardon me, leaving Oklahoma! at the St James Theatre, and then coming back and playing Winged Victory right next door to it; we played New York and went out to the coast, made the film. And then started travelling back across the country with this marvellous production unit. And then got kicked out in Denver Colorado.

You were kicked out?

Oh yeah.

What did you do?

I was regarded as a mutineer. I ... I think the ... it was whispered I had incited mutiny, see there was a ... the only black officer in the ... or the only black man in the entire troupe was an officer in charge of the singers. And he countermanded an order. He was required not to march with the troops when we got to California, so he went ahead and marched anyway. Now this was no-no.

Because he was black?

Of course. So, he was kicked out. And then some of us took umbrage at it. And I suppose I opened my mouth too wide and said some nasty things to the authorities and I was kicked out. So I went on to work in army bases doing special services.

Now we're going to leap right ahead now. When you set up the Ensemble Theatre, where did you first start to put on the plays?

Well, the first plays were put on experimentally at Cammeray Children's Library on a couple of Sunday nights. And as they say in the book, we found that it was good. So we found ourselves a little fire trap on the corner of Berry and Miller Street, a single wooden walk-up, long flight of stairs. And we worked there for over a year. And mercifully were closed again by the authorities. I dread to think what would have happened if somebody had dropped a lighted cigarette in the wrong place. Would have a lot of toasted audiences and a few long big ... big smell of ham. After that we found a warehouse on the shore of Kirribilli, Milson's Point, and built that between September '59 and the first week in January of '60. We put together a ... a theatre. A rough sort of theatre, but it was a theatre.

Now people were learning from doing during this time?

Yeah.

So that it was really in some ways very like your old project, education, wasn't it?

Ye-es, I suppose. I suppose they were learning by project work. But the most important thing was the result of the project, the effect it had on the audience. And this was what we were really working on, you see. We're trying to affect the audience in a particular way.

And what was that way? What did you want to do?

What is the term, the trendy term, that became fashionable a few years ago? Consciousness raising. We ... we wanted to build a better world, you know, the way young zealots decide that the world is not what it should be and let’s do something about it. We thought we could get to the root of things. And we thought the root of things was people's attitudes, their, their insights, their understanding of themselves. And so we did the sorts of plays that would provoke that sort of thing. And I think we were getting through to quite a lot of people.

What attitudes in the Sydney audience did you want to change in the 1950s?

Well, one of the most obvious ones was, ‘She'll be right, mate, I'm alright, mate. Bugger you.’ sort of thing. And also we wanted to realise this thing, this much vaunted thing, of fair go. That was one of the things that attracted me to stay in Australia. I heard that 'fair go' was a big issue ... an important philosophy here. I went looking for it. It was terribly hard to find. So we thought maybe we could generate a little bit of it, remind people that they were espousing it and maybe they ought to practice a little more. No, it was a very complex operation we were trying for and I'm simplifying it unnecessarily. Of course. But we had a long code of objectives and, fair to say, I think, we probably achieved a token representation of each one of these objectives.

This belief in the theatre as a force for changing society — was that essential to getting everybody to cooperate in something that actually wasn't going to pay them for their professional work at the beginning?

Yes. But it sound a bit coercive the way you say it. Getting them to cooperate? No, we all wanted to. It was a voluntary fusion. I think probably my function wasn't so much as a whipping ... whipping people into any sort of activity as helping to organise ... [interruption] ...

Was this belief that society could be changed through theatre important in getting people to cooperate in something that at the beginning they weren't even getting paid for?

Getting the ... getting them to cooperate, well, that sounds a bit coercive. No, the magic of that particular outfit was that everybody was eager in their own right to do a thing like this and I suppose my contribution to the thing was really organising a pattern for them to be able to channel their desire to do that sort of thing. No, we had a bunch of zealots, we had a bunch of people with fire in the belly. They wanted to do things and they were prepared to put their efforts where their hopes were.

Hayes, I know that the way in which you teach acting is quite complex and has been worked out and has a lot of elements to it that people have to go through to learn, but could you, for our sake, try to sum up what was the essence of what you needed to teach would-be actors in order to get them to perform well?

