Monday, 28 September 2009

Amadeus Tour 2009 - 2 - Wollongong.


And so, to the Gong. We left Canberra at around 9.00am. It was a beautiful day. Our redoubtable crew left on a truck before dawn. I hadn't bought too much in Canberra yet still found it hard to close my suitcase. We were split into two station wagons. Our car held Nick (the driver), Andrew, Steven, Bruce and me. To get to the Gong you head out on Federal Highway which merges with the Hume not too far past a town called Collector. Before that, though we were struck by the sight of the apparently dry Lake George (I didn't actually know it was Lake George until I got back to Brisbane) and the Capital Wind Farm.

An hour or so into the trip we stopped at a roadhouse for a pee and a refill for the pee. It's at this point I lost one of my gloves, dangit.

Cat had mentioned a more scenic route to Wollongong via the Illawarra Highway which would take us through the Southern Highlands. We were in no hurry so we decided to take it. I'd been around the Berrima/Belanglo area before but had never been through the Highlands. It was well worth it. Around this point I played a single round of 'HEY COW!' The rules are simple. As you're driving along, you keep and eye out for a straggle of cows potentially within earshot. As you pass them, one person screams out 'HEY COW!!!' You get a point for each bovine that responds to the call. I didn't count them, but Andrew reckons I must have got six or seven out of a possible eight or nine cows. Satisfied with this, I retired from HEY COW! the undefeated champion of the world.

The Highlands were sweetly pretty, just what a real girly should be. Ahem, sorry. I took a few photos on the drive but, as you can see from the Lake George photo, car window shots don't turn out too well, especially on my crappy phone camera. Still and all, I managed to capture the pride of the Highlands, The Big Potato in Robertson. Or as I like to call it (and I'm sure I'm not the first)...

..the Big Poo. What's sad about this photo is not the poo itself, it's that of all the beautiful things to see on the Illawarra Highway...Moss Vale, Sutton Forest, Macquarie Pass, this was the only spot I asked Nick to slow down so I could get a photo.

No photos down Mac Pass. The escarpment road has claimed its share of people over the years, especially motorcyclists. Nick needed to concentrate. Having a dick tailgate him most of the way to Albion Park Rail didn't help. This video will give you an idea of what Mac Pass is like.

We checked into the Rydges around lunchtime. As we'd arrived in separate groups we had to check ourselves in. This was not a problem, save for the fact that previous check-ins at Rydges tended to be a headache for the poor soul charged with undertaking the task. It was a relief therefore, to be greeted with a bright, smiling face and no hassle. Our rooms were ready & our hosts were chirpy.

(Let's pause here for an anti-commercial break. The Rydges Wollongong offers a $10 buffet breakfast. Sounds pretty good, huh? It is, if you like your scrambled eggs cubed and drinking the worst coffee I have ever tasted. No possibly or probably...the WORST coffee. It tasted like it had already been consumed a few times. And now back to the show.)

Nick and I were together again, in a twin. Nick had had a hard time sleeping in Canberra due to my inability to settle easily after a show. Unfortunately the poor blighter would get no decent rest until Hobart.

Wollongong is a very nice town and the people are lovely, but it has the sadness of a city in decline. It's a coal and steel town whose best days seem to be behind it, or at least that's the sense you get from its inhabitants. The industry shed about half its workforce in the 1980s. The signs are evident during the day in the number of indigent people in the streets asking for money and smokes. At night the malaise is displayed by the city's youth. More of that later.

I let Cat know we'd arrived in five handsome and stylish pieces of manhood and we scouted around looking for somewhere to eat. Thanks to a friendly local, we ended up at Diggers, the local RSL. RSLs can be a bit of a lottery, food-wise. Sure, the meals are usually inexpensive and the lure of a slap-up roast dinner can be great, but there have been times when roast pork, veges and gravy has looked and tasted more like boiled roadkill, rocks and ditchwater. Not so at Diggers. The meals were well-priced, generous and tasty. Steve, Andrew and I had the roast beef, Brucie and Nick the lamb shanks, which they reported to be excellent. That's high praise from Bruce, who is quite the gustatorial expert (he eats out a lot).

As we were finishing up, a clutch of mature-aged ladies gingerly approached our table trying to attract Andrew's eye. It took me a second to work out what they wanted, but Andrew's been in the Australian public's eye for so long he must half-expect it. He's one of the most gracious men I've ever met. He not only signs autographs for people on a regular basis, he's happy to chat and if their connection to him is through his many years on Play School, he'll spend extra time drawing a little picture of Big Ted or Jemima. I should've asked if he draws a picture of the Ambush if they're Patrol Boat fans or a plane for Flying Doctors.

