Pam Ann, Mardi Gras 2008 et al
08 February 2008
Ladies and gentleman, for your own comfort, please disembark if the engine explodes. Passengers who are dead may remain seated, however please observe the no-smoking signs. A choice of drinks will be available after the crash: these include melted snow, your own urine, or Red Bull. But we recommend the urine.
A Melbourne girl can fly far, especially when she makes a screaming getaway from the suburbs. Caroline Reid might have been forgiven for telling herself she’d finally made it big when hired by Elton John to entertain a private jet full of celebrities en route to his partner David Furnish’s 40th birthday in Venice a few years back.
But her alter ego, Pam Ann, she of the air hostess powder blue frock and 60s bonnet hat and with a penchant for downgrading unattractive passengers to economy, was having none of this star-struck nonsense.
Reid had a sore throat on the day, making Pam more monstrous than ever. “You know when you’re a little bit sick, and you just don’t give a shit?” Reid recalls laughing on the line from London, where she has lived for most of the past decade.
The act played beautifully: the likes of Victoria Beckham and Lulu loved being barked at to sit down, teased that they were going to a different destination, then warned the aircraft was going to blow up. “It went down so well because they’re used to people licking their arses,” Reid says.
It’s no wonder Elton and David, the highest-profile civil unionised celebrities in all of Britain, love Pam Ann. Her typical audience includes a lot of gay men, many of them flight attendants. At a previous Sydney gig she found a retired Qantas captain in the audience, put a cap on him, sat him on stage and gave him first-class treatment all night.
Pam may look a little like a world-weary and conniving drag queen lamenting the day the old Albury Hotel became a shoe store, but her creator is in fact a heterosexual woman from Melbourne’s Vermont – near Pinoak Court, where they film Neighbours, or, as Reid so delicately puts it, “where the scrubbers are from”.
Reid studied art at TAFE in suburban Dandenong, but “dreamed of getting the hell out of suburbia”. Pam was born as an improvised stage act in 1996 while Reid was working as a nightclub promoter at Melbourne’s Lounge bar. The character’s 60s glam leaning was inspired by Reid’s own mother, Dilys, “who has always been very glamorous”.
“Mum so could have been a flight attendant; she’s been a receptionist all her life at a tourism bureau – seen the switch from typewriters to computers, has the long nails, you know,” Reid says. “But she doesn’t swear. As the years have gone on Pam’s become more filthy, but mum’s not like that.”
For the filth, we can probably blame the core fans attracted to the risqué. “I started with the blank canvas of Pam, but the gays have created the monster,” Reid says. “I blame the gays! I say that when I go out on the scene: Look what you’ve created!”
Other random Pam Ann fans include the same two drag queens who turn up in high boots and short skirts and sit quietly in the London audience, and two 16-year-old girls – one with purple hair – who constantly send Pam messages via My Space to get them into gigs despite being underage. “I used to hang out with trannies [transsexuals] when I was 16,” Reid reminisces. “They used to get
The cyber world of poking and hugging and friend matching has brought Pam a whole new generation of fans. Recently, an 11-year-old boy emailed Pam to inform her he had played one of her YouTube videos at school. “My teacher didn’t like it very much,” he wrote.
Pam Ann recently played some New York shows. Her US fans do like to vocalise: they scream before she’s even said a word.
Reid’s influences include Barry Humphries, Billy Connolly and Eddie Izzard. But why does Melbourne produce so many comedians, from Reid to Humphries to Bob Downe to Magda Szubanski to Kath and Kim? “I guess you’ve got to see the funny side of things, otherwise you’d cry.”
British Airways has now coopted Pam Ann for a series of commercials. Perhaps the airline is trying to nobble Reid, given she does another flight attendant character, Mona Lot, a whining, abusive “BA bitch” cabin attendant.
Still, Reid’s own life seems to be throwing up new camp possibilities for scripts.
She has a new boyfriend. His name is Manoli, a Greek yoga instructor whom she met on Mykonos. The day he first came to see her show, Reid recalls it was her worst performance because she was so self-conscious.
“Then he came backstage and said it was very rude,” Reid laughs. “He didn’t quite get it, and said I should stop swearing. He’s so Greek. But over the months he’s warmed to it.”
Pam Ann plays the Lyric Theatre, Star City, on February 22 and 23 at 8pm.
