Australian Biography: Hayes Gordon
Hayes Gordon was born in 1920 in Boston, USA. He moved to Australia in 1952, performing lead roles in the shows Kismet and Annie Get Your Gun. In 1958 he founded the Ensemble Theatre at Milsons Point. It became a theatrical landmark in Sydney and was responsible for many innovative and challenging productions. After his association with the Ensemble, he played Tevye in two productions of the highly successful Fiddler on the Roof, which was to become the most celebrated role of his Australian career.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
As long as you don't ask why.
I was born in Boston in 1920 in the middle of winter and I lived in Boston until I was old enough to escape. I was 21 and went to New York where I grew up. Is that succinct enough?
Well, we can go back now to your childhood and perhaps you could tell us a bit about your family ... and the family that you were born into on that winter night, and the events of that night when you were born?
Well, I was too young to remember the actual event but I was told that there was a snow storm ahead ... and in Boston the snow storm can be very high, especially, especially higher if nobody goes around clearing up the snow, which they don't do very much in the slums. So the ambulance came to pick up my mother, she being a heavy little lady, had to be carried on a stretcher by, I think, probably three people, maybe even more, but they had to carry her overhead for about three blocks before they could get to the ambulance. So I became a load to bear even at the very beginning. , I was the fourth child, the fourth male child of the family — unfortunately the other three were stillborn and I was the fourth. So you can imagine the caution that my parents tended upon me.
No, no, I became the classic only child but fortunately my parents weren't that cloying as I've seen in other parents be with only children. They were good people, very nice people, except they couldn't get along between themselves and the family broke up. They broke up when I was about nine or 10 I suppose and ...
Oh yes, oh yes, well a good prelude to breaking up is to argue, to justify the breaking up, and I was given ... I had to live with my mother, she got custody of me, but I saw a good deal of my father because he was only living right ‘round the block and I spent more time away from home than actually in home. So I think my formative influences, or whatever they may have been influences, were actually a result of affiliating with what's called the ‘settlement house.’ It was Elizabeth Peabody House around the corner and the cops obviously had gone to these people and said 'get these kids off the street, we put them all on probation' so the Peabody House found pretexts for breaking up the little gangs.
I became involved with Peabody House in what they formed as a science department and I was quite fascinated with chemistry so, one thing led to another, and I became a precocious brat in the science department. I think the social workers of the Peabody House decided, let's give him some responsibility, to keep his energies in check. So they had me teaching other kids various classes. They'd say we are going to have a leather craft class next week, we are going to have metal class next week, metal craft, we are going to be having something in physics — you are going to be taking the class. So between this week and next I had to go through the literature, I ask somebody what it was all about, and stay one tiny little jump ahead of the rest of them. So that way I acquired a sort of a smattering of a pretty wide range of things and, as I say, that kept me busy enough so that I didn't have to spend much time at home.
Yes, yes, somehow or other I found myself in what was called project work — I became involved with projects. The best way of coming to terms with some expert subject, was something hands-on, and especially if you engage in a project to build a typical ... whatever it is ... a printing press, a model of a sulphur mine or something, in the doing of it you discover all sorts of interesting principles and I became involved in that with a vengeance. I liked doing things with my hands, putting things together and I became a bit of a specialist at it so that actually by the time I was about 15 or 16 I was teaching projects, the subject topic projects, to trainee teachers from Harvard, sometimes from Boston University, which was a bit of a gag. Here are these well-educated people being subjected to a high school kid, but that came in very handy; I rather enjoyed teaching.
Exactly so, to the extent where ... when Louis Agassiz Shaw, who was a very wealthy guy, decided he was going to do his thesis in education at Harvard on the question — do exceptional children have to be mal-adjusted? — he prepared a seven-year project during which time he would set up summer schools, there would be a summer school for boys and another for girls. And he'd have the same youngsters coming back year after year after year. But he'd pick the youngsters as being exceptional. Now ‘exceptional’ there is not the same word that we have here, exceptional here very frequently means disadvantaged kids, exceptional there was so-called geniuses. So he plucked geniuses from all over Boston from various backgrounds, various families, various advantages and disadvantages; the one thing they shared in common was their IQ had to be exceptionally high. Except, I digress here on the case of one kid whose IQ, Stanford Binet IQ, was about 85, however he could sculpt. And his sculpture was compared to Malvina Hoffman's of the time. He was a savant, an idiot savant, but the other kids ... well the idiot of the rest of the group was a 135-136 and the smart-ass kid was a 191, who was a specialist on insects by the way. There are stories to tell about what these kids could do. Anyway, I became involved with this project.
As a teacher. The headmaster of this unit was Allison Grant [sp?] and his wife, who was his assistant. He was headmaster of Cambridge Law School, a brilliant, brilliant educator, brilliant. And they had a Polish PhD, Ed Zavatski [sp?]. I say Polish because he was a count and he always used to refer to his heritage, and then they had me, a 17-year-old, and my job was to teach them project work. And the project work was the nucleus of everything they did, for example, they decided one year we were going to provide the dormitories with power. Now how are we going to generate power? Well, let's have a water wheel and in the making of the water wheel they had to involve themselves in physics, in purchasing therefore arithmetic, mathematics. In civics they established a little community around the fact that they could provide themselves with power they ran themselves, they ran their own government, they did all sorts of peripheral studies. All of the sorts of things they might get at school but this time attached to what seemed to be a working project. And so they built their power supply and charged their batteries and lit their dormitories. And the kids progressed year after year, we observed them and reported how exceptional they were progressing, how exceptionally, and whether they had particular hang-ups as exceptional children or whatever. We had nightly reports on them and I learned an awful lot from my seniors.
They started at eight and went on year after year through 14 ... up to 14, 15.
Well, I was doing my formal education. I ... I was going, I went through high school as an average pupil. Then went on to tertiary education. Now there was a choice. I could have had a one-year sponsored scholarship at Harvard. I could have gone to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and have to pay my way. No, I beg your pardon, that was a working fellowship or I could have gone to Mass. College of Pharmacy, which was a four year course with a Bachelor of Science at the end of it, and one that I could afford because money I had earned at the settlement house could be used to pay my tuition there.
So I chose that one because they had the most wonderful biochemist teaching biochemistry, and that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to get involved in biochemistry so I went to Mass. College of Pharmacy, graduated and, not only got my degree, I also took my exam as a pharmacist and therefore I had a backstop. I could do something in case I couldn't do the other. Which came in very handy, by the way. I got my formal education that way. I wasn't the classic student because most of ... I never turned in assignments by the way because I was always busy working at the settlement house but I did manage to get through, and afterwards went to work as a chemist in New York, in a major foods company as a control chemist working with organic things, which ultimately I hoped would lead to biochemistry, but that was not to be a permanent operation.
Before we get you to New York ... and looking at that period of your growing up in Boston ... even though you said that it was your real education began in New York ... but that period in Boston as you grew up ... who out of that time would you say was the most important influence on your life?
Oh there were a number of them. There were a number of them. Bob de Lany, who not only taught acting and was in charge of the theatre, he was the director of the theatre. The Peabody House had a little theatre company, it was called The Peabody Players, and I worked with them as part of putting in my hours to earn the support, as it were.
I acted, stage-managed, worked backstage, built scenery, you know, we were ... he was a very strong influence I think. Alice McIntyre, who was in charge of the settlement house, she was a social worker. One of the warmest, most intelligent people I have ever known. Two of my singing teachers because they grabbed me and said, you know, this kid has got something of a voice, let's do something with him. One was Fay Dicks, who then passed me onto her teacher Ruth Streeter, who was an enormous influence in my life. She not only insisted that I study voice, she gave me the things, gave me the classes for nothing, and when she knew I was going to New York she arranged for me to study with her teacher, also on scholarship. I never had a chance to pay, well I didn't have money with which to pay. But she provided me not only with a very sound education but an awful lot of understanding of people and put me under a hell of a rotten obligation, because one day when I started making money in New York, I said, ‘now what can I pay you for all the time you've put in?’ She said, ‘nothing, pass it on’ ... [laughs] ... ‘What, what do I do? Do I have to do for other people what you did for me?’ She said, ‘pass it on, don't worry about giving it back.’ So she placed an obligation on me to keep an eye on other people to do the same sort of thing.
I think so, I think so.
Well, it was pretty much a matter of survival, we did whatever was necessary to survive, because when the family broke up my father was an invalid and my mother was invalid too. It was a case of what do we do to keep going, so we tried various things including setting up a little shop in a lower ground store ... what was it called ... We called it a candy shop, it was sort of a general store that sold everything. Groceries, lollies, made our own sherbet and from which we bootlegged ... [laughs] ...
Yes it was, and then this was when Joe Kennedy came into his own with the Kennedy clan and co.
Yeah, yes, we'd get a delivery of, I suppose, 85 percent alcohol each week in a gallon tin and then we'd cut it with water and put it in flat little bottles and I'd be the one to distribute them, and my mother and father weren't getting along too well at the time. My mother was ... well she could hardly ever complete a sentence without some sort of crack about my father. So he very frequently retaliated in kind and on this occasion he put us in to the cops. So we were raided — my mother was put on probation and I was given a warning. So that was one money-making effort that didn't happen.
Where did the money come from?
Continuity, continuity. Where did the money come from for all this?