One evening, the company met at 'Club N' i.e. Nick's and my room. We enjoyed a wee drinkie and Dash introduced us to game called Lunchbox, the rules of which I may share at a future time. Two things came from that evening: 1) a little extra for the cleaning staff the next day and 2) a salient lesson in actors' anality when it comes to game rules.

The Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (IPAC) is a smaller venue than the Canberra Playhouse and we played in the smaller of its two theatres, the 200-seat Gordon. This led to some major issues with staging. Changes were necessary. The fortepiano, which is normally placed smack bang in the centre of the stage from the start, had to be moved. The Gordon stage is so shallow that, if we'd left it in its original position, the piano's arse would have stuck out through the closed tab curtain. Added to this were some issues with limited wing space and a paucity of lights, which made the whole Gong tech experience a little fraught, to say the least. No-one wants to be in a position where adjustments have to be made, but they were done out of practical necessity. 'Needs must when the devil drives.' Thanks to our wonderful team of creatives/crew, Cat, Shaun, Emma & Matt we pushed through and delivered two solid shows to small but appreciative Wollongong audiences.

The second night in Wollongong was my worst show of the tour. My knee was quite sore and I was preoccupied with it, more concerned with safely moving around the stage and not falling over than hitting the right notes as the foppish Orsini-Rosenberg. A scalpel beckons, I fear.

That afternoon we went for a drive. Two cars loaded with beach and belly-hungry theatre types drove north to Towradgi, where we had been told there was a vast selection of beachside cafes and eaty-joints. It took us twenty minutes to find that we were terrible navigators or the whole Towradgi thing was a myth. On the way back to Wollongong we made up all sorts of rude names around Towradgi, not out of bitterness really, more out of hunger and boredom.

Redemption and full bellies came quickly in the shape of the Harbourfront Restaurant, a restaurant, as its name suggests...on the harbour front. If the staff wasn't prepared for an unreserved table for 12 in the middle of the Saturday lunch rush, it didn't show. Within a minute or two we were seated. Saucer-eyed, as we scanned the menu. With a harbour full of fishing boats and trawlers sitting just outside the gleaming windows, it was clear that saddle of mutton was not the catch of the day. It's a spoiled and happy meal indeed when you ask a waitress where the fish is from and she points to a boat 50 metres from where you're sat. Mirror Dory. Yum.

Sated, we all went our separate ways, some to wander the beaches, some to theatre for work and I to Woolies to buy shoe polish and hunt down an Internet cafe.

After the final Wollongong show I hightailed it back to the hotel as fast as my creaky legs could carry me. Earlier in the evening I'd written a group check-in fax to Qantas. The group booking procedure had been a bit of an oddity the whole tour. The day before we left Brisbane I went online to check some of us in. It makes such a big difference to the amount of time you may spend waiting in line. Unable to do it, I rang Qantas and asked why I wasn't being given the option. The guy said 'Y'just can't.' Riiight. 'But why?' 'Dunno, some bookings y'just can't.' Gee thanks.

When we got to the airport the next day the woman at the check-in desk was a lot more friendly and helpful (it probably didn't hurt that she recognised Andrew and he, as ever, obligingly signed an autograph - and drew a Big Ted, I think). She told me that Qantas only allows online group check-ins up to nine people. We were 13. Again, she didn't know why the max was nine, but I'd stopped caring. She was so efficient and friendly it didn't matter anymore. Plus she gave me the number of a group check-in line which offers the same early check-in facility, but via fax confirmation.

As I was writing the fax, the girl at reception, Kellie, asked what the company was doing after the show. I said we'd probably try for a drink at the hotel bar. We'd wanted to have a drink there the previous night but it was closed for a private function. I found out that we were lucky the bar had been off-limits: the private function was to celebrate a few jail releases. Police were called etc. But on this particular night there was nothing more threatening than a 21st, and they'd kindly left the bar open to the public. Kellie asked if she could join us. I said we'd be delighted. Nothing like speaking for the group without permission. Oh, and I'd bought a Vietnamese takeaway for dinner that I was planning to eat after the show and needed to smooth the path towards a microwave. Our room didn't have one.

I took the Crown Street route back to the hotel. The walk is a bit more surefooted, I needed cigarettes...and Burelli Street comes off as a bit dingy and off-putting at that time of night. On my way up the mall, I saw literally dozens of kids, some no older than 11 or 12, smashed out of their skulls on alcohol and accelerants. They weren't really causing any trouble. Too shambolic and wasted. About the only rebellion they appeared capable of was stomach-borne. The older ones were a little more scary.

