Profile: Lindy Davies ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Profile: Lindy Davies

This week, Lindy Davies announces that she will leave her position as Head of the Victorian College of the Arts School of Drama at the end of the year. To mark the occasion, she talks exclusively to Theatre Notes about how her life as one of Australia’s most significant actors and directors has influenced her work as a teacher

“I suppose what seems most important,” says Lindy Davies, leaning back into her sofa in her office at the School of Drama, “is that there is a record of what’s happened here. The thing that is so disappointing about our culture is the perpetual amnesia, the lack of acknowledgement of things that have occurred. Our achievements aren’t cherished, aren’t built from.”

Davies encapsulates one of the major laments of Australian theatre artists: the sense that the innate ephemerality of the artform is reinforced by an almost wilful ability to forget, even to erase, its achievements. Which is why, in the middle of an especially demanding fortnight, Davies is speaking to me.

It’s a Saturday evening, and Davies is about to see Chris Bendall’s VCA production of Howard Barker’s Victory. She has probably been at the School of Drama every night this week: aside from Victory, the VCA School of Drama has three major productions going this week. They include Caryl Churchill’s 1994 play The Skriker, directed by Brian Lipson – “Brilliant!” says Lindy, “Just amazing! But nobody’s coming, nobody knows about it, it’s like Eldorado [at the Malthouse, which played to poor houses] - and it’s the sort of thing you mustn’t miss…”; James McCaughey’s production of Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Forest and Mary Sitarenos’s production of Churchill’s Fen. Not to mention the VCA Director’s Season, a selection of short plays by writers like Artaud and Lorca. Not to mention a week of student assessments.

Not to mention Davies’ impending departure as Head of the School of Drama, the announcement of which she keeps putting off. It’s time to go: the imminent restructure of the VCA as a faculty of the University of Melbourne reminds her that she has been at the school for at least six years longer than she intended. She is tired, and she can’t stop until she gets on a plane for Los Angeles next Wednesday. She is longing, she says, for time to reflect, a little leisure, but it will be a while before she can afford such a luxury.

But Davies is what they call a trouper. That dramatic, generous presence, tempered by a charming and well-concealed shyness, is the hallmark of a consummate actor. And she is an actor of a very particular kind, embodying in her career and philosophy a history of Australian theatre making. From her student days when, with people like John Romeril, Lindzee Smith, Graeme Blundell, Alan Finney and Kerry Dwyer, she helped form the La Mama Experimental Theatre Company, which later became the Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory Theatre, Davies has been part of some of the iconic moments of Australian theatre history.

Davies’ influence at the VCA School of Drama explains a lot about the theatre graduates who have been emerging from the school and energising the theatre community over the past few years. The VCA School of Drama is a direct inheritor of the radical tradition of Australian theatre that came to the fore in the 1970s. Davies, with other VCA staff such as Richard Murphet, have brought to the college a living notion of theatre as an innovative political, ethical and spiritual activity. It’s a notion that has evolved over the past three decades of their work as theatre artists.

At the School of Drama, this history is quite literally expressed in bricks and mortar. The School of Drama building was purpose-built for the school, designed by Melbourne architect and theatre designer Peter Corrigan, himself a designer associated with the Pram Factory. The three-storey building in Dodds St, Southbank, was designed in close collaboration with Davies. With its day-glo balconies, Corrigan’s perky building is hard to miss in the street: but inside what is most striking is how unlike an institution it feels. This is a building that is created for one purpose – to make theatre – and it has the relaxed, focused sense that goes with an efficient working theatre space.

“We wanted to make a place where we could interact with the public, where we could interact with ourselves – that is, a place to reflect – and where we could interact with collaborators,” says Davies. Perhaps what most struck me was the fact that the studios in which the students work are based on the designs of warehouses in which the various groups associated with the Pram Factory rehearsed through the 1970s and early 1980s. A theatre of memory, indeed.

Davies is concerned that the “playwright-centric” idea of theatre (espoused, for example, by commentators like the former Age critic Leonard Radic) creates a “revisionist” history that totally obscures some of the important influences that drove the “new wave” theatre of the late 1960s/early 1970s. “Anything we achieved in those days – it wasn’t director-driven, it wasn’t writer-driven,” says Davies. ”We were ideas-driven.”

