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The Merger

In recognition of his ability to appeal to country audiences and create multi-layered performances, Damian was commissioned in late 2009 by Regional Arts Victoria and Vic Health to have a crack at writing a show that might subtly deal with issues of racism in regional communities. The result was 'The Merger': arguably Damian most successful show to date.

Using the template of the fictional 'Bodgy Creek Roosters Football Club he created in his award winning 'Sportsman's Night,' Damian projected a few years into the future of the dysfunctional club and the situation is looking grim.

The mill has closed; the Tidy Town sign has fallen into the long grass and the weir is as dry as a spinster's gusset. The dieing town is poised to claim it's next victim: The footy club. Unable to field even one full side, the footy club will either have to fold or merge with their arch rivals,The Hudson’s Flat Cougars. But prodigal son coach Troy Carrington has other ideas. To save the club and serve his socially aware agenda, he embarks on a program to recruit players from the Asylum Seekers Refuge Centre.

Will the new players cope with pre season training whilst fasting for Ramadan?; Will the old players be able to adjust to not perving at the netball to observe Islamic female privacy? Will the new scoreboard cope structurally with having a minaret on top?

The show premiered at the 2010 Adelaide fringe before going to earn Damian his 3rd Barry Award nomination at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Since then the show has been touring throughout the country including seasons at Sydney's Seymour Centre and Brisbane's Powerhouse and as well funded tours of WA and Victoria.


TOUR HISTORY

2009 - Regional Arts Victoria and Vic Health Writing Grant 2010 - Adelaide Fringe 2010 - Melbourne Comedy Festival [Barry nomination] 2010 - Roaring 40's Event 2011 - Country Art WA tour 2011 - Regional Arts Victoria Tour 2011 - City Of Casey Vic Health Tour 2012 - Hobart Comedy Festival 2012 - SeymourCentre season - Sydney Fringe 2012 - Melbourne Fringe Season 2013 - Brisbane Comedy Festival - Powerhouse


REVIEWS

FLLOYD KENNEDY - ARTS HUB - MARCH 2013

As I downed my first coffee of the day this morning, I turned to Facebook, and there it was again – someone feeling obliged to defend theatre from the accusation of being dead or dying. I don’t suppose the argument is going to go away any time soon, but I wish those who think live theatre is in terminal decline would look beyond state-funded companies and student productions.

They might start with Damien Callinan, better known as a comic, but as evidenced by his Brisbane Comedy Festival show The Merger, also a fine playwright and storyteller, and a skillful actor of great depth and complexity.

The Merger is the kind of theatre that makes my life as a theatre-goer worth living. It is a well-crafted play, hilarious and gutsy, charming and dangerous, provocative and subversive. A small stepladder and a box sit on an otherwise bare stage; at the side a plinth bearing a small radio. The radio gives forth the voices, the attitudes and the opinions (and the deliciously local small-town adverts) of the fictitious township of Bodgy Creek, but it could be just about any small community in Australia. The stepladder serves as an iconic tree stump in the centre of town, a dais, or a handy chair, whenever needed. The box contains two glove puppets.

On one level the story of a proposed merger between two rival football clubs, this is also the story of 21st century Australia: passionate about sport, culturally and ethnically diverse, and confused, politically apathetic and polarised. The environmentally savvy coach of the Bodgy Creek Roosters quotes Rousseau and provides the team with handy Shakespearean sledges. The Roosters’ president, Bull, endures his medical procedures without equanimity, and with a touch of racist slander. The opposing team’s president ambitiously pursues the commercial imperative and follows the current fashion for demonising asylum seekers. The asylum seekers who live locally bring their birth country customs and rituals to the community, whether they are welcome or not. There are no cut-and-dried heroes or villains here, just regular people who try to do the right thing by their own lights; some of them find the opportunity to grow as decent human beings in the course of the story.

With subtle shifts in his physicality and vocal behavior, Callinan transforms instantly between characters, from belligerent Bull to Bull’s grandson, the awkward 10 year old documentary film-maker, Neil. Callinan interacts with the audience (casting us as the rest of the team) throughout, inviting us to experience the unfolding circumstances as if it were our own story. Which, indeed, it is. And that is what makes it, in my opinion, great theatre.


JASON BLAKE - SYDNEY MORNING HERALD - SEPTEMBER 2012

We're getting used to the idea that Sydney can support two AFL teams. But has the southern code made cultural inroads lengthy enough to sustain theatre shows about it?