It's not the first time I've walked angry amphetamine and alcohol-soaked streets. There were times I was full of piss and speed too, but I've never felt the same kind of unease as I did that night in Wollongong. Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the city or maybe it was because I felt incapable of running if I had to, but there was a vague yet definite malevolence in the air, a feeling of something bad about to happen. I was so discomfited by it I slipped my open Leatherman into my coat pocket and hobbled back to the hotel as quickly as I could.

Safely inside, I briefly met a few people who'd seen the show then met with m'colleagues in the bar. The 21st was still in full swing. The partiers were pretty much oblivious to our presence, so a few of us signed the birthday card. We had a competuition to see who could write the funniest message. Bruce won, but for the life of me I can't remember what he wrote. Hopefully Nick will read this and add a comment reminding me.

When I went up to the street for a cigarette, Kellie came out and told me to watch out for eggs being thrown from the apartments across the street. Apparently they don't like smokers. I had drunken conversations with a few people including a middle-aged woman who, on exiting the bar, made a point of coming over and telling me how much she'd always liked me and one young guy who spoke of the ease of acquiring cheap drugs are in the Gong. When I asked him what the locals preferred he said 'E's & speed.' No surprises there. I saw him later outside the hotel lobby and we chatted for a few minutes about the number of people he knows who have either taken out AVO's or have AVO's out against them. Jokingly I said, 'You make it sound like there are so many AVO's that no-one in this town should be allowed to go near anyone else.' He replied, 'They fuckin' shouldn't, eh. Fuckin' sucks.'

I took care of my room charges that night before retiring, thinking that I'd been a bit over the top in my fear. Yes, there was an uneasy 'atmosphere' in Wollongong late at night but I saw no fights, heard no screams and witnessed no wilful destruction of property. The 'wildest' thing that occurred that night (outside of some drunken admissions by near strangers) was a guy peeing on the street outside my window. When I woke the next morning however, there was evidence of pent up anger unleashed. The areas outside the hotel bar and lobby had been egged and a few large panes of hotel walkway glass had had the shit kicked out of them. Thankfully this was not my last memory of Wollongong, a city I liked very much and would happily visit again.

Finally checked out and bundled into cars, we swept out of town. I'd hooked a 'Mighty Dragons' flag to the car window. It came with Saturday's copy of the Illawarra Mercury. I don't follow the league anymore but as a kid and young adult the Dragons were my favourite Sydney team (for anyone interested, my local league team was Redcliffe, of course). Back then they were the St. George Dragons but a merger with the Illawarra Steelers means they are now beloved by Wollongong and Gongers show it at every opportunity.

We were only a few blocks away from the hotel when the thrum from the whipping flag was driving us loopy, so I tried to take it down when we pulled up at the lights, coiuncidentally outside WIN Stadium, second home of the Dragons. It fell to the street and Steven reached out of the car to pick it up. Across from the stadium a crowd of people were having a late breakfast (or hopefully, an early lunch) at the brand new 'Chicko's' fast food place. They were looking at Steve curiously. As he scooped the flag from the road, the lights turned green and Steven waved the flag vigorously and called to the gawkers in passionate voice 'Up the Mighty Dragons!' The crowd responded with smiles and laughter, as did the occupants of our car. That was my last memory of Wollongong...and possibly my favourite.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Amadeus Tour 2009 - Canberra.

Arrived home Sunday from Hobart via Sydney. Internet access was virtually impossible in Canberra and Wollongong, and Tasmania was too beautiful to ignore for any more than a few minutes at a time. I made a few notes along the way and hope they're coherent enough to incorporate here.


It would be as easy to start the Amadeus diary with a straightforward summary of events from Brisbane to Canberra via Sydney, but that'd would be boring and I can sum it up quickly: Smooth flights, 50 metre bus ride (in two buses) from Sydney terminal to Canberra plane (a Dash 8) and a 38% sugar/55% carbs apple 'streusel'.

Expecting Canberra to be quite chilly, I'd taken my coat onto the plane but it was shirt sleeves weather. We were met by the show's publicist Coralie Wood, a perennial figure in the theatrical community in these parts. She is sometimes called 'The Queen of Canberra'. Our cab reeked of Saturday night vomit and the hotel had not finished preparing our rooms, so we couldn't check in. Luckily, Steven had an open invitation to visit with a friend (Charles) for a colourful Sunday lunch in a suburb called Downer, presumably named for the father of that sibilant popinjay Alexander. We dropped our suitcases in a wee side room of the hotel, picked up some wine and traipsed over to find much merriment and flamboyance. I had a couple of drinks and headed back to the hotel with Tash and Dash.

