Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Article - Request Programme (Metro, SMH)

"What's My Line Again?"



In January Sydney Theatre Company's "Wharf2LOUD" attempted to live up to it’s manifesto of creating interesting cutting edge theatre by staging a play without punctuation (Dissident, Goes Without Saying), now they take it one step further with "Request Programme," a play without any dialogue whatsoever.

Metro asked Wharf2LOUD Director Brendan Cowell if there's something wrong with his grammar-check.

"We're trying to guarantee our audience a new theatrical experience every time they come here, and we can guarantee that nobody has ever seen anything like this before; it goes for one hour, it's got one woman in it, and she doesn't say a thing, and it's absolutely compelling."

Brendan discovered the play, written in the 70s by Bavaria's leading playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz, while in Berlin in 2003.

"I saw a production of it and immediately began to build one in my head because I thought this was one of the most chilling evenings I'd ever had in the theatre, I was really shaken up after it. But I also thought they got it a little bit wrong. Then I started thinking about it in context of Sydney."

Hence Kroetz's Bavarian heroine has become Ms Emma Swift, and the stage now an Edgecliff flat. She never says anything, but she does everything a women living alone might do, including go to the toilet, use 'feminine deodorant,' and, most importantly, listen to her favourite radio request programme.

"There's three characters in the play; her, her flat, and the radio programme,” Cowell says. “They feed off each other. I don't think [the play's] ever been so pertinent - we're getting so brilliant at being on our own, we all live in these one bedroom apartments right next to each other with our own little lives, "

Emma is portrayed by Suzi Dougherty in her first one woman show.

"In Germany every leading female actor wants to play this role, that's why it's performed so much,” Dougherty says. “It's the kind of play you could see a few times and get different things out of."

Dougherty’s challenge is to flesh out the character solely through her actions.

"It's about the ordinary,” she says. “The sum of the ordinary actions equals the extraordinary event that happens."

Extraordinary, says Cowell, because on this day something is different.

"Tonight she's holding herself up against a few things, which is a potentially dangerous thing to do."

Kroetz intended the audience discover something of themselves through Emma's un-self-conscious actions.

"When you're on your own you behave in a more primitive fashion,” Cowell says. “We're like animals when we're on our own - we feed ourselves, we shit, we listen. You start projecting your own emotions, fragilities and neuroses onto [Emma], that's the genius of the play: it's about us."

Kroetz's extreme-realist plays have caused controversy before. In 1970 when a Munich theatre was put under police protection after violent audience reactions to Stubborn and Working At Home which featured masturbation, attempted abortion and a child murder on stage. Three years later he was Germany's most produced living playwright.

The radio request programme of the title is based upon "Your Request," a Bavarian "Love Song Dedications" of the 70s, currently being updated and localised by Cowell and Sound Designer Basil Hogios.

Hogios: "We had discussions about the whole series of songs mapping the story, having highs and lows."

"They're all love songs," explains Cowell as a Leonard Cohen number floats across the rehearsal studio.

No Slayer then?

"I did suggest some Iron Maiden," says Hogios.

Perhaps a Leonard Cohen cover of Maiden?

"We do have an interesting cover," says Cowell.

Hogios: "We can't mention it yet, but it's a cover of a famous Australian song by a female and turned into a love ballad."

Finally, Mariah Carey's Khe Sahn - only to be played when nobody's watching.


(originally appeared in Sydney Morning Herald, May 26 2006.)

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Gypsy Journalism - TINA 2001

Here's an ancient piece of mine that I rediscovered recently... most unprofessional and all... (i.e. I'm in the article, but it always tickled my fancy...)

It was originally published in 2001 in the now defunct Sydney street magazine "Revolver" (which had morphed out of "Beat" and later became "The Brag")

"The Write Stuff"

This Is Not Art and The National Young Writers' Festival make for a unique Newcastle adventure.

By Benito Di Fonzo

The ‘National Young Writers’ Festival’ (NYWF) has given the former steel town of Newcastle a fine local tradition. That of writers from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Ballarat, Brisbane and all points in between swilling beer, bourbon and hash cookies as fast as they can scam them, whilst their ‘compoetriates’ rant black rivers of cynicism or blow Utopian hope-bubbles from the stage and street. It’s a great feeling for a two-bit wordsmith like myself, trying to cash in on everything from ethnic stereotyping to performance poetry, to find that all over Australia there are like minded merry pranksters.

At times it feels as if, for one week a year, Newcastle becomes Newtown by the sea, with a healthy dose of Fitzroy and St Kilda thrown in. Electro-ferals and day-glow turntablists share the town with bad-shirted poets, hip-hopping revolutionaries, confused short film makers, pissed street press, and the just plain ‘lost.’ This is because NYWF falls under the umbrella of the ‘This Is Not Art’ Festival, which also includes ‘The National Student Media Conference, ‘’ Sound Summit,’ and ‘Electrofringe.’

