Category Archives: Day Jobs

Drama School Dream Factory – Act 1

BRAVE NEW WORLD The mysteries of theatre were revealed at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art.

A Writer’s first backstage pass.

ONCE I’d saved myself from the clutches of academia (for how I nearly ended up an Ancient History professor, read my post on How the Prophet Elijah got me Published), I managed to escape into drama school. Not just any drama school, but NIDA, Australia’s pre-eminent National Institute of Dramatic Art.

I hasten to admit I wasn’t one of the thousands of acting hopefuls, eager to audition. I was a pretty good visual artist, all through secondary school, and in my usual way (which means I worked it out for myself), I decided that in order to make my way in the world, I needed to ‘do something’ with those skills.

I was already drawn to some kind of theatre profession (read about my moving theatre experience in Waiting for Waiting for Godot), but the only way I could see myself in the industry was as a designer.

For me, design was a safer option. It didn’t put me personally on the line, as it does with actors; and it seemed more creative than Stage Management, which I’d tried at university as part of SUDS – Sydney University Dramatic Society.

So I applied, created a design for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and attended an interview with the Head of Design. He seemed interested in the progression my work showed between designing school musicals a year before, to my vision for Shakespeare’s last great play. I was sent for a second interview with the Administrator, and a few weeks later I got the call.

NIDA had recently moved to newly built premises on Anzac Parade in the Sydney suburb of Kensington. Everything seemed freshly minted. New students for all courses were welcomed to an orientation week, and then, horror of horrors, we were all thrown together to co-create devised pieces to present in front of everyone.

I was deeply closeted, painfully shy, and only good at expressing myself on the page. The idea of being up on a stage, away from the relative safety of school, was frightening. I did all I could to be a shrinking violet, and, thinking the point was to show some early skill as a designer, set about making the costumes.

Going with that idea worked a treat – I managed to be up the back with the ‘chorus’, garnered some notice for creating a huge collar out of newspaper for one of the acting students, and got through without having to do anything in the spotlight.

In fact the whole first term was a series of such challenges, the aim of which seemed to be breaking down barriers. But I had one very strong one, which you’d think a young gay man at drama school would need no encouragement in relinquishing, but nevertheless, I resisted.

Meanwhile my class was thrown in the deep end of the exact yet limitless world of design. Right from the get-go it was clear than near enough would never be good enough.

In the classroom I was forever resisting being stretched – commuting to keep up my waitering income meant having transportable designs, so bigger was rarely better for me. Where some of my student colleagues would take over the classroom for their projects, I was happy for mine to fit in my backpack.

In the theatre itself, however, I started to let go and enjoy myself. First year design and technical students served as crew for the main-stage productions of 2nd and 3rd year students. We were expected to learn the highly technical and accurate art of scene and wardrobe changes.

DREAM FACTORY The new facade of NIDA in the suburb of Kensington, Sydney (Photograph by Adam JWC).

During the first technical rehearsal I was ever part of, with endless repetition of the same stage transitions and technical cues, I recall rolling my eyes with a kind of boredom, wondering when we’d be let go so I could catch my train home.

But when the magic of the theatre started to take over, and the transitions were coming together, something changed in me. A day later, the show could not be stopped by stage management unless there was some kind of emergency. We’d all just have to cope if something went wrong.

A new world opened to me, with its own theatrical rhythms, language, and that potential-filled half-light which exists in between reality and fantasy. Ever since then, I have loved being part of technical rehearsals in the lead up to opening night. They are often awkward and stressful, but they are my favourite period of putting a show together.

Working backstage on productions of works by wildly different playwrights like Chekhov, Brecht, Ayckbourn, and O’Casey; through to Australian works, like Too Young for Ghosts by Janis Balodis, was an immediate and thrilling way to learn the art of staging productions in a space.

The three-dimensional theatre world also broke the stranglehold that mere words had on me. Words on a page is where a theatre production starts, but they quickly dissipate into the very air of a theatre space. My writer’s brain began to switch off, because it was not needed.

Three years’ drilling in this creative process was the best performing arts education I could ever hope for, but as I soon discovered, there was a lot more to making a career in the theatre. 

