• 15 Dec 2008 /  Articles

    Most people probably reckon they’ve got an autobiography in them – if you believe one of the characters in Tough time, nice time (see earlier post). Unfortunately, for any of us tempted to bonfire ourselves in such a vanity, the down-side is a lot of hard yakka. One way out is to get a ‘ghost’ to write it for you, which is kinda cheating; or downgrading to an ‘authorized’ or ‘unauthorized’ biography. I have stumbled across another option. If you cook lunch for enough people, you will simply pop up in their autobiographies. They will tell your story for you. It may not be all your story, or even your autobiography. But it’s still an ‘autobiography’, if that’s what you’re after.

    Two brief appearances now for me, thanx to my efforts in the kitchen.

    Eric Michaels in his Freddie Mercury phase

    Eric Michaels - his Freddy Mercury phase

    My first is in the idiosyncratic deathbed memoir by a gay American anthropologist called Eric Michaels, who lived in Australia from about 1982 until his death from AIDS, age 40, in 1988. Michaels spent the bulk of his early years out here looking at the impact of television, following the establishment of community-managed satellite stations, among remote Central Desert Aboriginal communities. A born-again stirrer, Michaels attracted attention with some very bold essay writing, including the highly regarded ‘For A Cultural Future’ and ‘Bad Aboriginal Art’. He was dying of AIDS in a Brisbane hospital when I heard he was planning a trip to Sydney for one last Mardi Gras fling. I was editing a little theatre magazine at the time, so I asked him if he would like to scribble a ‘grass-roots anthropological response’ to the ‘big gay night out. I might have been hoping for something called ‘Bad Mardi Gras Parade’, which back then would have been even more taboo than raising he prospect that some Aboriginal art might be bad. In fact, he had a wonderful time at the parade, and typed accordingly.

    Prior to the big night out, I created a trendy little luncheon for him. A couple of years after Michaels’ death, I got a call from Paul Foss, then editing a memoir, titled Unbecoming, Michaels had left as a legacy. There was a page in it about the lunch. A few pars about how nice it was to indulge in some reasonably smart chat, while not to be treated like a leper, despite the fact that he was very wasted by then and had Karposi’s Sarcoma sores all over his face. There were bits Foss was wrestling with. Firstly, would I object to being described as a ‘little bit mad’? Not at all! Who worth remembering from era past has not been reported as a little bit mad? Looking deep into the future I could see Neil Armfield directing the musical. Yep, casting would be interesting? Judy Davis as my mother?

    Secondly: what about Michaels’ speculation of an affair between myself and Patrick White? I saw in my mind’s eye the intimidating gargoyle of Manoly Lascaris rise up on the front landing of the house he shared with White in the Martin Road, Centennial Park. You ring the bell, make a sign of the cross and wait. I wondered how anyone even contemplating having an affair with White would get passed the Live-In Saint! But why let the facts get in the way of a good story? A rumoured affair with a Nobel prize-winner, however curmudgeonly, would look very good on anyone’s CV. Why not? I trilled to Mr Foss. As photographer, William Yang, puts it sagely – explaining his vast collection of photographs of Sydneysiders in various states of physical and moral disarray: ‘People prefer fame to respectability.’

    Years later, thanks mostly to my cooking again, I have recently made another appearance – in Blood &Tinsel - the memoir of theatre director Jim Sharman. When I first met Sharman in the late 1970s, he was just back from his years of globe-trotting hit musicals, and I was almost out of uni. I was startled to discover someone planning to direct a Patrick White play. At that point in the cycle, these were utterly disparaged works. In turn, Sharman was startled to discover a person who had actually read one! In fact all four written so far, and was quite a fan.