The decadance began almost a decade ago, over dinner one cold night in Montreal. Fashion show stylist and makeup artist Serge Deslauriers had spent the 1990s as a puppeteer employee of Canada’s Theatre Sans Fil, making and performing with big, heavy puppets, but dreaming of branching out with his own boutique-size, adaptable characters.
Deslauriers, who sculpts and moulds his own puppets, designing and sewing their wigs and costumes, invited fellow stage performers Enock Turcotte and Raynald Michaud over for a meal that night in 1999. He put Angelique Kidjo’s cover version of George Gershwin’s
on the stereo, and brought out one of his puppets.
Something clicked as Kidjo’s harmonising filled the room. The trio have a similar sense of humour, and improvised with puppet play for hours over wine and song. Deslaurier spoke of his ambition for a new type of show, where performer and puppet combined for sensual and fluid movement.
Turcotte’s background in dance and choreography complemented Deslaurier’s ideas. All three thought performers should be visible to audiences – not hidden in the dark as Theatre Sans Fil insisted.
“I fell in love with Serge’s puppets,” Turcotte recalls now. “We didn’t know quite what had happened, but we got the chills, and started a company right there and then.”
“Most of the time in puppetry, puppets are made to serve a text; usually text is more important than movement,” Deslauriers explains. “But that’s not what I wanted, and in Enock I found someone who thinks the same way. The puppets can still serve the text, but they have to move.”
The performers formed SOMA International. Now, Deslauriers and Turcotte have fulfilled a long-held dream by bringing themselves and one of their shows to Australia for the first time. Having performed in the Spiegeltent as part of the La Clique all-star shows in the Sydney Festival last month, they are this month presenting Cabaret Decadanse at the Opera House as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
From an innocent-looking sock puppet that can be quite filthy trying to undress his performer to a group of Diva-like puppets with attitude, the sensibility of Cabaret Decadanse is proudly “queer”, although the show has scored both gay and straight fans, from polite Japanese audiences to raucous Spanish crowds.
Deslauriers and Turcotte have been staying in the bohemian Regents Court Hotel in the back of Kings Cross this past month. Sitting on the hotel’s garden rooftop, they describe their puppets, including the divas, as “pieces of us”, but they do look outside themselves for ideas: they have felt inspired by the flight of the fruit bats over the Emerald City at dusk, and loved the view from here of the New Year’s Eve fireworks.
So why did such inspiration come from Montreal? “Well, it’s so cold outside you stay inside and create,” Deslauriers says with a grin.
“A friend once told me, and I think he said something really true, that Montreal has one foot in American productivity, and one foot in French refinement.”
In their shows, the performers’ legs and torsos mingle with the puppet parts, and even though the pair is absorbed on stage with their characters, their facial expressions are there for audiences to see. Deslauriers is not frightened if he accidentally laughs: “I’ve learned you just need to be yourself, because that’s what the public likes.”
The ability to adapt and explore are critical to prevent the work growing stale. “For some reason that we can’t explain, we’re at exactly the same place mentally,” Deslauriers says. “But we don’t say it to each other. We just play the music and improvise. I don’t have to look at Enock, but I can feel him next to me exactly. We need to make surprises not only for the audience, but for the two of us.”
Deslauriers admits some audiences have a prejudice about puppetry. “They automatically assume it’s for children,” he says. “By the time the third character in the show comes out, you can see the audience just abandon themselves. The biggest compliment we get is when people say after the show, ‘My God, the time just went like this’” – Deslauriers snaps his fingers – “’And I didn’t think about any of my problems.’ It can be almost like a healing process.”
Some of the show’s songs are chosen for gay references. “As much as the show is for everybody, there’s a definite queer quality to it,” Deslauriers says. “Very campy and edgy. I think Mardi Gras is the perfect setting for us.
“But it’s not about, hey, we’re gay, it’s about let’s have fun.”
Cabaret Decadanse plays The Studio at Sydney Opera House, February 12 to 23.
Perhaps she’s mellowing at the prospect of turning 40, or maybe San Francisco-born Korean-American queer stand up comic Margaret Cho always was a bit of a flower child at heart. It’s hard to tell, but there doesn’t seem to be any irony with Cho’s new mantra that everyone needs to start being “nice”.
Cho is driving her car through the streets of Los Angeles and answering questions from Metro over her Bluetooth headset on the eve of her visit to Sydney for the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Her new show, to be staged at the Sydney Theatre as a Mardi Gras production, is called
. One of its messages is that beauty goes way beyond blonde and blue-eyed stereotypes.
