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Sidetrack Theatre interviews Brian Dunnet
(Shop Steward at Chullora Locomotive Workshops)

Brian, a lot of people probably don't know exactly what happens at Chullora - what's done there now and how's it changed?

Brian: Chullora is a complex of six shops. There is a variety of work connected with railway maintenance. There's a rolling stock workshop, the boiler shop, and the electric car workshops, and others. The specific shop where LOCO was made is the locomotive section of Chullora.
The area wasn't really developed till the late 1920s and early 30s. During the war there were three shops. They were involved in war production making tanks and the rolling stock area was actually making planes. Now, those shops are basically connected with locomotives, self-propelled diesel carriages and non-motorized rolling stock.
So it has changed a good deal. The steam engine was a different sort of a beast, though both steam and diesel are heavy engines. With steam and the work involved with steam, there were a lot more boiler-makers - the boiler being the essential part of the steam engine. The nature of the work probably was more knowable and that's resulted in a certain repulsion now. A lot of steam fitters and older boiler-makers and whoever grew up with steam haven't really embraced the diesel era.

There seems to be a lot of romance about those times.

Brian: Well, there is, as far as engines go. Steam's a live thing whereas the diesel engine's very cold. Steam by its very nature people look upon as being very much a live thing.

What about the conditions though. Somebody at Chullora said that there's a lot of romance about steam, but that they were "dirty bastards".

Brian: Oh, well, conditions were pretty bad in that respect - though even now around diesel engines there's diesel oil, it sort of gets everywhere and the place is still not very good for conditions. But certainly, yes, there was steam and smoke and soot and dust and sulphur fumes, as well as the dirt, so in some ways conditions have improved. And it certainly was never easy working during the steam period, it was more physical work.

And satisfying?

Brian: In some ways yes; in other ways no. I personally found it more satisfying because very often for the jobs that you had to do, you saw a physical result; whereas, for instance, in the electrical side of diesel, you might spend weeks on a panel and don't feel any great results and then the next engine virtually repeats itself. It's more repetitive work.

Less creative?

Brian: Yes and no. I don't underestimate it. I mean there's a lot of creation involved by some people in knowing what a diesel is about. It was easier in the steam era to know all about your particular work area. Things tend to be broken up more now. There are very few people who have the skill to know all about something.
Cartoon by Chris Cullen, Elcar, Chullora.

Brian, your monthly "concert" lunch hour was really the major thing that made the LOCO project possible. Tell us about that?

Brian: Well, as I said before, during the war the rolling stock area became an aircraft factory and it was then that the concept of concert hours started and expanded into other sections of the railways. We were treated as war industry and, of course, they had concert parties and other "morale boosters". Eventually it was worked into agreement right throughout the industry and has continued as a feature since the end of the second world war. It made it possible to put on a show of the length of LOCO. One of the problems of a half hour show is you don't get sufficient development of the theme, the activity, or you back up the next day. The hour gives people much more performing time, much more ability to express what they're on about.

But you said it's only been used for films recently.

Brian: Mainly. We still continue, at least once a year to have a concert and certainly since the Art and Working Life program has been developed we've had a series of people come through. But even before then we had a lot of people come here. For instance, one of the best things I think was a fund-raising activity by a group of Chilean artists who came in just after the Chile coup. They put on a tremendous concert. It was a really packed thing. I suppose we can also claim to have launched people like 'Redgum' before no bastard ever heard of ,em. We've used Q Theatre, they came out and put on two plays.

Was that successful?

Brian: Extremely so. One was THE CHOCOLATE FROG and I forget the name of the second one. But you know they were ideally suited again. They fitted into that hour concept.

That's more bringing theatre into the workplace. How do you think that compares with what was done in the LOCO project where we made a play in the workplace about workers.

Brian: Well, it was a different sort of concept. Again that was sort of ideal for a number of reasons. It was very useful in building a situation where people saw their work or themselves represented and that has been commented on. In fact, I think that some are only now realizing the significance of it. I've had numerous requests about a repeat of that same play. Maybe at some stage we ought to consider putting it on one evening somewhere where they can bring their wives and involve other people. If you look back on that first day there were about twenty people involved. Well, that built up right through the project to a significant number of people. I suppose there would have been at least three hundred at the opening performance, so the concept certainly worked. What we're about to enter into now are two areas - professional theatre and doing things in that way, but also the concept of people being creatively involved personally in activities. So there's a range of those things that have got to be worked through yet.

What we tried to do with LOCO was to give a voice to the workers' ideas and to express that in the form of a play. What are your thoughts about the success of that?

Brian: I think that it was certainly a success in that regard, there's no doubt about that. It did centralise a lot of thoughts and the workers I have spoken to certainly did recognise the characters that were involved and I think that they have been very much aware, particularly in that year, in continuing to ask the sort of questions that relate to the future of the industry, where it's going, etc.

Do you think we should have been more forthright in the issues that we confronted?

Brian: Well I don't know. I think that, at this stage, it went as far as it could go. I read one of the only criticisms of the play where the person felt that the Arts should have given a line about, or answered, the problems rather than just present the problems. But I think that the question of solutions, problems and where it's going is very much the prerogative of the workers concerned. I think that needs to be emphasized!
Some artists may feel very much that they've got answers to a lot of things and might even be able to see a lot of problems more clearly than someone that's close to them. But I think people should resist giving answers, certainly answers that seem to be clear cut. I think that's for the workers to work out.

Yes, I think that's the reason we didn't do that. We became very aware, during our research on it, that we didn't have the answers.

Brian: Yeah - well, I think that's right. That's the real issue that's involved there.

What about the future., Brian, of these sorts of projects. Do you see a future?

Brian: Well, yes I do. I think that it's. only in its early stage. There's a need to project where this is going in the future. I still think that it's an early thing in the trade unions, that no-one's had a great deal of experience. I think we should be extending that experience.