Bent Street publisher Gordon Thompson talks with actor Maude Davey.
I meet with Maude on a late Saturday afternoon in Collingwood—the best available moment as Maude is deep in rehearsals for two upcoming shows—Anthem and Gender Euphoria at the Melbourne International Arts Festival (October 2019). I remind Maude that the first and last time we actually met was on a short film shoot (Engaged, dir. Susan Long) in 1991. I was the cameraperson and Maude and I spent half a day together in the cubicle of a toilet, for her character (in the story) has taken refuge there during a dance party.
Maude: That’s right!—Migod, I remember that. And you were standing on the toilet seat!
Gordon: Me and a handycam. I nearly fell in the toilet when you flushed it by accident. It’s a little while back now, but—hey—so, what have you been doing these last thirty years? Back then I think you’d been dipping your toe into cabaret?
Maude: Yes, that was all through the Miss Wicked Competition.
Gordon: Tell me a bit about that.
Maude: What happened in the 90s there was this lesbian cabaret, or this queer cabaret scene, and people ran monthly events, or big parties—such as the Docks parties at Shed 14. The ALSO Foundation ran them, there was Red Roar and Winterdaze and The New Year’s Eve parties, so there were three big parties every year down at the docks, and then there were little monthly events in small venues on Smith Street, or in North Melbourne, with 100 to 300 people, with shows like She’s Famous, or the Ruby Lounge that Amanda Morris ran, and the Caviar Club—a DJ outfit—and they used to run women’s parties.
And when we say ‘cabaret’ cabaret meant a different thing back then. We called it cabaret because we didn’t really know what else to call it. And it was queer cabaret. It was basically whatever you wanted to do—you’d sing a song, or you’d do a weird fetish-based act, or you’d do a circus thing, or some dance, like Amanda was really into the Vegas feel—so, big tits and feathers and stuff. And there was a whole side of it which was driven by the sex-positive movement, like the S&M dykes from Sydney and that was Wicked Women. And that was all about celebrating—you did a night of performance in a pub and at The Club here in Smith Street, and it would all be about a celebration and expression of sexuality.
And then there was ACT-UP, and an organisation called GLAD (Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination). There were also fundraisers for positive living—those would be big parties—not big, 400 to 500 people, that sort of thing, unlike the docks which were thousands.
Still from Elizabeth Taylor Sometimes (prod. Liz Struth and Deb Baulch, Wild Iris Productions, 1996). Supplied, Maude Davey
Gordon: And you were able to do cabaret performance there?—I’m asking that as my image of cabaret is something small and intimate. The Isherwood / Cabaret thing. Did that translate?
Maude: The club performances were different from the smaller rooms. You did different things. The club performances were much more spectacle-based, much more outrageous costumes, more people on stage. Bigger gestures. So you could sing songs, but there was also a lot of lip-syncing and dance routines.
Gordon: A massed effect, more than a focus on the individual performer?
Maude: No, there was the individual performer—there were big stars in that world who came out—Paul Katsis. But certainly, at the Mardi Gras and docklands parties, yes, that was about mass—you’d get four people on aerial acrobatics, eight male and eight female dancers … but the GLAD parties and those kind of things—maybe I’m exaggerating, maybe it was more like audiences of 200, but they felt bigger than a small cabaret room, but they were fundraisers—so you’d want to sell 250 plus tickets, but there’d be a band and you’d get up and do a weird thing.
Gordon: So if we jump cut to now, what have been some of the changes to ‘cabaret’?
Maude: One of the things that happened was that there was a resurgence of the thing we now call cabaret, which is that intimate room, people doing all the Eartha Kitt songs, or people doing shows about their journey with an illness, or whatever, and singing songs about that: you know, a girl, a piano and a mike stand. So, that came back in a big way. That’s what the Adelaide Cabaret Festival calls cabaret, it concentrates on bringing Kristin Chenoweth over to sing the hits from her Broadway shows. Think of Ute Lemper doing the same kind of thing.
Gordon: And you wouldn’t want her not to.
Maude: No! She’s bloody good at what she does. But all that wasn’t around in the 90s and early 2000s, so we were doing what we called ‘cabaret’, then ‘cabaret’ in that form came along, and so we called what we were doing ‘burlesque’.
Gordon: Where does that word come from?
