Getting in a pickle with Rachel Berger

Voyager pilots her show through unchartered waters

Comedian Rachel Berger is renowned for her rapid-fire lines and fresh take on social and political issues. But ‘Hold the Pickle’, her upcoming one-woman show, takes audiences into deeper waters, writes Clare Kennedy.

For the last two years, a decommissioned ferry named Wanderer, moored at a jetty at Port Huon in Tasmania’s deep south, has been home for comedian Rachel Berger. Why so?

To understand this unique sea change, we must return to 2008 and the news of the Tampa sinking, a tragedy that left Berger, like many Australians, deeply affected. For her, it also had a personal resonance, unleashing, as it did, memories of the story of her Polish mother and father’s refugee flight from war-torn Europe, and her childhood growing up as the daughter of refugees.

Berger’s response to Tampa began with her show Perfect, a successful stand-up show at the 2008 comedy festival, in which she talked about being the child of refugees. It was all about imperfections, she says. “Some of it was funny, some of it was sad. People started saying, ‘You should tell more about that story, it’s really interesting.’”

But the seasoned comedian, who likens stand up comedy to walking the tightrope, didn’t see herself as an actor. “I thought, ‘OK, I can walk on the tight rope, but now I want to do tricks.’ So I wrote a script based on my parents’ love story.”

Hold the Pickle

That script became Hold the Pickle, a one-woman show in which Berger takes the audience on a rich emotional journey from her parent’s flight across a Europe ravaged by war to their first milk bar in Melbourne’s west and later, their delicatessen in Acland Street, St Kilda.

“The promise I’d made to myself was that I was going to give a voice to those children who had grown up broken because they’d either been refugees or were the children of refugees,” she says.

The first shows were staged in the intimate atmosphere of Carlton’s La Mama Theatre. “I had no director, just the lighting guy. I couldn’t afford anything. A friend from Her Majesty’s Theatre brought over some gels for the lights, another friend gave me props. I figured I had nothing to lose.”

It worked. Berger did twelve shows and they sold out. “I got investors and did a 100-seater, then a 300-seater show at Chapel off Chapel, realised I had a show and went to New York to meet some bona fide producers, with the aim of putting on an Off-Broadway show,” she explains. “New York kind of works for me, that energy,” she beams.

It was a bold move, but it paid off. “I think Americans are respectful of people who really have a go, you know. I was really straight with them, and the good thing was, they were incredibly straight with me.

“Daryl Roth, one of the most successful producers on Broadway and an amazing woman, said, ‘I’m not going to produce it, because I wouldn’t take that kind of risk with an unknown person. But I have three theatres and I will rent you one. But first you need to find a producer.’”

Simply getting access to a theatre in Broadway is tough, Berger explains, so the offer was exciting. It felt as if the show was gathering momentum.

She returned to Melbourne with plans to tour Australia and then take the show to New York. And, at first, the stars seemed to align. She found a producer, and her eight shows at the Melbourne Arts Centre earned fantastic reviews. But the show struck a reef. “Regrettably the production company folded – for unrelated reasons – so the show couldn’t tour,” she says, tight-lipped.

Berger was devastated. “I thought, ‘I need to go away and think about what to do. Maybe I should get off stage.’ I went to visit some friends in Tasmania, who had bought a decommissioned ferry, 60-foot long, which they had gutted and turned into a ‘liveaboard’ with two cabins, like an apartment,” she explains. “I told them the story, and they asked if I’d live on the boat for six months while they were away.”

Anchoring down

At first she was unsure. “I said, ‘Let me come back for a week and see how it feels to be alone here in this place, not knowing starboard from port,’” she laughs. “One week later I’d fallen in love with everything about her.”

Six months morphed into two years and Berger’s time on the water was remarkably restorative. “Living on a boat, always on the edge of departure, is a unique and transformative experience. I’m the mistress of my universe; enclosed, protected and surrounded by everything I need, yet able to view the water (my world!) outside through the windows,” she wrote in a column for The Weekly Review.

“I felt as if being on the bow of the boat with all those winds lashing at me ripped off the jagged bits. But after two years I knew it was time to come home. I was sad to leave her on the water alone, but a week after I left, she was sold, so it was meant to be,” she adds.

Her thoughts about the sea change? “Yes, it was an adventure, but more than that, I think it’s easy to forget that when you’re creating all the time, you need to back off sometimes in order to work out what you’re doing, where you’re going…No matter what happens with the show, living on water was an incredible gift, especially because I had no idea of the impact that it would have or how transformative it would be.”

Berger has been back in Melbourne for three weeks when we meet at her home in St Kilda, a skip away from Acland Street. She is rehearsing Hold the Pickle for a return season at the Frankston Arts Centre in August and at the Whitehorse Arts Centre in September. It’s been a remarkable journey. “Now the show seems even more timely,” she says.

Berger is a member of Media Super. “It’s my fund – for people like me,” she says.

Book tickets for Hold the Pickle at Whitehorse Arts Centre on 19 and 20 September 2014.

Photo supplied by Rachel Berger.