I am chatting via Skype to David Megarrity, composer, performer, teacher, theatre-maker, and doctoral student. David is about to open (with Samuel Vincent) in the two-man production GENTLEMEN SONGSTERS for the Brisbane Cabaret Festival. I’m keen to hear more about the ‘gentlemen songsters with ukeleles’ and, of course, why they have turned to this sweet little instrument. During my time as a student in Honolulu I came to love its sound, something that seemed to be everywhere … part of the daily soundtrack of life in the islands. Since those days the ukelele has popped up everywhere – perhaps because it’s so democratic. We’ll get to that and to Tyrone and Lesley later, but we start by talking about David’s background and how, as part of his doctoral research, he is investigating the intersection of music and performance.
David arrived in Brisbane in the late 1980s from Townsville in order to do a BA at QUT – then BCAE. After graduation in 1989 and in what he calls a ‘false intro to a life in the arts,’ got a job as an actor straight away. That was in 1990 with TN2 and Sean Mee. “I pretended to be an actor for 4 years on and off, then I went back to Uni to do a Grad Dip Ed and ended up as an English teacher.”
David has been writing songs and playing in bands since those uni days and, in 1994, as part of a band of 2 guitars and a cello, won the Brisbane heat of a national campus band competition. His creative practice has diversified beyond music-making to include short-film making and works for children. With the assistance of some production funding, he was involved in producing a short film STOP, the first Queensland film to go to Cannes Film Festival. After the experience of improvisational theatre making in TN2, David began devising his own work, continuing to perform, play in bands, and create soundtracks. “Like most, I picked up work in teaching and, in 2001, I applied for a job at QUT teaching performance-making.” He continues there today.
At the moment, David is half to two-thirds of the way through his practice-led doctoral research which will engage with four productions. And the line of investigation? “I have been interested in dance and performance – music, narrative and emotion – and many of my plays for children BACKSEAT DRIVERS, for example (the only international tour thus far by Queensland Theatre Company) have been non-verbal and music-driven.” He tells me that, for a long time now, he has been interested in working out how and why music works on people in performance.
David’s creative practice includes other works such as BEAR WITH ME which played Brisbane’s Out of the Box Festival (2012), the Awesome Festival (Perth, 2013) and Melbourne Recital Centre (2014) as well as THE EMPTY CITY a Finalist in the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award (2012) and which played the Brisbane Powerhouse and the Awesome Festival (2013). Another work, WARM WATERS (2012-) continues to play various venues.
An experience at the International Conference on Music and Emotion (Durham 2009) helped David to locate himself as an artist. “Now I am looking at how music can be theatricalised and theatre be musicalised – in studying narrative as a phenomenon.” He mentions the work of David Roesner in ‘composed theatre.’ “What Roesner’s talking about (out of performance theory) is where and how you apply musical theory to the creation of theatre.”
Now what about ‘Tyrone and Leslie’ -the gentlemen songsters with ukuleles – where did they come from? David opens up and speaks of ‘Tyrone’ in the third person; as a separate entity rather than as a role. He goes on:
“Tyrone is a performance persona who emerged in 1993 and, in terms of clowning theory, is more white face than red nose. He lives on the stage – has no back story – he is a stage character.” David likens his relationship to Tyrone as similar to the Barry Humphries/Dama Edna relationship. Tyrone wears prosthetic teeth, he tells me; there’s a touch of vaudeville and performance art.
“Around 2000 I was trying to create a second album – a show that came about because of Tyrone’s misanthropy, and I needed a double-bass player and someone prepared to spend the whole show in a gorilla suit.” Along came Peter Cossar (gorilla) and Samuel Vincent (musician) a master he likens to Madonna and Kylie. “We went off to the Sydney Opera House with the show.” They now write their own material and BEAR WITH ME has overtaken BACKSEAT DRIVERS as David’s most popular work. By the way, Tyrone and Leslie have released three albums. You can check them out on YouTube and download from iTunes.
So, why ukeleles?
“I fell in love with the instrument – the ukelele is probably the least harmful thing you can make from a piece of wood. It has to be held close to the heart to play.” He tells me during our chat that he is now working on the sonata form and thinking about the song cycle form and how elements might be applied using the ukelele because, “It’s possible to explore serious musical forms on the ukelele.” We chat for a bit about the instrument and its ‘personality.’ Then, the next day, he sends me through an ‘early-morning’ thought:
… there’s a heartful irony in picking up a ukulele and then expecting to be taken seriously!
I’m keen to know how the current show and its concept came about and how it has developed since its first appearance in Melbourne.
David tells me that the title of the show actually came from a suggestion from one of their fans. They had developed a Pozible campaign to fund the project and one of the rewards was to write a song – so, the song came before the show. They have in the past written about 10 songs to audience suggestions one of which goes by the glorious title of The Joy of Dung Beatles.
In 2012 David wrote THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU – a staged musical biography based on the 1930s singer Al Bowlly. It went on to be shortlisted for the Edward Albee Scholarship in 2012. He goes on, “In order create a stage biography it’s better if you know more about the one being created.” This phase of the research on the show led him to discoveries about Al Bowlly which furthered his thinking about the live presence in songs on stage and fed into the work on Tyrone and Lesley.
“Al Bowlly ‘lived’ on stage – he lived in the songs with tears in his eyes. His were songs about companionship. The songs are not contrived other than by the music. Singing and songs are both a projection into the world and a protection from it.”
The longing that fills pop songs is actually a lament and a celebration.
The reviews for GENTLEMEN SONGSTERS have been excellent, How did Melbourne receive it?
“I have played the last 5 ukelele festivals in Melbourne and last two as T&L – with entirely new material. One of the great things about the upcoming Cabaret Festival here in Brisbane is that we will get a chance to showcase our work in the context of someone else’s gig.
“We have a following in Melbourne, and people focus as well on how we sequence our music. Because I pay a lot of attention to patter in the show, I had to wait for applause to die down because people went nuts!”
Someone likened Tyrone to ‘Leunig with a ukelele.’ It sums up the bitter-sweet, wobbly air in his performance. There is a poetic line to what he does.
Feeding the inner artist:
What are you reading now?
Material on Al Bowlly and poetry – I’m a recreational user of poetry; Phillip Larkin is a constant. He curates his own work, and the sequencing of his poems is important to him. I’m also reading Scottish poet Donald Patterson – one of his aphorisms: ‘Be obscure clearly.’ I’ve just finished reading Howard Goodall’s The Story of Music.
What are you listening to? Do you listen to your own music much?
We did a film clip which involved my having to listen to the same song 15 times in a row. Al Bowlly, DJ/composer Jon Hopkins, Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte, Badly Drawn Boy and Justin Timberlake’s Not a Bad Thing.
What is your favourite art form – apart from performance?
Music. I just think ‘All art aspires to the condition of music.’ It moves people in ways nothing else can.
Who has been the most inspirational person in your life? Why?
My partner, Susan.
The show is on Friday June 13th at Brisbane Powerhouse. GENTLEMEN SONGSTERS Queensland Cabaret Festival 2014
In the meantime, here’s a touch of Tyrone and Lesley in Unaccompanied from GENTLEMEN SONGSTERS: