The Travelling Years Pt 1. – The Wrong Question

Have you ever had one of those funky kinda weeks? The “a whole chapter of my life is about to end and a new fresh unwritten one is about to commence” week? Maybe a better analogy which will be familiar to travellers or those who’ve spent a lot of time on the road – when the time comes to move-on – the excitement of new adventures and possibilities mingling with the sense of trepidation that accompanies the unknown road that lies ahead. At these times do you have the urge to look retrospectively at the big picture – the whole journey thus far, take stock and plan for the future? I do and that’s the kind of week its been for me.

I’ve spent a lot of this week remembering back and finding great joy at some of the crazier events of my life – and seeing as they’ve been positive and life affirming reminiscences I thought I’d share them in a series of short anecdotal tales – the stories of events and (most usually) people that have left a lasting impression on me.

From 1989 – 1992 I toured with the Queensland Arts Council to primary schools around the state with a production called “World Games”. The company- Footloose Theatre Company was mine and was named after a suggestion from my father “Two young unmarried blokes touring around the state, what else could you call it?” It was an apt name. A two-hander production “World Games” had a quiz show format and relied heavily on audience participation and lent itself to a good deal of impro.

Looking back these were some of the happiest days of my life. I loved life on the road and the guys I toured with were both awesome people and performers. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

!989 – Anthony Simcoe
1990/91 – David Feeney
1991 (third term) – Peter Marshall
1992 – Matthew Corbett

The wrong question

It was the very first show of the second (winter tour) of my first year touring. We were performing in a community hall for a school just outside of Toowoomba, which was freezing cold at that time of year. This particular show was a mix of ages – five to ten year-olds. For many of the first graders this was the first show they’d seen.

The audience sat packed together in class groups, youngest down the front, cross-legged at the front of the stage area which we had positioned not on the raised stage, but at audience level. The teachers sat on folding chairs surrounding the student audience.

About ten minutes into the show a first grader sitting in the front row at about centre stage stood up and, taking a good deal of time about it, lazily yawned, stretched and started walking off to the side of the stage area. The older kids started tittering.

Now, the general unwritten rule for kids shows is that you should handle them a bit like a judo bout – never oppose; always go with the flow. Unable to ignore such a bold move, I asked the boy (in character) “Where do you suppose you’re off to?” The young man sheepishly explained, “I need to go to the toilet.”

“Fair enough” I replied. More laughs from the older kids.

Here’s where I make a classic error, one that I was never to repeat.

Buoyed by the older kids reaction to my response I foolishly went on,“ Oh and while we’re at it – don’t worry about the show – does anyone else need to go?”

From our position onstage it was very easy to see, by the teacher’s reactions to my sarcastic remark, that Id made a gross error of judgment. Some teacher’s had their heads in their hands, some teachers shot me the unmistakable look of ‘I can’t believe you asked that question’, others just glared at me- horrified.

It was like watching a fast rushing tide going out. A few kids sitting close to the young man in question raised their hands… then a few more rose, soon up-shooting hands rippled their way outwards and back across the audience. Every grade one and grade two needed to go to the bathroom (as well as some of the older kids who were delighting in my unfortunate invitation). The older kids were in fits of laughter. The younger kids started to stand. We were losing our audience – quickly.

Thinking fast, Anthony adopted a military voice “Right then! E-ver-ee -body stand!” Anthony stands 6’6″ – he’s hard to ignore. The audience complied. “aaand quiiiick MARCH!”
“March on the spot! Raise them knees!”
“Left and a-right and a-left, right, left!”

Anthony Simcoe - looking more like Billy than Billy.

We marched that audience round and round the inside of the hall as the teachers picked kids to go to the bathroom and provided assistance for any younger ones who needed it. We marched high. We marched low. We wriggled on our bellies. We marched sidestep and goosestep. We marched nose first and toes first. We marched in circles and squares and squiggles.

We had the kids laughing for a full twenty minutes; as long as the marching lasted. There were only two toilets in the hall – one male, one female. There were no unfortunate accidents. Kids raced to the toilet and raced back to rejoin the marching. The hall resounded with riotous laughter.

We finally re-commenced and completed an abridged version of the show (as the next show’s audience was lining up outside the hall, waiting to come in… we didn’t want them to freeze to death.)

It was pretty much a triumph as a result of Ant’s quick thinking. I’ll never forget the kids bending over with laughter as we came up with new marching styles “Elbows in front, bum out back! …and quick MARCH!” Their flushed faces with mouths wide open. Joyful tears streaming from baby eyes. Days like this made the job worthwhile.

The improvised marching routine was such a success that we adopted it as the standard way we brought audiences into the performance space. Chalk one up for the ingenious Mister Simcoe.

Every performance for the Arts Council was reviewed in those days, I recall the report coming back from that school being overwhelmingly positive but expressed confusion trying to find the connection between a multi-cultural themed quiz show and a military style marching exhibition.

The boss at the Arts Council asked us what that was all about. “ Long story. Never mind.” we replied. The boss at the Arts Council had written “World Games”. It wasn’t very good – actually it was dreadful.

The boss and writer of World Games - he was forever playing with his tie like that.

Not to worry… by the time we’d finished with it, it didn’t bear the vaguest resemblance to the original script. This wasn’t Shakespeare and rather than have bored unresponsive audiences time after time, we figured our allegiance was with them. Our responsibility first and foremost was to entertain – and that we did.

About Simon

Simon Houghton creator of The Bloke Show started life as a baby, going on to become a boy and then a man, at which time he became an actor. As time passed he went on to be a director, later still he became a sales guy, then a business owner. Most recently he regressed and became a writer. Then a driver, then an actor again.
Decisiveness is not one of his strong suits.

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