Australian Biography

Hayes Gordon - full interview transcript

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You were somebody who brought the whole idea of teaching and developing young talent to Australia. How did you feel as the other elements began to develop and explode after ... throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, when we finally ended up with a National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) teaching?

I thought it was great. I mean, this is what we hoped would happen. We hoped ... well, I have a dream. I have dreamt for a long time that this place, this island continent, could become the cultural mecca of the next century. I think with the various things happening around the world, that artists are not going to be able to practice as well as they should, want to and are able to. I think they're going to be looking for a haven. And I think this place could easily be the haven. And I think we could provide the skill that matches theirs. I think we can develop our own artists, just as we've developed our own tennis players and swimmers, and cricketers. I think we should be able to develop our own artists so we can make contributions to that pool of great work, great work. And I think in time people are gonna come to Australia to see fine theatre, as they do now going to the West End or as they go see fine opera in the middle of Europe, Austria, wherever. I think they'll be coming here. Yes, the Opera House is a nice little magnet, it's a good piece of architecture to use as a symbol, but I think the real guts is going to have to take place with the artists. I think a very fine artist here said, ‘You can't have great art without great artists.’ Now whether we get the artists by training them ourselves, or bringing them back from other countries where they've gone, or attracting artists from other countries, I this will become a pool. And so every little thing contributes in that direction: schools, you know, the more schools the merrier. Of course, they've got to really teach. They just can't be phoney operations. But they've really got to teach the people to be artists. And when that happens, I look up from wherever I happen to be residing and say, good on ya!

Going back in time, to the chronology of what happened in the sort of steady expanse of the cultural life of Australia, you were positioned there at the Ensemble, training actors, and then the whole grant system came in, the Australia Council was set up and so on. How did you relate to all of that and what were your ... what contribution did you make?

... [sighs] ... I worried. I worried ... well, I know this is an unpopular position to take, but I worry about subsidies. I worry about the basic philosophy that usually manifests itself as ‘Whose bread I eat, his song I sing.’ I worry about people handling my money, tax money, in empire building or controlling the artistic scene by doling it out selectively; you may have, you may not have. I've seen too many theatres go to the wall with this kind of thing. So I always worry when subsidies were organised to take the place of creativity. And I think I ... I'm still fighting that sort of thing and it seems to be an uphill battle because the cargo cult can exist in the artistic field as well as another country's you know. Gimme, gimme, gimme. I wait around for something to drop from heaven. In the old days, if — and it's beginning to happen now — a company wanted to form, they said, ‘Let's see, what can we do of our own efforts to form a company.’ For quite a while, it became, ‘We want to form a company, now let's see, can we go to the government and get them to subsidise us?’ No track record, no credentials. No ... sound philosophy to operate on. And the government, out of guilt, or for whatever reasons, says, ‘Yeah, here's $10,000, here's $100,000 to start with’ or whatever. Now this I don't like. I don't like that. Because it cultivates a nation of carpetbaggers, exploiters. There's so many examples of that sort of thing.

What do you see as the alternative, though, if we really do want to develop in this country ... I mean, whether or not you have private patrons, and in a sense by donating all the work that ... money you got from your commercial work, you were a sort of private patron, or else you have the community via the government deciding that they will subsidise. Now a private patron can be just as or indeed more whimsical about ... [interruption] ...

Yes, I'm not happy about that either. I know the Ensemble is operating on that basis, right, and it seems to be working because Sandra Bates has a marvellous relationship with these private sponsors. I think it's a slightly complex issue, but in summary I think it starts with the audience. I think if the audience demands quality, the people ... companies will rise of their own initiative and commercial managements will arise to say, well, you can have quality. Just as any other industry sizes up what they think the market can use and capitalise on it. Now I don't think at the moment there are enough people out there who quite understand quality to be able to pressurise managements to say, let's do shows that are nothing but quality.

What's the answer to that?