Mostly welfare, I mean, until my father got cancer when I was about eight we were pretty secure because he was a house painter and he worked on contract with various companies but after that, once he got crook, we were on the dole or the equivalent of the dole, and especially when we broke up we were depending on both welfare contributions and what I made at the settlement house, so I had to make enough at the settlement house to support my mother and pay the tuition. Now my father got himself a small political job, jobs for the boys sort of thing, so he managed to get along well enough to pay the small needs, to take care of our small needs. But other than that it was always a very close, tight budget.
Oh yes, Oh yes. It wouldn't have been so bad if the kids at school hadn't set me up about it, but quite frequently on two days a week sometimes I'd be standing in the queue and ...
Yeah, 'cause sometimes my parents ... my mother couldn't stand in the line, so I'd, I'd pick it up. I'd wait in the queue and my schoolmates would go by and send me up there and then when I got to school, sometimes late, I copped it from them again, but the funny thing was that I was in the queue with their parents very frequently. Their mother or father was in the line with me, but it wasn't very pride-making to think that somebody else was having to take care of you.
We are talking about the Depression years. We are talking about from 1930 on I think.
Yes, it was a tenement area, not as bad as Harlem, but I suppose equivalent to Redfern in Sydney. It was a borderline slum area in many ways, but fortunately we were surrounded by parks, there were parks were we could go and have our gang fights. There were beaches if you had time to go to the beach, probably an hour's walk from where we were. The school was an hour's walk as well, so we had access to other things. But the actual community itself was not very affluent.
Well, not far away, perhaps a five or 10 minute walk from where we were, was the other side of the bridge, or the other side of the tracks as it were. Beacon Hill, one of the most affluent places in all of the United States. The differentiation, the delineation between haves and have nots was very, very strong there. One could see where the lower class resided and that was us. And then right beside us was the upper, upper class, and then there were all sorts of shades in between, and very frequently in districts surrounding the West End. Mine was the West End, incidentally, I lived virtually beside the Mass, General Hospital and from my door I could see what was called the Ether Dome. The Ether Dome was where ether was first used, the first general anaesthetic. I could see the Ether Dome up there and if we had to go to the hospital ... we couldn't go to that hospital, we had to go the city hospital which was about an hour away.
Because you had to pay to go that hospital. So we had to go to the other hospital. We went to clinics and things of that sort. I mean this sounds terribly like hearts and flowers but, you know, when you are living through it, it's normal sort of, doesn't everybody?
They tended to stick together. They were of all backgrounds, all nationalities, all religions and they stuck together pretty well. It was like what [Noel] Coward ... take my, Coward's, hand, sort of thing.
... [laughs] ... Yes, the ultimate hypocrisy. The straighter the lace, the doubler the standard. It was a place that professed great liberalism, great thought, great analysis and yet every year the Watch and Ward Society had collected books that they burnt in a bonfire in Boston Common. Every year there was a book burning. We had some of the bawdiest burlesque houses on the east coast. We had some of the most corrupt politicians you'd ever want to know. The governor of the state was thrown into federal penitentiary for fraud of some kind, probably mail fraud, and he continued governing from the federal penitentiary. The settlement house had a lot to contend with, we saw very frequently the things behind the things. My father was a good case in point. He became what was known as a constable — he's a fellow that goes around serving writs or having people kicked out of their homes for non-payment of rent or something. And he got that because he was a ward healer, he was the one who drummed up votes for a political party. The ... the leader of the grey eminence behind this particular party was a fellow by the name of John I Fitzgerald. I wonder if the name rings a bell? Rose Fitzgerald was Mrs Kennedy and John F Kennedy, the F is Fitzgerald, he was the political boss of the area and my father became one of his flunkies and went around drumming up votes. So as a pay-off he was given this job, my father being semi-invalid very frequently and if I had time I'd go with him to serve the writ or help write out the returns on it. I ... this day something or other submitted, I forget what it was, but that was modus operandi, that was payola. That was the way people lived in that community.
A resentment of double-think, a resentment of hypocrisy. My father on one occasion when I was very young took me to a funeral of ... and I forget whether it was Sacco or Vincetti. These were two anarchists who had been framed in ... in a murder robbery. And they were duly executed. They were obviously innocent and it became a great cause celebre. But it was a political sort of thing, it was a diversion from the nasty politics that were going on, and he took me to the funeral of one of them, it was an Italian funeral and they marched around the street with a band and the coffin being carried and I was sitting on his shoulder and he said ... ... [interruption] ...
He sat me on his shoulder and as the coffin was going by he said, ‘see son, that's justice.’ Now of course ...
A number of things but one of the most notable, I think, was when my father took me to the funeral of either Sacco or Vincetti and I still don't remember which it was. These were two anarchists that were framed as murderers and robbers and they weren't, they were completely innocent — as the later evidence was exposed — and, as the coffin of one of them was being paraded around with the band playing and the slow march, up on my father's shoulder I heard my father say, ‘See son, that's justice.’ Now of course irony can be lost on a kid and it took a little while for me to understand exactly what he meant. But when the cookie did crumble ... [laughs] ... I began to wonder about, not the existence of laws, but the way they are carried out, and even for that matter how laws get to be laws and I suppose this was a very important impression that caused me to challenge. I ... you know when I teach now, I say to the kids who have come from schools where they are expected to sit and take in, take notes and be told, I say to them ‘accept nothing, nothing I say — don't believe a word, challenge everything and only after you have proved to your own satisfaction that it seems to work, then you may want to take it on board, but don't believe a thing.’ I suppose it is a sort of a sceptic philosophy but it is pretty deeply ingrained.
Now Peabody House offered you both experience in science and in theatre and singing. So it was a very rounded kind of exposure you had, and yet in terms of thinking about a vocation you chose the science. Why was that?
Well, the truth of it is, I think I developed a kind of a Messianic complex. I wanted to save the world, this goes with every adolescent, doesn't everybody want to make sure that there's never going to be any poverty and that everybody is going to be well off, and peace on earth and quality of life and that sort of thing? Well obviously, I suppose the confluence of all these things I've been telling you about suggested to me one doesn't like illness, one doesn't like poverty and one doesn't like hunger, and there are people who are hungry. We'd heard about such things as a shipload of oranges being sent to Europe, but because the price was not right the oranges were thrown into the ocean, even though there was scurvy in Europe. I couldn't understand that, so I thought I would become a chemist and therefore cure every ill and make sure that everything grew properly and life would be beautiful.
Yes, I thought that science could do it. It was only after I got into the nature foods factory, which after all was there to promote health, I discovered cynical practices which were very off-putting, very disillusioning and I stormed out of the factory saying something like, ‘the ills of the world are not soluble in chemicals.’ Afterwards I realised what a pompous thing it was, off the top of the head. I left the sciences when I quit.
Yes. It meant a lot of things. It meant, obviously, I wasn't on the spot to keep an eye on my mother who I say was not that self-sufficient, and my father seemed to be fairly capable but I still worried about him. It also meant that I was embarking on an adventure which now pinned me down to justifying my education and a course of activity. It also meant that whatever money I was going to make really had to be sent home, so we had to ... ‘me’ in New York it became a 'we' fairly shortly ... in New York I had to pretty much survive on very little, so the money I earned at the nature foods company, most of it went home and I developed a rather resourceful technique of analysis. When samples came in most chemists would take a great big sample, and dissolve things and break it down and throw the rest of it away. I developed a technique of micro-analysis. I'd take a little bit of a nature food, of the synthetic cereal, or synthetic milk, or synthetic coffee, or synthetic whatever.
These were the nature foods and I would analyse a small segment of it and I'd take the rest of it home and my room-mate and I would live off these things. Once a week we afforded ourselves a steak, but beyond that we were eating nature foods. And when that ran out we ate peanut brittle which was a very nutritious lolly, but most of the money had to go back home. So, I can't say it was a great expansive adventure in New York, it was ... another challenge.
I got myself a job ... [interruption] ...
No, as a matter of fact, the only thing that I was committed to in New York was [that] as I was on a singing scholarship at the time, I didn't want to break that off very easily. I thought about going back to Boston, perish the thought. But I knew I could work in the pharmacies down there because after all I was a pharmacist now, so I worked in pharmacies and ultimately got to the point where I was managing one of the pharmacies in Pennsylvania Station, one of the Penn. drug company things, and I got out of that rather quickly because of an accident. The accident was ... a fellow came in asking for some help for an impending laryngitis. He said that he had an audition and was there anything I could do to help him? I said, ‘well, I can give you something that will tide you through the audition but you will lose your voice after that, probably for a week.’ He said, ‘I don't care I am desperate for the job.’ So I gave him some local anaesthetic lozenges and time passed and I was about to go off duty when he came back again. He said, ‘thanks, Doc, that was great.’ I said ‘see, you lost your voice.’ He said, ‘I know, that's alright, that's okay. I lost my voice now but I sang beautifully.’ I said, ‘you got the job?’ He said ‘no, no, no, see I am a tenor and they were looking for a bass baritone.’ I said, ‘I am a bass baritone.’ He said, ‘why don't you go down and audition for it?’ So I did and I left pharmacy, left chemistry, left all the worthy things behind, you know, save the world no more, get in on the stage and went into show business.
