Making Theatre – Street to Market

15 Aug

After touring a sideshow during the summers of 1996 & 1997, I wasn’t any poorer financially for the experience, but I certainly wasn’t any richer. I was living in a rented bungalow in Oak Park, with adjoining garage, which I loved having as a studio space to make and build props and paint banners for my shows. However, with rent to pay, sideshow wasn’t able to cut it. Everything I made was earned and spent, hand to mouth. I was 21, and prior to the Internet making the arrangements to pitch at a show involved making a lot of phone calls, which cost $0.30 each at best, or $0.50 at a pay phone, and sending letters, which cost a similar amount. Nonetheless, I continued doing what I had to do to find new places and ways to produce and perform shows. I made it my goal at that time to perform somewhere at least once every week. So I made it known to every church, school and charity that I would do any freebie they could use. In my whole career, now spanning 27 years, I’ve only said no to three unpaid shows, owing to prior commitments.
I was also discovering about this time just how much lifting and building is involved with producing independent touring productions from scratch. I had always believed I was strong physically, but in reflection I was no stronger than any other guy my age and build. I was just more willing to go the extra distance to make more interesting things happen in my life. I would get up earlier than anyone I knew, and work longer hours and without breaks, and try harder to make something happen in my life.

During that time I was working two day jobs. One job was at a pizza restaurant at a restaurant called Pizza Napoli at 122 Russell St Melbourne. The two old men who owned it claimed that it was the first pizza restaurant in the City of Melbourne, following the opening it Toto’s in Lygon St in the 50’s. My older brother had seen the job advertised on the job boards at the Brunswick Job Office, and he went for the job himself. They offered it to him, but then told him that it paid only $7 an hour, cash. $28 a night. Later that day he had told me that he’d turned the job down because of the pay being so low. Noting the pay, I got the phone number from him and rang them myself anyway. I figured it was $28 a night more than I was making at the time, and I could work there until something better came along. So I went in and they offered me the job on the spot. It was another heavy lifting job, and along with waiting tables I was stock boy for their alcohol store room and for the fact that it was almost at running pace all night. (The two old men who owned the restaurant didn’t like me very much, owing to the fact that on my first night I needed to stock a fridge with cold beer, and took a slab from the shelf, and left it in the freezer to chill, but then forgot about it, and the bottles exploded overnight.) Nonetheless I worked there for seven months. 

Shortly after I began working at Pizza Napoli my dad introduced me to a friend of his from his football club (the now no-longer Fitzroy Football Club) who was manager at (the also now no-longer) Village Cinema in Bourke St. The Manager’s name was Bernard Lawrie and he was a short man, about 5’8, with an old style walrus moustache, and a kind smile. He was in fact a very kind person in all ways to me, and offered me a job as an usher. So I began working at Village during the days, from 2pm, until early evening, and then went to the pizza restaurant by 7pm Wednesday to Sunday’s each week. However, during the day I started performing street theatre again. It had been about two years since I’d done so last. 

I’ve never been a gambler. I only ever make a bet if I’m close to 100% sure I’m about to win. Even then, I tend to only ever bother making a bet to teach the other person a lesson about challenging me in the first place when I’m right about something. However, I saw a gamble in street performing that I was sure I could win. The gamble for me was more to do with the potential and size of the returns I could make in producing and executing the performances. I knew how much I was going to make at the cinema each shift was about $45 a day. I could count on the Italian men who disliked me for freezing their beer to give me $28 a night to sling pizza to customers and stack boxes in their unventilated store room. But when producing and performing street shows I could make anything up to $300 a day if the weather was nice and I was on my game. 

So I again started surveying the landscape to see who was in town. Seeing who was performing what kinds of shows so I didn’t tread on any toes by performing similar material and seeing who was making what kind of money in which locations. My skills were mainly balloon tying and prop comedy and the structure of my show was four phases: the drum, the prelude, the act, the hat. I would start by drumming up attention with an umpire’s whistle in my mouth, blowing it loudly to get heard and see . When I’d managed to build an audience of a dozen ornate I would begin giving the impression that I was about to do something amazing… Any second now… And would then get distracted to show them some hilarious prop from my suitcase, and then back to almost showing them the amazing stunt… Any second now… And so on. All the while building up the audience attention. Immediately either side of executing the stunt I would begin the audience grooming, preparing them to understand the expectation that they would be expected to give money to me in exchange for the show they’d just watched. I’d execute the stunt, and then hold out the hat. 

Now, 20 years later, it’s easy to forget the cultural cringe that Australians suffered from in those days, which was as positively alive and flourishing. In more modern times it appears to have faded dramatically owing to Australia’s more recent love for reality TV and self interest through things like Facebook and YouTube. However, back in 1996 I would watch street acts with even the most basic skills make three times the money than others did, simply for the fact that they possessed a foreign accent. Europeans did well. But Americans made out like bandits. The audience would appear to throw money at the most basic American busker almost as payment simply for the fact that they had spoken to them with said accent.

Street theatre is possibly the hardest form of presentation I’ve ever made in my career. The artist is depending on making a number of people stop their journey to or from somewhere, and watch a performance that they didn’t expect to watch that day, and then convince them to pay for the show. It’s a seriously tough sell. So the first style and marketing change I made to my act was my accent. I added an American accent and doubled my in one instantly. 

While busking I made a number of friends amongst other artists. I felt very lucky to meet and become aquatinted with each of them, and still keep in touch with many to this day. But equally I found myself being approached by event and business managers, who would see me performing again free show at a school fete, order my street show, and they’d ask to book me for another show. Through this I met the then manager of the Prahran Market, who dropped his business card in my hat at the end of a show. The next saying called him and was asked to perform every Saturday and Sunday at the market as a roving act. The pay was $170 a weekend, which allowed me to leave the pizza job, and I was able to start growing my range of skills each week. 

