(Kath Kenny’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/18; photo: Betty Can Jump was raw and amateurish – but at the time it was so powerful it left women in tears. Photograph: Betty Can Jump collective.)
Conceived at Helen Garner’s Fitzroy share house during the 70s, this women’s show upended the establishment – and reminds us why arts funding matters
On federal election day last year in Australia, I found myself handing out how-to-vote flyers on a marginal seat booth with the film and TV actor Bruce Spence. We were one of many working to oust a government that punished the unemployed, excluded arts workers from Covid relief and responded to the climate crisis by waving lumps of coal in parliament.
I’d recently finished writing a book about the women at Carlton’s Pram Factory theatre, where Spence was a member of the Australian Performing Group (APG) in the 1970s. When I told him, he pulled out his phone and showed me a photo from the federal election campaign 50 years ago. It was Gough Whitlam, looking across a car park driveway, at performers holding up a sign: “The APG”.
Whitlam was one of the few who could measure up to Spence in height. In the foreground is actor and singer Jane Clifton and, behind her, Claire Dobbin, one of the actors who starred in Betty Can Jump, the groundbreaking women’s play that inspired my book.
Whitlam gave the arts a starring role in his campaign launch. He promised to legislate for lending rights for writers, to introduce higher quotas for Australian television and cinema and to bring all existing arts boards under a single statutory council. A new kind of Australian culture was already emerging, but Whitlam created an environment where it could experiment and grow.
And as we look forward to the first comprehensive federal cultural policy in decades – which already has shades of Whitlam’s agenda – it’s worth remembering what Australian arts can look like when it’s encouraged to thrive.
‘Everyone wanted to be part of it’: the Pram Factory and Betty Can Jump
Founded in 1970, the APG made a home at the Pram Factory: a two-storey brick building that had variously been a livery stable, a coke den and a panel beater (the site now hosts a Woolworths and the Lygon Court car park). Helen Garner’s first novel Monkey Grip (1977) is set against the backdrop of the Pram Factory and the Tower, the building where some of the APG members lived.
The Pram had “a big energy,” Garner told me. “You would come home just sore from laughing. Everyone wanted to be a part of it.”