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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Pain Sans Frontières - bread with out borders.Part III

“It is the fate of scholars, researchers and intellectuals everywhere, to ask great questions but to produce the wrong answers.” Anon

On the first day of Kindergarten Ruby asks:
What is that strange smell mummy?
That smell Ruby, is the laminating machine, I reply.

Everything at kindergarten is laminated, every photograph, every drawing, every certificate celebrating every effort, is heat bound and sent home. 

Ruby arrived at kindergarten today, is typed onto a certificate and laminated.

The poem for mothers’ day is all schmaltzy and badly written, but at least it is laminated.

There is a photograph of Ruby doing the thumbs up, and underneath the words:
When I jumped on the toilet train, I did a pooh and my mum’s going to laminate it, sent home, the same day as the kindergarten parent helper roster.

On the second day of kinder the fundraising committee send out the fundraising duties expected of all parents at this kindergaten:
Buy a plate with my child’s hand- print on it.
Buy a chocolate frog to help fight childhood obesity.
Come to our fundraising fête, so that no child at our kinder is without a laptop.

Sleep deprivation is taken over by fund raising fatigue during the kindergarten years.

Piaget kept himself to a strict personal schedule that filled his entire day. He awoke every morning at four and wrote at least four publishable pages before teaching classes or attending meetings. After lunch he would take walks and ponder on his interests. "I always like to think on a problem before reading about it,” he said. He read extensively in the evening before retiring to bed. 

On the third day of kinder, I have time to glance quickly on the back of the Cheerio box, between the kinder run and getting to work and back to pick up after kinder then take to childcare by 11:15am.
I note that Cheerios have 90% more fiber now than they used to. 
Ruby asks me:
Why do the family on the back of the cheerio box look so happy mummy?

The family on the back of the Cheerio box, look so happy Ruby, because they are so Caucasian. They are not marginalized in the slightest. The family is running along the coast line, just up from their negatively geared beach house. They are happy in their freshly pressed linen clothes and their bowels are cleansed. I reply

On the last day of kinder, I stink. My skin has a greasy sheen to it and I am caked in fat. I have missed every concert, art show and slam poetry performance, because I have been sizzling hundreds and hundreds of fundraising halal sausages. I laminate some of the fat.

In the blink of an eye I have become the secretary of the kindergarten committee and miraculously managed to fit work around the 1950’s kindergarten timetable, whilst raising over $5,725 for the poor, poor deprived children attending the Ivanhoe kindergarten.
We wave goodbye to our kindergarten friends taking with us our 1,896 paintings, 749 indefinable creative works and 1 school transition report. During the summer holidays, Ruby insists on wearing her school uniform to bed and to the beach.

Time has sped up. One minute it is cracked nipples, cradle cap and the whiff of babies vomit. The next minute, I am signing permission forms for Ruby to go on excursions, whilst being photographed for publicity purposes, as the teacher examines her for head lice.

The sun beats down on Ruby as she looks up at me.  Tortoise like, her huge back pack nearly tipping her over she stands at the steely gates.
I give her my final words of advice:
Moral compass, boiled eggs, anchovies. 
I follow it up quickly with a weather report:
You’ll need your sun hat today: it’s going to be a scorcher.

After 5 years, my work is done. I hand Ruby over to the state. 

The playgroup mums of Preston go back to someone’s house after we drop our children at school, on their first day of prep. We eat chocolates and drink champagne.
We raise our emotionally charged glasses of champagne, because we are courageous, we are brave, but we are also bereft.

That night as I lie in bed, I sigh with relief that I was able to seek out Ruby amongst the crowd of homogenous children at home time.
I congratulate myself, that the intensive unwrapping a glad wrapped item training, paid off. Ruby neither starved, nor suffocated on the glad wrap.

As I snuggle down into the doona on that first night of prep, I hear a slight noise.

Is it a floor board creaking? 
A door opening, or a child crying out in their sleep?
I jump up ninja like.
Does Ruby need panadol? 
Is she going to be sick?  
Has she wet the bed? Do I need to strip down the sheets, dry her, change her and remake the bed. Then take everything to the laundry and congratulate myself on completing the three - minute wet the bed turn around challenge.

I check on Ruby, she is fast asleep. I look down at her knowing that her thinking is still egocentric and that she has difficulty taking the viewpoint of others, but loving her just the same. 
Soon Ruby will, as physical experience accumulates, begin to think abstractly and conceptualize, creating logical structures that explain her physical experiences.

Pain Sans Frontier was a success. Ticket sales were great, audiences in the evenings and during cry -baby sessions laugh and applaud.
Pain Sans Frontières bread without border MICF 2010

Post show I am asked by early years health practitioners to perform extracts for playgroups, staff planning days, children’s’ week events across Melbourne. I even do a bit of it for an early years gala dinner. I adapt and flog bread without borders as an innovative health promotion tool. There is material in the script I will use for years to come. 

I ask each audience why they think that children don’t eat their crusts. Many say it is because of the dryness or lack of taste. There is always one person though, who boasts that their child has always been a crust eater.
Piaget did not tell me why Ruby and her peers did not eat their crusts. I conclude that children don’t eat their crusts because they know that the first five years of life go by very quickly.  Children don’t want to waste time on the outer edges, when the good oil, the bits in the middle are always quicker, easier and tastier to eat.  

