1970s History and Commentary

Lowdown Begins: The 1970s

A history and commentary by Tony Mack

Introduction

For over 30 years, Australia’s youth performing arts magazine Lowdown published six magazines a year from its base at Carclew Youth Arts in North Adelaide, South Australia. While Carclew fulfilled its statewide brief with a broad range of multi-artform programs, its publication Lowdown reached outside the State to create an important national and international forum. Indeed, the magazine was so well known outside South Australia and Australia in youth arts circles that Carclew staff were often simply introduced at international events as ‘the publishers of Lowdown’.

It may come as a surprise then to discover that Lowdown’s journey did not start at Carclew or even in South Australia. Lowdown began in the early 1970s in a windowless print room in the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT) in Potts Point, Sydney[1]. The publication that eventually became Lowdown started as a roneoed newsletter for an organisation that didn’t yet exist, but was eventually to become the Australian Youth Performing Arts Association (AYPAA), and is now known as Young People and the Arts Australia (YPAA).

Lowdown’s history is intertwined with, and documents, the birth of Australian youth arts as a national arts sector and as part of an international network, with a constantly evolving philosophy and a tradition distinct from any other sector of Australian arts. To understand why the magazine lasted for so long compared to other Australian arts publications and what functions it served for its readers, we need to go back to that beginning and look at its historical context.

1973-1977: AYPAA’s newsletter

The woman operating the roneo machine in the AETT print room was Margaret Leask, a Trust employee who had recently returned from a trip to Britain. There, she had noted the national networking facilitated by organisations like the British Children’s Theatre Association, and the international networking facilitated by an organisation called ASSITEJ[2], which was the French acronym for the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People.

According to Leask, ‘I returned to work at the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT) and soon found there were practitioners in all art forms around the country keen to establish a national network to assist the development of performing arts for young people and to obtain membership benefits by joining ASSITEJ. (Membership was only open to representative national organisations, not individuals or companies.)’[3]

With companies like Children’s Activities Time Society (Perth), Children’s Arena Theatre (Melbourne) and Australian Theatre for Young People and Pageant Theatre in Education (Sydney) pushing for a national communications network as early as 1972, and a new Youth Panel formed by the Australian Council for the Arts, the time was ripe for a national organisation to be formed. As with any national initiative though, getting the States and Territories on board meant dealing with a range of local issues, priorities and viewpoints[4].

The first newsletter reflected the sensitive nature of the situation. It was titled ‘Proposed Youth and Children’s Theatre Association of Australia – Newsletter No. 1, December 1973/January 1974’[5]. In a cheery and welcoming editorial, Leask deftly sidestepped concerns about names and functions[6] and started a regular national dialogue that would continue for the next 37 years through the AYPAA newsletter and then Lowdown. The 21-page newsletter consisted of an editorial, listings of activities by members (later to be called the ‘What’s On’ section) and national and international news, including snapshots of Youth Theatre in Czechoslovakia and Youth and Children’s Theatre in Denmark. Even at this embryonic stage, the newsletter reflected a commitment Leask originally expressed in her 1971 Honours thesis, ‘The Role of the Professional Theatre in Secondary Education in NSW 1958-1971’, and that was to continue in Lowdown – for AYPAA and its newsletter to act as ‘a clearing house for information and ideas about theatre for young people’[7].

By the third issue of the newsletter its organisation had a name, one of the many decisions made at the inaugural national meeting of 23 March 1974 in Adelaide at the John Bishop Room, Adelaide Festival Centre. Spokespeople at that meeting were Barbara Manning (Tasmania), Peter Batey (Victoria), Christine Dunstan (ACT), Joan Pope (WA), Jennifer Blocksidge (Qld), Christine Westwood (SA), Ken Horler (NSW) and Margaret Leask (AETT). It was chaired by Noel Cislowski, then Alan Harvey, and the many observers included John Trigger from the UK and Betsy Hite from the USA [8]. By the end of day the meeting had:

  • voted to form an Association
  • requested Leask to prepare a funding application for 12 months salary for a consultant
  • drawn up an interim constitution, which Ken Horler would continue to refine
  • agreed to the AETT offer of assistance so long as there would be no interference in ‘the administration, financial and artistic control of companies’
  • suggested a range of administrative tasks to be carried out, from state meetings, messages of thanks, press releases and a message to ASSITEJ, alerting the international organisation to the existence of the new national association, and
  • voted on a name, the National Youth Performing Arts Association[9].

