In my first few years of performance practice, inbetween paid gigs, I made my own stuff. I didn’t label it as anything at the time. The word independent might have come up on the radar as applicable to the music scene where there were major and independent ‘labels’ but at the time I hadn’t heard it applied to theatre. The term ‘independent’ (and what it might mean/how meaningless it is) is being discussed at present. It got me thinking about a messy little show I made very early on, and how an iguana escaped from it and started getting gigs on its own.
La Bamba was a late-night cabaret performance space run by La Boite Theatre in Brisbane in the early 1990’s. The idea was that after the main show on Friday night, the audience might hang around (and younger audiences might show up) and have a drink, and be up for something a bit wacky or musical.
Surely The Magic Show was an aberration, emerging as it did from improvisation to music. I should write a ‘proper’ play, the proper way. Script first. I had tried to follow up The Magic Show by writing a script about a boy being locked in a supermarket overnight. Seeking to incorporate musical sequences, its working title was Chopin Spree. Yes, it was. Being 1991 I had typed out a first draft on an olivetti typewriter. The writing was hollow and lame. Its magic realism was laboured, the dialogue bland, and I didn’t even like Chopin that much. But that’s how plays are supposed to be made, isn’t it? By writing a script.
Like a bad impressionist, I was aping the work of a playwright without feeling any of the impulses that drive them. Who was I kidding? Maybe myself. I’d listened to music all the way through writing that piece. My head was swimming with it. So I decided to bin the script and make a play the fun way, and see where the music took me.
Working with my friend Julia, we decided to make something specifically for La Bamba in 1992. I liked the idea of a surreal variety show. So, following basically the same idea that I’d explored with The Magic Show, though more atomised and modular, I just found music I thought might be fun to perform to and went from there. Variety shows have hosts and acts. We came up with both. Into the mix, we threw ‘critics’, life-sized cardboard-cut outs of us in costume which appeared in spotlights to criticize the show (in pre-recorded voice-overs) from the auditorium while we changed costume.
There was no story. We scrounged costumes. I liked the idea of the hosts arriving by balloon so I built a miniature one, with character figurines of us in its basket which we ‘flew in’ to the dramatic sound of Wagner.
The show’s graphics and aesthetic continued an old-fashioned style I’d become attached to. I did the posters, cutting and pasting photocopies from old lettering books I found in the library.
There were some spoken word pieces, but none of them made any sense in a conventional way. They were absurd in style, but not substance. The variety element meant, however, that nothing outstayed its welcome, and the show kept moving. It was a bit of a feat to perform it with just two people.
I named my compere ‘Baulderstone Hornibrook’ because I liked the name, which I’d read on a crane – it was the name of a local construction company. I sat at a piano and mouthed Jack Buchanan’s ‘Goodnight Vienna’ as a false moustache gradually came unstuck simply because I loved the song. Not really a good enough rationale for a performance, but we were young.
Any performance piece incorporating music needs the litmus test of taking the music away. What do you have left?
If the answer’s nothing, and the music’s the coolest thing about the scene, than you don’t have a scene.
I donned a loincloth and single golden wing and cavorted to a Casals solo cello piece. an angel with one wing. Why? I hadn’t finished constructing the other one. Most scenes circled pointlessly on themselves like this, and never took flight as we ‘rehearsed’ the idea of being performance makers in front of audiences.
The overworked and abstruse metaphors of The Magic Show were not present here: nothing meant anything.
I missed making meaning. Few gags or sequences developed past their initial premise. However, some seeds were planted that grew elsewhere.
The show was a double bill with a romantic cabaret-piece called ‘In Bed with Madoona’ (yes, that’s spelled correctly) which I co-wrote with Stephen Davis and was MD of. A busy time. The show performed. The houses were good. It closed. It was reviewed by a non-cardboard reviewer.
In Stars of the Air, Tyrone made an appearance with a singing iguana puppet, he gurgled along to Deh, vieni, alla finestra, a mandolin-led serenade from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Aided by a false hand built into the puppet, it voiced the vocals on the pre-recorded soundtrack while I appeared to ‘pluck’ out the mandolin part on its ‘spines’. It was quite a nutty idea which I poured a lot of time into realizing. Born in Stars of the Air, it migrated to my next show Toast, and I got work with the puppet at various gigs including three successive Livid Festivals. An adaptable creature.
I even got my name on the festival’s T-Shirt. Down the bottom. Literally. Where you might tuck it in, if that’s how you roll. One of my gigs at Livid with the iguana was onstage in-between Screamfeeder and psychobilly act Fireballs, while the roadies re-set the stage. It was a strange, peaceful little interlude between two quite rockin’ bands, broken, only momentarily, by a half-full plastic waterbottle that flew onto the stage in a graceful arc. Then I went back to the dressing room/tent where two young brothers had apparently sewed themselves together in preparation for a kind of rural S&M routine with a shotgun and bridle. I got changed, put the iguana back in its suitcase and went and watched Dead Kennedy’s singer Jello Biafra berate his audience in the midday Brisbane sun. Rock and roll. Performance.
Stars of the Air. A mixed bag. Some beginnings. But it taught me that the music, no matter how brilliant it is, is simply not enough on its own.