Judging by the 20 per cent house for this Friday evening show, there is a long way to go. Which is a pity, because this is a funny, skilful piece of storytelling.

Written and performed by Damian Callinan, The Merger takes us to the former sawmill town of Bodgy Creek, home of struggling footy club, the Roosters. They haven't won a game in years and their clubhouse is falling apart. They have been barely able to field a full team, let alone a competitive one.

Traditional rivals the Hudson's Flat Redbacks are suggesting a merger (obliteration, really), and it's up to Troy Carrington, the Roosters' philosophy-spouting, alpaca-farming coach to find a way to keep the team alive, which he does with a group of raw recruits drawn from a group of asylum seekers billeted in the area.

There are no prizes for guessing just how big the turnaround for the Roosters will be once they embrace diversity, the principles of Vedic architecture and a mixed Sudanese/Tamil half-back line.

What is surprising though is the nimbleness and nuance evident in Callinan's brace of characters, which includes a 10-year-old documentary filmmaker, a cranky old footy legend and an Afghan refugee with a natural gift for the game whose understanding of Australian culture has been gleaned from the pages of Crackers Keenan's autobiography.

All the focus is on Callinan and he holds it expertly for The Merger's 70 minutes. He is a sharp comic performer and raconteur, a decent sock puppeteer, and very adept at playing the story's tragic notes. Twice, he turned the mood of the room on a dime.


LLOYD BRADFORD-SYKE - CRIKEY.COM - SEPTEMBER 2012

The Merger, Melbourne comedian Damian Callinan’s well-crafted football farce, is one of the hits of Sydney Fringe. The Sydney Fringe Festival is a confounding thing. By turns, terrible and triumphant. At the latter end of the spectrum comes The Merger, written and performed by Damian Callinan (you might well associate his name with, say, Spicks and Specks, the Melbourne Comedy Festival or Skithouse); directed by Matt Parkinson.

A 70-minute one-man show set in the tiny country hamlet of Bodgy Creek, The Merger tells the story of the local footy team, The Roosters, which in sympathy with the flagging fortunes of the town itself is now having trouble fielding a side. The options are few. Fold the tent. Or merge with arch rivals, the loathsome Hudson’s Flat Redbacks. Coach Troy Carrington doesn’t give up easily though. He has a cunning plan to recruit asylum seekers as players. That the top of the bell curve in the team’s training regime coincides with Ramadan is challenging, but not insurmountable. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You’ve heard of the Pacific solution. Well, this is the Bodgy Creek solution. Immediately prior to this inspired stroke of genius, the town and team were up Bodgy Creek, without the proverbial.

Callinan mightn’t be a trained actor but, issues of diction aside, he’s a gift. In fact, he manages something I don’t recall having seen before and he manages it extremely well: taking the best from the world of stand-up (improvisation) and fusing it with the best from the world of acting (characterisation). This is quite something. He succeeds in responding, for example, to latecomers, or implicating particular audience members, without falling out of character, or compromising a script that’s dense with dazzling comic and dramatic brilliance.

It would be enough it were merely a good-natured critique of rural Australia, or AFL, or both, but Callinan makes it about much more than that, by dint of Troy’s savvy. The spectre of the refugee “debate” rears its ugly head, dealt with in a more poignant, articulate and early way than any pollie can seem to effect. Better yet, he’s not just succumbing to fashionable, arty-farty, left-leaning lip service. He’s actually seeking to make a worthwhile (and, above all, humane) contribution. And he does.

Troy is no ordinary coach. And not just because of his devious solution. Or because he’s just back from a climate-change summit in Copenhagen (the only country football representative, as I understand it). He’s also devised a way to maintain the tradition of ref abuse, by way of Elizabethan insults. Shakespeare’s withering epithets are, presumably, rather lost on the average flag-waving official. And his innovations don’t stop there. He’s not above recruiting women; albeit, in something of a concession to good, old-fashioned chauvinism, in a kind of tag-team arrangement.

All of this carry-on is being recorded, for posterity, by an intrepid doco maker; a 10-year-old doco maker and grandson of club president Bull Barlow, yet another of Callinan’s coterie of richly-realised characters, which he slides between with the greatest of ease and self-assurance. Bull’s hang his prostate out. Again.