Our playgroup ended when one child pissed into another child’s ukulele, many of my friends were restructured out of their jobs whilst on maternity leave, the kindergarten years are filled with fundraising fatigue, which is just a segue into the primary school years. 

Jacqueline, Lucienne and Laurent Piaget were studied intensely by their father Jean Piaget to form the basis of Piaget’s cognitive theory. From these observations Piaget came up with the words concrete, sensori motor and operational when describing pre schoolers. 

What I would like though, is a copy of the words Mrs Piaget used during her children’s pre school years.

I would like a copy of Mrs Piaget’s words and I would laminate them.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Pain Sans Frontières - bread without borders Part II

Justine Sless Presents Pains Sans Frontières (bread without borders)
The Playgroup Years

I intertwine the pre school years with the essence of Piaget’s cognitive theory.  It becomes the Pain Sans Frontières bread without borders script. It’s a longbow, which when I draw it back and release into my Melbourne International Comedy Festival audience, feels like I am right on target.

Top Tips

Pre kids I used to eat crackling crunching bags of chips. Pre kids, I would peel back a whole mango and eat it, whilst making indiscriminate slurping sounds as the juice ran down my neck. James would stir the sugar in his coffee with such velocity, that the clanging sound was like the peal of church bells. The slap of noodle strands against our lips and faces as we scoffed on laskas, was not only messy, but also too loud for a sleeping new born babies’ ears.

The baby years were made up of tiny bowls, with Peter Rabbit motifs. These bowls were filled with mashed potatoes, puréed fruits and over cooked pastas - and so the culinary silence descended. 

After what feels like a stretched out time of agonizing sleep deprivation, the culinary volume is turned up just a notch. The Rusk is introduced with much cooing and encouragement.
An infant will makes its own special imprint on a Rusk, as it gnaws, slobbers and sucks upon it. 
The Rusk eater will also begin to bang their feeding utensils. They will begin to make chirrup song like sounds. A series of guttural noises will be made, indicating that that their favorite book be read to them, again and again and again.

These are Pain Sans Frontiér years. The culinary decibel is cranked up again. 

Children everywhere in the developed world, reject, rebuff and repudiate the four corners of the loaf, their noises of dissent are akin to squawking gulls.

Piaget, the Swiss man who created the most influential theoretical framework on early childhood development, spent an enormous amount of time breaking up bits of bread and asking his children which was the bigger bit: the broken up bits or the chunk of bread.

All well and good Piaget, but couldn’t you have done just a bit of research into why there is almost universal refusal to consume the breads crust?

Our weekly playgroup gatherings continue, lasting much to my irritation for  hours and hours.

Out of interest I line up the playgroup children and ask them:
Why don’t you eat your crusts?

They are just handles -said 3 year old Sam.

They don’t add nutritional value- Ruby, 3 1/2 of Preston.

Crusts? That’s not what will make my hair curl, that’s genetics –Thomas, a child that will probably be picked on at school for being a nerd.

A whiff of skepticism wafts over me during this time about the Piagets’ ages and stages theory. 
I do a checklist, to see how my kids are scrubbing up against the Preoperational stage.
Sure enough though, they weren’t yet able to conceptualize abstractly and needed concrete physical situations. Objects were classified in simple ways, especially by important features.

To help guide them through this stage, I consistently give them a simple instruction and follow it up with a concrete physical situation, namely a weather report:

Get in the car – it’s boiling.

You won’t need a singlet today – it’s going to be quite humid.

Eat your crusts – or there will be no end to the drought.

For extra reinforcement, I advise them of the domestic task that I am undertaking and give them an estimated time of completion:

I’m just doing the dishes – give me five minutes.

I’m just mopping the floor I will be with you in 8 ½ minutes.

Mummy is just excavating the back yard, in order to create a tranquil space within suburban Preston, give us half an hour.

We are in the thick of the playgroup years and the weekly presentation of home baked items, reach giddy heights of competitiveness.

The freshly made fruit and chocolate loaf is devoured in an instant, but aligned with the admission that though it was lovely, it was a bit of a shame that the flour was not organic.

Vegetarian sausage rolls, were presented one week. These were greeted with oohs and ahhs  and a chorus of : Yep, they taste just like Four and Twenties.

Then there was the Christmas cake bake off, an all day extravaganza that the CWA would have been proud of.
Christmas Cake bake off.

During the playgroup years, I realize that I have less time to commit to surface patrol. It dawns on me, that the real threat to modern families, are not unclean surfaces, but toys that boast over 400 pieces.
The spear like edges of these 400 pieces, are always lying in wait in darkened rooms. They snarl up the vacuum cleaner, from down the back of the couch and can always be found scattered, like confetti in hallways, as you carry in a weeks supply of shopping from Aldi. 

The threat continues with the toys suitable for children aged 3 and over. These toys require gelignite, cordless drills and Swiss army knives to open their plastic shrouds and remove the twine attached to each limb of the toy. Once done the grand revelation of the much - coveted plastic item, turns out not be the toy of your child’s  dreams, but just plain old disappointment – batteries not included.

