Apr 18, 2009

"Felafel"-inspired Smackdown

Folks, I write to you as one very happy bunny. I didn't get to watch tonight's performance of Felafel - BECAUSE ALL THE SEATS WERE FULL. That's right, our first sell-out show.

I believe the internet-appropriate term is EPIC WIN.

This was on top of Friday night's show, which attracted 102 people - including the Burgers Uamada, Moko (with his lovely wife) and Drej (all the way from Broome! Broome, people!), entertainment writer Brett Debritz and some random dude from the ABC. Our merchandise continues to sell well, takings at the bar are plentiful - this show has been an absolute boon to the theatre. Everyone with any significant involvement in the theatre knows it, and my cast and crew are being lauded with appropriate compliments.

Do you sense a "but" marching steadily but surely towards this conversation?

Well, be not afeard. It's actually very amusing - I got my first proper complaint!

I got this in my inbox after Friday night's show:

My companions and I left the Arts Theatre at the interval during the play on Tuesday [editor's note: he means Thursday] wondering what gratuitous obscenity and pornography had to do with Art and Culture. We have been members of the theatre for many years but now must re-consider our support for the sadly perverted production staff who foisted their idiosyncratic concept of culture us. We note that our objection to obscenity, paraded in the guise of culture, seems to be a sentiment shared by many other members of the theatre.

I note that in the ‘On-line Cues’ Natalie feels obliged to commend to us a meeting with the author of the play, I presume to provide him with an opportunity to explain his perverted concept of culture to us. Little man, get educated. Natalie, try and persuade him to read the great literature of the world. Try and help him discover Hemingway, Camus, Satre to name a few, and to reat and local literates like Nick Earle. Natalie. read and educate yourself, find out what language and its power really are. Natalie, your production and your use of 4BC to advertise the obscene diminishes any nascent reputation that you may have had. It is time that you grew up and became educated."

You know sometimes in life, you just have to sit back, accept the honest emotional feedback from others, and feel secure in your own self about your efforts on a particular project, criticism notwithstanding - and just let it go.

This, however, was not one of those times.

I fired off the email to John Birmingham and playwright Squire Bedak (because I know how much they enjoy a laugh), and set about composing a reply. You wanna fight with intellectual art wankery? Come and lay down, my friend:

Thank you for taking the time to email me about your experience at “He Died with a Felafel in His Hand”. I would like to address some of the key points in your email, in the hope that we might foster better communication and understanding among members of the theatre. I, too, am a long-standing member of the BAT (10 years now – that’s more than one-third of my life). It is like a second-home to me – I’m sure you have a similar fondness for the place.

You say you are an active supporter of the theatre; you would know then from the emergency AGM last November and the AGM in March this year just how difficult a financial situation the theatre faces. You would know, I’m sure, of my pledge at that meeting last November to put my all into doing everything I can to help keep the theatre going. Since then, I have organised a highly successful garage and memorabilia sale that raised over $4500 for the theatre. As President of Impro Mafia, the BAT’s resident improvised comedy company, I produced and performed in “Prognosis: Death!”, a show that provided a much-needed cash injection of over $2500 for the theatre. Both events also brought widespread publicity to the theatre’s plight.

I am sorry “He Died with a Felafel in His Hand” was not your cup of tea. I did place a large red banner on the poster (and on all publicity material) that warned “Contains Explicit Content and Adult Themes”. The BAT staff who took bookings regularly let inquirers know about the nature of the show. The book itself has been in print since 1994 – a simple Google search will turn up many reviews, including details of some of its more graphic content.

As far as involving my employer, 4BC: I am relatively well-versed in the area of marketing/demographics, and was well aware that the average 4BC listener is not my target audience member. The two times I have discussed the show on-air were in response to requests from announcers. The first was part of Ian Maurice’s regular Arts/What’s On segment. The second was on Peter Dick’s program, in which he mostly talked about the theatre itself in response to a profile article about me featured in that day’s Courier-Mail. I specifically mentioned during that interview that the current show is probably not one that would appeal to 4BC listeners. But I stressed that it’s important to provide a variety of shows to cater to the entire community.