Maude: It actually has a verb form—‘to lampoon’, to satirise. And it has deep historical roots. Burlesque originally was a vaudeville show with a lot of skits and songs, routines that satirized the state of things. It was often sexually risqué and often involved drag. So, come the 2000s queer cabaret turned a corner and became burlesque. The other thing about the 2000s was a movement in performance-making towards very small venues. Suddenly people were doing shows in rooms where 20 people could fit, or two—they were building their own tents. That was the beginning of the Garden of Unearthly Delights, and the village that visits the Fitzroy Gardens every year. And then there was the Spiegeltent.
Gordon: Which set a kind of standard … well, maybe it did or it didn’t, but you feel as if it took things to a new level.
Maude: Well David Bates had brought the first Famous Spiegeltent to Australia and what Spiegeltent did was create a venue that had its own feel, like that club in the film Cabaret, like the great clubs, it provided a platform which had feel, which had style, aesthetic.
Gordon: It was, is, a great brand.
Maude: Yes—and David produced La Clique, the first big Spiegeltent show that toured all over the world and was very successful and that was variety, but it was, in the early days, very queer. So most of the performers were queer—Ursula Martinez, Le Gateau Cocolat, Frodo Santini (not queer but very weird). Its difference was that it wasn’t a titty show; the nudity, the sexual adventurousness was driven by a queer sensibility, rather than by a heteronormative ‘girls taking their tops off’ to shake their tits at a bunch of heterosexual men getting drunk in the corner.
So there was queer cabaret in the 90s; and then Spiegeltent comes along and there’s a movement back to transportable, smaller venues, a more intimate performance style, and La Clique was a major show or event in the development of the idea of the Spiegeltent Show as we understand it now, which is variety, which is act, act, act. You put a singer in, you put a circus performer in, an aerialist. But what I’m saying about La Clique is that one of the things that made it so special was that it was driven by queer sensibility, rather than what happened to the burlesque movement. We did cabaret in the 90s, then cabaret became a thing which we didn’t understand ourselves to be doing and then we called ourselves burlesque, and then that became a thing we didn’t understand ourselves to be doing and burlesque became girls with feather boas and corsets shaking their bosoms in a very heteronormative way.
Gordon: So it lost a particular queer and political edge?
Maude: Absolutely. When it becomes mainstream it loses that.
Gordon: It becomes something like Hey Hey it’s Saturday.
Maude: … Well, burlesque never quite descended to those depths. And look, there are some great burlesque artists who do beautiful classic burlesque. There are great things about it. I love what people call neo-burlesque. And it’s usually driven by queers, and it’s usually in very small bars, and it’s not paid well, and it does weird things like women laying eggs on stage, and people like Moira Finucane and Ursula Martinez, Jess Love and Amy Saunders, and Chris Green. And it’s in London, Australia and America. People like Julie Atlas-News and Matt Fraser—there’s a whole neo-burlesque scene in New York which was really weird and really interesting. And so that was the 2000s into the early 20 teens, then the burlesque thing went a bit downhill. I don’t know what ‘thing’ we’re in at the moment—I’ll have perspective on it in five years. We’re kind of in ‘variety’ at the moment. People want to do variety. Variety is easier to make than theatre.
Gordon: Just going back to that mainstreaming of burlesque, you did a show—My Life in the Nude—that revisited some of your feelings about that. In a video you said that taking your clothes off for performance had become less comfortable over time?
Maude: I think what I was saying, or exploring there, was that in the 90s I would take my clothes off on queer platforms and that’s not uncomfortable; but then as the 2000s progressed and I was working in Moira Finucane’s shows—such as The Burlesque Hour, which was actually two hours; and Glory Box—and the audience changed and the platform became more popular, more mainstream—which is everything that you want it to do—but taking your clothes off in that environment when you’re a woman who is in her mid-forties and who is not particularly interested in perpetuating a heteronormative oppressive ‘stereotype’, then that became more and more uncomfortable. And so I made ‘My Life in the Nude’ as a kind of farewell to that kind of performance, to put it to sleep … and then what I did was, my sister Annie and I decided to find out what kind of variety you can make when you’re over fifty.
So we put together an outfit called Retrofuturismus, which was circus and weird performance. And one thing that came out was an interest in how short-form variety format can be more than just ‘I’m gonna sing a song’, ‘I’m going to do a trapeze act’ and how it might articulate ideas about the world. And that’s an ongoing quest of mine, to figure out how you can appeal to people’s intellects as well as their guts, in short-form performance. I love short-form, it’s so great … you think in 3 to 4 minute chunks; in theatre—my god—you’ve got to invest so much attention and time and money and effort to make something that might not work and you’re only going to do one season of it anyway; but you make a good three-minute act you can do it over and over again. It has legs, it has life. You can travel it.