The weekly playgroup gatherings go on for what feels like years. The recipes swapped are many, the cups of tea consumed are numerous. Our lament at the beginning of these years was that: the craft revival would be our salvation and the begetting of back yard chooks would bring a hereto unimagined quality, to our home baked items.
As the sun begins to set on our playgroup years, we bless our good fortune at being able to grow plentiful crops of lettuce in our veggie patches. We discover though, that the moral breakdown of society and the harmony of our nuclear families is under treat. 

The affection that children receive before bed time, the stories read to them as they begin to get drowsy, the whines and petty squabbles of the day forgotten, as you lie next to them as they drift to sleep, is a special bonding moment.

Then the item which can tear a family asunder, has arrived.
The Bunk Bed  - the bastardisation of domestic bliss.

The child who wins the right to the top bunk, no longer gets that cuddle before they sleep. The top bunk kid is no longer read to, as they drift into dreamland. Their brow is not smoothed as the worries and squabbles of the day  are kissed away. Instead what happens, is a quick swinging motion as you half grab them, half squeeze their arm for balance, the groan of the self assembled bunk bed being far louder than the good night you say to them, as you back out of their room. You head quickly for the bottle of single malt, relieved that you have not incurred a bunk bed injury.

With this said, I try other ways to show my love to top bunk child. I mitigate the moral breakdown, via a firm agreement to play princesses with them and sing the diamond castle song from the Barbie movie, as if I am about to shed tears of joy. I believe it works.

All the playgroup mums begin applying for places at kindergartens. It is the final playgroup of the year, before the long summer begins. There is nostalgia in the air and talk of us all continuing on as a playgroup, during the four year old kinder year. We say this, even though we know it will be tricky finding a common day that we can all meet.

Then a shrill cry, breaks through the schmaltz. We all rush to the other room where the children have been playing. All at once children’s coats are gathered, toys are hastily put back into toy boxes, crumbs and cups put quickly onto the kitchen bench.
We all know at that moment, though it is not said, that we won’t meet again as a playgroup.
We will not meet again as playgroup, because the unimaginable has happened: one child has pissed into another child’s ukulele.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Pain Sans Frontières- bread without borders

Head down, pen up, it's time to write another MICF show
Part I

I am a fundraising fatigued parent,still spattered in fat from the last sausage sizzle.
If I have to have a current licence to handle food,why did no one ever ask me for a handlers certificate when it came to raising my children?
Recently between chocolate drives, I have taken to studying Piaget's theory of cognitive development and the nutritional advice on the back of the Cheerio box.
But will this extra reading help answer the ultimate poser in my life:
Why don't children eat their crusts?

Bread without borders

Time had a strange way of slowing down, then speeding up during the first five years or my children's lives. One minute it was saté poohs and let downs, the next minute I am in charge of the mango drive.

There is the quantifiable bit of time - the birth, that took around 14 hours. The whole thing felt like a rave party full of e's: episiotomy, epidural, exhausting,The elastic nature of time during those first five years of life is not unlike an aged maternity bra: saggy, unkempt and a bit whiffy.

There is a plethora of parenting literature to plough through that is meant to help in the navigation of these uncharted waters. I discard: What to expect when you are expecting,  and dismiss Keeping your breasts buoyant and your perineum perky and opt instead to read Piaget's theory of cognitive development.
Cup if tea in hand, a carpet of biscuit crumbs at my feet, I begin.

Piaget calls the first two years of life the sensorimotor stage. During this time, the infant builds an understanding of themselves and reality (and how things work) through interactions with the environment. It is able to differentiate between itself and other objects. Learning takes place via assimilation (the organisation of information and absorbing it into existing schema) and accommodation (when an object can not be assimilated and the schemata have to be modified to include the object.)
During this time my arm feels like it is just an appendage to the pram. I begin to spend less time rocking and pacing and more and more time driving greater and greater distances to induce sleep. I replace the word baby on the baby on board sticker with the word phenurgan,hoping that drowsiness will occur. I then pencil in the word sleep is so over rated stage into Piaget's theory.

I am a stay at home mum and no amount of paid maternity leave makes me feel particularly valued. After I wave James off to work each day, I say: happy affidavit writing, hope it's not too litigious before lunchtime, hope you have lots of cogent arguments with your clients. Then I close door and watch the minutes tick by slowly.

During the slow tick of time phase,I have the door bell dismantled, the dog debarked and I begin to eat only very quiet foods:no slurping, no crunching and no munching. Despite all of this I still can not control my own crying.
Though I can not find mention of it in Piaget's works, my children soon spend a lot of time smearing yogurt onto walls and doors, hopping onto the toilet train and forming strong bonds with soft toys. The fur of the toys become so manky that it carries a rare strain of the e boli virus on it.
We slip out of the sensorimotor stage and into the pre operational stage. This time slipping is akin to watching the egg timer on a down load in the dial up days.The pre operational stage I soon discover is also known as the playgroup stage.

