Carrillo Gantner remembers the life of Malcolm Robertson

4 February 2016

A celebration of Malcolm Robertson's incredible legacy was held at Malthouse Theatre on 1 February. Carrillo Gantner, founder of Malthouse Theatre (formally Playbox Theatre Company) shares his memories of Malcolm Robertson’s life and immense contribution to the Melbourne arts community.

Dear Malcolm, Mr. Malco, Dear friend:

Malcolm has been my close friend for 45 years yet I cannot bottle this friendship today in a way that does justice to such a wonderful man. I can only tell you a few things about him, about why he is special to me and to so many of us.

Malcolm truly lived a life of devoted service in and for the theatre. As a director, actor, stage manager, literary manager, colleague, mentor or any other theatrical role (and he filled most of them at one time or another), he committed his heart and his mind - let me name that properly, his love - to supporting and realizing the potential of others. In an industry built on neurosis and ego, his own was surprisingly modest. There was very little of ‘me me’ and so much of ‘you you’. This was true at the start of his life in the theatre with the John Alden Company at age 18 and it was true right to his final days. Late last year when he already knew he was terminally ill, Malcolm continued to work with Sandy Macgregor to deliver her play Shit Happens at his beloved La Mama.

Malcolm and I met in 1970 when I came to Sydney as the first Drama Officer at the Australia Council, later the Australia Council for the Arts. Malcolm was there just ahead of me as the Council’s first Theatre Consultant. He came to the Council from the UTRC, later the MTC, where he had worked as a stage manager, actor, director of their Education Programs and even as a playwright. Malcolm had been appointed to bring his diverse professional experience to assist the development of a wide range of artists and incipient companies across the country. He did so with great distinction and to the benefit of many.

With very different training and experience, Malcolm and I were wary of each other. I recall our first tentative meeting in the Council’s offices in Sabemo House on Miller St, North Sydney. Both of us were newly married. My then wife Nancy and I invited Malcolm and Wendy to come to our house in Balmain for dinner. Wendy would recall later that Nancy and I fought like lions all night and that she told Malcolm she never wanted to go back to our place again. In his unpublished book on his life in the theatre, Malcolm is more generous: he says it was a night of stimulating conversation and debate about the theatre and the beginning of our life long friendship. Both stories are true. Malcolm and Wendy both became lifelong friends. Malcolm in particular has lived through my own domestic turmoils and given me and each of my wives the same generous, and loyal friendship.

During his term at the Australia Council, Malcolm was asked to conduct drama workshops at the Parramatta Gaol, a high security facility housing many of the most serious crims. While there, a prisoner asked him to read something he had written about life inside. Malcolm immediately recognized a one act theatrical jewel by a natural born playwright: ‘The Chocolate Frog’ by Jim McNeil. He earned the great displeasure of the warders by smuggling out the script and by encouraging Jim to write more. Another McNeil one acter ‘The Old Familiar Juice’ and later the full length ‘How Does Your Garden Grow’ were nurtured into the light by Malcolm. He was invited to do the first professional production of the two one act plays by the Q Theatre at the AMP Theatrette behind Circular Quay, Subsequently this double bill was allowed into Parramatta Gaol to be performed for the inmates. Throughout his career, Malcolm never lost this extraordinary ability to suss out and support talent, not least in writers young and old, but also in actors and directors.

Our skillset and styles may have been very different, but we discovered our theatrical tastes and personal values had much in common. This was a time of ferment and civil disobedience against the dead hand of long conservative rule in Australia. The Vietnam War was dividing the nation. Whitlam was yet to arrive to end conscription and withdraw Australian forces from this immoral war. While still at the Council in Sydney, we decided to hang our heart on our sleeve by working together on a show, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine about the Berrigan Brothers, two Jesuit priests who were prosecuted for burning their draft cards. I knew the original US producer and was able to get the rights. Malcolm directed a stellar cast and I produced the show at Sydney’s Pitt St Congregational Church, a very appropriate venue for our proselytizing efforts. This was the first of many shared productions.

