Starting in the 1960s … the activity of going on stage as a child was originally connected to singing at church. I sang a song standing on a box when I was very young, maybe six or seven so technically it was still in the 1960’s. “Jesus is my keeper” was the name of the song. I have no clear recollection of whom taught it to me but I do recall being chastised at Sunday School for suggesting the Bible was filled with metaphor.
One of the parents had told me, “The Bible is full of metaphors; metaphors are pictures of things that represent other things that are difficult to imagine,” because I asked difficult questions about a picture we had on the bookshelf at home.
In the picture at home Jesus Christ stood knocking on a wooden door set in a wall that was overgrown with thorny climbing roses. There is no handle on the door only a small opening for someone to look through from the inside.
When I asked about the picture, “What was Jesus doing?” I remember it being in relation to a role I had been assigned in the Nativity Play at Kindergarten. I was to open a door and exclaim, “There is no room in the Inn; but you may use my stable,” exciting unexpected stuff to do.
I sang in the choir at kindergarten; songs from The Sound Of Music a popular musical theatre show and film. The first songs I learnt; Do Re Mi and My Favourite Things we sang before the Nativity Play then we did the play.
I think I asked about Jesus at the door in the picture because I had to open a door in what was called a ‘flat’ in the nativity. Anyway I asked what Jesus was doing and I was informed by one of the parents that Jesus was knocking on the door of my heart, and that is what was in the picture. There was no handle on the door because the door could only be opened from the inside. We had to open our heart to Jesus. The door was our heart. A collective heart. The door was an image representing our collective heart. I asked if the briars and climbing roses represented our innards.
I recall being informed my question was sarcastic and inappropriate; that the roses and briars were representations of our outer self, the self that which is harsh and wild.
Relating such insight at Sunday School was disastrous because it frightened the teenager in charge; she would have none of that kind of blasphemous talk in her Sunday School class.
Long before ‘click bait’ was a thing there was ‘Dad bait’ particularly around my house anyway. My dad was such a comedian; he lived to take the piss on the sly and he was funny. Every kid laughs at his dad’s antics I suppose. Does every kid have a dad who has fine tuned his delivery into words and pictures or sight gags? Maybe not so many.
At Port Noarlunga Primary School we were the first kids in South Australia to have an ‘Open Space Unit’ as it was called. We watched from our weather-board classrooms as it was built beside us on a large slab of concrete; one great long slightly kinked room that had low ceilings of straw and sunken floored carpeted ‘Withdrawal Rooms’ at either end. It was the South Australian Education Department pushing into the new modern age. Very modern in the 1970’s and we greatly benefited from the experiment. With the ‘Open Space Unit’ came other things like reel to reel recorders and architectural design elements that made it easy to shift the boundaries inside the Unit around.
There were no walls dividing the classes but the interior design was built to absorb sound so it was no great distraction having other classes happening around us. I was at the height of my first foray into performing arts by the time I hit Grade 7 at Primary School. I had performed at the local amateur theatre group, The Dalebrook Players in a school holiday production of Aladdin and his wonderful Lamp, as the Genie of the Lamp. I had a complex song to sing that used the tune of a Gilbert and Sullivan song from The Mikado, I have a little list was the original tune and new words had been written for the pantomime. It was a great challenge having to learn the song at the time. Another challenge was the bright green body paint, which was basically a grease paint that I was painted with for each performance from the waist up.
My face green, my lips black. Gold eye-shadow and harem pants. I was required to leap over a flash-box for each of my entrances and exits on stage.
I was very careful leaping because my harem pants were highly flammable.
After playing such an active role in the production of Aladdin and his wonderful Lamp I became more involved in what they called Drama at school. The Withdrawal Rooms in our Open Space Unit were soundproof. We were able to have rowdy lessons involving performing and improvising; a lot of fun. We created 7PNS a radio station.
It was very much inspired by The Goons who were still very popular at the time. We had listened to several recordings of them; Monty Python’s Flying Circus was gaining popularity on television any moment. Absurd humour was not unknown. The crazy notion of stupidity as a form of entertainment was the alternative to lone Stand Up Comedians delivering little stories and rapid fire jokes about Mother-In-Law Monsters or Large Breasts.
The comedy that was available on television at the time was essentially The Comedians a string of stand up’s from the UK or Flip Wilson from the USA. There were alternatives like Laugh In and Love American Style as well. It was a golden time for SitComs out of the UK and the USA, my childhood.
