Us or Them 30th Birthday
Updated: May 26
Thirty years ago today a company of young actors prepared themselves for another Griffin show. None were getting paid. Nor was the Director. Nor the Designer. Nor, in all likelihood, would the Writer be.
The consensus was the show was a bit of a “dog”. Like quite a few of Griffin’s shows in the “good old days”. When there was no money for workshops and dramaturgs hadn’t been invented and the Company basically took a punt on a script that had somehow made it’s way into a budding directors hands. It was not surprising that more than a few wouldn’t quite hit the mark.
The couple of Previews had surprisingly gone quite well. The Stables Theatre had been full but that was unremarkable. Cheap, possibly free, tickets. The promise of a few beers and whatevers in Nimrod Street after the show. It was like that thirty years ago. Not too much “Occupational Health and Safety” going on. Which meant if you were doing a show somewhere else or wanted to “shoot the breeze” with some fellow artists you’d head up to the Griffin. Not that any of us called ourselves “artists” then. Or “creatives”. We were just aspiring actors and writers and directors and designers and we were quite likely all mad.
So, on 21st Febuary 1984, the aforesaid writer arrived at the Stables in a state of...well…in a state. He had no idea what to expect. The last he’d seen of the show was week 1 of rehearsals. Then he’d been summarily dismissed.
“See you on Opening Night.”
Dinner in the Cross, a few “settlers”, possibly a few rollies. (Don’t tell anyone.)
He picked up his tickets and a couple of “old hands” gave him a knowing look, raised their eyebrows sympathetically and grimaced as if to say “it’ll be over soon”.
They were packed into the Stables like sardines. The writer was chomping on his gum like a parody of an appalling American teenager. Doing a show in the Stables was like doing a show in your back shed. You were eyeball to eyeball with everyone. You could almost tell if the audience had brushed their teeth. There was nowhere to hide. The writer could see the audience preparing themselves for another night of well meaning new writing. Not that he was thinking about that. He was wondering if he’d make it through to interval without a piss. He knew he shouldn’t have had that extra beer.
The lights dimmed and the actors made their way on stage. Then they started speaking. Delivering their lines. Expecting the worst, the writer consoled himself that his play had at least had an outing in the big smoke.
Then something incredible happened. People started laughing. The actors looked as shocked as the writer. Not that they rode over the laughs. Much.
The whole thing became a blur. Interval arrived in the nick of time and the writer sprinted down the stairs for a piss, a beer and a rollie. His pushed through the crowd, doing his best to avoid the decidedly ambiguous looks that meant God knows what.
Back upstairs for Act 2. More laughter. More chomping. More wishing it was over. It’s no fun being a playwright on Opening night.
The night ended. It must have. Not that I can remember anything about it.
What I do remember is that Us or Them began a journey that not only astounded everyone associated with Griffin but everyone who had ever read the play. Let alone the unsuspecting writer.
It played and played and played.
It played extended seasons at the Stables until it had to move out for the next show and transferred to Philip St and then on to the Q in Penrith where it played yet another extended season.
The writer kept turning up for the closing night party only to be told there was another extension and that he’d have to come back the next week with his closing night presents.
It was, in hindsight quite amazing.
The Sydney Morning Herald (27/6/84) called Us or Them “ubiquitous”. Stay in Touch wondered if “it was destined to run forever”. The Daily Telegraph (17/4/84) commented that Griffin’s “first attempt at a fully commercial production and venture has paid off”.
The actors, who had begun the season expecting to get some pocket money from what was effectively a co-op, were paid full Equity wages. The Director, Designer and Stage Manager were given a fee and even the Writer got a few bob.
It was, frankly, incredible.
The play had/has its flaws. What play doesn’t? It was/is didactic and, in the words of the great Harry Kippax, “has in retrospect a feeling of QED about it…that can be found in thesis dramatists more experienced and famous than Mr Manning. In earlier Ibsen, for instance.”
(BTW, I had no idea what that meant but I had heard of Ibsen.)
Thirty years on I am eternally grateful to all the people who brought Us or Them to life and who somehow gave me the idea that maybe I could be a writer.
Here’s to all of them!
Cast - Kim Antonios, Julie Godfrey, Patrick Phillips, Penny Cook, Peter Callan, John Farndale, Mark Butler.
Director – Alan Becher
Designer – John Senczuk
* Us or Them is available through AustralianPlays.org