Three years ago, just a few performances in to the opening season of Boy Girl Wall at Brisbane’s Metro Arts Theatre, the one and only star of the play, Lucas Stibbard, suddenly lost what appeared to be a litre of blood into a backstage toilet. Excessive stress had caused a bowel intussusception: the small intestine had folded into the large. With barely disguised delight, a doctor explained the condition was typically seen in infants rather than adults. Stibbard, who had co-written, co-produced, co-directed and marketed the show, was literally bleeding for his art.
Stibbard has been performing the one-man show, and messing up his body, ever since. In June he was back at Metro Arts, planning yet another season of Boy Girl Wall, a 90-minute tour de force in which he plays 25 characters, including the boy (Thom), the girl next door (Alethea) and the wall that keeps them apart and lovelorn. He also plays a cat, Alethea’s parents on the night they conceive her and an onanistic alien pervert. Critics and theatre-goers alike have adored the show, which evidently has helped to make the pressures, hospitalisations and even an old-fashioned nervous breakdown worth it. As well as sold-out runs in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, and a fawning love-in at the Adelaide Fringe, in 2011 Boy Girl Wall earnt Stibbard a Helpmann nomination for Best Actor (alongside Geoffrey Rush, Richard Roxburgh and Toby Schmitz) and the $25,000 Brian Boak Bursary, awarded annually to an outstanding Australian performer.
There was just one demographic left to woo: the theatregoers of regional Australia. The plan was to take Boy Girl Wall to 25 towns and cities over three months, from Burnie to Darwin and Bunbury to Byron Bay. Helping Stibbard lock in the logistics one Brisbane morning were his wife and fellow actor, Neridah Waters, and his lighting designer-cum-roadie, Keith Clark. Stibbard, who has the blond good looks of a boy-band member hitting his 30s, was slightly apprehensive. Would his body hold up? What about his mind? Would anyone even come?
As members of the Escapists, Boy Girl Wall’s theatre company, Stibbard and Waters had previously toured regional Australia with Tarnished, an all-female, acrobatic, anti-burlesque comedy show in which Waters co-starred, while Stibbard worked on sound. Waters – who is classically beautiful but can transform into a potty-mouthed hillbilly nan in a snap – performed wearing a merkin and facial hair. Local audiences thought the show a hoot, but one venue had sound problems so heinous that Waters ended up dancing to three different versions of the same song playing from out-of-sync speakers. “They didn’t have a dressing room either, so all of us had to run half-naked through the kitchen in high heels and ugly granny undies to a toilet to get changed while they tried to serve counter meals.”
Clark explained that many performing arts centres in regional Australia were spanking new complexes designed to be as multipurpose as possible, which meant they ended up being ideal for nobody. On-ground tech support could also be dubious: “Sometimes they don’t know what’s going on; sometimes they don’t give a fuck.”
Yet for all the horror stories, CWA women might provide cut sandwiches backstage, or local theatre-lovers – touched you’ve made the time to visit – will dress in themed costumes and book out the entire place. “So it balances out,” Stibbard says. “Normally you wouldn’t just go, ‘On my holiday this year, I’m going to Colac!’ But then you discover something you’d never see if you didn’t go. And there is amazing op-shopping.”
Shepparton, 170 kilometres north of Melbourne and home to SPC, the country’s largest processor of tinned fruits, is town number 11 of the 25 on the Boy Girl Wall road trip. By the time I intercept Stibbard and co., they have already performed in Ipswich, Boonah, Nambour, Bendigo and Warragul.
There have been a few existential lows along the way. In Newcastle one night, a bunch of yobbos yelled unprovoked at Stibbard from their “shitbox car”. In the same town, Stibbard gave his all to a matinee crowd of fewer than 20 people. Matinees, he mutters, depend on drama teachers booking tickets en masse, and this one shouldn’t have been scheduled during school holidays.
Shepparton looks more promising. There is something charmingly bonkers about the dozens of life-sized fibreglass cows that patronise the town as part of a seemingly eternal art installation. You get the sense that after the apocalypse, the cows will remain: rainbow-coloured cows, Mexican Day of the Dead skeleton cows, cows covered in strawberries and cream, cows made to look like carousel horses. At the traffic lights, a trailer pulls alongside, bearing a massive brown cow with ‘HOW NOW’ painted across it in huge white letters.
