When you work long days that merge into nights, running around, climbing up and down ladders and scurrying over catwalks, your shoes swiftly become your best friends. Freshly graduated from the University of New South Wales, a Bachelor of Arts degree under my belt, my dreams of working in the theater were giddily realized after I miraculously landed a gig as a lighting technician at the Sydney Opera House. This was 1984 and the joint had only been open for a dozen years. There were old-ish guys that worked backstage who proudly boasted they’d helped to build the place!
I was the third female ever to be hired in the lighting department. We were all called “sparks” or “electrics.” The stagehands were known as “mechanists” and they were a bigger and more dominant crew. I only ever saw one woman in their numbers.
I was a green and keen kid — 20, almost 21 — and utterly thrilled to be working on real live proper theater. Operas, concerts, ballet, rigging lights in the Exhibition Hall — for my nine-year backstage career I was immersed in high art.
I watched from the wings as Dame Joan Sutherland rehearsed her lead role in I Puritani, and also got to see her perform in Lucia di Lammermoor and Tosca. I still remember the thrill her soaring soprano voice sent up my spine.
The rest of the crew were less impressed. To most of them, it was just a well-paying job that netted plenty of overtime. I have to admit, it was also pretty exciting to be working in such a macho environment. The guys were young and hunky, friendly and snarky. You had to be a bit of a toughie to survive and, thanks to a quick wit, I doled out clever insults if any came my way. Eventually I earned a grudging respect from the more seasoned members of the crew.
I started off wearing Doc Martens shoes — all the rage in those post-punk days — but soon noticed that most of the guys wore Aussie worker’s boots known as Blundstones. Eager to conform, I quickly switched footwear. Some guys even wore steel-capped “blunnies” but I found them too heavy. I wanted so badly to be accepted as “one of the boys.”
Those elastic-sided, brown leather boots, with their non-slip sole, were a godsend. You could be on your feet for hours and there’d be no complaining from your toes. Waiting in the dimly-lit wings, almost breathlessly, for an act to conclude, as the opera singers’ sweet harmonies drifted up into the fly tower, I would be transported. Then, the instant the curtain came down, we’d all leap into action to strike the set and lights and re-set for the next scene. My feet were racing. My trusty boots were deflecting damage.
My blunnies served me so well that I kept wearing them even when I switched careers. Backstage work was all well and good for several years, but it was far from intellectually challenging. I obtained my Masters Degree then lucked into obtaining a freelance press pass for the Cannes Film Festival. I knew my good friends, my trusty boots, would be coming overseas with me. After all, hadn’t they helped me endure those 16-hour workdays?
I was still running in those boots. Racing up and down the Croisette, that long boulevard that flanks the glittering beaches, crowned with fabulous and ritzy hotels. I ducked and wove between hoards of dawdling tourists, as fast as my boots would take me. My days consisted of rushing to the morning movie, dashing to the subsequent press conference, checking in with publicists to line up interviews, racing from the Palais to hotels and back again, seeing as many of the films as I could in order to be prepared for interviews or press conferences with celebrities. Of course, the filmmakers, actors and assorted poseurs all dolled up for the evening party scene. Tuxedoes, high heels and glamorous dresses were de rigeur, and not just at the red carpet premier events. Everyone tried to outdo each other at the post-screening bash. I attempted to keep up, but the one time I dusted off a pair of heels was my last. Limping back to my tiny hotel room was sheer agony. Never again. My good old blunnies would have to do.
Every night I would collapse on the bed in my crummy, cheap hotel, peel off my stinky boots and soak my feet in the nearby bidet. I was exhausted but I was so deeply in my element. My blunnies never let me down. They were a badge of honor. When I was toiling backstage, I was accepted as one of the boys. Overseas, in my practical attire, I was easily identifiable as a hard-working member of the press corps. Something as simple as a reliable pair of work boots can really ground you. I’m no longer covering International Film Festivals, but I’m still wearing those boots.