The first week that it is my turn to host playgroup I go on surface patrol at sunrise.Armed with a sponge and a baby on my hip I walk through the house putting things into groups and piles.The overall effect is that there are teetering piles of crap balanced next to teetering groups of crap. To make it a bit easier on the eye I put a bunch of greenery from the garden into a jug onto of a group and next to a pile.
In readiness for the arrival of the playgroup mums, I place opened packets of biscuits: Tim Tams,Vo Vo's and Peppermint slices at diagonal angles on the dining table. I unsheathe each packet equally - four biscuits down. I arrange an assortment of teas in a variety of ways, until I am satisfied that the display implies that I am a competent parent.
The first playgroup mum to arrive has four children under the age of four. The mum, let us call her Liz, heaves her emmaljunga pram into the hallway and hands me a Tupperware box.
Inside the Tupperware box is a home baked banana bread, made with organic brown flour, cooked using a recipe from Stephanie Alexander's Cooks Companion. The cake is still warm from the oven.
All I can say, as I take it from her is:
You sanctimonious bitch

Monday, June 9, 2014

A new weapon against the war on crumbs

The creation of Bench Press a kitchen sink drama for MICF 2009

It was lost on my children Ruby and Jessica, when I said to them mummy is going to the Aldi supermarket to do a whole weeks shopping.
They didn't say but mummy mummy what if you bring home a wet suit a cordless drill and extendable garden shears instead of apples oranges and bananas.

The children weren't with me in the Aldi supermarket when I was looking everywhere for the yellow dishcloths that I can always find in Woolworths. They weren't with me when all I could find on  the shelf were packets of coloured sponges and those blue insipid things that are just a weak excuse for a dishcloth.

I was shitting myself. This wasn't just changing brands from one kind of yellow dishcloth to another. This was the most radical thing that i done in years. This was changing products altogether. I was going to be taking home a packet of coloured sponges- a new weapon against the war on crumbs.

Until then I had never considered that the yellow dishcloth was deficient in its utility. Then I bought a packet of coloured sponges and I began to wipe the kitchen bench down.
I was at once beguiled by the sponges hideously pockmarked exterior and enthralled by its underlying structure and strength.The wiping didn't stop at the bench either.My home is mad cup of surfaces, undulating and smooth, wooden and laminated. I ripped in crooks and crevices, across nooks and crannies. Absorbent? Don't get me started.

I was standing at my kitchen bench with a pile of coloured sponges neatly arranged in front of me, feeling like there had never been a time before the bench. I had been there for what seems like a very long time: during the two pregnancies, the two births, the begetting of the mortgage, the cat, the dog, the guinea pigs, the rabbit, the backyard chooks and the veggie patch, all de rigueur acquisitions for a northern suburban Melbournian not for profit worker.

There was of course other chunks of time though,all of this chunks feeling a very long time ago. There was the chunk of time pre bench, when I was in my late teens early twenties, the time just after I had left North East England. During that chunk of time I had travelled through Europe, hitching from city to city, with an older man, lurching from one crazy adventure after another.During that time a scab had formed on my elbow, from leaning against bars drinking lots of beers. I kept leaning even though I knew I was spiralling out of control and that the script for North by North East the 20/20 summit we had to have was already begin written. I was proud of the scab, to me it represented tenacity, something that I was able to do well. Having just failed year 12 twice, the ability to lean against a bar long enough for a scab to form on my elbow felt like an achievement.

Now I was in my late 30's clutching a coloured sponge and feeling like a legend. In the bench chunk of time there wasn't a scab forming on my elbow from leaning against the bench, I tend to lean against the bench with my hip, rather than rest my elbow against it. 
Though there was no scab forming I felt like I had been at the bench for a very long time and it felt like i would never escape.

In between making home baked items, wiping surfaces throughout the house and dealing with the endless teetering piles of crap that gathered on every surface, I gather the ingredients for my new comedy festival show: Bench Press a kitschen sink drama.

Out of interest I email the other mums in my playgroup. I tell them that I am researching a new show about the kitchen bench. I ask them what their bench means to them.
They reply:

 I don't know why I leave the bench, it is the place I always end up going back to.

 Others say that there is never enough space on it and the bench is repository of all things domestic: school notices, utility bills, nail clippings.

Then bench they say is the place where meals: some great, some not so are made, the place where toast crumbs gather and home baked items are made and presented at our weekly playgroup gatherings with aplomb.

All of the playgroup mums say that they would like their bench to be bigger, but all concede that with more bench space will come the need to keep more bench space clean.

We all wonder how much bench space is too much bench space.

Another mum comments:  If you have time to fold tea towels then you have too much time on your hands.

Other mums describe their bench as begin the hub of the home, the nerve centre.

Another mum throws into the mix: Do women use vibrators alone or in couples.

The bench ,we all agree is where we spend a lot of time.

I ask the play groupers if the bench is a good place to share gossip, there is much consternation about this:
There should not be conversations that use facts that are known about others in a malicious manner.
Words should not be hurtful
Words should only be used in a productive manner and be an indication of who is in the group and who is not in the group.
Furthermore the words that are said at the bench should only be said about another person if they can be said to their face, otherwise they should not be uttered at all.

I conclude that the bench is the archetypal strong hold of women, their domain, their place to talk, to make cups of tea, to lean against and  the place to yell out instructions to various members of the household: tidy your room, eat your dinner, resuscitate the god.

 I tell my mate Jenny that I am gestating anew show about the kitchen bench. A few days later she gifts me this fabulous little book by Gay Bilson called On Digestion.
There is a passage in it that resonates:

 Yet the largest bench, the one dividing the dining area from the kitchen it self, is never used for culinary preparation. It is the surface on which many Australians, including mine, fell they need to pile with books and journals, notepaper and pens. The surface where we are reinventing ourselves, constructing a different, self conscious culinary tradition.