Her other take home message? “Nice is sexy, nice is the new black.” But, one might ask, what’s nice got to do with it? Cho is famous for her tirades against the current US administration for its conservative social policies and waging war in Iraq, opinions which once saw her microphone hastily switched off at a gig.
Cho has campaigned vigorously for same-sex marriage – although she married a male performer, Alan Ridenour, in 2003 – and she has lobbied against the death penalty.
Her edgy performances have been explicit about girl-on-girl sex; she co-wrote a rap song called
with x-rated lyrics, and appeared in the video. In her autobiography, she laid her soul bare, dissecting past addictions to drink and drugs and disordered eating.
Some of her blogging can come across as unmistakeably LA, however: “I am so beautiful, sometimes people weep when they see me,” she writes on her website. “And it has nothing to do with what I look like really, it is just that I gave myself the power to say that I am beautiful, and if I could do that, maybe there is hope for them too.”
Still, there is no doubting Cho’s sincerity. “No, I’m not being ironic, I think it’s really sexy for people to be nice to each other,” the driving comic explains in LA-speak.
“I feel, like, politeness, and compassion, and really good cheer and good will are really important things. Bitchiness is so out, it’s so, like, 90s. I think we have to be good to each other, that’s what the new millennium is all about.”
OK but, I ask, couldn’t it be said that George W. Bush has always projected southern politeness, yet surely what counts is the actions of his administration, not any veneer of genteel niceness? “Yeah, well, the thing with George Bush is he has this Good Ol’ Boy exterior, which can come across as nice, but really his own actions don’t sustain that, so – “ she pauses, “I want people to be nice, and to act nice also!“
Who does she want for President? “We don’t care who it is, as long as it’s not the Bush administration,” she says, somewhat inexactly. “So that’s who I’m voting for – anybody but.” Presuming she is voting Democrat, has she been a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama supporter? “I like them both a lot, I wish they had run together.
“I wish Oprah [Winfrey] would run! Oprah is an amazing person; she has a whole constituency herself, she’s very concerned about people and likes to help people, so I think she should run for office!”
Seems the LA sunshine has taken the edge off things today. Early in her career, Cho opened for Jerry Seinfeld, featured on a Bob Hope special, and appeared regularly on
The Arsenio Hall Show
By 1994 she won an American Comedy Award for Best Female Comedian. She starred in a short-lived sitcom,
, a low point in her career when TV executives criticised her weight, setting Cho off on a period of starving herself.
But she returned to professional form with various standup and burlesque shows, confronting stereotypes of Asian-Americans along the way, and developing sidelines such as a fashion label, Hip Wear, and a range of bellydancing accessories.
Her parents, Young-Hie and Seung-Hoon Cho, immigrated as teenagers from Korea to San Francisco in 1964, where they ran a bookstore in a neighborhood filled with ex-hippies, gays, drug addicts, drag queens, Koreans and Chinese. “They didn’t feel they really fitted into America, so they never voted – they still do not vote, they still don’t feel as if it’s their country,” Cho says.
“They felt there was a lot of racism directed towards them, and they had a hard time learning the language. They always felt foreign, so they never wanted to participate in American politics.”
Growing up Asian, Cho likewise didn’t feel she fitted into America, but those “feelings of isolation” and not fitting into the mainstream helps explain her appeal for and attraction to gay men, she says.
While she has had relationships with both men and women, Cho finds the label “bisexual” limiting. “I feel my sexuality really goes best with people who are transgender, who don’t fit with male or female, so I would prefer queer,” she says.
Her answer kind of confuses sexuality with gender identity, but never mind. It’s all beautiful. So long as she doesn’t swamp us with too much nice.
Margaret Cho in Beautiful, Sydney Theatre, February 27 and 28, 8pm.
TESS DE QUINCEY
Back in 2001, Sydney-based dancer and choreographer Tess de Quincey was staying with artist friends in eastern India. As she sat on a balcony on a sunny Kolkota day, she was reading an article about the
, a Sanskrit text of dramaturgy that has had an enormous influence on the arts through east Asia.
“I suddenly went, ‘This is extraordinary’,” says de Quincey, who sports short-cropped blonde hair. “I thought, ‘This is a great way to engage with other artists’.” The
, it seemed, was an ancient precursor to Body Weather, a 20th century philosophy and methodology of dance and movement that engages with outdoor elements, which de Quincey learned while dancing with Tokyo-born Min Tanaka’s Mai-Juku Performance Company in Japan between 1985 and 1991.