I have recently been reading Malcolm’s book and am reminded that while we were working together in Sydney, The Council’s Chairman Nugget Coombs asked Malcolm to assist the Moanjum Dancers from WA’s far north near Derby to present their work in Perth. He writes movingly of the difficulties of this experience, not with the naturally talented and expressive though inexperienced Company, but rather with the entrenched racism of white Australia.

After his time at the Council, Malcolm went back to the MTC as Associate Director. By 1975 he had served the MTC in a wide variety of capacities for over 20 years. He had directed countless shows and been a most loyal deputy to John Sumner, an important pioneer in our theatre’s history but not always a man of grace. After my term at the Council, I had also gone to the MTC as General Manager. One day Malco was summoned into John’s office to be told – these words are engraved upon my heart – ‘We’ve got nothing for you, boy’. Malcolm walked out of John’s office totally undone. I walked in and resigned. In the months that followed, Malcolm recovered his sense of purpose and passion for the theatre, pursuing a successful career as a freelance director and actor in Melbourne and interstate, including the direction of That Championship Season for J.C. Williamson Theatres.

During this period I had started the Playbox Theatre Company with Graeme Blundell and Garrie Hutchinson. They both left after short stints but I accepted the challenges of building a new company. After several years when we were still very fragile, I asked Malcolm to help me build the Company by bringing his depth of knowledge and experience first as a director and actor, and then later as our Literary Manager, though he still frequently acted in and directed shows. In all of Australian theatre history, I do not believe anyone has ever come near to Malcolm as a great Literary Manager.

Malcolm developed a network of skilled readers who were paid a token fee to write a report on what they read. Malcolm then read the plays himself and prepared a report for the writer summarizing the various views but usually leaving out the nasty bits. He had deep respect for all writers and was always constructive and encouraging. He knew that writing a good play was fiendishly difficult – he had tried himself at the UTRC with his play Thataway The Kings Go. He understood it took time and often less than great outcomes, that writers responded better to encouragement than to the curt dismissal or worse, the silence that they were used to receiving from other managements. He sat down with writers and talked through their scripts. He organized readings and workshops. He was not bound to any one style but open to original voices, structures and ideas. He knew what could work in the shift from page to stage.

Malcolm identified so many new playwrights and he argued their case for inclusion in our seasons with passion and intelligence, but also a deep knowledge of the tribulations of running a small company. Over two decades working closely together, we developed a deep mutual respect and trust. It’s not so hard being smart about the big names, but Malcolm was seldom wrong when he told me I must read a new script that had come in unsolicited from someone totally unknown. As its reputation grew, Malcolm’s Play Reading Service provided professional reports for between 200 and 300 unsolicited scripts a year. The majority were not suitable for production in any form, but in my sixteen years at Playbox we actually programmed and produced around 200 new Australian plays in our main seasons. The lion’s share of the credit belongs to Malcolm. Not all proved to be great works of art, but he knew that you built a national repertoire, brick by brick, play by play. So many writers got early opportunities with us and went on to bigger things. I don’t think that there would be one playwright from that time, whether their work was accepted or rejected, who does not share my love for this man who invested so much love of his own into their work.

As a director Malcolm always felt his first duty was to serve the playwright. He could be brutally blunt about the work of some of today’s generation of directors whom, he believed, seemed to feel that the work of the playwright was there to serve them. He didn’t like show ponies.

As a result, his productions were said by some to be old fashioned, to lack flash. I would rather describe this as ‘without strident posturing, solid, uncluttered, intelligent and clear’. When he didn’t hit these notes, no one could be more self-critical than Malcolm. In his book he is frequently lashing himself for what he saw as his own apparent failings, especially if he felt he had not delivered on the writer’s promise, yet actors and others associated with his own productions are generally treated very generously indeed.

