Roadside Sisters - By Wendy Harmer


‘This is your half-hour call. Technical crew, performers, front of house—theatre doors are now open. This is your half-hour call.’

The announcement from the tinny speakers on the walls of the dressing rooms at the Athenaeum Theatre stirred everyone into frenzied activity. Meredith leaned towards the make-up mirror and attacked her black spikes of gelled hair. ‘Has anyone seen Corinne yet? Where the hell is she?’

‘I’ll check the other dressing rooms,’ Nina volunteered. ‘Oh God! I feel sick. I’ve been to the loo five times already! And wearing this thing . . .’ she flapped the purple batwings of her gospel robe, ‘it takes twice as long. You want anything from the Green Room? I’m getting something.’

‘White wine. Thanks.’ Annie, sitting on the threadbare carpet, held up her plastic cup for another refill. Nina took it and hoisted her hem. She stepped over Annie’s splayed legs.

‘Haven’t you had enough already?’ Meredith gave Annie an evil-eyed reverse squint through the illuminated mirror. ‘Tonight’s not a rehearsal! Every one of us has to be on-song, note-perfect.’

Annie rolled her eyes. Praise be to Sister Meredith for restating the bloody obvious. ‘Wait, Nina, I’ll come with you.’ She leapt into the hallway and sniffed the air—a lean-limbed whippet at the entrance of a rabbit burrow.

‘ANNIE! I want everyone back here in five minutes!’ Meredith bellowed after her.

Backstage was a dimly lit labyrinth connected by narrow wooden stairs. The sounds of last-minute rehearsals issued from every dressing room door Annie passed by. She noted the odd tootle from a trumpet, the chorus of a song accompanied by a strummed guitar, stray punchlines to half-heard set-ups—and judging by the anatomical detail of the gags, it sounded as if a good many of them tonight would be about Ronald Reagan’s colon surgery.

In the mid-eighties it seemed as if everyone in Melbourne wanted to be up on stage to be a part of this ‘New Wave’ of entertainment. Almost overnight, a crop of stand-up comedians, sketch comedy ensembles, punk magicians, circus acts and tap dancers (with or without small dogs) had sprouted from fallow suburbs to perform with rented sound systems set up in every empty corner of the city.

And if the organisers of the ‘venue’ wanted to call the night a ‘cabaret’, they also booked a musical act. Hundreds of musicians and singers formed and re-formed into groups, like mounds of tzatziki on a plate shovelled by grilled flat bread at a Greek café. A jazz ensemble was piled into a big band, then separated into a ukelele, polka or cowboy band, a musical parody duo, trio or quartet (often with hilarious costumes), and finally what remained was scraped into a gospel choir. If you couldn’t play an instrument, weren’t funny or a natural performer or had no charisma whatsoever, you could always find yourself a place in a gospel choir.

In the Green Room Annie shook the cardboard box of Coolabah to drain the last drops of riesling into her cup. She sidled up to Nina, who was piling her paper plate with wholemeal pita bread and brown rice salad.

‘I’m going for a smoke,’ she whispered and headed for the stage door. There would be comedians and musicians out there in the laneway—cigarettes, filthy jokes and laughter. She vaulted up the stairs in high-heeled boots, dragging her Drum Blue tobacco out of the back pocket of her jeans as she went.

‘Don’t be long! Meredith says . . .’ Nina’s voice trailed away as she saw Annie disappear. She turned her attention back to her towering plate and saw, with some guilt, that she had enough food to feed a family of starving Ethiopians. She crammed cold rice into her mouth. Nina always ate when she was nervous. Or depressed, or happy, or bored.

On the way back to her own dressing room, Nina knocked on the door of the cubbyhole next door and peeked inside. She saw, through a thick, silvery haze of dope smoke, Genevieve and Jaslyn sitting back in plastic chairs with their bare feet up on the bench. Jasyln’s silver toe rings glinted, catching the light as she crossed chunky, hairy ankles. Genevieve idly picked at the threads of tobacco on her tongue.

‘You seen Corinne?’ Nina fanned at the pungent cloud. They shook their heads in reply. Nina groaned. ‘Bloody hell! Meredith will have a heart attack if she doesn’t get here soon.’

‘She needs a manipulation,’ drawled Jaslyn. ‘Her Vishuddha chakra is blocked. Or I could give her a reflexology massage.’ Nina dutifully returned to Meredith and