Well, the answer is probably a long-range answer of small organisations, such as the Ensemble, acquainting audiences [with] what the quality can be. When they can afford to do shows that have quality, of course, ‘cause not every show we did was any good. We tried awfully hard, but we turned out some stinkers. But nevertheless, if we had played our cards more cunningly, I think, we would have introduced the concept of the kind of theatre that gets audiences to empathise, rather than just to sit back and sympathise and understand that ‘yeah, that's ... that's nice and I've had a good time.’ We believe that when enough people in the community develop a taste for empathy, that they will be provided with the right kind of theatre without somebody selectively saying, ‘You may operate because we're going to give you a grant’ or not. Who are these people to decide who gets the grant? What are their qualifications?

Did the Ensemble ever have a grant?

Yes, they had a few grants. Small grants usually. Mostly to keep us quiet. To keep us from making loud noises and protest, I think.

‘Cause as you didn't believe in grants, perhaps you ...

I didn't like the idea but the rest of the company said, ‘Look, everybody else has grants and they're raising the cost of everything with government money: we're not going to be able to survive unless we have some of it too.’ I went along with it against my better judgement. I'm sorry we did, but it seemed as though it was the way to operate at that time.

Did you ever have any conflicts with other people in the theatre world because of some of these attitudes?

Oh of course. All the time.

Could you give us some accounts of these.

Too many. Too many to recount ... including, on one occasion, we did go to the Elizabethan Trust and say, ‘We have a project here, look we could use a little help.’ To be told, ‘Why should we help you, you are the opposition.’ ‘The opposition to the Elizabethan Trust?’ ‘Yeah.’ How can we be? But ...

That's how you were seen. Did you see them at all as the opposition?

I saw them as a bunch of amateurs, some of them good-hearted, meaning well, being ... playing at my profession, playing games with it. And very often they didn't know what to do with the money they had. They had certain ideas like build their own little empire but beyond that I don't think they knew quite what to do.

And you don't think they appreciated this view you had of them?

Oh definitely not. They knew it but they didn't like it.

And how do you think they saw you?

Well, I think you only have to go to the press to ... [laughing] ... see some of this — we very frequently had duels in the press. But no, they ... they saw me as a, I suppose, an upstart. Who was this Yank to tell us how to operate? And, a dreamer, an idealist. Although I must say they picked up so many of the ideas that I propounded. They argued against ... they nevertheless picked them up and used them for themselves. One of the things I felt about them was that to gain brownie points, they were quite prepared to get onto anything that looked like a going concern. So on a number of occasions, I know, they snatched operations out from under us that were doing. And when they took these things over, they killed them. They killed them stone dead.

You mean actual productions?

Concepts and productions. Yes, actual productions such as Virginia Woolf, we had the rights to, but with some finangling the Trust got it instead. I can probably be sued for saying this but I can back it up — for years I pressured the Trust ... particularly Stefan Haag, who was a friend of mine who was heading the Trust at the time, to go into tents, because tents were a way of getting theatres around to various parts of the country that don't have theatres. And we could bring the best artists to them. No, no, no, no. We — you can't do tents. The ... we won't do tents. No, forget about tents. Then one day they went ahead and did tents. In, in a way, that destroyed the whole concept of tents because they didn't know how to handle the round. Now we could have brought our expertise of working in circular theatre to this thing. And they handled it in such a ham-handed way that people were turned off going to tents. Until somebody else came in from the States and set up a tent show at Warringah Mall — for quite a while nobody wanted to go see it because they'd had their taste of tents before. And it was almost by the end of this guy's run, at Warringah Mall, where he was bankrupt, where the audience suddenly caught on to, oh, it can be good after all. By which time he had to leave the country with his tail between his legs. They destroyed one of the only training programs that directors had in this country.

Which was that?

It was called Operation Bootstraps, which was started by the Producers and Directors Guild where, for two years, the best directors around and writers and critics and cinematographers gathered every Sunday to pick out problems and help each other solve the problems. We said there are no teachers around to teach us directing so let's lift ourselves by the bootstraps. So we ... we had this program going and it was very successful. For about two solid years. And then the Trust got on to it. They said, ‘Oh that looks like a going concern.’ So they offered a key person in the organisation 500 dollars to take it away from the Ensemble where we were meeting every week. We provided it with facility free of course ... to take it away from the Ensemble and put it under the banner of the Trust. So I was told this and I said, ‘Well, if you even are tempted by such an offer, bugger you, take it!’ So they did take it. And two weeks later, the whole project closed. You know, I've seen this thing happen time and time again. So, to me, subsidised organisations such as that, the subsidising organisations have a very bad smell about them.

