The Terribly Talented Triffitt

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday February 22, 1997

Story by Nikki Barrowclough

Nigel Triffitt reaps glittering prizes from a life lived on the edge. But underwriting his success in the theatre world is a Faustian bargain: an acceptance that you can never have it all.

A hot, dirty wind is whipping across the city and the air grates and scrapes against the skin. Nigel Triffitt, the famed,

flagrant theatre director and designer is standing at the open window in his room at Regents Court, the small hotel in Kings Cross run like a Left Bank salon and patronised by artists, publishers and foreign correspondents. It's late morning, and Triffitt, face turned into the swirling fragments of grit and dust, is talking, talking, talking non-stop in his witty, if alternately dark and mocking manner, about life and Faustian bargains; about sex, lots of it - with women in the past, but mainly with men; about death and mortality; about discovering he's one sixty-fourth black African; about drugs; about the Melbourne Theatre Company - "they're so bone-f...ing dead, I want to blow them up"; about arts funding - "my attitude would be, take away all the funding and see what survives"; about the Melbourne Festival - "it's been bashed into submission by Leo [Schofield]"; about his sculpture

collection; about the homoerotic aesthetic of the Olympic Games.

The conversation, like the wind, veers left and right, changes direction without warning and slaps at subjects that don't get out of the way in time. Once, he turns away slightly and his words become scrambled, but when asked to repeat what he has just said, Triffitt laughs and replies, "I've already forgotten. You have to grab it very quickly. You must understand there's no recall, it just goes."

Ten days earlier, he'd rung from Orpheus Island off the coast of Queensland, where he had gone to snatch a quick vacation and to bask in the glory (and his new-found wealth) of causing box-office meltdown in

56 cities in seven countries in the past two years.

Triffitt, who's 47, designed and directed the smash-hit dance spectacular Dein Perry's Tap Dogs, a multi-million dollar local and international success. The profoundly Australian and unashamedly masculine show has a no-frills, blue-collar sexuality (one dancer is a former truck driver, another a fitter and turner) that's attractive to both men and women. Tap Dogs has taken about $20 million in the past 24 months, notching up 60 seasons in those 56 cities.

It has also gone into a kind of franchising arrangement, with the British and Americans currently getting their own Tap Dogs companies together, and the South Africans planning to follow suit later this year.

The Los Angeles Times described the show as "the ultimate bachelor party and a spectacular affirmation of the work ethic", while Australia's Campaign magazine wrote: "If you can imagine a cross between the

work of Stomp and [Michael Powell's film] The Red Shoes, you've got the idea. A tap-dancing, frenzied celebration of het-homoerotic macho masculinity delivered in Blundstones, cut-off shorts and scaffolding."

Triffitt waves away attempts to analyse these undercurrents, saying merely that more heterosexuals than homosexuals are going to see Tap Dogs. He prefers to concentrate on its success, which is fantastic by any measure. "Tell me about it! It's very fantastic indeed!" rejoins Triffitt.

He's on a high, still on Orpheus, and suggests: "Let's talk here!"

But it isn't possible. We will meet in Sydney. When? "You be the dice!" he commands, before hanging up. It's an expression he uses a few times when we meet at Regents Court.

During a previous stay there, he was walking down a side-street near the hotel in the early hours of the morning when he ran into two men having a fight. As he passed them, one of the men punched Triffitt in the face, knocking his glasses into the gutter. Triffitt took the punch and kept walking. He didn't stop, or even pause. He just kept walking. The tale is symbolic of Triffitt's philosophy of life, which is to remain in perpetual motion.

On one level, there's a ruthlessness about the way he cuts off and moves on, preferring to catch planes and go elsewhere rather than hang around doing the obligatory thing, whether that's staying to the end of first nights (he rarely does) or leading a tidy lifestyle with friends, pets and pot plants.

Triffitt has never had a tidy lifestyle, nor does he desire one. He was thrown out of NIDA, and later the Drama Centre in London, for general bad behaviour ("being bad came naturally; I had an inquiring mind and a very active willy"), but his rejection of permanence is more complex than that. His fear of being locked into a stationary existence runs parallel to his need to constantly reinvent himself, which he does as a way of remaining one step ahead, both of people and of circumstances.

"I'm in a reinvention as we speak," he remarks on another morning, over coffee in a Kings Cross brasserie. "After this interview, and after it's published, will come another period of reinvention, because you will have summed up this period, so therefore there's no need for me to maintain it. I shall go and find the next one."

Then, almost as if he needs to destroy the image he has just created, he adds, "It sounds more adventurous than it is. Actually, it's just me responding to whatever shit has been thrown in my face. Life does come along and throw a pie in my face quite regularly."

