There are plenty of things out there in the world that can’t be explained: giant tracks in the Himalayan snow, shadowy shapes in Loch Ness, lights in the sky over Roswell, monstrous pink worms in South Gippsland.
But every so often, an intrepid explorer-cum-theatremaker comes along to unravel the mystery.
Enter Melita Rowston. Back in 2013, The Giant Worm Show! told the true story of a floundering Victorian town and the unlikely saviour who rose to the heights of unlikely tourism… and then disappeared. Now, Rowston’s revamped show is hitting the Sydney Fringe, full of puppetry, profundity, and Daryl Somers.
“Every show has different challenges,” says Rowston. “This is a kind of comic monologue TED Talk. I did Six Degrees Of Ned Kelly at three different Fringe Festivals last year, starting in Sydney and then Melbourne, Adelaide, and it did feel…” Rowston pauses, reflecting on the evolution of her stagecraft.
“Each time I did it I realised, yeah, I like this! I’m finding my voice! So sure, there were still nerves and all that stage fright, but as I travelled around telling these stories, it felt cool. It felt right. And because it’s me both writing and telling the stories, I felt a huge amount of ownership; I felt that I was able to do whatever the fuck I wanted. I wasn’t accountable to another playwright. It felt really empowering, but still terrifying, especially when you have a full house on opening night and you know you have all these reviewers out there.” She laughs. “But it lets you step into your own and say, ‘Well, fuck it! I am going to talk about how my grandpa said he stole Ned Kelly’s bones, or talk about a giant pink worm puppet.’”
And not just any giant pink worm puppet. The story of Karmai The Puppet has all the hallmarks of fiction: heroes, villains and a community at breaking point saved by a man who has the notion to turn Gippsland’s “Wonder from Down Under” – a three-metre long earthworm, the largest in the world – into a saviour mascot. Sometimes, art just writes itself.
“The show has had a massive overhaul,” explains Rowston. “I mentioned finding my voice after the Ned Kelly show, and the [version of Giant Worm] we had back in 2013 was a very theatrical show. It was more like a play with other performers, much more a pastiche variety show. It just wasn’t quite what I wanted, which is more storytelling, using a lot more video that I’ve taken of these crazy places. Because this really is an amazing journey – but it’s all real! The people are all real, and I really wanted to go back and revisit it all.”
To unearth (no pun intended) the story of Karmai and its creator, Rowston travelled back and forth from Sydney to Korumburra, slowly gaining the confidence of locals until the full story began to take shape. It’s sterling stuff: In Cold Blood meets The Muppets. The story even contains the unexpected inclusion of Daryl Somers, the town’s official Worm King of 1982 (“Did I think it was weird being asked to be Worm King?” Somers has said. “At the time I’d been talking to an Ostrich for 11 years, so it was completely natural for me.”)
“I was working full time, and I’d fly down every couple of months to this town that’s a two-hour drive from Melbourne,” says Rowston. “It became this obsessive thing I’d keep going back to for long weekends. I’d stay in the local motel and meet all these people. It was a slow burn. When I first showed up, noone knew anything about this puppet and I felt like a bit of a dickhead.
“But slowly, because it was the older generation who created it, I did things like put up posters around town, and did an interview for the newspaper there. Slowly, people started contacting me. I’d ask, ‘This is probably the strangest question you’ve heard, but do you know anything about a giant pink worm puppet?’ And sometimes people would say, ‘Actually, I do.’ It was fun.”
At the heart of the story is Karmai’s creator, Frank, a man inherent to the tale of the puppet’s rise and fall, but one who was tremendously guarded about sharing his unusual history. “Each person I’d meet knew a little bit of the history, but Frank didn’t want to meet,” says Rowston. “He’d been burnt before. He’d had TV crews try and do documentaries but then start taking the piss.
“The whole festival and the puppet had an untimely ending, where success was the thing that destroyed it. And so he was very protective and guarded. Everyone I met told me I had to talk to him, but he just didn’t trust me. He thought it was a big failure in the end, but now there’s a Facebook page where lots of locals have joined to share their memories. You can see the amazing effect it had. So it was a jigsaw until maybe a month before we first opened.” Relief floods Rowston’s voice; she’s clearly very satisfied with what the production became. “We were still getting more info, so now for the Fringe it’s good to have the chance to go back and properly piece it all together.”