The show becomes a domestic drama. The bench press concept offers me a vehicle to do a show about domesticity and being at home with pre school child without having to do straight standup. I incorporate the idea that we have had first wave we have had second wave but we have now reached microwave feminism a quick theoretical frame work with publications from the bench press publishing house. 

To add authenticity to the new theoretical framework that is microwave feminism I ask my mate Clare who is a feminist historian to recommend the top ten  must read seminal feminist texts. They include:
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Feminin Mystique, by Betty Freidan
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
The Great Feminist Denial by Monica Dux 
The Mommy Myth, the idealisation of motherhood and how it has undermined all women
by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michael's
What women want next by Susan Maushart

I extract lines from the texts:

In my late 20's I thought sex and a career would solve everything. At 30 I thought marriage  would. Later I tried motherhood, therapy and then divorce. At 40 I decided to renovate.

Together we can create a non sexist landscape that would liberate human energies rather than exaggerate gender differences.

Breast feeding twins is fun

Making soap from soap

Seminal,radical, polemic and erudite.

The great feminist denial puts an ailing feminist past to rest and porpoises a new way forward the offers young women of today a new way of calling them selves feminists.

The Luna cycle and you

New age mothering at any age

Housework is creepy.

I register the show Bench Press a kitschen sink drama for the 2009 Melbourne International Comedy Festival:
Come for a rolling pin ride through first wave second wave right through to 21st Century microwave feminism. Bench Press is the  new feminist publishing house, where saucy is just ketchup and the great tidal wave of crumbs is always met with a soggy dishcloth.

I decide not to take a risk with the venue. I had my comedy toes burnt at Cape Live on Brunswick street and didn't want to compete with another drummer. So I go back to the local government theatre venue: it's safe, it's quite expensive and it's a little bit soulless.
The show is inclusive: there is a cry baby session, an auslan signed session, wheelchair access arts comps and one nights proceeds are donated to the Darebin DOmestic violence network.

The poster for the show is incredible. Do you like what I have done with your legs? Asks Danny. They are sleek, shiny and varicose free. I've photo shopped them, Danny tells me. Oh and I brought in your waist to accentuate it just a little to.

Despite the recent ingestion of the seminal feminist texts talking all things objectification of women, having my legs photoshopped and my waistline adjusted slightly felt fantastic.
I show the poster to a few mates:  Oh can Danny photo shop me too they all ask?
Justine Sless presents Bench Press a kitschen sink drama

Whilst I wage the war on crumbs, I begin to write the first Microwave feminist manifesto. It has to be seminal, radical and ever so polemic. The sponges have to be central to the shows theme, as does junk mail because the Bench Press publications will be made from pushing junk mail though a blender and making paper out of paper.

I find it very soothing putting a show together. It stills me in the midst of making school lunches, doing the crèche run, being a community worker and keeping the teetering piles of crap in check.
Creating one joke, weaving a line, making one word work against another that is seemingly unrelated is meditative. My mind stills, as I focus only on the process. I am totally in the moment of creativity.

I spend ages on the first Bench Press publication. It is a take on Alison Leister's book the Magic Beach. The first microwave manifesto is called The Magic Bench.
Here is an excerpt: 

At my bench my magical bench
My husband never farts or snores
Together we all clean the house 
And get paid rather a lot for doing the chores
The sun is up and so are we, the beds are all made with glee.

The Aldi sponges become the 21st Century equivalent of suffragettes pamphleteering. Within suburban vernacular a new term is embraced and that is known as the passing of the sponges. They are given ceremoniously to audience members along with a word of wisdom:

 Hurricane by Bob Dylan was my wedding song. I wouldn't recommend it.

The sponges are given poetic splendour, and threaded though out the script is:

I took the sponges and the sponges took me to dark and dusty crevices.
I took the sponges and the sponges took me, over ornaments and surfaces I wiped them all with glee.

I demonstrate the utility of the sponge by taking two matching colours and place an elbow on each and say:

Until you rest your elbows upon the sponge you can not possibly imagine how exquisitely exhausted they are.
Aldi Sponges

I include an audio tour of the house incorporating lines from the seminal feminist texts:

Every room in the house is made up of surfaces.
There is a room over here with a queen size surface covered in an IKEA bed spread.
A room over here with with a long timber surface, that is for eating off, and then after I have had four single malt whiskeys it is for table top dancing on.
There is a small room over here with an undulating surface, that is for all of my unwanted hair.

Surface everywhere just gathering stuff.
I organise the stuff into groups and piles.
Groups are made up of awkward shapes, snow globes, Nana's stuff and trams.
Piles are made up of flat things: school notices, uneaten pancakes and road kill.

There is a painting over there,that was done by Ruby when she was 3 and had i not have had the foresight to label it mummy, daddy, Ruby then it would just look like a red wine stain on a cream carpet.

Over here is slim pine surface holding all of the classics:
The day my bum went psycho. Betty's Feminine mystique, Susan Maushart's what do women want next?, Are we there yet by Alison Leister and here's one about creating a utopian non sexist landscape which will liberate human energies rather than exaggerate gender differences ,it's a top read.