I always admire any artist who has performed street theatre. The ability to stop traffic, and to make material vivid enough to present it on a busy street is something that few artists can do. But without question it draws apart the individuals who are hungriest to succeed in theatre. And without that hunger, it’s just a hobby. 

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Making Theatre – Sideshows

3 Aug


When I was 19 I made my first outdoor theatre. It was a small pair of tents that I borrowed from a mate’s church. At the time there were a lot of street festivals in the suburbs that I was getting shows at, performing as a stilt walker. But then there were also a bunch of festivals that I didn’t get the gig at, however I knew they existed enough to be able to know where to go to be a part of them as a vendor if I had a sideshow. So I borrowed the two tents from my mate’s church two weeks in advance and practiced setting them up in the back yard of the place I was renting to enable myself the skills I’d need to manage them on the day. Only one of them fitted in that tiny backyard so I had to set them up one at a time to learn how to get them up quickly. But they were heavy lifting. Even as a young man and much stronger back then, they were heavy, probably 70 kg each. The next step was to make a slideshow; the part that would be entertaining. I knew that I would be relying on my basic understanding of illusion to build what I need to make, so I set about designing what I wanted. I was working much in the spirit of P.T. Barnum, and I looked at what people would know and what they would find interesting because it was different to what they already knew. So I came up with the idea of a kangaroo boy. I would make a sideshow that to all intent purposes looked like a human with no arms or legs but with a giant great big tail that moved! I spent a lot of time trying to work out how I’d make something like it until a couple of nights later, when I was driving along Royal Parade at midnight. I was on my way home from a waiter job that I had in Melbourne, and I saw that the workmen were replacing stone gutters along the side of the street with new stone slabs. Each piece of stone was sat upon a thick piece of pine about the radius of my arm. I pulled over to watch them, and as I did I noticed that the workmen went on break. In doing so they left behind a huge pile of the wood in a place right next to where I could park. So I pulled my car over and tossed as many of the wooden lengths into the boot of my Chrysler Centura as I could and drove away as quickly as possible. When I got home I assemble them roughly into the shape of a human torso. I left a gap down the back that would be the spine cavity and then I shaped the ends of the torso to resemble shoulders and hips. I made a small costume for it out of satin pillow slip I’d found recently in hard rubbish and put a little yellow star on the chest and yellow trim on the cuffs from an old T-shirt I had. My mother was working at a curtains and blinds factory back then and she had access to offcuts of outdoor canvas. So she acquired me a couple of lengths of the canvas which I painted into banners. Knowing I needed another sideshow to present, I was able to make a bunch of small artefacts out of modelling clay which served to become a pickle Museum of oddities. A human ear that turns up at the top like a pixie’s ear in a glass jar of water to look like a preserve human remain. A baby condor chick with two heads in a glass jar to look like it was preserved. A friend of mine and I went catching yabbies one afternoon shortly thereafter, and with the shells I reassembled a yabby and then put a second pair of claws on it to make it look like it had evolved into a new breed with the four claws. 

I had been booked to walk on stilts at the Fairfield Station St festival a couple of weeks later. So I readied everything I needed and rang the organisers. I was able to get use of the tents and had a mate man the kangaroo boy tent by sitting under a table all day, with his head poked through a hole, with the wooden body in the pillow slip costume put up against his neck so it looked like the head’s body, and he’d pull the wire from under the table to make the long rubber tail I attached to it flick up and down. By the end of the day about 300 people had gone through my tents, each paying $2 a go, and I couldn’t have been more impressed with something I’d made from scratch in the name of entertainment. 
Skip forward 20 years and I now co-own and run a vaudeville theatre in Melbourne. Over the next three weeks Speakeasy HQ launches Wednesday night shows for the first time, meaning that we are now producing shows on five nights and matinees on Saturdays. It’s an exciting and bold new step, and one that has been accompanied by arduous and heavy lifting, building and sleepless hours for myself, knuckles and a lot of people. So as the day approaches show time I will wait, and watch, just like I did when I was 19, watching the street as people approach, watching the door to see how many people come in and hoping that the response is as positive as I it was for my first theatre. 

