1) CHILDHOOD, AND JOSEPH
I was born, and grew up, in Western Australia. It’s an extraordinarily isolated part of the world, but it’s also a place that is full of opportunity . . . if you're willing to reach out and take hold of it with both hands.
As my father was a junior bank manager when I was a young child, we moved around a lot, and lived in a number of small country towns that you may not have heard of: Wagin, Corrigin, Albany. Places that the Google Maps car took a quick swing around the main block . . . then got out of there as fast as it could.
I have memories of everlasting wildflowers, stretching as far as the eye can see, blankets of dry pink, yellow, and white petals covering dry, red earth; Wave Rock, mum holding me and my two older sisters close while dad takes the photograph on top of the large, arching, granite rock formation; damming the creek that ran through bush between the Corrigin Railway Station and the Golf Club after infrequent, heavy rain; Pink Lake, near Esperance, water the colour of Pepto-Bismol, running through the salty water laughing; the whaling station near Albany before it closed down in the '70s, blood, blubber, sharks, and death filling the sea, the smell unbearable; Miss Clapp, my grade three teacher, putting a recorder into my hands and asking me to play it, and later private piano lessons at her house after school.
I was a happy child. I loved to run, climb trees, and hide. My favourite activity as a child, however, was building dams; it was an obsession. I would stop, this instant, to build a dam if the right waterway and building materials were available.
The best creeks and streams to dam are fairly small. They meander casually out of bush, cross a beautiful isolated beach, and gracefully discharge their contents into the ocean. My mind immediately flashes to King’s Beach at Broken Head, just south of Byron Bay, the site of my best ever dam; I was 42-years-old when I built it.
The optimal location to start the dam building adventure is just a few metres — let’s say 4-5 metres, depending on the size of the stream — out onto the sandy beach from the edge of the bush. At this location the maximum amount of building material is available to create the most stable, but also the most aesthetically pleasing, dam possible.
The core and foundation of the dam is best constructed with logs, driftwood, rocks, stones, sticks, flotsam, and leaves. Onto this one heaps moist, but not too wet and sloppy, sand that fills in all the gaps. Because you are damming running water, sand by itself just won’t last very long; depending on how fast your stream is flowing.
Once the water level behind the dam wall starts to rise, your dam pond begins to form. This gravity and topography defined surface radiates in an arc from the centre of your dam wall, and it is the precious transient prize, the jewel, of the very activity of dam building itself.
The next phase of the dam building adventure is the most fun for me. Here a hyper-vigilance kicks in—through necessity if you want to maintain the integrity of your dam wall—that puts 100% of the focus of one's attention into maintaining, strengthening, extending, heightening, and generally creating a structure that enables the biggest, most beautiful, perfectly still, body of glistening reflective water to develop given the geography of the location; it’s so much fun!!
Each time the water finds a way through a weak spot in the dam wall, each time there is a breach, a consolidated effort goes into repairing the breach and making sure that the spot is strengthened to ensure further entrapment of water in the pond. As the dam builder I feel creative, capable, strong, invincible.
When I was thirteen we moved back to the big smoke: Perth. I attended high school at Perth Modern School in the inner-city suburb of Subiaco. Perth Mod was the first high school in WA, opening its doors in 1911. In its early years — and again currently, having come full circle — it was a selective academic school; I attended in the middle years. During that period Perth Modern School was a local-area public high school with a music scholarship stream. The catchment area for the majority of the students — the non-music students, colloquially called by the music students, commo's — included neighbourhoods that were considered rough, with a high percentage of new immigrants, mostly Greek and Vietnamese. Each year a class of 30 students would come from all over the state, having receiving a scholarship based on testing of their natural musical aptitude; 30 out of around 150 students per school year. For the five years that I was at high school, I was referred to by the majority of my fellow students as, a muso; this was generally not a friendly designation.
I, like many of my fellow muso's, received special attention from some of the older, tougher, commo's: the royal flush, dangled head first in a toilet bowl while it is flushed; water bombs, dropped from the balcony above the music block; poling, where gangs of commo’s would raid the muso’s lawn at lunch time, a victim chosen and chased down, then four of the commo's would hold the victim's arms and legs wide apart and run them crotch first into a tree or pole, and circle round and round it. Joy!!
A good percentage of my high school curriculum consisted of music: music theory, music history, music appreciation (mostly classical music), and a little composition. Instrumental lessons — in my case clarinet — were given before school. Concert band, orchestra, choir, and chamber group practices took place after school or on weekends. Finally, there was the annual production of a musical. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was to be my first experience of musical theatre: the year, 1977.
