Growing up with PACT

Keith Gallasch: Interview, Jenny Nicholls, PACT 50th Birthday

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Director George Mannix, PACT, 1988

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Director George Mannix, PACT, 1988


When, on the occasion of PACT’s 50th birthday, I interviewed Nicholls—who still recalls those early years with exuberance—it became clear that PACT had shaped her life and career, as it has doubtless done and still does for many others.

Originally housed on the edge of the Sydney CBD, near Darling Harbour, PACT was founded by a group led by Robert Allnutt, Jack Mannix and Patrick Milligan in response to the Federal Government’s Vincent Committee Report that “highlighted the dire state of Australia’s performing arts, film and television industries.” PACT (Producers, Authors, Composers and Talent, and later Producers, Artists, Curators, Technicians) aimed to develop a range of practitioners who would enrich Australian culture.

Central to Jenny’s experience of PACT was Jack Mannix, whose sense of community was shaped by the Depression and by the Catholic School Fellowship which encouraged young people to get involved in social activities in the 1930s. Thirty years later, when Jack teamed up with Patrick Milligan (Spike’s brother) and Bob Allnutt an ABC producer to form PACT, she says, “I think Jack’s mandate was to bring young people into the organisation and it was inherently about cultural leadership and access—and culture as a way to drive change as much as it was about an aesthetic. He felt there needed to be a way to be innovative.” There were PACT folk concerts, playreadings, a sub-group that called themselves The Leper Colony and a psychedelic theatre group, The Human Body, at a time in the late 60s when Australian playwriting was emerging.

Jack Mannix

Jack Mannix

Nicholls joined PACT in 1974 when free drama workshops were offered to teenagers. “Jack was very keen to bring in kids who didn’t have much access to culture. Culture! I use the term very broadly. I grew up on the northern beaches and I didn’t have much more access to culture than a kid from Fairfield really. I had the beach. No drama in schools. Virtually no after-school creative activity or anything like that.” Nicholls and 200 teenagers were introduced to “the great Australian do-it-yourself pantomime.” Not the English model. “No script. It was all up and down improvising, ‘OK, you go next… OK, now you swap parts.’ We were divided into groups according to where we lived and participated in three-day workshops over the school holidays. Between August and Christmas the groups alternated on weekends to rehearse and then five productions went on simultaneously throughout Sydney in late December.”

As well as going to PACT on Saturdays each week, Nicholls found herself attending Wednesday night events, mixing with older participants, many of whom were studying at university, “experimenting with poetry, movement sequences, sound, lighting, somebody walking slowly up a ladder while somebody else was reading a poem…” Later these became events titled Abstractions.

“Even though I wasn’t particularly aware of it at the time, I understand now that it was so much about aesthetics.” She quotes George Mannix (Jack Mannix’s son) from a speech at the PACT 50th Birthday celebration on 11 October, “People in the room knew something extraordinary was being created. You could have been acting or waiting your turn or doing the lighting or the music but we were all thinking, ‘Wow,’ this is amazing.’”

“PACT shouldn’t necessarily be privileged here because I think ATYP (1963) and Shopfront (1977) were also emerging. What was interesting however was that PACT moved from being a venue for folk concerts and playwrights to ‘This is great but we need more, we’ve got to do things on a bigger scale, we’ve got to get out to the suburbs and get young people in.’

“In 1976 we took the pantomime to the Chapter House at St Andrews Cathedral for a four-week season as part of the Festival of Sydney. At other times PACT would say, ‘We’ve been invited to take the pantomime to Telopea in the September holidays; who wants to do it?’ So those who volunteered would be packed off in a truck with somebody who had a driver’s licence and we’d turn up at a school or hall or whatever, put plastic black-out on the windows with gaffer tape, set up the lighting box and the reel-to-reel music and off we’d go. What an introduction to theatre at 15-16!

“I was growing up with PACT,” says Nicholls, as the organisation itself was developing its vision. She remembers being in Mannix’s productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, describing it as “environmental theatre.” It too was performed in the Chapter House, “a beautiful space—making use of the stairs and the balcony above with the audience on the floor and actors moving in and around them. Before that we did Eros and Thanatos based on the writing of [Marxist philosopher Herbert] Marcuse. We performed that downstairs at the Seymour Centre.”

Nicholls had become more than a participant: “The way the pantomime worked was that whoever did it the year before taught the next group coming in. Very privileged for me when I look back. At 14 I learn it and at 15 I’m teaching others.” There was only a scenario for the pantomime: “It was about a schoolteacher who didn’t like children and who was informed by a goodwill spirit that he had to put on a pantomime so he could learn to appreciate children. On the way he meets a whole lot of funny characters. It was interactive so at any moment you would have anything from 50-100 children on the floor of a hall and during the performance the children would be up and doing things—pretending to play a game of football or dancing around Cinderella’s coach, or holding up Jack’s beanstalk. Not only was I learning about aspects of theatre i was learning about children.”

Nicholls spent her teenage years with PACT. “We toured to Byron Bay, Canberra Theatre Festival. Then we started going out west—Dunedoo, Condobolin, Deniliquin—doing pantomimes and other performances—The Hobbit, Under Milkwood. By Year 12 I had to step back—Jack didn’t want anyone in Year 12 performing.”

