My Audience with Meow Meow.
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending an hour on the phone with Meow Meow, who's been captivating audiences at Berkeley Rep with her new show An Audience with Meow Meow. The conversation roamed across dozens of topics and subjects: her taste in art, her admiration for the charisma and talents of Justin Vivian Bond, opera director Barrie Kosky's Poppea, Can-Can dancer and Toulouse Lautrec muse La Goulue, the influence on her of the Marchesa Luisa Casati, German Expressionism, the responsibilities of performers, Nina Simone, her deep gratitude and appreciation for Pina Bausch, her relationship with Barry Humphries, and much more. Despite being relaxed after having just come from a massage, she proved hard to keep up with, recalling films, artists, dates and names with incredible quickness and range. She's a true renaissance woman.
I began by confessing to her that having seen each of them perform in recent months, I believed she, Storm Large, and Clairy Browne would make the perfect cast for a remake of Russ Meyer's Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! She found the idea hilarious, and it set us off on the right foot. She'd been spending long days preparing for the opening of the show, and now that the show had opened she felt "completely knackered, which is why I'm having a lovely massage today."
I misheard knackered as naked, prompting an impertinent question on my part. Her reply led us quickly into a discussion on art, and that is where we began our hour-long conversation.
Meow Meow: I've just been looking at this artist I'm really into, Clara Tice, who was an early Dada illustrator in New York and quite scandalous. There was an exhibition of her work in some café, I think in 1915, that got shut down by the chief of police or something like that, so she got instant stardom and there's a painting of hers of Mary Nash, who was a vaudeville performer that looks very, very much like me I have to say, so I've been doing lots of research on this artist and she's done all sorts of fantastic sort of semi-erotica, really, but one of the phrases from her 1922 publication was she was more than naked, and I love that-- what is more than naked?
MR: You've spent a lot of time in Germany, and I have an interest in German Expressionism, artists like Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann. I'm fascinated by their critical eye on the social aspects of Weimar culture, especially Dix, who painted the performers, musicians, politicians, the hookers and people in the streets and in the clubs. Tell me your thoughts about how artists are representing this moment in time, and some of the artists you have your eye on.
Meow: I guess now with YouTube and the internet there's this incredible smattering of information we can get but often it's out of context, isn't it? It's fantastic that everything is at your fingertips, but at the same time, it's just a clip from this or a tiny bit of that, and you're not getting the whole social context from which it sprang. It can still be super affecting, but it's a strange, kind of jump-cut social psyche that I think we have now because of that non-linear, that non-follow through, and always doing numerous things at once which of course is much closer to how the brain functions. It sort of worries me in the contemporary terrain, because while I love the barrage of images we get, at the same time it sometimes feels disloyal to me, or not honoring where they came from, and we now view art in what can seem a very superficial way.
At the same time, I'm uncertain because I also think the history speaks in the paintings or the photographs, or in a line from a song, so maybe you don't need the whole thing, maybe you do just need a refrain or one image of Otto Dix's and then actually you've got the shards of Weimar sticking to you. I'm not sure how I feel about that, so in terms of contemporary artists, I think it's fundamental to respond to what's around them, and it's a kind of jumpcut world that we're in at the moment, isn't it? I find it overwhelming, actually. With the access to news that we have, the barrage of it, it's overwhelming to me. The world is exploding-- as an artist, how do you respond to that? I think Stephen Colbert is one of the most interesting artists around.
MR: Do you really watch him? Where do you find the time?
Meow: I really love him. One makes time. You must catch up on the American news and that's the best way. To me, that level of satire and social engagement, is where art and politics combine in a brilliant way, because it reaches a lot of people as well. That's an interesting artist.
MR: It often seems, and I'm going to include Jon Stewart in this, their take on the news, and their perspective, is more accurate despite its satirical intent. There's something disturbing about that to me.
Meow: Absolutely, but it makes me relieved, because the political spirit of Weimar cabaret is alive and well in Stephen Colbert. Cindy Sherman always does it for me. I'm a big fan of the French artist Sophie Calle, who does all sorts of fascinating pieces. She'd be quite terrifying I think in real life-- you'd end up deconstructed and reconstructed in one of her artworks.
There's my darling friend Adrienne Truscott, who's just had a show called Adreienne Truscott's Asking For It, a one woman rape about comedy, starring her pussy and little else. She's very interesting, as a performance artist, a dancer, a choreographer, she's one-half of the Wau Wau Sisters. It's thrilling to see her make a really brainy, hilarious and confrontational stand-up routine that deconstructs stand-up as a whole, using rape jokes, and whether or not that's okay, and who gets to use them. It's fascinating. She just had a huge hit in Edinburgh with that show. That's the performance art that I enjoy, completely hilarious and shocking.
MR: Let's talk about Anita Berber. How did you discover her?
