In a one-way lane in St Peters, a stone’s throw from the Saturday night Newtown crowds, is a reclaimed warehouse. This is where they gather, stinging for some old-school fringe art goodness. At the door - a slightly creaky metal security gate - a cheerful girl takes your five dollars and offers you a raffle ticket. ‘We might have something to raffle, we might not. But there is cake.’
And there is cake. Or peppermint slice, in fact, of the most Technicolor and mouth-smash variety. And wine, beer and cider, by way of set donation. (A hint for the newcomer - take your own wine glass if you’re not a fan of plastic cups.)
In the space itself, partitioned off from the various recording and rehearsal spaces by heavy, quilted, cushioned curtains, are several couches and armchairs, a piano, a small PA system with turntable (Miles Davis, in case you’re wondering) and in the far corner, the main stage.
Is it a stage? Kind of. It’s actually a large coffee table, onto which has been lifted a red velour armchair, a pedestal lamp, and a smaller coffee table, complete with spittoon/ashtray. I’m sure that to the more nervous of the open-mic readers it looks more like a scaffold. Does that chair - I call it the Chair of Truth - rest atop some kind of trapdoor?
The room gradually fills. Many of the sixty or so finding a seat on the floor or a spot against the back wall seem to know one another. Others introduce themselves. It’s been some time since I was in a room like this, and there seems to be a lot less of the… well, wankers than there populated these things in the mid-nineties, when the leather-clad neophytes sculled chardy at book launches in Darlinghurst galleries and pretended to know Justine Ettler.
The co-founder of Penguin Plays Rough, Pip Smith, introduces the first reader, who is one of the five ‘headliners’ for the night. He reads a travel piece about Burma. It’s not bad, a little one-paced, and his revelation of his interaction with a prostitute is… well, let’s just say that it possibly says more about him than about the prostitute. If the story is true. Which it might be.
But therein lies the beauty of an event like Penguin Plays Rough. Over the next two hours or so (with two short breaks to recharge glasses) we hear outstanding poetry from accomplished professionals like Miles Merrill, we see some performance art that borrows from Thelma and Louise, we hear some short poems of uneven quality, we hear a foreword from an upcoming short story collection, a ‘prepared statement’ by a stand-up comedian, and the faux-biblical text of an ‘illuminated novel’, complete with accompanying slides. And underpinning all of this, like any good fiction, is the feeling that even the fictional bits contain a kernel of autobiography.
It ends too soon. Leave them wanting more, I guess. And I do want more. It’s been a long time since I first met a newcomer called Melina Marchetta at the Harold Park Hotel, where they ran the wonderful and greatly missed Writers in the Park. I liked the intimate feel of the fringe-lit thing. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of my great regret at never going to uni to do subjects I was interested in. But I like it, and I want more.