I am not sure, I think I did the only thing. At least it gave me time to get my head together, but once I got ... once I could see what audiences were doing and how they were affected by show business, how much more they were persuaded ... you see the problem with the nature foods company was, we had the technologies but we didn't have the attitudes to go with them, they were being abused. I thought, let's get to the root, let’s get to the basis ... what is it with people. Well, they could have the greatest technology in the world but if their heart isn't in it or they are not willing or they don't want to do it, then the greatest chemical development in the world means nothing. And what I discovered with show business was that we were changing people's attitudes. They'd come in feeling morose and we'd send them out feeling cheerful. They'd come in believing one thing and we'd send them out believing something else. So I said this is where you really have to start if you want to change the world. So I justified it by staying in show business that way.
Yes, yes ...
Yes, that's a good way of putting it. That's quite right.
Well, it was a stock company out at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, just about a half hour from New York, and they were experimenting. They had taken over an old paper mill and they thought they'd run for a few weeks. I think it was expected to run, oh I am only guessing, probably 18 to 20 weeks, and they found that the experiment took. The audiences were coming and they were able to do fortnightly musical rep ... and the thing ran on for 32 weeks, it ran on for the entire year, and it served as a good launching pad for a lot of people because the Broadway people come to stock companies, talent scouting and so forth, and I started out in the chorus and they gave me things to do fairly shortly after that and I was seen by Oscar Hammerstein who was looking for a villain. Now even though I was 21, I always disguised myself as something older and more sinister. I don't know why more sinister, I'll have to work that out. But I think he thought that there was a likely candidate for the sinister character he needed. So he sent for me and I walked in the office and he said, ‘you're young!’ I said, ‘yes.’ He said, ‘well, um look, we really need somebody older and anyway more experienced but read,’ and I read. He said, ‘well, we do need somebody more experienced but would you like to understudy?’ Would I like to understudy for the great Oscar Hammerstein! Sure. So I went into this show that everybody predicted would be a failure and it changed the nature of musical theatre. It was Oklahoma! — it was called The Way We Go — at the time and much ... oh it's an adventure story on its own.
Judd, yeah, yeah, never had a chance to go on because Howard Da Silva was so healthy ... [laughs] ... but still ...
Oh yes, yes, look ... when you're curious, when you have a curious mind, you can't help but walk across the street and learn something, and here I was with the 'greats' of theatre — Rouben Mamoulian, you know, who could be a greater director than that, directing the thing, and Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers' music, and the theatre guild behind it, Celeste Holm and Alfred Drake, and people of this ilk feeling their way and sharing ideas and picking each other's brains, working together and harmonising. It was like suddenly seeing things around you by flashes of lightning, to coin the cliche. It was illuminating.
Oh yeah. Yes ... not in Oklahoma! No. Immediately after Oklahoma! I went into the army after all. For a while I was being kept out of the army because of my classification, I had flat feet and also I was supporting my mother, but I went in, I went into the air force.
No, no, I was dragged in. I didn't want to go. See, had the war occurred years and years before, I might have been eager to go because years before I had heard of things happening in Europe that didn't sound very nice.
In, I think, September of 1943. , the army joined me, I didn't want to go, I was dragged ... [laughs] .... I was thinking that if our part of the war had started years before, I think I might have been eager to go in, but by now me, with my sceptical, cynical mind, wondered whether this was the war I wanted to risk my life in, so I wasn't sure. Strangely enough, when I did get in the army I found myself in propaganda ... even before I left Oklahoma! I was kind of earmarked for a project which was going to be launched by the air force called Winged Victory. Moss Hart had written Winged Victory and was going to direct it and the stage manager of Oklahoma! was also going to be the stage manager of Winged Victory. So he went on first and told Moss, here's a kid who might be useful on the show. I went into basic training and I never completed my basic training, I was getting taught to come and audition for Winged Victory, and I got the thing and I had a little part in it. There were 300 people, everyone had a little part except Edmond O'Brien and Lee J Cobb and Karl Malden and a few of the others. But I found myself playing right next door to where I had just left. I'd left St James Theatre and here we were at the 44th Street Theatre ... so what we were doing with the show was really propaganda. We were propagandising the public to get behind the war effort. We were also propagandising the government to allow General Arnold to have an Army Air Force instead of the Army Air Corps. In other words, to divide the services, and we learned techniques of being able to bend people's minds, all the more, which is where I came into show business in the first place.
To put it politely.
I felt like a prostitute. I felt that this was the thing that had to be done at this particular time and because, you know, for better or for worse, we had to get together and I think as part of a reaction to that feeling I approached Moss Hart to see if we couldn't use the people who got together to establish a sort of a training program, an in-company training program. Because the air force expected us to know about map reading and shooting and all that goes with being in the air force, but I wondered perhaps if this collection of people couldn't be used for sharing our information. After all we have the greatest lighting man in the country, the greatest scenic designer, the greatest musicians and conductors. David Rose was conducting the orchestra. We had the greatest arrangers, it was sort of the Noah's Ark of show business, in fact it used to be called Moss's Ark. I said, why don't we pick each other's brains, why don't we set up a program where we can learn from each other and then when the show breaks up we go our various ways and do things at various army camps. Based on rounding out our experiences. And he agreed and we set up a program where, David Rose did teach music and Earl Rogers did teach choreography and Louis Hippe taught make-up and the cream of everybody taught each other and I set up the lecture program. Moss Hart taught directing, Lillian Hellman taught playwriting ... one of our guest lecturers was Fredric March on acting, you know, we had whoever was around to come and contribute to .. preparing us for what happens after the show breaks up.
Probably is. It probably is part of the Messianic thing, you know.
Oh sure, sure, yes I think I was bitten early by a fellow by the name of Sir Norman Angell — a number of books and things have been rather influential I think. But Sir Norman Angell wrote a book called Let The People Know, the premise being that with informed backgrounds people can make their own judgements, they have a better chance of choosing wisely, and I think it was important for me to be able to think that if people had the wealth of information available to them, that whatever decisions they had to make would be based on sound footing. So if there was any problem arising I very frequently would say, yeah, but what's the root of it what's the basis of it? I get down to the origin of it and to a large extent I think this was the educational bug that still remains. I still believe that an informed society can be much more compassionate, it's a safer place to live.
Well I was kicked out of Winged Victory.
Mutiny, that's what they said. No I did ... I stuck my neck out on behalf of a fellow who wasn't there to defend himself. He was the only black man in the company and he was, he was, kicked out because he defied orders. He marched with the troops when we got to Hollywood ... he had been forbidden to march with the troops because the troops were all white and he was the only black man there. So he marched anyway through the streets when we arrived in Hollywood, in LA. And shortly after that he was kicked out, and then a little kerfuffle started around his eviction and I became involved in it. So, having done my little protest or whatever, I was regarded as non-desirable and I got my transfer as well. So I went on to army bases: in one place I was a buck private or a PFC [Private First Class] by that time, in charge of the officers' club or handling special services at one other place where I provided recreation, entertainment for the troops and at the same time was given the orientation classes to take. Every fortnight or month, I forget, we'd get a circular, an army talk, which was the topic for discussion. It could be anything from how to avoid getting syphilis to how to keep your rifle clean, or some ridiculous proposition that I had to lead as a discussion, sort of thing. So these were the things that I found myself doing.
Well, it's a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. The ... I don't think the people who put me in charge of information, education and special services bothered to look at my record other than 'here is a guy that has been in show business, let's use him.’ It was after they sent me to special services school at Washington University in Virginia that I came back with good marks and they decided, ‘Hey, would you like to go to Intelligence school?’ I said, ‘Me? Intelligence? I hate spies but let's have fun.’ So they went in to get my records and this time they had a good look at them ... [laughs] ... The ... it was a lieutenant that came back pale, he said, ‘My God, what have we done? On your record is a little notation which says, “not to be placed in any position where he can influence the opinions of others.”’ So I didn't go to Intelligence school.
I am a stirrer, I admit it. I love stirring, of course. But then if you don't, people become complacent and they accept anything that is handed to them. It's like I said with the students, if I am an authority figure, if I am a teacher and I make some sort of pronouncement, people are going to take it literally, build a doctrine around it and that's how cults form. I think people who make up their own minds, who judge on the basis of whatever information is available, are the safe people to live with. I think this is something that makes people civilised and I can't say I'm being dedicated or altruistic about it, I am being very selfish about it. I don't want to live in a turbulent community. You know I love the quality of life, I don't want to feel that there are have-nots next door who are desperate, who are going to break my windows. So common-sense dictates that everybody lives companionably with each other, that's the meaning of civilisation, based on the word civic, meaning city. The ability to live in a city, live cheek by jaw with somebody in peace. And I like peace, so I suppose just to feather my own nest I think it's important to ensure people around you are not going to be in need or whatever.
Well, they just quietly gave me back my job putting on shows for them and still handling information and education.
No, I think I was more on the receiving end of stirring because so many of the people I then began to deal with were people who ... were troops that came back. You see, before then, I was more in the position of saying, ‘get in there and fight, this is what you are fighting for, the right to eat strawberries and cream, the right to defend your women-folk from being raped,’ you know, we in the United States being threatened by that sort of thing, but after that, after, well later in the piece, I was dealing with troops that had come back from combat, and they were the ones who'd taught me ... one batch of troops I recall had come back from Europe and they were complaining about the fact that they hadn't had a chance to bomb the Krupp factories, and the excuse being that there was so much slave labour in the Krupp factories, and yet they bombed other factories, they bombed other places where there was slave labour and they couldn't quite understand it. Then one of them produced a cutting from a New York Times which said, 'The banks of England, the banks of America, the bank of Germany, the bank of Italy, etc, have all met in Switzerland to declare their annual dividends.' I said, how do you reconcile this? I couldn't, I didn't have any answers, but I got a little wiser from having dealt with them I suppose.