By issue six the NYPAA had changed to the Australian Youth Performing Arts Association (AYPAA) and continued to change over the decades, until it became Young People and the Arts Australia (YPAA) in 2004. As AYPAA Co-ordinator, Leask edited twelve issues of the newsletter up till September 1977.

During that time the organisation became a member of ASSITEJ and an official delegation represented Australia for the first time at the ASSITEJ World Congress in Berlin in 1975[10]. Leask headed the delegation, which also included Sharon Levy (a former assistant at AYPAA), Nigel Triffit (Yellow Brick Roadshows) and Michael Champion (former teacher)[11]. There was also a National Youth Drama Camp in Canberra in 1975 and a gathering of over 200 youth performing arts people there during the Australia ’75 Festival. In 1977 AYPAA organised the first international tour of Australian theatre for young people to the ASSITEJ2 Festival in Wales and to England with I’ll Be In On That, a history of Australian trade unions written and directed by Anne Harvey. It also published a Directory of Playscripts. AYPAA and its newsletter moved twice, after the AETT decided not to continue to support it, and found a temporary home at the Theatre Workshop, Seymour Theatre Centre, at the University of Sydney after a short sojourn in Leask’s flat. At the Seymour Theatre Centre, Lowdown was able to draw on the support of City Road Youth Theatre and TOE Truck Theatre in Education. The fledgling organisation was also assisted during this time in advice on funding and on AYPAA’s early administrative steps by a supportive Australia Council officer called Michael FitzGerald, a man who was to feature as one of the most influential figures in Australian and world youth arts in later decades.

Under Leask the newsletter began to develop more of the characteristics that would later feature in Lowdown – editorials and opinion pieces, drama book reviews, features on national and international companies and events, policy news and announcements. The lack of resources also meant a newsletter like number eleven was collated from various contributors around the country, arguably creating the model of the State-based editor for the first time[12].

Another development later to be associated with Lowdown came with the employment of Anne Godfrey-Smith. Funded by the Australia Council, Godfrey-Smith embarked on an extraordinary nationwide survey as the new AYPAA National Consultant. From March 1975 to July 1976 she travelled to every corner of Australia. ‘Spending time in some 100 towns and cities, she listened to and shared ideas with isolated practitioners, saw numerous performances and workshops, encouraged networking and put like minded people in touch with each other’[13].  Godfrey-Smith lent a human face to the national organisation in local communities, and gave a voice to isolated youth arts practitioners around a continent. Lowdown continued that tradition, especially in reporting from on the ground even in remote areas, and emphasising that the centre of youth arts in Australia was not in an office in Sydney or Adelaide, but wherever artists were engaging with young people.

Leask departed for Britain in 1978, not to return until 1995. The state of AYPAA at the time was summed up in copy from the program of the 1977 tour to Wales:

‘The AUSTRALIAN YOUTH PERFORMING ARTS ASSOCIATION (AYPAA) is the Australian Centre of ASSITEJ. It was established some four years ago to act as a resource centre/clearing house for information, people and ideas in the performing arts for young people. The vastness of Australia and the sense of isolation felt by many professional and nonprofessional artists, teachers and students are gradually being overcome as AYPAA helps create a greater awareness and confidence through local festivals, seminars, the exchange of ideas and people, and through research and publication.’[14]

1977-1979: From newsletter to journal

Most of 1977 and the beginning of 1978 were lean times for AYPAA, as it struggled for financial support in a climate less favourable to national initiatives[15]. The first attempt to house AYPAA in South Australia had failed and the organisation depended heavily on the generosity of Derek Nicholson and his team at Theatre Workshop, Seymour Theatre Centre, at the University of Sydney for its office support. As the Acting Administrator of AYPAA, Anne Godfrey-Smith, noted in January 1978:

‘The early seventies showed an upsurge of confidence and energy throughout the country – a feeling that we were more than group of isolated states, and that people with common interests, such as the arts, could get together from all over the continent…Today, there is every indication that this tide has ebbed and people have retreated nervously back to their own familiar state boundaries.’[16]

Godfrey-Smith strongly rejected an opinion voiced at the Australia Council that perhaps, after having found out what was going on in the field of youth performing arts and documenting it so thoroughly, that AYPAA had fulfilled its function. Her experience in communities around Australia led her to believe that many practitioners working in Australian youth performing arts continued to feel isolated, and needed to be included in a national multi-artform network. Her thoughtful newsletters featured in-depth articles on national issues such as the state of Theatre in Education (TIE) and festivals, as well as material from countries such as Sweden, the UK, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Sri Lanka and Spain. During this time the AYPAA President Joan Pope travelled to the 1978 ASSITEJ Congress in Madrid as the sole representative of AYPAA and Australia in the ASSITEJ General Assembly[17].

The mood changed with the appointment of the new ‘National Consultant’, Geoffrey Brown, in July 1978. Having graduated from the University of Sydney in 1977, he had previously worked for six months as Administrator of Toe Truck Theatre in Education Company in Sydney. Like a number of future Lowdown editors, he didn’t have a strong background in youth performing arts, but was able to call on the expertise of not only Godfrey-Smith, but some of the leading youth arts professionals of the time on the AYPAA Executive, including Joan Pope (WA), Graham Scott (Victoria), Andrew Bleby (SA), Robert Love (NSW), Peter Wilkins (ACT), Brian Haslem (Tasmania), Bernice Watson (NT) and Mary Gibbs (Queensland).

Judging by the changes to the newsletter, Brown brought a sense of boundless energy to AYPAA as well as some forthright opinions and the natural flair of an editor. Using the name Lowdown, originally attributed to performer Maggie Wilde West with her comment ‘Give ‘em the lowdown kid’[18], Brown rebranded the AYPAA newsletter as a journal[19]. Curiously, the first edition of Lowdown is not actually Volume 1 Number 1. It was a 50-page Special Issue published in the first half of 1979, an ‘A4 publication, typed on a fabulous IBM Selectric golf-ball typewriter and then copied and stapled in-house at the University of Sydney’s print shop’[20]. So successful was this Special Issue that the initial print run of 1,200 was sold out and another 300 were printed.

The new format featured an editorial, a diary of the consultant’s nationwide travel, coverage of AYPAA meetings, coverage of events around the country and internationally, publications, job advertisements and reports on Adelaide’s Come Out ’79 and Sydney’s Leap ’79 festivals. (While it was not the editorial policy of Lowdown to publish reviews at this stage, Brown managed to do so in his reports on festivals and events.) These reports, by Brown, were critical of the standards of a number of productions and activities. From an editorial point of view, it clearly signalled a move towards a more rigorous critical discourse and away from the collegial tone of earlier AYPAA newsletters. The popular success of this Special Issue indicated that Lowdown had perhaps found a readership that welcomed a more critical attitude to the performances and practices of AYPAA members – just so long as it wasn’t directed at them[21].

The official first edition of Lowdown was published in July 1979[22] and continued to be entertaining and, at times, provocative. While at 70 pages it was, to a certain extent, bogged down with minutes of various meetings and pages of AYPAA correspondence, it still reflected an incredible energy in the sector in The International Year of the Child. In a new double column format, there was information on the Inroads Project, the Festival of Student Theatre, a TIE Inquiry, National Music Theatre Seminar, Youth Affairs Council, children’s talent schools and in-depth articles from Germany and Canada. In this issue, Brown also separates his roles for the first time, referring to himself as the Editor within the publication rather than as the AYPAA National Consultant.