    Jim had many feathers in his cap: great stories from abroad, an extensive record collection, all the right books. But the cupboard was bare. I boiled an egg and Sharman was impressed. It was s kind of food-for-thought in exchange for real food kind of relationship! They was a lot of payola in it for me. I got to meet some very interesting people. Eventually even the only writer, to that point, to have ever influenced the way I saw the world. Perhaps ever? Mr P. White. It is Patrick’s cooking that I remember from those years, not mine. Here I was in my young twenties sitting down to table with the most amazing people, unable to contribute to the conversation, but loving every minute of it. I ‘acted’ not being out of my depth, and helped Manoly with the dishes.

    Jim Sharman was very kind to me through these formative years. As he has been to others whom he has sought to encourage. I looked after his fine big house and tentatively explored the possible writer in me, while he either talked on the phone to Patrick or travelled abroad. We saw European art movies and he flung me books. And yes, I cooked dinners. All sorts of guests, and this time I could contribute: at least by way of a range of dishes. Sadly, I’ve forgotten how to cook since then.

    I thought I was a Faded Rose...

    I thought I was a Faded Rose...

    At one point in the Blood &Tinsel, Sharman says I reminded him of a ‘strelitzia’. Everyone has a bloom in them of some sort I guess. Why would mine not be spiky ‘subtropical perennial’ bursting into a garish flourish towards the top? After stumbling across this bit in the book, I wrote to Sharman saying: “I thought I was a faded rose from days gone by?” lol

    I recommend the book. I’ve waded through a lot of autobiographies by people from the Australian theatre profession, and I do wonder if their editors ever think to offer any constructive help? You get the feeling that the folks at Melbourne University Press put a lot of care into this one; although someone could have done a bit of fact checking. Straight forward stuff, like ‘Person X directed play Y opening on date Z.” There shouldn’t be mistakes like that in any book, much less one in this price band and so obviously written with an eye to posteriority.

    There are other kinds of facts which lie beyond the reach of any editor or publisher. For example, Sharman’s version of my time in his house is quite different from the way I might tell it. But that is how it will always be. That said, I do believe he got the ‘spirit’ right. That’s also what I like best about Blood &Tinsel overall. While everyone sees the world through the distortion of their own eyes, Sharman’s version is particularly distilled and compelling. He also has rather interesting material to work with. It has been, and continues to be, an interesting life. The ‘blood’ and the ‘tinsel’ hark back to Sharman’s upbringing on the carnival circuit where his father, and grandfather previously, ran a celebrated boxing troupe. The first third of the book is devoted to that early part of Sharman’s life. It’s a fascinating world of long train and car journeys, strange towns, strong men, exotic women, layers of tent canvas,  the smell of sawdust, intimidating clowns, even Princess Ubangi – a dwarf princess.

    Sharman's 1969 production of Hair

    Sharman's 'communal' production of Hair

    The second section of the book covers Sharman’s ‘global’ phase. From his counter-culture version of Hair in Sydney, premiering 1969; through Superstar and onto London where, with designer Brian Thomson, The Rocky Horror Show was born. This was an exceedingly prolific period that saw season records being broken on the West End, and versions of these hit shows going up all over the world. There was the more intimate world of the Royal Court, too; where Sharman premiered early Sam Shepard plays and, from out of the tiny Upstairs theatre, Rocky was born. Then there was the film.

    Sharman on the set of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

    Sharman on the set of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

    Sharman had made a visit home in 1973 to create the debut production for recently opened the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House: a startlingly imaginative Threepenny Opera. Kate Fitzpatrick a lusty Pirate Jenny. He was back again for the excellent Sydney version of The Rocky Horror Show, in 1974, starring Reg Livermore in his audacious prime as Fank’n’furter, with Jane Harders and John Paramor ideal as Brad and Janet. Then, at the height of his fame, Sharman turned his back on London and the rest of the world and came home. He looking for more meaning, I think. Sharman’s starting point was a production of White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla in 1976. It’s hard to explain to readers now the impact this production had on Sydney. Not only was White’s reputation as a playwright salvaged from the rubbish tip; but the ‘realistic’ stage aesthetic to have dominated mainstage Sydney since the war was swept away by the Thomson’s minimalist design and the cut-back characterizations Sharman secured form his cast. An even more innovative production of White’s A Cheery Soul a couple of years later, meant there was no going back.

