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Margaret Cameron, Opera for a Small Mammal Margaret Cameron, Opera for a Small Mammal
photo Daisy Noyesv
Margaret Cameron was one of those idiosyncratic performers who—like Judy Davis, Gillian Jones and Cate Blanchett—refashion language as they speak, finding unanticipated spaces and patterns that yield surprising meanings and emotions and thrillingly blur demarcations between character, persona and self. When I read Cameron’s I Shudder to Think: Performance as Philosophy (2015, launched 2016), I hear her and, something more, having seen her perform since the mid 1980s, she is present. But Cameron’s aim is not to revive the memories of privileged audiences, but to deeply engage any reader.

“I hope to lift the words off the page and invite you to audience the stage of acting in the body of the performer.”

She will do the lifting, you will be an active recipient (recipiency is everything in I Shudder to Think and “audience” is a verb with “muscle”) and the stage is not a room, it is the performer’s body.

To achieve this, Cameron’s language has to be special. It is, because it stands alone as poetry of a high order, not only in the performance texts but also in in the essay (part of her PhD) which occupies the first 65 pages of the book, drawing in threads from the scripts that follow in order to weave thought that is restless, theoretical and anecdotal, exulting in a sense of creative renewal, always personal. The theorising lightly anchors the restlessness so that the shifts between thought and recollection, feeling and method cohere and, as in the effect of Cameron’s speech, surprise.

“Feeling thought” is central to the book, experienced by Cameron when a child before the arrival of language, “before form” and, like a Romantic poet, yearned for thereafter. But how do you conceptualise, without divide, the oneness of feeling and thought? Through language, and in Cameron’s case, through performance. She was a prize-winning young elocutionist, if told by adjudicators “my voice was a little shrill. (in-breath) I was highly strung. Who wouldn’t be?”

“All that poetry and all that speaking aloud of thought and sensation had given me a sense of sound...I responded to cadence, caesura, lilt and syntax, was sensitive to modulation, could inflect, articulate with precision and I resonated, Yes, I resonated, but I do not think I resounded.” The desire to ‘resound,’ to be responsive and responded to by others, nature, objects and self drives Cameron throughout I Shudder to Think, but it is both acutely realized and hard won, and it requires thought.

If elocution was to give Cameron a voice, thought did not come easily; at high school she feared “the ‘amputation’ of my sensibilities by the fear of this fear” of thought. A sense of threatened wholeness sat side by side with anxiety about ability right up to the point when the adult Cameron who will write this book “decided to to ‘stop acting’ and start writing. I wondered if I could find words that were not a source of ridicule and alienation.” She manages this late in her career by creating a persona, Regina Josefine del Mouse (in Opera for a small mammal, 2012-14), who is proud of being small and thinks big, thus assuaging a sense of inferiority, and acknowledging “that an artist very often moves towards their greatest difficulty. It is the very thing in the way, the uncomfortable grit of one’s nature and biography that rubs.” So she proceeds to think, working at her irritants, making a PhD, yielding pearls. “The very Grit that worries is to become Pearl./ In the nitty-gritty We change Our Self /By way of Our Reception” (Opera for a Small Mammal).

The ‘grit’ is deeply felt. Two brief poems prelude the essay proper, each involving a panicky exit from a theatre—one in profound envy of a male singer (“Is he the only living being in the whole eternal universe?”). It leaves her howling: “I have swallowed the night in my lungs.” The other, motive unspecified, results in a dash into the dark to “gulp… down the wind and the rain./ (On the out breath) Ah the night!” Feelings are frequently portrayed in terms of extreme physical states, highlighting a strong correspondence between Cameron and nature: “I am a tree stars now for eyes…” Elsewhere it might be a rock and always the move “in/out” between self and nature. When she comes to write her solo performance Things Calypso wanted to say (1989, published in R Allen and K Pearlman, Performing the Unnameable, Currency Press with RealTime, 1999), it was another young mother she turned to, director-writer Jenny Kemp: “With Kemp’s vision and reception the work becomes cartography, a mapping of inner and outer perspectives that change place.” It is Kemp’s “conceptual dramaturgy” that aids in completing the looping of thought and perception. Her project receives sustenance from the thinking and writing of Helene Cixous, Trin T Min-Ha, Luce Irigaray, Marguerite Duras, choreographer and dance conceptualist Deborah Hay and Kemp and Cameron’s conviction that she is writing as a woman, no matter at times how difficult she feels it.

To explain her thesis, Cameron keeps her thinking performative: her works are “scored;” she will “unpack a kind of traveling methodology” in a “performed exegesis;” her work is “sculptural;” “scripts or scores are defined but the actual performance is ‘played’;” “It is easy to do the moves and say the words, but what else is happening?” That is the question. The answer was to be found in perception. She writes that the American choreographer with whom she worked closely from the mid 90s returned her to her body: “…a dancer asked me what I was doing with my body [in a performance]. I said, ‘I am checking I have one’.” This was not simply a physical return, but one rooted in perceptual phenomenology and with conceptual potential to arrive at ‘feeling thought.’ She learnt from Hay that “perception…is the work.... a rule of art and artistic practice. Now the question always returns to how—returning and returning as an infinitely regenerating and self-generating proposal.”