Loving the Process – Mario Milano

22 Jul

  
I have been very lucky in my life and met some amazing people. When I was younger and starting out in my entertainment career I met some of the last generation of the golden era in vaudeville. They were men on the most part, with the occasional lady here or there, who had danced, performed comedy, magic, circus, music and novelty acts around Australia, America and England up until the death of the genre in the 1960s. 
Over the past 25 years I have watched heaps of other artists come and go. Some have had incredible talent. Many had the backing of hundreds of formal lessons from childhood, leanrng whatever craft the parents paid for them to study. Someone given elaborate dancing and tap dance lessons from a very young age, while others were sent away to week long camps and toured with big name amateur theatrical societies. I’ve met so many artists over the years that the less remember able tend to be forgotten, but yet I remember literally hundreds of the better ones. However, sadly, in 99% of the artists I’ve met, I’ve seen people with truly remarkable skills, who burst onto the stages around the country, and were the ‘next big thing’, and now working offices. Others I have seen were incredibly lucky to have the backing of their parents, who would paid thousands for lessons, and then forces opportunities for them to be seen and get a foot in a door; and now they work in factories, or as stay-at-home parents on the most part. I guess entertainment isn’t for everybody, and to be fair, not everybody wants the same kind of career that I have had. However, this survey of the people that I have met has shown me that a huge number of artists who were wide-eyed when they began performing, even if they’d been around dance schools or singing studios for 15 years in their youth, tended to shy away almost instantly when the truth of entertainment’s hardships were shown to them. The hours and hours of lonely travel to audiences who were willing to see a performance. The audiences who had no appreciation for the thousands of stage hours the act had already accrued as they sat there checking their phones. Very little about entertainment is in fact glamorous or romantic. 
A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to meet Australian wrestling legend Mario Milano. I painted him as part of the competition in portraiture. He and his family were incredibly gracious and showed me into their home to meet, and paint, their father. Mario was, in his day, without question one of the greatest sportsman we have produced as a nation. Not only was he an international wrestling sensation, mobbed in the streets by thousands in Asia, America and Australia, but he was also featured in a Bruce Lee movie, and wrestled greats like Andre the Grates. Even though he’s quite frail now, and in his 80s, Mario is still a towering 6 foot five and enormous by every standard. I went to his house and sat with him for a few hours. We discussed his life story, and his many injuries sustained whilst wrestling. I related to this part of his story because my career has also delivered my body a battering beyond anything I ever would have anticipated. Every day of my life includes huge amounts of painkiller-drugs and regular physiotherapy. As an 80 year old, Mario is also prone to crippling injuries, and a body that is racked with round the clock pain. But when talking to Mario he made an interesting comment that has stuck with me. I asked him why he kept wrestling up until he was 50 years old, pushing through pain and crippling fatigue, and his answer was, ‘because I loved it’. 
It was an interesting statement in part because he used past tense. But also for the fact that he said it with such intensity. I asked him what he meant. What particularly was it that he loved. He thought for a moment and the said, ‘you need to love it. Really love it. Or you leave it. You need to love the training more than wrestling. You need to really really love the process not the end result.’ For me this was an eye-opening moment in my career. I had met somebody else in Mario who also appreciated the journey and the process of creation that contributes to the end result more than the 12 minutes of stage-time. 
It was in that statement, as I reflected, that I remembered the greatest loves of my life. I remember also the loves that I felt I could have, should have or didn’t have. I remembered every time I’d cried for those pains of love and the depth of considered love at in my life. To that end, in my earlier days, whist studying a theology degree, I spent hundreds of hours academically learning and studying what it means to love at so many levels. 
It’s been a long road for me. Many may not see it. And perhaps I did it to myself some of the time. I’ve always bitten off more than I can chew and gone way faster and further than perhaps I should have or had to. As a result I’ve achieved more in my life than others. But today I feel burned out. However, as I reflect on my life, and I think about the things that have mattered to me, and I remember the biggest events that have come and gone in my life; I can draw one consistency. I did every thing I did because I had to, in which case I did it to a satisfactory level, or I did it because I loved it, in which case I did it passionately in a way that left a brilliant and lasting legacy. I understand what Mario meant. I think about the love I have for my partner and children, and the lengths I’d go to for them. Then as I compare it to the love I have for entertainment creation, process and production, and they have a lot in common. Where Mario lived the journey with his wrestling career, his love wasn’t for the fame. His love was for all that grew out of his relationship with every part of his career. 
I love creating art. I love the process of creating shows, casting them, and every part of every step that goes with the creation process. Even when I’m tired, and run down. I love the anxieties that go with risk taking of huge amounts of money into ideas that may or may not work. I love the wonderful results at the end but I love the process more. It’s this love for the process that terrified and has scared off so many brilliant performers who only wanted to have people watch them, clap for them and stroke their egos. These are people who would prefer to be a construction worker than to pursue something that they saw and followed as a dream, because the cost of success was a lonely and hard one. For now, the journey will continue for me, as long as my love affair continues with the journey. 

The Accidental Audience

13 Apr

The accidental audience are honest and will walk away mid performance. Only a very well seasoned act can stop, gather and entertain the accidental audience.

  

When I began performing I was 13.  My birthday was two months earlier and my first show was at the East Coburg Tennis Club. My younger brother was a champion tennis player back then and the club was having its Christmas party. My mother had taught me the few magic tricks that she owned as a hobbyist magician, and she organised for me to perform a short show at the tennis club’s Christmas party.  It was a huge thing in my life and I was very nervous.  A week earlier I’d managed to find an old tuxedo at the Brotherhood Op Shop, (it smelled dreadful, and was probably owned by a dead Freemason… Who possibly died whilst wearing it).  I had all of my 11 tricks ready for the show, and I was terrified.  But, when the day came I went onstage, resigned to the idea that what will be will be. Ironically, it was a 38 degree day that day at the tennis club, and my tux felt like I was wearing a portable sauna. Nonetheless, I was thrilled about performing because it was my first show and I was crazily excited. 

The show went about as well as I could hope for. I did all my material as I’d rehearsed it, but the strangest thing happened. As I went through each of the routines I got to the punch-lines where I expected laughter, or surprised expressions, but I got no response at all. Just polite watching and quiet half-clapping. 

But here’s where the rubber hit the road for me in my professional career. See, this was my first show, and to all the best of my abilities, I was still nothing more than a teenage boy, wearing the tux of a dead Freemason, and performing basic tricks that his mother taught him. Hindsight is an amazing thing, and while I know all these things now, it doesn’t change the fact that my show was probably terrible to watch.  The routine was performed to the tune of The Entertainer, so I guess there’s an outside chance that perhaps the audience were enjoying the music from my cassette tape more than they actually enjoyed my magic tricks. But either way, I believed then as I do now, that if they given the choice they probably wouldn’t have watched me because, as I said, I was a young boy, in a cheap tux, performing easy and unimpressive tricks. So the question I then found myself asking was, ‘what makes an audiences watch an act that is terrible, and even politely clap at the end when they’re truly not enjoying it?

Three years later and I was busking in Melbourne. I was meant to be at school at the time. But instead I was trying to make my mark as a performer. It was late one night in mid December, after performing for 9 hours straight to capitalise on the Christmas traffic, and I’d began reflecting.  As I sat in McDonalds where I would later spend the night, pretending to be reading a newspaper so that the staff didn’t ask me to leave, I compared my first at the tennis club show to the day I’d just had. At one point that day I’d drawn a crowd of between 50-100 people who watched me tie balloons. That day, which was a Thursday, I had left the house with my school bag, and my school uniform, but gone directly to the train station, and into Melbourne. I had a hunger. I can’t describe it, but I literally didn’t have another interest in the entire world other than being able to create this kind of art. And the streets of Melbourne were the only place that would let me perform the kinds of tricks, performances, stunts and gags that I thought would make the difference that I was trying to make. It was the end of a hard, but fulfilling day as I pondered. I remembered the looks on the faces of the audience back then and I compared them to the expressions I saw that day in my street audiences. 

