Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Giving it petrol: lessons in stage craft

When we were kids, my sister and I didn't so much 'put on a show' as stage a series of very avant garde performance pieces in our parents' master bedroom.  The main appeal of the master bedroom was the walk-in wardrobe, which made a good backstage area and so facilitated our most edgy piece  "I'm Scared."

"I'm Scared," was a multi-media performance that involved one or the other of us (we were an interchangeable troupe of actors) playing our flute in a dramatic fluttery way as we emerged from the walk-in wardrobe, crouched Bangarra dancer-style, looking hither and thither like a hunted fugitive. The success of the piece involved a complete commitment to the moment of being scared.

We dabbled in all manner of performance types.  There was a puppetry piece called, "Bwoop Bwoop, It's The Critter," which involved the clever use of a ball of wool with the bobbly ends of knitting needles for eyes.  If you pushed the needles back and forth it looked like the critter's eyes were going, 'bwoop bwoop.' There was a song to go along with it, but it would be lost in translation here.

And our most accessible piece, "Ha ha ha! Everybody's Jolly!"  was a musical extravaganza into which we cast our three year old brother. We dressed him in a leotard and gave him strict instructions not to 'improvise.' He was to perform only the choreographed dance moves assigned to him and to stay in the background.  We made our parents watch it. They were a tough audience and responded with a sort of bemused smattering of applause before checking their watches and going back to the living room to watch the end of, "Murphy Brown."

Over the years I have forged some sort of career in music and performance.  And while none of it was as satirical and edgy as that early work with  my sister, I have learned a thing or two about stage craft. I will share my wisdom now.

Lesson # 1: People have to look at you. Keep yourself nice.

 I learned this lesson early on.  When I was 16, I took part in a small recital put on by my singing teacher.  The recital took place in his teaching room: a small room no larger than most people's bathrooms, on the third floor of the Dymock's Building .  From memory there were about 10 other singing students there.  It wasn't so much the fact that people were looking at me that made me feel awkward, but the fact that they were sitting on plastic chairs about three foot away from me as I wailed out my mournful version of the Negro spiritual "Were You There When They Crucified The Lord."

Also, quite contrary to the fact that I was a skinny underdeveloped 16 year old, I had a very loud singing voice.  I was afraid I might be hurting their ears especially when I hit my dramatic crescendo  on the line:

Whooah- oh -oh-ooooh. Sometimes it causes me to tremble brother tremble

  As a result, I spent my entire performance wringing my hands inside the bottom of my school jumper and looking up at the ceiling. When I'd finished, instead of applause I heard this:

"Oh my God! Stop doing that with your hands, you're making me so uncomfortable!"

A woman in the front row (a mature age student who had sung "Georgia" in a very pretty and self-satisfied  way) was covering her face with her hands.  She stood up then and came toward me and yanked my hands out of the bottom of my jumper. 

"What a lovely voice, but please don't do that with your hands when you sing!"

It occurred to me then that it was more important to make THEM feel comfortable than it was to absorb and deal with my own discomfort.

I never did that again and learned to stand as elegantly as I could with my hands down by my sides and wear something aesthetically pleasing. I also stopped singing Negro spirituals, given that a) I am not a Negress and b) I knew nothing of the terrible suffering that might cause one to wail.

Lesson # 2: Give it petrol. 

This was a difficult lesson to learn given my formative performing years took place on pub stages in the early '90s. It was the fashion then to look down at the carpet and sort of, pretend that you were too cool to want to be there.

 There was alot of grunge going on: alot of pasty boys playing fuzzy electric guitars and singing pretty badly.  It was hard for two girls (who aimed to sing in tune) to know how to pitch themselves.  It was a boys club and we wanted to fit in.  As a result we just stood there singing and strumming. We thought it was going pretty well, this singing and strumming thing until we played a big outdoor festival in Brisbane and a reviewer described our act as:

"... about as exciting as watching paint dry..."

He had a point.  I took it on board. I tried to give it petrol from then on.  I still do. But sometimes I get so relaxed up there I just forget.

Lesson #3. Don't insult your audience.

Again, a difficult lesson to learn on the job.  The year was 1993. I toured the regions supporting Things Of Stone and Wood. They had the biggest hit on radio at the time, a song called, "Happy Birthday Helen." And out in the regions, where men are  men and women are women, it was especially heartwarming to see big boofy country blokes punching their fists in the air as they sang along  footy-chant style to the line:

You are the voice in my heart that whispers compassion!

What wasn't heartwarming was going on every night BEFORE the main act and having people yell out for me to play "Happy Birthday Helen."  It was chronic. It happened every single night. I couldn't fathom it. I understood that they couldn't wait to hear that song. But to request that I play it for them? Surely it would only lead to disappointment. Better to wait for the real band to play that one. But still they persisted. And not just once. Numerous times during my solo acoustic set of girly tunes a voice from the dark would caterwaul hopefully.

"Happy Birthday Helen!"

As if there might just be a chance.

And then when I didn't comply, they would shout out again insistently, as if completely bewildered as to why I wouldn't fulfil their request.

(It's funny what people expect of a girl with a guitar.  I once played a B&S ball out in Windsor. A big empty hay shed smattered with boys in tuxedos and girls in ill-fitting taffeta. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to put me on with my guitar as the opening act, I will never know.  A very drunk girl zig-zagged her way from the back of the room (where everyone was gathered, trying to escape my annoying music) to the stage. As she got closer with the obvious intention of engaging my attention, I tried to ignore her and go to my happy singing place. Finally she stood at my feet,  beckoning wildly to me.  I stopped playing and leaned down to hear what she had to say.
She was so drunk that her eyes were rolling back inside her head looking for her brain.

  "Sczzz me..." She slurred, nearly falling backwards, then righting herself and lurching forwards again, "do you know, 'Lump'?" 
It was a song request.

Again I'm not sure why she thought that me singing her favourite song by the subversive punk grunge band, "Presidents of the USA," would be satisfying.  I told her I didn't know that song. She kept insisting that I knew it and I should play it. Then she tried a few others:

 "Smack my bitch up?"
"Black Hole Sun?"
"Heart shaped box?"
"Listen," I said finally, "I don't know anything that you know. Okay?"
She blinked, lurched backwards and then zig-zagged back across the empty barn to stand with her back to me alongside the rest of the tuexedos and taffeta.   In retrospect, I should have just knocked up a quick Patsy Biscoe-style version of 'Lump' to shut her up. Who knows, it may have set the barn a jumpin'.)

Anyway back on tour with Things of Stone and Wood: town after town, audience after audience, pub gig after pub gig, I would have to play my entire 30 minute support set with people yelling out intermittently for 'Happy Birthday Helen.' 

They weren't heckling, they were genuinely requesting that I play their favourite song. Even when Things of Stone and Wood finally played it, towards the end of their set, the audience was not sated. They would keep piping up throughout two encores of other songs, with requests for the band to sing that song again.

One night, before I'd even strummed a chord, a girl in the third row, called out for it.
"Are you stupid?" I said.  "Obviously I don't play that song."
The audience then became one seething mass of hatred.  All directed towards me. An audience is a frightening beast that can turn on a dime.
"Ooooooooh." They hummed in unison.

"Up yerself bitch!"
"Get off!"

I did get off. About 10 minutes later. I exited stage left to a roar of abuse.

An audience is like a savage beast: best not to poke it with a stick.

Lesson #4. When things go wrong on stage, just keep smiling.

I used to do my 'nana.  I couldn't hack it when things went wrong: leads buzzing, guitar strings breaking, foldback cutting out, speakers popping. I'd lose it.  It didn't help. It just made everyone uneasy. The audience reared back never to be reeled back in again.

I have since learned to just keep smiling. I have become a master of playing the wrong chord and just keeping on singing.  I have played entire chord sequences out of order and not batted and eyelid. It's quite a skill.

I have played with a loud static roar of broken speaker blaring up at me from the foldback and just given it petrol like I was loving myself sick.  

I have sung entire songs in the wrong key and like a train on a track, I just keep going. If you do it with confidence, people just think it's jazz.

Lesson #5. Don't lay a log on stage.