Yes, yeah, yes, unfortunately it cost a brilliant man his job, but you know we had been in the war for about almost four years and what it was that we were fighting for had never really been defined. We were fighting the enemy, we were fighting the nasties but what made them nasty, who were they? When I got to the school, the special service school, the fellow in charge of the school whose name was Colonel Herzberg — I'll never forget him — gave a lecture on fascism. For the first time I heard the definition of fascism and it was illuminating and then I knew that he was the one who circularised the army talks, and afterwards I said to him, ‘why isn't this in one of the army talks, because the troops think they are fighting for the right to eat blueberries when they want them?’ He said ‘ well, um ... um ...,’ anyway a couple of months after I got back to base, lo and behold, his lecture was there, ‘Army Talk 64.’ and the usual army talks were single folder sheets, four pages. This one was eight pages and it really went into chapter and verse defining fascism, defining the politics behind it, the economics behind it, the genesis behind it; the whole thing was the most illuminating political science lecture I'd ever seen. So I got onto the troops with this one, of course, and felt proud that I felt that I had stirred Herzberg to do it — except government, the Congress, erupted. People got up in Congress and said, ‘why, according to this here definition, some of us gentlemen could be considered fascist,’ and somebody else would say, ‘well if the shoe fits’ and then it would be on for young and old, something that parliament that is Congress rarely does you know. Listening to Australian parliament it's, it's ...
But Congress doesn't, they're very gentlemanly in Congress, but this really created a ruckus, and the consequence was that Herzberg was relieved of his position and sent somewhere to a safe post in Europe where probably he couldn't have influenced the opinions of others either, but I was rather proud of that.
Well, immediately after the war, well when I was discharged, I came back to Broadway and went up to Hammerstein's office and he said, ‘Oh, what a pity, if you'd been here just a few days ago because we've cast everything.’ ‘Even the chorus?’ ‘Well there is one thing, there's a bit part in it, which means the chorus, but also a bit player but that's not cast, would you want to do that?’ I said, ‘I'd love to do it.’ He says, ‘unfortunately we have to have Jerry (this is Jerome Kern) look at everybody, approve everybody.’ I said, ‘well is it possible?’ and he said, ‘I'll get Jerry down tomorrow morning, he'll be at the theatre, at the Ziegfeld at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning, and I'll ask Jerry if he'll come over and have a look.’ He says, ‘I think it'll be all right.’ So I was down Ziegfeld at 10 o'clock the following morning and I waited, and I waited and 11 o'clock came and no Jerry. The accompanist was there, no Jerry.
About 11:15, Hammerstein came in pretty breathless and he said, ‘they found Jerry in Park Ave, he had a heart attack — he'd decided to walk across town — he had a heart attack, they've taken him off to hospital, we don't know if he'll live.’ So of course, how would I feel, you know he came down expressly to audition me, anyway he died shortly after that, and Jerome Kern had come back to Broadway because Hammerstein wanted to do a production of Annie Get Your Gun and he thought Jerome Kern would be the one to compose it, compose the music for it. Well, with Jerome Kern dead, who was going to compose the music? So they went and got Irving Berlin instead.
And for years afterwards I was told, ‘you bastard, if it hadn't been for you, we would have had a score by Jerome Kern, instead of Berlin. These silly things happen, but I got back into show business. During rehearsals, incidentally, my father died — he had a stroke up in Boston, I went up to see him. In those days in Boston if you had a stroke there was no special, specialised hospital where one could put you. They put him into the mental institution along with psychos and that's where I saw him last and he died. I came back to New York, I remember Hammerstein asking ‘how's your father?’ and I said ‘oh he died,’ and Hammerstein couldn't quite understand how I'd taken it with so much equanimity. I think he did understand in the long run because he knows that when one copes one puts on a cover, one even makes a joke of things, but that was pretty heavy-going.
We played Show Boat for a year at the Ziegfeld Theatre during which time I'd heard that another show was going to be done, which might have been suitable for me. Auditioned for that, Brigadoon — the stage manager of Show Boat was a fellow who's now a very close friend, Bill Hammerstein, and Bill said there's a show coming up. We went out for coffee and hamburgers after the show, he said, ‘I'll tell you what, there's a show coming up you might be interested in, this Alan Lerner fellow occasionally has gone over to see dad to get some ideas for a script that he is writing, and it sounds interesting, it's a sort of a fantasy. You might like to go for that.’ So I as soon as I heard that Brigadoon was auditioning I ran down real quick and got into the show and found myself understudying the lead this time. And then when the lead went off I took over for a little while and in time went out on the road with the show for about a year. But before, between leaving Brigadoon on Broadway and going out on the road with it, I also did a few other shows, Sleepy Hollow, Small Wonder, Along Fifth Avenue. where now I was no longer understudying anybody, just somebody in my own right. My first star billing actually was in Sleepy Hollow. What a feeling that was to see your name up on the board there. Wow.
Careful, none of your business, except to say that yes, when I was at Paper Mill, I became engaged to one of the girls who was there. We married shortly after Oklahoma! opened and we had one daughter. I don't think Katrina [his wife then] would mind me telling you this aspect of it. In Winged Victory we were all on army pay and here we were living in New York, I'm going back now. And they thought it would be a good idea to augment the salaries a little bit, if there were any wives or husbands around, to have the wives join the Winged Victory company. So there was one part of it where the WACS [Women’s Army Corps] walked across stage and around that time there was a kerfuffle about WACS becoming pregnant and being kicked out of the army and so forth. Well, Katrina was one of the WACS who went across stage and about this time she was about four months gone, maybe five months, and when they went across stage of course the audience roared, so she had to be kicked out of the show. But my daughter was born in March of '44 and so consequently when I got out of the army, the family got back together again We broke up our arrangement, we are still good friends, but we broke up our marriage about '47, '48, I think. It was one of those things.
Yes, I still do, I mean I see her on the telephone every few weeks. But she lives in New Jersey, she's a social worker, and she came out here a few times. There was a This is Your Life production that my wife sneakily organised. Helen [Terry] is a great organiser and I didn't know it but Kati was transported out here temporarily, she and my grandson, and I saw them here for one of those rare times. I've seen her a few times since having left New York.
Back in New York and your show business career really happening for you, you had a little family to support during this time you broke up, what was happening to your political ideas? Because you ... that was a fairly strong aspect of your young life.
Yes, well first of all, reflexively, one can imagine that whatever political ideas I did have would rather challenge authorities. The prevailing glow after the war was, we had fought for something and now let's see this something happening, and a lot of the veterans would ... ... [interruption] ...
Well first, I suppose, I was pretty much in the spirit of post-war general feeling of idealism. I was part of the picture that said ‘now that we've fought the war let's see if we can't justify it,’ and I thought that now it was going to be a braver newer world. However, some reactionary forces were also rearing their heads then ... one act in the government wanted to pass a law, a Taft-Hartley law, containing unionism and things of this sort. So, whereas some of the veterans joined the usual veteran organisations, Bill Hammerstein and I helped put together, Bill Hammerstein, one other and myself, put together the theatre chapter of what was called the American Veterans Committee ... Colonel James Roosevelt, who was the president's son, decided he would form a veteran movement whose premise was citizens first, veterans second; in other words not claiming any special privileges, special pleadings for veterans, and we organised this theatre chapter and virtually every veteran who had worked on Broadway became a member. Garson Kanin, the works you know. And this fell apart partly because, strangely enough, the infiltration of some communist friends of mine that I'd invited to join, who shattered the organisation.
So I left that particular project but in the meantime I was regarded as somebody pretty suspect, particularly as I became involved in the — what would you call it now — the black movement, the African-American movement. I was quite concerned that, in those days the respectable word was, Negroes, weren't getting a fair go. For example in Show Boat, it was discovered that the black chorus wasn't getting the same salary as the white chorus and Hammerstein didn't know this, this was all arranged by his business people. So I became the spokesperson for my friends who were the black members and brought it to his attention. He nearly fired the business manager as a result of it, of course the salaries were restored and everything was sweet after that, but I incurred another enemy and this sort of thing would keep going I think ... [I] could keep my mouth shut, you know, but particularly with regards to the people who aren't getting a fair go. It wasn't the case of now assume responsibility for people like this, but just get off their backs and let them do their own thing.
So as a result of that, and a few other things I suppose, it was relatively easy when this scurrilous publication came out monthly — I think called Red Networks. I forget what it was called, but my name appeared on it, and the moment it did, suddenly I wasn't able to work, because up until then I had been going from show to show, I'd doubled, tripled, be doing a Broadway show at the same time I was working nightclubs, and doing television and going to classes of course. I was a very busy guy. Suddenly it all stopped in conjunction with my name being published and also at the same time I was doing a coast to coast one-hour broadcast. Al Goodman and His Orchestra and Eileen Farrell and myself were the singers called Music in the Air ... and Columbia, first of all it was an eight-week contract, and then Columbia Broadcasting decided they wanted to extend it so they ask me to sign a loyalty oath. And a loyalty oath is ... you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't, no matter what you say you can be pulled up on it and one of the things that was asked was ... not only have I ever been a member of any forbidden organisations — God knows, maybe the American Veterans Committee could be considered a forbidden organisation — but do I have any friends or do I know any communists? Damn right, I knew communists, one of them was trying to enrol me into the Communist Party, but I also knew fascists, among them incidentally a black fascist. So I wasn't prone to want to put my name down in any such thing. As a result, they said sorry, your contract terminates with the eight weeks. So even that disappeared for me, I found myself without work and to cut the dull details short, an offer came through from Australia, come out here and do Kiss Me Kate, so I grabbed it.