Here I reach my own key point. The Brisbane Arts Theatre is a theatre for the community. That community includes young people (roughly 20 to 40 years), which is the key demographic for “He Died with a Felafel in His Hand.” This is a section of our community that has been under-represented at the theatre in recent years. The reason why it’s important to cater for this demographic is because they have jobs, and they have large disposable incomes. You will be pleased to know that “Felafel” is attracting an average audience of 70 people per show. At that rate, the show is on track to make $30,000 for the theatre. You have described John Birmingham as uneducated and perverted; I wonder if you might change your mind on hearing that both he and playwright Simon Bedak have not only donated their time to watch the play and speak about it, but are actually donating their share of the rights back to the theatre! They both want it to survive, and that action means most of that $30,000 will stay in the theatre.

John Birmingham certainly does not need me to defend him, but I would like to mention a few things about him to you. He is one of the most widely-read people I have ever met. He is in fact a fan of writers such as Hemingway, whom you mentioned in your email. Like Hemingway, John has used autobiographical details in his novels. Like Hemingway (a noted alcoholic), John has turned his own experiences with drugs into literature. And literature it is – “Felafel” is now commonly found on the reading lists of senior high school and university literature students, along with Brisbane contemporary Nick Earls. Literature is no longer reserved to the “dead white males” of the British imperial era – anything from Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway” to Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” to Chuck Palaniuk’s “Fight Club” is studied with the same care as Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot or Tolkien.

You also brought up Jean Paul Satre - the English literature student in me (Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Journalism) finds it amusing to compare “Felafel” to one of his most famous quips. With the manic stream of bizarre and dysfunctional characters featured in our play, it truly embodies the idea that “hell is other people”.

The Brisbane Arts Theatre has been providing entertainment to our River City for 73 years. In order to continue operating for another 73 (and more!) it needs to focus on providing the community around it with the type of shows they want to see. The theatre sits in the electorate of Mt Coot-tha, and 47 per cent of all voters are aged between 18 and 44, and one in five people are between 18 and 24 (www.andrewfrasermp.com). “Felafel” is the kind of show we need to schedule regularly, to ensure our younger audiences are getting an introduction to theatre, and seeing shows they want to see.

Of course, there was never any plan to exclusively perform plays featuring, as you describe it, “gratuitous obscenity and pornography”. As I mentioned earlier, the theatre is for the community, and a range of shows are programmed each year to make sure all demographics are catered for. We have our renowned Children’s Theatre and our popular Seniors for Seniors program. Our next production, “A Hero’s Funeral”, is written by former High Court judge Ian Callinan, and is a family drama that reflects on the life of a former WW2 pilot and cricketer. Later in the year, we will be staging “Man of La Mancha”, a musical for the whole family. October will see “Maskerade”, our latest production of a Terry Pratchett novel adaptation, which always attracts a niche fantasy/comedy literary audience. And our final show is a farce comedy “Funny Money”, which will no doubt put audiences in the Christmas spirit.

Finally, I would put it to you that a theatre is not a “guardian of the public morality”. People are free to choose which shows they attend, and whether the subject matter is “good” or “bad” is completely subjective – just as whether it can be described as “Art” or “Culture” is subjective. I enjoy a lot of modern Art, but don’t particularly like Barnett Newman’s “Adam” at the Tate Modern in London. However, I wouldn’t declare it ‘rubbish’ just because I don’t like it.

I have a talented cast and a dedicated crew who have staged an incredible production that has delighted 99 per cent of people who’ve come along to see it. Surely this is a mark of success. Hopefully the financial boost “Felafel” gives to the theatre is more important than any argument between members over the “moral merits” of such a show. The majority of people are enjoying themselves, enjoying the theatre, buying drinks and merchandise (adding to our profit margin), and most importantly of all, spreading the word about the theatre.

At the end of the day, I do not care for my “nascent reputation”. I care about the Brisbane Arts Theatre, and doing all I can to help keep it going. If I can go to sleep each night, knowing that the theatre is still there, waiting for the next show, the next rehearsal, the next bunch of kids wanting to act, dance, sing and have fun – then that is enough for me.


  1. Pity he didn't come to the show last night - you would have had a seat from half time.

  2. That's brilliant.

  3. You must be so ashamed of yourself being involved in this production. I know I am for laughing when watching it.
    I think i know why they didn't like it though.
    Culture is a refinement of taste, developed over time. Voltaire wrote Candide a few hundred years ago. That had sex with monkey in it. for laughs.
    there was no monkey sex in felafel.

  4. I went to Friday nights Felafel with my partner and we both thought it was very funny. We are both well past the age demographic you suggest would be the target audience. All our chidren are in that age group and beyond! I am sure I have seen that set before in some of the share houses my youngest son has lived in most of his adult life.

