This is a story about how I caused a security scare with the Governor General and was awarded a medal for it.
Fifteen years ago I was a High Achiever. I worked in theatre; I was nominated for awards, I did a lot of stuff. Twice I was nominated for Young Australian Artist of the year. (I didn’t win. Once I didn’t get around to putting in my half of the paperwork, the other time I was beaten by Heath Ledger.) I did a lot of crazy stuff, was supremely confident and had a healthy disregard for authority.
I was asked to direct the opening ceremony of the National Conference of Young People for the Centenary of Federation at the Perth Concert Hall. Young people were invited from all over the country and tasked with coming up with a declaration to the U.N, from Australia’s young people on the Centenary of Federation. The event was three hours long: a three-hour program of speeches. There were speeches by John Howard, (Prime Minister of the day), Lieutenant General Peter Cosgrove, Peter Hollingsworth (the Governor General the time). Speeches by many more others, three hours worth, as I said. A whole lot of speeches.
My job was to make this gargantuan speech-fest more entertaining for an audience of young adults. I thought it tough. Three hours is a long time, I mused, and no-one wants it to be too much longer. Adding a lot of content would not be a popular choice. I needed to find a way to introduce some comedy in a short, sharp fashion.
I decided that the best way to achieve this goal was intro and outro songs. Choose funny, or serious, depending on the opinion I had of each speaker, songs, just to break it up. Some people had heroic songs. John Howard had an old BBC newscast intro, and had to leave the stage to ‘I’ve got my mojo working’. It’s impossible to walk to that song without strutting, or looking very awkward while trying not to. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one he would end up doing.
That being worked out, I decided that we should open the whole concert with the worst version of the National Anthem that I could find. This was not because I had anything against the National Anthem, but it just seemed funny to me at the time. I found a ridiculously dramatic choir rendition that I thought fit this description well. I arranged for this to start at the start of the event, when I cued it, and then I pre-recorded it so that a short time into the song, it wound down with the sound of a record player winding down, and then morphed into that 80’s song, ‘everybody jump’. I had two women on stage dressed in high vis vests with the words ‘WORK FOR THE DOLE’ on them, who up till this point had been aimlessly sweeping the stage. At the point when the song changed, these two picked up their brooms and performed an 80’s style dance before leaving the stage for the MC, the previous year’s Young Australian of the Year.
This was the genius plan of my 22-year-old self. However, my undoing was to be in the form of the Governor General.
I didn’t realise that when the Governor General is present at an event, everyone stands when he enters the room, and sings the National Anthem. I was waiting beside the stage, in the Prompt Corner for any of you who know the theatre, to cue the opening song. The time seemed right, so I did. At that moment, I heard the words, ‘All rise for the Governor General’.
My heart rose rapidly to about where my mouth was situated. The G.G started to walk into the building, perfectly accompanied by my terrible version of our national song. He smiled at people as he walked down the aisle. I wanted to do something to stop the inevitable but I couldn’t – with perfectly timed precision, as if we had rehearsed it, he reached his seat, turned around to wave to everyone, and the song wound down, and became the 80’s dance number, complete with dole working dancers.
We got through this. Bizarrely no-one seemed to be offended. I breathed again.
Now I had warned each of the speakers at the start that there would be intro music, and I asked them to wait to enter the stage until I could cue them so that they didn’t start walking out and feel silly. I had decided that the G.G should have the biggest intro of them all. Carefully positioned above the stage were confetti bombs, timed to go off as he was announced. The confetti would fall gracefully to the stage, to be cleared away by my ‘Work for the Dole’ dancers, on roller blades and using petrol leaf blowers. It would be awesome.
I warned all the speakers. However, when the Governor General attends an event, you don’t get to talk to him beforehand. You can only talk to his security guards. I know this, now.
I spoke with his security guard before the event. I said, clearly, “make sure the G.G knows not to walk out until I cue him. There is going to be an explosion, of a confetti bomb, and he should wait till I tell him to walk.”
“Sure”, said the security guard. “I’ll tell him.”
I should mention that in a case of unfortunate timing, this event ended up happening two days after the September 11 attacks.
