An Audience with Meow Meow
Written by and starring Meow Meow
Choreography by Tiger Martina
Music supervision by Lance Horne
Adapted and directed by Emma Rice
Main Season · Roda Theatre
September 5–October 19, 2014
Running time: about 90 minutes, no intermission
International singing sensation and über-comedienne Meow Meow has wowed audiences from the lights of London’s West End to the backrooms of Berlin to the sails of the Sydney Opera House and the opium dens of Shanghai. Now, under the direction of Kneehigh’s Emma Rice (Tristan & Yseult, The Wild Bride), Meow Meow brings her electrifying endowments to our lucky shores. Get ready for a performance of gargantuan proportions. Accompanied by her orchestra and her dancing boys, and accoutered in sequined costumes on spectacular stage sets, Meow Meow will seduce you with her “devilish funny bones and heavenly vocal chords” (London Evening Standard), and reveal how a song and an audience truly can change the world. You are the perfect audience and she is…the extraordinary Meow Meow.
Emma Rice · Adaptor / Director
Tiger Martina · Choreographer
Lance Horne · Music Supervisor / Musical Arrangements
Martin Lowe · Additional Arrangements
Neil Murray · Scenic & Costume Design
Alexander V. Nichols · Lighting Design
Simon Baker · Sound Design
Robert Egan · Dramaturg
Geoff Hoyle · Physical Comedy Consultant
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager
Leslie M. Radin · Assistant Stage Manager
Adam L. Sussman · Assistant Director
Carl Pantle · Rehearsal Pianist
Meow Meow · Star
Michael Balderrama · Dancer Sergei Romanov / a Dark Prince of the Stage
Bob Gaynor · Dancer Jonathan Spooner / a Dark Prince of the Stage
Russ Gold · Musician
Lance Horne · Conductor / Musician
Jessica Ivry · Musician
Pat Moran · Musician
“An Australian singer with a remarkably flexible, full voice and a wide-eyed elfin-vamp persona, Meow Meow seems to specialize in cabaret teetering on the brink of comically self-inflicted disaster…She’s a sexy, long-legged chanteuse…She’s a picture of alluring grace one moment and a klutz clambering up on stage the next, with the funniest way of getting up out of a split that I’ve ever seen…A compelling and uniquely gifted performer!”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Ferociously entertaining…This is musical theater as an act of subversion in fishnets and heels…Part burlesque, part Brechtian parable, this 100-minute deconstructed cabaret act—backed by two male dancers and a four-piece band—trades in the explosive nature of the unexpected…Imagine Dame Edna crossed with Hedwig and Ute Lemper in a gleefully bawdy lounge act…There’s no denying the allure of Meow Meow’s purrfectly calibrated diva persona. The Weimar-style vamp-cum-comedian fancies herself the ‘Mother Courage of performance art.’ Armed with an impressive voice and limber stage antics, she seems to be giving her all to tickle us, and that’s hard to resist.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area New Group
“90 minutes of increasingly dire wardrobe malfunctions, technical mishaps, injured dancers, fleeing musicians, and a producer who literally pulls the plug. But still the show must go on, happily for us!”—Bay Area Reporter
“The songs cover a wide ground, and Meow Meow delivers them brilliantly. Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ and Harry Warren’s ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ are show-stoppers. ‘Itsy Bitsy,’ delivered in English, French and ‘Eastern European,’ is hilarious. Original songs by Iain Grandage, Thomas Lauderdale and Meow Meow are delightful surprises. Just as surprising is how poignant Meow Meow can be. The emotional atmosphere of An Audience turns on a dime. When she sings ‘Be Careful’ by Patty Griffin, this diva can break your heart.”—San Francisco Examiner
“Meow Meow is really something, whether she’s being an adept physical comedian, a post-apocalyptic cabaret star or just an emotionally astute singer standing before a crowd. To be in her audience is to be in for a rich, rambunctious experience.”—Theater Dogs
“She’s bawdy and brash, tender and vulnerable; she’s graceful and klutzy, commanding and helpless. She’s a singer who hits every vocal nuance, whether serious or satiric; a high-energy dancer who could probably double as a contortionist; a comic who draws roars from pratfalls, subtle glances, punchlines and sensuality. She calls herself Meow Meow and—need I say this after that lead-in—she’s wonderful.”—Huffington Post
“Delightful, with some truly hilarious audience interactions…Along the way she delivers compelling and often hysterical renditions of songs from Jacques Brel to Bertolt Brecht, from Patti Griffin to Radiohead, accompanied by a sharp onstage quartet led by pianist/arranger Lance Horne.”—KQED Arts
