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Rex Roy Cramphorn (1941–1991)

by Ian Maxwell

This article was published:

Rex Roy Cramphorn (1941-1991), theatre director, critic, and designer, was born on 10 January 1941 in Brisbane, only child of American-born Eric Roy Cramphorn, builder, and his English-born wife Ivy Edith, née Timmins. Educated at Brisbane Boys’ College (1952-58), where he showed an early interest in drama, Rex began studying French literature and English at the University of Queensland in 1959 (BA, 1966). He was involved in the university’s Dramatic Society, producing plays such as The Changeling and Suddenly Last Summer.

Receiving a scholarship from the National Institute for Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney, in 1966 Cramphorn enrolled in the institute’s production course. There he met the young director Jim Sharman, who was teaching workshops in improvisation. He was also influenced by Margaret Barr, teacher of movement at NIDA, and Ross Steele, who taught French at the University of New South Wales. He completed a diploma of dramatic art (production) in 1967. In 1968 he commenced writing reviews for the Bulletin, developing a critique of the limits of ‘gum tree culture’ that culminated in 1970 in a manifesto for a new theatre: ‘I take theatre’s unique asset to be the actor’s physical presence, and I take its major misdirection to be the foisting of psychological realism, what Artaud calls “storytelling psychology”, on him’ (Maxwell 2009, 78). He produced his first professional plays for the Q Theatre in Sydney in 1969-70.

In 1969 a fellow NIDA graduate, Nicholas Lathouris, secured a copy of Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre. Supported by the director of NIDA, John Clarke, Cramphorn and a group of actors worked through the exercises and methods described by Grotowski, a Polish theatre director whose experiments included paring down costumes and staging in an effort to enhance the communication between actors and audiences. Formed into an ensemble that Cramphorn called Performance Syndicate, the group’s work culminated in the rapturously reviewed 1970 production of The Revenger’s Tragedy at the Theatre Royal, Hobart. The same year Cramphorn devised 10,000 Miles Away from a treatment by David Malouf and Michael Boddy; it developed into a Grotowskian, physically based work for the Jane Street Theatre Australian plays season of 1970 in Sydney. In 1971-72 Cramphorn directed a number of productions with other members of Performance Syndicate, as well as for other companies, including the Old Tote. A 1972 Performance Syndicate production of The Tempest received critical and popular acclaim, being remounted and taken on tour until 1974. In these years Cramphorn was also theatre critic for the Sunday Australian (1971-72).

Performance Syndicate relocated to St Martin’s Theatre, Melbourne, as company-in-residence in 1973, only to face hostile audiences, unsupportive managements, and funding shortfalls. Productions ceased in 1974. In a report to the Australian Council for the Arts that year, Cramphorn lamented the lack of support and interpersonal problems that plagued the group, which disbanded in 1975. Previously having spelt his name Cramphorne, in 1974 he reverted to Cramphorn.

Cramphorn then worked as a freelance director at NIDA and the Old Tote in Sydney. In 1976 he again started writing reviews, now for Theatre Australia. He directed Louis Nowra’s Visions for the short-lived Paris Theatre Company (a collaboration with Sharman) in 1978, and Dumas’s Lady of the Camellias for the first season of the Sydney Theatre Company in 1979. He collaborated with the University of Sydney, forming A Shakespeare Company with the help of a large grant in 1980. This ensemble explored, with no pressure to mount definitive productions, Measure for Measure and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. That year he enrolled in French studies at the University of Sydney, but did not complete a degree.

Returning to Melbourne, in 1981 Cramphorn took up a position as resident director (later co-artistic director) at the Playbox Theatre. There he developed his unimposed directorial style into the Actors’ Development Stream—another attempt to establish an ensemble of actors with whom he could explore the possibilities of a total theatre—while also directing main stage plays, including a commercially successful production of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance. In 1986, frustrated by lack of long-term funding and what he perceived as conservatism in theatre companies, he began studying film at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School; he graduated in 1989. His final attempt to establish an ensemble, Associated Artists, was for the production—his fourth—of Measure for Measure for the 1988 Adelaide Festival. Integrating filmed sequences, the production received poor reviews, and the company disbanded.

A heterodox contributor to the ‘New Wave’ of Australian theatre, Cramphorn directed about ninety productions, drawing on his passion for neo-classical, Elizabethan, and Jacobean drama, and on the influence of European auteurs, including Jean Genet and Grotowski. His theatrical vision was resolutely international and academic. This put him at odds with the vernacular, larrikin Australian-ness of the New Wave as it developed in the 1970s; his career was a series of experiments with classic texts and attempts to establish a stable ensemble of actors with whom he could explore technique and the possibilities of theatre as a total art form. By his own account, these experiments fell short of success, plagued by the limits of funding and the practical complexities of the maintenance of such ambitions.

Committed to his work, Cramphorn did not have any long-term stable partners; he once said that ‘to do anything well one has to devote one’s life to it.’ Throughout his life he remained close to his mother. He died of AIDS-related complications on 22 November 1991 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was cremated. His life and work are commemorated by: an annual series of lectures, the first of which was delivered by his friend Sharman in 1995; the Rex Cramphorn theatre scholarship established by the New South Wales government; and a studio, popularly known as ‘The Rex,’ at the University of Sydney.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Cramphorn, Rex. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 12 October 1973. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Maxwell, Ian. ‘“All Exercise Sessions to Take Place in Complete Silence: Performance Syndicate and the Rise and Fall of the Grotowskian Ideal 1969-1974.’ Australasian Drama Studies 53 (October 2008)
  • Maxwell, Ian, ed. A Raffish Experiment: Selected Writings of Rex Cramphorn. Strawberry Hills, Sydney: Currency Press, 2009
  •  Minchinton, Mark. ‘The Right and Only Direction: Rex Cramphorn, Shakespeare, and the Actors’ Development Stream.’ Australasian Drama Studies 33 (October 1998)
  • Minchinton, Mark. ‘Rex Cramphorn and Measure for Measure, 1973-88.’ In O Brave New World: Two Centuries of Shakespeare on the Australian Stage, edited by John Golder and Richard Madelaine. Sydney: Currency Press, 2001.

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Citation details

Ian Maxwell, 'Cramphorn, Rex Roy (1941–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 21 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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