Theatrically fast paced comedy was very much an emerging thing, harkening back to pre-war Vaudeville, the West End and Broadway but with new fresh performers, males and females. I don’t recall ever seeing any women appear on The Comedians, I do recall Flip Wilson doing a drag character called Geraldine on his show; I recall thinking it was funny that the wig he wore was a rust reddish blonde. It didn’t look authentic to me because Flip Wilson was an African American. I had no idea. I don’t think I set eyes on Tina Turner until well into the 1970’s.
Adelaide’s inner city theatre scene was much busier than in Port Noarlunga. The Dalebrook Players and Venture Theatre Company was about it as far as the local area was concerned. I became involved in High School productions through my Drama Elective, but my years at High School were very disrupted by the breakdown of my family. Also, I had been manipulated into a perilous position by a very dangerous man. I had been sexually abused, which caused more havoc within me than I could even know at the time.
Theatre and working on stage was my greatest love as I was growing up, after I had discovered the joy of singing I was seconded into the world of theatre simply because it was the next step to take, these things were valued when I was young.
Everyone said the Theatre was a hard life to choose, to be an actor, yet it really was able to do. These were the days of bringing the whole faculty of the school into the school hall and showing them the motion picture The Sound of Music which I have always found a little amusing.
When I read about the other experiences people had during this period in Australia I never quite relate fully because life in my small coastal village outside of Adelaide was so different to anything happening on the East coast of the country.
If you appreciate that Adelaide is an isolated city you will certainly appreciate the isolation of Port Noarlunga.
Built beside the river mouth of the Onkaparinga river the village has been maintained until today as a historic town to some degree; the Institute Theatre has been refurbished and given continued life. I performed in it many times.
The Institute Theatre played a big role in my early life. Just a building. The Dalebrook Players did productions of The Crimson Coconut, Boeing Boeing, A Murder has been arranged, Aladdin, Doctor In The House, and others we never actually presented but sometimes we would rehearse a play then never mount it; if cast members dropped out or the venue became unavailable we would all take a rest that way, reading plays.
As a young child I had attended gym classes at the Institute Theatre but the meaning of gym was different then. In those days we all wore a small pair of white shorts and a white tshirt. We ran, jumped, did the wooden horse, the rings, trampoline all indoors on the old oak floors. I loved it.
I attended more than one working-bee at the Institute Theatre. Even before I attended as an amateur actor I had spent many summer days there helping out when it was used as a cinema.
I had already seen so many movies more than once; lots of Saturday Matinee films featuring Jerry Lewis, plenty of science fiction. One science fiction film that I really enjoyed was Green Slime. Walt Disney’s The Love Bug was very popular as was Kurt Russell.
There were so many new and amazing things on the screen.
My babysitter was a television at home. I sat and absorbed a great deal of black and white television including the local live to air Children’s Appeal an overnight telethon to raise money for the Adelaide Children’s Hospital. Whatever theatre crowd I was attached to at the time would always make a beeline for the North Adelaide television studio dressed in whatever we could summon out of the costume department – a room in a house adjacent to the theatre where all the costumes were kept neatly on racks and in boxes.
There had been working-bees to tidy that costume department, the rear yard, the passageway between the house and the backstage area; we shifted a great deal of what was considered to be garbage at the time sending it off to the local dump.
My family lived a stone throw away from the dump; it featured in my childhood a great deal. We lived a few minute’s walk away from a bend in the river near what was known as Perry’s Bend.
Our backyard had the most amazing view of sunsets over the sand dunes and the garbage dump. Beyond the dump along River Road was the village of Port Noarlunga beside the beach.
It was a beautiful place to grow up. That dump was an amazing playground. I knew the kids of the guy who ran the dump. They were friends at school; I stopped off at their house for dinner or to play after school with their youngest.
In these times the dump was like a couple of football fields side by side with a fellow in a tractor pushing garbage from one side of the area to the other little by little, compacting it into the ground. The long term plan was to turn the area into a vast recreational park which is exactly what seems to have happened with it fifty years on.
There was an area where all the old cars were parked at the dump. These were cars built from any time around the early 1900’s that had functioned in the area and eventually been dumped. Amazing gangster style cars, old time wooden farm trucks; the area had been a farming district for a long time so there was plenty of old farm jalopies, even old horse-drawn odds and ends.
The white goods being trashed were murderous; we forever being reminded of kids becoming trapped inside something like an old fridge or a freezer, boot of a car.
I never really thought of living near the dump as a bad thing. I re-enacted all of Lost In Space and Puff’n’stuff at the Port Noarlunga dump as a kid. It was like the best playground next to the river and the beach, literally.