The “larrikin” physical theatre that was developed by the Australian Performing Group - and which is still a vital tradition in the work of Circus Oz - is usually assumed to be a wholly Australian invention. But, as Davies points out, it has much older antecedents, with some very traceable genealogies. The day before our interview, Davies had been watching some workshops on Italian mask run by Valeria Campo, a teacher of Commedia Dell’arte. “And I suddenly remembered,” she says, “so clearly, where the Pram Factory style came from. We got the masks from the MTC production of Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters. Graeme Blundell was in the play…”

The production was directed by George Ogilvie, who was then newly returned from several years in Europe, where among other things he trained intensively with Jacques Lecoq in Paris for three years learning Italian mask and Commedia Dell’arte. As Ogilvie explains in his newly released biography Simple Gifts: A Life in the Theatre, he conducted Italian mask workshops for the actors in his 1967 production of Goldoni’s play.

“The thing about Commedia,” says Davies. “It had no pedigree… it was made by poor people. And we were in total reaction against the English repertory model, the hierarchy of the English rep. The commedia was perfect. So we had these masks which we took from the MTC production and we improvised… the first thing that came out of that was called Mr Big The Big Fat Pig by John Romeril… which was influenced by the Bread and Puppet Theatre [in New York]. That was where what was later called the larrikin style of the Pram Factory came from – it was from Commedia Dell’arte and those exciting companies we read about. Marvellous Melbourne [the first production at the Pram Factory theatre] was this vaudevillean, burlesque grotesquerie – it was all these huge cartoonish figures.”

For all its excitement, Davies felt a couple of important elements were missing from the APG model of theatre making. In 1972, she saw Rex Cramphorn’s production of The Tempest at the Guild Theatre at the University of Melbourne, and was blown away.

“At the Pram Factory, I never felt – aside from productions like [Jack Hibberd’s] Stretch of the Imagination – that language was particularly valued,” she says. “I have a passion for language. And I felt that the Pram Factory lacked this poetic and dramatic imaginative landscape. That’s why it was such a profound experience for me to see the Rex Cramphorn Performance Syndicate.”

Davies names Rex Cramphorn as the single most important influence on her work. “In this building, he is the presence I most often feel,” she says. “Rex was the person who introduced me to the idea that form is content. He showed me there was a world where an actor was valued in relation to language, where the actor was a maker.

“Rex could be infuriating: he was always in the process with the idea, always applying his intellect, which people often experienced as indecision. I remember in the Playbox production of Hamlet, in 1984, the audience was coming into the show and Rex was still rehearsing the show, sitting on the steps of the theatre with an Arden edition of Hamlet, listening to the ideas in action...”

The other problem with the Pram Factory, Davies says, was that it had a limited mechanism for coping with difference or disagreement. “What happened in the end was that effectively the company was being run by a triumvurate. I wanted a way of opening up dialogue so people could talk about their work, so they wouldn’t be afraid of disagreeing - a way of seeing conflict as an inciting moment, a place where you can begin to debate through your work.”

From those very early days, Davies found herself working towards an idea of theatre as a collaborative act, and much of her thinking, as director, actor and teacher, has been about how to create environments in which the ideal of collaboration might be made possible. Much later, in 1982, Davies helped form the Actors’ Experimental Stream of the Playbox Theatre with Melbourne actors like Mark Minchinton, Margaret Cameron, Rob Meldrum and others, and they began to formalise a philosophical and practical framework in which to realise these ideas.

“That’s 24 years ago!” she says. “Now it seems such a basic thing to do, to think about those things. We were driven by the belief that theatre had value as spiritual and social microcosm. And we wanted to create a new aesthetic through our differences, to celebrate our differences.

“The problem was always how to create an environment that permits an collaborative model. It’s about creating a dynamic, an ethic, in relation to” (here she sounds faintly mocking) “unconditional positive regard for the people in the room. You can’t work where there is judgement, jealousy, self-deprecation, ego problems of any kind – you can’t have them in the room. In teaching, for example, these dynamics involve a great deal of tough love.

“It has to be non-judgmental, or nothing can happen. If there’s no compassion, theatre can’t happen.”

All these influences have been drawn together into the School of Drama’s philosophy of the “autonomous actor”: the actor as maker, who is as much at ease in classical plays as in physical theatre traditions or innovative theatre making. Davies has collected around the core of the school a staff of theatre practitioners who, as well as teaching the students, often later collaborate with them in their work outside the college.

The imminent integration of the Victorian College of the Arts into the University of Melbourne is part of a massive restructure of the university system, which is now basing itself on the American model of universities like Princeton. The integration, which adopts the VCA as a faculty of the University of Melbourne, is due to take effect from January 1, 2007, but it will not for the moment mean that the School will essentially change.