“Prepare to have your preconceptions, and your mind, blown away…One of those unique theatrical events that come along all too rarely. This special experience, one truly shared between artist and audience, is love at first sight…A melding of Joan Collins, Lady Gaga, Lucille Ball, and Liza Minnelli on steroids, Meow Meow is as uncategorizable as she is dazzlingly unpredictable…Rarely have I seen a performer connect with an audience on this level.”—Stage and Cinema
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
There are some artistic creatures that live in a rarified atmosphere. By day they take human shape, eat, sleep, and partake in otherwise normal activities. But at night, as they appear before us beyond the footlights, they take on an ethereal quality, as if they’ve descended from the clouds or some unnamable mountaintop to invite us into a kind of secret society dedicated to their special brand of ecstatic celebration. And if we accept that invitation we are hypnotically drawn into their force field, swept into their loving and fierce embrace, and left, by evening’s end, happily and eternally seduced.
Such a creature is Meow Meow.
I had my first encounter with Meow Meow at the urging of Emma Rice, our esteemed colleague and good friend from Kneehigh Theatre who has brought such memorable work to our Theatre (The Wild Bride, Tristan & Yseult). Emma was a devout convert and had whispered to me of Meow’s irresistible power. I subsequently flew to Portland to see her in concert, and within nanoseconds was blown away. She took the stage like a soldier in full assault mode, sang every song like it was her last, and refused to let any of us get away. The phrase “take no prisoners” was never more appropriate. Plus, she was very funny. I asked to speak to her after the show and was granted an audience. The gist of my introduction went something like, “Hi, I’m Tony Taccone and I’d love to produce your work at Berkeley Rep. Here are some dates.” We spoke for several hours. I didn’t want to leave until she looked favorably on my proposal.
And so here she is…resplendent, raw, and raucous. Ms. Rice and dramaturg Robert Egan have worked to give the evening a dramatic structure, a theatrical frame in which Meow Meow is free to work her magic. Armed with a team of musical and dance collaborators, surrounded by some of our finest designers, positioned on a stage bedecked with thousands of feathers, she heralds the beginning of our new season with spectacular bravura and a signature style.
Raise the curtain, my friends. Meow Meow is now poised to offer you an invitation to join her secret society. May you be ready to accept…
Prologue: from the Managing Director
Welcome to the 2014–15 season!
We have so many good things in store for you this year. Tony has assembled a program that is brimming with artists we are eager for you to meet. They have some great stories to share and thoughtful ways of telling those stories. I hope you’ll choose to see each and every one of our upcoming productions!
In addition to the creativity that you’ll see on our stages each time you visit, you’ll see that we’re in the middle of an entirely different creative endeavor outside as well. With our Create Campaign, we introduce you to the new initiatives that are going to keep Berkeley Rep the most exciting theatre around and will ensure that it remains an artistic home for the many iconic artists you have come to love and admire.
The funds we raise with this campaign will support programs not covered by the cost of your ticket. We’ll be refurbishing the Thrust Stage, adding the technological upgrades that will, once again, make it a preferred destination for today’s most respected artists. We’ll be converting the courtyard into an atrium with a clear lightweight shell so that you can enjoy that outdoor space, the new bar, and improved box office facilities regardless of the weather. We’ll be seeding new plays in our Ground Floor new play development lab, nurturing young as well as mature writers who will tell the stories of our time for our audience as well as audiences around the nation. And we’ll convert our Harrison Street campus into the premier facility for new play development on the West Coast (if not the country!) with rehearsal halls, access to technical support, and artist live/work spaces.
Every initiative is designed to improve your experience and to enhance our ability to produce the kind of work you demand of us. Yes, we do feel that you place demands on us…and that is what we value so much about you.