 One night there are 90 in the audience, another night there are 2. Doing the show in front of tow people both of them mates is excruciating, I feel like a complete dickhead. I offer to reimburse them their ticket money and suggest that we go out for beers instead, but they insist that I do the show for them.It's really hard, but they listen and they laugh. I gallop through the whole thing just wising it were over.

For one show I invite special guests/friends to the bench. Clare Wright, Rachel Power and Alice Garner. 
In other shows I had played a piece 1950's style music, saying that was the soundtrack in my head when I bake. 
On the special guests night, the music in my head is played by Alice Garner. I don't know that Alice is going to play a slow mournful piece on her cello. As she plays it my shoulders shake with laughter at the crazy hilarity of it all.
Clare reads from Betty Friedan's  Feminine Mystique, Rachel reads from her book the divided heart about Art and Motherhood.
The bench guests and I had not regard but magically it works.

The ending for the show does not become apparent until 2 weeks into the season.Until then I had done this really lame thing of falling back into old material and just kind of drifting off stage. By week three I end on a line that I am satisfied with:

When I bake and the smell of vanilla essence drifts through the house, I inhale deeply and I am invincible.
It's not a killer comedy line, but the show is a narrative and the line completes the story.

Lots of mates come to see the show, they laugh and after the show we drink beers together.
For three short weeks I am gliding on a performance induced high. I am completely euphoric, everything has this heightened almost drugged up feel to it. Things look sharper, clearer. I am more attuned to what is happening around me. Some nights when i go home late after a show and the house is quiet, i need three single malts to calm me down. 

I get a review:
This is feminist satire at its best: restrained, subtle, intelligent, thought provoking and slightly insane.

 James and the kids come to see a show. James says very little about the show. The kids just want a sponge passed to them. Ruby yells out at one point when I am talking about, returning from the supermarket fearful because in my absence the children might have got creative with glitter and glue:  That didn't happen mum, Ruby yells out.
It's so endearing to be heckled by by your own child, because you have embellished the truth for the purposes of the joke.

By the end of the season I have made a small profit, which I put towards Fringe registration.
I don't feel like I have fully resolved the sponge aspect of the show, so I want an opportunity to nut it out during fringe.

I do a three show season at the Queen Victoria Women's Centre in a small commercial kitchen, it seats 9 people.

A judge from Fringe comes to a a show.As she walks out she says to the receptionist : Great just great, every now and again you see something that is just great. 
 I am already writing the acceptance speech.But I don't get an award or a nomination.

I go up to Dayelsford to do the Words in Winter Festival. The venue is smaller than the year before and there are about 15 people in the audience.The Bench has gone bush and it is great. A much better performance than the year before, a world away in fact.

It is a beautiful thing to take a show out of the suburbs. All I have to draw upon is my script and my steely reserve. I am a different person in that space. Not the sum total of my suburban life, the kids, the dishes, the marriage and the mortgage, but just a woman, standing in front of strangers trying to make them laugh.

I know i have improved, Bench Press has some good material in it, it has a good story line about where feminism has come from and how much further it has to go.

My friend Nilgun, who sat through many rehearsals says to me at one point:
You know that you can't be modest if you want to do comedy. 
 I'm embarrassed by the comment, that it is so obvious, that whilst I want to do comedy I am at the same time ashamed. The desire to make the funnies, hear the laughter, take the applause feels like I am showing off. 

I try hard not to let the whole doing comedy thing impact on the family time or budget. I make fairly conservative financial decisions when I put a show together. If my hobby were buying italian leather shoes or gardening, the idea of making those hobbies break even is absurd. 
Writing and performing comedy presses all of my creative buttons, but I still feel like I have to justify it.
I do wince though, because I feel like I am that 8 year old Girl Guide virtually pushing the other guides out of the way during the talent competition. Climbing on stage, doing a Frank Spencer impersonation,  thrilled to get through to the next round and be able to impersonate Uncle Bulgaria from the Wombles. Almost bursting with happiness that I take out first prize, a monster block of Cadbury's chocolate. 
When you are 8 years old and showing off a Girl Guides it's kind of cute, in your late 30's it feels childish, attention grabbing and immodest.

Friends say again and again:
You are so doing comedy, it takes such guts.

I smile, but I think, not gutsy enough. The gutsy thing would be to throw away the day job, take on comedy full time, carve a living out of it.
Doing shows in conservative local government theatre venues, to friends and family and the odd stranger doesn't feel risky, it feels like I am just giving something a go, showing off and hearing what it sounds like out loud.

Fiona O'loughlan is quoted as saying:
You can debate till the cows come home, women have been socialised out of being funny. It is so ingrained in society, women are expected to be quieter. Our job is to be pretty and nice and quiet and a female doing stand up is none of those things.
To begin with, stand up is such an odd thing to do as a profession. It's a really self indulgent and crazy plan to set out to be a stand up comedian, and i think that boys just have a more hung ho attitude and are less bound by the rules of society than women. Women just tend to be more responsible, or more afraid.

Responsible? Afraid?
I am both. I want to take comedy by the horns, run and shriek like a mad harridan, banshee woman and cry: I am woman hear my jokes.
Instead I do comedy all in the milieu of house wifery. 
I can't abide doing comedy in comedy rooms, because I am not patient enough with the dominate male sank fest, even though I need the stage time. I don't do interstate gigs, because I can't do the travel.