I left the house that morning as per usual. But inside my green, vinyl school bag I had a small, cardboard suitcase. In it were a set of juggling clubs that I’d literally made in woodwork at school a year earlier and a bag of tying balloons. I walked down the hill to the train and all the way in to the city I kept my eyes on the sky. It was a strange day and I was racked with nerves. I kept looking at the clear, pale blue sky which helped me not think about all the possible outcomes that were possible for that day. I knew in my heart what I wanted. I wanted to bring something beautiful to the world and I was going to try and do so with my performance art. 

So, After a short walk from Flinders St to Bourke St along Swanston St, I stopped at the place where my busking permit allowed me to perform closest to the mall. On the corner of Swanston and Bourke St’s I put down my suitcase and I took out a small stick of white chalk.  I then drew a circle around the area that I intended to perform in, and I started to perform my show.  It was the first time that I’d performed a street show, and I was literally numb all over with fear. But, strangely, as I took my postman’s whistle, and blew it loudly, people actually stopped to see what I was doing. After my experience sweltering through the show at the tennis club I had reassessed what costume I would wear in my new incarnation as a street performer. I no longer thought that I was a tuxedo kind of guy anyway. But I also knew I needed a costume of some description to wear. So I asked myself a fundamentally important question – ‘why have one kind of costume or another for any reason?’ As in – what is the actual and factual reason a street performer wears a costume, and what purpose should it serve? In my case I decided that it served one purpose only – to announce my intentions. My audience were not there deliberately to see me perform. On the most part they were all going somewhere already. So when I blew that whistle in the street, and they turned to see what the commotion was about, if my costume was chosen correctly it would be an instantly evident message that I was a performance artist who was about to perform a show. As my first interaction with the audience, my costume would serve to either invite them over or alienate me from them. They would either see a performer wearing a checked shirt with braces and a bow tie in the clown Nuevo style, or see a dude in jeans blowing a whistle. But capturing an audience was only the first part of my challenge as a street artist. 

As the day went on, and I saw coin after coin thrown into my case, I grew more and more confident in the idea that I could not only get the attention of someone who was walking past and convince them to stop, but I could also retain them for a few minutes too. I also learned that day that the longer they stay the more they pay. So the whole of my success was going to depend on my ability to perform in a way that was so dynamic, so fast paced and so captivating that they couldn’t leave. And as the audience started to stop and watch my material,  they even occasionally clapped at the ends of my tricks on the odd occasion!! Later that night, as I prepared to sleep in the MacDonald in Bourke St that I began to realise that there are two kinds of audience. 

That day I had seen a different kind of audience to the one that I’d seen at the West Coburg Tennis Club. That day I had performed to an audience who were either coming or going somewhere. They had literally no intention of stopping to watch a show that morning when they left the house. None of them had any intention of being an audience as they walked toward me on the street that day. But the thing that made them stop walking and become an audience was the fact that my material was so sharp, and Id worked so hard to perfect it, and I was delivering it with so much energy that they couldn’t help but stop and stare. So, although it was quite accidental to them that they became an audience, they still ended up becoming one anyway.  The opposite situation is the deliberate audience – such as the East Coburg Tennis club.  Every person there sat and politely watched a sub standard show, and they clapped politely at the end, because they were all committed to being an audience. They knew when they left the house that morning that they would be going to an event where there would be a show. They knew that they would need to clap, regardless of the quality, and they went to that tennis club to be an audience. They were deliberate about their intention to be an audience and they were a deliberate audience.  

This article is specifically about the difference between a deliberate and an accidental audience.  I believe that the artists who perform with a mindset that their audience are an accidental audience, even when they are not, are the artists who leave life long impressions. 

Jump forward another fifteen years and I was performing in an outdoor circus ring I’d built, in a place called Deniliquin (aka Denny). It was my first time performing at the Denny Ute Muster and although there were a lot of small children around who would enjoy my show, being able to make their farmer-parents stop to watch the shows was tough work. Many of them thought that arts that were unfamiliar to them were to be distrusted or mocked. The setting at the festival was much the same as street theatre, with people strolling about at the festival, and my job was to stop them, and present them with a show. Although they didn’t necesarily deliberately intend to watch a performance that day, they were a much easier audience to gather because they were in festival-mode and more willing to look at things.  

On my team of performers at that show was an artist who was new to the team. They were a circus artist of sorts and had a pretty solid grab-bag of skills. They knew how to juggle, hula hoop and perform a bunch of other stuff from several years of circus school lessons. However, their only experience was with said school, giving concerts in community halls to family and friends who were deliberately there to see them perform. This meant that they had never experienced an audience who were more than willing to stand up and walk off in the middle of a performance if they got the slightest bit bored. This is the marker of success in trying to perform to an accidental audience and is referred to as ‘walk away’. So as the day got underway I began blowing on my postman’s  whistle, and gathering up an audience. One by one they’d sit, and then after a short time when I had two dozen or so in my audience, I’d introduce the first act. At that point the artist would come on with all their props and begin. However, in all their experience as a circus artist it had never occurred to them that an audience can and will walk off if they aren’t completely engrossed in the performance. So, as this particular artist got to the middle of the ring in their costume (which looked decidedly home made, basic and altogether unimpressive) I saw the first three people leave. The artist noticed too. However, they kept on with the routine and began performing. And in the chaotic and loud environment of the festival, with all the competing white noise of rides and stalls playing music, the artists struggled to maintain the audience’s attention in any of the material they were using in any way at all. That was when I saw the next six people leave the audience. At the end of the show there were three people watching. 

