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The Show Must Go On

Peter Walsh heard how a rag tag bunch of hopefuls saved the Engineering Revue.

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As Told By:
Revue As Told By

Photographs by Shakira Wilson.

Mattie Longfield: It’s like that family member that everyone just sort of goes “Oh God they’re useless”, but they secretly love them, because they don’t want them to fail, and they don’t want them to disappear. They want to prop them up and help them be brilliant.

The Engineering Revue was banned from the Seymour Centre some years ago—for reasons like: too drunk on stage or too drunk backstage—and since then has been performed in Manning Bar. In the past, audiences have had the rare experience of getting drunk alongside the performers, performers they’re free to heckle as they please. This year, four days before opening night, all but one member of the cast quit the show. What follows is the story of how a revue was written, rehearsed, and performed in the space of 96 hours, told by the people who came in at the last minute to ensure the show would go on.

Tim Doran: I had the exceptionally ambitious desire to reform Engineering and move it away from the sexist, racist, boys-getting-drunk-and-making-jokes-on-stage to a proper comedy revue show. Why? Because there are talented engineers that don’t get involved with Engineering because they don’t want to put in the time and effort to reform something when they can join another revue.

William Edwards: Engineering Revue has always been the revue season after party, everyone from all the revues goes, we have a great time and we watch this one show.

Julia Robertson: Drinking. Everyone was very excited to drink at last year’s revue. It was a thing that I was called to come to because it was a drinking time and it would be fun.

Victoria Zerbst: I remember very vividly being sick last year and just following the Twitter feed in bed at home, and people were just commenting and tweeting things like “this is terrible, misogynistic, awful, bad sketch, can’t look”.

In directing the show this year, Tim attempted to ease the workload for the cast of engineers by scheduling smaller rehearsals around individual availabilities.

Tim Doran: I knew the major obstacles would be the availability of engineers, because we are ridiculously busy with theses and ridiculous contact hours, so convincing people to put in the time and effort into doing something revolutionary is very difficult… I offered to make myself available to provide direction at the convenience of others… This notion of flexibility became a notion of non-committal.

Mattie Longfield: We were just assuming the cast would do it up until Sunday night, when everyone suddenly sent a final “Nup, not doing it, really sorry it’s too much”, not knowing everyone else had done the same thing. They all dropped out thinking they were the only ones.

Louise Osborne: Tim was trying not to put the rest of us in it, so I didn’t know much about it ‘til last week.

Gabi Kelland: On Sunday night, Tim messaged the Sydney Uni revue group saying everyone had dropped out and it looked like it was going to be cancelled, and “y’know we have the stage anyway”.

Tim Doran: I knew the band especially worked so ridiculously hard over the past few months… I did not want to let them down.

Gabi Kelland: Everyone jumped on this comment thread saying “yes let’s do it” and it turned into this weird kind of beautiful grassroots group effort to save this dying thing.

The Facebook group, which began with the immediate members of the 2015 Sydney Uni Revue, had ballooned out to 41 by the following night. Titled “The Show formerly known as the Engineering Revue”, this new cast was composed of ex-revue directors and performers from every other show.

Patrick Morrow: The first mistake was letting people add other people to the group.

Tim Doran: I didn’t anticipate anyone wanted to be involved in this.

Victoria Zerbst: We’ve met in Manning every morning from 8-11 [am], we’ve kind of got a camp outside and people float in and out when they have time.

Many of the sketches pitched were, in a pair of words: not performable.

Patrick Morrow: What about a sperm bank that was just run by one person. *typing* Sperm bank. “I would like some sperm, please.” Pauses, looks at the client, eyes them up suggestively… “give me ‘three minutes”.

Anonymous Revuer: We can do stillborn simba! … The opening of Lion King, and they lift Simba, and he’s stillborn. And then they proceed to do the entire musical, with stillborn Simba.

Julia Robertson: If you don’t think about it too much you often do much better stuff. Just let it go, just leave it out there, be brutal with each other, cut quickly and write fast, and I think that’s the best way to do that anyway.