1979: An Editorial Policy

The final Lowdown for the decade (Vol. 1.3) may have been brief – AYPAA had begun plans to move to Adelaide and Brown had been invited to attend the 1979 Asian Youth Summit in Japan in late November – but it was highly significant.

Along with the 10-page edition of Lowdown was a 34-page supplement that featured reports on The Fox Tour and The Inroads Project. AYPAA organised the national tour of John and Sue Fox over 12 weeks from November 1978 to February 1979. The pair were from Welfare State, one of England’s most influential alternative theatre companies, and the tour through all six States and two Territories was designed to stimulate new approaches to art projects with children for the International Year of the Child 1979. AYPAA also coordinated The Inroads Project, ‘perhaps the largest national project for youth performing arts yet seen in Australia. This project was specifically designed to provide isolated young people in Australia with some of the benefits of performances and other activities by some of Australia’s leading groups and individuals who specialise in youth performing arts’[23]. Almost twenty groups took part in every State and Territory.

Apart from these reports on two groundbreaking national projects, this issue also featured Lowdown’s first editorial policy. Under the mission statement of ‘LOWDOWN aims to be the journal of youth performing arts in Australia’[24], Brown committed the magazine to two roles – to be ‘informative, and a chronicle of events and activities’ as well as ‘entertaining, stimulating and interesting’. The journal would contain information on current and planned productions, new publications and reports of interest to youth arts practitioners, as well as feature articles, interviews, a correspondence section, editorial comment and an anonymous trivia column. Information on overseas youth performing arts activities would be sought for each issue, more visual elements (such as photos and cartoons) would be included, and the main emphasis would be on theatre, including puppetry, mime and dance. Advertising would be sought, and reviews would not, as a general rule, feature in the journal.

With a clear mission and settled format, Lowdown was ready for the turbulent 1980s, where it would host some of the most heated debates on youth arts practice and, during the 1987 ASSITEJ World Congress in Adelaide, report from the global centre of youth performing arts.

References

[1] Margaret Leask, Australasian Drama Studies, No. 47, 2005 ‘Acknowledging the Past: Youth Performing Arts in the 1970s’

[2] http://www.assitej-international.org/.

[3] Margaret Leask, Australasian Drama Studies, No. 47, 2005

[4] For instance in South Australia, delegates at a meeting on 10 November 1973 were so wary of a national organisation using money that could go to theatre companies and a potential lack of a local focus that they made one of the more unusual decisions in the history of Australian youth arts. They elected Christine Westwood, then in charge of Educational Activities at the Adelaide Festival Centre, to attend and NOT represent them at a national meeting in early 1974. Her brief was as a ‘reporter’, whose job was to bring back information useful to South Australia but not assist with the development of a national organisation (‘Minutes of Youth and Children’s Theatre Association of Australia, SA Div., 10 November 1973’, p9-11). This meant that SA (and Victoria) abstained from all voting at the meeting in Adelaide that created AYPAA on 23 March 1974. With a State-based organisation in place and more time to assess the situation, SA then had another meeting on 8 June 1974 at the Adelaide Festival Centre and officially joined AYPAA (then NYPAA).

[5] Margaret Leask (ed.), AETT, 1973, ‘Proposed Youth and Children’s Theatre Association of Australia – Newsletter No. 1, December 1973/January 1974’

[6] Since there had been no national meeting it could only be a ‘proposed’ association; the use of terms such as ‘representatives’ and a national ‘director’ were regarded with suspicion by some; and Victoria wanted to ban a national association from any artistic evaluation of members.

[7] Margaret Leask (ed.), ‘Australian Youth Performing Arts Association Newsletter September 1977, Number 12’, p2. Sydney: AYPAA, 1977.