    One thing I will reveal about being close to Sharman during this period, was watching him turn his back on ‘the musical’, the fading art-form he and Thomson had only just revived. I remember phone calls from all over the world: whoever could secure Sharman to direct Evita, for example, would secure the rights. That’s how I remember it anyway! These guys on the end of the phone were trying really hard. But Sharman would not be moved.  He was not going backwards – no matter how tempting the money. It should be appreciated that only after Sharman left the field did others find room to step into that breach.

    I could go on, but it would be easier for you to buy the book. Oh, and back to ‘the facts’. Getting facts exactly right might not be a feature of Sharman’s approach to autobiography. But a zeitgeist kinda guy from the beginning, Sharman is certainly right on target, in Blood & Tinsel, when it comes to capturing the ‘spirit of the age’. While the book is rich in fabulous detail, and most of the facts are right; more importantly Sharman does step back to offer a fascinating personalized ‘overview’ of his life and times – thus far. The book can also be seen as a generous gift: to those ‘who come after’. Just as P. White loved to encourage and reward, so to does Sharman. In great part, this book is an offering to the next generation coming through. Any doubt about this is put to rest in the way the book ends, with a tribute to Benedict Andrews’ 2007 production of The Season as Sarsaparilla. If there were still lingering doubts as to the merits of the text, Andrew’s put them permanently to rest. He also took Sharman’s anti-naturalism to new heights.

    Robyn Nevin as Miss Docker in Sharman's production of A Cheery Soul

    Robyn Nevin as Miss Docker in Sharman's production of A Cheery Soul

    It is a Prospero moment, if you like – the past pages of Blood & Tinsel. Not that I believe Sharman is about to retire. With an excellent The Three Furies and Blood &Tinsel behind him, and an upcoming Cosi fan tutte for the Australian Opera, if anything, Sharman is on the comeback trail. To enter a latish, ‘mature’ stage, you get a sense that Sharman  the shaman/showman felt a need to let quite a whole lot go. A lot of it is in this book. He ‘breaks his staff’ not just for Andrews, but the promising generation this talented director represents. I suspect a good swathe of my readers belong to the same Sharman ‘gift’ group. Okay the price of a hardback is quite beyond your reach, most of you being out-of-work actors with nothing better to do than read blogs!

    But it’s Xmas; and surely your parents, or a well-funded maiden aunt, have been fishing for clues as to what to get you to put under the tree? So, just as have organized for others to publish my life story (well the kitchen bits), now is the perfect time to encourage others to buy you this book. I have only one regret about Blood & Tinsel. It does not contain everything nor everyone. I am included, to some extent, for colour and movement. There were others from those same years who, perhaps because they had less to do with ‘theatre’, unfortunately don’t make the cut. Wonderful people, impressive people. This book, at its heart, is about theatre for theatre folk. That’s also its strength.

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  • 08 Nov 2008 /  Articles, News

    Patrick White always maintained a committed interest not only in the day-to-day life of ‘ordinary’ Australians, but to their well-being also. We know he preferred chance encounters on a park bench to dinner parties with the rich and famous. But he noticed without prompting the needs of those in strife. For a reputedly mean and curmudgeonly man, White was extraordinary generous, compassionate and kind to many people whose names are unknown to the rest of us.

    Here’s a small but telling example. White had a standing order at Clays Bookshop in Kings Cross, especially its heyday under the beady-eyed management of Miss Chapman, for a new (usually hardcover book) to go to out out once a month to about 20 elderly locals - often ex-showbiz types long past their hoofing days – for whom reading the ‘best and latest’ had become a life-long pleasure they could no longer afford.

