Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mush and Me

Mush and Me – Karla Chrome
Holden St Theatres’ The Arch, Sat Feb 14

Mush and Me was handpicked by Holden St Theatres to be part of their 2015 Fringe program, and it’s easy to see why. Gabby and Mush(taq) meet on neutral ground in an English call centre. The company’s star performers in telephone sales are drawn to each other as they observe each other in action. Their good natured competitive relationship quickly becomes social and despite the cultural and religious gap between them they find themselves falling love. 

Provoking and challenging each other about the foolishness of their respective beliefs just brings them closer, and the time arrives when they have to confront whether to announce their romance with their families. The scene that has both of them coming out to their families simultaneously is beautifully crafted. 

The difficulties of their cross-cultural relationship are a microcosm of what divides Arabic and Jewish culture. No matter how great their affection for each other layers of past hurt and suspicion complicate their present. ‘Enough of the past” Mush cries out to his mother - desperate for her to understand that not all Jews are wicked.

The obvious attraction between to the two protagonists is beautifully played by Daniella Isaacs  and Jaz Deol, and moments of passionate disagreement and anger typical of Middle Eastern discourse about ‘the problem’ are equally powerful.

A simple and effective set of white shelves displaying icons of both Muslim and Jewish culture are manoeuvred around the stage to accommodate the call centre, a bar, a hospital and lounge room, and at times has both actors pushing shelves together in the dark during scene changes that is neatly symbolic of them growing closer together.

Given the state of the world and the role of their respective cultures in global politics, this is a timely offering. We can enjoy the fact that at least two people have decided to ditch the hatred and pain of the past between their peoples and focus on their mutual love in the present. But we are left with no illusion that it will be an easy road for them.

A great play – excellent writing, well-paced, striking delivery and smart direction.

(Also published on The Clothesline)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Searchers

The Searchers
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Fri Feb 6

The Searchers’ concert was always going to be a walk down memory lane. First formed in 1959 and responsible for a half dozen or so mega hits in the Sixties, The Searchers are still performing to packed houses around the world fifty-five years on. The two remaining original Searchers, Frank Allen and John McNally are in their 70’s. That puts them in the elite category of veteran pop/rock stars who are still performing in the same band decades after they began. Another band that comes to mind in the same category and who also graced Australia’s shores recently are of course the Rolling Stones. But that’s about where the similarity ends.
The Searchers represent the state of pop/rock music before the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones turned it and the rest of the world on its head. Neat, suited, and conservative, they stand and deliver that same engaging brand of poppy tune that catapulted them to pop fame, and in pretty much the same way. Not much rocking or wild cavorting around the stage here – just standing and delivering. And that is entirely appropriate for their style of music.
They play all their hits – the biggest of which arguably were Love Potion No 9 and Needles and Pins – and they still sound brilliant. There was also Walk in the Room, an acknowledged classic originally written and recorded by Jackie DeShannon but driven to international fame via The Searchers’ version. A curious thing about The Searchers is they didn’t write any of these songs. Occasionally songs were written for them, but most of their success came from songs written or recorded by others before The Searchers turned them into hits. And as good as these songs are there are probably around 6-8 gems all up. So the playlist for their two hour concert includes many cover tunes. Del Shannon’s Runaway, Buddy Holly’s (apparently spontaneous) Peggy Sue were obvious choices from their era. A kind of reverse acknowledgment of The Byrds and the role they played in preserving The Searchers’ legacy for another decade or so was the reason for the inclusion of Mr Tambourine Man. (The now famous signature ‘jingle jangle’ guitar tone of The Byrds was first created by John McNally, and The Byrds always acknowledged their debt to The Searchers as their own fame grew.)
A few numbers were clearly included to highlight and exploit the lovely voice of Spencer James – Roy Orbison’s Runnin’ Scared, Neil Sedaka’s Solitaire, and Bette Midler’s The Rose. But the inclusion of Young Girl, originally recorded by Gary Puckett and The Union Gap had me puzzled. I loved it when I was a child, but these days it has a few unfortunate undertones.
The voices of the two original Searchers are still in fine fettle. Sadly though there was a muddy tone to the mix much of the evening with the vocals too far down in the mix and for a band whose songs depend on multiple vocal parts this was really disappointing. Ironically the time when the three singers could be heard most clearly was not on a Searchers song – they sounded clear and pitch perfect as they sang The Rose.
Bass player Frank Allen chatted to the audience throughout the show, filling in bits and pieces of the band’s history, and explaining why each song was chosen. Audiences really appreciate this thoughtful kind of communication. But I found the constant jokes about aging, illness, dementia, etc a bit tiresome. As I’m a way short of 70 maybe it’s something I need to grow into (!) but I’d be pretty sure the Stones weren’t cracking jokes about nursing homes and dementia on their recent tour.
Still, it was great to see, be present, and hear live The Searchers’ contribution to the legacy of pop music. It’s a phenomenal achievement to be still doing live shows after 50 years. Testament to their importance in the history of pop is the fact that several Searchers songs will be remembered long after they finally hang up their guitars. An enjoyable night.