[8] Margaret Leask (ed.), ‘Summary of minutes of inaugural National Meeting of the proposed Youth and Children’s Theatre Association of Australia. John Bishop Board Room, Adelaide Festival Theatre, Saturday March 23, 1974’, p1. NYPAA: Sydney, 1974. The full list of observers was Diana Large (Hobart), Richard Tulloch (Melbourne), Nick Enright (Melbourne), Jenny Vaskess (Canberra), John Wregg (Melbourne), Eva and Karel Rehorek (Adelaide), Max Wearing (Adelaide), Mary Gibbs (Brisbane), John Trigger (UK), John Trinder (Adelaide), Alan Harvey (ACA Sydney), Judy Blasow (ACA Sydney), Colin Nugent (Perth), Sheila Sansom (Perth), Jo Frost (AETT Adelaide), Margaret Morris (AETT Adelaide), Enid Chapman (Mt Gambier), Maree Tomasetti (Adelaide), Helmut Bakaitis (Adelaide) and Betsy Hite (USA).

[9] Margaret Leask (ed.), ‘Summary of minutes of inaugural National Meeting of the proposed Youth and Children’s Theatre Association of Australia. John Bishop Board Room, Adelaide Festival Theatre, Saturday March 23, 1974’, p16-17. Sydney: NYPAA, 1974.

[10] At the preliminary meeting in the UK in 1964 that created the framework for ASSITEJ there was Australian representation, according to Nat Eek in Discovering a New Audience for Theatre: The History of ASSITEJ Volume I. (The representative is not named.) It wasn’t until 1975, however, that Australia was able to participate in ASSITEJ, after AYPAA successfully applied to be the national centre.

[11] Margaret Leask, Report – OR an Eyewitness’s View – ASSITEJ 5th Congress, East Berlin, April 19-26, 1975. Sydney: AYPAA, 1975.

[12] While this history and commentary focuses on AYPAA’s newsletter in the context of Lowdown’s history, the collaborative nature of youth arts meant there were a number contributors to the newsletter’s development not mentioned here, such as Joan Pope, Graham Scott, Brian Strong, Mary Fairbrother, David Young, Barbara Manning, Max Wearing and Robert Love.

[13] Margaret Leask, Vale Anne, http://www.lowdown.net.au/FeatureArticle/VALEANN, published 13 September 2011.

[14] Quoted in Margaret Leask, Australasian Drama Studies, No. 47, 2005.

[15] Anne Godfrey-Smith (ed.), ‘Australian Youth Performing Arts Association Newsletter January 1978, Number 13’, p1. Sydney: AYPAA, 1978.

[16] Anne Godfrey-Smith (ed.), ‘Australian Youth Performing Arts Association Newsletter January 1978, Number 13’, p2. Sydney: AYPAA, 1978.

[17] The General Assembly of ASSITEJ is quite literally the ‘United Nations’ of youth performing arts. For two or three days every three years member countries send an official delegation to the World Congress. The delegations sit at tables with the name of their country displayed and discuss, with the use of translators, the business of the world organisation. Article 9, ASSITEJ Constitution, http://www.assitej-international.org/about/constitution/.

[18] Joan Pope, ‘A Certain Kind of Energy’, Lowdown V.22.3, p3. Adelaide: Carclew, 2000.

[19] Geoffrey Brown (ed.), Lowdown: The Journal of National AYPAA, Special Edition, 1979. Sydney: AYPAA, 1979.

[20] Geoffrey Brown, ‘Lowdown – The Early Years’, Lowdown V.22.3, p4. Adelaide: Carclew, 2000.

[21] With amusing but provocative statements like, ‘Are Youth Performing Arts heading towards mediocrity? On the evidence of Come Out, the answer could be yes’, it was perhaps no surprise to the Editor that the following issue containing a letter of complaint from South Australia.

[22] Geoffrey Brown (ed.), Lowdown: The Journal of National AYPAA, Vol. 1.1, 1979. Sydney: AYPAA, 1979.

[23] Geoffrey Brown (ed.), Lowdown: The Journal of National AYPAA, Special Supplement to Vol. 1.3, 1979, p1. Sydney: AYPAA, 1979.

[24] Geoffrey Brown (ed.), Lowdown: The Journal of National AYPAA, Vol. 1.3, 1979, p6. Sydney: AYPAA, 1979.

 

 

Contact Details

Tony Mack
Editor and Project Manager

info@carclew.org.au
(08) 8267 5111