So what was life like post-PACT? “After the HSC I had to decide what I was going to do. Am I going to work in theatre or is this place my family? And it had been my family. When I started at PACT I don’t think I knew much about what university was really. But according to Jack, all of us kids were going off to university—it was the Whitlam years—and we did. Well, not everybody but it was expected.” Clearly PACT itself provided quite an education: “You can just imagine hearing all these poets being talked about and quoted in performances—like TS Eliot. At 15 I knew the entire script of Midsummer Night’s Dream. We all did. I played Helena one year and Puck another year.” Nicholls chose the University of New England in Armidale: “In 1979 there were few universities offering a drama course with a strong practical focus.”

Drama at university was quite different from PACT: “I loved it. It completely challenged me because suddenly I’m doing warm-ups in drama classes. We never had warm-ups at PACT. At PACT it’d be, ‘If you want to get to know each other, go into the office and have a coffee’ and ‘Now we’re rehearsing.’ At uni it was great, full-year drama courses, sometimes two a year from Ancient Greek classics right up to “read two Australian plays a week, discuss them and write our own!”

In her final year Nicholls re-connected with PACT: “George rang me to say that he couldn’t go down to Berrigan in the South-West Riverina with the PACT production this year, would I like to. By now I’d finished my degree and had my teaching diploma. So I went and did something similar where I created a show with young people over three weeks. This led to a 12-month teaching appointment as a drama consultant in the Riverina.” The following year Nicholls was accepted into the directors’ course at NIDA, even if short on some of the technical audition demands. “I tell this story to my students. I didn’t need to be an expert in everything. I needed to have a vision, which is in fact what Jack had and everybody came along with his vision. I don’t put myself in Jack’s category but I think I’m visionary and innovative in my work.

“So I went to NIDA for a year, was an Associate Director at STC for 12 months, did some work for Jigsaw Theatre Company, travelled overseas for 12 months and came back to be met at the airport by current PACT staff and friends who asked me to work as artistic co-ordinator. And so I did. It was half time, not even that. PACT received a tiny amount from the Australia Council. I supplemented that by doing casual teaching and I helped organise the transition from Sussex Street to Erskineville, when we got kicked out.”

IN 1989 Nicholls staged the first full-scale production in the new PACT home in Erskineville, Playing for Time, an Arthur Miller film script—based on the life of Fania Fénelon, a Jewish prisoner of war in Auschwitz who formed an orchestra in the camp. Beginning outside the theatre, Nicholls separated the audience from their partners and moved cast and audience around like inmates. This ‘environmental’ tradition continues to this day at PACT with the constant, inventive reconfiguring of the space and its outdoors.

By 1990, says Nicholls, “I really couldn’t survive any more on a part time salary. I completed a Masters Degree in Theatre Studies at UNSW and was offered the opportunity with Sydney College of Advanced Education, teaching drama courses—and I was getting paid well.” The SCAE was amalgamated with Macquarie University and Nicholls moved into the area of Early Education. She says her teaching over many years is still grounded within the artistic philosophies of her years in PACT. In 2008 she was awarded a citation for outstanding contributions to Student Learning by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council for her innovative work in student engagement in drama and online technology.

Nicholls was on the PACT Board when Jack Mannix died in 1989: “He had a heart attack and was on life support for a while. I can remember everyone was running in and out of his hospital room playing music and singing pantomime songs, combing his hair…He hated having messy hair.”

I ask Nicholls to describe Mannix. She responds thoughtfully, “I think he was a visionary. He had extraordinary patience and a great relationship with young people. We thought he was the opposite of a father or grandfather figure; he was just an amazing adult. I don’t think anybody thought that he was particularly old. He just was. He smoked a pipe. The way that he created shows with young people was extraordinary—the discipline he demanded, the self-confidence he developed in kids from all backgrounds; and the ideas he introduced us to—art, literature, music. It was about getting young people to rise and rise to the best of their ability. I think that for a lot of people who’ve left PACT and gone on to make their own creative work, that’s [something they took with them.]

“And it was also about making beauty. George and I were talking about this last night and he said, ‘It’s hard to talk about beauty now. We talk about truth when we go to the theatre.’

“Jack was caring and gentle and absolutely of the belief that culture should be accessible and people should be able to have the opportunity to participate in the making. He said it better: ‘instrumentation of creativity.’ He was also very inclusive; nobody was excluded; there were no auditions, no try-outs. It was just that gentle way he had of saying, ‘You try reading Helena or you do Bottom.’ He just intuitively knew.”

Jenny Nicholls completed her many years with PACT by becoming Chair of the PACT Board FROM 1988 to 1994. She reminds me at the end of our interview, that her story is only one of hundreds from young people who were introduced to theatre (and so much more) at PACT.

In RealTime 125 (Feb-March 2015) we’ll look at the years since and the artistic directors and teachers who have maintained the PACT vision in their distinctive ways.

RealTime issue #124 Dec-Jan 2014 pg. 37-38

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

5 December 2014