Rachel Berger tells Peter Wilmoth about the challenges she faces in her new show, Calendar Girls.

Rachel Berger

17:19:PM 02/06/2010
Peter Wilmoth

The bare truth: Rachel Berger ... with so many new experiences at once, she may as well be naked physically as well as emotionally.
The bare truth: Rachel Berger ... with so many new experiences at once, she may as well be naked physically as well as emotionally.

As if being nude on stage isn’t enough to unnerve even the most robustly confident person, having to play the piano at the same time is surely stretching things. Not to mention work as an actor for the first time within the confines of a script, unable to drive the proceedings as the comic in charge, which Rachel Berger has done since she first grabbed the stand-up microphone in 1986. This new role is what you call multitasking at its most challenging.

Still, if ever a challenge is to be met, Berger is your woman. Strong, confident and utterly contemporary, after 24 years charming and occasionally staring down unruly audiences around the country in the sometimes-ruthless world of stand-up comedy, Berger is well placed to meet most contingencies that confront a performer.

And her versatility has helped. Having written one-woman shows, newspaper columns (for The Age), a novel and worked as a fill-in broadcaster on the ABC, Berger now pushes the boundaries further by taking on a role as a single mother and vicar’s daughter in Calendar Girls, an Australian version of the successful film (which starred Helen Mirren and Julie Walters) and the stage show, which ran for more than a year in London’s West End.

It is Berger’s first “straight” theatre role, and she confesses to finding working in the theatre tough. “It‘s very different to what I know,” she says. “The thing that I find difficult is that for 24 years I faced the front, towards the audience, and my relationship with them was very present. Now, in the theatre, I’m sideways, and I’m talking to someone else. It’s like your ex-husband’s in the room and you are pretending he’s not there. I want to talk to him but I’m in character.” She’s also adjusting to working in a group on stage because, as a stand-up, “you are used to having it to yourself”. Another confronting element to the show is that “I’m not the funny one”.

As if the learning curve wasn’t steep enough, Berger also had to learn some essential moves on the piano, tutored by a local teacher. It was back to basics. “She taught me the piano in a way that even Helen Keller could play,” Berger says.

Calendar Girls is based on the true story of a group of middle-aged women, members of a Yorkshire Women’s Institute, who persuade each other to pose nude for a charity calendar, maintaining their modesty through strategic placing of iced cakes, teapots, knitting and floral arrangements. Berger describes it as “sort of Sex and the City for middle-aged women”.

After six weeks in Brisbane and Sydney, the show opens at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre on

June 17. Berger is sharing the stage with some of the great women performers in the Australian theatre, including Lorraine Bayly (best known for her role as Grace Sullivan in The Sullivans and Jennifer Carson in Carson’s Law) and other stage veterans Amanda Muggleton, Cornelia Frances, Rhonda Burchmore and Anna Lee.

It’s a new world for her, including the “politics of theatre” being different from that of the stand-up world. “In stand-up, everyone gives you tips,” Berger says. “In theatre they don’t, unless you ask. The director is the one who directs. It’s very different from the days when comics would come up and suggest things. Trevor Marmalade was an angel and we are still the best of friends. He would come up after a show and suggest a slight adjustment to a joke, which would make the joke so much better. He’s an incredible writer of jokes.”

With so many new experiences at once, she may as well be naked physically as well as emotionally. “There is a tiny bit of nudity,” she says of the show. “To perform the bits where we do take our clothes off is a very intimate thing to do, but we all look out for each other.”

Berger’s life story has a life story all of its own: her upbringing as the child of Jewish immigrants has been the basis for a show called Hold the Pickle, which charted Berger’s childhood and her parents’ flight from Nazi-occupied Poland before they arrived in Australia. The family settled first in Altona, then in Footscray and Spotswood, where they operated milk bars. Berger spent the first five years of her life in Israel, and when she arrived in Australia she spoke no English. “It was all very alien,” she says of life in Spotswood where the first wave of Greeks and Italians had settled but there was little Jewish culture. “My parents worked seven days a week. Dad would re-stock the shelves at 10 at night and then at 5am would drive around so he could learn his way around Melbourne.” At six, Berger was doing the housework and preparing meals.