Aside from the odd interview for 2SER’s ‘Poetic Off-Licence’ (6pm Tues), I had earned my free bed by volunteering to MC the Saturday Night Cabaret Spectacular. Or something like that. As far as I knew the rest of the weekend could be devoted to ‘finding myself’ as it were. However, NYWF is a strange animal. A kind of drug fucked octopus in a vat of Kent Old. Hence, no sooner had I found Newcastle, found my Hotel, found my old muso buddy Philasophigas, found the Hunter Hotel, and found a likely seminar to attend, than that strange beast’s tentacles sprung maliciously out in the form of Australia’s most violent poet - Melbourne’s Phil Doyle.

Phil Doyle earned his reputation when he pulled a Bowie knife at the first NYWF. At the time it made the papers and got the event some free publicity. Phil Doyle handed me an article he had published in ‘Overland’ criticising NYWF, with particular venom pointed at “the Sydney poets” who were accused of committing what is considered a grave crime in Melbourne. We had made poetry entertaining. I was to defend the charge. Luckily, Philasophigas had bought half a bottle of bourbon off a guy in the street whilst asking directions to the nearest chemist. He left me with the bottle as he was off to see something ‘electrofringy.’ I poured myself a little poets’ courage, studied the article, and vehemently defended the charges. Sydney poets entertaining? Ludicrous!

There were a lot of other laid back yet informative events to attend between drinks. Highlights included Linda Jaivan talking about how to write sexy text, AJ Rochester on comedy writing, and of course the afore mentioned Cabaret night. For the sake of the Melburnians I tried not to be overly entertaining. In the end, failure is it’s own reward.

Of course, come Sunday the brutal reality of being in Newcastle on Grand Final night hit us like a bad simile. The afternoon went eerily quiet as several poets followed local boy and organiser Marcus Westbury’s advice and donned blue and red clothing. There was a sigh of relief when the local team won their little football game.

As a writer, I probably learnt more about humanity on that night than at any seminar, as I wandered through a cross between a kind of footy-yob Reclaim The Streets, and the Star Hotel riots.

“This is what football’s about” said one delirious Novocastrian as he passed me a beer in the street before climbing a traffic light so as to jump into a mosh pit of locals from the roof of the Great Northern Hotel. Now that, I thought, is art.

(originally published in ‘Revolver’ 8th Oct. 2oo1.)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Article - Losing Louie.

Grin reaper

By Benito di Fonzo. Metro, SMH. May 12, 2006

Death is very much a laughing matter for playwright Simon Mendes da Costa.

There's nothing Simon Mendes da Costa likes more than a good funeral.

"I've been to a number of funerals and I had a lot better time than I had at weddings," he says. "It's just a much more real experience."

The 48-year-old Londoner, who was nominated most promising playwright in London's Evening Standard Awards, is here to oversee the Australian premiere of his black comedy Losing Louie.

The play moves between the licentious adventures of Louis (Christopher Tomkinson) and his funeral 50 years later, where rivalries emerge between bitter eldest son Tony (George Spartels) and his wealthy younger sibling Reggie (Andrew McFarlane). Tony is backed by his wife Sheila (Amanda Muggleton).

Various family skeletons also rattle out of the bedroom closet.

"Families hold secrets within them, and those secrets, if unexorcised, fester as cancers," Mendes da Costa says.

He decided on the setting after the funeral of his grandmother.

"It was just the most fantastic day because it was a celebration of her life," he says. "People got drunk, people laughed, people told stories. So I thought I'll set it around a funeral, but I'm not going to tell it in a dark painful manner. When I was an actor I was always taught you should never say a sad line sadly, you always fight against what the line says."

Like the old blues maxim: sing a sad song happy and a happy song sad?

"Exactly. I think if you are overly heavy you can alienate an audience. It seems as soon as you put a number of people in a room, within a very short period of time, people are trying to be funny."

Director Andrew Doyle agrees.

"When people are in really tight situations that are incredibly sad or stressful the first thing they do is crack a joke," he says. "I know as Australians we do, and sometimes quite incorrectly."

Losing Louie is not autobiographical, but Mendes da Costa did use elements of his Portuguese-Jewish background and relationship with his father.

"On the surface we had the most fantastic relationship, but under the surface I don't think we did," he says. "We do now. I feel, in a sense, writing the play exorcised certain things for me. You don't write unless it's poignant."

Losing Louie is only Mendes da Costa's second play. He penned his first at 42 after several careers including civil engineer, real estate agent, computer programmer and actor.

"I've moved careers because I've been looking to improve my social life. I went along to an evening acting class because I wanted to meet some nice women, and I did, but while I was there I got the acting bug. After a while I thought, 'Let's join another group.'