Also published at The Clothesline

Monday, December 15, 2014

Life After Work

About 7 months ago  I left the organisation I had worked with for 25 years. I turned 60 two months later. Until late last year (2013) I had assumed I would continue working in that job until around 65. But things moved rapidly and 6 months later I was unemployed. I chose to leave. I did not retire. Between jobs as they say. And I learnt a great deal very quickly about myself and life.

Initially, for a brief time, the freedom of being unattached was intoxicating. The intoxication was slowly replaced with a far more sober reality that took me a few months to work through. What follows is in no sense of regret. I'm glad I left my job. But realisation #1 was I MISSED THAT JOB! In truth this was no great surprise. I had often told people I had one of the best jobs of anyone I knew. But it had reached a point where I could no longer work for my employer with a clear conscience.

Realisation #2 - my world shrunk. I had a reasonably high profile job that meant that I was in contact with a lot of people in the average week - via email, phone, or face to face conversations or meetings. I'd guess around 50-80 people each week. When I stopped working I had contact with less than 10 people a week. My job was also quite mobile. I would routinely visit several locations a week across the whole city. In the weeks after I quit my job this often was reduced to 'the shops' , and nothing else. Many many fewer people and many fewer locations. My world had shrunk quite drastically.

Realisation #3 - hobbies were no longer hobbies! I have never had a problem filling in my time. Throughout my working life I had to squeeze in music, gardening, travelling, sport, theatre, writing, walking, photography, technology. ....Mostly I did manage to fit these extra-curricular activities into a busy and full life. Now subtract the job. You'd think I'd be rapt to have all this extra time to enjoy these other pastimes. And initially I did. But you see, like I said, I hadn't  retired. I wanted to keep working - I just wasn't sure what it was I wanted to do. So something unexpected happened to my hobbies. They stopped being something I did in my spare time, and became the things I did! And, consequently I began to see each one of them as a potential job, or at least a money earning activity. So... I should practice this guitar piece more, or I should take this more seriously, or I spend so much time doing this I need to work out how to turn it into a part time job, etc. Nothing was purely for pleasure anymore. Things I had enjoyed doing for decades whenever I could fit them in had become weighed down with a sense of responsibility. Quite sad, and all in my own head I realise, but that's what happened.

Realisation #4 (and perhaps the most important of them all) - I had become a creature governed by the recurring rhythms of terms and semesters and holidays - all with their own annual reliability. Always a few weeks holidays at the same times each year. But one always worked in May. I worked in education, and really had no idea how much I had become a creature of its annual cycles. I have always worked hard. But there was always a break just 10 weeks away even if you didn't take it. But psychologically it was there and you could take it if you wanted or needed it. Go  away for a couple of weeks at the end of September if you wanted. And you knew when these breaks were years ahead so you could plan to travel at a set time. Or again, if you felt like making a snap last minute decision to go somewhere there was no stressing about when you might go - that was already decided for you by the pre-ordained holiday dates. But now you're between jobs. What if you decided to take a week off or  book a flight to somewhere and someone offers you work at that time?

The longest break you get in the education world is 5, maybe 6 weeks. (Yes I know much longer than most get but that's another story...). So about  6-8 weeks after I left my job I was ready to work again. 25 years of conditioning had unknowingly  turned  me into this creature who needed to work because I'd had a 6 week break.