His expression changes briefly. A kind of bitterness twists his features for an instant and then goes. He has been ill, and the result is a spiky melancholy which intrudes at various times over the next few days.

NIGEL TRIFFITT started cutting a swathe through Australian theatre design and direction about 25 years ago and he hasn't stopped since - to the point where his professional life fuses with his addiction to living on the run, via hotel rooms, although he does keep an apartment in Melbourne, filled with African sculptures.

Some of his most successful productions have been his own

creations - the epic The Fall of Singapore, which won a Victorian

critics' award for best play of 1987, and was restaged by the Sydney Theatre Company in 1995; Secrets, the 1983 multimedia puppet show which he created at the age of 30, after his dying mother gave him the devastating news that he had been adopted; and Momma's Little Horror Show (known later as Momma), another image- and sound-rich puppet play which ran for six years from 1978. Then there was his adaptation of Melville's Moby Dick, which he conceived for the 1990 Melbourne Festival, and which was produced in 1995 by the State Theatre Company of South Australia.

When Leo Schofield was director of the Melbourne Festival, he once commented about the lack of universal themes that "shaped the soul" in Australian theatre. Triffitt would seem to have at least partly compensated for this deficiency with The Fall of Singapore, which traces British Singapore's last days using imagery, verbal testimony, puppetry, sound and music. He was inspired to write it after listening to a series of tapes of the experiences of ex-POWs, recorded by former ABC-TV Backchat host Tim Bowden.

It was, and remains, a significant piece of Australian theatre. The Sydney Morning Herald's arts commentator Angela Bennie once wrote: "Exploring the role of war in shaping the Australian consciousness has been largely left to the historians ... Yet, given how troubling the shape, how deep the gouges and how deeply buried and lethal the fruit, it is surprising that the main cartographer of this landscape has not been the theatre."

"Singapore was a genuinely good work because it punched a button," says Triffitt. "It was very patriotic. Little old ladies came out of the performance sobbing. It was very moving to see what one had unleashed.

"I'm sure I was a digger in a previous life," he adds. "Why do I sob at Anzac Day marches? I went not long ago to Hell Fire Pass [in Thailand], where the ashes of Weary Dunlop are scattered. If anywhere, I died there. I had a very strong connection to this place of death."

The longer you listen to Triffitt, the more the contradictions in his character seem to flap around like so many bewildered loose ends. He speaks with genuine reverence about heroism and diggers, and of "human beings right up against it". Then again, when he directed Samson and Delilah for the Victorian State Opera in 1983, he included a copulating dance on stage with "the odd thrust", which sent Melbourne into a dither.

"Brilliant as Buggery" was the title of an article published about Triffitt in HQ magazine two years ago, although he also inspires dozens of other adjectives. Outspoken is an understatement; scathing, hilarious, blunt, brilliant, reckless, outrageously egotistical; and then the flip side - sitting quite oddly by comparison - kind, sage, generous, compassionate.

When a woman friend was experiencing a traumatic period, Triffitt took her off to the Canadian Rockies. "We arrived at a confluence of three rivers, and as part of my counselling of her - I'll counsel anyone at the drop of a hat as an answer to my own life - I said, 'Well, there's your answer, go upstream.' "

There's an old-fashioned grandeur about this tale - as there was in the way Triffitt responded last year to an audience with Harold Mitchell and Ian Roberts, president and general manager respectively of the Melbourne Festival.

The meeting was a preliminary discussion with a view to Triffitt applying for the vacant post of artistic director (Leo Schofield having completed his three-year term). Triffitt's handling of the interview electrified Sydney and Melbourne theatre circles, but was only hinted at in newspaper reports such as The Australian's, which read, "It is understood Triffitt scratched himself from the race after a brief interview with the selection panel."

"When I got the call, I told them I had the distinct feeling we'd find we didn't have anything to talk about, but that if they wanted me to come in, fine, I'd come in," is the way Triffitt puts it.

He says the conversation began with Mitchell describing the Melbourne Festival as one of the five great arts festivals in the world. Triffitt recalls: "I let four minutes tinkle by and then I said, 'In your dreams!' When they asked me if I was actually interested in applying I said, 'No way!' I said it was a non-festival for rich South Yarra people [and that] it had been bashed into submission by Leo. I said the whole thing was in substantial trouble and that they needed one really crazy festival to get its credentials back, after which they could let it slip back into a bland meringue, if they so wanted."

"Nigel has attitude with a capital A," comments his friend, ABC-TV presenter Caroline Baum, who hosts the program Between the Lines, and who was shortlisted at one stage for the festival job. "All I did," Triffitt retorts, "was tell them point-blank what everyone else was saying."