The venue today is the Riverlinks Eastbank Centre, a modern construction with a sandstone facade. Boy Girl Wall’s set is relatively simple and mostly donated. Opera Queensland gave the Escapists the floor, which consists of black wooden slats drilled together, daubed with white architectural outlines; the Queensland Theatre Company provided a large standing blackboard; the Queensland University of Technology supplied an overhead projector trolley; the festoon lights were from a previous play; PVC pipes that house the lights are from an ex-flatmate’s ex-boyfriend.
The set is adjustable, since the venues they encounter can vary wildly in size. For the Adelaide Fringe, Stibbard found himself performing in a tiny three-metre-long pit.
“That was the torso show,” says Waters. “‘Boy Girl Torso’.”
“The one you could only see from here up,” explains Stibbard, cutting off his navel with his hand.
“‘Boy Girl Bust’,” adds Waters.
In the dressing room, Stibbard runs through his pre-show warm-up. He puts his face over a bowl of steaming water and throws a towel over his head. Afterwards he lies flat on the stage, knees bent, making sighing noises like an engine decompressing. Then comes what sounds like Gregorian chanting, followed by primitive grunting noises that would be familiar to fans of Björk. Finally he listens to a meditation iPhone app.
All of this stuff, Stibbard says, is very necessary. He discovered this after the second season of Boy Girl Wall at Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre in 2011. The first had gone perfectly, but by the time La Boite’s reprise swung around the Australian Theatre Forum was in town hosting major artistic directors from across the country. On the second day of the forum, a speaker told everyone they had to see Boy Girl Wall. Stibbard wasn’t there – he was too busy prepping Boy Girl Wall – so a friend SMSed him: “Holy fuck, dude. You’ve just gotten a huge ovation and you’re not even here.”
Every actor wants to perform for big-name artistic directors, but not over an entire season. “Instead of one opening night full of every swinging dick, every night had somebody important in the audience,” Stibbard says. It rattled his nerves. Waters was working out of town, so Stibbard would return after performances to an empty house. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat. He started having anxiety attacks, convinced he was going to die on stage. One night, Stibbard was steaming his sinuses in the shower before a show, and blood started gushing out of his mouth. He saw a doctor, cancelled La Boite’s last three shows and went to bed. He started seeing a therapist and taking beta-blockers to slow down his thumping heart. For almost a month, Stibbard did very little except sleep and eat soup.
“It was horrible,” he says now. “Just being beaten by it [the show]. There is always that question: ‘Are you going to be able to do it again? Or are you broken?’” And theatre has broken people, he points out. Both Stibbard and Waters have seen fellow performers completely lose it, both on stage and behind the scenes. Stibbard recalls one actor sternly informing an unresponsive elderly audience that they were going to die soon anyway. Another told his fellow cast members days before opening night, “I can’t do it, I’m sorry,” and walked away.
Shepparton’s high school kids file into the seats at 1.30 pm, dressed out of uniform. There is a handful of seniors in the crowd too. Waters sits to the side of the stage and operates sound for the show: a drum machine, a toy piano, a CD player the size of a small suitcase and a xylophone on which she plays melodies by Belle & Sebastian and Megan Washington. Music rumbles out of the speakers and the spotlight targets Stibbard, who appears with gelled hair in a plain costume that makes him look like a young off-duty Mormon.
“This is not a love story,” Stibbard tells the audience. But it is a play about love, he adds, which means it is about a million moments of pure misery. People laugh at that. Over the next hour or so, Stibbard plays his 25 characters, including personifications of the five working days of the week. (Tuesday is unpopular and tries to win affection with cheap movies; Friday is a revoltingly vulgar binge drinker.)
Although the play meditates on the big things like love, time and the nature of the universe, everything on stage is wonderfully DIY. Exposed light globes represent suns and stars. When Stibbard needs a prop – a bicycle, a laptop, an alarm clock – he summons it into being by drawing it with chalk, or projects its image onto the wall.
When the lights go up, the applause is enthusiastic but thin: it’s just too small a crowd. In mere hours, Stibbard will have to do this all over again. “It’s incredibly difficult to wind down after this,” he says, once the audience is gone. “One of the 200 reasons I hate matinees is that following the night show, I won’t fall asleep until after 3 am.”
