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 - 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...
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 '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 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
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.