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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Farndale Ladies meet James & Wright

       I'll have grounds
       More relative than this — the play's the thing
       Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.
                             Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 603–605

A while back I was reading the minutes of an ADMS meeting. I looked across at Tracey and said, "You know there's a production of Farndale Ladies coming up."

   "Yes. I know."

   "So you know my next question."

   "I can guess."

   She didn't really have to guess.

   For more than three years now, my illness has separated her from doing something that was an intimate part of her life. Our lives. She had performed in and choreographed, sometimes co-directed ADMS productions for several years, right back to Les Mis in 2002. This was on top of her job as solicitor and several University administrative roles.

   That was until December 2009. Suddenly, she faced the unexpected role of carer for a man diagnosed with a brain tumour of the worst type. Without hesitation, she gave everything else up and took that on. Everything.

   I knew she deeply missed the intimacy of the theatre and the camaraderie of our friends ("our" because I was heavily involved as well) in getting these productions together. The unpredictable course of my illness gave her little choice.

   There's immense grief in the certain prospect of losing one's partner and it's intensified by losing so much else as well.

   I felt this grief as my own private guilt. It ate away at me just as the lack of theatre fellowship and constant touch with strong friendships was the source of sadness she hid from me.

   Or tried to. But you don't think I knew? Of course I did. No matter what is happening with me now, I wanted this to change.

   "So will you do something for me – and you'll audition, at least?"

   She was very hesitant, but she knows the rare occasions I dig my heels in, and this was one.

   "All right. I suppose. But...."

   "But me no buts." It's an old line but none the worse for being said with utter sincerity.

   "But," I said, "there is a condition, and you have to agree to it."

   I'm not used to putting conditions on anything in Tracey's life, nor she on mine, and normally she'd respond with a gesture that's the second-rudest on the scale, but she knew this was vital.

❆     ❆     ❆     ❆     ❆

The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society is the classic amateur group which runs community theatre in its own little domain. Its performers and production staff are not quite hopeless but on the borderline, and therefore the resulting performance is a triumph of mediocrity over any sort of potential they might muster collectively. Yea, a triumph of forlorn incompetence over noble ambition. 

   But, as Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "The play's the thing." The play within a play. So it is with this one, but unlike Hamlet, there are no consciences to prick; just a lot of ribs to tickle.

   It starts with us, the theatre audience, looking at backstage Macbeth with all the frantic preparations for a grand performance of Macbeth going on. Badly. The set is as good as the handyman can make it, and from our opening view of the Macbeth backstage, it looks only marginally less inspiring than when turned round to face us. That's revealed in a terrible set change we aren't supposed to see, but bad lighting cues give us a grim picture. 

   And so we are no longer backstage, but are faced with the grim spectacle – the Farndale Ladies' performance of scraps of Macbeth.

  In reality, it is not an easy play to perform well. You'd think it should be, because if there are any genuine stuffups, our actors playing Farndale ladies playing Macbeth might hope to get away with the audience thinking these are part of the Farndale script.

   I doubt it. Likewise the actors have to be scrupulous in playing their roles as credible Farndale ladies and laddies bitching at each other one minute, and melodramatic, painfully unconvincing Shakespearean performers the next.

   Mercifully we are not treated to the entire Macbeth script. You'll readily guess which bits are chosen for the onstage performances.

   Done without proper discipline, the whole play will look like a hastily thrust together Year 10 High School end-of-year show. Performed well, it is an excellent blend of split timing, character acting and utter farce.

❆     ❆     ❆     ❆     ❆

   So, what was the promise I was so keen to extract from Tracey?

   By the time the show goes on in the Town Hall in a week and a day, we will have lived with the ups and downs of this unpredictable cancer for 1197 days. There is no knowing its course. It can change dramatically, even before I complete the sentence I am now typing. Changes have been as sudden as that several times now. We have no illusions.

   "Whatever happens to me during the course of this show, you must keep to the stage traditions you and your family have lived with your whole life. 'The Show Must Go On.' If they cart me off to the hospital just before a performance, you've got to do the right thing by everyone, including me. You put your mind to the job and get on stage when you're needed. You promise?"

   She hesitated a long time.

   "Yes. I will."