Jump forward to the present and I am now managing a vaudeville theatre. In my dealings with the many artists who perform there each week, sometimes up to fifty acts a week, I often try to explain the need to understand the accidental audience.  I try to impress upon the artists that I work with the need to assume that your audience can literally up and leave if they aren’t performing with their all. But in honesty, unless the artist has had to scrounge an audience from the street they tend not to understand the actual value in treating them like they are an accidental audience. On the flip side, I have had the pleasure of presenting  at Speakeasy one or two of the greatest acts I feel I’ve ever seen. One in particular is an artist named Kyle Raftery. He is a NICA graduate, an exquisitely trained juggler, acrobat and ubicycle rider with a world record. I met Kyle in 2009 when our mutual agent sent us both to a place in South Australia called Kimba (google it). That day, as we caught a plane, then drove five hours each way to perform in 35 degree heat, and then drive five more hours and finally fly two hours, I watched Kyle separate himself from most other artists I’ve seen perform. On literally a dirt field at the agricultural show he gathered an audience, perform his material, and keep them all the way to the end, and then they erupted into applause. He knew the challenge, and knew that there was no moment where he could take it for granted that they wouldn’t leave, because they would leave the second he slowed his pace or lost the tiniest bit of momentum, and he drew them into a powerful, energetic and inpeckably timed performance like a pro. However, 18 months ago, when I launched the theatre that I now work at, I asked him if he and his partner would both perform for us in the first show we produced. And it was there, that night, as Kyle and April performed that I knew that they never took it for granted that any audience was going to sit there the whole way through their performance. Their intensity was every bit as potent as the day we worked at Kimba Show. And the audience were left cheering and stamping their feet. 

The accidental audience are honest. They will give an artist what they deserve. A deliberate audience are not honest. They will afford the artist more opportunities to experiment, and the safety to perform at a slower pace with no consequences – wearing the tuxedo of a dead Freemason.  But I assure all my colleages and fellow artists that it is the truest mark of grate was in an artist when they are able to perform in a way that would make an audience stop and watch them, even if they were on their way to another event. 

The Hunger that Drives Us

15 Mar

 

When I left school in the middle of year 12, it was 1993 I was 17 years old and I was seriously hungry.  My family were living in a house in Coburg that belonged to the Anglican Church’s welfare department. They had taken pity on my family and allowed us to stay there, as we had nowhere else to go. It was a sad time with a lot of conflict between my parents, my siblings, and a massive cultural shift for all of us. A year earlier my family had fallen out with the teachings of our former religion, the Salvation Army. As a result of not agreeing with their ideas of what God is, we were cut off and isolated socially by every person we’d ever known, called friends or spent time with.  So as the members of my family rediscovered themselves in various ways during that time, I had only one interest. It was an interest that I can only describe as a hunger.  It was an insatiable need that I’ve had since I was about ten years old.  

I’ve never been bitten by the ‘bug’ to perform, and although I’ve performed thousands of hours on stage, I personally never felt the need to be on stage, or to perform. The need that I felt then, which I still feel today, was the need to create art that shapes the world into the something that is more beautiful and more amazing than the world in which I presently live in. I believe that through art we can actually make our ideas into tangible substance that can literally change people’s lives. After a lifetime of being brought up in some of the truly poorest communities around the world for the sake of my parents work as Salvation Army Officers and seeing the sadness, despair and destruction that exists in the world, I was by then convicted by my need to make any kind of art thrive. 

But as a 17 year old, and in a time before the internet, I had an extremely limited view of what had been before me, and had very little way of researching my ideas other than to simply test them by doing them. I was exposed at a younger age to art forms such as circus and illusions by my mother, so they were my starting places. I joined the magic circle club, and I performed my small collection of tricks at any occasion I could, such as family diners and the occasional birthday party. But they were not enough for me. I was sure that there were larger audiences out there to be had and my need to change reach them through my art was growing.  So in the middle of my final year of highschool I made the decision to change my own path. On my way home from school that Wednesday afternoon in August, as I trudged along in drizzle along the 4.5km walk up Bell St, I decided that the following day I would go into the city and watch the buskers perform. My intention initially was just to ‘watch’ the buskers. Back then there were a lot more of them, as they were permitted to perform circus and variety style circle shows in the Bourke St mall. So, as the afternoon progressed I watched the second act for the day and I realised there and then that I had no intention of returning to school ever again. 

In my life I’ve been beaten by a lot of things and almost gave up a few times. I’ve beaten physically, beaten in every kind of race, in arguments and in love. But the only consistent in my entire journey remains the fact that my belief in the ability to change the world through the creation of art has never been shaken. It is that singular belief that gave me this insatiable hunger to create and perform in the hope that i could make some small change in the world. 