Ian Roberts, who says he believes Triffitt is one of Australia's most exciting and important directors, describes the discussion as very pleasant, saying that Triffitt was "very forthright in his views", and that both he and Mitchell were pleased and interested to listen to what Triffitt had to say. Nevertheless, the interview symbolises Triffitt's refusal to compromise.

Referring back to his impermanent lifestyle, he remarks, "There used to be a group [of English performers] called The Living Theatre in the '60s. They were a group of hippies, basically, travelling around doing anarchic theatre. I saw them at the bar at the Roundhouse Theatre in London and that moment actually affected my whole life because I'm still trying to do what they did, in my own funny way: roaming the world, living that life.

"I have spent [the past] 10 months on the road, absolutely content, and on my own most of the time as well. That's part of the drill. It's absolutely part of the Faustian bargain. I remember vividly when I was working in London - I was working on Doctor Faustus at the time - and I was very taken with the notion of making the bargain, that I could have all the fame and the riches, the lot, none of which I've got on a Mel Gibson scale, but enough for me - but you have to give up some other stuff."

TRIFFITT HIT the theatrical world running with such avant-garde productions as the Yellow Brick Roadshows (100 short plays and allied pieces of performance art to be performed in any combination), first shown in Melbourne in 1974 before touring nationally. There followed Wildstars, for the Australian Dance Theatre, performed nationally between 1979 and 1981 and at the Edinburgh Festival in 1980; Metamorphosis, which he designed and directed for the Victorian State Opera in 1983; Outer Sink, for Los Trios Ringbarkus in 1983/84, which toured nationally and internationally; Night of Colours, for the opening night of the Adelaide Festival in 1988; and The New Rocky Horror Show, which he designed and directed in 1992.

This compressed CV doesn't include two enormous sculptures he created for Brisbane's World Expo 1988, or his gay-porn book, Cheap Thrills, published by Bluestone Press in 1994, or Howling V (see your local video store), a movie he acted in and designed.

"He's completely unclassifiable," says Caroline Baum, adding, "I think he's a frustrated opera director. I have seen him walk out of the theatre at half-time, so many times, bored."

"I have given up going to the theatre," Triffitt explains. "I don't want to watch people 'learning how' any more. I want to see people who are really damn good at what they do, doing their stuff. I'll pay money for that." Triffitt comments that while artists are meant to have inner lives, "most artists I know have lives whereby they have reduced their options so spectacularly that all they do is their art. In fact, a lot of artists have had only a couple of key experiences which they explore endlessly.

"Finding out I was adopted was a key piece of information, and it took me a year-and-a-half to explore that information ... but most people don't have good stuff like that come along in their lives, they just have ordinary stuff and they jack off on it."

In between his own successes and occasional flops, in between the rollercoaster ride of having money/not having money, there were stormy relationships with other people in the theatre - "I can be a complete arsehole," he says - as well as friendships with some formidable women, such as Wendy Harmer and his agent, Hilary Linstead, with whom he once sailed down the Nile.

And even all this is only scraping the surface of his theatrical life and times, his 40 overseas tours, his promiscuity - after switching from women to men when he was about 30 - as a card-carrying "poofter" (his term), his former drug-taking, his loudly avowed aversion to arts funding.

"You have to understand I don't believe in government funding of the arts. I haven't applied for funds since 1974 and I got a grant and I took the [Yellow Brick Roadshows] to Morocco to rehearse. They never said where you had to rehearse," he adds, breaking into raucous laughter. "I can understand keeping art forms alive that are by nature small, and have to be kept alive artificially, and our lives are richer, yes ... I guess," he adds. "But my attitude would be to take all funding away and see what survives."

Triffitt's tendency to speak his mind carries over to the way he talks to journalists about his private life, caring little, it seems, about how his words will appear in print. In 1992 in The Sunday Age, describing his first meeting in the mid-1980s with his natural mother, he said, "I knew her for about two years. I was absolutely invited into the family. But my family muscle is not very well developed. So, it just petered out ... She lives in Launceston. She has seven kids. A husband. Have you seen Bread? It's like that.

I mean, when I go there, I am from Mars. One of my brothers runs a pub. He came to Melbourne one day, didn't like it, and went home in the afternoon."

In this conversation, he remarks, "As part of my [Faustian bargain], it turned out I was to leave and be left by all relatives. Because, once I found out I was adopted, I dismissed all my cousins and stuff - I don't have to put up with you any more."

And then later, "My natural mother, whom I met when I was 38, sat me down one day with a very solemn face and said, 'There's something terrible I have to tell you. You're one sixty-fourth black African.' 'Oh good,' I went. 'It explains a lot of my sexual life!' It also made a lot of sense of my CD collection, my mask collection, my sculpture collection. I loved the idea of being one sixty-fourth black. Hence my fascination and sexual interest in African people."