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

A waiter’s revenge tragedy

220px-Waiter!THERE isn’t much to write about waitering that hasn’t already been covered brilliantly by Steve Dublanica in his blog and book Waiter Rant, but if I might add my own perspective…

I waitered throughout the first four of my five tertiary education years. During that time I wasn’t eligible for government support or scholarships. One of my parents couldn’t assist in supporting me financially, while the other one just wouldn’t.

A bad lot? Not really, but with six 12-hour days of coursework, there wasn’t much time left for earning an income to cover the costs of leaving home.

Café waitering wasn’t rocket science, but food experiences were very different two decades ago.

Coffee making wasn’t the exact and particular science fretted over by millions every morning across the world these days. A caffè latte had no froth (or coffee art on top), just plenty of hot milk. Soy milk was a gluggy, grey substance which you wouldn’t want to drink with coffee. Baby-cinos were just the sparkle in someone’s eye.

There was also a new bread on the scene: Focaccia. I fondly remember the year when diners couldn’t say the word. “Fossa-see-a”, “Fark-arr-chee”, and “Fock-akki” are three of my favourite mis-pronunciations of the Italian flatbread that was being filled and toasted like it was going out of style.

Yet the differences in cuisine back then did not mean people were less demanding. Not in the least.

FOCC-UP Could you pronounce the name of the new bread which hit Australian cafes in the late 1980s?

Every eating destination has its regulars, ready to pounce at the slightest change in serving size or ingredient. I got to know a few people like this in my waitering years, the kind who’d make your teeth gnash, the kind you’d like to suggest just go to the nearest supermarket and spend $10 on ingredients, go home, and make their own damned meal for once.

But my real hatred was birthed by those I’ll call the food pedants, those for whom nothing is ever good enough. “Please ask the chef to…”, or “my coffee is not hot enough”, “can I use my own tea bag?”, “I’m only paying for half the coffee because I only drank half”, and all manner of pinickerty requests. The kind of people who don’t know they’re alive unless they’re getting someone else to do something for them.

Such folk were a great source of inspiration for a story I called A Waiter’s Revenge Tragedy, one which I formulated in my left brain in order to escape the piles of washing-up along the floor and down the stairs, because there was no dishwasher and only one small sink in that particular establishment.

In this never-written story, a Waiter was pushed so far by a difficult customer that he plotted the man’s death in an elaborate and long-term strategy, culminating in what appeared to be suicide, after the customer’s attempts to get his way became so extreme that he faked a bout of food poisoning. Of course, the noble waiter would also need to perish at the end of the story to make it a true ‘tragedy’.

It was convoluted, sure, but planning this magnum opus brought me great delight. Each new encounter with a food pedant fed the story arc, until I’d made myself immune to them through the sheer delight of encountering more material.

Perhaps other people just switch off under these circumstances, but not this writer. Imaginary revenge was simply too delicious. A Waiter is only one letter away from being a Writer anyway.

The best part about being a waiter was working for a supportive boss. My last café manager was an ex-boxer who once removed a complainer through the front door by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his pants for querying the bill. He always said he’d support his staff against any customer complaint, even if we were in the wrong. The result? Excellent staff who did their job with energy and without fail. These days, that boss would probably end up in jail.

I now share meals with plenty of hospitality workers, and the stories they come out with would curl your toes. All I would advise readers is this:  respect your waiter, and never be a pedant. If you ignore this simple advice, you’ll never be able to trust anyone serving you…

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The Grim Reaper in the lunch room

PRINTING IMPRESSED A romantic vision of my first day job at a printing firm.

A Writer’s first day job.

IN my last year of school, I was gently encouraged into some kind of employment. Having illustrated a local history book, I had a contact in the manager of a local printing firm.

After writing to him reminding him of my illustrations, he called and offered me a job.

My mental picture of working on a printing floor was rather romantic. Perhaps there would be intelligent people, poring over inks, print quality and words; contact with working writers and artists; and great pieces of literature on the brink of being born?

I worked out how to get to and from work on the local bus, arrived at the agreed time, and entered the workforce with an enthusiastic handshake and an introduction to my first task.