    Playwright John Romeril

    Playwright John Romeril

    The Patrick White Award is, in similar spirit, aimed to bring attention to under-recognised writers, many of  whom have had been burrowing away at their work for decades, often without a lot of acclaim and sometimes with barely an income. Perhaps more importantly is the long overdue recognition this award brings, and sometimes even a fresh spike in book sales. This year the award goes to playwright John Romeril. Previous winners have included Bruce Dawe, Thea Astley, Janette Turner Hospital, Gerald Murnane, Elizabeth Riddell, Randolf Stowe, and many others. To most of these writers the money ($30,000)  means something. Interestingly, the source of the fund is the prize money attached to White winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973.

    The first recipient, and to this day probably its most deserving, was Christina Stead.  Stead is one of our greatest writers, The Man Who Loved Children a masterpiece; yet she spent her last years living close to penury, largely forgotten, tucked away in a nondescript southern Sydney suburb.

    Stead was one of the lucky people to be invited to the occasional dinner at Patrick and Manoly’s in Martin Road. I was told once she would often arrive with bags of empty liquor bottles she felt she could not dispose of discreetly enough in her own rubbish bin. Apparently this was a not uncommon feature of a visit to your home by Stead in her later years. That White himself knocked off the odd bottle or three of vodka himself in his later years meant a few extra of Stead’s would hardly have raised an eyebrow from the garbo.

    I am happy to declare myself a die-hard John Romeril fan – the writer and the man. He is a great bloke and, to this day, one of our best writers for the stage. Yes indeed, where are the big company commissions? His politics still cook and he is an expert craftsman, which explains why he is so often brought in as a mentor. Romeril is best known for his play The Floating World, and more generally as a part of that lively group to coelesce around La Mama and The Pram Factory from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. What many, even in the Australian theatre profession do not appreciate, is that Romeril has never stopped writing, producing at least a play a year (if not two), often in collaboration with a diverse range of small arts and other community groups. This suits his artistic raison d’etre,  no  doubt a lot of creative satisfaction in this, but little financial reward. For more on his current  project, I quote from a news item in The Age, 8 November:

    “[Romeril] is now working with descendants of Torres Strait Islander workers who came to the mainland about 50 years ago and became experts in railway track maintenance. In one shift of 11 hours and 40 minutes, they set a world record for track laying to the Mount Newman iron ore mine in Western Australia of 6.8 kilometres, nearly double the previous record set in the US.

    “It’s a singing culture and the plan is that a nucleus of professional performers will travel to towns where there are islander musical groups who will take part in performances.”

    Romeril believes the 60,000 years of Aboriginal culture underpins Australian society. “The much earlier polity of Aboriginal Australia is a ghostly thing. Many council boundaries show a strange alignment with tribal groupings,” he said. This is why he stresses the importance of local and regional communities. “The view from Canberra is a very strange one, with this technocratic dream of controlling the whole country.

    “Central planning can’t work in country as big and diverse as this one. I’ve always sought bottom-up stories that any centralised system wouldn’t be aware of. You need a mix of big and little that you ignore at your peril.”

    I interviewed John Romeril in 2004 for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History archives. It was a hurried interiew as I was not in Melbourne for very long – my fault. There should be more there. But for those wth an interest in this wonderful man’s life and work, there is some excellent content nonetheless. Romeril speaks well on tape and has a very agile mind. He is very well read, an amazingly clear thinker, and his answers to questions are almost never what you would normally expect. Here is a link to the NLA file reference number for that interview. So congratulations Mr Romeril! Well earned – and greatly deserved, By way of a gift parcel, I am wondering if you drink vodka? A bottle – or in the ‘spirit’ of Stead and White, does it need to be a crate?


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  • 15 Oct 2008 /  Articles

    My life has changed since Germaine Greer declared I was Aboriginal. Not necessarily coz she was right – though she always is! But because this was around the same time I was heading off to Ernabella – and all the good that has come to from that ‘sojourn on another planet’.

