What’s new, pussycat
There’s more to Meow Meow, aka actor- intellect Melissa Madden Gray, than meets the eye, writes Fiona Scott- Norman
EMOTION isn’t fashionable in Australia, which is probably why Melissa Madden Gray’s depth of feeling is the most striking thing about her. Sure, she’s beautiful, sophisticated, intellectual and a world- renowned performance artist, deconstructionist cabaret performer, opera singer, actor, comedian and dancer — with honours degrees in law, fine art and German — but it’s her openheartedness that enthrals from the get- go.
It’s only five minutes into this interview at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, where Gray is to appear in a reinvention of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis , and she has tears in her eyes. Not because she has spent all morning in hospital having treatment for a dangerous infection in her foot but because she was so inspired by the performance of British comedian- philosopher Daniel Kitson at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
‘‘ He made me excited about theatre again, showed that it doesn’t have to be a lot of toss,’’ says Gray, who was reared in Melbourne and calls the Victorian capital home when she’s not traversing the globe with a suitcase stuffed with sequins and skin- tight fancies.
‘‘ When I first went to New York I saw a lot of art and avant- garde theatre, and it was all so precious. I thought, how could I justify being a performer if all I’m seeing is acts of self- delusion? I live in terror of being self- indulgent. That’s why I love comedy. I got weepy during his ( Kitson’s) show. I was on the edge, I felt more human. I especially liked that he couldn’t be categorised. I don’t like genres.’’
Gray, a compelling, multiskilled performance artist whose star is firmly on the rise, gives the impression of life lived to the absolute. Her priorities are intellectual rigour, feminism, emotional openness, comedy and working very hard. Better known in Shanghai, New York and European capitals than here, she is so frequently abroad that she’s essentially itinerant.
‘‘ You know how it is: ‘ Wherever I lay my boa’,’’ says Gray, who describes herself as a highly critical optimist’’. In her teens, Gray was determined to become a ballet dancer despite such severe scoliosis that she wore a fibreglass support 24 hours a day.
She finished her law degree by correspondence during her summer holidays, studied fine art, post- structuralist and feminist theory at the University of Melbourne between performing comedy in the law revues and plays directed by Michael Kantor, and won a scholarship to study in Berlin, where she completed two theses, one in English, one in German.
‘‘ I think I’m overdriven because I’ve always been used to having all my hours filled quite intensely. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t singing and doing a lot of talking. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t overanxious about wanting to do more. There’s so much to consume, to get into your brain.’’
This attitude, intensity and frankly dazzling array of accomplishments explains a great deal about Gray, who is becoming well known for her addled, seductive, hilarious and uber- sexual cabaret character Meow Meow, and whose CV strongly implies that you can have everything.
She has performed avant- garde opera by Liza Lim with contemporary music ensemble Elision in Japan and Europe, and comedy on the Seven Network’s sketch show Big Bite .
There has been performance art with Robyn Orlin in Berlin, tango with Paco Liana and Pina Bausch, and she has contributed to a John Cage world premiere and given masterclasses on extended vocal technique for David Moss’s Institute for Living Voice in Belgium.
As Meow she has performed multiple seasons at the Famous Spiegeltent, appeared in David Bowie’s High Line festival in New York and is featured in German Vanity Fair ( the interview, naturally, conducted in German). With her academic rigour ( and a thesis on outre performer Annie Sprinkle under her belt) and take- noprisoners glamour, Gray brings a particular mindset to the roles she creates or accepts.
‘‘ I’m either doing comedy or extreme contemporary opera with Elision and most of that has to do with women’s bodies,’’ she says. ‘‘ I wouldn’t say I just do women’s work, but I do want to ritualise or exorcise or honour either lost souls or unsung stories.
‘‘ For me, the body, the sex drive, the life force, it’s all intertwined. A piece I’m writing at the minute is based on a friend’s grandmother who was the prettiest girl in the village in Poland during World War II. Armies of all sorts came through and she became the prettiest whore. Then she just disappeared.
‘‘ I love strong single women. I went to Firbank, an all- girls grammar school, and it was kind of utopian. I spent the longest time imagining I was Elizabeth I. The only problem was that it didn’t prepare me for the reality of the double standard of the outside world.
‘‘ It took me quite a while to get a grip on the fact that no matter how much you think you’re making sense to someone, at the end of the day they’re still looking at your boobs.’’
Clearly Gray, a music theatre graduate from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, is an inspired choice for a part in Venus and Adonis . Marion Potts has directed the adaptation of Shakespeare’s poem, with Gray as the ultimately disillusioned love goddess.