There are blocks to this regeneration, not only ‘the grit,’ but in one of the most alarming of ‘felt’ and panicked images in Cameron’s writing, something larger: “[I have] a crab clamped on my face.” She asks, “How might I…prise from my body a socio-political personal (and cultural) narrative that clings and gags? What is it—a kind of exoskeleton? It is on me and there is no space at all between it and me. Instead I ask: how is it?” She will meet profound anxiety with thought.

A small irritant—a dress purchased but then not wanted—can provoke thought: “What if the dress is a question?” And larger thoughts: “A costume a question?” And on to the nature of performance. “The artist is always first audience to…kinetic transformations. She is the ’I’ yearning for a dimensional experience of the world, the ‘I’ that hears herself hearing herself hear, sees herself seeing herself see, feels herself feeling herself feel. She is the questioner.” In this perpetual loop of self-interrogation “Thinking becomes “an experiment, a practice of thought…Nietzsche’s preparation for the ‘eternal return’ as perceptual …” But some blocks to regeneration are large: where does one fit in the Cultural Corpus?

One of the artist’s irritants is about feeling insignificant, as artist and person, “of not being perceived.” A joke Cameron hears in Berlin is liberating, “The elephant said to the mouse, You are very small, The mouse said to the elephant, I have been sick.” Cameron adopts a persona, Regina Josefine del Mouse, for Opera for a small mammal. She writes, “The mouse stands in for the ‘I’—also the ‘I’ of a larger body, the Cultural Corpus,” asserting that “Difference in Size is is not the thing/ That makes the Difference,/ but rather it is the State of Our Self.” This beautiful final work by Cameron is a declaration, a performative lecture, a summation of thinking with feeling, with and through the body and an 18th century neoclassical ‘I am dealing with big ideas’ boldness, capitalising the first letters of key words. Her self is firm, she is the Cultural Corpus, a mouse and much more despite her introduction: “her domain is the lowercase letters of art,” her people those “who live in the dark behind the scenes.” She is always the democrat, challenging her own status by crying out, “Off with Our Head!”

Cameron arrives at art’s purpose and nature, “Germinating possibilities and delaying closure, opening a view elsewhere, art is a mutable knowledge practice …” “Art is a friend who takes my hand with irony and a libido to generate possibility when closure threatens.” In her performance texts, closure is flatness—domestic for Calypso and mocked “flat flat flat” by Regina—or a drying wind spoken against by the child of a drunken father in a 2005-8 work, the proscenium. The flatness of not being perceived is felt at its worst in Knowledge and Melancholy (1997-2005)—“If you do not perceive me / I will cease to exist”—a devastating account of love betrayed in which Cameron’s Actress persona becomes the maddened Charlotte Corday of Marat/Sade, her final words, “remember me.”

But there’s life in her yet: “The actress dies or falls asleep from boredom. Wait four beats and snore loudly. Fin.” There is wisdom too in Knowledge and Melancholy: “Understanding loss is the recognition that we have loved/ What a strange lesson.”

Questioning, thinking, writing, these will regenerate the writer: “[B]ecoming palpable, palpable/ Engendering Our Pearl against/ The drying wind of all that is Known” returns dimensionality and body.

Language, at one with and in perpetual dialogue with thought and body, powers Cameron’s writing. Her poetry, its sensual and sometimes visceral engagement with the world, makes the exchange palpable in the act of writing: “I shuck the flesh from the shell of the word to hear it resound in the empty pencil-line of its shape. The word, like a conch and like your presence, becomes a greater ear through which to hear my writing amplified (made more not necessarily louder).”

When young Cameron knew she did not ‘resound,’ but in Opera for a small mammal, she knows what she can achieve and with what means: “we hunt the Scent of Thought/ with the pores of Our Flesh…./ Our ears and nostrils flare for Resonance.”

Margaret Cameron will be remembered, her presence felt: “The words are not over once they are said, Speaking is a choreography of the breath…I place the hands of my voice on words, on you who listen and touch a touch that is also within me.”

Read Cameron aloud, starting not with the essay, but in the middle of the book with The proscenium, a necessary return to childhood pain vividly realized, and you will feel the pulse of her poetry and be touched. She writes, “Language is a tool to revolutionise my reception of the world.” Hers does ours.

A last word, about the book’s title. It’s not simply negative, a very real physical response to anticipated fear, but for Cameron a necessity, a shuddering with which to think and to begin again: “[In] the dark depressions of the flat-flat-flat/ We do shudder to think.”

Profound thanks to Ladyfinger Press for publishing an invaluable work, more than a book, that will profit performers and readers for many years to come.

Margaret Cameron died in 2014 after an extensive career in which she worked on stages large and small and other spaces with Richard Wherrett, Nico Lathouris, Chris Barnett, Arne Neeme, Murray Copeland, Rex Cramphorn, Jenny Kemp, Deborah Hay and David Young, among others. The writing in I Shudder to Think was originally a component of her PhD in conjunction with a series of live works: Bang! A Critical Fiction, Knowledge and Melancholy and the proscenium.

In 2000, Virginia Baxter interviewed Margaret Cameron and Ian Scott when they were performing Joanna Murray-Smith’s Nightfall, directed by Jenny Kemp, for the Sydney Theatre Company. It offers further insights into Cameron the actor.

Our obituary for Margaret includes links to RealTime reviews of her performances.

Margaret Cameron, I Shudder to Think, Performance as Philosophy, Ladyfinger Press, Brisbane, 2016

RealTime issue #133 June-July 2016 pg.

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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