   Tracey will read this only when it's on the blog. I want you all to be my witnesses. This is what I want. 

   The play now has the services of a great Macduff/witch. Unfortunate things happen to her as a Farndale witch. In view of my footnote, I hope it stays that way – just as it is in the script. At least MacDuff doesn't cop a dagger by mistake. Well, let's hope so anyway. With Farndale, you can never be quite sure....

Photo at rehearsal courtesy Terry Cooke
Tracey comes from a family of stage performers, and was on stage singing and dancing at age 5. Both her mother and father have long careers in Australian national theatre as performers.   Her brother Jimi is a leading guitarist and blues performer internationally.

   Tracey has her own history of 'going on' under difficult circumstances. She took on the role of Mrs Lovett in the Playhouse production of Sweeney Todd when, very sadly, the lead was diagnosed with cancer. Tracey learned the part in the three weeks before Opening Night. Don't ask me how. Sondheim songs are a nightmare to learn.

   Then in a Matinee performance, Mrs Lovett was, as usual, thrown into the oven, but the mattress was out of place and her back was badly damaged. She went on to do the night performance anyway – I don't know how. It ended once again with her being tossed into the Lovett pie-oven furnace.

   In a rush dinner after a matinee performance as narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, her chair collapsed and her back was injured. She went on half an hour later for the evening performance, and the audience had no idea she could barely stand.

   So don't anyone try to tell me that a performance should be cancelled on my account!  


  1. The applause for those Farndale Ladies, and one in particular, will be thunderously resounding from all of us out here as well - not just from those lucky enough to be in the theatre, on that night.

    My big hope is that you'll be well enough to go, Denis. Might that be possible? (Accessibility etc?)

    1. PS Congratulations, to you for reaching the grand total of over 200,000 total pageviews! That's no mean feat, especially under the circumstances. A mark of the beauty of your writing, the captivating and universal nature of the topics you choose, and the obvious affection and respect in which you're held. xx

    2. Thanks Ros. I can't deny, nor would I want to, the smorgasbord of offerings, nor the gratifying affection, but I better not start believing too much in the compliments, otherwise or I might start playing to the audience and not to myself. :) That would spoil it for us all.

      You're very kind.

  2. Fabuous story Denis, thanks for sharing. One of my brothers is a professional actor so I have a vague idea of the passion involved. Hope all goes well and you make it through as well as Tracey :)

  3. Brilliant post. :)

  4. I'm looking forward to seeing it. I'm not sure how Tracey managed to escape becoming a member of the exclusive Pantaloon Club, but maybe next time!
    Denis, I haven't been involved in the daily management of your illness and its details and I have been one of those people who has read Tracey's comments as a carer and felt lost as to how to help, or what support to offer.
    BUT - this I can do. I can go along to Farndale and cheer her on, to show that I recognise what it's taken for her to get on that stage. Sometimes support and affection is not always freely stated, but it's out here. Break a leg, Tracey!

    1. It's ON a week from today, Mark. Nothing like the prospect of Opening Night fearfully close to concentrate the mind! You know this well from your experience.

      At this stage, daily management is in our hands. As you're aware, that can change at any time, but no-one ever needs to feel they haven't done 'enough' in that way. Other sorts of things do come up from time to time as you see with the ramp, and that's where good friends can come in handy.

      Thanks for your support.

  5. It's wonderful that Tracey is returning to this source of happiness, inspiration, great friendship. It's healing to do what you love and live out your gifts and instincts. I was so pleased to hear this was happening. But -is it totally fair to expect Tracey to pledge to allow you to be carted off to hospital while she has to act as if nothing is happening? That's a BIG ask of any performer!

    There, I've overstepped the mark for sure..

    Julie M xx

    1. Comments on this blog are about honesty, otherwise it's a time- and energy-wasting charade, so I don't regard anything as overstepping the mark unless it's aimed deliberately as a barbed arrow. I know you are the last person in the world to ping off one of those.

      Too much to ask? Some might agree with you. Some may throw their hands up in horror at my "demand", which was really a quiet request for affirmation of what she already knew I'd want.