As for Davies herself, leaving the college won’t usher in any slower time. Next year she will be directing in London, and working on other projects in Slovenia and at the Max Reinhardt School in Vienna. She is also planning a theatre project in Melbourne with Robyn Davidson. In the meantime, she is off to LA to woo legendary acting teacher Anne Bogart over to visit next year, and then to the Toronto Film Festival, where she will deliver a workshop for film directors. It seems that the time for reflection for which she currently yearns won’t come any time soon.

“Life isn’t like that,” she says. “You just do what you can… I suppose what I’m most proud of is that I’ve seen a lot of good theatre here. What we can do in a place like this is have the time to investigate, to really examine and make pieces of theatre, which may be text-based. And some extraordinary theatre has happened here – Robert Draffin’s The Idiot, for instance, or his Le Balcon; Brian Lipson’s The Crucible and The Skriker, John Bolton’s Grim or East, Richard Murphet and Leisa Shelton’s Dolores and the Department Store, Kirsten von Bibra’s Three Sisters, Mary Sitrarenos’ Sarita, Tania Gerstle’s Five Kinds of Silence… the VCA has actually made good theatre.

“I didn’t think we could make it all happen here. But we have, and that’s very comforting. I’m so glad I came here: it’s been the most immense privilege. I want to keep a strong relationship with this place. I love teaching, there is more for me to investigate in that area. I suppose an artist’s life is always about that oscillation between regret and fulfilment, going through that moment. There’s a kind of melancholic sweetness about that.

“In terms of the future of this place, I suppose I hope that it keeps a unique vision – that whatever happens here, whoever takes over, that they keep the question – what is theatre? – at the forefront of whatever they do.”

Richard Murphet, currently Postgraduate Coordinator and Head of Theatre Making at the school, will take up the position of Acting Head of Drama to provide leadership and continuity for students and staff as the VCA integrates with the University of Melbourne in 2007.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

Early in your piece you quote Lindy saying: "The thing that is so disappointing about our culture is the perpetual amnesia, the lack of acknowledgement of things that have occurred."

It should be noted that the founding Dean of the VCA School of Drama was Peter Oyston. He had left the VCA by the time I started the scriptwriting course in 1983, but he was spoken about with great reverence and his legacy was still in evidence during my time there. My understanding of his course (there might be some people out there who can correct me if I’m wrong) was that it was relatively unstructured and all the theatre workers did the same classes. This included actors, directors, animateurs and writers. His intention was to create a community of theatre workers with a commitment to the community, not simply fodder for the state theatre companies and the Film and TV industry. I’m relying on memory here, but I believe some of the companies that were generated from that first intake of drama students included Theatreworks, Theatre West and the Murray River Performing Group. In subsequent years, after Oyston left and before Lindy Davies tenure, other companies and collectives were initiated by former students and distinguished themselves in the local theatre scene (Ranters Theatre is one that immediately comes to mind).

This is why I take issue with your statement that: “Davies, with other VCA staff such as Richard Murphet, have brought to the college a living notion of theatre as an innovative political, ethical and spiritual activity”. It implies that such a notion of theatre didn’t exist at the VCA before Davies took the Dean’s chair around 1995, yet it seems to be an apt description of the ethos that Peter Oyston introduced into the VCA when the course was founded in 1976.

p.s. On another matter I want to express my sympathy at the outrageous misspellings of your name that have been surfacing in print lately. You wouldn't believe the variations I've had on Pogos. So out of respect to a very fine former teacher and colleague of mine I feel compelled to point out that Richard Murphet's surname is spelt with two 't's. i.e. 'Murphett'.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Abe

I think you are a little oversensitive in assuming that a tribute to 11 years of Lindy's work means that the work of others is automatically dismissed. Lindy herself is certainly making no such claim, and her fear that the legacy of the VCA might be forgotten certainly does not refer just to her contributions or to those of her contemporary colleagues, but to those who precede her.

The VCA, as you probably know, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. And I do know that this will involve some kind of remembering of its entire history in the second half of this year. Watch this space...

And as for spelling - no, it's actually "Murphet". That is absolutely triple-checked. Like myself, it seems that Richard Murphet masquerades under several spellings. Check out his staff profile at the VCA website for confirmation.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

I also checked the VCA website before I posted my comment but I looked under "student support" - and they had him listed as "Murphett". They also listed his email address as "r.murphett@..."

This means that there are two different spellings of his name on the same website, but I certainly retract any inference I might've made to any journalistic sloppiness on your part.