(2013) In January 2013, Peta Lily performed “Chastity Belt” to a full house at the Check Inn, Luxembourg. Afterwards, New World Theatre member, Julie Fraser, asked Peta about the show and her work and realised that others may also enjoy hearing Peta’s answers:
Julie: Peta, it was an absolute delight to watch your show, “Chastity Belt”. You took us on a hilarious and thought-provoking journey of our relationship to chastity, visiting Greek and Hindu female role models - all with the aid of lemon! It was nothing short of brilliant! From discussing taboos one moment to singing your heart out the next, I wondered:
how on earth you conceived of the idea and
whether the writing process had flowed as effortlessly as your performance?
Peta: A few years ago I had a thought to create a show about Dusty Springfield. I took the material to a workshop and sang and emoted and someone suggested I do a show about love. This was a terrible idea. It had me feeling tender, then raw, then slapped in the face (I hope you can hear the self-mocking tone in my words here as I type my response!)
After a brief, misguided attempt to get into the dating scene, I returned (rather gratefully) to the huge expanse of desert that is my romantic life. Then I was preparing some comedy material. They say ‘write what you know’ so I started on the subject of the absence of a love life and stuff that looked a bit like poetry started to come out. Myths are persistent and so Diana (aka Artemis) was the first archetype that came to mind. I wanted to update her from a stainless maiden to a woman of my age to see how she might look and sound. And that led me to explore Chastity in its sense of integrity rather than virginity. I wrote the ‘No’ poem and performed it at The Poetry Café in London and people responded warmly to it, with its rhythmic wordplay and its paradoxes. The Kali story brings in the environment in an oblique and off-beat way.
It’s a useful thing to set a title for a group of emerging work and I thought of Chastity, then Chastity Belt. Lemons came as an intuitive leap (cleansing, vital) as did the boxing gloves. I kept the stuff pouring out and started to organize it into different voices, different angles and arguments – dancing with them, belting or boxing them around a bit.
There’s the lovelorn aspect and then there’s feeling you’re missing out and then I started to see also what I loved about my current life. Autonomy truly is a wonderful thing. I also teach Presentation and Leadership skills to executives and I started to see a disjunction between the strange behaviours of say, flirting. As it says in the ‘No’ poem’ ‘no angling, no inveigling, no carefully pitched laughter, no artful jockeying into position.’ That sort of stuff is all centre-outside-of-self, not key behaviours for leadership. Well, not the kind of leadership I am interested in, at any rate.
Julie: You highlighted how disturbing the portrayal of women in the media can be and, through your skilful “boxing ring ding ding”, the need for caution in women’s daily lives. Do you feel we have become desensitised to these issues and why do you think so little recognition is given to the beauty of ageing?
Peta: I recently read somewhere ‘if you want to know about something write about it.’ And it’s true - the more I wrote the more I refined my thinking. The more I questioned corners of my life and life choices, I started to see life a bit as an anthropologist might I guess (except in a more intuitive, subjective, lazy-ass way than a real anthropologist might).
I became a practitioner of ‘The Artists’ Way’ (a creativity course in a book). In one chapter, Julia Cameron proposes a week of not reading. A fellow Artists Way-er said she looked down or away to stop herself even passively reading advertising posters and hoardings. ‘What does one fill one’s mind with that is not an active choice?’ she said. On the tube in London, it’s almost impossible to avoid. It’s all there at eye level. I must pass – I don’t know - three hundred images and messages on a single tube journey - there’s a lot of stuff that is all but literally being pushed in urban faces everyday.
Meanwhile there have been these wonderful tele-series. There is a huge appeal in the wonderful, work-focused, flawed, courageous female leads: Police Captain Laure Berthaud, Sarah Lund etc. But I smiled at the avid way in which I (by day, writer of feminist rhyming rants), would, of an evening, eagerly switch on ‘Spiral’ and watch women discovered hanging on butcher’s hooks in freezers, or on top of a garbage skip, naked, with faces beaten to a bloody pulp. There’s a section in the show that starts with ‘at night I watch dramas on the box…’
After the first long version of the show, many women said ‘this stuff really needs saying’ or ‘you’ve really made me think!’.
I think for once I may have managed to be in tune with the zeitgeist. There is a growing awareness around equality. My research online took me to sites such as Miss Representation which aims to alert young women to the insanities in the media. There’s also groups like ‘In her Shoes’ (men walk in high heels to protest against rape – how wonderful!) and there’s also Eve Ensler’s current project ‘One Billion Rising’ which is against violence against women. It’s an exciting time.