In Bench Press, I took the sponges and the sponges took me, but only to the next suburb and then once to rural Victoria, even then I was back the next day. It all feels so 1954.

This chunk of time called the Bench Press years, is a time of a pinafored existence, with a bake light background and a few jokes thrown in for good measure.
I imagined for a moment in between the lines of the review, that i had become someone else entirely, but really I was just me. 
Just me in a polka dot dress, spouting forth the existence of Microwave Feminism. 
I took people on an audio tour of my suburban house, I pillorised the playgroup mums, heaped scorn upon the scones.
Then late at night I drink single malt and believe that I am a legend.
I create a kitshcen sink drama, all the while ensuring that there is no ripple on the domestic front, it's almost like  I have not been away at all: the dinners still get cooked, the dishes get done and the laundry still gets folded.
Microwave Feminism is meant to be a fast revolution, but who am I kidding?

I don't take out an award, I get a couple of nice reviews, I do the show in three different festivals. I don't think that I quite nailed the passing of the sponges, or that I converted many audiences to ride the microwave of feminism, but I know that in a small increment my comedy has improved.

When I started out doing comedy I thought that there would be a trajectory to fame and comedy fortune. Post show I am leaning against the bench, listening to Radio National and I hear  a guy say that overnight success usually takes unto 7 years.

I move some detritus from the bench onto another surface to make room for a new spiral bound notebook.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Drummer Boy

September 2008
The venue is dark with couches facing different angles and Beat magazines strewn across low tables. It has a student accommodation feel: grungy with miss matched furniture. Spilling out from the arms of some of the couches is yellowing foam. It’s like the couches have been injured, the wound is fatal and an ambulance should have been called hours ago. There is a fetid smell of late nights and spilt drinks. Dim light is cast from a few lamps with old fashioned tasseled shades on them. Most of the shades are tilted slightly, like the lamps have had one too many bourbons. It is a cavernous space, with a long bar at one side, the stools are haunted by barflies. 

'That venue is going to be great,' I say to four year old Jess, as we leave.
Jess is steadily licking on an ice cream from Trampoline. 'Really mummy will work wonders in a venue like that.'
The triple choc frenzy double scoop begins to melt as Jess smiles up at me.

On opening night of my Fringe Show – North By North East the 20/20 summit we had to have, the venue is exactly the same as when I had booked it. No exceptions, no changes, just a slight upward shift of the chin from the owner - 'Probably do your show over there, the mic is plugged in.'
Ticket sales were slow, one stranger has bought a ticket, the rest were friends or complimentary.

I launch into a monologue about growing up in North East England. There are people coming in and out of the venue, my mate who is on door has no success in asking people to buy a ticket.
Some punters have come there to sit with substance abuse noddy heads on a couch. They nod ,they nod, they nod to sleep.
About half an hour into the show a busker sets up outside.The busker begins playing, loud, thudding, discordant drums.

I keep going with my long monologue about growing up in North East England, travelling in Europe and my loneliness when I arrive in Australia.

The ‘audience’ consists of my dad, my step mother and two of their friends who are over from Canberra. Their friends look at me with open pity.
On another couch is a friend of mine. My friend sucks hard on her drink through her straw, she focuses her whole attention on the sucking, her cheeks are concave with the effort, she doesn’t look at me, she just keeps on sucking.

The Fringe season is 11 shows over 3 weeks.
I go home after the first nights’ show and fall into a deep dreamless sleep. I get up the next day, take the kids to school and crèche,then go to work.
Around 5 o’clock as I am begin to make dinner, my head makes room for the fact that I have to go back to the badly lit bar, to the busker who drums, to the punters who are there for the chat and a beer, to the very poor tickets sales and do the whole thing all over again.

I get two reviews:
Age review:
‘..if Sless is having some kind of mid life crisis, then I wished she had just driven off on a red sports car rather than putting us all through this.’

Online review by John Bailey:
“Sless had a book of bad poems she'd written as a teenager. She gave them to an audience member and asked her to read one out loud at random. It was nicely emo and angsty …the whole idea of letting your teenaged self be humiliated by someone else was a great touch."

It feels like I have come to a very dark place, almost as dark as the bar I’m doing the show in, the furnishings in my mind are grim and derelict, I feel a heaviness, a dead weight in my head and throughout my whole body. I have sunk once more into the inferno that is comedy hell.

There are different categories that you can list a Melbourne Fringe show under: dance, , comedy, children’s theatre.
Mine was listed under comedy. If there had been a category : ‘experimental therapy session in front of paying audience:’ I so would have ticked that box.

I had dug myself into a deep death by comedy hole. Each night I spoke as if in a trance. I watched in agony the expressions of friends and family become heavy with pity and embarrassment. 

Here's some of my schtick:

My parents had divorced when I was two. Access weekends were a guilt-ridden sojourn into my dad’s bachelor life, he drove an MG sports car, and there was the parade of women.

My step dad collected first and second world war paraphernalia, he was mad for it: bits of shrapnel, medals, helmets, all neatly cataloged and stored in museum type drawers.

He also collected Beatles cups, plates, fist edition Let it Be albums. “This” he would look around and gesture grandly “This will all be worth something one day.”