So, The following day I went to the Melbourne Town Hall to get my buskers permit. It was a fascinating day because every busked in town was there. We all lined up, and one after another we were stamped and handed out permits.  And then, finally, I had my licence and permission to begin! It was a xeroxed slip of paper, stamped with a rubber stamp, with my name and the city’s coat of arms on it. I figured that surely I was about to make a real difference to the world! I had complete confidence that I was going to be able to begin performing, and that my efforts would tie in with the grander scheme of things and everything would work out perfectly… Sadly, however, reality is never far away and it paid me a visit the very next day. My reality check came quickly, effortlessly and somewhat shockingly as I began performing my first street show  ever. I was not permitted to perform in the mall. I was new, and I could only secure a permit to perform along Swanston St.  So I found a suitable location along the front of a shop window, away from any doorways, and I put down my small, cardboard suitcase in front of me that Id painted my name on. I took out my juggling balls and began to juggle. It was at exactly that moment when I heard a familiar voice. It was the voice of a well known thug from my high school. He was apparently also discovering himself in the city that day and happened to be passing along Swanston St as I was taking the first step on my life’s longest journey. From the open window of a passing team I heard, in the thick Australian/Lebonese accent, ‘OH MY FU&!ING GOD!!!’ I didn’t see him directly, but I knew the voice very well. My blood ran cold. I stopped juggling for a moment, and I checked myself. I didn’t know exactly why I was there in the first place. It’s only now, many years later, that I know what was driving me to do what I was doing that day. But back then, all I knew was that I ‘needed’ to be there, to learn that craft, to use it and to make something with.  So, I took a deep breath and kept juggling.  And I juggled.  And I kept juggling for what seemed like an eternity, until finally the thug and his sidekick found their way from the next tram stop back to me. They stood in front of me, alongside three other people, who were also happily watching my material. I only had half a dozen lines and bits that I could perform at that stage.  I’d perform them, then finish with a behind-the-back launch of three balls, and then drop the hat, and ask for donations. I knew they were there, although I pretended not to acknowledge them or any of my audience. So I went into my routines, and a few more people stopped walking and began to watch me. I did my first three tricks, and a lady stopped with a child in a pram. Then, finally, just before I finished with my big, last trick, a small group of school girls stopped to watch as well. In all I had a small audience of about 25 people, including the thugs. So I did my big finish, caught all three balls, put them on the ground in front of me, then dropped my hat for tips. It was right then that my theories were tested as the larger of the two threw his lunch wrappers and empty coke can into my hat. They were the first people to ever respond to my request for money from my audience ever. They laughed raucously as they dumped their trash in my straw hat and said, ‘here ta go, ha fuc&!ng poofta – here’s your tip!!!!’. I folded my arms and rolled my eyes, assuming I’d just have to stand there and ride it out, when a small part of my entire world suddenly changed as a result of my six short juggling tricks. The lady with the pram spun to face them, and she stepped right up into the face of the larger thug. ‘How DARE you!!??’ She snarled a him. He looked smugly at her, and unmoved. ‘Oh, I dare to, love, I dare to heaps,’ he drawled back in his slow, idiotic way. ‘Is that so?’ She said back, in a matter of fact way. The audience I’d asked for donations from were transfixed by the action, and the lady suddenly turned the other way. At the top of her lungs she yelled, ‘MICHAEL!!!’ Almost instantly, Michael appeared from inside a nearby shop, wearing a full police uniform. He was an older looking man, about 50, and he walked briskly toward the lady. She told him quickly what had happened and the policeman took out his note pad and proceeded to write the thugs up for littering. To make it all just that little bit more amazing, the smaller one referred to me as a dick-head, and the policeman added to his citation a fine for indecent language – with a mandetory court appearance. I was blown away! It was the first show I’d ever performed! 

I just stood there, watching this amazing moment of justice unfold before my very eyes, until finally, as the policeman explained the last details to the thugs about the official fines that they would recieve in the post within the following working week, he finished by adding, ‘and now you’ll go and get your rubbish, and put it in the bin’. So, the thugs begrudgingly walked over and got their trash from my hat and walked off with it. The lady came over to me and told me how wonderful she thought my show was, how brave she thought I was, how her grandchild loved my show, and how sad she was that people like that existed in the first place. But right the I was sure that I had witnessed a real change in the world because take place in front of me. I had convinced someone with a little bit of influence to help me make a small difference for the better, and it happened because of my art. 

In years to come that day would play out in my memory many times. I knew that I had won that day, and winning can sometimes be a scarce feeling. Being able to reflect on that day has helped me past some crippling defeats at other times. But the hunger that I still feel drives me to make, facilitate and spread art in order to push back and fight against the horrors and cruelties of the world. It remains my only lifelong conviction. 

Only through the creation of art can we become truly evolved creatures that are capable of making philisofical concepts like justice, peace and love into tangible realities. 

The Last Man Standing

22 Feb

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In 2002, I was working on ideas. Some were good ideas and others were not so good. But I tried them all. Good or bad. It was a learning phase for me. I have been extremely blessed with a particular friendship since 2001. A lady in the US who became the best friend I’ve ever had. Her name is San and she is in many ways an intellectual genius. So, as I was experimenting with my ideas, making shows, performing them anywhere I could, and learning how to make showbiz viable for myself, she stayed in close proximity to me as a mentor and sounding board. She’s also 30 years or so my senior, so San offered me the benefit of a world of her knowledge too.

That year I had a success with my first one man vaudeville show, the Roy-All-Variety-Show, and I wanted to take it to the next level. My material was pretty strong, and I’d added a tap-dance routine, two songs and some prop comedy to my magic act and circus stunts. I even sewed a new costume for the show, rather than bastardising something I bought at an op shop. So, as I talked through my ideas with San she suggested I read a particular book she’d seen online. It was an old rare book, printed in the 1940’s. So I went to buy a copy on Amazon, but the last copy was sold. Much to my surprise, a week later, in the mail arrived said book with a note from her – ‘when you’re rich and famous you can thank me’. Although I’m neither, I still thank her for her gift. But it didn’t stop there. One after another San would see books online that crossed over into what I was learning about, things that ties in with my experiments, and sent me books to read about ways to shape what I wanted to do into something that stood a better chance of working. Interestingly though, she never sent me a book about how to sew costumes, which must have at least told me that my sewing skills weren’t too bad.

So as I read the first book she gave me it fascinates me to see how promoters and show organisers before me had used other aspects of theatre to make their shows even grander. And one particular theatric gem that caught my attention was the acts from the pre-war period of vaudeville that toured with their own bands. A variety artist who had a live band backing them, to me, at that time, just seemed like something that would be amazing to watch and listen to at every level! But the reality was, that I didn’t know any musicians, I didn’t have the funds to pay a band, and I certainly didn’t have the time or energy it would take to sew costumes for a whole orchestra on top of my own.

It was a year later, at a party, and I was introduced to a young man named Rowan who was studying full time piano at the College of the Arts. In talking with him about his degree he mentioned his ability to record his music. So I asked him if I could pay him to cut me a backing track to an original song that is written, because I didn’t have the costumes or money for a live backing band. However, to my surprise and astonishment, he explained that his friend is a school music teacher called Allan, and he leads a big band of 39 musicians, and that they would most likely love to play my songs as a bit of fun! Even better – they already had their own costumes!

