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obituary: lindzee smith

richard murphet


Lindzee Smith, photo Rod McNicol Lindzee Smith, photo Rod McNicol
LINDZEE SMITH FELL INTO A LONG SLEEP ON FEBRUARY 24 2007, SURROUNDED BY FRIENDS AND FAMILY AND, AFTER WEEKS IN HOSPITAL FIGHTING THE INCREASINGLY INEVITABLE, RAGING AGAINST THE DYING OF THE LIGHT, DIED FROM WHAT IS CALLED ‘POSTOPERATIVE COMPLICATIONS’, HIS LEFT LEG AMPUTATED, HIS BODY DIABETIC, LUPOID, ULCERATED, MEDICATED FROM LEFT AND RIGHT, HIS MIND PLANNING UNTIL THE END HIS PRODUCTION OF A JACK KEROUAC PLAY, LYING ON HIS BACK LISTENING TO THE SCREAMS OF ARTAUD READ TO HIM FROM HIS BEDSIDE BY THIS VISITOR OR THAT. HE SUFFERED UNTO DEATH FROM A DECADES-OLD IMMUNE DISORDER, BUT HE LIVED DESPITE THIS WITH A MONSTROUS HUNGER FOR EVERYTHING ABOUT LIVING AND AN UNQUENCHABLE THIRST FOR SHARING ALL THE SPOILS ON THE TABLE.

Lindsay Brian Smith—Lindzee, Ironman, Captain, the old L-dog-theatre director, actor, artistic terrorist, urban cowboy, vagabond, tuning into the world by working on the Nightshift, the Falstaff of late 20th century Melbourne theatre. Like Falstaff disdaining the seat of power but claiming through sheer force of energy, artistic vision and quality of presence the role of power generator for a generation of alternative theatricals, fringe dwellers and subversives. Lindzee, co-founder in the late 60s of the Australian Performing Group (APG) and at the same time always its sharpest critic, the one who embodied and accepted the consequences of his vision: life as art and art as life and both at the edge of death—a vision that felt like it was at the soul of the ten years of existence of that extraordinary and culture-shifting theatre collective. Lindzee inspired us all with his resounding answer to Beckett’s haunting question: “is it not better to abort than to be barren?”

Lindzee Smith’s list of productions speaks for itself: putting onto stage for the first time, as either actor and/or director, the early work of Romeril, Hibberd, Buzo and Williamson. With these writers and alongside Blundell, Dwyer, Hawkes, Finney, Davies etc, Smith launched a body of work that brought into the theatre a contemporary urban Australian life and language of word and action unseen before. Nothing in theatre, film or TV has been the same ever since. In the new home of the Pram Factory, Smith continued working, particularly on John Romeril’s plays, directing three of that writer’s most powerful texts: Chicago, Chicago, The Floating World and The Golden Holden. But it was also around this time, in the mid-70s, when the APG was arguably at its most successful peak, critically and with the public, that Lindzee became dissatisfied with the epic historical direction of the company’s work, its attempt to find for an Australian public its homegrown heroes and legends. He introduced into the repertoire plays by Brecht and Handke. And then he disappeared overseas on the first of his many forays to New York, which increasingly became his home over the next two decades.

The next phase saw Smith at his most active, alternating between New York and Melbourne. In Melbourne he built around him the group Nightshift in order to produce works by playwrights whose work he brought back from New York: Kroetz, Fassbinder, Shepard, Heathcote Williams and Handke. Nightshift included artists such as actor/ designer Carol Porter and the playwright/actor Phil Motherwell, with whom Smith was most closely linked artistically for this phase of his career. Its work cut a new image within the Australian aesthetic: that of the theatre terrorist—which reached its climax with the production of Motherwell’s Dreamers of The Absolute, about a group of young Russian terrorists, presented in the late 70s. It set a precedent from which many successive theatre artists have drawn.

In New York, Smith worked his way into the resurgent Off Off Broadway scene, directing plays by James Purdy, Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard, and becoming part of the Squat Theatre Collective with whom he toured Europe. Most significantly, he brought to New York the works of playwrights Motherwell and Daniel Keene and along with them a particular brand of courage and effrontery that secured him a strong place within the post-punk scene.

Lindzee Smith worked and lived with humour and gusto. He had moments of bitterness in his last years at his lack of recognition in the Australian social and cultural scene. His was a star that burned white-hot and was destined to extinguish early. He gave to his friends, his fellow workers and his audiences a glimpse of fine madness transformed at its best into unforgettable art. His family perhaps were the great losers in his commitment to the wider world and he knew and regretted that. But they gathered around him at the end: his wonderful Mum, Maisie, brother Garth, ex-wife Margot, sons Andrew and Danny and three grandchildren whom he adored.

Hasta la vista, Lindzee Smith.

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 35

© Richard Murphet; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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