  5. That was a goring worthy of a Rhino. Way to kick-ass and take names girly.


  6. Well done Nat. You can't please all the people all the time. How boring would that be.

    I saw the Profile article in Wednesday's Courier Mail by Victoria Bruce. I cut it out and put it on my Stalking Wall... errr... Notice Board.

    All I can say is "Hello Sailor."

  7. Great letter GC, waaaaay more logical and polite than i would have been.

  8. *standing ovation*

    You don't wanna write up a resume for me, do ya?. lol

    It's funny, I just finished watching a show - (Message Stick on ABC) - about Vernon Ah Kee - (most outstanding indigenous artist) - who mentioned the mainstream art 'society' dictate what colours they should use in Indigenous art....*crickets*

    As for not being culture. Horse fucking piss. Birmo's story is MY culture. I left school and many of my friends joined gangs and inevitably went to jail. I went to drugs and alcohol. I've been in share houses and seen it all. I've had many a night getting a bang on the door and having one of our junkie neighbours losing it on whatever they jammed in their arm or up their nose and having to spend a night keeping them awake....and alive.

    To me the email you received is demanding that we sugar coat life and its realities. I don't see Birmo's story as minimising the significance of its events but rather acknowledge it and have some fun while we're there.

  9. I'd have responded like this:

    "I'll take your advice on culture when you can spell Sartre correctly. But I'll take your money any time you want to buy a ticket."

  10. So did you get any response from the complainant? Cos that would be interesting to read too.

    Great letter!

  11. Hey guys! Thanks for all your positive responses - I was a bit worried about coming across as very pompous in posting my reply. But I said f*** it and did it anyway. ;)

    I haven't received any replies from him, but I wait with baited breath...

  12. You won't ever hear back from that person - however despite how rightieous your rage may be - it won't ever convert someone like that.

    My response would have been 'thank you for your feedback and we hope that you would reconsider your opinion. In the meantime here is a shiny-shiny for you...'

  13. That was Fraking MAGNIFICENT NatV.

    Well reasoned, polite and definitly not pompous.

    "gratuitous obscenity and pornography"
    -that's for a court to decide.

    Thats great news on the shows success, I hope with me living in Melbourne that you get to go on a national tour and get to offend many other such small minded folk.

  14. "gratuitous obscenity and pornography" and
    "the sadly perverted production staff who foisted their idiosyncratic concept of culture us".
    If I were in Brisbane and I had never heard of "Felafel" but saw those two quotes I'd be queueing up in a flash.
    The clincher is when he puts up Sartre and Camus as his faves. You just have to be wary of these types. They're most likely Zombies. Either that or this one's a sad old tosser hooked on a 1960's ambition of becoming a bed bug in the apartment of an Algerian goalkeeper.

  15. GC that was amazing! well done.

  16. Compelling rebuttal GC. Convincing, unapologetic and well handled.

    Flinthart FTW. That would have been great LoL

  17. maybe he needs to read the book then hell get the correct dose of "gratuitous obscenity and pornography" that he needs to satisfiy his anal erotica winge fantasys ... im no literary genius ( will not spell check to hioghlight this point ) jhon birmingham and nick earls have made me read more than in the last 13 years than i ever did in 12 years of education ... and it would be the only reason i would see a play . its is bringing un educated people blue collars like me and the wife in to the thearter cause we under stand it on a personal level... we will be coming to see fallafel ab hope that JB and the playright dude Simon Bedak butt heads together and do tasmainian babes as a follow up......

    thats my say
    an illiterite redneck from ipswich...

  18. I'm still annoyed I didn't make it along to the opening night. It was my wife who made other plans, but I have a suspicion that was because I had the dates wrong to start with.

    Anyway that's a wonderful essay Natalie, and deserves publication in its own right. You're spot on with the quote from Sartre - his characterisation of les Autres is totally about people outside one's in-group, perhaps so strange as to be completely incomprehensible. I think your correspondent's reverence for the French verges on self parody, but clearly is about them being "respectable" counterculture. Not like the rest of us, apparently.

  19. Great work Natalie!

    There is no need to be apologetic about putting on popular, if irreverent material such as Felafel.

    If the stuff he wanted to see - "High-Brow Culture" was popular, the Theatre would not be in the trouble it is.