Realisation #5 - my identity was intimately connected with my job. I began to feel like I didn't matter so much; that I was less significant than before. I wanted to work and couldn't. I looked longingly at people who had jobs - any job - and thought how lucky they were! I wasn't as important to myself anymore either because I was getting no validation from others that I was doing something worthwhile for them. No pats on the back; no requests to help out with various tasks; to address a meeting; to join a team for a temporary project. Very few people were asking me to do anything. There was no expectation that I would do anything. So all  the  motivation to keep abreast of current practice, look for work, maintain contacts with your persona l learning network had to come from within. Only intrinsic motivation was left to keep you moving. All those people you saw in the average week of your working life had moved on and no longer required your assistance.

Realisation #6 - I was not as self-contained as I thought I was. I needed the company and recognition of others to keep me performing. I'd had it for so long I had ceased to recognise its importance in my life. I thought I was driving myself along kind of under my own steam and that was far from the whole story!

Realisation #7 -no matter what you say people will consider you  'retired.' And assume you are loving all the extra spare time and having a ball. But (back to realisation #5) I only enjoy spare time if I've worked really hard and feel like I've earned it. But it won't a matter a toss to others - they will consider you retired.

Realisation #8. Actually this is more of an assumption than a realisation, and it may not be entirely accurate. I assume that people who plan to retire, and who have known for some time when they will stop working, would not go through all the angst that I have experienced  these last 7 months. They would be planning what they  were going to do and anticipating with great pleasure a time when they can realise their post work dreams. When post work life is upon you suddenly it is an entirely different ball game. I now have a greater appreciation for what those who are suddenly made unemployed must feel.


I have found bits and pieces of part time work that I am enjoying and this has helped me establish a new rhythm of life. I accept that I have to make things happen on my own, and that I can't rely on the inbuilt supports (people, activities, projects) that a long term job provides. And I am now feeling like I'm ready to take on something new - whatever it may be.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Joan Armatrading in Adelaide

Apologies for the blur. I was interrupted by 'security' as I was taking
the shot (no pix allowed) and was not allowed to reshoot.

Joan Armatrading
The Gov, Sun Dec 7

Joan Armatrading burst on to the music scene in the mid seventies as a black woman who didn't sound like a typical black singer. She had a unique sense of melody and phrasing that was all her own. Born in the West Indies, she moved to Birmingham in the UK at the age of 7. I, like millions of others, was smitten by her self-titled breakthrough album in 1976, and after her performance at The Gov here in Adelaide, I'm still smitten.

Her music crosses an extraordinary range of styles - folk, pop, rock, blues, jazz - and while she is equally at home in all of them, she doesn't actually belong in any of them. Joan Armatrading is one of those rare artists who simply sounds like herself. Whatever style she is experimenting with, she dances on the edges of it. So you get her interpretation of blues; her interpretation of jazz. Except perhaps for rock. When she veers down the rock path she, surprisingly, is a classic rocker. A couple of guitar solos sounded quite Hendrix-esque. And then she's just as likely to follow that up with a soft melodic ballad on piano.

Armatrading took us through a representative sample of a musical canon that spans four decades. There were plenty of her best known numbers - Me Myself I, Drop the Pilot, Love and Affection, All the Way from America - and a selection of songs from her more recent forays into jazz and blues influenced offerings.

From the outset she was gracious and witty. I loved the way she paused at the conclusion of each song long enough to allow us to show our appreciation, and for us to see her smile warmly in enjoyment of the moment. Quite endearing.

Midway through her performance we were treated to a slide show of her career highlights - musical and personal. It felt like we were in her lounge room at home sharing precious memories. It was a nice touch.

Several songs featured pre-recorded parts to fill out the sound. At times this worked really well. It allowed her to play nifty jazz lead parts on songs like Stepping Out, and have us enjoy the brass embellishment on the classic Love and Affection. She told us she's played this song in every concert she's ever played, and you can see why. It is indeed a classic. ("Sing me another love song but this time with a little dedication.") On other songs like the reggae influenced Rosie I found the extra overlay intrusive.

Drop the Pilot was very funky, and Me Myself I once again revealed Joan the rocker. She finished with the gentle Willow, and invited the audience to join in. We all sent ourselves home singing in unison as Joan sat, smiling again, at the keyboard.

It was a privilege to finally see Joan Armatrading in person. She's still pushing boundaries and her voice still sounds as rich and mellifluous as it ever did. Like 'massage for the brain' someone commented. Swapping seamlessly between electric guitar, piano and her trademark 12 string Ovation, she generously shared forty years of original music and few were disappointed. Most in fact were rapt.