So we got talking. He was an extremely sweet guy, and he obliged me in preparing the music scores for my two songs so that the whole band could play it. It took him a long time, but he did it and it sounded amazing! One of the things that I look back at and remember now is that at no point during the discussions did he or I ever discuss money. We were both just simply living for the opportunity to build something amazing, and something that mattered. He with his music and I with my show.

So we met Allan’s Orchestra at their rehearsal space mid week in Keillor, and we went through the songs, and after the second time through, they sounded amazing! The sound was like nothing I’d ever heard before. So I went away and began finding shows to perform at. We performed at a ball in Melbourne as our first show. Then at a wine bar with an abridged version of the band. But it was at what was to be our third show that things came apart. I arrived at the venue for the show, and was set to meet the others. We had pre arranged to meet at 4pm for a 6pm show. I was working a full time day job at the time at the Herald Sun newspaper; so it meant that I had to take time off work. This was also to be our first paid show together, so I was very please with myself. However, when I arrived I was the only one there. I waited for half an hour and rang Rowan. I asked him where he was. However, on the other end of the phone he was just silent. Finally he said, ‘Roy, I’m so sorry. Allan decided that he doesn’t like having to perform with this show because he has other commitments, and last night he sent a message around saying that he wouldn’t be coming…’ I however had not received the message, so I had shown up in my new costume, waiting to perform the show. So I rang Allan, the band master, and asked him why he’d done this, and if I’d done anything to upset him. Surely, something like this had to be a reaction to something or other, I thought? But as I asked, he answered the question for me by interrupting me as I spoke. ‘Look – I just don’t feel like doing it! I like to play band concerts, not cabaret shows! Sorry mate and good luck!’ And he hung up.

That night I explained to the guy who had hired me that it was outside my control, but that I was very keen to still perform my show anyway. I was lucky that the manager let me still perform, but he refused to pay me at the end. It was agreed that I hadn’t give him what I said I would, and even though the audience clapped and laughed in all the places I intended them to, that ‘a deal is a deal’. In reality I just felt that he saw a way to get a free show out of me and he took it.

In my career I’ve stood up three shows over a 25 year period. One was because I collapsed at the airport arriving home from a tour of regional South Australia, where I’d been awake for 37 hours, driven for 15 hours of that time, and performed five shows in 41Deg heat. Turned out that my lung was failing to inflate and my kidneys were collapsing from dehydration. I spent three days in hospital from that one. The second time was similar and I was also in hospital for over a week, and the third time my ex-agent double booked me. But believe me – there have been a lot of shows that I didn’t want to perform at. Shows that I hated performing at, wasn’t necessarily even paid for but did so anyway because I said i would, and I just loved my art too much to let it go hungry like that. In the last 2 years, with the advent of Speakeasy HQ, and being responsible for casting 10-20 act vaudeville shows every Saturday night, it’s astounded me just how many artists vary in their opinion to mine. Recently I had an act message me in the middle of the night, less than 24 hours before the show, to say he was not performing because he didn’t think it would be financially worth his while enough to sing the 3-minute song he’d agreed to sing for the money that we’d agreed to. And I totally get that money is always a factor in why people choose to perform or not, however, the deal was clear from the beginning, and online advertising was placed and paid for specifically for him to get extra PR, and hopefully encourage more people to want to see him perform; all in all about six to eight hours work to promote his one song. And then there was the act who showed up at the event, but then went home because he wasn’t happy with the order of the run sheet. Also neglecting to realise the hours of promotional work I’d done for him, including making him a professional grade promotional video and uploading it at a hotel wifi when I myself was touring. Or the artist who took a deposit to perform at a region show for me while I was in hospital, but forgot to go on the day. So, I literally got out of bed and did the show myself.

In discussing these things with San, my mentor, she made the observation to back when the brass band didn’t show up. She noted that the people who will love their art more than life itself will always be the ones who make it big. Their love for their art is such that they will literally move a mountain to ensure that the health of their act stays strong. These artists, interestingly, often end up making serious money from their art because the audience appreciates the honesty, love and passion for their act. However, there are those who are in it for the money, or the fame or the ego stroking, and they don’t remain in art for very long. They will always bounce back into it here and there with another idea that’s short lived. But essentially, like any hobbyist, they get their fill and move on.

I don’t know what makes one person fall so deeply in love with their art that they’d personally suffer to preserve it, like a mother would to see her child thrive at her own expense. Perhaps if I sewed them all new costumes they’d have shown up? Who knows.

The Lessons Aren’t Always Worth It

18 Feb

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When I was nineteen I went to the Melbourne Cup. I wasn’t going to see the horse races though. I went to walk on stilts and tie balloon hats. It would be the third time I’d been to the Cup.

The first time was when I was 16. I caught the train there with my younger brother and a mate. My brother was 12, and tiny for his age. He looked eight years old, tops. When we got there he watched me tie balloon animals and hats for the people on the train platform in a sort of busking act, but then went home a short time later with my friend. We both used to tie balloons for fun at home. We both taught each other how to blow them up and make them into the animals that were in the book I bought from the magic shop. But that day I overlooked that he hadn’t gone there to tie balloons and make money. He was there to be with me. He was much younger than I was and was probably quite overwhelmed by the situation, as I went into my routines and made balloons for anyone I could kid into letting me do so for them. However, at that age I was very hungry, and I saw an opportunity to make money. So when he said he was bored and wanted to head home with our friend, I let him go, and he went off. It was the last time we tied balloons together too. I thought about it on the way home and I felt dreadful about it. I knew what I’d done. We went to the cup dressed in the same baggy checked shorts and shirts. But I didn’t stop to think about him and I let him drift off. So I apologised when I got home. However, he just made out it was no big deal.