... [sighs] ... Well. First and foremost, before you perform well, you've got to have the necessary tools. In the old days it was assumed that the only tools you needed were a good voice and a well-coordinated pleasant body and that was it. From there on, you know, Bob's your uncle. But we said some of the tools were also the content tools of how people feel, what they're trying to do to each other, the imagination behind it, and for a long time it was assumed that this couldn't be taught. These things were either with you or ... they're in you or they're not. You can't teach an actor to act, they used to say. For the past, well, what, 90 years, it's been quite evident that these things were as much technically available, these content disciplines were as much available, as the formal disciplines. So what we tried to do was ensure that actors started their careers with a fair working understanding of the tools of trade. It's very much like if you want to be a writer, it ... there's a nice thing if you will please study grammar, study the language. And basically what we were doing was studying the ... the language of acting. So really, in effect, our school doesn't teach acting as such, what we're doing is teaching the craftsmanship, the tools of the trade, and the various acting problems they will meet on the job. Different directors will make different demands of them, and if they have the right tools, they have a fighting chance of coming up with those demands ... different productions, different plays will make different demands. I mean, you may be doing a naturalistic play, you may be doing an opera. You may be doing a lyric play, a poetic play, a ... a period play. But all these plays still require the same basic tools. So if the actors are equipped with the tools, from then on they learn the rest of it on the job. So that's all we started to do. That's all we still do, I think.

At the Ensemble, you took on this role of organising, teaching, and very frequently directing. You yourself didn't act in most of ... ... [interruption] ... ... plays?

No, no, no. No, no. No, the Ensemble wasn't intended to be a vehicle for any of us, including the director. And incidentally I directed because there was nobody else to direct for no money. See, I was ... I was prepared to do that sort of thing. But, I know other theatres have started with the key motivation to provide the organiser with a ... a platform from which to act, but that wasn't our intent. The actors actually were determined to turn out product. Even if they were out of three or four shows in a row, they were determined that the shows were going to affect the audience.

So when they weren't acting, they were doing other things?

Yep. They were washing dishes. They were working backstage. They were sweeping the floors.

Did you do those things, Hayes?

Sure. Everybody did.

And why didn't you act?

Well. Somebody had to support the place. And so I was acting, but I was acting for the commercial people, I was making the money with them and then we could spend it on the theatre, you see. And besides which, I ... I didn't want to, get into the act that way. You see, there's a very tricky organisational problem which is, if somebody is calling the shots, or putting a project together like that, there's a tendency for people to say, ‘I wonder what's in it for him. I wonder what he's making out of it. What is he making out of the free labour of other people?’ I wanted to avoid that sort of thing, among other things. And I had to make sure that there were no special advantages going in my direction ... one of the things was, I had to make sure that I wasn't being ... using it as a show-off place, as a showcase, that ... it was relatively easy to do because I didn't ... [laughing] ... want it like that.

Why not?

Well, who was going to direct me? They couldn't find a free director to direct me. And I don't believe in directing yourself in theatre.

Later you got other directors in doing things, but you still didn't take one of those starring roles?

No, no. Look, the important thing was not to show that I could handle the tools. I think the important thing was to cultivate the skills in the other people as well. And if I took something I'd deprive somebody else of a crack at it. There was a subtle other reason too and that was I had an American accent. And very frequently, even then, an American accent was like the proverbial red rag to the bull. And I don't think we could have won over quite so many people, if we had somebody with an American accent on stage such as I had. It was pretty hard-going. It's alright in certain commercial theatre and musicals and so forth, but not in intimate theatre.

Do you think your association with the Broadway tradition, with commercial theatre and musicals ever affected the seriousness with which others could take you as a teacher?

Probably. Probably. Oh yes, there ... there will be all sorts of reasons for discounting ideas. It was terribly hard for people to see the ideas of abstract, but yes, it put me ... you bumped into that sort of thing.

Because the Ensemble started a whole movement for thinking about theatre and people developing as actors and so on at a very early stage in the ‘50s. Much later, gradually, as Australian culture developed, other companies were set up. Eventually NIDA was set up to teach acting in Australia. How did you relate to all of that?

Enthusiastically. That's what we hoped would happen. I have a dream. My dream is, in capsule form, to see this country become the cultural mecca of the world.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 6