    It is so sad when people like this complain about what people like, it suggests the community are all philistines for not supporting his snobbishly dated concept of what art is.

    It is also unfortunate, that the difference between perversion and culture is usually a couple of decades after the artist persecuted as a pervert is dead. Oscar Wilde anyone?

  20. Calm, collected and with literary references. Most wonderful "smackdown" I have ever read on the internet.

  21. Points for control GC, BIG POINTS for clarity..me on the other hand, had I been required to respond..well, it would have been much shorter, perhaps more colourful and laced with what he detested the most...TOP JOB.

  22. Hey Birmo, some nice redneck bloke from Ipswich in the comments above reckons Tassie Babes should get some Bedakery treatment. Reckon I could have a look at, show GirlClumsy a version, ask Slem if he's got any probs/input and Roberta's yer uncle dressed as grandma. Seems a bugger to stop the BAT momentum. Bedes

  23. Thanks again, everyone! I'm so stunned by how much people like my reply letter. Your support is just marvellous!

    And Squire Bedak - you know my feelings on Tassie Babes. I'd love to see some socks on cocks action on the BAT stage ;)

  24. *Gratuitous* obscenity and pornography? It wasn't gratuitous at all! Cost me twenty bucks!

    (It was worth it, though)

  25. From memory, i did it with a sock on my cock and a traffic cone on my head while Birmo read from the Lost Chapter of Felafel kickin' back on some single-malt in a Rolling Stone t-.

    happy to whip it up for you. you've done brilliantly with this, Official Felafel Bitch of the Universe. Bedes

  26. T Babes? yeah, knock yourselves out.

  27. When does the show come to Melbourne?

  28. Well, I guess I'd better read that damn book.

    I think I would have had a hard time replying to this specimen, walking the tightrope between erudition and complete scatological meltdown. These are the types of people I hope to meet at a cocktail party so that I may urinate on their legs.

  29. Bravo, bravo...jumps to his feet clapping wildly...Bravo

  30. I love the fact that next smash hit of Brisbane theatre (The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco) was just decided on in the comments section of this blog.

    Very fitting.

  31. Nicely done Nat.

  32. "If you were offended by "Felafel" then you are going to sh*t blood when you see "Tasmanian Babes Fiasco!"

  33. And The Wah comes in with the poster's tagline.

  34. Look guys, nothing 100% official yet.

    We're yet to hear back from the brilliant Slem aka Steve Le M of the Felafel writing constellation who might still have a stagey version lying around from about '97ish.

    Courtesy, friendship and loyalty dictate that nobody gets psycho on an updated Tassie Babes stage gig until the great Slem's spoken.

    I've sent him an email which contained some of the following observations:

    "Hey Slem, Like Spinal Tap being big in Japan long after their careers are over, the updated Felafel gig had full houses over the weekend. Anyhow, there’s momentum in the offing. Wondering if, (for a small percentage my end that I’d donate to the Bris Arts Theatre), if I could update/mangle your Tassie Babes script and get it up and running up there next year, using Natalie Bochenski to direct/produce again. If understandably after all these years, you don’t have a copy of a Tassie Babes script, I’d be happy to whip one up, fire it over to you for your expert input, and split the credits so the posters look familiar. Whattayareckon? I attach for your perusal a copy of a modernised Felafel which is the same as usual, bumfucked with Brizzy, techie & Birmo blog references. Love Si x"

    Anyway, he's a busy working family kinda guy now. It'll probably take a week or two for him to get around to his emails. It could be his script, or I might help out, or a bit of both.

    Fingers crossed. Either way, we'll see that you get it. Bedes

  35. PS

    Dear Nat, Birmo & all

    I've just heard from Slem, and..

    ...congratulations gang.

    He's very kindly throbbed over an old script he knocked up with/near Davo last century. Survived a Melb Com Fest too. Anyway, seems I'm cool to update/mangle it.

    From memory the only problem I had with Tassie Babes I was too pissed/inattentive to follow a storyline on the night, so perhaps where there's a danger of that serving the piece, instinct tells me we should whack in some gratuitous obscenity and pornography.

    Tell me what you'd especially like to see in Tassie Babes either from the book, or as might be happening in your neighbour's bathroom, and, well, you never know.. bedes

  36. i wanna see a milk truck explode on stage!!!!

  37. uamada, u got it. bedes

  38. I would venture there wasn't enough sex, drugs and nudity. This is theatre! I wore my trench coat for nothing! NOTHING!