Remember those notebooks we used when people actually wrote things by hand, the kind with the red gum strip holding all the pages together? Whoever knew that they were gummed in one stack and had to be separated by hand?

Well I did, by the end of that first day, after separating a stack taller than me (I was then and still am 6’2”), into note pads of the same thickness.

Being at the back of the print floor, as I worked I had a view of the rest of the staff. Apart from the boss, who spent most of his time on the phone or working as his own receptionist at the front counter, there was a kind lady typesetting in a small glassed-in office, sitting at an enormous blue metal machine, out of the side of which a continuous flow of type would emerge.

There were two printing presses near me, operated by polite men, one of whom dressed in a neat, ink-stained lab coat, and the other who reminded me of Rod Stewart, had he ever embarked on a career in offset printing. Then there was the man whom I was to spend the most time with and learn the most from – the layout artist. We’ll call him Terry.

“His unbeatable aura of great skill in his work was quickly tarnished by the reality of his narrow-minded bigotry.”

At that time, Terry would have been in his fifties. A great teacher, he took me under his wing and showed me everything he knew, from setting type, to creating photographic or illustrative bromides to be set onto each aluminium plate, which he’d create in lightening speed for every job.

A business card he could dash off in about five minutes. A booklet in about an hour.

It was Terry who called time on morning tea and lunch, with a kindly manner which set the tone of the whole establishment. He spied that I’d committed myself to gummed notebook duties without fuss, and each time the boss would put me on an old collating machine, or packaging duties, Terry would ensure I’d get to learn something new before I’d collated or packed my brain into oblivion.

For a young writer-illustrator, this workplace was an immediate introduction to the nitty-gritty of publishing. I got to do a decent amount of creative work – dusting off little images for business cards and corporate documents. I got to edit a small magazine because there was no-one else to do it, in fact the boss landed the job on the basis of having someone around who had innate editing skills.

My five dollars an hour was money that I saw increasing in my bank account weekly, as I’d take my cheque up to the bank every friday afternoon before heading home.

For a day or two I fanstasised that this was a career choice for me – that somewhere, someplace, a writer-artist-editor could stick around a printing floor doing odd jobs and creating bits and pieces, for money. It was a vain hope. I always have plenty of those hanging around.

UNEXPECTED COLLEAGUE The Grim Reaper made an appearance in the lunch room of my first workplace (Image unknown, but in the pubic domain).
UNEXPECTED COLLEAGUE The Grim Reaper made an appearance in the lunch room of my first workplace.

What burst my bubble was not the limited creative prospects that I laid-out for myself, but the workplace reality of coming face-to-face with other peoples’ opinions.

I was from a very sheltered community (independent schools tend to create those) nothing about which really prepared me for some of the stuff that came out in the lunch room.

The most sudden example was the ‘AIDS is happening because God Hates Gays’ booklet, complete with the Grim Reaper on the cover, which Terry slid across the table to me, in front of everyone, saying: “You should read this.”

I was cornered, managing to not open it, but also not wanting to signal any kind of negative response. It was a nasty little polemic, but the paper quality was good – Terry had taught me how to gauge such things.

Later, while collating the latest golf club members’ booklet, Terry made a general observation to me that it was women who were better at such mundane tasks as collating and notepad separating, before pointedly not asking me into his company that afternoon to learn more about plate-making.

It took me a while to understand these blatant messages, because I was just so naive.

When University Orientation Week hit my diary, I decided to leave the job that had, for a short time, given me pleasure.

The boss and his wife were very kind in giving me a lovely set of graphic design pens as a send off. Mum noticed that I’d resigned a good week before Uni started, but I was incapable of explaining why.

None of my adult colleagues had enough spine to tell Terry to keep his opinions to himself, especially in front of an impressionable teenager. They were keeping the peace, I suppose. I did the only thing I knew how to do, which was to leave.

That’s the thing about day jobs – they’re easy to let go of when there is very little of your ego invested.

It might seem fitting of me to say that Terry taught me some kind of important lesson, but his unbeatable aura of great skill in his work was quickly tarnished by the reality of his narrow-minded bigotry. He taught me that not all words are beautiful.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.