Meow: She's infamous. I saw a midnight movie [Anita: Dances of Vice (1988)] and I came in midway through it, where you really have no idea what's going on, and it was made by a German filmmaker, Rosa von Praunheim, and I think it's from the 80s, and it has a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant actress, Lotti Huber, who's playing an elderly woman who's going a little bit mad in a mental asylum, and then it sort of flashes back to the 20s with these Expressionist dance moments of Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste, her charlatan partner, and it's a super over-the-top 80s, garish, marvelous, wild, hallucinatory film. I was completely obsessed with it, and I tried to find out what was and who was in it, and it was Anita Berber and so I began to research her.
[Bay Area professor/writer] Mel Gordon had published some of her extraordinary scripts, and reading them, I found them similar to Otto Dix and all those Expressionist painters, really, full of sex and morality, prostitution, death and murder, suicide, cocaine and opium, it's potent, but someone who absolutely lived life for the expression of passion in an artistic way, I think, as well as famously urinating on her punters as it were, during a show. It's very interesting being in Berlin now. Everything is much more neat and tidy. I went to a hilarious sort of reconstruction of an Anita Berber piece and it was so terribly tame. It was not at all what I imagine it was during that era, with that good, healthy German obsession with the body, and bodily functions.
There's the famous portrait by Dix, and there's a fantastic portrait of her in a gown that's temptingly open. She's fascinating. I have the films that she appeared in but there's not a lot. She died a pauper [in 1928], drug-addicted, but certainly hedonism at its best and when you read her writing, its obsessed with the theatricalization of this.
MR: Do you view her as a kindred spirit?
Meow: I do. I think I would have found her terrifying. But you must also remember I saw that film when I was a teenager and it was so strange, a 1980's German queer filmmaker version of Berlin German Expressionism viewed a decade later, so I've got a magnificently perverse view. Which is not to say that there aren't a lot of magnificent contemporary artists out there. There are actually loads. I just find that I'm drawn to the experimental. One of my favorite artists is Gustave Moreau, an early French Symbolist painter, and going to his museum in Paris, when you actually see the paintings, and they're often images of Salome, and these very exotic, fantastic images in the flesh, or in the oil as it were, it has the most contemporary sort of almost tattooing over the canvas, and you look at his work and think where did that man come from? I've never seen anything like it, and it's from the 1880s, and it's work with almost Aztec-like tattoos over the canvas. Fascinating. Where did that come from? I love those people where you feel they got something, some extraordinary collision of ideas that became something new. It's thrilling. I'm constantly mulling over our role, and how you can justify being an artist.
MR: Why do you think it needs justification?
Meow: Because often in the theater you are already preaching to the converted. After the show you get people who come and talk to you and hear all sorts of different perspectives on what resonates with people and I do believe in the community of the theater and the catharsis and the role of the artist to channel griefs and joys and somehow heal, I guess, but there other times where I think I should just be working in a women's refuge and what am I doing? But I'm probably more useful now at a gala raising money for the women's refuge. You can't be looking at the New York Times every day and thinking "I'd better not put on my costume today." But you have to be wondering what you're doing and you have to believe in it.
MR: Was there a part of that in The Little Match Girl? From what I know about that show you carried over some of the message of it to An Audience with Meow Meow.
Meow: Yes, Absolutely. The Match Girl was specifically about child homelessness, which at that point was 20,000 kids in Australia every night and 60,000 in the U.K., because that was a Christmas fairytale, which is a morality tale in a way. It's such a short fairytale but it's still relevant. I'd seen a documentary about a center run by the Salvation Army in Sydney where they're battling every night about who gets a bed. It's an unstoppable engagement with drugs that a lot of the kids had. For these kids there's nothing more inviting than getting high, they're not engaged in any other way. It was such a distressing documentary I felt I can't not engage with this.
This show isn't a "best of" but does include some reworking of earlier material from my show for a bigger theatrical context here and I still feel I want to say "Be Careful," that's really what I want to say and I can't get away from that Patty Griffith song as the fundamental thing that I feel the world needs. It worries me. Why are there so many homeless people here on the streets of Berkeley? There's a kind pride that homeless people can exist here but at the same time I wonder why are the institutions closed, why are there no beds, why are there no shelters? It's very confronting. It feels like we could care more.
Those are the things from The Little Match Girl that carry over. [An Audience] is an attempt to have Anita Berber tell the Match Girl story that goes horribly wrong. They're both very true shows in that I am feeling all the time what am I doing, and if you've experienced any sort of loss in one's own life, and you feel the loss of friends or children or you just think how do we keep perpetuating this loss on a mass scale? If you've experienced it you wonder how do we let it go on? Does the obsession with money mean that we lost that extraordinary gush of love that comes with a new soul? I feel we're far off the track. If mothers love their children so much how have we gotten to a point in the world where we're not being careful? It worries me, and I think that's part of the reason why Anita Berber, going back to her, and these less-famous figures are so interesting to me, and that era particularly and the depiction of women because you just feel that there are endless unsung woman who did just disappear, who absolutely gave their souls and changed people's lives and are not remembered. I'm always battling those two strains, grappling with history and responsibility, wanting to be careful, which brings me back to the Patty Griffith song. Really I just want to say that: be careful.
MR: I thought that was the perfect ending for the show. It sneaks up on you, then it hits you in the head that this was where you heading all along. It's powerful and beautifully done.