Victoria Zerbst: I had this moment where I just met one of the engineering girls, Mattie, and before we even really exchanged names, we started writing the opening song together. And now we’ve just been choreographing it, we’ve been singing it, and it’s just like we’ve passed all the formalities of normal friendship, and are just diving in and making something.

Gabi Kelland: It was just this cast of people that did this kind of fever dream pull together last ditch effort to do this fun thing, and everyone that was involved, it was like being on crack.

However, much like the 1970s coming of age film set at a College or University that I am trying to construct this into, there was some opposition from the USU, who seemed inclined to cancel the revue.

Tim Doran: There were a lot of meetings with the USU about the direction I was trying to take it this year in the sense that there was a very strong belief that they did not think that engineering would be able to a) recruit girls to be on stage; and b) given the sort of marketing and all the talking and the stuff that I had shown they thought that this was going to be a basically—how do I put this?—they thought it was going to be exactly the same but ripping into women, like, they took everything as satire and it took me sitting down with four people of the marketing department and Jesse to convince them otherwise… And all of a sudden, here we are, two days later, undergoing some sort of crazy comedy revolution. The USU is going to murder me in my sleep, which is fine, because they can’t stop it now.

Paddy Neumann (Engo Revue, ‘02-’14): When I was an undergraduate we were talking with some of the civil engineering academics—the old crusty ones close to retirement—and they remember vividly being involved with engineering revues in the 1950s. And having their academics say “yeah they’ve been doing this for a while, they had a bit of a break over the Great War”, so they couldn’t do stuff over [19]‘15, [19]’16. So from this oral tradition, we reckon there have been engineering revues on and off for the last hundred years or so.

Louise Osborne: You can do whatever you want to do, just work with whoever’s there, and I think it’s a really good environment to meet people, learn new things.

Paddy Neumann: The way the engo revue traditionally gets cast, gets crew, gets band is “You wanna be in the show? Cool you can be in it!”…I know people who have started off in backstage with quite low self esteem, low views of their own skills, and over the years have built up their confidence and gone on to be people who have held entire skits together on stage.

William Edwards: Because they’re physically quite separate from the rest of campus, Engineering students get involved in the 10 engineering societies but many of them aren’t as able to get involved in the rest of campus culture, and I think this is one way to integrate those students.

Louise Osborne: I hope the acting’s good—I haven’t seen any of it—but the music is good. I want to win best band this year, that’s my main goal.

Katy MacMahon: I was very impressed with all the band members this year, because very much from the first rehearsal we had, we had a few piece ideas, and everyone just saw the chord progressions and picked it up immediately. It was never reading from the score, it was always just being able to play and figure it out together.

Over the next two days, Facebook erupted—in a mild, Sydney University way—with word of the new show being performed. Now named “EngoAid”, the show was being branded after the old LiveAid concert of 1985. Behind the scenes, the team also looked into running the night as a charity for Engineers Without Borders, while also attempting to get Michael Spence to appear in a video sketch where he was revealed to be the devil in a university powered by the consumption of students. 

Patrick Morrow: If we can’t get Michael Spence to do it, I’ll happily play him.

Michael Spence: [via email] It made me laugh. But being portrayed as the Devil in an Engineering Revue was a bit surprising. I didn’t think they even delivered Honi Soit to the other side of City Rd! Taking this persona, even in jest, probably isn’t that great for relations with the vast bulk of the student body, so I might give it a skip. But I am very happy for you to do it in my place! Yours. Michael.

Tim Doran: I wonder if he knows what Engo Revue is.

Michael Spence: [via follow-up email] Actually it was very funny.

By the day of the show, the performers had yet to actually run through the show. A full dress and tech run was scheduled for 8am, which, for whatever reason, didn’t happen.

Tim Doran: Your question presumes the existence of a dress run this morning. We haven’t actually had a full run through of the show yet.

William Edwards: The word ‘ready’ has some connotations which I’m not sure are entirely applicable. The show will come together.

Adam Chalmers: No it won’t.

William Edwards: What needs to be in a show isn’t there yet, but it will be there on time, would be the point I’m badly expressing.