It took her three weeks, but de Quincey tracked down an English translation of the Natyasastra at the back of an antiquarian bookshop in Kolkota. In her hands she held a “holographic universe” of emotions; the “eight states” of human emotion arrayed and represented across a fan and, within each fold, eight more finely graded human emotions, and so on.
The 2000-year old text not only illuminated the cornerstone of Indian artistic practice, but provided insight into overtly emotional Indian culture. For de Quincey, it threw down an artistic challenge: for the past five years, she and her collaborators have been performing works in both India and Australia, based on the
. The series is called
Her goal one day is to present a non-stop culminative 12-hour performance based on the
. Until then, we have
Embrace – Guilt Frame
, a 40-minute performance which de Quincey will perform with collaborator and actor Peter Snow, programmed by Sydney Theatre Company co-artistic directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton not only for the STC’s Wharf 2 program but also as part of the new “arts hub” collaboration between the STC and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
Without giving too much away, de Quincey and Snow will perform the work very, very slowly, requiring the audience to likewise slow down its thinking. Afterwards, the audience will be invited to chat to the performers over a glass of wine.
“When I first met Cate and Andrew, we talked a lot about how I get really angry with the Sydney Opera House,” de Quincey says. “If you do a performance there you get turfed out by the bloody staff; you can’t stand and talk to your audience afterwards.
“That absolutely infuriates me. The most important thing after a performance is to talk to your audience. People need to unwind and discuss.”
Embrace – Guilt Frame
seems an unusual choice for the Mardi Gras umbrella. With a male and female emoting with one another, there is no overt same-sex theme to the work. De Quincey agrees: she didn’t seek to be a part of Mardi Gras; it just “evolved” that way, she says, and she’s looking forward to how her work might be perceived through the prism of sexuality.
It should be noted she’s happy to find herself in the Mardi Gras fold: the festival is a “terribly important” part of Sydney, she says. When she first came to Australia in 1971, seven years before the first Mardi Gras, she found the circumscribed gender roles in Sydney “horrific”.
She laughs at the memory. “It was horrendous, particularly the men. The blue singlets and bellies and shorts and this immovable masculinity, particularly in the pubs. It was terrifying.”
De Quincey herself has never slotted easily into a particular category. “I’ve had identity crises at certain times,” she says. She was born in Wales to an English-born army officer turned archaeologist father, Albert, and a Sydney-born mother, Cynthia – the couple ran an art gallery together – and her childhood was split between Wales and England.
As a child in London, de Quincey trained in ballet, then studied graphics and sculpture in Copenhagen. She worked in contemporary dance and theatre in her formative years in Denmark, but later took off for Japan after a “crisis in faith” in western arts. She became interested in “sublimating” herself to an eastern take on dance and movement; removing the ego from the equation and seeing the human body existing beyond its skin and as part of its wider environment.
De Quincey began presenting shows and running dance workshops in Sydney in 1988. Her parents Albert and Cynthia had already migrated to Australia in 1971, and their daughter finally moved here in 1999, setting up her own theatrical company, De Quincey Co, in Sydney.
“Sensuality is really big in Sydney and I find that interesting,” she says. “I also read it as a very gay city at the moment. It’s so amazing that Mardi Gras moved way beyond its survival and made this gigantic celebration happen; this tidal wave of ‘wow’.”
Embrace – Guilt Frame, a De Quincey Co Production, runs Wednesday February 27 to Sunday March 9 at the Richard Wherrett Studio, Walsh Bay.
Compared to the all-singing, all-dancing Mardi Gras launches of yore at Hyde Park and on the Opera House steps, tomorrow’s [Saturday February 9] opening of the 30th anniversary of Sydney’s annual gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender arts and cultural festival is decidedly unsparkly – a ceremonial planting of a Moreton bay fig in Moore Park East near Moore Park Road.
Yet on Saturday March 1 at the end of the festival – truncated from the usual four weeks to three but still packed with 90-odd events – the wow factor will emblazon Oxford Street with more than 8000 participants for the Mardi Gras birthday parade; from committed couples courting Kevin Rudd to bless their civil unions to the Diva entry’s 300 dancing boys swivelling hips in honour of half a dozen female pop icons. Who knew Diana Ross could still spark a chain reaction?
Last year, debonair actor Rupert Everett asked to sit in the front float, and his wish was granted, along with the title of Chief of Parade. As the festival celebrates reaching dirty 30 with the theme Brave New Worlds, who will be chief this year?
