Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Saying farewell to a mentor - A post on Geoffrey Milne

For the second time this year, I am interrupting this black feminist broadcast to write a memorial post on a Jeff/Geoff that changed my life for the better. I have just returned from the memorial service of Geoffrey Milne at the alternative theatre spiritual homelands of La Mama in Carlton, and I don't think I have been to a better send off ever. I had the pleasure of hearing many speak about what Geoff meant to them; from the theatre scene, from the higher education sector, from his personal life. And whilst I wrote a little when I heard of his passing, I have been inspired after hearing these stories to share my own memories and illustrate why Geoffrey Milne meant so much to me.

It's a well-known fact (and cause for much gaffawing) that when I first hit La Trobe University as an undergrad student in the late 90s I was actually a science student. Stranger still: I was a Geology major. I had headed towards science because I had done well in it in at one point whilst in high school, although a quick glance over my (somewhat embarrassing) year 12 marks highlights that I was always destined to end up in the arts. Despite taking a truckload of science subjects for my VCE, my highest marks ended up being in Drama and English. However, at the time this escaped me, and so I enrolled in a BSc.

At some point during semester 1, second year, I worked out that I didn't actually like science. There was no passion in it, everything was concrete and "fact-based" and working out molecular volume via titration every prac was failing to spin my wheels. I had also been involved in two plays at College by that point and was finding that it was this side of Uni that I was actually enjoying. I called into the Aboriginal Liaison Office and had a whinge, and through expressing an interest in drama, the then Aboriginal Liaison Officer hooked me up a meeting with the head of the Drama School to talk about taking some subjects. 

So a couple of days later I made the long long walk over to the Drama dept (then located in the demountable buildings of an old school away from the main campus) to meet this fellow called Geoffrey Milne. This short scruffy man in corduroy slacks and wearing a vest came out to greet me. On noticing that I had a packet of cigarettes in my hand, he invited me to come out to his "other office"; the alcove of a doorway with a couple of stairs to prop on, complete with an ashtray and a thoroughly uninspiring courtyard. It was there that he hit me with a few questions on my background, my family and my interests, talked me through the drama major sequence, and then just chatted away. We would meet probably several hundred times in that exact same "other office" over the next few years; talking through a lighting sequence I had come up with for a couple of the shows I directed, going through my thesis and why I needed to use the correct "to", thrashing out ideas. His real office was, of course, a fantastic space; usually with paperwork everywhere and had an extensive collection of texts so I felt at home in it too. More often than not though, the best ideas were thrashed out in the other office.

A lot of people tonight talked about Geoff's passion and his support for Australian theatre, and he was definitely a huge advocate for recognising the countless amazing works that have come out of this country. It was, however, his incredible support for Aboriginal theatre that hooked me. It was through Geoff that I was introduced to "The Cake Man" by Merritt, "Murras" by Johnson and all the amazing works of Jack Davis. Additionally, both Geoffrey and another of the wonderful lecturers I had when at LTU Drama, Peta Tait, said to me that the best works of the late 80s-90s were Aboriginal women's monodramas and made sure they introduced me to these works accordingly. Aboriginal works were celebrated on their own merits in these courses for the amazing scene-changing pieces they were, and not in that patronising "Indigenous studies 101" way which I had experienced so many times in my journey through the education system. Geoff was also incredibly anecdotal in his lectures, and I remember him talking about the time he saw Davis' "First Born Trilogy" performed over three nights. His recall for the set (tiered seating on opposing sides of a long rectangular area), the lighting, the performances, and the amazing "No Sugar" protest song was so remarkable that I thought I was there. I think Geoff had a particular connection to the works of Davis because he had come from a small country town in WA where he went to a very small school with a lot of mob. In recollections of these childhood times, he once spoke about the time none of the Nyoongah kids turned up to school because it had gotten around that the Kwetartye (feather foot) had been at the school near the water tank. The families and places Davis spoke of were people in Geoff's lived experiences in that country town, and this always came through in droves for me.

It wasn't just the written Aboriginal texts that Geoff recalled though. He would tell of examples of Aboriginal actors in the 70s utilising tactics from practitioners such as Artaud and Boal and staging scenes out on the streets in order to draw mainstream (though the crowd was not always aware that what they were viewing was a staged piece) attention to political issues being faced by the mob. I remember him talking, for example, of a blackfella and two white men dressed as cops staging a scene on the streets of Sydney in order to draw attention to the Aboriginal Legal Service. His interest in Aboriginal theatre was such that he ensured it was central in his teachings in all its varied forms.