The family moved to Acland Street, St Kilda, when Rachel was 11. Her parents set up a delicatessen between the Monarch cake shop and the Café Scheherazade, which they lived above. The site became a popular café, the Benedict, which closed five years ago. It is now a shoe shop. The Monarch is still operating, while the Scheherazade, which after World War Two was a haven for east European refugees to connect with their culture, closed in 2008 (it was re-opened in Caulfield North last year but closed for good in April).

They say you get the biographer you deserve, and Acland Street, St Kilda, has been lucky to have someone as thoughtful, passionate and as interested as Berger (and, of course, mention must go to Arnold Zable, whose 2001 novel Café Scheherazade explored the role of the café in for Jewish immigrants in the postwar years).

The show told the story of her parents’ lives, meeting in a small town in Poland, marrying in 1938, the year before the war started, when her mother was 17 and her father 20, and together fleeing the Nazis to Israel, using false papers bought with the last money they had. They married because they thought they had a better chance of survival together. Berger has called it “a pragmatic love story”.

In the show, Berger’s reflected on the terror and uncertainty of her parents’ lives in Europe and the hope and hard work in their new life in Melbourne. “I wanted to give a voice to the children whose parents had gone on a long journey to make them safe,” Berger says now.

Her life as a child in St Kilda, where there was a strong Jewish culture, was transformed. “It was a multicultural festival,” she says, “particularly on weekends.

Nothing was open on weekends in Melbourne in the mid-’60s, except for Lygon Street and Acland Street.

So that’s where people came for their coffee and continental cakes.”

Café Scheherazade was the focal point. “It was where eastern European Jews came to get their soup and schnitzel. It was where you came if you wanted to find out where to buy a car, find a husband for your daughter and where a job was going. It was a village where people met up every week.

“Sometimes I’d witness people meeting up who hadn’t seen each other since the war. There were a lot of people who came to Australia after the war who had no family and they would come go there and talk, to get a sense of belonging. It was like the Red Cross, a safe haven. It played an important role.”

As a teenager, Berger continued to have housework as her “chore” while her parents ran the delicatessen. She would also help to stack the shelves. Berger’s father had had an arm blown off in the war, which makes the story even more extraordinary. She was central to the smooth running of the house while her parents took care of the business. “I was the dutiful daughter,” she says.

Rachel Berger farewelled her Age readers as if saying goodbye to a loved one.
Rachel Berger farewelled her Age readers as if saying goodbye to a loved one.
When Berger was 12, the family moved from the shop in St Kilda to Caulfield. Her parents decided they wanted Rachel to attend the prestigious and highly academic Jewish private school Mount Scopus Memorial College. “They wanted me to have a good education. So suddenly I was in a Jewish school in a Jewish suburb. I was used to the western suburbs where everyone had their ethnic gang and we’d be beating each other up. Now everyone was Jewish.”

Her father died in 1984, without having seen his daughter perform. Her mother, now 87, lives on the Gold Coast.

Berger’s experience as the daughter of refugees has always, subliminally or not, informed her work. In 2001 she published her debut novel, Whaddya Mean You’re Allergic to Rubber?, which, according to her website, “sold out faster than Judas”. In the book there’s a character called Mimi, a Bosnian woman who always walks home from her waitressing job in St Kilda down back street for fear of snipers.

Berger had many life experiences to mine for comedy. One night Berger was with a girlfriend telling a funny story. Her friend said, “Have you ever thought of stand-up? I run a place called the Last Laugh where we have try-out nights on a Tuesday. Why don’t you come down?”

“So I did five minutes the next Tuesday night. I had written a bit on primal therapy. There happened to be a group of psychologists having a conference at the Hilton Hotel. The bit went down well. I got laughs, which felt nice.”