We stopped off in the barely beating heart of the city, the Canberra Centre. It's a huge mall covering many blocks. There were shops open, but no-one really seemed to be buying or selling. Most of the shops outside the centre were closed, even, to my astonishment, some of the fast food chains, like Subway. It felt as if Canberra was a model town and its inhabitants part of a massive re-enactment. It looked a bit like a city, but all the action taking place was rehearsed and for display only. Very Truman Show. The three of us wandered for a bit and then cut across park and car park to get back to our hotel, The Rydges. I've yet to see one person outside of our company take anything other than a loopy paved route. There are desire lines all over the place, but they must have been blazed by tourists.

It took only a day to feel as if Canberra was some kind of mildly bizarre world. The design was pretty but not conducive to human contact, the people didn't seem to like human contact and the locals' opinion of the town was often reflected in their attitude to others. Nick thinks I'm being a little harsh on the place and it's true that there were some lovely people, most notably our hosts on the Sunday afternoon, the woman who ran the public transport info centre, one of the waitresses at Tossolini's restaurant and the venue staff at the Playhouse, who were just great.

Maybe I am being a bit severe on Canberra. It's quite pretty, there are some lovely landmarks and even the 'ghetto' (as a cabbie described a block or two of flats just out of town) seemed quaint, with bikes neatly hung up on porches and lawns green and tended. It's just that hardly anyone in Canberra outside of politicians seems to want to be there. The staff of a grocery store near the theatre provided the best proof. The day of the first show, after struggling to find the entrance, I stopped in to buy cigarettes and noticed a nice array of rolls, baguettes and sandwiches at the deli counter. No-one was around, but there was a bell and a sign saying 'Please ring for service'. I did so. After a minute, a woman sheepishly appeared and I said something like 'Hiya'. She said 'Yep'. I countered with 'How's it going?' She replied, 'Yep...whaddya want?!' and gave me a look that suggested any further pleasantries would not be tolerated. At least the sandwich was nice.

Over the course of the time in Canberra this short shrift was given quite a few times, so I began to quiz the locals on what they thought of their city. At the same store the next day I asked a different staff member her opinions on Canberra. She said she hated it. When I asked why, she answered so quickly she sounded as if she'd been waiting for the follow-up: 'Because it's boring and there's no beach'.

One day I scouted around looking for somewhere to get my hair cut. The young hairdresser I found (let's call her Kacey, why not?) did a great job (I had this confirmed by some of my company mates at the time and most importantly, my loving partner - a hairdresser - when I arrived home). Kacey asked me if I was from out of town. I said yes and told her I was in a play called Amadeus. She didn't know it. I said, 'Have you heard of Mozart?' She said 'Huh?' 'Mozart...the composer?' Blank stare. A pause, then, 'Is that like some kind of band?' Now it was my turn to go blank. 'Um, no...Mozart was a guy who lived just over 200 years ago, the late 18th Century, he wrote some of the most famous music ever. We're doing a show that's sort of about him.' I thought this might trigger something. Nope. 'How about Beethoven?' By this point I was expecting a no, but what came forth stunned me. ' mean like the dog?'

I had to take a moment to process this. 'The dog from the movie was named after the music guy. He's really famous too. Came along just after Mozart.' For the briefest second I considered blorting the opening of Beethoven's Fifth, but thought better of it. Kacey obviously thought I was mad enough already. In fact, I thought about letting the whole thing go. The last thing I wanted was for Kacey to feel so put upon that her only recourse was to shave an obscenity in the back of my head.

Gamely, or insanely, I pushed on. If two of the most famous musicians in history failed to register, maybe it was time to bring things forward a few years. 'Have you ever heard of Nirvana?' 'Nuh.' Now I knew it wasn't me. But the look on Kacey's face (and whatever odd expression on mine) suggested that I might be playing a cruel joke on her, because she stopped cutting and called out, 'Caitlin? Do you know who - what was his name...?' Quietly: 'Mozart.' '..who MOZART is?' Without a breath, an equally young voice replied, 'Yeah, course! Jeez, Kacey.' 'How about Nirvana?' Even quicker, 'Oh bloody hell, Kace.' Relief. The unseen presence of Caitlin the colleague helped me step sure-footed out of Bizarro World, back of my head unscathed. I should have let it rest there, but stupidly I asked Kacey what kind of music she listened to. She said 'Nickelback'. For those of you unfamiliar with my music snobbery, it's safe to say that when I am looking for the prime example of shit, Nickelback is invariably the first name to escape my lips. Without thinking, I borrowed a line from Mr Burns: 'You've just made yourself a powerful enemy, young lady.' Whatever ground I'd made thanks to Caitlin was now lost forever. I thanked Kacey, paid and left, spending the next few minutes feeling for cusswords in my newly cut hair.