    The good from that trip is multi-faceted, but one of the main elements was the opportunity to allow the illness of ‘anxiety’, with which I suffer, to diminish from a big black hole in my heart to a much smaller black smear. Here I am putting my life in my readers’ hands, but – oh well – what are blogs for if not to blog all over. Only a few of you know that I fell off a cliff when I was in my twenties and drifted into a coma while on the operating theatre from which I did not emerge for, I think, something like twelve days. I had many operations, four on my left hip, including two in London – where I limped around for a year with an infection and a bandage from knee to groin for more than a year. It was a tough way to start my global career as a something. From which I returned unsuccessful and instead became a critic.

    Approximately 27 fractures to live with this day, mostly down my left side, so I get a bit of arthritis these days – oh and the blood I received in transfusion was infected with a virus I am still obliged to manage daily. But the only real price I paid for that accident was ‘nominal aphasia’ (aka ‘forgetting names’); and what has been diagnosed as ‘panic disorder’, perhaps better known as ‘shell-shock’. This might help explain to those who think they know me, why sometimes I have been known to ‘over-react’ to challenging or unpleasant situations I have sometimes found myself in.

    It got to a point in my 40s where this behavioural flaw seriously started to have a negative impact on my life at all levels, personal and professional – and I had to go seek help. The highlight of which was being accidentally locked in the toilet of my psychiatrist’s flash new premises, magazines being pushed under the door, while we had to wait a couple of hours for the builder to turn up and get me out.

    I was greatly comforted in that moment by two factors. One was the idea that I was in the middle of the ultimate Woody Allen joke; and the other was a cartoon hand-drawn on the toilet mirror by Leunig – which I really can’t explain here without tiring you out, but which was suitably philosophical to help me through the moment.

    It has taken a lot of hard work for me to feel confident that I could return to crowded buses or bars, though a boss only has to shout at me once for me to get up and exit a new job. It speaks to my love of the form, I guess, (how safe I feel) that I don’t at all mind a crowded theatre foyer.

    But I did let myself down on the drive from Alice Springs to Ernabella when, at a rare petrol station stop, a woman called me to wind my window down so she could pour abuse on me with great enthusiasm for an alleged driving  incident some several hundred kilometres earlier, when – as I tried to explain to her – I was not actually driving the car. In normal circumstances these days I would have done whatever I could to defuse the situation of this hard bush bitch barking obscenities at me with an apology and a soft smiling heart; but instead I fell into the old trap of answering back. All this is very small beer – except for the fact that, while I was chewing angrily on my ‘burger with lot’ (a very good one actually) from the garage diner, Big hART’s Scott Rankin came up and pressed his thumbs gently into my shoulder blades. In front of the rest of the somewhat-alarmed touring squad. It was a gesture of strategic healing and noteable compassion from, in effect, a stranger. And while this piece of writing is not about Scott Rankin, or the recent trip away, it was an action that – I believe now – goes to the heart of his work.

    What I do want to note however was the ‘Whiteness’ of the woman’s attack on me. It is not how I grew up. Something else not many of you would know: but I was born in 1955 in a tiny colonial hospital on the island of Sohano, which sits in the strait between Buka and Bougainville; islands themselves that for thousands of years belonged culturally to what we now identify as the Solomons, but were hived off at the stroke of  a pen and carelessly handed to the colonial powers (first German, then British, then Australian) holding sway over what we like to call New Guinea. Later down the time-line, of course, trouble has come from that.

    Even though my parents were not a great match for marriage, and trouble unfolded in later years; growing up on those islands, and other outposts around New Guinea and Papua (Saidor, Madang, Kerema, Daru, less so Port Moresby in the later years) was characterized by a peacefulness – an absence of ‘anxiety’ – that I have missed since moving to Sydney for boarding school in 1967. ‘Alienation’ is not given its due as one of the structural posts of late capitalism’s consumerist society. “We grieve therefore we shop.” “We grieve therefore we shoplift.” “We grieve therefore we yell at that other customer in the queue.” We grieve therefore we stab the late-night migrant worker before making off with a packet of cigarettes.”

