This week let’s travel right back to the doorstep of memory lane as we return to one of Theatre Work’s earliest productions, the iconic Storming Mont Albert By Tram. Originally produced in 1982, Storming Mont Albert By Tram made history as Melbourne’s first travelling theatre. Audience and actors actually travelled on the No. 42 tram as they experienced a riotous journey from Mont Albert to the City and back.
Based on actual events observed by playwright Paul Davies, and adapted from his award winning short story, the play details the everyday but extraordinary events that can take place on any Melbourne tram, as seen through the eyes of a trainee conductor on her first night of the job. Brimming with good will, our conductor sweats and strains as she endeavours to see things run smoothly but is constantly undermined by circumstances beyond her control. As you would expect, drama (largely fuelled by class conflict) ensues; an old drunk is harassed by a young punk, two ex-lovers meet up again after six years, a Balwyn housewife relates the story of her marriage breakdown and an over zealous ticket inspector gets his just deserts. Things reach a climax on the homeward journey when the drunk attempts to hijack the tram and, after an altercation with the ticket inspector, the police arrive. Naturally they arrest the wrong people as audience return to the place from which they started.
In an essay for the University of Queensland, Davies cites much of the appeal for this site-specific production lay in disturbing the ‘usual division’ of actor and audience.
“Both the ‘theatre building’ itself (the tram) and the locus of the action (a tram) were one and the same thing. Out of these performative ‘collisions’ (actor/audience, theatre/stage) a truly three dimensional form of theatre practice opens up.”
Collisions were indeed had; during one early performance two buses obscured the tram tracks leading to a mild accident. Audience members were left perplexed as to whether what they had experienced was an expertly orchestrated stunt, or a reckless endangerment of their lives all in the name of boundary pushing art. Thankfully no one was harmed.
The original program (pictured above) makes for some entertaining reading.
“Melbourne’s trams are an essential part of our inheritance. They are unique in Australia and almost the rest of the world, Every tram journey (when it’s not too crowded and you -feel like an anchovy on fried school kids) is a near mystical experience. There you are trapped with thirty or forty strangers for a fixed time in a fixed space and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s either the cosy reassurance of something like a Sydney ferry or the gut wrenching, experience of a ride on the big dipper at Luna Park.”
The logistics of the shows execution, (in what would have undoubtedly been a stage manager’s nightmare) are meticulously documented within our archives. Despite the unpredictable nature of its performance, an interval for the work occurred as the tram reached the junction of Collins and Elizabeth Street. Spectators left the tram briefly as facilities and refreshments were provided courtesy of the Hotel Australia. Thirty minutes later the audience re-boarded the tram to witness the second act en route back to the Mont Albert Terminus.
Storming Mont Albert By Tram holds its place as a trailblazer in what was to become a long trend of independent theatre that purposefully rejected the stories of kings, queens and the middle classes, instead turning its attention to the ordinary, the gritty and the real. Consequently, not all critics were fans. Geoffrey Milne of Theatre Australia criticised the plot, labelling it “surprisingly ordinary.” But as fellow critic John O’Toole was quick to point out in his book The Process of Drama, Negotiating Art and Meaning:
“a quality of ordinariness (‘painted in broad brush strokes’,‘stereotypic characters’) was part of the intention”
Further praise was garnered from Jack Hibberd of The Age , proclaiming the work to be:
“one of the most surreal events ever to animate Melbourne theatre”
Despite some disapproval and tongue clucking from the ‘establishment’, it is unquestionable that The Tram Show (as it became affectionately known) had a significant impact upon the wider public. It received a return season with Theatre Works in 1988 and follow up tour to Adelaide in 1994. In total the work ran for 400 professional performances and reaching over 15,000 audience members.
A search for works that operated within irregular performance spaces grew initially from Theatre Works’ early mission statement, “to recreate the stories of the suburb” and explore “relevant and vital cultural work pertinent to contemporary Australian life.”
Personally, as a young a millennial/zoomer (help me, I don’t know where I fit!), my prior knowledge of Theatre Works and the independent theatre scene in the 80’s is admittedly limited. In trawling through our archives however, it was with great pride that I realised Theatre Works has undoubtedly remained true to its original ethos some forty year on. A quote from the program reinforces Theatre Work’s creative aim to create a place for high quality ‘community theatre’
“through community Theatre ordinary people have a new way of expressing their concerns and aspirations, and have them seen as important and legitimate.”
To this day Theatre Works has continued to produce and champion works that not only represent the everyday Australian, but actually give them the opportunity to push the buttons, write the words, and stand in the spotlight.
The creative team of Storming Mont Albert by Tram can be seen below:
Written and Created by
PAUL DAVIES, PETER FINLAY, CAROLYN HOWARD, TONY KISHANE, HANNIE RAYSON, PETER SOMMERFELD, GRAHAM STEPHEN, BRETT STEWART
2020 has been an exceptionally difficult year for all but especially those in the live arts and entertainment industry. Above is an image from one of our earliest programs outlining our struggle to financially stay afloat; history it seems continues to repeat. Our struggle has been long and pervasive, but it has not worn down our commitment and passion to champion independent artists and their work. Your support, no matter how large or small, can make a huge difference to what we do. As we celebrate our 40th year, please consider donating.