He also says, of past relationships with women, "I can't pretend I understand women at all. From another planet. The last major relationship I had was with a lady [a well-known Australian heiress]. God, did we have one of the great relationships. Nearly had kids. Glad we didn't, in a way."

On first encounter, Triffitt creates an extremely risque impression, so much so that you imagine him immersed exclusively in the underbellies of cities - sitting in the kind of late-night joint that never closes, with a sardonic eye and questionable companions, embracing the irreconcilable distance he has put between himself and his upbringing in Hobart with his late, adoptive father, a hairdresser, and his adoptive mother, a housewife, who sent him to the local Quaker school, from which, inevitably, he was expelled.

And yet, on another occasion, he recalls a dinner party in Cairns, where one of the other guests was a 55-year-old man who brought along his 19-year-old boyfriend, and how he (Triffitt) was outraged that this relationship had existed for five years. "I had a lot of trouble over dinner and eventually stormed off in a huff. I wasn't going to sit there tacitly acknowledging and condoning this thing, and I wrote a story about it - elderly poofs and young men.

"You know," he adds, "I thought I knew about most things but I didn't know anything about all those layers. I can understand most other sexual aberrations but I can't understand that. It's not in me. Bloody unfortunate in the sense that I would like to be able to understand all human conditions in some intimate manner because that apparently is my role, or one of them."

It's an interesting remark, as was his decision to write about the dinner party. It was Baum who discovered Triffitt could write. Then an arts editor at Melbourne's Sunday Herald, she commissioned him to pen some pieces about the Adelaide Festival, duly publishing what she describes as his "scathing reports about the bland leading the bland".

When John Truscott, one of Melbourne's most celebrated men of the theatre and a former director of the Melbourne Festival, died in 1993, Baum recommended to The Australian that Triffitt, who had been close to Truscott, write the obituary.

A month earlier, as arguments raged about Leo Schofield's appointment to the Melbourne Festival, Triffitt wrote in The Age: "As I look behind me, through the smoke of burning bridges, I see a dim golden light, a vestigial remnant of another time, the era that stopped when John Truscott left the job. He took on the forces of bland, the cultural agenda writers, leapt the chasm of correctness and did battle with the spiders ... The real energy nowadays lives out there on the edge. It is a culture of naughty children and gypsies, of rough art and public

solitude, a difficult, recalcitrant child, iconoclastic and rude ... Easier not to deal with, simpler to replace with the other known world, subsidy heaven, the twin behemoths of opera and ballet."

"I kind of understood him," says Triffitt now. "John Truscott was terribly supportive of me at various times. He understood there are very few [enfant terribles] and crazy as they might be, they have to be supported."

The same year, in another piece for The Age called "Creatures of the Dark", Triffitt described artists as creatures wallowing in deep water, "surrounded by midnight, racked by fear ... For 20 years I've lived below the waterline, luxuriating in the multiple distortions, the extremities of space and time that swimming the mind can provide ... It's so easy to send an audience away depressed, it's a simplicity to locate the blackness in our hearts, the random brutality, the sheer chance of it all. Existential grief is rich but facile fodder for the young and intense ... Death, despair and destruction are substantial subjects, pungent topics to explore until the real thing comes along."

SOME PEOPLE would look at my life as pathetic, if you're into homes and families and dogs and cats and 'making something of yourself'," Triffitt remarks over yet another coffee. "But then I go, excuse me? I think I earned last year about 18 times more than you did, and for a person who has broken absolutely every f...ing rule about how you should behave - it's fun that the bad ones can get a reward as well. And I've been celebratory bad. I've cooled it a lot."

We wander around Kings Cross without any firm destination, ending up on a park bench near the El Alamein fountain.

Asked about the joyous moments in his life, he looks a bit put out, but eventually replies with a description of an evening he spent sitting on a rock in the sea at Orpheus Island.

The tape, as becomes clear later on, scrambles at this point.

Triffitt's reply is memorable, but his exact words need to be confirmed. I leave a message on his answering-machine without much hope, remembering his comments about having no recall.

A day later, a reprieve. He telephones. Not only that, he remembers what he said, because the question about joyous moments had worried him. "I thought it rather bleak," he says.

And then he talks again of sitting on the rock, and how he had watched the sea and the sunset for a very long time.

"The clouds slowed down and suddenly there was a sense of being in the perfect moment. And I thought, 'I can go now.

I have experienced, very briefly, being in the perfect moment.

I can leave now.' "

© 1997 Sydney Morning Herald

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