Aussie Theatre’s Brendan McCallum caught up with Moira Finucane, the grand dame of dark burlesque, before the opening of her latest performance The Glory Box Paradise.
There is something vaguely phantasmagorical about Moira Finucane. Tall and dark of hair, adorned in red, one can almost picture a coterie of horned cherubs opening the door of Mario’s Café, clearing tables and conjuring coffee for her as the mundane world lumbers by beyond the glass. To say she makes an impression is a small understatement.
Finucane has demonstrated a knack for transgression, for transformation, for crossing between night and day and timezones with an apparent ease that can only come from the most fearsome of wills. A former environmental scientist and lawyer for The Wilderness Society she recalls her initiation into the world of performance as “sudden and surreal”.
It came following a particularly grueling trip to Canberra. After being told by a politician that she was a bit of a Joan of Arc – not, it is clear, meant as a compliment – Finucane was waiting at the airport with a friend, lamenting the stress of her work.
“I was with a ceramicist and the partner of someone who was in a Polish theatre group, who said ‘what are you going to do?’ And I said, “I think I’m going to do acting”.
Sharing house with aspiring creatives in the Fitzroy of the early 90’s, Finucane seized her moment. A friend suggested she audition for an upcoming play in the Melbourne Fringe Festival; she secured the lead and from there quickly moved on to directing. Even though still working at The Wilderness Society, it was clear that her fearsome intellect had been seduced by the theatre. Despite her early successes however, “many years of poverty followed.”
By 2004 Finucane and theatre creator Jackie Smith had conceived The Burlesque Hour, drawn in part from Finucane’s experiments with what she calls ‘burlesque macabre’. Prior to this divine conception, Finucane and Smith had toured Europe and were having a break of sorts in Southern China. “It was the Moon Lantern Festival and typhoon weather, very rainy”, remembers Finucane.
“We were sitting on the verandah of an avant-garde nightclub in Guangzhou and the rain was making the lanterns sway like jelly fish and there were political pop singers and folk singers, creating incredible statements and a snake dancer and this incredible mash-up of culture, and we just went, we want to do something like this, we want a little club that’s as subversive as it is seductive and wild and amazing, and that seduces people who wouldn’t normally attend such a performance.So we came home and we landed on the smell of an oily rag.
“Everyone told me it wouldn’t work … it will only ever reach a fringe audience”.
Everyone, it seems, except Mary Lou Jelbart of the then recently-forged creative space fortyfivedownstairs.
"I will never engage with someone who sets out to shock the audience… Shock is not very interesting"“She’d seen me perform somewhere and said, ‘you’re unforgettable … do your show here’. She was absolutely on board right from the onset, didn’t even know what the show was, didn’t care.”
It was trust well-placed on Jelbart’s part: “The Burlesque Hour sold out the night it opened; it’s been seen by 110, 000 people; it’s won eight theatre awards, toured all over the world; and it keeps on growing.”
Clearly, it was an idea whose time had come. According to Finucane, prior to the neo-burlesque revolution of the last seven years no one was using the word burlesque at all, anywhere in the world.
“But I loved that 160’s meaning of the word, the mockery and the grotesquerie and the exaggeration and the parody. That really drew me to it because all my work is quite overblown.”
In the subterranean recesses of fortyfivedownstairs, The Burlesque Hour had the chance to blossom into Glory Box, a constantly evolving provocation that Finucane cites, with relish, as “the Venus Flytrap of cabaret shows”, because so many artists are attracted to it.
“We get emails and CDs and DVDs from Germany, from Sweden, from all over the place; from Tokyo. Jackie and I go and see artists. We’ll go and look at stuff really late at night, we’ll find out about someone in Berlin and hunt them down.” Yet despite burlesque’s capacity for transgression, shock value alone has no place in Finucane and Smith’s ‘revolution in a chocolate box’.
“The artists that make it into the Glory Box are not the shocking artists”, says Finucane. “There are only three things you need to make it into The Glory Box. One is talent, and you need a lot of it. The other is that you need to be really hard-working. And the other is that you really need to love the audience. I will never engage with someone who sets out to shock the audience. Because to shock an audience you need to assume that you are much more sophisticated and that you have much more life experience than your audience and how on earth would you know what your audience has been through? It’s a bad assumption to make. Shock is not very interesting.”