Gordon: When you’re creating that material, do you stand back and write things down? Does it come to you out of improvisation? What brings it to life?
Maude: A variety of things. Sometimes, okay, it’s a text-based approach: I write lists of things I can do, I write a poem, and you wander that around in your head till you come on to something.
Other pieces are driven by a song that you want to sing, or a track that you want to work to. Other things are driven by a skill you want to perfect, or … you know, weird things. You know, I was at the soccer one day, at my son’s soccer game, and I find that deeply, deeply uncomfortable because I’m having to be a soccer mum and talk to the other mums. So I pull out my little book and write this thing, and I’m thinking, ‘Don’t look at me, don’t look at me—I’m a bush, I’m a bird’. And that became an act that I did in a show.
The ideas come from anywhere. And with variety, the simpler the better, because what you want is something that speaks on several levels, or says several things, but in the simplest possible way. If the idea’s too complicated it probably won’t work. And sometimes you can progress an idea a long way, then put it in front of an audience and find that it’s not going to work! It’s just not going to work!
One of my big projects is Gender Euphoria.
Gordon: Which is coming up in October at the Melbourne International Arts Festival …
Maude: Yes, and that’s a celebration of trans identity.
Gordon: And that’s short-form variety?
Maude: Yes. And that came about because I met a cabaret singer called Mama Alto who’s a trans woman and she was in one of Moira Finucane’s shows. And I heard this thing said that something you can do to make a difference to the world is mentor people who don’t look like you. And so, I love Mama’s performance, she doesn’t need mentoring in terms of her artistry, but I suggested to Mama Alto that we make a show together and this is it. It’s my attempt to move out of my comfort zone, move out of working with white ladies—that’s the selfish driver, or one of the selfish drivers—but it’s fantastic, it’s an amazing show.
Gordon: Is it ready to roll, or are you still developing it?
Maude: No, we’re still making it. We presented it at a one-off event in January at the Arts Centre and that was a beautiful show, but we want it to be better, and bigger, and we’re bringing guests in. We’re bringing in an artist Krishna Istha in from America who is a non-binary trans person whose done quite a bit of performance in Melbourne. And we’re bringing in a Tiwi Sistergirl, Crystal Love, from Darwin. So we have guests and we’re making more acts. We’re ambitious for the show. We want it to travel. We want it to be a platform that can do the circuit and incorporate other performers, that can have a revolving lineup, or be the same show depending on the situation.
Gordon: So is this show the next phase—is it occupying the ‘post’ neo-burlesque space?
Maude: I don’t know that. I will say though that we’re working with known conventions. We want to make it an audience pleaser. We’re not in a small room with a tiny audience doing experimental shit.
When the risks are low with a small audience, that’s when you can be experimental. When you’re on at the Melbourne Festival—I don’t want to give them a show that’s so experimental that the Melbourne Festival audience walk out going, ‘I didn’t like that. Why did they program that?’ I want the ‘conservative’ Melbourne Festival audience who come to this show to walk out saying, ‘Wasn’t that magnificent!’ ‘Aren’t those artists amazing!’ ‘Isn’t my position on trans identity now shifted somehow’. It’s a mainstream audience; you’ve got to give them things they understand. Particularly because it’s a celebration. I don’t want to slap them in the face, or challenge them too hard—there are other venues for that, and other avenues for that. I’m all up for that, and have done a lot of that, and will continue to do so. And because there are of course a lot of harmful debates, or discourses, on trans identity going on right now, what we really want to do is create visions of joyous, fulfilled, successful people that you look at and go, ‘This is a wonderful person; and isn’t this a wonderful artist’.
Maude Davey is a performer, director and writer who has worked at the forefront of contemporary performance in Melbourne for the last thirty years. In the 90s she toured nationally and internationally with her acapella/theatre outfit, Crying In Public Places; in the 00s she toured nationally and internationally with Finucane & Smith’s acclaimed Burlesque Hour / Glory Box variety show and in the twenty teens she has produced her own variety platform, RetroFuturismus, which has been presented in Melbourne, Sydney (Sydney Festival), Brisbane (Wonderlands Festival) and Darwin (Darwin Festival). She has also been the Artistic Director of companies in Adelaide and Melbourne (Vitalstatistix and Melbourne Workers Theatre), and acted regularly in film and television (Sisters, Offspring, The Slap, Summer Heights High, My Year Without Sex).
From Bent Street 3