Magic and a one-woman show
Taking ‘Stories I Want to Tell You in Person’ to India
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I’d been living in Hollywood for a few months when I received a call from Brenna Hobson, the executive director of Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre.
This was exciting news. I had never been to India, and we were going there to tour my solo show, Stories I Want To Tell You in Person. Basically, the production is me telling stories from my life, while I act out various characters that I have been obsessed with, especially some fortune tellers from New York.
I spent the next month making trips to different travel doctors in Los Angeles. They all gave contradictory advice, and I ended up with five immunisations, a round of tests to see if I needed other immunisations, two forms of antibiotics, medication in case I got a parasite, and two types of antimalarial tablets. I also saturated my clothes in special mosquito repellent. This was all very expensive, and the antimalarial medication made me hallucinate mildly. But I kind of liked hallucinating, and I was prepared. The other five members of the Stories production team were not bringing any medication, which I thought was crazy. They thought I was crazy, especially when I kept emailing them with advice from my many doctors.
I flew from LA and arrived 20 hours later at Delhi airport, where guards with machine guns stood at every entrance. My colleagues arrived from Sydney shortly after. As I pointed past the guards and into the crowds milling in the soupy night air, I said to Anne-Louise Sarks, the show’s director, “Look. India really is magic.” She laughed. My belief in magic, and her scepticism, had been a running joke ever since she came to New York to meet the fortune tellers.
Like at the airport, our New Delhi hotel had metal detectors and guards at the entrance. As would every hotel we stayed in.
The first morning, catching a rickshaw to a market, I was struck by all the tooting horns. It took me a while to realise that the drivers weren’t honking at each other. They were just using their horns to say, “I’m here. I’m next to you. I’m behind you.” They seemed to drive with their ears.
The rest of that morning was spent at the Australian High Commission, where we held press interviews for the show. All the journalists were extremely intelligent women who asked non-stop, hard-hitting questions.
“So, your play was originally going to be about the global financial crisis, but then became about fortune tellers?”
“And exactly what research did you undertake to prepare yourself to write about the global financial crisis?”
“Um … I went to some meetings with my brother, who’s in finance. And we went and tried to meet people on Wall Street.”
“And what was the outcome of this research?”
“Well, not that much. But that play didn’t actually end up going on —”
“What was the main point you were trying to make about the global financial crisis? What are your thoughts on world finance today?”
Next there was a photo shoot, where I had to balance on a very high fence while wearing heels. The photographer kept telling me to do something crazy. I’d try various “crazy” moves and she’d tell me, “No, do something really crazy.” I wondered how this photo would look next to the hard-hitting questions about global finance.
Technically speaking, the show is quite simple: just me in front of a very shiny gold curtain, except for when the Apocalypse Bear comes in. We were staging it six times, in five different cities, and the bear was to be played by a different performer in each venue. Anne-Louise had to train each new bear, as well as set up the theatres and cues.
Our first performance was in a sold-out theatre of around 300, mostly students. I went backstage to change into my costume: a peach shirt and black jeans. Belvoir had provided new jeans for the tour, which I put on. I then went back into the auditorium. “Guys, I don’t want to make a big deal about this, but you got me the wrong-sized jeans. They’re really, really tight.”
No one said anything.
“I’ll have to wear the old jeans,” I told them. I went backstage and put them on. They were just as tight. It wasn’t the jeans.
We were warned ahead of time not to take it personally if audience members shuffled around and talked, or if their phones rang – this was just how people here watch theatre. So I wasn’t thrown by the audience that night. I felt like we really connected, and I was thrilled when they gave the show a standing ovation. After the performance, the head of the festival came onstage to give Anne-Louise and me flowers. (Directors are huge heroes in India.) I had been warned not to hug any men, as it is not the custom. But I had such a warm feeling after the show that I was convinced that the festival director was about to hug me, so I hugged him back. Later, I was told that it was me who had initiated the hug. I didn’t believe it until someone showed us video footage of me launching myself into his arms. It made me wonder how much I instigated emotional or physical contact in general life.
