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Melissa Madden Gray Melissa Madden Gray
Heidrun Löhr
Melissa Madden Gray is a striking performer, whether in ELISION ensemble’s Liza Lim-Beth Yahp opera, Moon Spirit Feasting (formerly Yue Ling Jie, Adelaide Festival 2000, Melbourne Festival October 2001) or in Richard Foreman’s My Head Was a Sledgehammer for the Kitchen Sink company (Belvoir Downstairs, B Sharp, Sydney). Both are demanding works revealing the acting, singing, dancing and choreographic range of Madden Gray’s talents. She arrives for the interview with a touch of the flu, anxious about her voice—she’s performing nightly in the Foreman and rehearsing the opera during the day. But she is driven—no sooner has she been offered a seat and tea, than she’s whipped out the score of Moon Spirit Feasting and is demonstrating its vocal riches, how Lim has scored these and remonstrating with herself for singing when she shouldn’t.

When ELISION contacted me I had to do a demo tape. They’d heard about the work I’d done with Opera Factory in London which was a fairly extreme mixture of physical and vocal delirium. They had in mind a mezzo soprano with acrobatic skills. The framework for the demo was “chesty, nasal, guttural, Chinesey.” I stood in front of the microphone and I couldn’t find a way in to make those noises. This was during the horrors of know that mass media imagery of all those women in trucks being carted off and that incredible keening, wailing. I couldn’t get it out of my head and the deadline was coming up to send the tape in and, ruthlessly, I used it. But it was honest in that I couldn’t stop thinking, what are we seeing in the world and what we are doing as performers and artists. Liza incorporated the essence of that demo into a chunk of the score—the Ghost Feeding scene. I had to re-process her processing of my ‘noise’ and then find a way into that but with her structure around it, still giving me quite a bit of room to improvise. That’s what’s exciting about working with a living composer.

Can you describe some of the sounds that you had to learn?

She’s making my voice sound like a Chinese gong, using microtonal inflections, throat distortions, gasps, ululations, exhalations, harsh whisperings, extreme crazy vibrati. Sometimes she talks about Chinese Opera parody. There’s Mandarin in there which is very heightened. There’s street Cantonese which is really rough as I discovered when I had some coaching in somebody’s office and caused heads to turn! They’re all the things that come out when you play with the voice and start looking at extreme forms of expression that don’t come out with the general social and theatrical preoccupation with beauty or with careful grotesqueness. Understandably, most opera singers don’t want to push their voices to those limits.

You find ways of placing less stress on the voice. The hardest thing for me with this music is actually being sensible because it is so fantastic. Once you’ve deconstructed it and put it back together again, and put it in your body, it’s hard to do it half-heartedly. I can’t really make those noises unless I really hurl myself into it. Half way through the opera, where I’m pretty “possessed”—and I have simultaneous images of empowerment and disempowerment—I am a vessel for various hungry ghosts and I’ve got all sorts of geisha rape images and Bangkok prostitutes going through my head—it’s hard to put a lid on it. But I had to because for the other half of the opera I’m singing very high and very purely and I simply can’t get those notes if I’ve shredded my voice.

Beijing Opera is very formal. How does this form connect with it?

I did a lot of research before we started, particularly a trip to Singapore and Penang with the director, Michael Kantor, and the designer, Dorotka Sapinska, and looking at the Hungry Ghost Festival that the opera is based on. In Penang, there are shrines on every corner and street theatres where these performances are in constant play to the hungry ghosts who are let out once a year for a month—basically, ghosts who have no descendants to worship them and therefore need assuaging and distracting with constant performance and offerings. Moon Spirit Feasting is based on those street theatre operas which are now in very tawdry form. You can see very old people mouthing the words but a lot of young people don’t know what’s going on. It’s much more fashionable to have a karaoke night or these incredible performances where starlets leap out of black limos and jump on stage and do a couple of numbers in clear plastic raincoats, yodelling...

ELISION’s opera has the feeling of a bridge between something esoteric and something very contemporary. It’s sexy, it’s plastic, the design is almost Foremanesque with its little box stage..

Liza’s very interested in the necessity of ritual and you see it in Penang because people are burning effigies while they’re on their mobile phones. It’s part superstitious and part really entrenched in the psyche. But this work never feels like it’s just a pastiche.

So how do you see the character you play?

It’s like the women performing in the street theatres in Penang during the festival and then she is also an ancient demon goddess who, in various forms of the myth, is either evil or good, fertile or infertile. I was also influenced, in researching this, by the sex clubs we went to in Bangkok. There’s a whole chunk of the opera, The Bridal Bed, where the entire sex manual—

—that’s when some of the audience start to get a little agitated.

Fantastic, I say! What’s art for? I tried to incorporate some of that as well. I had written a lot about the body in performance and pornography as part of my degree at Melbourne University. I did Arts Law and Honours in Fine Arts and German and was doing the final bits of my Law degree while I was still at drama school at WAAPA (West Australian Academy of Performing Arts).

An artist should always have yet another skill.

As much as I could I made it performance-related and I did the final exams when I was rehearsing with Opera Factory in London. By day I was this shrieking primal force and by night I was sitting saying, hmm, trust accounts.