A little. I had been invited to come out to Australia sometime before. Hammerstein again suggested I come out and play Judd in the local production of Oklahoma!, but I was busy doing something else, so at that time I made a few enquiries about Australia and not only that but again, Bill, who had been in the navy and had been visiting various ports around here, was in the American Navy in the South Pacific, happened to mention that New Zealand ... beautiful place but it has no professional theatres. So he said, ‘why don't we buy a boat, load our respective families into it and sail across the Pacific and set up professional theatre in New Zealand?’ I did a little research about this part of the world so when I got the offer from Australia, I called Bill, who was at Paramount at the time. I said, ‘hey somebody else wants to pay the fare.’ He said, ‘well go have a look, you know, New Zealand is only this far on the map from Australia, hop across, have a look at New Zealand, if you still like it, maybe we'll still go there.’ I came to Australia — 17 years later, finally, I had a look to see what New Zealand was like ... but I had learnt a little bit about Australia including the fact that most of the population lived around the edge of it. It was a country as large as the United States and yet the centre of it was desert and my idea was, why, here we go again, you know, the Messianic character, ‘why isn't the centre used for raising crops, for cultivation, for making it fertile?’ ‘Oh there's no water, no water at all. Well there's water deep under, but otherwise there's nothing but hot sunlight.’ Idea. Back at the children's summer school remember I told you where we had projects, one of the other projects.
Yes, one of the projects the kids did was to build a solar power generator. We build the carpentry portion of it, built the frame with swivel brackets and they all went around to various shops getting broken mirrors. We cut the mirrors to size and mounted this enormous panel with little bits of mirror and all focused onto a single spot, they blackened a great big milk can and put a hook on it with a tube coming out. Focused the concentrator onto the can, boiled the water, steam came out, kicked over a little I think. I forget the kind of generator it was, a little dynamo through a rectifier into a battery, charged the battery and they were able to use this in, again, lighting their dormitory. Well if little kids can make a solar generator why couldn't an entire country?
So one of the first things I thought of was well maybe you could use all that sunlight to pump that water up from underneath onto the surface and make the land usable. So I was sure somebody had been doing this sort of thing and when I came to Australia one of the first questions I asked was ‘what are you doing about the sunlight, are you using it?’ ‘Oh no, no well, no not really’ but finally CSIRO, when I was in Melbourne, said ‘yes we've been working with sunlight, we've been doing sunlight concentration.’ I said ‘oh I would love to see what you have been doing,’ and I was taken up to the roof of the CSIRO building in Melbourne and there is a great big decking of very thin tubing and black tubes, catchers and little elongated reflectors. I said, ‘how can you boil water with that, how can you make power?’ They said, ‘oh no, no, no, it's not for making power, it's only for learning how to warm up water for domestic purposes.’ I said, ‘but you need power and you also need something to be able to pump the water etc.’ ‘Oh we won't concern ourselves with that.’
I couldn't understand it until one of them said in strictest confidence, ‘well you see, we are funded by the government and part of the pressures on the government have to do with coal and if any fuel process or any power process comes along which threatens the coal industry we may lose our funding.’ So here I was with kids who had made a solar generator back in 1939 [and] now in 1952 looking at adults that won't have a go at it. Well, do you know here we are in '93 and what do I hear? The people are using those same concentric mirrors out in the west for superheating water to make steam to create power to operate God knows what. Why couldn't it have been done years ago? All this research.
But it wasn't only in that sort of area that you came here and felt astonished and challenged, perhaps, by the fact that things weren't happening in the way you thought they could. Same applied in theatre, didn't it?
Yes it did. You know, this country had more positives than negatives for me. I didn't think I would want to live here but I certainly wanted to have a good look at the place. I wanted to live in New Zealand. But so many things, the dichotomy of influences is fascinating. I saw standards of theatre for example that were quite primitive, very primitive. I saw people behaving in a redneck sort of a way. I saw negatives that I thought would be off-putting but by the same token, I saw a lot of avid people who wanted to improve the situation, who were trying awfully hard in their own way to make a better place of it. You can't say it was nationalism in so much as we were going to do Australian things, it was just our lives that needed to be improved, we were so insular. So the avidity of these people said, in effect, to a very large effect I think, maybe I can help, maybe I can be useful and Maggie Fitzgibbon — the story has been told before, I'll tell it to you again — knew that a lot of the kids in the company would have liked to have been able to study with some of the people whom I had studied with in New York. They couldn't afford it, they couldn't go, etc. She said ‘this guy has worked with these people, why don't we pick his brains?’ so she organised classes backstage for kids in the company and the entire company came, not only this company came but the company across the road and the Comedy Theatre and people from around Melbourne in general who were professionals, they used to come and sit in classes. And the classes grew, the kids were curious, they wanted to know more. They were getting it second and third-hand from me, but at least they were getting it, and even after the shows closed they wanted to continue going.
Now the fact that I could be useful of course was a great attractor and the fact that I could see these people growing and developing suggested this doesn't have to be an amateur country after all, you know, it can be a country that will be able to trade its artistry with other countries. At the moment we weren't able to do it, at the moment we, at that time, the only way anybody knew about an Australian artist was when they left Australia and went to England or went to the States and picked up what was going there, but we couldn't. We couldn't send our products overseas because it just wasn't up to international standards. So it became a sort of a hobby horse for me — now let's see if we can't help bring the local standards up to an international footing. And this became a long-range, Messianic project.
No, it ... it’s ...
I was being facetious I was actually going to ... I realised that I haven't given a nice clean question about the theatre and so I'll ask you a question again and you can answer it, and we'll work it in with it.
Amateur, amateur, but sincere, willing, eager to do the right thing, but just without the tools, without the practical know-how to be able to do those sort of things. I mean, even years afterwards — I hope Lee Robinson wouldn't mind my quoting him — but Lee Robinson ... who tried awfully hard to launch a series of television, well a television series, raised money I think from Bond and did his utmost to put together a lovely sequence, a lovely series, and then tried selling it overseas. And the feedback he got from countries that didn't speak English were great, let's use it, but if I remember him correctly saying, he said, ‘whenever I get to an English-speaking country, they admired the photography, they admired the scenery, but they said there were only three things wrong: the stories were lousy, the direction was lousy and the acting was lousy,’ and this was many years after I got here, you know, but that sort of innocence of world standards prevailed for a hell of a long time. It's only fairly recently that we've begun to make in-roads, so you know, harking back to the kids at Her Majesty's Theatre, I think they began making in-roads.
What do I ...
What year ... Oh, the beginning of 1952, shortly after New Year's.
Well, when a show closed we went to borrowed halls, to people's living rooms, to empty restaurants. Wherever there was a place vacant enough and large enough to assemble a bunch of people. By the time the ... well I'll jump ahead to 1958 — at that time we were having classes in my living room when I was living in North Sydney on Ridge Street. Sybil Thorndike, Dame Sybil Thorndike now, then decided she wanted to come and sit in on one of the classes so she came down to my living room and there was hardly any room for her to sit — there wasn't any room because people were sitting on the floor, on the edge of the sofa, on pillows — so we opened the French doors and she sat out on the deck peering over everybody else and saw the people going through their hoops. And afterwards we discovered she'd been crying and, she insisted, this has got to be seen by the general public and at the same time, by the way, she asked would we accept her grand-daughter as one of the students, grand-daughter Jane ... her son and I were usually at loggerheads in some ways. So I said, ‘yes if John approves I'd love to have her.’ John didn't approve so her grand-daughter didn't come to see us, but we got the idea, you know, that if Sybil is fascinated by it or interested in it [then] maybe we can get through lay-public. So we formed what we called the Ensemble Theatre and tried out a couple of productions in Cammeray Children's Library, on a couple of weekend nights when they were closed, and found that the audience took it, these two nights — we said ‘let's go from here’ and we grew.
It came about from the class, an acting class in '58, taking place in my living room. Sybil Thorndike came in to sit in and watch the kids, and she was moved by what she saw, and suggested that this ought to be seen by the general public. So we said, ‘well, if Sybil, who is a good critic as well as theatrical, can be moved by it then maybe the audience can.’ So we tried a couple of performances of some one-act plays, Tennessee Williams plays, at Cammeray Children's Theatre, Children's Library I should say, on nights when they were closed, on weekends, and found that the audience took it and away we went. Simple.
No, no, not really.
We got one out of desperation that was ... it was a makeshift sort of arrangement. We used the most primitive form of theatre, which is theatre in the round, and you don't really need a theatre for it, just need a hall large enough to be able to seat people around and actors to be able to work in the middle. So, we hoped that the actors would develop their skills enough so that we could go on to work with large commercial managements and infiltrate, as it were, there. But as that wasn't the case we decided we'd have our own.