Meanwhile a young friend tells me many girls her age are dyeing their skin orange and attending pageants and thinking that being a ring-girl (wearing a bikini in a boxing ring and holding up a placard with the number of the round) would be an empowering choice. But, on the subject of age and beauty specifically, there are tiny shifts – the Observer runs a regular fashion feature where there are models of each decade. One model, I think, is in her 70’s. And I read that many men still think Susan Sarandon is alluring, and rightly so.
I listened to a talk about how the Industrial Revolution made beauty a trading commodity when, perhaps for the first time, women could move up out of their class, if they possessed it. Youth and beauty became a valuable signifier and bound up with concepts of success.
Again, times are interesting – might the old economic model of greed finally prove untenable and dissolve? Might the future really be (as the Dalia Lama has apparently said) ‘in the hands of the Western women’. Uniquely in history, western women have access (the fortunate amongst us do, at least) to education and the means to broadcast and communicate globally. Might women (traditionally or by nature the less aggressive gender, holders of compassion and care) be able to transform culture, assert a new value system? Question and protest our insane treatment of our planet? Might we?
Julie: Was it your original intention that Chastity Belt would be performed as a one act, one-woman, 60 minute show? How do you know when to “let go” of a piece, or that it is ready to perform?
Peta: Years ago, at the start of my solo career, the model was: get the idea for a show, apply for funding, create the show in 4 weeks, tour it for 18 months, create a new one.
Now you are expected to ‘create relationships’ with venues and do ‘scratch’ performances and develop ‘work-in-progress.’ I resisted this at first, but with this show I performed sections as they developed. Some of the feedback I got was really useful. For example – a young man wanted to know ‘what would happen if she did break her vow?’ That was the seed for the Acteon section.
I then set up a period to work with a director. Amazing woman called Di Sherlock. She’s a writer as well as a director and in the past we performed together in a physical theatre company so we share that vocabulary of storytelling and characterization through skillful use of the body. She has skills that work well with mine and a good raw sense of humour. She restructured the show into a tight one hour.
Previously I had presented versions of the material which were 35 minutes, 45 minutes and 15 minutes long. Then I presented over an hour of material in a café setting with an interval so they could clear main course plates and serve desert. That was a stunning night. No stage space to speak of at all and so intimate with the audience.
But here it is now in a one hour version which I have performed a number of times in London and of course in Luxembourg at The Check Inn and it works like a well-oiled machine. Once you have the mechanics down then you can really play, so there’s not a great incentive for me to mess with it too much now. I seem to love writing language that is consonant-rich, quite tricky to say - and the pace is fairly fast. It’s pleasing that now I can hear and allow for the audience response even when the language is quite dense.
That’s a pleasure in performance, when you have invested in the mechanics; warmed up brain, body and tongue – and you’re able to relax into being with and enjoying the company of your audience while making tiny specific choices all along the way. It’s a state of relaxed alertness: spontaneity, craft and enjoyment all rolling along at the same time. I am grateful for nights like that.
Julie: I think you took some very brave decisions in your performance: not only by the subject choice and by performing alone, but also by your involvement of the audience. What, for you, are the joys of involving the audience in such an intimate way and have you ever had
cause to regret doing this?!
Peta: It’s charming how audience participants are. When it happens well, they are thrilled to be chosen and involved. They have a glow in their eyes…’look, I’m part of it!’ Then for the rest of the audience there’s the relief of ‘that could be me up there but I’m safe here in my seat, phew, haha’. And then there’s the unpredictability of the moment.
That’s the magic, the thrill of clowning and of comedy. Truth plus pain. Getting things wrong. Humans surviving under pressure. Disaster and relief.
As a small child, my parents took my brother and I to vaudeville. My mother was most thrilled with any ad lib or well-covered mistake, excitedly saying ‘that wasn’t supposed to happen!’ When people feel in on the joke then everyone is in the moment, sharing in something unique and it’s joyous.
Only once have I had a tricky customer. One gentleman - I wish I were using the word correctly - mistakenly felt he had to ‘be funny’ i.e. act up. He wiggled around and was intent on tricking me. It was a shame because there’s a good point to land at the end of that scene and no one heard it because of him.
I always aim to treat my audience participants with respect and generosity. But that ‘gentleman’ taught me to also be firm. Sounds awful but you have to control the game. Not for the sake of your own ego (i.e. mine) but for the sake of the play – and by that what I really mean is - that as performer I am the custodian of the audience’s pleasure and understanding. I need to manage all the elements so they get a good experience, a good balance of fun, a bit of enlightenment (if I can manage it), a nudge of provocation, a good amount of feel-good and some emotional resolution, too.
Julie: There were some beautiful moments of transformation. I particularly enjoyed watching you change from a dazzling, young lady to a decrepit old hag and from a civilised “Sarasvati” to martial arts fighter “Durga”. How did you learn to convey such emotion and character without relying on extra props?
Peta: Mime training. Plus acting.