(Also published on The Clothesline)

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Susan Greenfield Rings The Alarm Bells Again

Baroness Susan Greenfield has been giving talks on the dangers associated with Internet technology for some years now. I have worked in the field of educational technology for the last 15 years and often read her reports on her research and subsequent disparaging grand conclusions about technology so I admit that I probably went to hear her recent address at the University of South Australia with a degree of bias. Nevertheless I wanted to hear her for myself and make up my own mind.

In broad sweep I actually agree with much of what she had to day. Like her, I am concerned about how mobile and Internet technologies may be rewiring our brains, and redefining us as a species. I get no joy, and a degree of angst, when I see a 20 something person buried in the screen of their phone and not once look up to see what might be happening outside the train window during a 45 minute journey through superb scenery.

My problem is how she reaches her conclusions. There was fleeting reference to articles and research whose titles contain words like 'brain', 'technology', 'growth', etc but zero discussion about these works. Instead, in the talk I attended, she was openly dismissive about whatever gains new technology may have brought us. Pandering to the prejudice of the crowd, she went for cheap shots: Twitter - "why would anyone want to know about what your cat is doing?" I have never seen that kind of trite message on my Twitter feed because my feed is cultivated. I carefully select who I follow. She would know that thousands use Twitter as an intelligent means of exchange but she chose to ignore that fact for the sake of her sensationalist and simplistic argument. Another chestnut - how could anyone think that social media connections could be as rich as face to face contact in the same room? Here she is being ignorant or devious, and I suspect it's the latter. I suspect she, like me and countless others, has enjoyed a degree of freedom as a result of being a disembodied entity on the Net. Very early in my days on the Net I became aware of a liberation I felt to express ideas when no one knew if I was young or old, academic or truck driver, physically disabled or deliciously attractive. I was a brain without all the clutter that physical presence brings and my ideas were judged as just that - ideas. Not a product of the casing they came in.

Yes Internet and mobile technology is changing us - no one disputes this. It does rewire our brains. But by the same token, as Greenfield would agree, the moment we decide for example to go off the Net and learn a new language or play a new instrument our brain changes again. Brain changes are not permanent. Our brain will happily accommodate whatever we choose to pursue - right though to old age.

Another writer who has bridged this same territory is Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows - What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Carr also came in for plenty of flack from the technology community  for his provocative questioning of the value of technology, but at least Carr was not sensationalising his case, or demeaning those who lived by the Internet. All Carr was suggesting is that we need to debate this issue of what's happening to us as a result of our (near) addiction to the new technologies. No argument from me there, and I think really that is all Greenfield ultimately wants to see happen as well. But her pandering to ignorant prejudice is unhelpful and merely reinforces the opinions of those who don't understand the advantages of new technology.

To be fair though Greenfield in the main was talking about children. Baby Boomers like myself can delve deeply into the new world of technology, then stand back and compare the process with other previous means of processing and distributing knowledge - books, writing on paper, face to face discussions. We can evaluate the benefit of the new against the old. Children don't have this affordance. Very young children only know the world of screens and multiple distraction. And older children may not have known a time when reflection, time alone, thinking absent-mindedly, daydreaming, and reading silently for long periods were normal occurrences, and crucial determinants of our mental and emotional health.

I keep thinking that educators need to have these discussions with their students - children and adults -  as part of a digital literacy program. Have them compare reading print text with screen text and evaluate the difference. Have them multitask as they research a topic and then try reading one or two books or articles on the same topic and compare the two experiences. (I have referred to this elsewhere as horizontal versus vertical learning.) We are the first generation in human history that can actually observe the changes that are happening to us as we adopt new technology. Neuroscience has advanced to the point that we can almost measure these changes in real time. So rather than sound the clarion calls of alarm as Susan Greenfield likes to do, let's collectively engage in an exploration of how we're changing, and be aware and mindful about it.

Greenfield's style earned her a near thunderous ovation from the non-believers, but she was preaching to the choir. And it isn't very helpful in encouraging dialogue between opposing factions of this new technology dilemma. She seems more interested in polarising opinion and selling books. If you want to read a book asking intelligent questions about how technology may be changing us, read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows instead.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Dramatic Look at China-Australia Relations

State Theatre Company - Kryptonite
Space Theatre, Fri Oct 24

In the space of my lifetime China has changed from a being pariah state to one that Australia relies on heavily for its economic well-being. The recent death of Gough Whitlam reminded us all that the change began in the seventies when he had the wisdom to open relations with China. China itself has changed a great deal and Beijing has become a modern metropolis. Outwardly it has become much like any other modern city. But as Kryptonite reveals, what goes on behind the scenes or under the surface of the apparent changes in China can still leave the rest of the world mystified about what really drives this vast nation.