But that wasn't ... that wasn't the subsidy that did that. Perhaps it was ...

No, it was a powerful organisation that sought to get brownie points to justify itself. Yes.

And what were some of the other famous battles that you had in the history of the theatre? The reason I'm asking this is that these conflicts give us an idea of the way things were developing and what was happening around the place. For example, your relationship with NIDA.

Well, we hoped that they would teach the ... all the tools of trade ... and I think for quite a while, to understand ... I never taught at NIDA and I never studied at NIDA, so I can't be sure, but I did see certain brochures that said, we can teach you how to handle your voice and body but we can't teach you the other things ... I think they called it imagination, which you have. We can probably give you exercises for stretching it but we can't teach any of that stuff. And to the extent where they believe this or I understand that properly, I wouldn't agree with that because that has been taught for well over 90 years in every other country. That's one of the things that makes universal actors a hell of a lot different from what Australian actors were looking like at that time. So, ... I have tremendous respect for some of the departments at NIDA even now. I just would like to be sure that their programs are balanced and, in which case, I say great, great. They have all the money in the world to work with. They can give out scholarships. They can audition everybody in the country if they like and pick the eyes out of all the talent, you know. And I think it'd be a great idea. So long as they do it right.

Who were some of the people that were part of the Ensemble group that you feel really justified the effort that was put in with the talent they displayed?

You know, I just made up a list of people for a special project. And a list ... that list was just a small handful of people. The list goes on to two solid pages of double column ... and I’d just as soon, unless you force me, I’d just as soon not drop names. Partly because we've never traded on these people. Again, partly because we don't believe that any school is totally responsible for any particular developed skilful practitioner. Because we don't know where they're going to get their ideas. But I can only tell you these are people who also attended classes and, if you like, if you force me, I'll drop a few names. Can we do a cut here because I have to go get a list to refresh my mind?

There've been so many actors that owed their start to the Ensemble, Lorraine Bayly was there right through, wasn't she, Henri Szeps ... ... [interruption] ... ...

Yes, well, she was one of the founding members. Actually she was the first employed ...

There were so many actors that owed their start to the Ensemble training, Lorraine Bayly, Henri Szeps, Reg Livermore, John Ewing ... I could go on and on with big names. How do you feel about what happened with them and their future and does that give you great satisfaction?

Yes. yes. Not only ... not only because they are turning out the sort of work I hoped we'd turn out, but there are other actors who are looking at them saying, you know, I'd like some of that as well. And they're picking the brains of Lorraine Bayly and Reg Livermore and Henri Szeps and so forth, saying, you know, ‘How do you do it?’ And word gets around. I mean, when Lorraine was working in The Sullivans, a lot of people picked up things from her. She rubbed off onto an awful lot of people. And I think this is the way things get around. We find some of our jargon, some of the languages we picked up, not from my teaching but we had to invent out of desperation, are being used as common jargon in the profession as far as Perth. So, you know, word gets around from these people and it ... it’s wonderful that they're doing the work they do.

What were some of the attitudes in the community that you were particularly trying to change? You mentioned that there were general principles that you were trying to emphasise, the need for a fair go and to get away from the she'll be right attitude. How did that translate into some specific projects?

... [sighs] ... Specific projects? Well like, for example, there ... did I mention Fortune and Men's Eyes? [Frank H: We did.]

Yes, well, that would have been an example. I'll take that again because we didn't want your voice in that, Frank. Well, like for example, raising the issues that we raised with Fortune and Men's Eyes. [Frank: Sorry Hayes, can you start with a beginning ... ]

Look, I'll ask the question again, Frank, and perhaps because we mentioned ... Frank wasn't satisfied with Fortune and Men's Eyes. He'd like you to speak about the Jewish thing, the Jewish issue is what he was asking about before earlier. So ... [interruption] ...

