It is strange interviewing someone who is, in fact, two people. Where does one end and the other begin? In the case of cabaret artist Meow Meow, currently appearing in The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, it is hard to tell, finds Caroline Bishop.
Meow Meow is “just rising with a coffee” when we chat on the phone. She is excited, having spent the previous evening teaching celebrity audience member Liza Minnelli how to do one of the dances from The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. Added to what I quickly realise is a natural propensity to talk – a lot – this experience has made the cabaret performer more chatty than Alan Carr in a chatathon.
Yet despite this eagerness to talk – or, at times, because of it – it is difficult to really get to grips with who Meow Meow is. A spot of research reveals her to be Melissa Madden Gray, a multi-talented, multi-lingual – she is fluent in French and German – singer, dancer and cabaret performer who was, according to several Australian newspapers, born and educated down under. Her unique brand of performance, cultivated during a career that has taken her all over the world and seen her collaborate with everyone from Pina Bausch to David Bowie, is displayed in full glory during her solo shows, in which her feline alter-ego presents a mix of singing, comedy and crowd-surfing cabaret. But after chatting to her during her run as Maîtresse in Kneehigh theatre’s stage musical of Michel Legrand’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, it is clear that the West End’s resident cat would rather remain something of an enigma.
Is Liza Minnelli an inspiration for you?
She is because she is marvellous in so many ways and she is the real thing. She loves performing and that’s so clear. I’ve seen her in Vegas and New York. Absolute energy to the back of the theatre, it’s quite thrilling. But that’s the sort of performer I like in any genre, that’s the charisma you want in anyone on stage.
I am inspired by Juliette Gréco and Cindy Sherman the photographer and all sorts of things. I had a huge dream about Pina Bausch last night, quite surreal. I was lucky enough to work with her before she passed away. So lots of inspirations but certainly having the legend in the theatre, the two of us dancing together, I just thought, that’s a pretty perfect day!
I read you are from Australia, is that right?
No, that’s absolutely not correct. I have an Australian connection but no, no, I am a very mongrel hybrid thing, I’ve got all sorts of blood in me I’m afraid to say, nothing purist about me at all.
So where were you born?
Oh I never say. I am more about the act you make on stage… lost in the martini mists of time, as we say.
Where does the name Meow Meow come from?
I’ve been called that because of the vocals I do, which go from ridiculous purring to high-caterwauling. I’m feline in my look I guess, and also having a number of identities like nine lives. I am quite a cat-like person.
How did your performance style come about?
Well it’s what I’ve done as long as I can remember. It’s very much part of my blood. I travel all the time and have the privilege of working in all sorts of different theatre, from contemporary opera to mad wild cabaret and fabulous performance art. I work a lot in visual art as well. I sort of think of myself as a genre hopper rather than a particular style. I always say I was born on a bar in Berlin because that’s the most true rendition of where I came to my senses!
Did you learn on the job or are you formally trained?
I am completely formally trained in classical ballet and also with operatic voice training and theatre in Berlin. I had Russian ballet training, the shape of my muscles is very Russian ballet trained. But I guess you do learn a lot when you are really dealing with the live audience. The things I’ve loved all my life still influence me in spite of technical training. You can’t replace anything with actually being on stage and working with an audience, or sitting in an audience and seeing what moves people and what makes them laugh.
How would you describe your own performance style?
Eclectic! I don’t know. I guess it’s iconoclastic. I feel very passionately about the history of performance and where performers have come from, so I feel I’m always wanting to shake up a complacent audience, or bring about all the possibilities of live theatre as opposed to television. That’s why I seek out such eclectic repertoire and very physical performance styles, often because I do want it to be about the possibility of anything can happen in the room. I do want to trigger as many responses as I can I guess, through moments of beauty and moments of grotesquerie, and you can never quite control who will find which bits gorgeous and which bits hilarious. I draw on things that I’m really passionate about. If I don’t believe it I’m not very good at doing it I’ve found, I need to love what I’m doing.
You often interact with the audience during your solo shows. Have you ever had a bad reaction?
What means bad, dropping me on the floor during a crowd surf? Thankfully, no. I don’t always [interact]. It’s only in particular shows that I’m physically clambering over people but it’s irresistible with some material not to try and turn it on its head. When I’m crowd-surfing in my own shows that used to be just a ridiculous thing where I was laughing at myself, and I still do, but quite often it’s become an interesting experiment of how many people wanted to film you and take photos and stick it on Twitter and Facebook. I do feel it’s a test, it places the responsibility in the hands of the audience. I proffer myself and therefore I have to take the consequences.