"I knew someone in a writers' group and I popped along. After three weeks they said, 'What have you got for us to read?' And I said, 'Do I need to have something?' And they said, 'Well, it is a writers' group.' I brought [some writing] in the next week expecting them to laugh and they didn't so I continued writing."

Losing Louis broke Hampstead Theatre's box-office record before playing London's West End.

Da Costa feels his varied past has informed his writing.

"The play has an element of structure I realise has been informed by those years as a computer programmer."

Perhaps more importantly - how is his social life?

"Computer programmer was the nadir. From that you had to go somewhere to improve your social life, and now it's fantastic. Though actually

I'm a bit worried that ultimately playwrights should become a bit insular."

No problem - there are still a few jobs he hasn't tried.

(this article originally appeared in Metro in The Sydney Morning Herald and at

Until June 24, Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, 9929 0644, $36-$59.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Rant - “Groper,” or “The Day My Life Was Saved By A Blue Fish that May Have Been A Ghost.”

I could have kissed Old Bluey as he swam under me like a blue Labrador of the sea. He was the second Groper I’d seen that day, and together they saved me.

I’d come to the sea to die. Well, not necessarily, but it was that kind of day if you like: the waves looking just a little too inviting, the rocks not as hard after a red wine lunch. Diving in to oblivion is the sort of thought that floats through your brain as you cross from Coogee to Gordon’s Bay on a certain kind of day.

You see, I’d received, a few hours earlier, the latest in a blitz of rejection slips. The most recent wasn’t even on paper, but rather a form email. It appeared that my detractors were getting lax in their rejection of me.

The odd rejection slip is one thing – all part of the game of being a writer really. However, in the last few weeks I’d had my latest play rejected three times, and now a poetry collective that had embraced me in the past had suddenly betrayed me over what I considered to be some of my best work ever.

Sure, it was written in ‘Jabbernoir’ - a new literary language a friend and I had invented whilst drinking dry white one summer night, but at the time it felt like the best of me, let alone the other dross that passed over their collective editorial desks. Not that I was bitter, just angry. Angry enough to kick the cat, swear at the light globe, and punch out a few of the cupboards in the kitchen. Angry enough to start drinking at midday.

I hit the cooking wine harder than a Mac truck making roadkill jerky. Then I ate all the food in the fridge, made a few abusive prank phone calls to friends, and then, as the goon started to go the way of my former friendships and writing career, thought ‘frig it, let’s hit the beach.’ It was either that or get a plane down to Melbourne to catch and kill my own editors, which, seeing as I’d just returned from there, was outside of my present budget and patience.

At one point, while drinking, I’d also begun to write said editors a letter. It went:

How dare you, you pustule of syphilitic cretins, you amalgamation of unnatural disasters. Why, you back-stabbing cat molesters wouldn’t know art if it grabbed you by the neck, pants’d you all, and then plugged you up the garden path with a rabidly lubricated Tabasco-soaked Renoir.

You seem to inelegantly forget that I am more than familiar with the quality of work in your anthologies, having deigned to appear in them, and at one point lowering myself to the level of performing at a launch along with the overrated retards that you generally publish. I can therefore say honestly that you know as well as I, if nothing else - which is entirely possible with the intense brain affliction from which you and your fellow editors obviously suffer - that my submission was by far the greatest work ever to cross the cliché-ridden desk of your undoubtedly homely receptionist, whose decision to resist your unwholesome advances has driven you to the alcohol and aeroplane glue abuse that could be the only explanation for your decision today.

This is the snotty strychnine-soaked coke straw that breaks this saint of a camel’s back over the barrel that I’ll soon pack your rat arse in before sending it sailing into Hades.

I hope you drown in your dead Aunt’s oily rot fluids. May all your generations be forcibly circumcised at thirty-four by a drunken moil with a rusty spork. May the kitty litter of your existence be forever soiled with the effluence of your lack of transparent indecision, pricks.

And while we’re at it, what’s with “this may not be a reflection on the quality of your work” crap? It ain’t exactly an endorsement of my work is it, you nit-riddled dicks?

You “regret” that my work has not been selected. Regret, regret? I’ll give you something to regret shit head.

I think I can say without fear of hyperbole that not since Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and bloody purges thereafter has such a display of fascistic injustice ever been… etc.

Luckily, for the future of my career, I decided I could never send it. Instead I would hit the beach.

The seashore is the best thing about living in Sydney, and this had been driven home to me the week before in Melbourne, when I’d attempted to go for a swim in that sickly and sad excuse for a beach known as St. Kilda. As I’d floated above the turgid green lifeless sea of Port Phillip Bay, the stench of death floating across the water, I earned a new respect for the eastern suburbs of Sydney.