Meow: That song is like a prayer for humanity. It's so simple, and the observation are so, I don't want to say banal, but they're so everyday- girls on the telephone, girls on the corner, it's just beautiful, and it's not obviously specific to women, I think it's about all of humanity.
Another one is a song that's been cut from the show, "Surabaya Johnny," which is probably my favorite song. They never get tired to me because they keep giving you different crevices to explore, different resonances that are so true in their writing. It's wonderful.
MR: On a side note, have you ever sung "Alabama Song"?
Meow: Yes, I have, in another life with the Pina Bausch Company. I often feel on the road "Here we go.." I did The Threepenny Opera with the London Philharmonic and I love Brecht so much but it is intense, you're screaming at the audience, basically, that the world is bad, and my head is bad. I guess that's why in a strange way I prefer the tortured, heartbroken nature of "Surabaya Johnny" to the completely bleak view of human nature. But I love that music so much. I'm doing Seven Deadly Sins next year in London, and hopefully in Australia with an orchestra. It's a bleak piece, it's bleak.
MR: Can you come do it in San Francisco?
Meow: I'd love to. Let's get the San Francisco Symphony to hurry up and invite me.
MR: They should do that!
Meow: Shouldn't they? I did a fantastic piece with Barry Humphries, you know, Dame Edna? He is a huge collector of Expressionist art and he's had that obsession since he was about fourteen, as have I, and he came across a suitcase of sheet music, all from an owner in Vienna, when he was a schoolboy in Melbourne he found the suitcase which had obviously come up just before the war, or maybe during, I don't know, from a fugitive, a refugee, and he began this obsession as a teenager trying to find out about these composers who had all been written out of the history books, viewed as degenerate.
MR: Do you mean like Alexander Zemlinsky and Erwin Schulhoff?
Meow: Yes, exactly. And the in 70s he found Ernst Krenek living in Palm Springs. Then during the 80s he was going to his dentist in London and he saw the name Spoliansky on a doorbell, and this is what I love about Barry, instead of just walking past he thought well I wonder if he's related to Mischa Spolianksy, who wrote a lot of those early Weimar songs, and he rang the doorbell and Spoliansky himself answered the door. He and Barry became friends until Spoli's death, and 5:30 every night Dietrich would call from Paris because she was still friends with Spoliansky. Barry and I did show together with the Australian Chamber Orchestra of a lot of those lost and banned Weimar works, including the Schulhoff Sonata Erotica, which I nearly put in this show.
MR: Why didn't you?
Meow: Well, I had to go a little bit with the director [Emma Rice], I'm trying to collaborate. I'm a very simple person to work with, obviously, and let's not forget we had Broadway money going into this, but she might go back in. The "Sonata Erotica" is hilarious, a deconstruction of the orgasm, a completely fantastic Dada piece from 1919. It's like a really early piece of graphic music notation, way prior to John Cage. But [in the shows I did with Barry Humphries] there was beautiful Hindemith, there was Spolianksy, we did some Weill works. The ACO is one of the top orchestras in the world, it was just thrilling with Tognetti on violin. I felt really saved by that show I have to say, we toured it to all the concert halls in Australia, and I hope it will go on. I found a sort of soul mate in Barry, who of course is an international treasure, and to work with him on something we were both passionate about really saved me. He's a great believer in beauty and eccentricity and passion and ever curious. Thrilling.
MR: Isn't he retired now?
Meow: No, he's about to do a massive tour of Dame Edna's Glorious Goodbye farewell concert. He just had a huge success with it at the London Palladium. I hope we do something together again. If I was to talk about contemporary artists, it's still Barry. I know he's most famous for Dame Edna in this country but he's lived a lifetime of art, you know, Dada, extraordinary satire. So funny, so vicious and brilliant. Yes, he's one of my favorites in world.
MR: Let me ask you about the role of men in this show.
Meow: Yes, they're very useful.
MR: They're useful, but they also seem to be a hindrance and create obstacles.
Meow: It's not gender specific, I have to say, that's only happened by accident. Quite often I'm looking for women to bring up on stage, but I really just go for the first able-bodied person that I see. It's not at all gender specific.
MR: I meant the men who are part of the show, not the people in the audience.
Meow: No, if we were allowed to have more of a cast, we'd have more of a cast. And in terms of the crew, it's women everywhere. It's just the dancing boys who double as everything. But one has to set up a little stereotypical view of a diva or it would fall apart fairly fast.
MR: When I first read you were going to do this show in Berkeley I wondered how it would go over. The Berkeley audience is kind of unique.
Meow: It is, it is unique, it's such an intelligent audience it's thrilling. But it's also kind of territorial. It's interesting to me as word of mouth gets out, people come to me after the show when I'm signing CDs and say "I thought it was going to be this, and I thrilled it turned into something else." But it's such an intelligent audience, which I enjoy. We've had standing ovations every night, but we'll never be everybody's cup of tea. But when people are standing for "All the Girls" it does feel like a beautiful, strange church where we're all together. The lights are up, and we can all see each other. It's beautiful.