Cabaret and alternative performance seems to be having a moment right now…
I think it’s always been there but I think the media goes through various fads of reporting and also I do think things go in cycles. In a way we get such a homogenised view of culture on the telly, it’s quite distressing. There is something about the intimacy of live theatre where you glory in someone’s difference; I do, that’s what I like. I think the more variety the better. I travel so much I’m so used to seeing so much theatre. Living in Berlin, where I’ve lived a lot, state theatre there is just so extreme and so radical compared to state theatre or conventional straight theatre in New York or wherever. I say vive la difference.
Did it feel restricting being directed in The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg rather than having the freedom of creating your solo shows?
Well it’s a different beast. I’m given lots of room to collaborate on the work, obviously, but we were very clear when we were making the piece that it’s not a Meow Meow show. This piece is very much about serving the play. I am a professional my dear, I love to work with directors! There is absolutely room that if I felt something was not right for me I would have complete freedom to try it out, but I trust Emma [Rice, the director] and that’s why I absolutely love working with her because she gives you room to collaborate and offer, but I feel safe in her hands as well.
I don’t see the point of subverting things unless there’s a political reason for it; it’s not always hilarity and chaos. But I guess when you are doing your own piece, you can rearrange things to relate to what’s happened in the day in politics or have complete freedom to sculpt it, when you’re not sticking necessarily to a narrative. Whereas quite a few of my shows do have a narrative, so then I’m playing, improvising – I love that – but it still has a fairly clear structure. If I didn’t think Emma was fabulous I wouldn’t be doing the show. It’s an extremely joyful, open cast and that’s the best way to create work.
Kneehigh is known for its innovation. Was it a meeting of minds?
Absolutely. I think we’ve all been very influenced by a lot of Eastern European theatre and clowning and joy. I would say joy and music features very strongly in all of our heartbeats. It’s not unfamiliar to me, I didn’t feel that it was a revelation when I saw Kneehigh’s work, I thought ‘that makes sense’. I think it comes from a very similar place as loving the theatre and loving performing and wanting an audience to be part of that.
What elements of you are in your character, Maîtresse?
Maîtresse is there to specifically have that audience interaction, to frame the device of this very quirky, boutique piece where everything is sung, epic lines and banal lines. It’s an extremely unusual piece. It goes from robust hilarity to true grieving for lost love or the idea of romantic love that perhaps doesn’t fulfil. I feel like a lot of my own work is about that. I find myself hilarious, stupidly ridiculous. And I hope there are shimmers of truth and beauty.
How long does it take you to get ready for a performance?
I’m doing my stretches as we speak! I actually like to have a bit of a bath to start warming up my muscles. I am an old ballet girl so I like to do a ballet warm up of my legs and I get all trussed up in my fabulous corset and stage makeup. That part of it’s quite quick so it probably takes one and a half hours or two hours. But I listen to a lot of [music]. I need to have the frivolity at the beginning so I like something that’s quite lush with lots of strings. I need to be in that world, I find it very distracting if people come in just before and want me to organise tickets. I don’t exist in a fantasy world before I go on stage but I do know myself well and I do a much better job if I’ve eaten some steak would you believe! I eat some steak or an egg, and if I don’t have that beforehand about half way through I think oh Lord! It hasn’t got as bad as keeping little bits of sugar around the stage – I’ve done that before in an opera – but I have to eat before the show and I have to be in a world of joy. I also have a fragrance… when I’m doing my own shows I have to wear Dior Addict or I don’t feel like myself. Maîtresse wears Hermès Des Merveilleux.
What about when you are off duty. Are you wearing tracksuit bottoms right now?
No. I have a ridiculous collection of kimono style dressing gowns. No matter how much I tour – I’m always lugging a million costumes so my own wardrobe is quite limited – I keep managing to collect pink vintagey things that you think Sarah Bernhardt would have been quite happy floating around in. That’s what I’m wearing, with some very homely slippers from John Lewis!
Where is home?
Really in my suitcases. I have some concerts in the States coming up, in Miami, and then I come back here and then I’m doing a Jean Cocteau festival in the States. Then I’ll be doing my own season in the West End, in June. It’s really lovely to be a little bit stationary for a while. I’m in a gorgeous little place in Covent Garden. It’s lovely to actually have, for once, not a hotel room and have a few weeks where it’s like, ah lovely.