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Denise Scott is a storyteller. She tells funny stories about her family and herself. When she talks her large and pretty oval-shaped face lights up, her big blue eyes flashing. Her face is soft, fleshy and friendly, and her stature is small and generously rounded. Scott tells stories about ordinary life and makes them extraordinary. She is obsessed with the idea of ordinariness and its opposite. For more than 30 years she has entertained audiences as a clown, in a comedy troupe, as a stand up comedian, as a radio presenter, game show personality on television and as an actor in several television series. Scott is a gifted physical performer whose energy on stage is radiant. In 2014 Scott presented a full-length show in the theatre called Mother Bare, in which she regaled the audience with stories about her own life. Scott won the prestigious Barry Award for this extravagant one-woman show.
Denise Scott grew up in Greensborough, an outer suburb in the north east of Melbourne. Denise and her older sister Julie attended Our Lady of Mercy College in Heidelberg. Their father, Russell (Russ), drove a small goods delivery van and mother, Margaret (Marg) worked in an aged care home as a nurse’s aide. Denise always enjoyed performing and would sing for her relatives at family gatherings. Russell Scott also liked to entertain: he had a clown suit and would frequently perform on family occasions and at RSL picnics. Her father and his four brothers loved to sing whenever they got together. In her memoir, The Tour, Scott recalls that her Uncle Ken sang solo, and would hit his head with a scone tray as a strange kind of accompaniment and sometimes he got so carried away, that 'blood streamed down his face'. Denise recalls that he had a good voice too.(1) Family stories are integral to Scott’s comedy and infuse her work with warmth, colour and candour.
It was another family member, Uncle Frank, who took the eleven-year-old Denise to see Joyce Grenfell perform at the Comedy Theatre in Russell Street Melbourne. Scott was captivated and from that moment onwards she wanted to perform alone on stage telling stories of her own. Scott trained as a teacher and taught drama and English, hoping to pursue her career as an actor later, when she discovered how to do it. At teachers college she participated in improvisation and comic performance in a group. The group pioneered theatre sports in Australia under the tuition of the Canadian instructor David Lander, who taught improvisation. Scott found this type of performing thrilling. She spent her first months as a teacher in the wheat-farming district of Wycheproof, Victoria, and in spite of her initial hesitation at leaving Melbourne she enjoyed this stint in the country.
After a year teaching Scott left her job at Maribyrnong Secondary College to move to Darwin and work in a theatre company for children, the Darwin Theatre in Education group. The company toured the Northern Territory, giving performances to primary school children. Scott lived in in a hippie commune with fourteen housemates and two dogs, in a house that had survived Cyclone Tracy. Most of the time everyone was nude. She hitchhiked home to Melbourne in 1979, and spent several lonely months in Europe where she did some street theatre in Edinburgh at the Festival. Scott returned to Australia and worked at the Arena Children’s Theatre Company in Melbourne. She considered applying to acting school but felt ambivalent and nervous about taking that step. She told me: ‘I sort of kept making decisions that I thought would get me closer to being an actor, but they never did. They were, in fact, though, getting me closer to comedy. It was all about being yourself, and that, being entertaining'.
In 1980 Denise auditioned for a clown ensemble with the Murray River Performing Group Ensemble in Albury. John Lane, who was also from Melbourne, had just accepted a role in the same troupe as a clown and street performer. The pair of them developed two clown characters: Denise was Puff and John was Drippins and the two characters loved to flirt. Denise and John have been together since that time, and have two children, Jordie and Bonnie.
Scott also met the actor Lynda Gibson in the Murray River ensemble. Later she performed in Melbourne with Gibson, Lynne McGranger and Sally-Anne Upton in a satirical cabaret called The Natural Normans, as sleazy moustachioed drag kings in tuxedos. The troupe was invited to perform at the Edinburgh Festival. Denise did not go to Edinburgh, however, having decided to stay in Melbourne to take care of her two young children.