Why not Cate Blanchett? The actor and co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company featured on the cover of a special issue of the US gay news magazine
in November. “Are you aware you’re talking to the ‘coolest straight person’?” Blanchett deadpanned in an interview for the recent top 100 influential Sydneysiders edition of the
the (sydney) magazine
. “I’m having the T-shirt printed.”
Blanchett indeed topped
’s annual cool straight people list; the clincher apparently her gender-bending turn as a Bob Dylan doppelganger in gay director Todd Haynes’s film
I’m Not There
. Blanchett told
: “I’m from Melbourne originally, but I’ve lived my adult life in Sydney, which is a fabulously gay city.”
But Queen Cate as Mardi Gras monarch? Mardi Gras is the time of year when rumours run rife and it’s fun to start one. Olivia Newton-John at least has confirmed star billing at the parade after-party at Fox Studios.
Blanchett and scriptwriter husband Andrew Upton, her co-artistic director, have already agreed to make the STC a Mardi Gras arts hub from this year onward, at least.
At the launch in December of the official
2008 Mardi Gras Guide
at the Supper Club, formerly Will and Toby’s, at 134 Oxford Street – which debuts as the festival bar this year, hosting a dozen different queer cabarets – Upton gave a speech in which he said the arts and gay and lesbian communities are “intimately and deeply connected”.
“Cate and I do feel connected to Mardi Gras – she was recently voted the Coolest Straight Person in the World, and I spent my six years at high school being called a poofter, because of my love for theatre,” Upton said, to big audience laughs.
For the STC’s debut Mardi Gras “arts hub” show, dancer/choreographer Tess de Quincey and Peter Snow’s “movement theatre” show
Embrace – Guilt Frame
will be staged at the Richard Wherrett Studio as part of the STC’s Wharf 2 program (see story below). Upton says he hopes this “small, initial” connection will “open the doors” to more collaborations with Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras is also bringing Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho to Australia and producing her show at the Sydney Theatre on February 27 and 28 (see below).
Mardi Gras arts hubs have also been established at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta, allowing Mardi Gras to assist in staging more theatre productions, and at the TAP Art Gallery at 278 Palmer Street, Darlinghurst, where Mardi Gras will stage an art show celebrating 30 years of memorable festival and parade images.
These tentative steps represent an evolution for Mardi Gras, which has spent the last five years rebuilding after its late 2002 financial collapse. Festival executive producer Danielle Harvey says: “The biggest change [this year] is that the festival is now semi-curated, which is a marvellous step for Mardi Gras [towards a] very high quality, representative and very diverse festival”.
Mardi Gras began as a street party on June 24, 1978, after a daytime rally demanding the decriminalisation of homosexuality. It ended with the violent arrests of 30 men and 23 women in Kings Cross around midnight. The parade shifted from winter to summer in 1981.
The parade and festival grew, but in 1985 came close to being cancelled. Gay activist Bill Whittaker recalled in the book
Mardi Gras! from lock up to frock up
, edited by Richard Wherrett: “There were calls for Mardi Gras to be stopped because our enemies said holding the event would spread HIV ... [But] countless thousands of people are reached by the HIV prevention messages that are such a fundamental part of the parade and festival.”
With improved HIV treatments in the past decade, the Mardi Gras parade has taken on new focuses: in 2005, it was the more than 80 countries that still outlaw homosexuality. This year, there are likely to be calls for new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to make good his promise to amend 58 federal laws identified last year by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission as discriminatory against same-sex couples, and to rethink his opposition to same-sex marriage or civil unions.
Mardi Gras chairman Marcus Bourget says the organisation doesn’t draft political themes and messages; such ideas come from parade participants at grass roots level. The parade, he says, will be “bigger, bolder and with more sequins” this year, due to continued community enthusiasm and volunteer dedication – and despite no tourism funding from the NSW Government. (The City of Sydney provides triennial funding for the Mardi Gras festival while the NSW Premier’s Department gives limited “in-kind” support, exempting Mardi Gras from user-pays costs for staging its parade only.)
Bourget concedes the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender lobby is “less well organised” than those groups “which would actively not gives us rights and recognition”; a thinly veiled reference to lobbyists of the religious right at state and federal levels.
Given rising costs, he says, the queer community has to decide: is the parade for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, or is it for tourism?
If it’s only for tourism, he provocatively suggests, the community might be better stripping the parade back to its protest roots, with the Mardi Gras organisation reinvesting some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars on its lesser known annual Fair Day at Victoria Park in Camperdown instead.