Lian, played by Ursula Mills, was one of the very first Chinese students to grace our shores in the 1980s. She meets Dylan (Tim Walter), a fellow student on campus and they are immediately intrigued by each other. What follows is a series of meetings over the years as their lives change radically and they attempt to reconcile the feelings they have for each other. These meetings are set against a backdrop of changing relations between China and Australia.

The infamous events of Tiananmen Square are a watershed for their own relationship and that of their respective countries, and is the first in a series of hiccups that both draws them together and pushes them apart. This tension is central to the play. No matter how much they are attracted to each other cultural differences always manage to render an ongoing relationship difficult.

The scenes early in the play where the young students make fun of each other as they explore their different backgrounds are quite endearing, and more importantly, this mutual fascination is authentic and believable. We  want them to be together.  Mills' accent is cute and fetching and contributes to an air of naivete about her new land, and Walter is appropriately awkward as the young student. Lian makes fun of Dylan's lack of ideals and he tries to get her to lighten up. But try as she might her ties with family back in China work against that. Dylan however, inspired by Lian's search for meaning and blessed with the freedom of being Australian plunges into a life where he strives to realise his ideals about the environment and he  enters politics.

In time he finds that politics is a grubby world of self-interest and muck-raking that drags up innocent details of your past to make you look unfit for office. Did Lian (China) engineer the sharing of confidential information for her own gain? Has Dylan (Australia) been caught in a honey trap? Kryptonite is a complex work, and it feels important. It could easily be used as a text book for an entire course on intercultural relations or international politics. It is rich with cultural nuance and political intrigue.

Both  Mills' and Walters' performances are quite wonderful. They quickly had the audience on side, feeling their pain, and caring about what happens to them. By the time we reach the present day Dylan's future is squarely in Lian's hands. Her destiny however is constrained by loyalty to a set of traditional values that conflict with those that might bring them and their two countries closer together. Sadly, after decades of close contact they and their countries are still dancing around the cultural chasm that yawns between them, and are no closer to knowing what values really drive their respective cultures.

Well written, great set, and clever direction. Instructive, enlightening, entertaining, important, and also quite funny in parts.

(also published at The Clothesline)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Sleeping at Dubai Airport

On a recent return trip from Australia to Europe via Dubai I discovered quite a bit about sleeping options in Dubai airport. On the way over I decided to try a Snoozecube. It was a reasonably long trek to gate C22 in terminal 1 but I found the Snoozecube people friendly and efficient. The room and bed were clean and within minutes I was out like a light. I got 4 hours solid sleep (@$36/hr), then made my way back to the lounge feeling quite refreshed and ready for my next flight.

The return journey was not quite so smooth sailing.  If you're flying with Qantas or Emirates and your wait time in Dubai between flights is more than 8 hours you are eligible for what is called 'Dubai Connect' on the Qantas site. This may depend on your frequent flyer status - I'm not sure - but as a Gold member this meant was I eligible for free accommodation in a hotel at the airport 'subject to availability.' No one at Qantas or Emirates seemed to know exactly what this 'subject to availability' meant in practice. On boarding the Dubai flight in Amsterdam I was given an accommodation voucher for a hotel outside the airport.

I landed in Dubai 90 minutes late partly because there was an abnormal amount of air traffic around the airport. That it, it was busy! Immigration queues in Dubai can be exceedingly long at the best of times and I figured I would lose at least 30 minutes getting through customs and getting to my 'Dubai connect' hotel outside the airport. Ditto in reverse. So with the late arrival and exiting and re-entering the airport my 8 hours was now down to 5 and a half. I explained all this to the staff at the Emirates lounge and they thought I'd probably be better off just finding a quiet corner of the lounge and sleeping on their kind of recliner seats but they were too high and slippery so I made myself comfortable on the floor and enjoyed another sound 4 hours sleep.

So next time round I'll either make use of Snoozecube or sleep in the lounge. And now I know that the 'Dubai Connect' option involves exiting the airport and immigration, etc I'll only use this if I have a layover for 10 hours or more.