Kamikaze cabaret. Post-post-modern diva. A cross between Liza Minnelli, Lady Gaga and Lucille Ball. Describing the singer and comedienne Meow Meow and what she does seems to leave people a little breathless. She’s performed at venues including Lincoln Center, the Apollo Theatre, and the Sydney Opera House. David Bowie and Mikhail Baryshnikov have curated solo shows for her. She has performed Schubert and Schumann with an orchestra, toured with the punk band Amanda Palmer and The Dresden Dolls, and starred on London’s West End in Michel Legrand’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
And now she’s coming to the Berkeley Repertory Theater with a musical play she wrote, An Audience with Meow Meow, directed by Emma Rice, who recently did The Wild Bride at Berkeley Rep. In this show, she promises hilarity, sequins, songs, dancing boys and possibly the splits. She took a break from rehearsals to talk about her influences, constructing identities and artists who never stop creating.
Why did you decide to write this play for Berkeley Rep?
I was forced to. I was paid a huge amount of money. As we all know there’s a massive amount of money in the arts. I was begged and begged repeatedly, so I succumbed to economic and global forces. Usually I do prefer it when people do things for me, but in this scenario it’s quite a joyful thing.
[jump] What do you enjoy about doing a play as opposed to other types of performance?
It’s certainly lovely to have a huge theater company at your disposal and the creative collaboration is fantastic. For me there’s always a dramatic narrative even if I’m just doing a pseudo-concert. I’m a theatrical beast absolutely by nature, so whether it’s with orchestra or in a tiny cabaret I’m never just singing songs. I have a narrative subtext going because otherwise, there are a million songs in the world, so why are you choosing this one? You want to choose each one like a gem, like a beautiful jewel. And in this process I have a wonderful team of collaborators. What’s nice about this process is I have dancing boys!! I have had dancing boys before on the West End, and the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus just came to my assistance, but this is really making a play where we’re writing and a lot of stuff that happens during rehearsal is going into the script, which is fantastic. That’s really special about working with Emma Rice as a director. Often I work without a director; I’m hard to direct because, not surprisingly, I have a massive mind of my own, but she’s really very special. She brings out the best in everyone. You have this joyful, creative atmosphere in rehearsal, and it makes you be funny and more funny and more funny. Then when you hit the heights of comedy you can slip into tragedy, which is good. It’s a very poignant show we’re building.
What is the narrative for this show?
In “The Little Match Girl” it was an attempt at the telling of the story of the Little Match Girl that goes terribly wrong and inadvertently becomes the telling of the Little Match Girl. So it’s quite political – an agit-prop fairy tale, I call it, springing from the homeless crisis in the U.K., particularly about children and feeling that nothing’s changed really. In a very contemporary way, I became the Match Girl in terms of hallucinations and death. I care very passionately about those issues, and the best way for me to do that is through comedy rather than a political diatribe. So in this piece I can just say my life is filled with calamity, and it’s not a bad thing, and it’s theatrical fodder. It’s very beautiful – there are incredibly gorgeous sets and it’s a big show, there’s’ a lot of machinery and feathers and sequins. I’m very old school in a vaudeville way, but quite edgy, so it’s got a really good mix of the most beautiful sensational thing you can imagine and then dirty it up a little bit. It’s a daily joy to feel you’ve got people who are focused on making it the best they can. A lot of the time touring, you meet the orchestra in the place or I’m on the road with a pianist or I’m often doing things by myself. So it’s so lovely to go into a nurturing thing of working with others. Just three weeks ago I was in an outdoor music festival in London and there was an electrical storm, and I was quite terrified. A friend who is friends with Liza Minnelli had given me Liza’s Wellingtons, so I had the wellies of a Nellie, and that got me through. You go from that to this or the London Philharmonic and it usually happens in the space of a week.
Speaking of Liza Minnelli, who are your influences?
I’m influenced by people like Cindy Sherman, the photographer. Sara Bernhardt is one of my great passions. I’ve done quite a bit of research about her and her amazing life of playing circus tents and for prisoners at San Quentin and being nonstop absolutely obsessed with theater life, which Liza certainly is. Strange interesting people like the Marchesa Luisa Casati who was an Italian aristocrat and a patron who always had exotic animals and put belladonna in her eyes and talked about wanting her life to be a living work of art, so it’s not just show biz people. Cyd Charisse. Noel Coward. Gilbert and Sullivan. Jaques Tati, the French filmmaker. Fellini- big one. Judy Chicago.
I guess it’s very much about levels of what’s reality and what’s fantasy in the narratives we all make for each other and ourselves. I’m interested on and off stage of that construction we all make of our identify and how we think we are perceived. That’s why I live in such a heightened way on and off stage because I think we all wear uniforms all the time and the larger you live you give yourself space for possibility. There’s a great freedom in that, and I guess the people who really influence me are playing all the time with their own constructions. Like with Cindy Sherman, you’ve got the divas and then you’ve got the lonely hotel rooms. It’s the paparazzi and then it’s sitting in the bath with food poisoning thinking, “If I die will anyone know for a couple of days?” So I’m interested in how we shut ourselves down a bit. I love the variety of the ridiculous tempests and then the London Philharmonic.
You’ve done such a variety of things from working with Baryshnikov and David Bowie and punk bands and Shubert.
Well, it’s all music. It’s all vibrant personalities. I love doing stuff like the Shubert to bring that into an environment where people don’t feel like it’s rarefied. I’ve lived in Berlin, and that’s a huge part of my heritage. It’s really political performances, which are half politics of governments and half body politics and then just sheer entertainment. So you’ve got a mix between clowning and hard-core. I want all the bits of my senses to be activated. That’s why I love Brecht. You mix it with that sensual Kurt Weill music, and it’s a perfect combination of text and music. It goes into the world of the tango and passion and politics – I want them all at once. Working with a band or working with Baryshnikov – what you meet is creatively bristling souls, I guess. The way that manifests may be different, but the energy of that is thrilling. When I worked with Emma on the West End doing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Michael Legrand wrote that, and he re-orchestrated it for the show. I remember at one of the first rehearsals, he came in and the producers put him in the back, and he grabbed his chair and pulled it right up to the piano and lent forward. I thought that’s a great example of an artist who will never stop creating. He’s not sitting back with his arms folded saying, “Show me what you’ve got.” He’s straight in to it.
An Audience with Meow Meow begins previews Friday, September 5, opens on Friday, September 12, and runs through Sunday, October 19. At the B erkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. Tickets are $29 – $89. For more information call (510) 647-2949 or go to the theatre’s website.