I played a strange show today. But it was a good show. If connecting with an audience and feeling reassured people find meaning and significance in your work is the thing that keeps you performing then it was almost as good as it gets.
It was one song to a whole lot of people – and I didn’t even get to choose as I was booked to play a particular song. That was the deal. I was more than glad to do it because the people at the Australian Nursing Federation said they were still finding inspiration in the song Sisters of Mercy – written about the 1986 nurses strike in Melbourne – and if people are still touched by a song after all this time then I’m all for it. Honoured in fact.
As I played it was whisper quiet and the faces of the audience at the Melbourne Convention Centre were just so intense and focused that the four minutes the song takes seemed to go by in an instant – or an eternity. There was a spontaneous ripple of applause at the line ‘blow your horn if you support’. And then it felt like my voice was starting to crack by the second chorus as it just seemed so moving to be playing to the delegates there. To people so intent on fighting for something so fundamental and decent that it’s hard to believe the struggle has continued on through all these years.
And as I felt like I might loose my composure it made me focus on something that happened a couple of years ago when I was performing in a theatre show called Dust, written by a Melbourne playwright Donna Jackson. We’d had a fantastic show in Sale and really brought the house down and wrung every last bit of emotion from the piece which concerned the effects of the dangerous asbestos used in all walks of Australian life for so many years. We felt we’d nailed it and with the local choir in full voice had been really happy to see so many people with tears in their eyes. So when the director (also Donna Jackson) came to do the daily critique of the piece for the actors and players (called ‘notes’ in the theatre world) we were surprised to find her really unhappy with the performance. Totally annoyed in fact. She explained – it wasn’t a ‘victim’ piece. Not an attempt to illicit cheap emotion or play up to people’s sense of sympathy. And apparently, as the person leading the singing I was the chief culprit in this outpouring of emotion. She insisted the play was about people fighting against adversity, about supporting each other and finding strength in dark places. I guess music is such an emotive force that it can tend to be a sort of default mechanism for a performer who spends a lot of time playing to crowds that can be less than attentive, that when a crowd are really connecting with a piece of work you might fall into the trap of going for this heightened melodramatic delivery. So I’d had to sit there and take the criticism in front of the cast of largely amateur local participants and conclude that she was actually right in her judgement. And here I was, years later in front of over a thousand union delegates in danger of falling back into the same trap. But they didn’t want tears and they didn’t want a quavering voice. They wanted exactly what you would think they might want – respect. I finished the song fine with Donna’s diatribe of three years ago still ringing in my ears. Such is the way your thoughts can run during the course of a four minute song.
After the performance I spent an hour catching up with an old friend from the Sydney rock n’ roll scene of the late eighties. Brett Stevenson has been working for the union the past five or six years and had a nice simple way of looking at the work he is doing now compared to the work he did all those years ago. According to him the real similarity between nursing and music is that they are both professions people undertake because it something they want to do and that they feel needs to be done – and this is what leaves them wide open to exploitation. It’s not a bad way of looking at it in my eyes. I’m glad I was able to keep my performance in check and really hope I played the song as well as was humanly possible. As I said, I’m honoured to have been a small part of it, even for four intense emotion charged minutes. I wish everyone there all the best in their ongoing struggle. Hard fought careers indeed…..