The next Tuesday night the crowd consisted of a hen’s night and a buck’s night. I was crap. I remember coming off the stage thinking I’d been pathetic. I was visibly shaking. I put my coat on and went to the bar and ordered two vodkas. At the bar I overheard two women saying ‘Wasn’t that woman crap who was just on?’.”

Those initial gigs did shake her confidence, as you’d expect. Stand-up is brave. Writers are never nearby to witness a reaction to their work. Musicians have the luxury of amplifiers to drown out their self-doubt or poor crowd reception. Film actors have the benefit of not being in the room for the audience’s reaction. And stage actors have make-believe, the suspension of disbelief and someone else’s script as armour. In stand-up, the performer, always alone, has nowhere to hide, except behind a skinny microphone stand. It is the ultimate act of courage in show business – flying high, flying solo, no safety net and an often raucous and well-lubricated crowd to amuse or, on bad nights, placate. And the material is so often personal and self-deprecating, because failure works better for laughs than success. “You are normally telling stories about how you’ve messed up somehow,” Berger says.

In these early days of “dying” on stage while she learnt her craft, Berger would sometimes come off stage feeling “sick in my stomach. But I’d get in my stilettos and do it again.”

Fortunately, the experience didn’t put her off. She took, bravely, a philosophical and practical approach. “It’s rare to be good straight away,” she says. “I was determined to do it. Every second week I would get a laugh here or there, and that led me to believe I could do it. In stand-up comedy it takes roughly three years to find your comic voice.”

She didn’t do the “angry feminist” material for a long time because “that’s not how I felt”. “There were a lot of women doing material about how men are screwed up. Why alienate half my audience? I wanted to talk about other things.”

In the early ’90s, Berger found comic gold in the “power woman” of the ’80s with their high hair and shoulder pads the size of an airport runway – “mutton dressed up as ram”, she called them. Her repertoire touched on sex – its drama and comedy, its hilarious conceits and pitfalls – female desire, the trials and triumphs and traps of dating and general human vulnerability. In clubs around the country she has used comedy to explore universal truths, including body image. She has often started a show by stepping back from a microphone stand, saying it made her “look fat”. (She says Jo Brand, a fuller-figured British comic, uses a similar line, so they have made an agreement not to use it in the other’s territory).

She has performed one-woman shows of confronting and politically incorrect material: Moist, Not Kosher, Perfect, Clenched Buttocks, Loose Cannon, The She Comic. Comedy Siren and Berger Republic.

But it has never been just about comic monologues. Her resume would make most comics feel the need to re-invent or stretch. Many people who are funny verbally aren’t funny on paper. Berger is. In 2005, farewelling her Age audience as if saying goodbye to a lover, Berger wrote: “I’m heartbroken too, because I never wanted it to end this way. But I know it’s best to finish up before the cracks start appearing and rumours of an affair hit the gossip pages, that would hurt too much. We all change and move on, in my waters I know that you need to start reading other columns now. Thankfully we have no sizeable assets to split up and we still care about each other. You’ll always have a special place on my website. It’s really none of your business, but no, there isn’t anyone else. Oh, and you’re not the biggest readership I’ve had but you were the best. Keep in touch. I’ll miss you. Call me tomorrow.”

Berger is now the fully formed performer. She got there by self-confidence, resilience and hard work that makes her, whether she wants to admit it or not, a role model for girls. She is a story teller, amazing stories. The American sportswriter Red Smith said: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Well, stand-up must be harder. All that “entertain me, now!’” It’s made her tough. Berger is proving that nothing is beyond her. “A classical ballerina gets callouses which bleed and hurt. It’s only when they get hard that they don’t hurt any more. You get better, or you don’t do it any more.”

It’s lucky for us Berger calloused up and kept telling us stories.

Calendar Girls, written by Tim Firth, is at the Comedy Theatre from June 17.

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