I should point out here that the anger I was venting wasn’t really at the editors, producers and theatre directors from whose inner clique I’d been so recently rejected, but rather at I, myself, me, the sad excuse for an upright mammal that I was.

You see, at a certain point, after a certain number of rejection slips, over a certain number of years, you begin to consider that perhaps you’re just shit. Sure, I’d had my successes – countless performances or pieces and plays, including two at the Sydney Opera House, but today that all retreated from memory - as far as I was concerned, my entire life, from the moment I tore through the wall of Mrs Di Fonzo’s womb in the method of Julius Caesar, to the point at which I just drained that last drop of cooking goon from the baggy, had been nought but a litany of failures.

All I could see was the possibility that I was shit. At what point, however, does the artist concede that ‘this isn’t just a bad patch, this is incompetence, idiot!’? One more rejection? Four? Why not now and be done with it? Give in and, like the smoking ads say, just quit.

Okay then, let’s just say you’ve rung the Quit Line in your head, they’ve sent the package, and you’re over it, then what? Get a job in a bank? In a factory? Forget it, that was what I’d been running from my whole life – the fear that I would end up passing my life in one of the factories that lined the top of my childhood street like orange bricked pit-bulls, with their sad procession of labourers filing in and out of them all afternoon and morning, my Old Man included. I remember when I finished High School and was informed by my father that he’d lined me up an apprenticeship.

“You could be a boiler maker, just like me,” he said proudly in his deep Abruzzian accent as he puffed on a ‘Dunny-Hill.’

With the cruel coldness of adolescence I bitterly replied, “I’d rather have bowel cancer,” then moved to the inner-city.

I think he’s forgiven me, but my fear of the factory floor still persists.

“You’re never too old to end up there,” a flatmate once jokingly said. Little did he know how much I still believed it. So upon giving up as a writer, what then?

It was true that I still saw death as a better option than the factory, and with these nihilist nouns bouncing around my head I knew there was now no option but to return to the sea.

The sea, I knew from experience, would save me. I’d like to believe that it’s just for times such as this that the ocean exists, but that would too conceited, even for me. But on such a day a Sydneysider instinctively knows to wipe the tears from his thighs and jump into the invigorating and fish-filled waters off Gordon’s Bay, like a return to the salty womb, sans scissors.

So it was that on the last afternoon of Daylight Savings I wandered down from my Alexandria hovel, on to the 370 to Coogee, then across the cliffs toward the chip-crisp and baby blue sea. It’s a bit of a trot, but sweating’s all part of the cure you see.

Before long I was in the ocean, the cool brine making me feel sane again as I floated above that alien landscape of shells, cliffs, thick black-green seaweed and schools of fat fish. Then I saw my first Blue Groper of the day.

For those not familiar with this angel of fishes I should explain. The Blue Groper is like a fish made out of those soft rubbery night-lights you had as a child, glowing a cosy blue hue, two to three feet long - though legend has it they can grow up to 160cm or five feet - with the white teeth and reassuring temperament of a blind man’s sun-golden Labrador. I dare anyone to find me a friendlier fish, and don’t give me this ‘dolphin’ shit because basically they’re just tarts, not to mention mammals.

The way to play with a Groper, these friendly blue ghosts that haunt Clovelly Beach and Gordon’s Bay, is to swim slowly a few feet above them, occasionally diving down to overturn a rock that hasn’t been moved in years, so as to display its feast of shelled fish underneath, which the Groper will happily eat with many a ‘clumpsh, flcrumplesh’ of his large, loose, smiling jaw.

As I watched the big blue sea Labrador crunch its mouth at me I felt as though I was in another world, already dead in a sense, but more importantly, in a world without factories.

I noticed the Groper uncharacteristically had a familiar with it – a little orange-finned number with a plump body and dark physique: perhaps its sidekick. Then, out from under a nearby underwater cliff face, a large blue figure appeared. It was another Groper. Big Old Bluey: the most ancient of his breed. There were fears for some time that he’d been speared, after some dickhead climbed out of the water at Clovelly with a big blue angel wriggling to death on the end of his phallic spear, ignoring the trail of abuse from locals as he threw the fallen blue angel into the boot and drove back to wherever he lived his guilty existence.

But some time after that Old Bluey was sighted again. All seemed well in the universe until there were more rumours that the old fella had just died of old age, despite the fact they live almost as long as humans.

Either way, dead or alive, here was Old Bluey appearing to me like a friendly ghost, gracing me with his presence on a day when I very much needed it.

So I floated around with the two Gropers and their orange-finned friend as if real life had somehow segued into a series of children’s animated features, and my strange little life in Sydney didn’t seem so bad. Not as long as the Gropers were with me.

After an hour I climbed back up to my rock, and saw that the sun was starting to sink. I decided to have one more dip with the Gropers and their orange-finned friend before the approach of serious winter.

(NB: to see said fish click on story title)