1975: On tour with QTC’s “The Rainmaker”

It’s been quite a while since I wrote this little piece for the QTC’s 1975 newsletter No 2. I found it today as I was researching materials for the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Company. Touring around the vast distances of this country is still a way of life for actors – some things never change like the hospitality of the people in those far-off towns; the challenge of long days and nights, and being away from home and not able to sleep in your own bed. But some things sure have changed – we were always so keen to get letters on mail day and I recall searching for a phone box beside the side of a road on more than one occasion – that and having enough coins to make the call last. It seems like and is another age. Hope you enjoy it. It brought back a rush of memories for me. Ah, yesterday!

It’s 7.25pm. Paul Jones, the ASM pokes his head around the dressing-room door and gives the half-hour call at probably the exact moment it’s being given backstage at the SGIO Theatre. Here, light years from Brisbane outside the Shire Hall, the goods train clanks on, and the sprinkler on the oh-so-green lawn goes on as the cicadas stop abruptly. Noise, or the lack of it, is a tangible thing out here.

We’ve done a radio interview today, given away a couple of complimentary tickets in a phone-in competition, slept and sat around on the hotel verandah watching the sky go crazy at sunset. There seems to be a whole 360º of red and pink-apricot clouds.

Someone took several of the company today to a property 20 miles out of town for horse riding and a swim. A few others went out to the local high school and talked with some of the kids. They all want to know our names, how or why you become an actor, and what the play’s about. We tell them. They’re particularly impressed with one actor’s football record (that would be Bryan Brown’s). They promise to come tonight. I meet one of the girls later in the one and only milkbar in town. She wants to know if I am married to any of the actors in the cast – which ones are single, and who’s the blonde one that’s so good looking? That would be Bill Rough. I tell her.

The quarter-hour call and someone’s complaining about the bore-water. Someone else’s sinuses are threatening to explode from the dust, early wattle, and buffalo grass that are in full bloom at this time of year.

Paul Jones again: “We may be going up a bit late tonight; they’re still arriving.” Most of the audience begin to arrive at one minute to 8 and get to their seats sometime within the first 15 minutes. A few resisters stand around the doors at the back, catching up on local news, probably. We finally go at 8.10.

The kids have come in force. We get whistles, claps, foot stamps – the lot – at the end of the act. Everyone’s enjoying themselves but it’s hot, and back here there’s nothing to drink. Out front the beer is flowing in the makeshift bar.

Everyone is frantic about the stage floor. It’s like glass. Some over-enthusiastic cleaner has gone berserk with the polish. No one can move above snail’s pace without slipping; running is impossible. Everyone scrapes the soles of their western boots and someone suggests we warn the ballet company that’s due here next week.

Act 2 comes and goes with the inevitable slipping and sliding. Someone out there must like us, and sends back iced water. Finally, Act 3 and the audience goes wild. We even get cheered.

Pack out time and the costumes are hung in their plastic bags and everything goes into the skip. Someone writes “The Rainmakers came. QTC 1975” on the wall. I find “QTC 1973 – Gamma Rays” beside “Johnny Farnham.”

These people have got to be among the most hospitable in the state. They laid on a full buffet before the show tonight. Some have driven 80 miles from their properties especially to see us. We’re amazed and not a little bit humbled.

Now, after the show, they’ve brought out more curries and sweet and sour dishes. I asked how they got mushrooms out there – they’re dried. There’s cheesecake 6 inches thick and wine and beer, and chocolate cake and coffee for those who don’t drink. The crew are busy striking and packing the set up and out into the bus for the haul tomorrow. Someone makes up a tray and it’s sent back to them.

The kids are in the midst of it. They want autographs and to talk, and they tell us that tonight has been better than Old Jack’s picture house.

The next morning’s call is for 8.30am. Most of us sleep the distance to Longreach. It’s also mail day. Everyone’s a bit excited at the prospect of news from the outside world. Amongst the piles of letters and bills that have followed us around the state, there’s a telegram from the last town: “Cumulus gathering. Can’t afford $100. Please advise.” We’ve even brought rain.

A commonwealth of theatres

Suddenly it’s apparent how much performing arts touring is being done throughout Australia. Not that we haven’t always had small and large companies on the road most of the time since white settlement – well, maybe a little after white settlement – but it’s really, really visible right now.

For the past few weeks, corporate and personal social networks have been going off with news from companies on the road. Twitter, Facebook (it seems the app of choice for theatre artists), My Space (ditto for musos) have been constantly updating with news, images, and glimpses into the life of the touring companies. Big and small – from the AMPAGs to the Indies – are out there, criss-crossing the map. This is good, not only for far-flung audiences, but for the companies and their members, and the arts economy of the nation. It’s also adding to the profile of Australian performing arts, no bad thing at all.

For all the dreariness of suitcase-living, there’s really no better way to see your country than this way, certainly no cheaper one – and I remember it well from my own days on the road. I got to and played places that would never have been possible otherwise.  My friend Bille Brown and I were once talking about the pros and cons of a titular ‘National Theatre’ for Australia. Bille got it right when he said that the many Australian companies operating around the nation (but mostly in the states’ capital cities) were its national theatre, and rather than one centralised institution housed exclusively in a building somewhere, a better way to think of it was as a ‘commonwealth of theatres.’  This wealth of talent is never more visible or more endearing I think than when it gets outside the walls of home base, and hits the road. Maybe our national theatre isn’t even developing any more, maybe the commonwealth of theatres has just grown up under our noses, and just is.

Anyhow I got to thinking about this last night.  I was at the opening night of Joanna Murray-Smith‘s ‘Ninety.’ It’s a touring Melbourne Theatre Company production with Kym Gyngell and Rachel Gordon – a beaut play, fine performances, and a top production from Simon Phillips – one of those really satisfying nights in the theatre.  MTC was on the road and being hosted by Queensland Theatre Company, which itself has two other companies currently on tour: ‘The School of Arts’ by Bille Brown (about a touring theatre company) and ‘Maxine Mellor’s Mystery Project’ for kids.

I was delighted to sit beside the delightful Joanna Murray-Smith during the play and to chat about this and that as you do.  Her plays have been produced successfully not only in Australia but also around the world.  When I was in London last summer, it was great to see the marquee on London’s Strand for her satire ‘Female of the Species‘ which featured Eileen Atkins in the eponymous lead role.  I understand from Joanna that Annette Bening is set to play it at LA’s Geffen Theatre later this year.  But for now, Joanna Murray-Smith had to be on the plane back home to Melbourne this morning for the dress-rehearsal of ‘Rockabye’ her new play which premieres at MTC soon.  Happy trails everyone!

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Being There: On Tour

An enormously important and formative experience in my life as a young actor was that of being on tour for many weeks, and schools’ tours at that. It was 1971, and I was fresh from drama school in the UK, and back home in Queensland. The new state theatre company (Queensland Theatre Company or QTC as it was and still is known fondly) had been formed while I was away. I immediately auditioned, and was hired to work in the TIE (Theatre in Education) program which in those days had a touring schedule to knock your socks off … and which dispelled any preciousness you might have been harbouring since drama school about being an artiste. Continue reading “Being There: On Tour”