The easiest way to directly describe the Light the Way Home initiative is to use the press release. I find trying to use my own words brings up a lot of emotions – relief that it exists, frustration that we need it. Besides, I know that Vic Hanlon, Caili Christian and the dedicated team at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival put a lot of effort into getting it right:
Getting home safely can be challenging for many performers who work late at night and often don’t earn enough money to cover the cost of transport. To encourage a diverse population of performers to follow their creative passions, members of the Melbourne comedy community have collaborated with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival to launch a program whereby performers in need can access Uber journeys home at night – at no cost.
Light The Way Home is designed to provide female, trans or non-binary, and vulnerable performers with a safe way home from comedy venues in or around the Melbourne CBD. At-risk performers can register to join a Melbourne International Comedy Festival administered Uber account and access a free ride home when they need it. Light The Way Home will pilot during the 2019 Melbourne International Comedy Festival and subject to the success of a fundraising drive, will continue to support Melbourne’s comedy community throughout the year on a permanent basis.
The initiative was developed by producer Vic Hanlon and comedian Caili Christian. Both women felt that something needed to be done to help address the safety issues for vulnerable people performing comedy in the wake of Eurydice Dixon’s death last year. ‘It was a conversation that I was certainly having with people around, it was an idea that needed to come up,’ Christian says, ‘but it was just a conversation and we were really busy. Then in January, I was doing the first Comedy Women’s Association gig of the year and a male comedian who has requested to be unnamed came to see me at the gig. And he’s not famous, and he’s not rich. And he handed me an envelope of $1500 cash and he said ‘get this rideshare thing up and running, we cannot do this any more’. It was just after Aiia had been murdered. That’s when I contacted Vic.’
Aiia Masarwe was a young Palestinian woman murdered on her way home from the Comic’s Lounge in January. It was a tragic event that further illustrated the need for support getting home. While Hanlon and Christian note they had been getting more lifts home from fellow comedians than ever before, it was still ad-hoc and inconsistent. The two decided they needed something more long-term.
‘I’d been looking at doing something for a while. I’d tried to set up an Uber business account, and I didn’t know logistically how I was going to do it because it’s such an admin nightmare,’ Hanlon admits. ‘I had planned on doing a donation of a percentage of the bucket donations I get at each of my rooms, that would go towards it, but that’s not a lot of money. It would maybe pay for a couple of ubers a week, but not on the scale that we wanted it to be available for people. When Caili came to me it was like ‘well at least that’s some money towards it – how about we contact the festival?’
Christian laughs and adds some more detail to the story: ‘Well first of all – and this is my favourite part of the story – we said we need to meet up and work out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it, the logistics. We met at a bar at 5:30 on a Thursday night. Five hours and eight vodkas each later we had become best friends, told each other all our deep dark secrets, and actually come up with a plan for how all this was going to work. We had a name, we knew we would run it from donations, we had a scope. Knowing that, that’s when we spoke to comedy festival and said ‘we want to do this thing, we heard you want to do something’.
The two weren’t the only ones that approached the festival with a similar idea, and MICF was able to coordinate the joint efforts of concerned comics into something real, and practical. Hanlon and Christian’s experience as room runners was particularly valuable, providing input about the current state of Melbourne’s open mic rooms and the needs of their artists. But it’s also made the last nine months more difficult. ‘I try and encourage women to do comedy, and people other than cis white men, I try and encourage them to do comedy. After Eurydice died, I asked myself ‘am I putting them in danger by saying come to my room and do a gig?’ Hanlon says. That’s my actual nightmare and the source of many panic attacks. What if something happens to someone going home from my gig? Christian agrees. ‘It’s terrifying. What happens if one of the people you encourage doesn’t make it home?’
It’s a relief to have Light the Way Home alleviate some of that pressure. Having the festival involved has meant that the scope is far greater than what any individual comedian could have developed alone, and that there’s a dedicated team working on establishing it. Hanlon and Christian have nothing but praise for Peta Sloaly, who is, in their words ‘a powerhouse’, and festival director Susan Provan. ‘They’re matching dollar for dollar up to the first $10,000. I’d never dreamed we’d get that much support.’ Christian explains. ‘They helped us with things we hadn’t thought of as well, like tax deductible donations. Festival had the ability to make that happen. It’s given us the flexibility to open it up to anybody who potentially could be vulnerable – not just women and non-binary people.’
This point is central for Hanlon, for whom the project always needed to be for ‘anyone who feels they could need it’. It can’t be exclusionary. ‘I would never want to draw that line. If you’re someone who thinks you need it, I’m not going to say ‘sorry, find your own way home’. If you think you need it, register.’ Christian agrees. ‘Like, if you’re like Charity Werk, and perform in drag. You don’t want to be catching the tram home.’ While they did approach female and non-binary only ride-sharing company Shebah originally, the company aren’t capable of supporting such a large scale corporate account yet. Given that they need to extend it beyond Shebah’s clientele, it’s probably for the best.
Eventually, Hanlon is keen to see the initiative expand to other major cities in Melbourne, and potentially to other industries like the music industry too, ‘because they face the same issues we do. They’re out late at night, for little to no money.’ That’s part of why Light the Way Home doesn’t have a comedy focused name, instead having something that’s descriptive but not limited.
Another key part of Light the Way Home is that it’s available year round. Festival is a reasonably safe time for comedians. ‘There’s always someone to split an uber with, or at least share a tram with,’ says Hanlon. ‘When you’re walking home alone in July – that’s when you need it.’ Hanlon and Christian, as well as some other room-runners will be donating a portion of their weekly profits to the initiative throughout the year. Even if you usually ride your bike or get a lift, Christian says, register for that one night you don’t. Hanlon and Christian’s message for comedians is clear: if you think might need it, register. In Hanlon’s words: ‘I would much rather someone sign up for it and never use it, than need it and not have access to it.’
Performers looking to register should email LTWHregister@comedyfestival.
Vic Hanlon’s podcast with Emily Tresidder, Vic & Em’s Comedy Gems, is on at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.