    It was not until I read Patrick White’s Riders In the Chariot and Tree of Man (syllabus texts) in my late teenage years that I found some help in understanding the weird underpinning of gratuitous cruelty that appears to characterize the Australian culture. However ‘low tech’ they might have been, the towns had grown up in across PNG seemed infinitely more civilized.

    I am not talking about some kind of hifaluting colonial pomposity, of the sort indulged in by the British in India. Life in PNG in those post-WWII years was ‘survival’ based, and even if almost all the European households had ‘staff’, there was a great camaraderie and mutual respect between colonizer and colonized – by and large. Mum would babysit the housegirl’s kids if need be. And kids from the nearby village would be rounded up to flesh out attendance at our birthday parties – where such luxuries as lamingtons, meringues and fairy bread appeared as nutritionally mad, if delicious, to the locals, as they actually are.mMy mother used to say she knew we would always be safe on Bougainville, all three of us little children, however far we wandered. That PNG is no longer such a safe place is an indictment of Australia’s mismanagement of it’s obligations as a colonial power: but that is a story for another time.

    It was profoundly tragic to revisit the place of my birth in 1988 – in the midst of a civil war. Bougainville  PNG. All over a goddam copper mine. I found the tiny hospital I was born in abandoned by staff and taken over by a colony abandoned lepers. It was a confrontation as shocking as it was succinct. I had come to find a lost part of myself: and I did so in the form of one young man who would appear from behind trees and bushes, shouting mad things at me with great enthusiasm as he limped along the track behind me – in the belief I was his long lost brother. Jimi! Jimi! Jimi! Well perhaps I was!

    This dislocation in my sense of self is something I have had to learn to live with. And, apart from the occasional fall from good grace, I have done so. More or less. But it does not take away the sadness; nor does it diminish the suspicion in my eye as I gaze across what is brightly described as Western Culture.

    So you can see why my journey to Ernabella with the Ngapartji Ngapartji mob was such a positive experience for me. In the first instance, there is the Big hART working model, which requires all participants to put their egos in their pockets and work as one. As someone who must still be very careful about how much time I spend in the company of large groups, living close to the ground – 24/7 – in so-called ‘primitive conditions’ – with between twenty and forty people was a great test of my susceptibility to ‘illness’. And for 99.99% of the time, the experience was incredibly positive. I fact I have emerged from the adventure with a much stronger and more secure sense of worth and self. And a more secure sense of calm.

    More significant was the experience of being Ernabella itself, which is so like the towns I grew up in. If dryer. Or quite likely similar to what most of these towns would be like if I visited them today. So many memories came flooding back of living in a ‘bi-cultural’ world. And how comfortable I felt with that. I remembered writing in my diary from Rabaul in 1988: “I feel like a frog put back in his pond”; and there was a touch of the same sensation being in Ernabella too. Though I am not making light of the profound cultural differences between indigenous PNG cultures and those of central Australia.

    Dear me: all the above was intended to be no more than of pre-amble to the ‘subject of the day’ – subjet du jour! Which is meant to be what I made of the Deadly Awards in particular but, in the same week, two other trips to the Sydney Opera House. And another tonight to see/hear Pattie Smith. But, in fact, as the week has unfolded, all these ‘live’ experiences survive in the shadow now of the most significant cultural event since my return. That being the opening two episodes of SBS’s bone-shaking series, The First Australians.

    Are you watching it!

    Since few of us these days have very long attention spans, and there are no pretty pictures to go with this post (sorry kids) I am going to stop here. Leave you hanging, as it were; and I will pick up where I am leaving off tomorrow.

    PS: for those of you who love my site exclusively for Brett’s pictures, I assure you, more are on the way. He had to do a wedding on the weekend (yep you know the movie – The Wedding Photographer). But he is back processing images from Outback-DownUnder as you read this

    ….if you got this far (lol).

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