Of course, Troy’s salvation plan for the club would be as nothing without a star recruit, who comes in the form of Hazara, Said Ali, an Afghan asylum-seeker “fresh” from four years in, as he puts it a “hot, shit place”, being Nauru. Funnily enough, joking about it doesn’t trivialise; rather, it underscores our inhumanity to our fellow man. (And to think, when I first contemplated reviewing this show, I didn’t know if it would be for me.)

Callinan mightn’t be a world’s best practice puppeteer, but his skills suffice well enough to eke a couple of characters out using little more than a couple of rustically adapted socks. And were it not for his skills as a writer of comedy, he wouldn’t get away with the lengthy intro and similar segues, in which a spotlit, footy-shaped radio broadcasts a community programme, including sponsorship announcements. For someone, such as myself, who’s spent a good many years in those environs, it’s side-splittingly, scarily redolent of actuality. So close, he doesn’t have to tamper with it much to make it drop-dead funny. Similarly, his evocation of locker-room antics and anthemic post-match celebrations is right on the money; an affectionate ode, that, at once, pays homage and takes the piss.

Of course, it would be downright dangerous to spend too much time in the club, anyway, as it’s been condemned, thanks to the presence of asbestos. But as Troy says, “no, that doesn’t mean it’s been heritage-listed”. Regardless of the misfortunes of the bankrupt Roosters, there’s one thing they won’t do, no matter how practical, or close to inevitable. And that’s merge with Hudson’s Flat, their traditional foe. Happily, Troy’s innovative refugee recruitment programme, doctored with a little (or a lot) of spin apropos bushfire and flood risks, secures grant money to rebuild the Roosters’ hallowed premises. Troy, ever the living embodiment of political correctness, even finds a place for men’s and women’s prayer rooms, not to mention a minaret to crown the scoreboard.

You’ll even get a kick (no pun intended) out of those scene segues: one of the sponsorship announcements — for example, features Bruce Nation, self-proclaimed as “Australia’s favourite right-wing bush poet”. His masterworks inlude Teenie Weenie Poofter Greenie and You Say I’m A Bigot Like It’s A Bad Thing.

Yes, Damian Callinan has his finger on the socio-political pulse and a firm hand on the vernacular; unlike certain of our cowardly politicians, to say nothing of mindless commentators and their disciples, who seem to have their collective hand firmly elsewhere.


MICHAEL WARD - HERALD SUN - OCTOBER 2012

THE Bodgy Creek Roosters is not your ordinary country footy club. These blokes are new-age, with a strange love of languages, art and philosophy.

Their club song incorporates a snatch of What's New Pussycat? and they're more likely to have a Kabuki night than a pie night.

But they're a club in dire straits. They haven't had a win for two years. They've no money, their clubrooms are condemned due to asbestos and they face an imminent merger with arch rivals the Hudson Flats Cougars.

In fact, the Roosters can barely put a team on the field -- that is, until they hatch a cunning plan to have the local asylum seekers pull on the footy boots.

A sequel of sorts to Damian Callinan's impressive Sportsman's Night (a Melbourne Fringe Festival best comedy winner over a decade ago) and reintroducing a number of characters from that show, The Merger is another terrific solo effort from one of this country's finest character comedians.

There is a lot of fine writing on display here, with Callinan delicately balancing humour with social observation and comment.

As a performer Callinan is always a pleasure to watch. His characters -- there's probably a dozen of them, including a couple of puppets -- are sharply delineated and include a 10-year-old documentary maker, various larger-than-life footballers, presidents and coaches and a number of Afghani refugees, including the Roosters' boom recruit, Said.

Much is packed into the hour, so much so that it wouldn't surprise to one day see The Merger given a bit of space to breathe and develop its characters and themes in the form of a feature film script.

It's a classic story of a sporting underdog with a message about tolerance and cultural integration. Go the Roosters!


STEVE BENNETT - UKCHORTLE.COM - APRIL 2010

Television executives be told: With Bodgy Creek Football Club, Damian Callinan has created a ready-to-go one-man sitcom, offering credible characters and a funny, sometimes touching, script. It could be the next Summer Heights High.

This is his second festival show based around the small-town AFL club, struggling to find success despite the best efforts of their New Age coach, who uses the great philosophical masters to motivate and encourages the players to swear at the ref only in Shakespearean pentameter. Their troubles – so dire they have even taken to allowing girls to play – are documented by a ten-year-old aspiring film-maker, who just happens to be the grandson of club president Bull Barlow, a man laid up with prostrate problems.

The club’s solution to their predicament is to recruit Sayeed Ali, an Afghanistan asylum-seeker being held in the Christmas Island detention camp – a plot device which allows Callinan to explore the hot topic of immigration with wit and sensitivity, without getting on his soapbox.

