Ukulele. Double Bass. Gorilla. Behind the magic.
I ripped off my Backseat Drivers costume and dashed out of the performing arts complex and down to the next gig. A hot tent outside on the lawn. A stage had been set up for music and story telling at the 2000 Out of the Box festival for children. Peter had his gorilla suit on already.
It was the beginnings of a new show, which by 2002 looked like this…
But two years earlier, back in the tent, all I’d done was I’d arrange for me (ukulele) Samuel Vincent (double bass) and Peter Cossar (gorilla suit) to play some ukulele songs, interspersed with some patter. It had been inspired by a workshop I did with a bunch of grade twos in building Backseat Drivers. At the end of the workshop, I offered to play the children a song. I brought out the ukulele case, and opened it to reveal the instrument. Its appearance was greeted by group glee before I’d played a note. I thought: why not play some uke music that wasn’t ‘kids music’ for kids. That idea, and some rushed rehearsals led us to the stage that morning.
We played There’s a Rainbow Round my Shoulder, Al Bowlly’s Making Wickey Wackey Down in Waikiki and a couple of others in a 15 minute set. I was dressed as Tyrone with my trilby and teeth. It went over well. The jaunty material and little/large uke/bass combo had dramatic, as well as musical potential. We played three times over the 10 days of the festival. We’d embellished the gorilla suit with a tiara, and handbag, further blurring the what the heck is that effect. Peter absolutely threw himself into the role. Children greeted the ape with sighs and cries of delight as it minced out from behind the backdrop. His charisma shone through the fur.
CHARIOTS OF IDEAS
I started to write a show centred around the performance of live music. The story of the show would be the story of the show going wrong. The idea was it would be a dysfunctional performance team, led by Tyrone. I built scenarios around each song, extending the patter into suggested sequences with a narrative progression.
It was an ironic take on the ‘educational’ show for children – this show would ostensibly be about the Wonders of the Ukulele. However, it was actually a metaphor for bullying, with Tyrone being the bully, the Gorilla being a by-stander, and Sam (who invented the stage name Lesley Vurley) being the ‘bullied’. The double bass was big, cumbersome, ‘uncool’; pathetic in comparison to the compact genius of the uke… or so thought the misanthropic Tyrone.
With Sam expressing concern about not having any acting skills I framed the role so it was non-verbal, and would enable him to communicate via simple stage actions… and his strength: performed music. No drama. I’m magnetised by the double bass, and the way Sam played it was extraordinary to me. I figured it would be the same with the audience.
I did tons of research into bullying which was an especially hot topic at the time, and decided the worst thing to do would be to present a simplistic, didactic view of a complicated issue in theatrical form. I wrote up a concept document and treatment, to and, perhaps on the basis of the success of Backseat Drivers (which had sold out in 2000 and was still touring) was accepted into the 2002 Out of the Box Festival, as a La Boite/QPAC co-production.
I wanted to build on the processes that had brought about Backseat Drivers, kind of a combo of improvised and writerly rendering of the play. Some call this devising. I invited Sam, Peter and director, Sean Mee, to create the piece alongside me. Guided by the concept document, the script would record and clarify what what we invented collaboratively on the floor, rather than dictate what we should do from the outset. We talked a lot, and played a lot, and built the show. I’d write at night. Sam and I rehearsed a set of potential tunes. Graham Fuller describes Dennis Potter‘s approach of using songs as ‘Chariots of ideas’. A lovely metaphor. In this way, even songs you don’t like can serve you in telling a story.
The show got more complicated. I had to consider Tyrone as a vaudeville performer rather than a performance-art persona, and build in signals so the audience were clued in as to what they were meant to be enjoying. We had to consider how the show might go if it ‘went to plan’ before it ‘fell apart’.