What took you to WAAPA?

I’d had dance training. I had an extraordinary teacher—Merilyn Byrne. She was very strict but her major concern really was the joy of children dancing. I know now how unusual that is. She died last year but I realise now, I knew all the time, she was sort of my creative mother. I miss her terribly. Merilyn was so into the drama of it. She always had a monologue running over the top of everything—(SINGS) “The-ere is the hat for me, run, run, run....” It all had a sing-song thing which I think inadvertently led to my wanting to speak while I was moving.

So you always knew you’d go on to become a performer even with the arts law degree?

I was a stupidly over-imaginative child. I thought I was Elizabeth I for a period of time when I saw Glenda Jackson at age 3 or something. I was always performing. I had the full dance training in ballet and contemporary and jazz. I had a fabulous drama teacher at school and I was singing all the way through and also my mother used to take me to the Pram Factory when I was a wee thing and I would insist on going again and again to the same show, seeing people like Evelyn Krape and Tony Taylor and Sue Ingleton and, later, Robyn Archer. They are my strongest childhood memories. My grandfather was always taking me to the opera and Gilbert & Sullivan. So it was a very theatrical childhood. They’re all lawyers, so there was the simultaneous thing of, well, that’s lovely but of course, you’ll get a sensible career.

What were you performing at university?

It was really quite a hotbed of experimentation—Kosky, Kantor, Lucien Savron. It was a really exciting time and it set me up with an idea of the possibilities of theatre. And then I had a scholarship to go to Berlin. It was this strange world of cultural clashes and essential truths. There was an International Theatre Institute World Congress and I was the Australian rep to the actors’ workshops and I happened to be placed with the Butoh director, Tadashi Endo, who’s based in Germany. That was mind blowing—my first experience of Butoh—especially having come from a movement based background and then to be opened up in a totally different way. As I’d shifted more into ‘acting’, I’d almost had to negate myselfas a dancer, to get weightier or more grounded. This was a different way back into the body. As much as my dance training was incredibly theatrical, you’re still working with that upwards and outwards energy and that I-won’t-breathe-till-I-get-offstage sort of thing. So to suddenly to be thrown into such a primal movement world, which made so much sense, it was really quite extraordinary. At the same time I saw Pina Bausch do Cafe Müller. I had seen her work on video before but to be working in such a supposedly ‘foreign’ theatre form but feel that it absolutely related to tanz theater made sense to me about, I guess, where I am now, using everything I have.

So it helped to place you?

Yes, to say this is all you and these are all modes of expression and when it works it’s about the most pure, terrifying, visceral parts of us. I found that exciting because it’s natural for me to combine sound and body and not to divide them.

This is often seen in the West as hybridity rather than unity.

Hybrid is a great term in some ways but it sounds watered down to me rather than a built-up, holistic thing. Maybe we should refer to everything else as ‘divided’. The work that I’m attracted to, the people that I really love working with, are the ones who force you to confront why you censor.

After Berlin, you went to the Opera Factory?

First I went back to Melbourne University and wrote up my thesis on Annie Sprinkle and the body in performance. That was huge to work on because it felt like I couldn’t disengage from it in an academic or cerebral way. I started from a really anti-porn position, I guess, and the more I read, the more I started to think the more porn the better, the more in control of it people are the better, the fewer chances for exploitation, the more we realise the difference between fantasy and reality, the more we unlock the spirit, the less dangerous it is in repression. Having said that, then seeing those Bangkok sex clubs, I felt that I should re-write my thesis. You know, I’m an educated, white, middle class woman and, of course, speaking in relation to performance art and strip and exotica and pornography in a specific sphere. When I was faced with poverty en masse and desperation, obvious blatantly to do with power and money and the Western dollar, it was horrific. So I did re-enact a scene of that in the opera because I felt so broken by what I’d seen. And if you can’t respond in your artform then I don’t think you can justify being an artist. There are times I think I should be working in a women’s refuge where I can maybe tangibly measure—today I gave this person this phone number or took them and put them into a safe place. So I want to do that in my art and not make it a separate performance for people in the know.

This has been the great appeal of contemporary performance from the 70s onwards, where you can comment directly on your own experience, make your own life the material of your work.

It’s interesting now to know where to take that. I was in New York recently and I saw quite a lot of performance art and there’s such an expectation now for it to be transgressive. Where do you go from there? I saw John Fleck who was one of the NEA 4 and there was this great moment where he put newspaper on the floor and was about to shit and then didn’t. The only way he could now be subversive was not to be.

What made you decide you needed WAAPA?

I think I needed to feel that I had the training. I did Music Theatre but they sold me the course very much in terms of contemporary music theatre more than musicals. And they let me do plays with the theatre school and classes with the dance faculty and work professionally in third year. It was a fantastic place to be, particularly because of the people they brought through. David Freeman from the Opera Factory did a workshop for the STC and he used some of us. To meet and work with him just re-connected me with all of my instincts about what theatre should be. It was totally timely. His way of working is so extreme but I like that.

How is it extreme?