I hope you’ll find out more about our Create Campaign in the lobby, and that you’ll be inspired to support our efforts. With your generosity and our hard work, we are going to make sure that Berkeley Rep retains its audacious ambition and relentless commitment to producing work that moves, inspires, provokes, and delights our audiences.
Visual beauty: A conversation with designer Neil Murray
By Julie McCormick
For the past few months, the production team at Berkeley Rep has been gleefully bringing the imaginings of designer Neil Murray to life. Murray, who designed both the set and costumes for An Audience with Meow Meow, offered us a brief peek behind the curtain into the magical world of Meow.
As a designer, what do you look for in a script?
When I read a script, essentially, I am looking for the angle with which I am most likely to become emotionally attached to the piece. If I do not feel a strong connection to the piece I find it very difficult to interpret it in a design.
At the same time I will also note all the physical details of the location(s) as they are described in the text. This is perhaps the most tedious aspect of my work. How many doors, windows, are there? Do we actually need them all? Where are they in the “rooms?”
I am often looking for the single most important element in the text which sets my imagination going.
In many ways, what the director says to me about their understanding of the text and how they plan to work on the piece is much more important than any physical details which occur in the writing.
What is the biggest design challenge that you’ve had to overcome in your career?
Having to work with a director I had no rapport with whatsoever. This is always the most difficult thing. I was forced into a situation I couldn’t escape from and the whole process became a hideous nightmare—although curiously, the outcome in terms of my design was nowhere near as bad as it might have been given the circumstances. “Who is directing?” is now always my first question.
You’ve collaborated multiple times with director Emma Rice—what has been the most unique thing about working with her?
In fact, we’ve worked together on five projects. Meow Meow. Steptoe and Son. Brief Encounter. Pandora’s Box and They Shoot Horses Don’t They?
We work together now with a huge backlog of shared experience. We also have deep respect for each other. I love Emma’s ability to be grave and funny at the same time. I always know where I am with her. In our work together we can laugh and cry together and be very close in our collaboration. I think we often know what the other is thinking.
You designed both the set and the costumes for An Audience with Meow Meow—do you often do both? Do they inform each other? Do you find that certain ideas are communicated better through one form versus another?
I would always want to design both the set and costumes for a new piece. They work together to form a whole. To me, it is impossible to contemplate designing a set with someone else designing the costumes. The ideal is where a production will feel and appear “whole”—where the set and costumes work together to create a real and believable World. A unique and special World that has little or nothing to do with naturalism—where the work can live and breathe at its most effective.
Do you have a favorite piece of design for this show?
This piece is quite a departure for me stylistically and I have loved doing it. I love its overt theatricality. It feels completely at home in a theatre. I particularly love what we call the Rose Curtain. The huge flat of painted and three-dimensional roses with its extravagant ostrich feather fringe. As I was making the scale-model piece I was smiling at its almost grotesque lusciousness. So entirely over the top as to be teetering on the edge of the absurd—and yet so entirely in homage in its visual beauty to Meow Meow.
I also love what we call the Rose Dress which has some beautiful hand-embroidered fabric for the skirt that Meow Meow and I found one lovely afternoon in a wonderful fabric shop in Soho, London.
Where did you look for inspiration in creating the world of this piece?
I have a huge archive of visual and photographic references which I have been collecting for over 35 years. They are categorized and box-filed for easy searches, each labelled with a description of its contents. There are two labelled “ITALIAN VOGUE.” The Italian Vogue, since I discovered it many years ago, has been an almost single-handed source of inspired visual clues. Thus—it is Italian Vogue I have to thank for inspiration.
Uncovering an undersung art
By Madeleine Oldham
While often thought of as a fringe genre, cabaret offered a platform to many well-known artists from a wide range of disciplines. Some were unexpected: luminaries such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Claude Debussy, August Strindberg, and Erik Satie were early cabaret writers and performers. Later, this category included singers that align more closely with our traditional notions of the form: Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Eartha Kitt, and Nina Simone. Sometimes unfairly dismissed as outsider art, cabaret’s influence is heavily felt in contemporary performance—its legacy informs our modern-day worlds of theatre, concert performance, drag shows, and stand-up comedy.