We decided we wanted to use the power of participation in children’s theatre (everyone expects that they have to ‘join in’) for ironic purposes. That is, for Tyrone to enlist the allegiance of the audience, in bullying the bassist. (Audience = bystanders = complicit). Then through theatrical guile, mastery and gorilla suits, the children would see they had to change allegiance, and therefore we’d make our point about the complex cycle of bullying. It was a tough ask, and in retrospect a bit overcooked given the time and resources we had available to realise the show. As the show neared what we laughingly called completion I realised that while the show would certainly be entertaining for an audience, whether they ‘got it’ or not, I didn’t like playing a baddie.
SPINACH IN THE ICE CREAM
Another issue I had was that I’d thought long and hard about whether to reveal what the show was about in program copy and publicity material. There’s great pressure on children’s theatre to reveal its fibre, vitamins and minerals. To include evidence of its moral purpose, why it’s ‘good’ for young audiences. Referring to children’s literature, Meg Sorensen calls this the ‘spinach in the ice cream.’ Anxious, perhaps that the adults wouldn’t get it, I included comments about bullying in the description of the show I provided to the festival.
It’s a tricky balance, writing this kind of copy, or paratext. It matters. In 40 words it has to capture what the experience of the show might be like so it sells tickets. Some of the decision-makers are going to be teachers who’ll bring school groups, so they need to justify all the hassle that goes into taking a group of kids to the theatre. You have to make it simple enough for children to understand. You have to make it so simple that even people in marketing understand it.
I knew I wanted the show’s ’conflict’ to be represented musically, and possibly in the classical genre. Sam and I had worked up the William Tell Overture so it looked like an improvised duel. People loved it. To a certain extent Sam had to fake its degree of difficulty. I had no problem making it seem difficult, it was right at the edge of my abilities at the time. We worked it and worked it. Adding in some choreographic elements heightened the appearance of a play-off between the two characters. This sequence would often elicit a rollicking, rock and roll style response from the audience, and we played up to that. A show-stopper.
The show played in QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre (capacity 300). Not the ideal venue. I wanted to be closer to the audience. It went over well, and received a couple of generally positive, but rather mystified reviews. Theatre for children generally doesn’t tend to get serious reviews.
‘Ukulele Mekulele’ was a great example of treating the potentially fraught subject of bullying… in a clever, rather than blatant way. You can’t discuss this show without mentioning the character of the Gorilla, who, caught between the bully and the victim, all children responded to very positively. Pia’s key response to the show was ‘I want monkey cuddles’. Lowdown August 2002
In retrospect, the show’s aspirations outreached its ability to realise them. I was trying to do something too complicated, and processually, was still working out whether I was a writer or a deviser. Or a performer. The ironic take on audience participation I was aiming for hadn’t sufficiently taken account of what the audience might want to get out of the experience. I was utilising the show as part of my Masters, too, and was working way too hard. I made the very detailed video promo with Luke Monsour and the show was picked up for more seasons.
We revived the show for a season at the Sydney Opera House in 2004. In re-rehearsing it we fixed the ending and the show improved greatly. When we were in Sydney, the first season of Australian Idol was about to reach its televisual orgasm with a performance at the Opera House. We pushed our little trolley of gear through a wall of thousands screaming teenagers, lining a security-guarded pathway, awaiting the arrival of Guy Sebastian and friends.
Another highlight was a ukulele orchestra of year two boys bringing their instruments. They nursed them through the show. They took the stage at the end of the gig and they played some songs for us. The stage was full of children playing ukes while we stood listening in the empty auditorium.
The show’s final season was back at QPAC in January 2005. By the time we were back on the Cremorne stage we were a very tight unit. Sam and I had built up a repertoire of ukulele classics and obscurities. He kindly assisted in some of the more unusual performative endeavours I was creating alongside the mainstream stuff. We started to ‘play’ more on stage by the final season of Ukulele Mekulele, finding a register of performance that wasn’t ‘acting’, but was still responsive to over-arching narrative, and the demands of onstage situations. He loved playing live and was completely committed to the musical moment in live performance. We talked about writing songs together.