As an actor Malcolm also exhibited those same qualities – he was courageous, intelligent, reliable and clear. My impression is that acting did not come easily to him so he imposed a rigid self-discipline in his approach to the work. Who can forget his extraordinary performances in the long and solitary shows Judgement and St Marks Gospel, both of which toured Australia. In Judgement, he played a Russian officer who had been locked in a cellar by the retreating Germans and who now faces a court-marshal for cannibalism. For an hour and a half he stood absolutely still as he recounted his harrowing tale to the audience, as though to the jury. Then, just before the end, he took just one very small step forward. One small step for the actor; one huge and breathtaking moment for the audience.

I recall that for much of his time grappling with St Mark, Malcolm found the massive process of line learning and rehearsals overwhelming. Then, as he writes, 'the journey becomes fascinating, suddenly the incomprehensible becomes comprehensible and there is, at times, an extraordinary feeling of peace' when 'the language soars with music and absolute clarity … My journey is now a pilgrimage. My pilgrimage is to tell faithfully the story, to trust the text while hopefully illuminating (it)'.

Whether as director or actor, whether it was the King James Bible or the work of some unknown playwright in some unheralded show at La Mama, that’s the simple but daunting challenge Malcolm always set himself: to 'trust the text while hopefully illuminating (it)'.

The MTC, Playbox and La Mama were Malcolm’s three main homes for his life in the theatre. He loved them all and he loved the many wonderful people who worked with him. Not that this meant he was sweetly uncritical of some work. He could be very blunt and was particularly proprietorial and passionate about the Russian canon. This was especially so after a visit to the Soviet Union where he arrived in Moscow at the time of the attempted coups against Boris Yeltsin and where, once again as a devoted pilgrim, he visited Anton Chekhov’s house and grave in the Crimea.

Of course Malcolm also toured and worked for many other managements. He also flirted with film and television where he played many memorable roles. For a role as a General in a TV series The Anzacs, he came to our farm to learn to ride a horse. He didn’t fall off the very quiet old fellow we gave him, but even just walking he never managed to control the horse and speak the lines at the same time. Malcolm did study and read avidly about film, and he directed two fine short films. With his good friend Natalie Miller as producer, he came tantalizingly close to directing a major feature film starring the fine English actor Tom Conte. That this did not happen was a great disappointment to him but, as always, he picked himself up and went back to work at the theatrical anvil.

As he grew older, Malcolm was always a most generous inspiration and teacher to so many young people entering the theatre. He never hesitated to give unstinting support and encouragement. He would appear for nothing in student films, spend days reading and working on scripts by aspiring writers, guide and encourage young directors and actors. Like most of us, he could be a mass of contradictions: at times he could be very uncharitable indeed about work he thought did not measure up to his expectations. Then he would turn into a cuddly teddy bear in love with the world. He wrote short reviews of every show he saw and at the end of the year, when others sent you Christmas epistles with family news, Malco sent you his annual chronicle of shows. He demanded clarity of choices and expression in his actors, but he often found the wrong word himself when trying to express an idea. I found this characteristic endearing, and I can only smile when I recall how it drove that wonderful actress and headmistress of elocution, Patricia Kennedy, to distraction.

As she did with one or two others she respected and cared for, my mother led a sort of invisible adoption process that almost made Malcolm a member of our family and one of my surrogate brothers. Over the years he travelled overseas on several occasions with my mother. He also travelled with me, as when I led the first Australian theatre group to China in 1978.

Ten years ago my mother set up a small foundation to support new writing, especially but not exclusively for the theatre. As a mark of friendship and esteem, and typically so she herself could hide her light under someone else’s bushell, she called it The Malcolm Robertson Foundation. As I promised Malcolm, one project for the year ahead is to see his book published. In addition, through the Foundation’s work of play commissions for emerging writers and support for playwright development programs, Malcolm’s name will live on in the Australian theatre, as he lives on in my heart. In all our hearts.

Dear Malcolm.

– Carrillo Gantner