Two years later I went back to the Melbourne Cup. I was eighteen and living in a house in Pascoevale, and intermittently sleeping in my car. This was one such occasion. I’d slept the night across the road to the car park of Flemington Racecourse and I got in there early to get a good car park. I got my stilts on and went walking at about 9:30 when the people started arriving. I was looking for anyone who I could sell a balloon to. A balloon flower to a young couple or a hat to an old lady. As the afternoon went on and the punters got drunker, I made more and more balloons and I could charge more and more money. By the end of the day I left with just over $700 in gold coins and no balloons left. I’d blown up over three hundred of them that day by mouth. I’d been wearing 3.5kg stilts on each legs for eleven hours, in mud, and my body was killing, but I made a tidy sum so I was content. However, during the day I’d had a couple of moments with the drunk mobs of 20-something year old males in cheap suits who made hilarious jokes about pushing me over etc. One even gave me a light shove, but was stopped by his mates. So I went home relieved but of the opinion that I didn’t need to go back to the Cup again if I could help it.

A couple of years later, however, I did go back. I was 22, and it was the last time I went back to the Melbourne Cup as a performer. I was skint broke and trying to support myself, and pay for my then sidekick Dan the Man, living in a bungalow in Oak Park. So I had the idea that I could make a small sum from selling more balloon hats. Since he was willing to come along I figured that Dan could be my security guard and walk around my legs playing piano accordion while I made balloons to sell. We always agreed to split the money 50/50, so although I wasn’t going to make as much, I was going to be able to pay my rent that week. So we set off early that Tuesday morning, and we got a decent car park near the gates.

I donned my red vest and put on the stilts, which had I had added huge wooden shoes to, and they now weighed 4.5kg per leg, as I trudged through the grass to where the people were picnicking. The day had only just started and we were looking for young romantics to give balloons to when I decided to make a slightly bigger show of it. There were about 200 people sitting on blankets, having their breakfast, so I decided to make a circle show. I took out my whistle and had Dan play a piece on the accordion that was our starter piece. Then I went into the opening, ‘Ladies and gentlemen!!!’

I only got as far in as pulling out a balloon, my first balloon, and inflating it to begin my first trick, when I suddenly saw a flash of movement from over my right shoulder. It was coming from beside Dan’s left side, and he saw it before I did. He flailed his arms at it feebly as it passed him, but then the drunk man who was running at me crash tackled me at my foot level. His mates cheered wildly from a short distance off, and Dan took off his piano accordion, stowing it safely under a nearby bush, and came back. I felt something crack in my left knee, just before I hit the floor. The drunk guy was knocked out because in his moment of macho brilliance he’d hit his head on my stilt and knocked himself out cold. So he lay there on my stilts, as I felt my left knee blowing up like a balloon. I looked around at Dan and he was shaking, standing next to me and saying, ‘what do I do?’ A woman came running over and said ‘I know first aid…’ To which I asked her to call the police. But she looked at me… She said, ‘I can offer you first aid…’ I asked her again, ‘please call the police!!’ However, at this point she just backed away. As though I suddenly vanished to her. She literally just went back to her party and sat back down on the blanket.

The drunk guy came too at this point. His mates were beside themselves laughing at what they’d been able to egg him on to do, and he looked up it me. I looked at Dan, and realised that he was possibly about to cry, and my blood boiled. All my life I’d taken huge chances to make art for others to enjoy. I’d sacrificed massive amounts of personal time to train and to make my costumes and my props for others to enjoy, and this fool thought he was entitled to harm me, destroy all my work and effort, and try and humiliate me for daring to try and make a living from performing.

I unstrapped my leather belt with a flick of my wrist, reached down and ripped at the Velcro strapping that held my stilts to my legs. Although one knee was now useless I was still on the ground and so was he. Once my legs were free I wriggled out from them, rolled, grabbed him by the hair and began punching him in the face, over and over. Suddenly, several people ran over to stop me. The first aid lady was suddenly muttering something about how people like us shouldn’t be allowed into the grounds. Dan was slowly walking backwards. I gathered my stilts up and hobbled off, leaning on them as a walking stick. Dan trailed behind with his instrument. The drunk guy headed back to his pals and they continued to laugh.

I went to the police once I’d dropped my stilts back to the car, and told the cop in the patrol car about what had happened. I told him that the man who had done it was still over on the grass, and that I wanted to press charges. However, much to my amazement, he said, ‘so let me get this clear, you wore stilts to the Cup and you’re all surprised that someone pushed you over? Don’t you blame yourself for anything?’ It turns out that he saw no value in what I was doing either. So I repeated to him, ‘I’ve been assaulted and I want to press charges!’ He asked me which man it was, so I pointed him out. He looked back at me and said, ‘what, Aboriginal guy?’ I hadn’t thought it was important to point out his ethnicity. In fact, many of my immediate family are Aboriginal. Instead I pointed him out as the guy in the Hawaiian shirt. The policeman who didn’t value art turned back to me and said, ‘here’s my advice – if I take him to the cop shop, Aboriginal Legal Services will have him out before lunch time.’ My advice to you is don’t do stupid things in the first place, and learn from this.’ Turns out he was racist too.

A year later I had an arthroscope to remove the last fragments of cartilage from my joint. They were about the size of a match. I couldn’t stilt walk for six months or so after that, and got a job as an usher at Village Cinema in Bourke St.

I’ve had three other moments in my career where I’ve seen that same kind of fear in people because art is different to what they want the world to be. People who want so desperately to be able to understand everyone and everything in simple terms. People who want everyone to follow the same football team as them, and hate the people from the other team. Who want everyone to watch the television, and to mock and jeer the creators as ‘poofters’. Very few things I have came easily to me. Most of it was born out of trial and hardship. There are times I think I’m happy with all that it’s taught me, and all that I’ve been able to create by pushing forward endlessly to create, and never taking a backwards glance; but other times I regret not telling my younger brother that it was OK and that I’d go home with him to practice more until he was also ready. But the one consistent through it all is the aching feeling I get in my knee, both hips, back, neck, shoulders and ankles from all the ‘lessons’ I had to learn to make art.