We were getting through the event swimmingly, after my initial National Anthem scare. I was looking forward to the entrance of the G.G, it was my favourite intro sequence by far. The time had come. The previous Young Australian of the Year walked on stage to announce him. I could see him, the G.G, out of the corner of my eye, approaching. He was surrounded by three security guards. Good, I thought. He’s here on time.
And then it happened. His introduction finished, and he started to stride towards the stage.
Everything went into a kind of slow motion at this point. Like the Matrix. Knowledge of what was about to unfold flashed before my eyes. He’ll walk onstage, I thought, and there will be an explosion, and he will think it’s an attack. He will fall to the ground, or jump off the stage, or have a heart attack, but any way this goes he will look like an idiot, and he will not be happy about this. He will not be happy at all.
The G.G at that time was a tall man, with a long stride. He was almost directly opposite me at this point. The only thing I can do, I thought to myself, is stop him. He will prefer that.
I jumped, from where I was standing with the stage manager in the prompt corner, on to the Governor General. Kind of at him and on to him, it felt a bit like flying in the moment, a moment that seemed to last at least several minutes. As I jumped, I shouted in what was probably only a loud whisper, “Don’t go… Your Excellency.”
I wasn’t sure if that was his correct title, I’m still not sure now, but it seemed a more respectful way to tackle someone to the ground.
We landed on the ground. Security guards were hands on weapons. “What the…” and then the explosions were heard.
Security guards were reaching for guns now. Work for the dole dancers rollerbladed onto and off the stage with petrol blowers blazing. They blew a path through the confetti for our illustrious guest to walk on. I sort of pulled myself off our illustrious guest, stammering an explanation, “It’s just confetti, you know, confetti bombs. We thought it would be funny….” (Always good to use “we” instead of “I” at times such as this.)
Fortunately for me, the G.G was supremely good humoured. He went on stage, the bright young future-of-Australia audience not suspecting a thing. “Well that was certainly the most original entrance I’ve ever made”, he said.
Somehow, someone saw fit to nominate me for a Centenary of Federation medal, for organising that event. I was presented with it at an official ceremony. It’s a proper medal that I am allowed to wear to official occasions, such as military parades.
This became my best story, and the one I always pulled out at parties. Always guaranteed for a good laugh. One day, a couple of years later, I was visiting Port Hedland Detention Centre, where about 800 refugees were housed, awaiting processing. I had been visiting for several weeks. I was hanging out in the visitor’s area with some of the guys who had become my friends. We were all telling funny stories. Naturally, I decided to regale them with my favourite heroic tale.
No-one laughed. I told the bit about the medal. Still, no-one laughed.
“If I did that in my country”, spoke a Sri Lankan refugee friend, “I’d be shot.”
The others silently agreed.
“Ah, yes,” I said. “So you would.’
We have so much privilege, living here in Australia. So much freedom. Freedom to be a young artist. Freedom to make theatre. Freedom to go to conferences to make recommendations that will go to the U.N. Freedom to play and have fun and almost cause a major security scare with a senior political figure, but still have people laugh, and not be punished. Freedom to tell the story to friends and all have a laugh. The freedom that it would never occur to any of us that that might be a dangerous thing somewhere else.
I’m older now. This is still one of my favourite stories. I still think it’s funny. But I am also painfully aware of my privilege. And I am aware, at least I hope I am aware, of the responsibility that comes with that. Being born here, I have so much opportunity to do things for which many others can only dream. Or can’t even begin to dream. Jesus, when he walked on the earth, did a lot of things that shocked people, that would have been great stories at a party. But when I read the gospels, what stands out is how much He stood up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. He seemed to have a healthy disrespect for authority and chose to live his life illustrating how things could be different, creating pictures of a way that was radically different. Different in a way that sparked a revolution, that despite some unfortunate mutations and despite a lot of mistakes, has continued to breathe, and grow. Sometimes creeping, sometimes running, sometimes gasping for air, sometimes leaping along.
I want to continue to think and feel and grow into my part of the story so that maybe more people can find some kind of freedom, freedom which I have been privileged to enjoy my whole life.
Food for thought.