I wish I wasn’t so shy. I do have a couple of friends here at Perth Mod after four months, but no one really close. Perhaps my fellow clarinetist, Edwina; she’s shy too. I'm really enjoying singing in the choir though.
Choir is a new experience for me as I’ve never sung formally before. At present, I’m a soprano. A few of the other year eight boys have had their voices break this year with the onset of puberty; I’m still waiting. It is weird to see my fellow students sprouting facial hair, breaking out in zits, and shooting up in height like proverbial beanstalks, all in a matter of weeks. As it happens the onset of my own puberty is just weeks away, and within a week I'm a bass. Today, however, I’m still a soprano.
I'm given a place in the children’s chorus for Joseph — a group of sixteen sopranos who sing echoes of Joseph’s lyrics, and high ethereal la-la-la’s here and there like a choir of angels, while Joseph agonizes over the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on stage. I find the rehearsals and the lead up to opening night tedious. The children’s chorus doesn’t have much to do, and we spend long hours lying around doing nothing, gossiping, playing silly games, hanging out; I mostly read. When the soloists are rehearsing, however, we are shepherded out of the hall so as not to be a distraction. This means that up until the dress rehearsals I’ve only seen bits and pieces of the show, never the whole thing. Then, I get sick and miss both dress rehearsals. No one is concerned as I don’t have to move around during the show, and I know the music backwards. Next thing, it’s opening night.
The Main Hall of Perth Modern School is quite grand, featuring high-vaulted ceiling, lots of deep brown wood paneling on the ceiling and walls, and polished wooden floors. Plaques containing the school Honour Roles in the fields of sport and academic prowess — my own name added to both in years to come — hang on three walls of the hall; the stage occupies the fourth.
The staging for Joseph is basic: a few static sets made by the woodwork department, crudely painted by the art department. I don’t get to see them because, as a member of the children's choir, I sit behind a sheer white curtain at the back of the stage looking out. From where I sit — facing the conductor and the audience — I can see the back of the action on stage just a few feet from me, but more importantly, I can see the faces of the audience.
The hall lights dim. The rumble of conversation quietens. Someone coughs. Then another. The conductor lifts his baton and the small student orchestra starts to play, a little off-key: they're nervous.
A spotlight comes on, stage right. Standing in the spotlight is The Narrator — a sweet female senior with an angelic face, and, as I'm about to find out, a voice to match. She starts to sing. I gasp, it’s so beautiful:
“Some folks dream of the wonders they’ll do
Before their time on this planet is through.
Some just don’t have anything planned.
They hide their hopes and their heads in the sand.
Now I don’t say who is wrong, who is right,
But if by chance you are here for the night
Then all I need is hour or two
To tell the tale of a dreamer like you . . .”
I'm immediately transported to another dimension, to another realm, to Musical Theatre Land. That fantastical place into which one is invited to enter when one is watching a musical. In Musical Theatre Land, life’s usual rules don’t apply. In here the real world doesn’t exist. In here you can be anyone you want to be, and you can do anything you want to do.
As I watch the story of Joseph and his twelve brothers — complete with scandal, intrigue, Elvis-impersonators, nymphomaniac queens, and cowboy hoedowns — unfold before me, I'm drawn deeper and deeper into this fantastical world. I want to be on stage with them. I want to be in the middle of the action, deeper in the fantasy, not on the periphery looking in. I desperately want to be Joseph more than anything that I can ever remember wanting in my 13 years of life. I want to be the star, the hero, changing people's lives for the better through his courage, great deeds, and moral virtues.
At one point I become aware — possibly for the very first time — of the presence of envy. It is accompanied by its partner-in-crime, self-doubt: I'll never be good enough to do that, to be the star, to be Joseph. I'm just not talented enough. Ouch!!
Just as quickly as it arises, however, envy is squashed back down into my subconscious, and I'm drawn back into the drama on stage. From my position, hidden behind the sheer curtain at the back of the stage, my attention moves between the unfolding story close in front of me, and the entranced faces of the people in the front row of the audience; parents and siblings of the cast. Faces that light up with excitement as the storyline and music elevates, then plunge into sadness and despair as the storyline takes an unexpected emotional nosedive. As the performance concludes the faces are beaming and shouting encouragement to the performers for a job well done. I sob uncontrollably. What's wrong with me?
Joy — which I had known intimately until my fourth birthday, but which had mysteriously gone away — is back; I can’t wipe the smile off my face. I babble like a crazed fool to anyone who'll listen, and I run around backstage and through the darkened school corridors laughing and singing. I’m so excited. I hug everyone.
Thus, my love affair with musical theatre began . . .
January 5th, 2015.
I sang in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Perth Modern School in July 1977. Watch videos of me singing songs from various musicals: Songs of Inspiration.