As for the show, it went down a bomb in the capital. The houses were brilliant, due in large part to Coralie's fantastic publicity. It's very hard to plug a show that has a two-day run, but Coralie helped to give us 400+ audiences for both nights.

The Playhouse is a lovely venue and the staff, as I've already mentioned, were just great. The only real issue from the actors' point of view was the depth of the stage. Even though you normally rehearse in a smaller space than that which you end up playing, nothing had prepared us for the gaping maw of the Playhouse. It was huge. The smother (the black curtain that runs along the back of the stage) could have been moved forward, but our tour manager, the inestimable Cat, told us that to do so would have taken a four hour chunk out of an already snug bump-in time. Working in such a massive space often raises concerns about audibility and in our first rehearsal we were all belting to the back wall, but the acoustics at the Playhouse are brilliant so there were no worries that the audience would be subjected to two hours of Salieri, Mozart and the Hapsburg courtiers screaming at each other.

In short, the Canberra shows were great fun and the Canberra audiences were fantastic. In that sense, I have no right to be critical of them or their city.

I can't be harsh on their coffee-making skills either. Canberra was the only town on tour where a bunch of us ate breakfast at the same place each day and for me, it was mainly because the coffee was so damn good. The food was not too shabby either. Hail to the baristi at the ANI (As Nature Intended) Cafe on Marcus Clarke St. If I could I'd drink coffee there for the term of my natural life (F'nar F'nar!)

The main highlight away from the Playhouse stage was a visit to the Australian War Memorial. Nick and I spent a morning there as our time in Canberra came to a close. It's safe to say that, despite the fact we'd both been there before, we were profoundly affected by the experience. If you are visiting Canberra, ink it into your list of things to do.

Apart from one heavy burst of cold twilight rain, the weather in Canberra was lovely and brisk. Thge one time I had trouble with the cold was sitting outside the green room after a show with my knee iced after a little slip on some backstage carpet. The knee thing is going to have to be seen to sooner rather than later.

In all fairness, I did have a nice time in Canberra. It was just a bit bemusing sometimes. But then so is my hometown.

P.S. 'Kacey', this one's for you:

Pixies - The Beautiful Corpse Lives!

There is an Amadeus tour post on its way. Unfortunately most of the trip was Internet unfriendly. We stayed at Rydges hotels in Canberra & Wollongong and they charged 75 c/min for Internet. Wollongong's Internet cafes were closed when I visited and Canberra didn't appear to have any at all. I made some notes along the way but by the time we got to Hobart there was just too much to see. I've made a good start but it's a few days away yet. In the meantime, there is a certain amount of joy to be expressed at the return of my favourite band ever in the history of the universe and beyond, the Pixies.

I heard about the tour from a waitress at a Hog's Breath Cafe in Hobart on our first night there and was able to get pre-sale tickets the following Wednesday via my friend Robbie Motortown. Yay for Robbie!

I've been an unabashed Pixies fan since 1989. I remember hearing 'Gigantic' on TripleZed in 1988 and loving it, despite not knowing who the band was. Back in those days we had no Internet, kids (we had to entertain ourselves) so it wasn't until I heard 'Monkey Gone To Heaven' the following year that I fell in love with them. It would be nearly 20 years before I'd see them live, at the V Festival on April Fool's Day 2007. For my dearest friend Renae and myself, it would go down as a red letter day.

We'd kinda given up on them ever coming back, and satisified ourselves in the knowledge that at least we got to see 'em burn through 23 songs in front of 15000 people (I wonder how many people saw the Pet Shop Boys that day?). Vague hopes of a reprise were dashed last year when I saw an interview with Black Francis where he said that, despite the half-formed plans, notions and to-ing & fro-ing, the Pixies was, in effect, a 'beautiful corpse'.

Huzzah for resurrection! Even though I'd known for months that the band was going to do a little Euro Doolittle tour, I could only dream they'd be back...and I look forward to their arrival with the same fervour I've held since I was a callow, spotty 62kg numbskull.