To dismiss this as a show about footy would be to miss the point entirely. You need know nothing about the sport of aerial ping pong to enjoy this series of affectionate character pieces as, like all the best narrative comedies, you believe the world even if it’s outside your experience.

Callinan is a masterly performer, fluid enough to include some mild and good-natured audience banter into his material, and cope with the symphony of street noise that leaks into his tiny venue. Unusual for a comic actor, such flashes of spontaneity come only from the confidence of knowing your creation inside-out, and years of experience of live audiences.

There are nice touches throughout: from sock puppets to the wryly-observed local radio station extracts that cover Callinan’s costume changes. But he achieves his nuanced characterisation though his vocal and physical talents – not any visual makeovers.

At times it’s more an impressive piece of craftsmanship than laugh-out-loud hilarious – but ‘impressive’ isn’t exactly a bad place to be. The Bodgy Creek Roosters will certainly reward your support.


PAUL DAFFEY - FOOTY ALMANAC.COM - APRIL 2010

Readers of The Footy Almanac would recognise instantly the sensibility of Damian Callinan, the comedian whose show The Merger is on at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

Callinan knows footy, every nook and cranny of it, sometimes despite himself. (His nature is to shy from the get-stuck-into-’em aspect of the game.) He’s also got an acute radar for the nuances in relationships among family and friends.

From these familiar platforms, he first took a great leap (the Warwick Capper kind; I think he’d like Warwick’s absurdity) into the fantastical world of Troy Carrington, his otherworldly country footy coach. In Sportsmen’s Night, his Troy Carrington vehicle, the ever-searching coach shuns the predictability of an end-of-season drinking trip to Adelaide to take the boys on a jaunt along the arts trail from Prague to Vienna. The footballers let down their tightly cropped hair with a bit of homage to Mozart before returning to pavlova at Christmas and another pre-season.

The Merger is a follow-up to Sportmen’s Night. In The Merger, Callinan takes a leap from footy and family into the world of politics, specifically the issue of asylum-seekers. Saeed is an Afghani key forward who learned to play footy while stuck in detention on Nauru for two years. His recruitment to the Bodgey Creek Roosters helps to stave off a merger with the Hudson Flat Cougars and set the Roosters on the path to recovery.

Bull Barlow, the bellicose Roosters president, is among the Bodgey Creek locals who find that dealings with Saeed and the Afghani recruits enable the scales to fall from their eyes. Saaed has learned all he knows about Australia by reading the football biographies of one of the guards on Nauru, starting with Just Crackers, the first instalment from Crackers Keenan (a reasonable starting point), and building up to the works of the man who Saeed comes to regard as Australia’s most eminent philosopher, Kevin Sheedy.

The Merger works on the familiar themes of footy and family and their fast grips on our southern Australian worlds, but it’s tackling of the refugee issue lends a sneaky gravitas. I would not go so far as to say it’s powerful, but it stirs your soul while jolting the funny bone.

The work could be more powerful if the writing were tighter. While Callinan’s acting and rapport with the audience are excellent, I think his script wanders off track too often. I found myself wondering whether he should read some US crime writers, the hard-boiled types who jettison every single detail that saps from the momentum of the story, but then I reneged. Callinan is more Bodgey Creek than the mean streets of LA. That is the point of him.

At a festival where the most successful comics seem to be those who portray a universal experience, I like Callinan’s work because it’s so local. When Callinan mangles the Bodgey Creek theme song by jolting out every second word in just such a way, you know he’s been there. You know he’s belted out a club song in a dank, concrete changing room with 20 teammates, and, yes, it’s silly and absurd, but it’s also kind of nice because it speaks of shared achievement and togetherness, and because it’s of us.

Years ago, I grew tired of seeing comedians talk about wanking, the drugs they took at university and the vicissitudes of share houses in North Melbourne. I like Callinan’s assessments of common bonds. He speaks, often using footy as a vehicle, of adults who deal with each other with imperfect grace in a murky world.

I know it’s my world because of the detail in Callinan’s rendering of the Bodgey Creek song (I laughed until I almost leaned right off my chair), and because of the way he says the word “Nana”. He’s not edgy enough to become an international hit, but he’s warm and affectionate, and he reflects the world in a way I recognise.

Callinan is a bit like Tim Winton: daggy, timeless, brilliant. Go and see him.








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