And what did you feel you were doing with all of this, Hayes, I mean you'd come out to Australia to star in something and to have a bit of a look around. It was an escape from an impossible situation back there in New York, but you were beginning to develop something ... were you conscious of that, did you know what you were doing?
Well, when you are very close to something, it's terribly hard to keep perspective if you are in the middle of things. What I did know was that, bit by bit, so many of the students were improving their standard of workmanship, that they were in fact rubbing off onto other theatricals, and other theatricals were picking up things from them. That the thing was spreading. I said, ‘that's lovely, it's lovely to see maybe in time we'll have a standard of workmanship which will be comparable to the rest of the world.’ Why not? We turn out the best tennis players, the best swimmers, the best cricketers. Why can't we turn out the best theatricals, and the technicians already were quite brilliant. The one thing I found here was amongst the techs, their design, their workmanship, their discipline, their execution, was equivalent to anything I'd seen anywhere else.
I don't know, I don't know.
I'll have a theory about anything, I'll probably propose one. In fairness I don't know, it's just what I found. maybe it was because they had the film industry to fall back on because there had been a good film industry here. They had radio which had refined itself to an extraordinarily high degree of finesse. , you had people who watched what was happening in the world scene and they could get films and analyse and pick up ...
What my teachers gave me, I just passed on, there you come, there you are, Ruth. I just passed on what somebody else gave me. It's a language, it's a syntax that is known everywhere in the world amongst actors. And making it available in this country, incidentally, it was not always easy to make it available because there was great resistance against it — the people who were entrenched in what we call amateur acting or ham acting, did not want their little patch disturbed in any way and, incidentally, nasty names were found to describe this syntax. Method, you are a method actor, now what the hell is method? There was resistance but basically what it was, was an attempt to introduce some refined tools of trade to the actors. I mean musicians can define their tools of trade, painters can, painters know what it is that they are going for when they put something on canvas. They know that the thing has got to conform to their concept of perspective, proportion, mass, colour, hue, chroma, saturation. They can pinpoint these things precisely if they want to, if they want to discuss them, if they want to refine them. But what could actors say? You know, louder, softer, faster, slower. Or somebody passing judgement on it saying, ‘I like it,’ and somebody else saying, ‘no I didn't like it,’ but what is it you like? What are they doing? Now actors needed to be able to define what it was they were doing more accurately so that if something wasn't going on, right, you didn't have to throw the baby out with the bath water, you just fixed that something. Well the rest of the world seemed to know about these things but we in Australia were still relatively innocent. So what I think I helped propagandise was the tools of trade as well as, incidentally, exercises for sharpening the skill of handling these tools bit by bit, and I think it's been useful to an extent.
You came from a particular tradition of acting which ... and you have learned your lessons in New York so that although there was an international currency in acting, there was also traditions that were different, and the New York tradition had particular characteristics to it which, say, the London stage didn't ...
We must distinguish between tools of trade and product. Product can be an opera, a naturalistic presentation, a film, a television show, a radio show ... it can be drama, it can be, it can be, poetic, it can be lyric, it can be a different presentation each time and the style of each presentation is its own unique characteristic, but the basic tools of the trade that go with these things are universal. You use the same tools in television that we use in film, that we use on stage, we use in selling for that matter. The basic tools are fundamental. And it ... it got muddled up because people thought that what I was teaching was naturalistic theatre through the tradition of Broadway theatre, the tradition of anti-Shakespearian theatre. No, what is used in Shakespearian or Brechtian or any other theatre is fundamentally the same basic tools. The same as saying when you have to change cameras, when you shoot a Shakespearian presentation, and you are going to shoot you know, a Chekhov or something, it's the same camera.
Yes, and I must add each of the teachers was quite different than every other teacher. In fact there were frequently competitions between teachers. Somebody said ‘the fundamental motivational technique is belief in the situation’, and somebody else would say ‘no, the fundamental technique for motivation is, as if’, and somebody else had another hobby horse to ride. Basically, because I'd worked with a lot of teachers, what I was able to say to the people around here is, look, there are many, many ways of motivating, you take your pick. You want to identify with a character feel free, if it works for you feel free, but here is a technique, here is another technique, here is another and I didn't take sides. See Strasberg didn't get along with Stella Adler and Sandy didn't like somebody else and Bobby Lewis hated somebody else. It didn't make any difference, each of them had something to offer. What I tried to do was gather up what each of them was saying and say, here is the repertoire, stick a pin in it and decide which one you are going to go for.
I don't think there is the method, I don't think there is such a thing; each school is a little bit like Christianity, each sect says, we are the Christians. I think that was nonsense. I don't think there is the method. The method in its purest form is the actor's grammar. Now, you know, with English grammar we can write novels and biographies and everything else, now it depends on which school you go to as to how you are going to learn that grammar. Some people insist that you never split an infinitive, and other schools say look, it's perfectly acceptable to do so, but still fundamentally it's grammar.
Oh quite a few. Strasberg of course. Sandy Meisner, Howard Da Silva. I set up a school for Howard and just as I set up a school for Moss Hart I studied with all the teachers that we dragged in to work with Moss. I worked with Alfred Lanz [sp?]. Oh, I can't think of them.
He was called the great watchmaker. He could dissect a performance, take a performance apart like no other person I knew of. And the joke went around New York — he’d take it apart all right but could he put the watch back together again? Yes he could do that as well. He was the most analytic and I think the most discerning and intelligent of the lot. The others had an awful lot to offer. Very frequently in specialised aspect of things. But his, I think, was the largest, most embracing thing, and I must add here that I was fortunate in studying with him at the time when most of these things were coming into focus. Because I believe from others who worked with him later that Lee became a little bit ... rather peculiar, and began to believe in himself as a cult figure or something of the sort. I've heard descriptions of some of the classes that were nothing like the ones we had. But when I was with him I think it was an eye opener. Real, real discovery.
Now when you started teaching yourself and you started the famous acting groups, acting at the Ensemble with these really keen people working with you, you used ... you were very eclectic, you used any background, you were there to teach them how to act. Did you start evolving your own school in a way? Did you start developing methods and getting ideas about the way to go about things, which were particularly characteristic of that little group?
Oh well, look I have ... each person develops their own modus operandi and I have one modus operandi, one mode to, for example, direct. It's no better and no worse than any other, I suppose, but it's one that works efficiently for me, especially when you work with short periods of rehearsal and especially when you work with people who don't have the world perspective-type background. I develop my own usual rehearsal techniques where we sit on our bums for about a week and a half analysing ...
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.
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?
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.
... [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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the beginning. Yup.
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.
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.
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.
... [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.
... [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.
I don't know whether it was inevitable or not, but as I was calling the shots, I decided they should go.
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.
I think so.
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.
... Oh yeah. Mmm. No, that terrifies me.
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.
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.
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.
Yes, strangely enough ... [laughs] ...
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.
No, no, she was a chronic invalid.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
Yes, got back just in time.
You mean between themselves? No. No. It was hostility to the end.
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.
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 ...
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.
No, not with this marriage. I did with the first one.
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.
No, the Ensemble Theatre didn't start out to be a therapy group ... [laughing] ... thank you very much.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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] ...
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.
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.
Yep. They were washing dishes. They were working backstage. They were sweeping the floors.
Sure. Everybody did.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Oh of course. All the time.
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 ...
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.
Oh definitely not. They knew it but they didn't like it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 ...
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fairly good health. Fairly good health. I ... I didn't really get crook until about three years after that.
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.
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 ...
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] ... ...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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] ...
While your main attention, energy and money was being poured into the Ensemble, you kept going, maybe to fund it an alternative [way] ... another side to yourself was the Broadway-trained actor in a whole series of roles. How did you feel about this acting side of your life?
... [sighs] ... Well, it ... it's work. You develop a certain expertise and a certain skill. You do it and you have yourself an occupation. But the important part that I found in acting was obviously the effect you have on an audience and whichever role you take on, I mean, even in Kiss Me Kate or Kismet or Annie Get Your Gun, whatever, if you can see the effect on the audience, and it's the effect you wanted to see happen, it's a little bit like what Oscar Hammerstein said when he described the audience as a big black giant. You find a different kind of giant every night, a sleeping giant, a snoring giant, a waking, a laughing, weeping giant. Every night you fight the giant and maybe if you win, you send them out a nicer giant than he was when he came in. And when you can see the audience being affected that way, that's ... it's worth acting for. Beyond that, the real pleasures one gets out of acting is to work with a company of dedicated people, which is pretty hard to find in theatre. I found it with the Ensemble company. I found it with Oklahoma!, I found it with the Opera Company. Other places you have to go looking very hard to find it. It's there but you have to look for it.
The best experience in one way? Startling the audience or ...
Oh, I think ... I think Brigadoon. I think. I can't be sure ... [laughs] ...
Well, I suppose in some ways it ... it paralleled my own life: this fellow who's discontent with the nine to five grind in New York, who goes off to another country and finds a magic village, this village which he doesn't know until later appears only for one day every 100 years and in it he finds all the things he's been looking for. And in a sense, I suppose, this is what happened to me after playing Brigadoon when I came to Australia.
People. Open people. Developing people, compassionate people. I found my wife.
Oh, let's be ... let's not be so naive. I mean, one looks all over the world for the person and I think one is very, very lucky when one can even get near it. And I think I've been luckier than most. She's an extraordinary lady.