      Up to 2009, I've been intimately involved with many shows with the ADMS and the Playhouse from the moment they're voted on as the choice for the next season till bump-out and the party after the final performance. I know the intense work by scores of people that goes into each performance, and for an audience for which this could be their one and only shot to see. In this town, theatre has immense community support. And I'm sure most would understand if a performance, even the remainder of a season, were cancelled because of such a reason.

      But that's not good enough for me, and I know and respect the traditions of professional theatre because they've always applied to amateur productions here. If, as I said, I was taken in an ambulance to the hospital just down the road during the season, I would be in the dedicated care of the only people who could help me.

      Not to become too macabre, Tracey and I both know the score, and that's why we have this trust in each other. When it comes to goodbyes, we have said them in our own way every night for over a thousand days.

      But… this only makes me more determined to see it through – and to have the time after that to spend with a couple of very important others in my life as well.

      If things don't turn out as hoped, so be it. No-one knows which way the dice will roll in their own lives. But this is my time to be more selfish than anyone else. I've seen the pleasure the last few weeks have given Tracey, and that delights me. It's one of the few gifts I have left to be able to offer.

      Hey! I'm aiming to stick around a while yet. Long enough.

    2. I do like that last sentence ,and the rest is pretty good too! Of course my comment wasn't 'barbed':)

      I guess I meant what you've said below:
      " We know it's only when the battle is joined that we see the reality, and all the marching round the parade-ground doesn't count".

      WWW (Wonderful wisdom words!)

      Julie M

    3. Hey Julie, go to this amazing page:

      World population clock

      See the count? In terms of barbed arrow firing, you are at the bottom of the 'barbed comment' list in all those 7+billion humans. Which is to say [again], you never do 'barbed'. :)

  6. Alright, ok - so who's the 'James' in the title? This of course assumes that the Wright is not Frank Lloyd. Sounds like a lovely thing to be involved in, and I hope somehow it might be possible for you to attend. If not, get the video!

    Bonus query: why is it always me who has to display such ignorance?


  7. Ok, got the reference. Sorry - far too much 'mind time' on my hands.


    1. This is actually the James-Pearson-Wright household! :)

  8. All sounds like 'good show business tradition' in theory. Doing it is a different kettle of fish! Tried it. Failed it. Got fined for exiting stage early totally unable to control the water coming out of my eyes and NOSE after a sad family event! No tissues or hankies in a stage frock. wiping nose on arm not really a well thought of piece of stage craft. Singing "Among My Souvenirs" I cracked up - At 18 I knew that tradition is a CROCK! But I appreciate your thoughts on it! Only went off one other time in years & years & years and...... gee, I'm old! But 'a promise made is a debt unpaid' as Momma Rose used to say.

    1. Your comment came in while I was composing the epic above, but I'll respond off the top of my head. Thanks, Lena.

      Experience and sanguine determination make us see things through a different lens. You were 18 then and I'm calling it as I see it from 65. All circumstances differ. We know it's only when the battle is joined that we see the reality, and all the marching round the parade-ground doesn't count. To that extent I agree with you.

      My other saying. "So far so good. Let's see." I'm glad it's worked out so far. For the pleasure it's given up to now, it's all on the credit side of the ledger for us both. [Except maybe for the skin off and bruises – but then would we have had a ramp by now? I suspect not. So.... who knows what's good or bad, hey?]

  9. Hello Denis :). I am new to your blog and don't know you or Tracey but you seem very close and ready for anything at any time.

    Something might happen to you at any time she is not there, whether it be the theatre or something else but you've had lives together which will not be defined by the last moments of either one of you.

    If Tracey wants to be involved in this piece of theatre, fantastic, but if she doesn't - that is all right as well. There will be other productions when you go and she resumes a life, after grief - which is also inevitable. The choice is hers too.

    Thank you for sharing your life so openly. I have had my own experiences with serious illness and it is really good to participate in some way with others in this country. I've had friends in the US for many years but feels good to be in touch with people closer to my own culture.


  10. I really like your words and your writing Kate. It IS 'quiet'.

    Julie M

  11. Ditto, Julie. We are both comfortable with it. Thanks for your words, "quiet" – I see you are using the past tense for your illness. I do hope it stays that way for you.


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