I'll make it more concise, yes, yes.

Were there any particular current issues that you addressed in your plays that were directed towards changing attitudes in the audience?

Yes, yes. The whole idea of selecting our plays wasn't based on ‘Here's a play we'd like to do’ but was based on what seems to need to bring a certain issue to a head for discussion. I mean, Fortune and Men's Eyes brought to a head a time when people were concerned about the penal system. And it set things in motion. There was another instance where we overheard some anti-Semitic things being bruted about in a rather offensive way. I mean, what is not offensive about anti-Semitism? And we found a play to address that one which was called Between Two Thieves, where Christ is put on trial all over again, the ... the re-enactment of it. The war ... the issue of us being involved in the Vietnam War. We did a play called We Bombed in New Haven which had an awful lot of repercussions around the place. You know, wherever we saw an incipient issue under the skin which should have come to a head, we thought we'd do a play to bring it up.

And the principle of tolerance was one that you all adhered to?

I don't like the word. Tom Paine, one of the great philosophers, defined it very nicely, I think. He said, ‘Tolerance is not the opposite of intolerance. It's a counterfeit of it.’ Because in both cases you are sitting in judgement of the person's right. In one case, you say, ‘Yes, you may.’ In the other case, you say, ‘No, you may not.’ And I say, what business is it of ours anyway? You know. I think the 11th Commandment should be Mind Your Own Bloody Business. And it's not even a case of live and let live because the concept of let implies we regulate somebody else's right to live. I wish there were another name for it.

How would you describe what you were trying to do then?

I would say, help people understand their behaviour, their own behaviour, so that they are in a better position to make judgements about everyday problems. They don't for example externalise their own hang-ups by kicking the cat or punching the postman or finding a scapegoat down the street to vent their spleen on because they themselves feel bugged. I think insight is a terribly important thing and the ability to live with ...

So what is it that you really were trying to do with these?

Insight. We believed that if people understood themselves better and understood their neighbours better we'd have a greater civilisation. Because after all, that is the meaning of the world civilisation, the ability to live cheek by jowl with somebody else. And we tried to do the sorts of plays that made people more aware of their inner workings. So that if they had a hang-up they didn't externalise it by kicking the cat, or punching the postman, or finding a convenient scapegoat down the street onto which they heap their own feelings of disquiet. I think it was important for people to understand themselves. Now that's a very original concept, you must understand. What was it? The oracle, Delphi, which said, 'Know thyself. Know thyself.’ It's so important. But I didn't think that was prevalent enough in this country, we didn't think it was. So we ... we tried to stir the kind of empathy-making productions that would help people know themselves.

Now at the end of the time ...

Are you still associated with the Ensemble now?

As a sort of an elder statesman, the guy that occasionally gets called to either come to an opening or a press launch, or they've got a particular problem that they wondered whether there's a precedent for — I get asked about that. Other than that, it's in very good hands. Sandra is excellent. We couldn't have found a better take-over.

How did that happen?

Well, the governing director has the right to pass the job on to anybody he selects. And when I was getting ready to pull out, I looked around to see who it was who would be a likely candidate and of all of them — and there were some nice prospects — but of all of them it looked like Sandra had the determination, the wit, the ingenuity, the intelligence, the guts, to be able to take on a job like that. I'm not sure that she's ever been really grateful for having been pinned into this operation. I'm sure she hates me several times a week for having done this to her. But I think the fact that she has pulled the company out of a very large debt speaks loads for her capacity to handle a very complex operation.

Why did you leave?

I think it was time for me to leave. It was time for the young bloods to take over. I was, well, 65 at the time and I thought there was enough skill around for them to be self-sufficient without Papa hanging around. And I think it — I picked the right time.

Were you in good health?

Fairly good health. Fairly good health. I ... I didn't really get crook until about three years after that.

And what happened then?

I had a heart attack. Doesn't everybody? There's ... it's obligatory for people who do the sort of ... have the sort of life I had ... [laughs] ... Must have a heart attack.