Well ... [sighs] ... I don't suppose I should tell you. But in so many ways we are the same and in so many ways we're different. Certain things she likes that I can take with a grain of salt and vice versa. But we have the same kind of appreciation of the importance of things, I think. And I think we tend to complement each other in many ways. She has taste; I have none. I'm more critical and analytical: she's more compassionate and she's more willing to put up with things, you know. I think we found a good partnership. And let's leave it at that, shall we?
You talk about 'know thyself' as being a guiding principle that was used in selecting what you put on in the theatre, because you felt that this was really important for human beings. On that same principle, how would you describe yourself?
I'm not going to tell you. I've spent my entire life developing two things, first, an understanding of myself and secondly, a way of keeping it to myself. And the mere fact that you have asked these penetrating questions I think has really proved to be extremely disarming in that I let you peer as closely as you have into my little secrets. Now I think in general terms, I see myself as a hard worker and a zealot, a peculiar person who's not prepared to necessarily go along with trends, who is very sceptical and very grateful for the life I've had.
Oh, too many things. But as for doing it differently, I've always worried about that because supposing I did it differently, I'd probably end up doing it worse than I did it the first time. So ... [laughing] ... leave well enough alone.
But is there any particular regret? Is there anything that you feel bad about? You said guilt was your middle name. Is there any aspect of things that you think, well, that wasn't an area of my life that I did so well?
Yes, I did all sorts of things. I directed cigarette commercials. I worked for political parties I didn't approve of ... I was even instrumental in putting people into power who robbed their way through politics, you know. No, I ... I think there are certain things we do that we do for expedience. The thing was in doing it, I said, yes I'm a whore, but I am prepared to take the consequences of this. So to that extent, I should have no regrets, I went into it with my eyes open.
Well, I put it back to you. How would, let's say, a mother feel if she thought she wanted to keep her family fed and sells her body? There're mixed feelings, of course. One wonders if there might not be another way, but this was a way it presented itself at that particular time. So that's the way you go.
We tried awfully hard to assess what was happening in the community. We'd look at Letters to the Editors in all the newspapers. We'd go around talking to people. We'd talk to various groups. We got feedback from patrons. We went through the streets. We read newspapers and saw the issues that were beginning to occur. And we tried to draw a kind of equation which said, here's an issue which is going to have a chance to resolve itself. Leave it alone. But here seems to be an issue which is progressively growing, that looks as though it's too embarrassed of itself to look for a voice to bring out and discuss. So we said, let's provide a voice for it. And those were the things that guided our plays. We did one for the money, one for the show. Well, we had no subsidy so the first show we would do would be a potboiler which would literally feed the pot. It would be something with popularist concepts, like a mystery, an out and out comedy, but even these things were designed to have some guts to them. Then we would spend the money that we made on these things — 'cause we usually made money — on something which was more confronting and more risky. And then we'd go back and do a money-raiser and then go back and do a money spender. And a peculiar thing happened. After a while, we found that the risky plays were making more money than the safe ones. So that's the way we went: one for the money, one for the show. One for the money, one for the show.
No, no star system. Nobody to be given preferential treatment. But the audience selects its own favourites in time. There's nothing — you can't do anything about that and you let it not only take its course, you help it along wherever it seems natural. But we insisted no star billing of the characters. The actors were listed alphabetically. Large roles and small roles, they all considered they had a part to play in doing things to the audience. And even if they came on and did nothing more than pronounce, ‘Dinner is served,’ they'd have to do it in such a way that it contributed to the evening. Because if they didn't do it properly the evening could collapse on us. So everybody felt that they were part of the operation whether they had a large responsibility or a small responsibility. And this was the thing we were basically concerned with and made us an ensemble.
Your own role was one where you tried to keep a lower profile, you weren't on stage. And yet you became the face of the Ensemble in popularising it and extending public awareness of it. How did you feel about that?
Well, that was a necessary evil because one of the reasons — I think I may have mentioned this in another context — but one of the reasons the kids asked me to front was because, being an import, I could probably attract more publicity. And this proved to be the case. If we said to journalists, ‘Here are a whole list of people.’ They'd say, ‘Well I don't know this person, I don't know this person. I may not even know Hayes Gordon, but he's come in from the States so maybe there's something newsworthy about it.’ So I did serve as a kind of a front to get journalists to come in and look at us at least. I didn't like certain aspects of it because, along with it, very frequently goes an invasion of privacy and I cherish my privacy very much. I dare say this interview is probably as revealing and open as I've allowed myself to be in an interview. I don't know if you're aware that Yul Brynner fabricated not only one public identity but quite a number. It depended on who asked him as to where he was born ... ... [interruption] ... ... He had several different places he was born.
I don't know about that.
You were ... you were in this situation where you were the face of the organisation. Can I put it to you that perhaps through your life there's been a certain tension between the fact that you were an outstanding person who tended to get thrust to the front of things but at the same time your philosophy, your very egalitarian philosophy, creates difficulty for you if you're forced to shine?
Look, I ... frankly I'm just a moderate talent. I am not the world's greatest director. I'm not the world's greatest teacher. Because I've seen people who are real quality, so forth. I think everybody makes a contribution in some way and sometimes it's just fortuitous as the kind of contribution they make. I like to liken it, if I can be so abstruse, as dropping a pebble in a pond. A pebble in a pond, first of all, creates an obvious wave and by the time it gets to the edge of the pond, it's just a little ripple. But it ... it's almost impossible for even a little ripple to not shift at least one little grain of sand. And I think everybody in their lives, no matter what they do, are capable of shifting a grain of sand. Now if you just happen to be in a ... in a pond that has loose sand around it, even a little pebble will shift five grains of sand. Big deal. I think I'm a pebble, and I think everybody out there is a pebble, it depends on the pond we splash in and depends on how heavily we're thrown in and so forth. But I think everybody changes the world around them, whether they want to or not. Those of us who have some understanding of the way changes take place are probably luckier at it, but everybody out there is affecting everybody else. Two people talking, they're not the same when they finish talking as they were when they started. And probably all they said to each other was, ‘Good day, how are you?’ So, I think it's as simple as that.
No, there's a difference between ego and egotism. Egotism is usually a sign that one doesn't have an ego and one's looking for one so everything is drawn to me, me, me, me, me. I think an important sign of a relatively balanced healthy individual is they have an ego, in meaning they're aware of themselves and they know their qualities and they know what they can do and accept themselves perfectly alright. So I think, yes, actors have got to understand themselves, but they don't necessarily have to be egotistical. I don't think that's necessary. I don't think displaying temperament or drawing attention to oneself is absolutely necessary. The finest actors I ever knew were people who were quite unprepossessing in private life. They didn't draw the ... attention to themselves. Brando could pass in a crowd as anybody else. Helen Hayes looked like the average housewife and made no pretences of being anything other than. No, it's ... you know, for work we don make-up and costume and get lights shone on us and a lot of publicity heralding us, and we're made to look like something. It's a terrible actor who begins to believe his own publicity ... [laughing] ... you know. So I ... I think it's important to have an ego.
Has there ever been tension for you internally where you perhaps wanted to grab the limelight or felt yourself being pushed into it and at the same time thought, no, look, this isn't the right way to go, this isn't the right thing to do?
Ye-es, yes, there was a time on Broadway when I ... I was being sold by my agent and manager where I said, ‘Gee that sounds like an interesting proposition, I wonder what it's like to have your name in lights.’ And then I saw my name in lights and it was a fascinating feeling for a moment. But then I had to remember that I was in a flop show. The show only ran 10 performances so what the hell does that mean, you know. Yeah, I ... I think I've been there and done that.
Neither. When audiences come into the theatre, we don't say, ‘Hey where do you come from? Who are your parents? What's your religion, what's your politics?’ They're people. I think I'm a person. If there were such a thing as world citizenship, I'd apply for it. But I ... I don't draw boundaries around myself and I ... I worry about people who do. I don't like nationalism as such. And I don't like boundaries of any kind. And to label me in those ... in those terms, I'd rather not accept it. I know other people will classify me. I was kicked off the ABC for the American classification. I had a ... an American accent. Jay Wilbur was doing a program, a musical program, Tommy Tycho was arranging and I was singing, and letters started coming in, ‘What's this Yank voice doing on our national station?’ So that was the end of me for that program. But I don't see myself as a pigeon-holed person. I'm a person.
Whoops. I don't think it's necessary to assume a different personality. Fundamentally, when you get out on stage, your job is to take these people on a vicarious trip. You're taking them on a vicarious adventure, like a travel agent. And you do it by illusion, the same sort of illusion that you do in film. You create a series of images and one image leads to the next and the sum total of all these images makes the audience believe you're a character in a particular situation in a particular relationship. It's perfectly possible without identifying with the character at all to cut a performance together very much as you cut a film together. You do a little take, then you have another little take and you sew them together, and the illusion of continuity makes it look as though it’s a working situation.
In portraying a character, I have to see what the various ... what the character has to do, moment by moment by moment. And then generate this particular moment and then another one, another one. The basic difference between film and live stage is we do the cutting on our feet. Whereas you people have the wonderful opportunity of going back to the lab and matching prints. So we have to cut as we go. But we're still working a moment by moment at a time. And if you break it down to something like that, it's not ... neither a formidable task nor is it fooling yourself into believing you're somebody else. You don't have to be anybody else. You never leave the stage. You're always there.