At night there are more people but they’re an older crowd. Stibbard’s characters say the word ‘fuck’ noticeably less. They chuckle when Stibbard draws an alarm clock and slams it off, but remain silent during simulated fellatio on a puppet. A reference to “supernatural erotic fan fiction” flies right over their heads. Afterwards in the foyer, elderly women profess admiration for Stibbard’s youthful verve. “Oh, he didn’t draw breath,” says one woman. “He was very good to remember all that,” says another. “What a memory.”
Stibbard changes into a tracksuit and helps to pack up. Stibbard, Waters and Clark prefer to fly in and fly out, but their gear still needs to be trucked across Australia. This is the job of Craig Kolstad, a white-bearded 52-year-old whose flannie shirt pocket is stuffed with Champion Ruby tobacco. Kolstad will drive 1500 kilometres in a single day if required. “It’s the biggest truck you can have on the road without having to fill in those RTA logbooks,” Kolstad tells me as we load everything in. “This one’s eight metres long and three and a half metres high; an eight-tonner.”
Everything needs to be out of here by tonight, in readiness for the next day’s event, a pensioners’ outing called Afternoon Delight, featuring the songs of Dusty Springfield. There will be tea, coffee and biscuits, and no one will say the f-word.
The next morning, Stibbard, Waters, Clark and I drive south and east, via Melbourne, to get to the town of Sale. Clark’s busted lighting desk is in the boot and we need to drop it off for repairs. What happens if they can’t find a replacement desk or get this one fixed? “Well, it’s going to be a bit of adventure,” Clark says. Clark always says this when something might go wrong.
Waters is at the wheel with Stibbard in the passenger seat. Clark and I sit in the back seat like unlikely brothers, kombi-spotting. Waters has visited Sale before but can’t recall what it’s famous for. Google tells us the town has problems with algae. Sale also hosted John Howard in a bulletproof vest, as he stared down gun-lovers in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre. And Sale’s offshore gas resources explain why its performing arts venue is called the Esso BHP Billiton Wellington Entertainment Centre.
We drop off our luggage at Sale but head on to Stratford, 20 minutes out. Stratford is small enough to be mapped by drawing a few intersecting lines on a napkin. Stibbard will perform in the Stratford Courthouse tonight, which also contains an art gallery and a gift shop. After unloading the truck, the gift-shop owner tells us to mind the bloated cow corpses left about around town after a recent flood.
The stage is three metres deep and four metres long. With just over 70 tiered seats, the room resembles a minor university’s lecture theatre. Only part of the set will fit, so we prepare for the minimalist version of Boy Girl Wall this evening. Stibbard does a condensed run-through of the whole show in several minutes, rendering him a mumbling, erratic madman.
When we return at night, the place is packed. The stage is so small, the bare light globe that represents the sun hovers above the audience itself. Stibbard wins the crowd over from the first joke. People don’t just laugh; they slap their thighs helplessly and hoot, cackle and crow. At one point, when Stibbard leans in to the audience as if to confide a secret, they respond by actually leaning back towards him. When a young woman leaves to go to the toilet, Stibbard spots her and says “I’ll catch you up later!” and when she returns he stops the play, leaps up to her seat and fills her in. Everyone cheers. After the play’s finale, the clapping and stomping makes the seats vibrate beneath us, and it takes a long time for people to leave the Stratford Courthouse Theatre.
The Esso BHP Billiton Wellington Entertainment Centre’s motto is “One Long Name, One Great Venue”. More than a hundred punters turn out the next night but fill just a quarter of the hall. Still, there is something beautiful about watching some of the audience fall in love with the play: young women audibly sigh during the scene when Boy finally meets Girl, and teenage boys – who have clearly taken an extraordinary gamble by booking themselves a night out at the theatre – guffaw and grin during the dirty jokes, as if they had come expecting a court appearance only to find themselves at a strip show. Once the lights come back on, they flock to the blackboard in the foyer, which has been set up as a sort of travelling guestbook for each town, to chalk things like “Better then Twilight”, “CALL ME”, “Sharon ♥ BGW”, “I like your hair”, “AMAHZING”.
Sale isn’t the most responsive crowd Stibbard and Waters have encountered on tour. But no other audience has gasped so loudly during the play’s loveliest moment, when the lights go off to leave a map of stars and, using his hand and a small light, Stibbard alters the very shape of the universe.
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