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"It may just have the most important thing I’ve ever done"

Thanks to Covid-19, Drew Fairley was trapped for two months aboard a passenger liner going nowhere. One thing prevented him from being all at sea.

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Drew Fairley: Marine Operations

Date: 10 Aug 2020

Since repatriation, I’ve realised my creativity saved me from plummeting into a deep and irrevocable despair.

Yes really.

I was trapped on a cruise ship in Manila Bay in the Philippines for two months during Covid-19. I made a daily talk show called Actual Cabin Actual Fever while onboard. Wigs, bad accents, parodies of literary classics, garage band versions of famous songs and video clips were couched in my amateur philosophy and observational comedy.

It may just have the most important thing I’ve ever done.

I got trapped in Manila after being trapped off Balmain during the first few weeks of the pandemic. With the rest of my Pacific Explorer crew mates, I was expelled from Australian waters in a knee-jerk reaction by the government. They didn’t check to see who was onboard.

People shouted at us to ‘go home’ from the Harbour Bridge as we sailed out. It was anything but charming. We were without a repatriation plan and sailing further and further away from Sydney. Everything got very very weird.

We crossed the equator with a hope of docking in Manila, the only port open to ships in our region. The equator is where we get the term ‘the doldrums’. Tropical heat and zero wind for the sails sent sailors mad. It did a pretty good job on me, too. Wi-fi stopped working for weeks. I lost my connections. I shut down. I stopped eating for days at a time. I incubated to survive.

But my creative side made me make a show. It forced me to make a show regardless of my hopes and dreams to escape not because of them. It made me write, film and edit the show. Then the show made waves.

Audiences reacted to my talk show with such heart but I was unable to see what they saw.

I thought I was doing a ‘nice guy’ chat show, but the audience was seeing something rather darker. With the entire globe feeling adrift, my cabin fever comedy felt relatable, I guess. My unique perspective, however, was my creative side and it’s insistence on calling the shots. No wi-fi meant no distractions. My creative side started tugging me towards the absurdity. It wanted to bypass ‘saving face’ and plunge into more dangerous and fertile territory. It felt like a bad idea to swim that far into the deep end. But languishing in a Hawaiian shirt or getting pickled at the crew bar were my only other choices. I was teetering on a mental health cliff.

Weeks at sea become months. My hopes of returning home dissolved altogether some nights. Then, in the Three Sisters Episode, I lost my mind. You can see it happening – it’s hilarious.

I was miming knitting as the oldest sister Olga. The light faded on me until I was filming in the dark. It was accidentally so sad and pertinent and hysterical. I was talking to no one in the dark in the middle of the ocean. It was pathetic.

Usually when I felt unentertaining, I just stopped the show. It was just me in my cabin after all. There are hours of footage of me stopped and staring at the floor. This time, however, I didn’t stop. Instead, I kinda danced with the devil. I felt a pang of truth hit me in the guts: the only thing between me and the abyss was this crazy little talk show.

Suddenly I realised how dangerous my withdrawal from life had become.

Most nights I sat in that chair in the dark and cried. Now I was in the same chair with a wig and a wrap-around doona dress. I realised the lights were fading on me literally, figuratively and most importantly artistically. I was so desperate and lost, I laughed hysterically.

I realised I was living in a dark, dark comedy – my favourite kind. I began to connect with an audience who were in their own dark, dark comedy. I was making a bright and breezy show anchored in danger and fear and loss. Weren’t we all? I chatted with strangers across the globe about their own brand of nothingness.

There were no gains to be had other than speaking out and listening in equal measures. I think that push into dangerous territory through performance and comedy saved me from a more permanent emotional injury.

Actual Cabin Actual Fever exploded world wide. The Sydney Morning Herald, CNN Travel, CNN India, TALKradio UK, The Project Network Ten, Radio National, ABC Illawarra and ABC Weekend Breakfast News took the story further.

Season one and two of Actual Cabin Actual Fever are available on my instagram page. Season three (Hotel Quarantin) has been filmed but I have only a mild desire to make episodes. I’m not sure why.

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