In 1989 Denise appeared in a strange and poignant faux documentary called An Ordinary Woman written by Alison Tilson and Sue Brooks, and produced by Sue Brooks. Scott appears as a young mother called Jackie and her own family members also appear in the film, raising questions about reality, imagination, authenticity and identity. The film is fragmented in structure but moody and evocative. Denise as Jackie says that as a child she wanted to be an opera singer: ‘I asked for singing lessons once but her parents mumbled that there wasn’t enough money and that was the end of it’. Jackie’s mother talks about how her daughter skated and performed pantomime on ice, and old film home video footage interspersed with the ‘interviews’ shows Denise as a small girl playing with a doll in the garden as her mother, dressed in a vivid blue skirt, looks on. Jackie recalls appearing on a catwalk modelling underwear at the age of four, because none of the clothing fitted.
The camera shoots Jackie from behind, as she talks at the sink, unable to face the camera at times. It focuses on her hands pouring tea down the sink and trains slowly around the room on the china tea-cup, sink and stained milk bottles. We see Denise in the garden with her small daughter Bonnie and in the kitchen baking biscuits with her son Jordie and Bonnie. In one sequence Jackie looks on as her toddler son plays in the garden, echoing the actual film of Denise as a child with her mother.
The film highlights the beauty and ordinariness of these real lives, in tandem with the life of the ostensible protagonist, a woman called Jackie. In a particularly poignant sequence Jackie bathes a baby and then herself in the shower, washing her body slowly as she sings an aria unselfconsciously. She talks about the death of her mother and how she could not be in the room with her mother’s dead body: ‘It just wasn’t her I realised’. Friends and family also talk about Jackie and her open, uncomplicated nature. Jackie says that she wants ‘love, immortality and perfect carrots’. It could be any woman speaking, but it also has the hallmark of Denise Scott, and demonstrates the way in which Scott brought the actor to the acting in this unusual film.
In Scott’s first stand up appearance at the age of 34, at the Last Laugh in Melbourne, she talked about her son’s birth by caesarean and joked about the horrific rush of 30 new mothers for the single toilet in the old Queen Victoria Hospital. Already the emphasis was on stories rather than jokes and gags and the visual imagery was profuse, vivid and confronting. Scott’s stories of mothering are now mainstays of her performing life. She is given to blunt descriptions of events in her own life and her memoirs are peppered with them. In fact her two memoirs read like scripts for performance. At the beginning of The Tour (2012) she recalls:
When I was four years old I was standing in my Nanna Scott’s kitchen and she said, ‘What do you want on your sandwich, Denise, Vegemite or peanut butter?’ And then she dropped dead. Just like that. There she was, standing at the kitchen table as large as life one minute, and then, bingitty-bang, dead on the floor the next.
Well, I wasn’t expecting it. And I’m pretty sure Nanna wasn’t. A massive heart attack. She was fifty-nine years old.
I never had time to tell her, ‘Vegemite, Nanna, Vegemite.’
My father met the exact same fate: fatal heart attack at fifty-nine. And since I’m now well into my fifties … You don’t have to be Einstein to join the dots.(2)
Like her shows and stand up routines, Scott’s memoirs are full of candid stories about her own life and her anxieties. In The Tour, she confesses to her extreme anxiety about joining a comedy road show tour because she is ‘too old’. She reports her sense of despair to her husband:
‘I’m too old to be going … Do you realise I’m older than all the other comedians’ mothers?
‘What about Jeff Green? He’s in his forties, isn’t he? You can’t be older than his mother.’
‘I could. She could have had him when she was twelve. These things happen.’(3)
Scott’s other problem was that performing made her physically sick with nerves and self-loathing. Although she enjoyed some of the performances, especially with Lynda Gibson and Judith Lucy, wearing nude suits in a show called Comedy is Still Not Pretty, and one she did with her son when he was 19 years old, she found herself feeling bilious before she performed and feeling ashamed and disappointed afterwards. Another difficulty for Denise was that her mother disapproved of her work and steadfastly refused to acknowledge Scott’s talent and achievements. In spite of these problems she persevered with stand up, and gained a considerable following.
For several years Scott worked in stand up, appearing at festivals and on the comedy touring circuit. Stand up comedy is not an easy performance option. For someone who wanted to tell stories the form lent itself to the project. But the late night, club scene is unforgiving, harsh and exhausting. There is no real career trajectory and when Scott started performing in comedy it was not a career at all. Scott persisted and succeeded. She toured and appeared at festivals. But she always wondered whether she was good at it. As she grew older she wanted to perfect her craft, to feel that she had achieved something of excellence before she gave it away.