He says, why would you do an improvisation half-heartedly? That’s 2 hours of your life gone! He’s gathered all sorts of exercises and techniques from all over the world. He draws on trance and primal forces and he puts you very quickly into a place where you can’t con yourself. It’s the same with Butoh where you go straight to ‘the thing.’ So his method is to hurl you into a whole lot of situations where something might happen, those blissful moments of no-mind, when you’re not censoring yourself....It’s not indulgent, huggy theatre. It’s about life being short and getting rid of the rubbish and going straight to the essence of things.

Which shows did you do with him?

I did a workshop in Japan on Chikamatsu’s The Love Suicide at Amijima. Chikamatsu is Japan’s Shakespeare. And that was fascinating because there was a fabulous Welsh actor who’d worked a lot with the Royal Shalespeare Company, a Butoh performer now based in Paris, a Japanese soapie actress, a punk rock singer, a straight theatre actor and me. It was absolutely wild. We were doing the David Freeman version of this ancient play and because we didn’t have a common language we had to work in the most primal way. We all came from different performance traditions. In Britain David has this radical opera reputation. He’s got that preoccupation with the body and nudity on stage.

He’s still a provocateur after all these years.

He’s says, “I just can’t help it. They’re just so easy to shock!” So in London I did the final Opera Factory show called And the Snake Sheds Its Skin by Habib Faye, a West African composer, who writes most of Yousso N’ Dour’s music, and a British theatre composer, Adrian Lee on the epic of Gilgamesh. So you had David playing Monteverdi, Phillip Glass, rock’n’roll, all of these different musical genres. For Habib it had no chronological significance and none of the weight of a western canon. It was just music. And David was playing him that and he’s got this fantastic West African pop sensibility and he’s putting this ancient text to music and then it was being morphed into theatre again by a British theatre composer. That’s the kind of collaboration that I love.

Then you came back to Australia?

That production toured around the UK, then I worked with the composer John White. I came back and, since then, I’ve done the opera with ELISION and more recently lots of commercials and mainstream theatre.

These are survival gigs for you?

The commercials are but I just love performing. I am energised by that variety. Recently I played Hedy La Rue in the musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying for The Production Company. The following week I did a webcast to the Amsterdam Festival for their closing night, John Cage Song Books. I’d made 3 short films for them and we did this insane live webcast at 5.30 in the morning. The program included people like Joan La Barbara and Sonic Youth—quite a fantastic line-up. The piece that I did was a video duet with my mouth pre-filmed on a Satie phrase, “Et tout cela m’est advenu par la faute de la musique”—“all of that is the fault of music.” And I’d just got back from New York where I’d seen so much well-meaning self-conscious art and some pockets of inspiration but a lot of things that really made me think I’m not gonna find the answer in any city; it’s got to be about collaborating with interesting people globally. The John Cage Song Books sort of encapsulated the joy and exhaustion of the compulsion to create.

It would be very hard to find someone else to do Moon Spirit Feasting the way you do it. But on the other hand, it’s not your work, though you’ve contributed substantially to it. Do you want to build your own repertoire?

I’m doing a crazy 60s deconstructed French cabaret character, Miaow Meow, who is becoming quite a force. She’s emerging but she’s performed for the Totally Huge music gang in Perth at Club Zho with Lindsay Vickery. She’ll do some gigs at the Melbourne Festival. I realise how much of my work is about the shift between sexuality and fetishisation. With Lindsay, I’m working on all those pieces, feeding them into a program that will reconstruct them into totally new songs which I’ll perform as a kind of cyber 60s cabaret girl who’s broken down and come back together again in a new musical framework.

You don’t feel any contradiction? You talked about how Butoh and working with Freeman gave you a holistic sense of total focus and energy where you could suspend that sense of consciousness and yet still be true to the work. Nonetheless, here you are doing a range of work that might make some think, well, yes, she can do Moon Spirit Feasting and the Foreman, but How To Succeed In Business...?

It’s a fantastic part! It’s hilarious. And you’ve got 2000 people at the State Theatre in Melbourne every night who really love it. Always this perceived dichotomy! Rodney Fisher directed me in Design for Living at the MTC and will direct me in Masterclass later this year and was co-producer of My Head Was a Sledgehammer. He’s an extraordinary man who’s obsessed with language and text and he’s got the same kind of intense brain as David Freeman—same but different. They’re just people who are passionate about theatre and getting the essence of you. That’s exciting. I don’t see a difference.

You’re happily based in Australia?

Yes, but I think it’s creatively deadly defining yourself by or limiting yourself to any particular place or scene. I love travelling and the global collaboration that technology facilitates. I’m very excited to do the tour (of Moon Spirit Feasting) to Berlin and Paris next year. Hopefully I’m also doing Dennis Cleveland at the Lincoln Centre with Mikel Rouse. His music is the opposite to Liza Lim’s in many ways but it’s the same in that he’s absolutely specific. He draws on his culture which in this case is TV talk shows, New York. It’s totally different but it makes sense to me to work with those people. They are honest. That’s what makes them interesting. I don’t think there’s pretension in that work, which is what I’m terrified of as a performer. I want to keep finding the ‘real’…even though it’s always shifting.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 4-5

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