Just the one?

Yes. Well, one heart attack and a few little encores but not exactly heart attacks, just repercussions from a heart attack, but I ... I had my heart attack in a very dramatic way, of course. We were playing at the Opera House in Broadway Bound and during an interval I decided that — the last week it was, and a matinee day — I decided I'd just lie down on a casting couch and rest in preparation for the second act. And I felt a pain where there shouldn't have been one and, cut the dull story short ... it was decided I was having a heart attack but I wanted to go back on stage. We hadn't finished the show. And the nurse up there said, ‘Well, if you go up ... on stage once more, you'll be carried off very dramatically.’ And ...

Were you tempted? ... [interruption] ... By the dramatic ...

I thought of it. It's a little bit like the Jack Benny story. I'm thinking, I'm thinking, you know. I ... I was thinking of it but on second thought I decided, ‘Well, let's see what we could do to keep it from being fatal.’ So I was taken to Sydney hospital. It was almost fatal. But it ain't. It ain't. As you ... ... [interruption] ... ...

But you've had some near misses since.

Yes. Yes, some of the complications caused me to die about eight times. I actually died and was revived on each of these occasions — as you can see.

Did you see the light at the end of the tunnel that people talk about?

No, I went looking for the light. I didn't see it! Now maybe I was heading in the wrong direction. Maybe I should have been looking for fire instead.

What was it like dying?

It was going to sleep. The only way I knew that I'd died was when I woke up. It was like going under anaesthesia. It suddenly, you know, you're talking to somebody, you ... you're fully conscious. And there's a blank. That's all there is to it.

Has this made you think in a little bit more focused way about the end when it does inevitably come?

Yes. I ... look, death has no horror for me. The only thing is, I wouldn't like to make it a painful death, but when my time comes, I just go to sleep. You know, I've had a lovely life.

Do you believe in an afterlife?


Have you any religion?

No. Well, in so much as ... as a dear friend once said, if you take the Bible and every place you see the word God, you transpose the word 'unconscious', I think you'd have a working operation of the human being, because the unconscious, to me, is omniscient, omnipotent and timeless. And how else would you define a God. I believe in the tremendous capacity for this vast store that we have in the back of our brain, this unconscious, to create anything that needs to be created and even to discover the secrets of how we got here in the first place. But until somebody decides there's an old man with a long grey beard or somebody with holes in his hands calling the shots, until they can prove it, I'm not interested. I simply live from day to day and rely on what I do know. And I've been extremely lucky. I've had some wonderful experiences and wonderful friends and there comes a time when, as Shakespeare said, this little life is rounded with a sleep. When it comes it comes.

Can we change now completely and talk about your parallel life. During the time that you were running the Ensemble you had a parallel life as a commercial actor which you undertook mainly to support the Ensemble operation. But you also established yourself, again, as an actor of considerable talent yourself. Can you tell me what you enjoyed about acting, yourself?

... [laughs] ... Well, would it be too much of a damper to say I think there were only two plays in my life that I really enjoyed, one being Oklahoma!, and the other being working The Fiddler with the Opera Company. For the rest of it, it's all been pretty hard work. I've had good experience working with Kiss Me Kate, Kismet, Annie Get Your Gun, another production of Oklahoma! out here. The production of Annie, as I said, Broadway Bound and Fiddler. But they've all been pretty hard work and the reason you do it is the same reason that cancer specialists operate on cancer. I don't think they enjoy seeing some young person come in with a growth but they say, ‘Look, I'm the one to be able to do it. So let's do it and do it as well as I can.’ Incidentally, apropos Fiddler, I was told that it would only be a short season, probably 23 weeks. Because, I was told, there aren't enough Jews in all of Australia to be able to patronise the show. And I pointed out that the most popular showing of the thing internationally was in Japan and one of the least popular was in Israel ... [laughing] ... would you believe. Well, anyway, in spite of it, I ... I went in to the thing thinking that I'd earn enough in 23 weeks to guarantee a loan that the theatre was trying to get from the Bank of New South Wales and the 23 weeks ... ... [interruption] ...

[end of tape]

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