Our next show was in Ahmedabad, 1000 kilometres south-west of New Delhi. After bumping in, and training another bear, we were ready to go on. We then discovered that we were the opening performance of the city’s festival, which meant that the state’s chief minister would be presenting a speech before the show, as would other dignitaries. I sat backstage and listened, trying to keep myself psyched up. The speeches went for more than an hour.
When I finally went onstage, the first thing I noticed was that, at every exit and on each side of the stage, there were men with machine guns. Their fingers rested on the triggers, their eyes constantly scanned the audience. About 30 minutes into the show, the chief minister, along with her 40-strong entourage and all the men with machine guns, stood and left – presumably to her next appointment. “Darn,” I said. “I’ve never felt so protected.” It was the biggest laugh of the night.
We flew out at five o’clock the next morning, back to New Delhi for our rest day. So far, none of us had been sick. I was curious to know what Delhi belly was like, but was also relieved that I hadn’t had to deal with it onstage. That night I was so sick. For 24 hours I was shaking, in a cold sweat, and could not be away from a toilet. I called Anne-Louise.
“Can you ask someone to get me some adult nappies for the show tomorrow night?”
“No. If you’re going to poo your pants onstage, we’ll cancel the show.”
“Why? No one would know.”
“Your jeans are pretty tight. Why don’t you just take some of the medicine you brought?”
“Because I don’t want to have antibiotics and kill my stomach flora.”
I took the medicine and was feeling better within a few hours. Over the next day the others became sick, but they hadn’t brought medicine and mine was gone. They remained ill, to varying degrees, for the rest of the tour.
From New Delhi we went to Bengaluru and then to Thiruvananthapuram in the far south of the country. While in Thiruvananthapuram, I took a terrifying rickshaw ride to the beach and swam in my clothes so as not to offend anyone. Groups of boys couldn’t help but laugh. There weren’t very many women at the beach, and those that were there swam in huddles, in saris, laughing and holding on to one another.
At that night’s performance, I came onstage to a completely silent, still audience of 700. Many people filmed me with their phones, which gave me confidence. If they were filming, they couldn’t hate the show that much. About four minutes in, a man at the back began yelling out. Other audience members shooshed him. I asked what he was saying, but those in the front row just shook their heads, as if to say Don’t worry about it. He kept yelling. People tried to remove him. He began kicking and punching, and was dragged, literally kicking and screaming, from the theatre.
In the question-and-answer session after the show, I asked again, “What was he saying?” The audience ruefully told me he was saying in Tamil, “Talk. Talk. Talk. All you do is talk.” Lucky he was dragged out after four minutes. The show runs for 75.
We finished our theatre season in Mumbai. Most of our team left from there, but Anne-Louise and I stayed for a couple of extra days. We were soon joined by Tanya, a high-school friend of mine who is now an India-based diplomat. She invited us to a huge performance that was part of an event called Make in India Week – a promotion for Indian design and manufacturing. Because of Tanya’s role we had seats right up the front, near Bollywood royalty and the Swedish prime minister. The chief minister opened the evening with a passionate speech, and then the show began. Bollywood stars performed in front of a giant Ganesha. Fireworks exploded over dancers who were standing on one another’s shoulders. “It’s magic,” I whispered to Anne-Louise. “It really is magic.” She laughed. “Really,” I told her. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
We noticed that people were beginning to run towards the stage. Were they joining the dance? How inspiring! And then we saw flames underneath the stage. People were screaming at the performers to get off. Everyone began taking pictures of the fire. Including us. “Guys, we better go,” Tanya said. “There could be a stampede.” The three of us grabbed hands and started to make our way out. The air turned hot. “Don’t run,” warned Tanya. We walked past pushed-down fences, and chairs and pot plants strewn everywhere. Guards with machine guns frantically yelled out orders. Seven thousand people were trying to get to the road. The stage had become an inferno. I thought, Wow, so this is how it happens. This is how you’re at a show and then you die.
By a miracle, no one was hurt.
On our first morning back from India, I was thinking about how not more than one mosquito had bitten me during the whole trip. Anne-Louise texted me. She’d been talking in her sleep the night before and had apparently told her boyfriend, “I think something magic is happening.”