‘‘ Finally performing Shakespeare is incredible, so moving. I mean, everything’s already been said about him. But I’m having ethical problems with Venus because she kind of rapes Adonis in the play. I keep bringing a judgment on to Venus that she will not leave that boy alone and the only thing I can use to excuse her is that she’s a deity. She doesn’t understand what’s going on until she loses him: the goddess becomes wise through human experience.’’
The production is ambitious and experimental. It’s a collaboration between the Malthouse and Bell Shakespeare, and is the first project for Mind’s Eye, Bell’s new development arm. The play is a two- hander, with Gray and Susan Prior both representing Venus, and the audience representing the hapless Adonis.
‘‘ It’s quite sexy, in terms of brain sexy,’’ Gray says. ‘‘ It’s set in a hotel room and it’s all open to interpretation. Has Venus been left, is she waiting for someone, has she killed someone? The set’s full of symbolism. As a woman who travels all the time, you do sit on the bed and wonder who’s sat there before you. You do sit in the bathtub and think, ugh, what’s that stain?’’
Gray’s character Meow, an extraordinary, gorgeous but losing it cabaret diva, is in some ways the extreme realisation of Gray’s talents and academic theories. Meow wows wherever she performs and has her own identity that extends off stage: she is often to be seen out socialising.
Gray, however, refuses to discuss Meow, in much the same wide- eyed way that Bruce Wayne would refuse to discuss Batman. The mystique is deliberate.
Julia Holt, artistic director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, has programmed Meow twice and is in awe of Gray’s abilities.
‘‘ She’s the ultimate quadruple threat because she’s accomplished in every aspect you need to be a cabaret performer: singing, dancing, acting. She has an extremely sophisticated sense of humour, both verbal and physical, and that sets her apart,’’ Holt says. ‘‘ She has so many other skills you don’t expect her to be funny, too. Her grasp of the history of cabaret is very deep.
‘‘ She’s exciting because she takes so many risks. She has incredible audience interaction skills. And she goes against some of the basic rules of theatre and makes it work for her.’’
Gray uses glamour and her body to make people think. ‘‘ I do sometimes teeter on the edge of bosom madness. It can just be ill- fitting clothing, it depends. In America I’ve been known to pop my breast in a glass of wine and smoke a cigarette at the same time, just to get all the ways of offending New Yorkers out of the way. It’s the ridiculousness of the horror at the breast.’’
Born in Canberra ( she likes to say it doesn’t show), Gray moved to Melbourne when she was two with her newly single mother, Clare, and grew up with her maternal grandmother. Clare trained as a lawyer and, even though Gray always wanted to be a performer, she followed her mother’s example and also studied law.
‘‘ I felt I needed to do it. I saw how frightening it was to be young and with a baby and have no
‘ No matter how much you think you’re making sense, they’re still looking at your boobs’
way of supporting yourself. But Mum was spookily young and groovy, and she would take me to the Pram Factory and the early days of Circus Oz, probably from when I was four or five.
‘‘ There was no distinction between high and low art. I remember Sleeping Beauty , my first ballet, and refusing to leave the theatre. And brilliant comedians like Evelyn Krape and Sue Ingleton, I was in love with them all.’’
An only child, she had a nurtured upbringing. Access weekends were spent with her father, Neil, and watching the television drama The Secret Army, which sparked her interest in World War II and the French Resistance. She also spent a lot of time with her stepmother’s parents, whom she describes as incredibly kind.
‘‘ I had, I think, an eccentric but really glorious upbringing. There was always, always music, and earnest discussions about feelings. There was a huge love of learning and communicating.’’
While Gray’s childhood provided her with the hunger and ability to pursue a profoundly satisfying and multifaceted career, it also gave her the emotional intelligence to question her singlemindedness. She’s having talks about an extended Broadway season for Meow, and Gray is in two minds: ‘‘ I don’t know how I feel about having a baby, but I think it would be a tragedy not to have one because I was hanging out to have a Broadway season.’’
For now, though, Gray’s creative life is showing no sign of slacking. She returns to the Malthouse in September for a Meow show called Vamp, directed by Kantor, and as soon as Venus and Adonis ends she’s off to work with Bausch in Berlin on a revival of the 1976 piece The Seven Deadly Sins .
‘‘ I was so excited when I heard about that, I ran into a glass window. The role I’m doing has been performed by Ute Lemper. So no pressure.’’
For Gray it’s all about working to her greatest ability, then letting it go. ‘‘ I throw in as much as I can. I always combine high, low and pop art. It’s all about intention and perception, isn’t it? And what goes on in between, you can’t have any control over. Do a show in one place and it’s performance art. Do it in another and it’s a sexist atrocity. I can do the most meaningful piece and someone will still say: ‘ Great shoes.’ ’’ Venus and Adonis is at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, until May 4.
No illusions: Main picture, cabaret all- rounder Melissa Madden Gray; inset, as Meow Meow