What happens after losing 3 Comedy Festival shows to COVID? The pursuit of ‘normal-ish’.

Words by Sweeney, 23 VIC

There are some moments when you just don’t know how to feel or what to think.

On March 13, 2020 I was at uni in Carlton. I’d just eaten an early dinner at my favourite spot near campus (shoutout to Mantra on Grattan Street, best vegan butter chicken for miles).

My first of three shows in the 2020 Melbourne International Comedy Festival had just sold out its opening night. This particular show was a split-bill stand-up show which my performing partner and I had toured in Hobart earlier January 2020… We were bursting with excitement at the thought of finally being able to perform this show for our friends and family on home soil.

Things were looking good that evening, food-wise and comedy-wise.

Ethan Cavanagh (left) & article author Sweeney Preston (right) at the photoshoot for their comedy show, titled ‘Very Mature’. Oct 2019.

I was about to head home for some last-minute fixups on my script when at 5:05pm, my phone buzzed. It was an email from the Comedy Festival.

“Dear Festival participants and associated venues, staff, and crew,
We’re devastated by the news we have to share.
Following the Prime Minister’s announcement about non-essential mass gatherings, we have made the very difficult decision to cancel the 2020 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.”

Oh… fuck.

I was strolling along the footpath when I read the message. I didn’t know what to do so I just kept walking. It felt like the natural thing to do. After a few more metres of directionless plodding, I ceased.

The next few paragraphs in this piece of recollective writing could perhaps be critiqued as a little too fanciful, too dramatic. In response to such an evaluation, it’s worth considering that the situation in Australia at this particular point in time was dramatic. The Formula-1 had just been shut down, a global pandemic had been formally declared, and most alarming of all, our lord and saviour Tom Hanks had just caught COVID. On both an individual and global scale, there was and still is good reason to recall these events in such a pronounced, dramatic fashion.

Anyway, back to the shit-show.

Ethan & Sweeney on tour in Hobart, Tasmania. Jan 2020.

I gazed up at the autumnal tree canopies overhanging the stretch of footpath on which I’d found myself. It sounds silly but I remember thinking how beautiful the reds and the greens all looked in that moment. They provided a painfully picturesque backdrop for the hodgepodge of calamity and confusion that was playing out in my brain.

I spied a little hidey-hole behind an enormous water tank. Universities love to go on about how environmentally conscious they are. I bet mine never thought their staggering investments in h2O management might serve to accommodate another type of waterworks. I sauntered over to it, crouched down and very nearly cried.

In that moment, crying just didn’t seem like the right thing to do. Other priorities would come before the shedding of tears.

Hotlines needed to be bling’d.

I called Issy, the director of one of my shows. She told me that the situation definitely sucked and that I was allowed to feel crap. I agreed. Issy is always right about these sorts of things.

I called Ethan, my performing partner from the sold-out show. He informed me that he was already at the pub and about to guzzle down his second beer after entering the premises only 20 minutes prior. He voiced similar sentiments to Issy; that it sucked, and that our feelings of crappiness were permitted.

High-fives at the final ‘Very Mature’ rehearsal before Australia went into lockdown. March 2020.

Flash-forward to 2021. Melbournians have just enjoyed a summer of café brunches, live sporting events, and in-person music concerts. It all feels quite normal-ish.

Despite this, many within the creative industries still feel as though life has not gone back to normal. There is a lingering fear that at any point, another outbreak or case of close contact quarantine could dismantle our hopes of putting on a show.

Further, the mental bruising from 2020’s lockdown months is still firmly embodied by Melbourne’s creative arts workers. Even out of lockdown, some days can feel glum. Some days you can even feel like you’re a different person to who you once were. Many have chosen to pursue alternate careers. A more secure stream of income at a time like this… who can blame them?

The test for such people will be to gauge if and when the pain of disassociating from their hopes and dreams will be too overwhelming to ignore. Whether the ‘smarter’ career choice will be spiritually fulfilling in the long term. Whether the stress of repeatedly having our efforts diminished by an ongoing pandemic is worth our time as workers anymore. It’s a question that has inevitably cast shadows over the thoughts of many in my community.

Personally, I’m slowly piecing together my thoughts and feelings on the situation. It might seem cliché but the most helpful thing has been getting off the couch (see below image of couch) and getting back on the proverbial horse (not pictured, use your imagination).

Sweeney and Ethan at a far more impromptu, far less professional photoshoot in Sweeney’s backyard. Jan 2021.

Ethan and I have registered for 2021 Festival. We’re doing the same show for which we sold out our opening night nearly a year ago.

Feeling the nervous anticipation of promoting a show paired with the rush of workshopping and rehearsing has been the single most contributing factor to me feeling normal-ish again.

And I never thought I’d say this but I’m actually quite content with normal-ish…

…that is, in most cases. The exception would be with regards to our show, which we like to think is a tad better than normal-ish.

In any case, you shouldn’t take my word for it. Come see for yourself…

‘Very Mature’ by Sweeney Preston & Ethan Cavanagh is playing at Mantra on Russel from March 25-28th at the 2021 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

Illustration by AileenYou can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc

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