It’s fairly ironic that most live performances that involve an audience don’t actually involve an audience — which is to say it’s a rare performance that takes the audience into account and injects them with forceful charm into the proceedings at hand. It’s a phenomenon that creates something greater than the sum of the parts that everyone normally plays. In an era when most of the stimulation experienced by an audience involves sitting on its hands, Australian-born performer Meow Meow delights in taking those audiences by those hands and unveiling a world of cabaret, dance and theater that is slightly more beneficial to the genitals than the drug of the same name.
In her performances, which have alternately enraptured and mortified audiences from London to Berlin to New York City, the spotlight is trained on how she interacts with audience members as much as it shines a light on her legs and endless sequins, shining bright like a disco ball as she does. Winning the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe Prize and working alongside David Bowie, Michel Legrand and The Dresden Dolls, she inhabits a singular sphere of performance that’s as much about relationships as it is about spectacle.
“There’s nothing like captivity to enforce creativity,” she laughs, having just deplaned after a voyage fraught with air turbulence and creative tumult, admitting that she’s written a brace of new songs in the nail-biting interim. About her plans for the Ojai Playwrights Conference, she admits, “We’re going to do a read of the play as it stands. It’s exciting because when you do something like that, you strip it down of all the bells and whistles and costumes. You’ve really got to look at the substance of the script. It’s a great forum, to get that [audience] feedback when you’ve got both like-minded souls and alternative souls. It’s a real privilege when you get to read the writing like that and get a sense of it outside the cocoon. There’s always an element of improvisation no matter how scripted they are.”
How physical is the execution of one of her performances? “I’m joyously flying!” she laughs, “I’m a physical performer — you’re still vibrating, even if you’re standing still. When you’re singing, there’s a lot of energy flowing through you and you’re trying to get that energy from the audience as well and give them a good dose of energy.” In Ojai, the focus will be on what she calls “the bare bones of the play,” a kind of riveting minimalism that is no less enthralling when it comes to reaching out to that selfsame audience. That kind of energy comes naturally to Ms. Meow. “I’d just been performing in a tent at a music festival in Ostrava (in the Czech Republic) in a huge electrical storm, possibly saved only by the Wellingtons of Liza Minnelli,” she chuckles, adding, “I think I exist in rather an old-fashioned world and quite an edgy one.”
As for the themes underpinning the play, she reveals, “What I like to be doing is running various themes at once. You can’t ever control entirely what an audience feels; you can only hurl at them as many things as possible. So I’m always about . . .” She pauses, searching for the right words, finally settling on “. . . sensual assault. An assault on all senses. There’s high glamour and there’s low glamour. You can always read my shows on a number of levels. I can’t imagine undercutting what I do — and that’s not in a distanced, ironic way, it’s trying to replicate the way the heart and the brain work. They don’t really work in a linear narrative way, as much as we’d like to tie them into narrative.”
In terms of her relationship with the audience, Meow Meow remains philosophical. “It’s strange that we sit in a cinema and feel much more terrified and feel much more connected when we watch a film. In the theater, just because everyone’s gotten so used to what they think they’re going to see and those expectations, what I’m trying to do is subvert that and still make it not a terrifying night, but a joyful one. Joy!”
The Ojai Playwrights Conference Intersection Series presents “An Audience with Meow Meow,” Sunday, Aug. 10, 6:30 p.m. at the Zalk Theater at Happy Valley School, 8585 Ojai-Santa Paula Road, Ojai. For more information, call 646-4343 or visit www.ojaiplays.org.