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News Article

The Pram Factory: A Retrospective

It’s been 42 years since the demise of the Pram Factory. Still, the legacy of that shambolic factory-turned-warehouse-turned-theatre continues to loom large in Carlton's history and Australian culture. The Pram Factory was an alternative theatre that operated in Carlton through the 1970s. It was the home of the Australian Performing Group (APG), an experimental ensemble that sprouted from La Mama Theatre before setting up shop at The Pram in 1970.

Originally published in Farrago Edition Two (2022). 

 

“And so here was the lure of this magical place called Carlton, which became an obvious mecca. We [the Australian Performing Group] developed into a fierce community with our most abiding notion [being] that we could create things that were really important and do it out of ourselves and out of the way that we spoke, out of the way we moved and walked, and out of the folk memories that we all carry.”

-Graeme Blundell

It’s been 42 years since the demise of the Pram Factory. Still, the legacy of that shambolic factory-turned-warehouse-turned-theatre continues to loom large in Carlton's history and Australian culture. 

The Pram Factory was an alternative theatre that operated in Carlton through the 1970s. It was the home of the Australian Performing Group (APG), an experimental ensemble that sprouted from La Mama Theatre before setting up shop at The Pram in 1970. It came to be the heart of Melbourne bohemia, kickstarting the careers of countercultural icons like Helen Garner and David Williamson. 

But, before all this, the Pram Factory was, well, a pram factory—or it was during the 1920s at least, as declared by a sign on the building’s turret. Before that, it was a stable. Beyond that, the building’s history is shrouded in mystery. “It might have been a boxing ring, a place for cocaine traffickers, a pram factory itself, a place where the Melbourne Theatre Company stored old sets and old ideas,” says The Pram’s administrator John Timlin. 

It is no coincidence that The Pram’s inception occurred around the same time as the 1972 electoral victory of Gough Whitlam. Whitlam represented a turning point in Australian culture, a transition out of the aristocratic Anglophilia of the Menzies era and into a contemporary popular culture that was actually Australian. “The national pride that Whitlam had encouraged meant that we could suddenly be proud of ourselves as Australians,” says Red Symons, Skyhooks guitarist and Pram music director.

This newfound sense of national identity spurred The Pram’s commitment to local Australian content. Unlike the ‘high art’ theatres that had previously dominated the cultural landscape, they staged plays that reflected everyday Australian life. The characters spoke like Australians, throwing around slang and swears. They behaved like Australians, living out everyday values of mateship and ockerness. And, of course, they also drank like Australians.

The Pram was the home of classic Australian plays like Don’s Party and Dimboola—and, perhaps with the exception of La Mama; it was the only place that could even serve as a home for them. Other theatres were just not up to staging plays as chaotically Australian. 

One of The Pram’s defining qualities was its democratic, egalitarian spirit and the unique sense of community this cultivated amongst The Pram’s regulars. Although Timlin was the one responsible for the theatre’s lease and business arrangements, most of the decision-making at the Pram took place at the regular APG meetings. There were no real bosses, and everyone had a say in how things were run. But this is not to say that The Pram manifested some utopian socialist ideal either.

“The collective was a cooperative organisation in principle, but it was a shit-fight in practice,” says APG Member and Pram Historian Tim Robertson. Meetings would go on for hours and often included debates over mundane quibbles. There was always lots of wine and weed available, often leading the meetings down strange, drunken paths. Unfortunately, deep-rooted prejudices also reared their ugly heads during meetings, and it was usually opinionated men who dominated conversations, even in spite of the APG’s supposed commitment to progressive values.

Outside of the meetings, APG members spent their time in The Pram towers. Many members lived there, and the towers became known as hubs of free love and solidarity.

The meetings and communal towers exemplify what made The Pram so iconic: the fact that, among all the chaos, there was a genuine sense of human connection holding the whole theatre together. 

This human connection was incredibly important for the social outcasts that frequented The Pram. The theatre was known for attracting the downtrodden and the disreputable. APG member Richard Murphett speaks of performers bringing an “edge of desperation” to performances because “they weren’t actors trying to act desperate, they were people who were desperate performing”.

“There always was a criminal element involved [in the collective],” says Bob Daley, another APG member. Many had ties to anarchist and abolitionist movements The Pram—at one point, some escaped convicts even called The Pram home.

The Pram’s openness led to it becoming the designated place in Carlton to whack up on heroin. Daley tells a darkly amusing tale of how heroin use was so rampant that at one point, the toilets became clogged with burnt teaspoons, resulting in a decision to drill holes in the spoons to cut down on usage. Although drug use such as this was far from normalised and accepted among The Pram regulars, its presence speaks to the APG’s willingness to extend their promise of community to all, even those shunned by mainstream society.

Unfortunately, human connection alone was insufficient to hold The Pram together forever. After the dismissal of Gough Whitlam, The Pram’s vision of Australia and its vision for itself started to fracture. A split arose between those who wanted to keep staging Australian plays versus those who wanted to branch out into overseas plays. The rift culminated in the late 70s with a decision to hand control of The Pram over to a new generation of creatives to keep things fresh.

But this also didn’t last. In 1980, The Pram was sold off to developers. The Pram responded in a typical fashion: protesting and piss-taking. In its final days, one APG member dressed as the Pope to stage a mock auction; for sale were the “spirits and rats and ghosts” of The Pram.

The Pram was torn down, and instead, the Lygon Street Mall that we all know today stands in its place.

The Pram occupies a unique position in Australian history. In many ways, its biography encapsulates the zeitgeist of the Whitlamite era. The Pram symbolised an alternative and progressive vision of Australia that, although dirty and disenchanting, was a genuine representation of the Australian underclass in all its flawed glory. “Before the Pram, there was no Australian culture that was a popular culture,” says APG Playwright Phil Motherwell.

For me, the demolition of The Pram echoes the dismissal of the Whitlam government. For a fleeting moment, two revolutionary institutions gave us a glimpse of an Australia that could be different—that could be creative, egalitarian and truly rebellious—but which was defeated by the inevitable return of our conservative status quo. 

The Pram’s been on my mind recently because Carlton is faced now with the loss of another historic institution: the Curtin Hotel. Another local building that embodied Melbourne culture, sold to developers after the pandemic, left it incapable of survival.  Of course, Carlton should not remain frozen in time, an exact replica of an imagined heyday. Yet, I am still forced to mourn the loss of the Curtin—I know from The Pram that it’s more than just a building that’ll be gone.

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Five 2022

EDITION SIX 'RETROFUTURISM' AVAILABLE NOW!

Our last print edition of 2022 is here! This wild, visionary edition is filled with burning nostalgia, glittering hope, and tantalising visions of the future, past, and present.

Read online