Studied. Studied ... studied, well, for example, I attended a Friday night session at a very orthodox Jewish family's assembly to see how the various ritual is conducted, make notes, studied with a Rabbi to be able to pronounce Hebrew words, which I still don't know the meaning of ... [laughing] ... by the way, studied a particular Russian Jew who was quite different, by the way, in mannerisms from the German Jew or Jews from other parts of Europe. An old Russian Jew that I met, his particular mannerisms and gestures. By the way ... one of the things that attracted me was his shrug. Surprisingly. One of the shows I played here was played as an Italian. Another one was as an Arab. And the other one was a Jew. And each of them had to shrug. And each of the shrugs was different. The Italian shrugged by throwing his hands up in the air. The Arab shrugged by dodging his ... no, by lifting his shoulders. And the Jew shrugged by touching his neck ... [laughs] ... So you work out all these little things, the ... the physical mannerisms. The tempo rhythms. The type of relationship. The bravura that's used in interpersonal relationship. And then when you look at the script, you say, this is what's required here. And this is what's required there and this is ... and here's something I don't know anything of. So you go out and do research, to fit in with that particular moment.
Yeah, every bit is myself. I'm borrowing bits of myself. I don't know if you want to hear this one, but one of the things I found very difficult was to permit hatred to occur on stage. Now there's one scene where Tevye walks in and sees his daughter talking to an undesirable and a feeling of hatred overcomes him. And the only dialogue is, ‘Good day.’ And then a little bit later, ‘Good day.’ But the place is supposed to be full of anger and hatred. Now I found it difficult to reveal that. I'm capable of hating, but I couldn't show it off on stage. And one day, I saw in the newspapers, a Minox photograph of a guy coursing greyhounds, using live rabbits and live cats. Cats having their claws pulled out and rabbits being torn apart by dogs. And of course the full hatred glowed and I couldn't make out the figure of the person because being a Minox photograph, it was very grainy. I cut it out and stood on the wings before my entrance and looked at this guy and said, ‘It could be him. That's him. That's what he's doing. He's — he's moonlighting — when he's not in theatre that's what he's doing during the day, the bastard.’ And I put the thing back in my pocket and went out on stage and played the scene again. This was about a year after we started the show. During interval he came back and he said, ‘What's the matter? What have I done? ... Have I done something to you? I'm terribly sorry ... [laughing] ... whatever it is I've done.’ I terrified the hell out of him. But it was the first time I was able to get that little component into the performance. Up until that time I was making do with less than the real thing. So you put it together that way.
I don't like the guy. No, I ... I think he ... he's a bigot, a male chauvinist pig, of course. He's henpecked, he allows his wife to push him around. He finds solace in the bottle, which I don't think is particularly nice. There were likeable things about him — but the unlikable things I was often afraid were those things I don't like in myself that I saw in him. Like he blows ... hard about those things he doesn't know anything about. He misquotes the scriptures, as it were. And I very frequently have to stop and say, now let's see, every time I open my mouth, do I really know what I'm talking about or am I just quoting scriptures too? In many ways, you know, he's a human being. He finally came to terms with his problems. He took action. But I wouldn't like to be him.
The tradition that you belong to, that you've ... the philosophy you've espoused in putting really to all the work you've done in your life, is that really of liberal humanism, where you really believe in people and you believe in their right to freely do the things that they want to do? Do you feel worried about the future of that open generous attitude to human activity? Do you feel that those principles that you've lived by are going to expand and do well in the world?
Look, I don't ... I don't believe ... I worry very much about labels such as humanism and so forth. I don't believe anybody is born bad or good. I think all these things, all these potentials, are in us just as much as particular genes are there to suggest that given certain circumstances we will bloom in a particular way. I think every one of us is capable of killing. Every one of us capable of loving, of being jealous, angry and so forth. I see at the moment those parts of the human nature coming to the fore in too-large portions, that are defensive, worried, anxious. I see kids with tremendous talents having to escape onto drugs as though there's nothing to look forward to, who don't realise it, they are in a position to change the world. They ... are going through the anxiety stage at the moment. But I do hold out hope, I'm the perennial optimist in this regard. That people tend to go only so far in a negative direction before the pendulum swings and they start coming in the other direction. I think the very kids that are getting off on drugs are the ones who are then loaded with enough insight at least to be able to, when they pull up, say, ‘Hey, I think I know what I can do to make it a little better.’ And I do think we are not going to kill ourselves. I don't think we're going to get to the 12th hour. I think we may get to 10 minutes to 12 before people start living like civilised human beings.
Well, the whole idea is to make sure that you are seducing them the way a script calls for. And be a little careful that the only thing they give you is the kind of feedback that says, ‘The cookie's crumbled, yes I see what you mean,’ or ‘no I don't like what you are saying up there.’ And they give you the clue as to how hard you have to work to persuade them. But the audience is not supposed to control us. We are supposed to take the audience on the vicarious adventure ... we can't help but affect the audience because the audience is very suggestible at this time. They've had all the prestige and publicity that goes before. They are now sitting in a darkened auditorium where their defences are down. They're sitting shoulder to shoulder with other people and they feel more secure and they don't have to guard themselves. And they have paid to come in. So they've given us permission to lead them and that's our job: to take them from place to place. But the moment they start manipulating us, there's something wrong. And, you know, very frequently we say, ‘Oh what a great audience. They're making me feel great.’ Whoops, hey wait a minute, how are you making feel ... the audience feel?
Every audience is its own equation. It's very much like meeting individual people. An audience becomes a mass personality if you've played your cards right. They're not a bunch of individuals. They're an audience that looks like an individual. And you have to size up that particular individual rather quickly; we develop techniques for doing that sort of thing.
... live cheek by jowl with each other in a small place.
Yep, sure. The definition of theatre actually that Arnie Goldman really came by is: ‘theatre is a device for creating or bringing to the surface conflict, with an attempt at resolution of that conflict.’ Now, we're all in conflict. We can't be in peace with ourselves, unless we've come to understandings of various decisions. You know, right shoe first, left shoe first. You have to make a decision. And some of these indecisions that the audience comes with have to do with their careers, their domestic relationships, their own ... egos, their own moods, their needs, their social needs, their appetites, their hunger, their occupation. They come with a whole range of feelings.
To a very large extent, daytime television solves a lot, an awful lot, of these problems for them. At least, it confronts these problems for the audiences, but we are more suggestible, we are more effective in the theatre. Because when the audience listens to radio, they're only getting it by one dimension. There's a physiological rule I think which is, the more of yourself that's exposed to an experience, the deeper the experience. In other words, the more senses. Our sense of one dimension, gives us a certain impression. Seeing a picture that's a static picture is two dimensions. A moving picture is three dimensions, possibly four dimensions, because it suggests depth if we are using something stereoscopic. But theatre provides four ... five dimensions: height, width, depth, time and spacial relationships, we can look around the actors. So more of our senses are involved in a theatrical experience than they would be just watching it on film, for example. So we can be very seductive and we've got to watch our responsibility in so doing.
I would like to find the psychologists who suggested that this is a true dynamic in interpersonal relationships, or even one's relationship with oneself. The whole idea of role I think is a misconception. Borrowed probably from theatricals but a misconception of theatricals. What role? What's my role? Who am I? At the moment I am an interviewee. You know, tomorrow, I could be an interviewer. Or if I take my camera along, I can be a photographer. I can be a husband to my wife, I can be a father to my child. What is my role? We are ... each of us has many roles. I think Alfred Kreymborg tried to knock it on the head early when he said, ‘I am four monkeys. One hangs from a limb, tail-wise, chattering at the earth. Another is cramming his belly with coconuts. The third is up in the top branches quizzing the sky. And the fourth, he's chasing another monkey.’ And he says, ‘How many monkeys are you?’ Well, strictly speaking, I'm not four monkeys, I am 104 monkeys, 57 monkeys, depending on what job I undertake or what function I serve to do — my wife sees me occasionally as a curmudgeon. Now who would believe that?
[laughing] ... I think I understand what she's driving at.
No, they're illusions. Yes, they're called roles, they're called roles. Another thing you might call it is characterisation. But for the actor to role-play, well, many actors enjoy doing that as their ... comfortable way of being able to operate. And that is one motivational technique. Fortunately, there are about 45 other ways of getting the performance done as ... at least motivationally. To identify with a character is to help you feel as the character feels. But you can arrange to feel at least 45 other generalised techniques, each of these techniques probably having thousands of ramifications. So strictly speaking, it need never be necessary for any actor to go stale during a long run.
Well, I think when I was very young, going through the romantic stage, I think I'd liked to have played Cyrano de Bergerac, aside from the fact that I was a fencer at the time, you see. I also felt that this was what I wanted to say to everybody. I never did get to play it. But, wot the hell, Archie. Wot the hell.
It depends on what you mean by fate. If you mean accident, well, yes, I believe there are such things as accidents and my relationship to an accident is to make a very good evaluation of it and see if I can use it, take advantage of it. It's like opportunity knocking on the door. But if you mean that everything is pre-ordained, no, no. To quote my favourite playwright: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are thus or thus.’ To that extent I ... I think we're the Germanists.
I think so.
I'll die and look up from hell and see things happening and then I think I can make up my mind.