It was all considered to be junk. A little way up the river was the Meatworks. Just like you get a sea breeze beside the coast each day without fail, we would get a regular ‘burn off’ at the local Meatworks. Unholy stench. Cloud of scent would waft as the crow flies and we’d be breathing the draft of incinerated carcass from the end of their day.
The dump and the regular stench of the Meatworks gave the adults lots to consider.
They would relate around their younger days, Hitler’s concentration camps, war, rations, raids, bomb-shelters. The decay of an old world hung over them at times.
Junk was kind of fun; there were so many celebrations of junk in the 1970’s.
The device used in Godspell the musical where a junkyard is tarted up with some fresh paint comes to mind as a quintessential 70’s moment/example, as well as Sesame Street and so many other television shows, the whole ‘makeover the crap from the old world to reconceptualise it in the now’ thing has been used again often, e.g. Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Act. I think it works as a fun device.
At Christies Beach High School I was trained in building Muppets and Junk Puppets, just as The Muppet Show was taking off. We had two American Exchange Teachers at Christies Beach High School, Terri Marsh and Greg Temple.
Both teachers had a wide range of puppetry training and I was lucky enough to be involved with projects run by both of them. In the United States puppetry was being used in Education a lot at the time. These two teachers had very different approaches to their work; Greg was more of a performer he eventually became a host on television in locally produced children’s programs, he introduced Junk Puppetry to South Australian kids through the Come Out Festival in a giant workshop where the building material was junk.
Greg was a tall thin bearded hippy type not very conservative, getting by with plenty of self confidence and a deep American accented voice.
Terri Marsh was more of a puppet builder, a writer and director. The skills she shared were complex and practical with a historic base in Bunraku Japanese puppet theatre.
While Greg was always encouraging the creative, Terri was encouraging the focus and repetition of an old craft as she taught us to build our own cast for a play we would tour through local Primary Schools.
Rip Van Winkle was the show. It was the story of Rip Van Winkle who meets some little people who possess magical powers. In the school holiday period before Rip Van Winkle I had worked on another puppetry show, Alice In Wonderland.
There had been two seasons of Alice In Wonderland. The first season was at The Cottage Theatre and the second season was at Norwood Town Hall.
I was the Props Manager and one of the Puppeteers for the show. These were string puppets, marionettes. The show had over thirty different puppets to manage backstage.
One of my other duties was turning the scenery screen to advance action on the stage. I was a very busy puppeteer on that show along with about half a dozen or so others, all teenagers working for Ric Marshall in his theatrical endeavours.
When Terri discovered I had been working in a professional puppetry company, The Puppet Company of South Australia she chose me to be one of the puppeteers for Rip Van Winkle. As it turned out Terri was boarding in a house that was five minutes up the road at the end of my avenue which was very convenient when we started to build Muppets for the show.
Rip Van Winkle had the Human cast and the Muppet cast. We were all fresh new kids at High School doing our Drama Elective; some of us were old friends and some of us were new friends the kids who’d gone to Port Noarlunga Primary School and Christies Beach Primary School kids.
I was the kid coming from a very awkward period in my life where a lot of sexual abuse had just taken place, I felt under great stress in the real day to day world.
It was internalised stress comprising of voices in my head warning me to remain silent.
Doing the Drama Elective at school gave me a different world to become involved in; puppetry is detailed and absorbing work so it was a great distraction.
Besides singing, television, movies, puppetry and drama I did also enjoy reading; avid reader since my remedial reading classes. I was dyslexic and seeing my alphabet backwards. My d’s looked like b’s when I first started to write. Once all that had been sorted I started to read a lot.
There were some extended stays in hospital when I was having bowel surgery, I read all my school reading over the period of a few days. I ended up receiving a lot of comic books; I had read everything else that was considered suitable.
Adam West and Burt Ward were Batman and Robin on television then and my favourite Catwoman was Julie Newmar until Batgirl came on the scene. Loved Batgirl!
There was also a character who appeared in comics, Rose and Thorn, loved her story.
There was the Come Out Youth Festival, which we CBHS students were involved with. One festival we protested against nuclear bombs and remembered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the form of modern dance at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Amphitheatre.
Another year we had a Junk Puppet Workshop which kids could come and visit.
The activity I was involved with was never sport. I was always a small kid, couldn’t see very well. Eventually got glasses when I was twelve; there were times when other boys I knew harassed me because I didn’t know anything about football or cricket but because I had become entangled in an abusive situation I retreated into a world of my own.
Even when I washed the dishes (standing on a little stool so I could reach the sink) each piece of cutlery was a character in a little drama I was playing out as I did the chore. I was very focused as well as very unfocused. Quite the contradiction.