As I mentioned, he was anecdotal, and through all his work on some of the most landmark alternative Australian theatre pieces over the years, he had accumulated some amazing stories which he would relay on. I wonder, for example, if any of my fellow LTU grads remember him telling a story about that drunken football team that had come to see "Stretch of the Imagination" at La Mama and the unfortunate tactics one player resorted to when he realised he couldn't wait until intermission to visit the lav? Or his pointing out of the stickers on Dorothy Hewitt's works stating "not to be sold in WA" and explaining to an extent why that was? There were so many funny anecdotes attached to these plays and even now I randomly remember another of them through the course of a day. It wasn't just that Geoff wanted his students to appreciate Australian theatre, rather he wanted to bring every bit of these plays alive and encourage more people to create new works. It really was a gift to hear him speak of them.

At the memorial, some spoke of his passion for the works of German Marxist playwright Bertholt Brecht. Brecht speaks for himself in my opinion; as does Geoff's fondness for Brecht. But what I want to highlight here is actually the role Geoff played in nurturing my political, as well as my dramatic, passions. Geoff would often refer to me as "Comrade Liddle", or just "comrade" or "Liddle". I was rarely "Celeste"! He cottoned on to my interest in the political fairly early on, possibly because I seemed to be drawn mostly to works that had something to say, and he encouraged that by continuing to put interesting texts in front of me. He also encouraged me to explore these topics through my honours thesis. Geoff wasn't the only one who did this in this department incidentally. Peta Tait drew my interest to feminist works and enhanced my interest in Aboriginal women's performance. Ian Carruthers bought me an Augusto Boal book to thank me for being his assistant director one year and encourage me further in my interest in agitprop. It seemed to be a bit of a theme in that department, really! When talking to other former LTU drama students over the years it has struck me that a good many of us have ended up being proud and active unionists and tonight I stated that not only were political interests nurtured, but they were considered to be essential to the work we were doing, whatever that may be. I also stated that without Geoff's nurturing of that political interest in me and teaching me that having a standpoint was essential rather than peripheral, my life may have turned out quite different to what it has. Well, I could have been an apolitical exploration geologist for starters...

Geoff was my honours supervisor, as mentioned previously. When it came to my want to look at Indigenous youth and women's theatre, as well as identity politics, he seemed the natural choice to approach with this idea. He was there through my research, my surveying and my conceptualising of the idea that became my play "Not One Nation". I wanted to say something that other Aboriginal Women's monodramas had not. I wanted to address urban identity and youth issues. I wanted to bag out Hansonism and Howardism on stage. I also wanted a freakin' exposition of my own life. Geoff helped me craft those ideas. He helped me stage them. I wanted some schmantzy lighting and he was getting up on ladders adjusting those par cans for me so they would hit right. Additionally, he had to proof-read my thesis and make suggestions for improvement prior to submission; no mean feat considering I wrote the majority of it up in about three weeks. He went right out of his way to give that feedback too. One night he even met me in a bar in Northcote to go through some edits before going to see another show. That play and that thesis earned me a First Class honours; an achievement I had not thought I was capable of when I left high school with barely enough marks to get into uni. That play also earnt me a repeat showing at LTU for the first year drama students and a short season at La Mama a year later, which Geoff came to see. After that La Mama show Geoff encouraged me to develop more pieces and expand upon "Not One Nation". I haven't actually ever done that; work, life and numerous other things got in the way, but one of these days I will.

Geoff affected my life in many ways. I think of him when I refuse to buy automatic cars because he felt that changing your own gears brought a more authentic driving experience. I think of him when I'm cursing my mobile phones (yes, plural) because he refused to have one for the longest time. I'm not the only one either. I knew the torch had been passed to the next generation of LTU drama students when I found on Facebook one day a few years back "The Geoffrey Milne Appreciation Society". I saw Geoff quite a few times after I left LTU as I would often just drop in and I did stay in email contact. When the news came through that he passed away, however, I was deeply regretful that I hadn't seen him for a couple of years. I am glad that tonight I got the opportunity to remember him with so many others who had been inspired by him, his openness, his passion for theatre (and politics!) and his encouragement.

So, how can you say "thanks" for all that, hey? It's really quite impossible but this post is a start. So thank you, Geoffrey John Milne for so much. Thank you for being a teacher, a mentor, a supporter and an inspiration. Thank you for giving me a spot in your classes and for assisting me in changing the course of my life. Thank you for realising talent in me and nurturing it. Thank you for leaving a mark on my life and on the lives of so many others. And thank you for the stories. Please charge your glasses, folks. 

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