Julie: Could you say more about this? I have read that mime skills can include the use of facial expressions, posture and gestures to convey a story. What skills are involved in making physical theatre believable?
I would find it hard to do justice to this question briefly - I feel I would need to write a book. I have had the great fortune to learn from wonderful teachers such as Le Coq, the amazing Theatre du Mouvement, Monika Pagneaux, the inspirational Yoshi Oida. Also other fellow professionals in Britain such as performer /director Mollie Guilfoyle who have contributed ideas, approaches and exercises to expand my understanding of and quest for really immersive physical expression. Butoh Dance (see my response below) was also hugely important in informing my attempts to develop the widest range of quality and texture of movement and ability to really capture the essence – the inner and outer energetic qualities of the things or people one is portraying.
When I first started as a soloist I loved having no limits to who or what I could play: a landscape, animals, humans of any age and gender. Creating a full, rich world from a bare stage.
a/ physical articulation – if it can move, learn how to move it. Learn how to love and understand the body’s skeleton and musculature. Love and understand breath.
b/ how to move it – there are the Laban efforts, for example (a system of dynamics compounded of basic dynamics – like a colour wheel starting with the primary colours and growing into a wide spectrum) – also take inspiration from the huge range of textures in the natural and man-made world around us – remember the film of the ‘dancing’ plastic bag in the film, ‘American Beauty’?
c/ enter into the spirit of the thing/person. Full imaginative and physical surrender. Believe in quantum physics, believe you can ‘change your molecular structure’. (Shape-shift! Theatre as shamanism!) But of course a lot of my work is comic and there I am using a lot of the skills of the wonderful animators – think how expressive the bodies and faces of Bugs and Daffy are in the Warner Brothers’ cartoons. Of course when I say full imaginative and physical surrender there opens up the question of the performer as separate to the character. Of course you are still yourself, conscious and aware of your fellows and the audience and making choices but while fully imaginatively invested and involved in the world of the play, so much so that emotions and physical states spontaneously pass through you, moment by moment which are relevant to the character and the world and the situation.
To sum up a bit:
The idea is to have a body free to channel safely and most truthfully whatever you wish to channel (I don't mean channel as in actual possession by a spirit, if there is such a thing). Young students or untrained performers I teach come with gestural habits and vocal habits and limited ranges of texture and rhythm, plus sometimes having a posture that is less than optimum (and which then compromises flow, access to a range of dynamics and movement quality). I mentioned a while ago 'truthfully' - someone described theatre as a 'beautiful lie'. It's the performer's job to create the most highly detailed portrayal of how an emotion passes through a body/being and inflects a voice, to have a voice ready to respond to the movement of the body, to have a being that responds to your fellow performers and to have an understanding of the wide and unpredictable range of emotions (or states) possible.
Julie: You work as a director, teacher, researcher, writer and performer. What have been key sources of inspiration to you during your professional career?
Peta: Solo performer Rose English was an early important influence – she did work that was quirky and philosophical, with minimal props and wry humour. Lumiere and Son were an amazing imaginative company, the director Mike Alfreds, with whom I studied directing, the inspirational movement teacher Monika Pagneaux. Robert Lepage’s work is inspiring and thought–provoking. Improbable Theatre makes interesting work from unexpected starting points. One-person shows I saw at the start of my solo career were by artists such as Annie Griffin, and Spalding Gray - I admired his story telling and his honesty. Oh, and the absurdist playwrights, and Jean Genet and Peter Kandke. Patti Smith.
Butoh Dance was very inspiring to me, when I first saw it. In Butoh, the performer transforms themselves almost at a molecular level – (I know that’s an exaggeration, but it’s a phrase I use in teaching) using concentration and physical articulation to the highest degree to create the texture and essence of objects, natural things and phenomena eg pinetrees, fireworks, the lightest possible breeze on a spring day. It’s hypnotic to watch and so truthful without being at all naturalistic.
As far as creating work goes, there’s usually some question in my life, something that’s niggling at me that becomes the starting point for a show.
Julie: What are you working on at the moment and do you have any plans to perform in Luxembourg again?
Peta: Currently I am directing a show at Circus Space, as well as doing lots of Clown & Dark Clown Workshops (I just taught about 50 heroic Clown Doctors in Geneva). Next stop for Chastity Belt is Hong Kong, in May.
I am playing with the idea of doing a show called ‘Listen Man’ (or something like that) where I take the questions of Chastity Belt into a wider context. Watch this space.
Many people ask me when I am going to do a retrospective of my autobiographically-inspired shows: Topless (about breast cancer and crazy love), Midriff (family, bereavement, choices – seen in Luxembourg two years ago!) and Invocation (work, life, crisis and response)…it would be a kind of mini season of a life turned into theatre. Maybe Luxembourg could be the debut of that….!