He alphabetized his vast vinyl collection.
He chronologically ordered his books, row after row of history books relating to every aspect of the two wars.

My sister took an active dislike to my step dad. 

His response to her as she got older was to ground her for longer and longer periods of time. My step dad’s response to her disobeying his rules was to slam doors and go on week long silence campaigns.

That my step dad did not talk for so long was at once powerful and strangely terrifying.

We lived in North East England, where ships had once been built, steel forged and coal mined.
As Thatcher's rule began to hammer harder, the industries crumbled, so too our lives behind the ex miners cottage door began to disintegrate.

My Fringe show contained an hours worth of personal history spewed out in a voice that I hoped would sound ironic and pithy, but instead came out as, boring, monotone and very tedious.

By week 3 I asked the drummer  boy to hold off until 9:30pm, created a comedy engagement strategy based on years of community development work.
Community development workers love butchers paper and the whiff of a texta, so why wouldn’t a Fringe audience?
Wearing my best non threatening foot wear I plunge into week 3 and transform the show into a strategic planning exercise.
It frees me from the script, throws me into strategic planning mode, the life blood of the not for profit sector and easily translated into a comedy nugget.
I do a mapping exercise about how I get from North East England to Australia via Europe. A SWOT analysis of living in Australia compared to England. I give out lollies and one liners to keep things moving along:
‘If by the age of 4 your child has not had head lice, then you aren’t getting them out the house often enough’

Take home crumbs:

When you write a joke you have to give everything to the audience, the set up, the story and the punch line.
You can’t give them a dot dot dot space where they need to fill in the blanks.
You are the comedian and have to pay it.
You have to take the audience on a journey come out somewhere unexpected and remain in control the whole time.
Then if your material isn’t good enough, you need a Plan B.

Take home crumbs
When you watch well established comedians you know that they are pulling on a compendium of jokes, years of stored up material that can be put into any situation, five minutes spots, corporate gigs, MC roles, all of it making them look smooth as.

I had seen Tom Gleeson in a comedy room tell a story about a camping trip. You could see that he'd told the story a million times, but what made it fresh was his delivery. He knew the audience would enjoy it as well. He took us on a long circuitous route to the pay off. Along the way building his rapport with the audience, he was in control and the audience had confidence in him from the get go. 
skilled comedian will deliver something that you don’t expect and Tom delivered.

The difference with my ‘story telling’ was because I didn’t get the response from the audience that I expected and lacked the skill to know why, I had no where to go, so I sank. Each line bringing me further and further down. The audience knew I was lost so they responded by just sitting there looking middle distance, not wanting to catch my eye, or they just left.

Polite crumbs:

I thought that being under the umberela of a festival was a force field of protection.
I didn’t know that that some of the venues listed by festivals offer a space, no more, no less and that some venue owners have zero interest in performers intentions.

I understood so little about venues, lighting and seating and wasn’t brazen enough till three weeks into the show to ask the busker to drum a little quieter, wasn’t bold enough to ask the guy who ran the venue to turn up the lights.

Polite crumbs

The final week of the show, I come to terms with the fact that I am a novice, that I have made some very bad errors of judgment of my own comedy capacity. The reviews I got were stinging. The place I was in by the end of week two was a comedic dead end.
The furnishings were appalling, the effort it took to do the show each night was hard, watching the expression on my friends faces was embarrassing. Watching audience members walk out and some fall asleep on a student accommodation style couches was truly excruciating. 

But as dark and dingy as this place was I still wanted to master the beguiling beast that is comedy. I still wanted to stand there to do it and get it right. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to make this my last gig, what a way to bow out.

Crumbs from other comics
Crumbs from other comics

I saw a comedian at a comedy room who read from a bit of paper, but instead of looking sheepish about it he sneered at the audience and said 
“This is how contemptuous I am of youse all. I haven’t event learnt my script.”

I was too terrified to look at the audience, never mind tell them I was contemptuous of them.

I didn’t get the a sense of closure I was hoping for at the end of North by North East the 20 20 summit we had to have like I did with the prawn show
My journey from North East England, then hitching through Europe, weren't morphed into a Joni Mitchell lyric from the Hejira album.The relationship with my step dad didn’t get ironed out into a Brady Bunch moment. 

I live in a Northern Suburb of Melbourne called Preston, it's an unassuming place, with very few redeeming features. I am 41 years old. My husband has no interest in what happens on the pages of my notebooks and how that gets translated into being funny . I am in this continual labyrinth, this conundrum of making sense of humour.

My kids are too little, I think, for me to hit the comedy rooms every night. I am a diligent housewife and mother, first a wanna be comedian second. It brings about a constant struggle -  a battle of desire versus duty.

It's  November 2008. I have done 3 new solo shows in one year. I feel like a dam has burst and no amount of duty can stop the flow.

I am compelled, though really it feels more addicted to make it work and do comedy every day. 

I wake very morning lamenting my own misfortune for having found comedy. It is the monkey on my shoulder, it is the puzzle with too many missing pieces, it is the thing I want to understand, to unravel, to conquer and succeed at.
I keep writing. I keep performing, in bars, at gigs and in my head.

There are themes that keep emerging: domesticity, the not for profit sector, the mundanity of suburbia,the kitchen bench, the kids, the dishes, the marriage.

click on the link to register for 2009 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.