In 2013 an old friend of mine died. We had been close once but living different lives and in different parts of the country meant we had not seen much of each other for a long time. I managed to have two last minute conversations with Geoff. He still had his sense of humour and his passion for work. He had spent his life in the theatre and after his death an event was organised in his honour at La Mama in Melbourne, as a way of celebrating him and his contribution.
Lots of people were there, including some I had worked with a long time ago, people I had been in shows with, perhaps had even felt close to at the time. I recognised them but I also didn’t recognise them, couldn’t recognise them, because of the life that must’ve been in the years since I knew them. Knew them, that is, as they were then, a ‘knowing’ that I couldn’t recall at all well. ‘That’s X________! Remember her?’ Well no, I couldn’t.
That experience is not uncommon but it lead me to reflect on my relationship to the theatre and the realisation that theatre had become the only one of my youthful passions not to survive. The others — the passions for writing, for food, for architecture — all flourish now. And there are other, later passions, too. But the theatre’s not there.
There was no greater passion then. The thrill of walking across an empty stage, the sense of expectation in that first blackout, the magic of the moment-in-time, of the art disappearing as it came into being. Wanting desperately to be a playwright, and writing, writing. There were stage works and comedies for theatre-restaurants, radio plays for the ABC and films scripts under development funding. And lots of plans. Acting, too, although I did not want to become an actor. (opp: playing a comic spy at the theatre-restaurant in Fitzroy)
I can still see the uniqueness of the theatre as an art form, but it’s an intellectual appreciation now. The understanding that comes with the passion has gone.
That evening the reminiscences on Geoff were about the theatre. It was how people there had known him, how they wanted to remember knowing him. Teaching and advocating, Geoff Milne had affected a great number of people. I have memories of working with Geoff in the theatre. He introduced me to Brecht, (an abiding passion of his), and through Brecht, to the German language. And he was part of my education about food and wine, too. He always saw himself as a teacher.
There are memories of personal moments, too, of shared experiences during those years we were close. Like the first snowfall at the old house we shared on the outskirts of Melbourne, the night at the trots in Kapunda during a locust plague, the dinner party we organised with a bedroom door supported on milk crates as the dining table — incidents we would recount to each other later and laugh about. And, of course, all those conversations about life and art, often in some strange place.
This is a favourite photo. It’s not a theatre set but the construction site of a house I was building in Central Victoria. Geoff has dropped in on his way back from Adelaide to see how I’m going. The cap is typical, as is that sense of theatre, and especially typical that he would turn up at a construction site in a paddock with chilled champagne and two cold champagne glasses.