Scott had always wanted to perform in a theatre rather than in a series of stand up venues late at night, believing that the theatre audience would be far more receptive to her style and her extended personal stories. Scott also knew enough about the industry to be certain that she needed a producer in order to progress. Self-producing her act for fifteen years and trying to pitch to producers was all very well but did not allow her to develop her own material for a full show in a theatre. Scott does not consider herself to be a stand up comedian in the same way as someone such as Dave Hughes, because of the emphasis she puts on long stories rather than jokes and wise cracks. Also her passion and talent for acting has meant that she performs in a richer theatrical style, than many other more conventional stand up artists.
Twice earlier on in her career she had approached the successful comedy manager Kevin Whyte to request that he take her on. Twice he refused. Scott was approaching her 50th birthday and decided to give Whyte one more go. Whyte agreed to manage Scott and since then she has not looked back. Nor has she contemplated giving the game away since that day. It marked a turning point for her career, as she could now present extended fully produced shows in the theatre.
In 2009 after a tour of Queensland, Scott felt a weight lifting and decided to embrace her career as a comic actor without guilt and shame. That year Scott performed a show at the Comedy Theatre, in front of an audience of one thousand people. Her dream of performing alone on that stage as she watched Joyce Grenfell all those years ago, had materialised. Scott’s show was called Number 26 and was more like a play than a stand up routine, with lengthy stories about her childhood and extended family.
Scott’s one-woman shows in the theatre allow her to range freely and fully on stage for an audience who are comfortably seated, quiet, and are ready for a complete theatrical experience. Scott still stands up, focuses on talking and sometimes roves with a microphone, but the performance is a full production, with music, slides and dancing. In Mother Bare at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse in 2014, she walked into the auditorium several times to address particular audience members, and during one raunchy dance number, she straddled a middle aged woman in the second row as she sang. Unlike stand up the show was directed and although no one interferes with the content or script, the performance is fully theatrical in its creation, development, choreography, rehearsal and production. Colin Batrouney directed Scott, and produced the enormous slides that formed the backdrop and scenography for the show. There was more than a passing echo of Barry Humphries’ show style and presentation in Mother Bare although Scott does not play characters and her production is tight and compact, compared to Humphries’ lengthy ritualised on-stage extravaganzas.
Scott has played in many guest roles on television including Neighbours and Blue Heelers. Her first comedy appearance came in 1989 in The Big Gig, a sketch and variety program for the ABC, performed in front of a live audience, featuring Wendy Harmer, Jean Kitson, Glynn Nicholas and others. Scott also wrote for the show. In 1993 Scott appeared over two years in the popular satirical sketch television program Full Frontal as one of a large team of performers that included Ross Williams and Shaun Micallef.
During the season of Number 26 at the Comedy Theatre Scott was invited to audition for the role of Trish Gross in the television series Winners and Losers. Alan Brough helped Denise hone her acting skills for the auditions, and over five years Scott appeared in the series. Scott charmed audiences as a regular guest over many years, on the popular ABC music game show Spicks and Specks. In recent years she has appeared in a lead role in two episodes of the ABC drama It’s a Date (2013-14).
In 2011 Scott performed in the gala opening night of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and had her own show at the Victoria Hotel. After the gala was broadcast on television, Scott’s facebook page was deluged with complaints about her offensive remarks regarding alchoholics, coeliacs and those with mild Asperger’s. Her swipe had been at those who pretend to suffer from those conditions as an excuse for their own poor behaviour. But the hate campaign continued for days, as Scott sat with her dying mother in hospital. Mortified that she had offended children suffering from Asperger’s and their parents, Scott immediately posted an online apology. She continued to juggle her nightly festival show, her filming schedule for Winners and Losers and her vigil with her mother.
Scott’s approach to her comic performances and to life is warm, generous and affirming. She is a talented script-writer and comic actor who has contributed to sketch comedy and stand up comedy over more than thirty years. In her work as an actor and comic performer she has helped bridge the divide between the two forms. Her obsession with ordinariness and her genuine understanding of women’s lives in her humour, gives her material authenticity, richness, potency and magic.
(1) Denise Scott, The Tour: A Memoir, Richmond VIC: Hardie Grant, 2012, 59.
(2) Denise Scott, The Tour, 2.
(3) Denise Scott, The Tour, 3.