The transition from singer-songwriter to opening act for a comedian is a little bumpy.  If you are a  singer/songwriter, everyone wants to see your pain.  They want you to open up your rib cage and show your angsty little heart. As Seal would say, "They want you to show your vulnerability."

A comedy audience however views weakness in much the same way as a mummy mouse does: they just want to eat you so that you will no longer exist and therefore cease to make them uncomfortable. 

Last year, in Rockhampton, my sister and I decided to change things up. I'd been opening her comedy show with the same jaunty song for 12 months. We thought it might be interesting if I sang a different song that night.

"What about that train song?" Said my sister, who doesn't understand lyrics at all.
"The train song?"
"You know she's waiting for the train and saying goodbye to the buildings." 
"Ah, Patty." I said, happy to be able to give my favourite angsty tune an airing.

 So that night in Rockhampton, I sang Patty Griffin's "Useless Desires," which I'd always thought to be about Patty leaving a relationship and saying goodbye in a 'girl power I don't need men' sort of way. 

However on stage that night, about halfway through the song,  it suddenly dawned on me - as Patty said, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, to everything including birds and buildings  -  that she was saying goodbye in the forever sense. I then made the connection to the last verse where she goes down to the railway tracks and waits for the train. I'd always thought she was waiting to get on the train.

It occurred to me then, that I could be bringing everyone down with my 'ode to suicide on the railway tracks.' My voice cracked mid-note. I looked down into the front row and saw some extremely bored and fed-up looking people.

I lost my nerve. I began to ooze fear.

The audience caught a whiff of it and began immediately to despise me. 

The three minute song seemed to go for an eternity and when  I finally exited stage-left, the lacklustre applause stopped before I'd reached the wings.

My sister then came on, sensed the mood and fed on it herself by doing some very unfunny versions of her previously (in every other town we'd been to)  funny jokes.

We now refer to it as 'the night we laid a log on the stage at Rockhampton.'

Perhaps a rendition of "I'm scared,"  may have been more apt.


  1. I am really enjoying your blog having just found it last weekend. I would have loved to see your show back in the day, but I lived way in the bush for 20 years. Anyway, there's been a bit of a revival of your contemporaries like Clouds and The Falling Joys, I would love it if this inspired you to try performing your sings again. I would lap it up (er, so to speak).

  2. Thanks so much. I have been ruminating on doing a show again. It's just a matter of organising people, which is always a bit tedious. But I'll keep you posted on this blog if there's anything afoot. Thanks again for your kind comment.

  3. Penny, it’s a fabulous blog and lovely of you to share your wisdom and humour, particularly this piece. It brought back good memories of how you gave it plenty of petrol at those Cat & Fiddle and Three Weeds gigs, back somewhere in the 90s. Nice to see ‘On & On’ in your blog pic too. A return show would be grand. There would be a lot of love in the room from us old punters, and of course those plaintive pleas for ‘Not Like That’. I reckon it’s a corker idea!

    1. thanks simon, I'm searching for the perfect veeeenue where we can all sit down and and it's comfy for old people....

    2. I would suggest Camelot Lounge, Marrickville to kick things off. Then The Vanguard mid week for your second show! Sounds good. Simon

  4. I remember that night in Windsor. I thought you were going to jump off the stage and beat that girl to a pulp! It was excruciating.

  5. I think it was more my booking agent that I wanted to clock.

    1. I should add that I'd love to add my wheelchair to the comeback tour audience. Good times, they were.

  6. This is a great blog, very funny and this entry brings back some great memories of those gigs. But I don't remember you being heckled on stage to play Happy Birthday Helen. I do remember someone I was talking to at the Three Weeds one night being very surprised that you guys were the support act to Things of Stone and Wood and not the other way round. Great shows; plenty of petrol!

  7. Thanks for your kind comments Andrew Barker. I was heckled in Albury. I'll not forget it. Ever. We did support TOSAW at a sort of crossing over period: they were on their way up, up, up just as we were peaking and about to nose dive. So there was a brief moment where it seemed topsy turvy. I still say they're one of the best live bands I've seen. And I saw them A LOT!