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 improv.
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.
The Exploding Set
On our travels we came across many different types of schools we performed at public and private schools, single sex schools, country and urban, independent hippy schools, schools with 1500 students, schools with 5 students. We performed for the wealthy and the not-so wealthy. On this occasion we performed at a school that was definitely in a poorer socio-economic region. An area between Brisbane and The Gold Coast that was rife with unemployment, which ran at about 40% .
The gig went like this – when you first arrived at a school, you’d front up to the Principal’s office, introduce yourselves as from The Arts Council, ask where you were performing, explain how you’d like the audience to be seated and set about bumping-in. It was typically a friendly five minute conversation.
Normally a school’s Principal looked the part, they looked like you might think a Principal would look like. Not at this school. Not this bloke. He looked like he’d been run over by a bus. His hair was dishevelled, his shirt untucked, his tie loose from the collar. He looked worse than we did after we’d had a few (beers) the night before – and that is really saying something. I’m just guessing here, but I’d say he was having a particularly rough day – and we weren’t about to make it any easier. We only had one show there and it was scheduled for late afternoon. We went through the routine without a hitch and as we were leaving to set-up he called out to us “Should be a short show for you guys anyhow – there’s only eight kids going”.
I don’t think I’ve turned on my heels faster. “But it says here… there’s a hundred and fifty kids at this school?”
“Yeah,” he replied, “but only eight kids brought the money for the show”
” Are you aware that the State Government has provisions for kids in a lower socio-economic range?”
“Yeah mate, thats my job.”
” Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. But you’re aware those kids can come for free?”
“Listen mate the parents spend their dole (unemployment benefits) on booze, drugs and gambling, they don’t give a stuff about their kids. I’ve got one kid today in grade three who doesn’t know whose place she’s going to after school, or if she’s getting picked up at all. I haven’t been able to contact either of the parents, so I don’t know what we’re going to do. That’s not unusual around here. Besides, if I let one go I’ve gotta let them all go – its not fair to those who paid.”
Its not as though I didn’t feel for the guy, his job must have been hellish, so I tried to come up with a workable solution. “What say I pay for the kids who’ve already paid and you can refund the parents their money? That way you can send all the kids.”
“No chance mate. The parents who don’t pay are bums, the public shouldn’t foot the bill for everything”
“Okay how about I contact The Arts Council and we wont be paid for this gig. We’ll do it for free. Its not fair for the kids to be disadvantaged because of their parents.”
” Have I not made myself clear?”
“Yes sir, you have.”
He was angry. I was furious. I stormed out of his office and on the way down to the car I had an idea. When we ran late, which happened sometimes, we would ask the Principal if it was okay if we got some kids to help us move in. I raced back to his office and quietly knocked on his door.
“Yes!” he barked. I entered his office. He was standing behind his desk looking down at some papers. His head didn’t lift to acknowledge me.
“Sorry to bother you again, but we’re running a bit late now, would you mind if we asked a few students to help us move in?” I asked timidly.
“Ohhh .Go ahead!” came the curt reply. He never looked up and he waved me away with his hand.
You bewdy! I raced back to the car explained the situation to Ant and told him of my idea. “Lets do it,” sparked Ant “What an arsehole!” As we removed the set from the car we completely dismantled it – we broke that thing down into its absolute component parts. We separated each individual power cord, we removed handles from sandbags, we took the plectrums out of Ant’s guitar case, we unhinged the set and took the screws out from the hinges – with a manual screwdriver, I may add. Then we systematically went to each classroom, told the teachers we’d asked for permission from the Principal for kids to help us move in, and that any kid who helped us could see the show for free. We rounded the kids up and gave them a screw each, or a plectrum, we had teams of twenty kids lifting flats (see diagram) that it would normally take four kids, at most, to lift. The teachers must have known this was mutinous, but nobody seemed to mind. If they did,they didn’t stop us. The Principal did eventually catch on, the noise from the raucous kids must have been incredible – you should have seen his face when he arrived , to say it was stormy wouldn’t be doing it justice. I know if he could have stopped what was going on then and there he would have – but the horse had bolted. He marched off, very clearly pissed off . Meanwhile the kids were carrying bells and gongs and whistles and cords and guitar cases and guitars and nuts and bolts and washers, we didn’t stop breaking it down until every last child was sat waiting for the show to begin.
The set looked as though it had exploded, there were bits and pieces everywhere. Now all we had to do was reconstruct it as fast as possible. It took an eternity.
Once we managed to get underway at last the show was an absolute blast, it was a riot. For some reason the kids from poorer schools always seemed especially appreciative. We all had a ball.
As we were leaving a few teachers thanked us and warned us that this wasn’t going to be the last we heard from the Principal. Yeah we figured as much.
Weeks later, after the tour had ended, we were summoned to the boss’ office. I’d all but forgotten the incident.
The boss’ face would turn a glorious crimson when he was upset, it didn’t happen all that often, but on this day it appeared as though his entire blood supply had decided to accumulate in his face. You always knew you were in trouble when he didn’t have his Humphrey smile on, and when he started very quietly you knew you were in real trouble “Would you mind explaining this to me?” he whispered, handing me the school report.
“Oh this” I said.
“YES THAT !!” he screamed. I recounted the story, explaining that we were happy not to be paid, that the Principal was an arsehole and that we had offered other solutions.
We were told, in no uncertain terms, that we were not the school Principal, that we had no right to undermine his authority and that our contract could be terminated should a repeat occurrence take place.
“Yep, we got the idea.”
“Good, don’t let it happen again.”
Being stupid and twenty-one I turned to him and said that faced with the same circumstances I’d do it again. The boss told us to get out. Now. We weren’t that stupid and high-tailed it pronto.
I’m all for personal accountability, but children shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of their parents. We were aware that at most schools the Arts Council visit was a special day. Kids really looked forward to our coming – and there was no way we were going to let them down.
Anyway, its a good yarn and it really was as close as we came to getting fired… oh there was another time.
But that’s another story.