Tim Doran: There’s a constant tightness in my stomach. I’ve gotten used to that one, that’s been there for a few days now… We know exactly what we need to do, exactly what we need to organise—there’s no unknowns, there’s no technical issues that need to be sorted out, there’s no major catastrophes, so it is optimistic. What’s the word I would use? It’s optimistic confidence.

The show.

Tim Doran: The show was meant to kick off at 7:30. It took almost an hour for 280 people to get into Manning Bar… There were some tech issues.

Mattie Longfield: [The opening number was] meant to have a backing track, me and Vic walk out and then start singing, and everyone goes “Woo” because it would have been good… But the thing is, the backing track didn’t exist.

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Tim Doran: We actually could not physically play the AVs, we could not get the videos up onto the screens or even onto the projector without destroying the sound system… so that threw the first act run order totally off.

Mattie Longfield: Obviously it wasn’t ideal but it set the mood for a bit of haphazard job.

Tim Doran: Actually, the head mics were on all the time—I’m glad the audience was loud, because it’s possible that you could have heard all the backstage as well. I tried very hard to keep everyone quiet.

Mattie Longfield: There was a little bit stress, just when people would come off stage and be like “Where was my backing track?” or something like that, and everyone would just sort of laugh about it and be like “Ahh well, move on, keep going…”.

Tim Doran: It would have easily been fixed if we had a tech night.

Gabi Kelland: I kind of knew there was a culture of heckling and the audience getting very involved, but I’ve never been exposed to that level of audience hostility before.

During a Mean Girls parody, an Engineer from the audience attempted to make a performer skoll a beer.

Gabi Kelland: El Dickhead jumps up on stage and gives Tim a beer, and he kind of looked at it dumbfoundedly… and I was thinking “Is he gonna drink it? I dunno?”

Tim Doran: I’m like “Oh fuck, this is the last thing before intermission, just let me get through this”. I knew there was no way to convince him out of it, because I know the guy, and basically my goal was to stall him for the next minute so we could get through that performance.

Gabi Kelland: It seemed fairly obvious to me that I should take the beer from him.

Tim Doran: When I took the beer and said “No liquids on stage”, my implication was “let me finish this, then I’ll come down and drink it with you” but at that point Gabi realised that I couldn’t do it, and she stepped in.

Gabi Kelland: I started to drink it, but remembered I hate beer and I can’t skoll things, so stopped half way through and kept yelling, and then eventually finished it, and I got in so much trouble for that.

Tim Doran: At that point, my RSA knowledge just exploded like “Oh sweet Jesus, I don’t know what to do right here”, and we did get scolded and rightly so by Manning Bar. If any police had gone in and seen that crowd chanting “skoll” to someone, then yeah, it would have been game over.

Heckler: You don’t understand Engineering!

Gabi Kelland: I don’t actually know if it was good or not that I cultivated a bouncery type persona for myself through that show, because I think there’s a little bit of goading.

Tim Doran: They thought it was the hardest thing they’ve ever done, especially the traditional revuers… Deep down they loved it, but on the surface it was a massive challenge for them, and probably a really great experience into that side of performance.

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The show climaxed in a number of ways. The performers took their bows, while at the same time a pair of engineers rushed the stage to flash their dicks. Thankfully, an unidentified member of the cast tossed them to the crowd. The band then proceeded to play Bohemian Rhapsody while the audience, swaying in that too-inebriated-to-recall-what-you’re-talking-about-but-yes-I-know-the-lyrics way, sung along.

The morning after, someone from the Engineering Faculty had hung the EngoAid banner from a fire escape, where it could not be removed. Tim Doran met with the Revues coordinators and was told the revolution would be supported into next year. The show, which trended #3 in Australia on Twitter, did a similar amount of damage on YouTube, where that engineer’s (frankly disappointing) penis was broadcast for all to see.

But did we learn anything?

Tim Doran: I suppose I should put on record that I freaking love the cast.

Gabi Kelland: Tim Doran did a wonderful thing and should be applauded because I swear to God if I was directing a show and everybody dropped out the weekend before, I’d curl into a ball, and he didn’t, so good on him.

Victoria Zerbst: This was Engo Revue 2015. It was something for the memory book, if there is a memory book.