What kind of thing are you talking about?
Performance, live art, time-based work really. I started out in my early 20s … Well the story really goes back to being a competitive swimmer in my youth and, on the surface having a very standard upbringing, but by the time I was 12 or 13, I was up every morning at 4:30 swimming two hours a day, going to school and then doing two hours again in the afternoon.
Because you wanted to or because your parents … ?
I don’t think I wanted to, but I don’t think I didn’t want to enough to not do it. We used to take our Christmas holidays down by the beach and the guy down there, a man called Johnny Carter, was quite a local character, he taught everyone to swim in the sea pool. Because we were all very sickly, premature babies I think my parents put us into physical activity as a way really of supporting us … and most of us happened to be good at it. So it just happened and as a kid you just sort of do … Very early on I understood the absurdity of it. I can remember once, I would have only been 14 or 15 and I had a burgeoning consciousness – as you do at that age, you’re in puberty and your body’s doing all of this stuff and I was locked into this really punishing regime. I can remember being behind the blocks in some State final and thinking, my whole life is focussed on me swimming up this pool faster than her, that seems ridiculous. I have a lot of silver medals. That was my only point of resistance, to not win, but having said that I really did find something in the training. It shaped me in lots of great ways and in lots of ways that were not so great. What happened was that my formative years from late childhood to young adulthood were very narrow. Looking back now I see why I work within rites of passage because I don’t think I did mine, from the end of my teens into my young adulthood, very well. I clearly didn’t because I crashed and burned at a certain point. I finished swimming in my HSC year, although I didn’t do my HSC because I was in the running for a particular Commonwealth Games, because I got glandular fever and lost that opportunity. So I was at this really crucial point in my life, or at least I thought it was, and suddenly there was nothing there. The world I’d operated in just melted, it just fell away. I felt like I was on the verge of my young adult life, completely ill-equipped. I could swim really fast and I was really fit, I was a maniac, but that was all I took with me, that’s all I had. I hadn’t even really had a part-time job. So I went straight from the top echelon of athletes in the country to [drug] addiction, like that [snaps fingers], straight away.
Oh my goodness. How old were you?
Nineteen. I’d got my HSC at Tafe and discovered that I had a brain and that I loved learning. The back story of getting up at 4:30 every morning was that I slept through my schooling. I had no idea really. I had not learnt how to apply myself to things that didn’t come naturally – it was a very costly enterprise that swimming. After that I trotted off to university and through this strange set of circumstances met people that lead me to other people who were living in the inner city. It was the ‘80s, and Sydney in the ‘80s in Darlinghurst was a very particular scene, and I, who had had none of that, with all my youth and with all my strength and with all my pent-up desire just leapt into this place that was so mysterious and so exciting.
The inner city had yet to be gentrified so there were lots of squats and there were really interesting things happening. I was just hungry, hungry. I didn’t start taking drugs because I hated myself and didn’t want to live, I took them for the opposite reason … As a competitive athlete you live on this intense level so I didn’t know any other way to live.
I guess you were used to that adrenaline coursing …
That’s it, and let’s just say that from 18 to 21, it got really ugly. Only because I survived it can I say that it was probably an extraordinarily backhanded gift, but a gift nonetheless.
By 21 I was literally on the bones of my arse. People around me were dying really ignoble deaths; young girls working on the street OD-ing, being chucked in dumpsters, and I just started to go, hold on.
Where was your family through all this?
They were just cowering and freaked out and unable to deal with it. They were going, what has happened? Then I had the incredible fortune to have someone within that world, say to me, “You should go to this thing called NA.” I hadn’t seen anyone get clean. I was totally isolated and didn’t want to be there. It was grace really that I found somebody who said, “Come here, I’ll pick you up and take you to this meeting.” Again the timing was right. I turned up when it was really cool to get clean. There was this thriving, healthy community of people that I was really happy to be around. It took me a while to work out how to do it, to stay clean, and at 21 I was in detox, on my way to rehab, going, wow the way I have lived has got me to here, this is not really working. It’s very humbling. I’m not sure why I was able to have that revelation when lots of others equally as worthy didn’t. At the time there was this drug offensive money, and these fabulous women who worked in a refuge in Kings Cross applied and got some money to do a women’s theatre workshop. They started it with using-addicts and they realised that using-addicts are really unreliable; no one would turn up and no one was interested, so then they thought they should make it for people who were clean and I was in that. They got a couple of teachers, one of whom was Peggy Wallach. She and her husband, Nick Tsoutas, were really key figures in the non-narrative, image-based, experimental performance scene in Sydney. It was just one of those epiphanous times. Suddenly I understood that there was a whole community and a way of being creative and a way of expressing myself that really made sense to me. So really that was my 20s. By this point I was pretty clear that I didn’t have to take drugs any more. I still had the same mania and level of intensity …
But you’d found a healthier way to direct it?
Yeah. I started out at that time as a freelance physical performer and I ended up working with a whole lot of ensemble-based companies. There was a very healthy performance culture with three or four main centres and there were a lot of ‘on the street’ training opportunities. It was a very healthy community which doesn’t exist in the same way any more, it didn’t survive Howard. Pretty quickly I developed a range of skills. I loved performing and I just placed myself at the feet of people I really respected and wanted to be with and I did whatever.