For Finucane, engagement – not shock – is paramount. The feeling of being seduced, with authenticity and integrity, into another world.
“You get to see this person up close and personal. You can smell them. It’s so exciting. One of the things that I think about when I see artists like Paul Capsis … artists who will rip their ribcage open and show you what’s inside them, it’s incredibly powerful”, she said.
So it is without question that the artists assembled for The Glory Box are fiercely extraordinary and at the top of their game. Hailing from all corners of the globe, many have a history in club performance and all can “bring an entire nightclub to a standstill at 3am”.
“They’re a mixture of wild-child circus, butoh, the gothic… there’s music hall thrown in; there’s underground Tokyo nightclub; Parisian showgirl elements; literary drama; high art; low art; populist art; and music from hardcore techno to early opera to absolute rock and roll anthems. One of the things I love about variety is that there’s something for everyone, and drinks at the bar. Eighteen acts just stacked up on top of each other like a Viennetta. It’s wild.”
The artists featuring in the show’s current iteration certainly seem to fit such a description. Finucane runs down the list with unmistakable passion in her voice:
“This year we’ve got Ursula Martinez. She’s Spanish, she lives in London. She is bringing some new acts, but one of the acts she’s bringing is her red undies strip which is galactically famous. Really it is. Its one of the most extraordinary, outrageous, confident pieces I’ve ever seen in my life.
“Wild-child circus star Jess Love. Jess is originally from Australia, she was part of the incredible wave of new dark circus that started about seven years ago and she’s now taking Europe by storm.
“Yumi Umiumare, she’s a butoh dancer from Tokyo. She started off in Tokyo clubs; they call her the Tokyo Terrawatt. She’s incredible; we’ve toured the world together and we just adore each other.
“A very talented dancer called Holly Durant. She comes from Brisbane, moved to Paris. She’s got this kind of East German Expressionist, voodoo, bird of paradise thing going on.
“Paul Capsis is coming, as is Rhonda Burchmore. Pamela Rabe has a monologue based on ancient Sumerian erotica, ‘Who Will Plough My Vulva?’
“Lily Paskas is this amazing wild dancer, and Lily and Holly are creating this club extravaganza which you have to see to believe based on a kind of Berlin techno-viking movement, and it will all unfold at fortyfivedownstairs. And Vika and Linda Bull and Deborah Conway. Sarah Ward’s a multi-multi award winning cabaret singer, big voice, red hot momma, white afro. She looks like a mobile highly edible mirror ball. She will be unleashed. And of course there’s me. And my new piece is based on a Parisian dark angel, all set to a bump and grind track … it’s about Paris in the winter. Oh! And the undead.”
Finally, when asked what it is about cabaret that fires the imagination and passion of its audiences, Finucane pauses over her coffee to consider the question.
“The thing about cabaret, which I found very interesting … [Finucane pauses, reflects and continues] I don’t come from an arts background, I trained as a scientist, I worked in environmental science and environmental law for a number of years – and I’ve always loved museums and I’ve loved fairy tales … I’m not from a theatrical tradition. But what I see with completely fresh eyes is that people are still in love with an intimate live experience, and if anything, they’re more in love with it now. You can watch beautiful massive films now at home; you can sit in bed with your computer a few centimetres from your eyes and watch the most amazing things – we’ve never had access to more visual information – and yet that sense that you can see that person only metres away from you is thrilling and its an irreplaceable thrill.”
Ultimately, this is what drives the continuing success of The Glory Box and all great theatre. Intelligence. Fearlessness. Fun. That desire to be seduced, to be transported and leave the mundane behind. As Finucane says, “one of the things I love about the show is that people come in and they say, ‘this is just like Berlin in the 1930s’ … or ‘it’s like Shanghai in the 20s’, and it just fires their imaginations. Once you go down the stairs its kind of like going through the looking glass.”
Glory Box: Paradise plays at fortyfivedownstairs, until August 11.
For bookings visit fortyfivedownstairs.com or call 03 9662 9966