Cabaret is widely believed to have originated in Paris when Le Chat Noir opened in 1881. A Montmartre club that featured a broad spectrum of evening entertainment, much like what we might think of as a salon, Le Chat Noir quickly became a hotspot for artists of all stripes to experiment with new material. Previously, a cabaret had been defined as simply any establishment that served alcohol. But the new idea of arranging small tables to create an intimate and immersive environment for artists to perform in, along with a bohemian aesthetic and the large concentration of artists in the area, helped catapult Le Chat Noir into a local sensation, and eventually a global spotlight. Cabaret took off all over the world.
The appeal of cabaret is easy to understand. Its free-spirited zeal and loosely structured format lent it a wildness and a spontaneity that doesn’t always appear in more formal settings. It emerged with a counterculture streak, ready-made for political commentary and pushing the boundaries of accepted subject matter. It could afford to be risqué, and take its audience to places they don’t ordinarily go—places that are uncomfortable, unseemly, or otherwise inappropriate. But because cabaret can be so sophisticated and artful, this kind of dark side becomes intriguing and titillating rather than off-putting. Cabaret can tap into a collective unconscious, and provoke catharsis in myriad ways.
Meow Meow holds a deep affinity for cabaret, and for the sense of release it can provide:
The cabaret I love incorporates wondrous music with political satire mixed with out-and-out showbiz, high and low art (in the same breath), the ancient and modern, and astounding virtuosity. Also some kind of truth in delivery that makes us hear a song or an idea completely differently to the way we’ve always (or never) heard it that feels comforting, healing, or revelatory. It’s about the intimacy that can be created through the excitement of this “realness,” this spontaneity, regardless of the size of the performance space. And the countless wild stories that can be told in song after song—masses of human emotion and experience distilled, universal stories that feel completely personal, special, cathartic. An excitement or danger as we wonder where the performance will take us. An expectation that anything could happen, and those exquisite moments of genuine uncensored reaction where we cannot even understand why we are suddenly weeping or laughing! Enlightenment!
As cabaret established itself as a formidable generator of exceptionally talented artists, it proved a particularly adept vehicle for showcasing female performers who continued the tradition of the femme fatale, or “fatal woman.” As long as we have had stories, we have had representations of this archetype—the sirens of Greek mythology, the Sphinx, Jezebel. The image of the evil temptress is problematic, but cabaret put a different spin on it, embracing the “vamp,” which stems from the word “vampire.” The term originally conveyed largely negative connotations: a vamp used her prodigious powers of sexual allure for nefarious purposes. Early, overly moralistic stories triumphed in her vanquishing. But as cabaret appropriated the icon, the vamp began to signify a woman of strength, independence, talent, and flair, who might be aloof or alone, but would brook no compromise in being fully and truly herself. She possesses a unique ability to embody extreme sexiness and harsh reality at the same time. Meow’s take on the vamp is quite broad, and reveals a reverence for this dichotomy:
The long-term story of the “vamp” is not just the perceived glorious moment of iconization in the public eye, but also the lonely hotel rooms, the battles with politics and change and age, the solitary femme fatale dying poverty-stricken and alone, hiding away from the world behind veils and soft lenses and Parisian apartments. Perhaps it is an effort to retreat into memory? Or to maintain the mythology of untouchable beauty…
And then there are the heroines with no names, the unsung, unstrung girls, the rubble women, the women who wait, and the ones who just slipped out of life…
“Sarah Bernhardt’s missing leg,” or something like it, was the tantalizing title of a play I heard about and never saw in my youth. I’ve been thinking about the deconstruction and dissection of women ever since. And their resilience and images of voracity and veracity. The punishment of the femme fatale through history, art, film noir, the media…
And here is where things get subversive. What starts as a classic trope of the sexy lady, seen on mud flaps and beer ads the world over, gets twisted on its head when cabaret goes political. Meow is well aware that it’s so much more than some glitter, a revealing outfit, and a song. Since its Parisian beginnings in the 1880s, cabaret had always provided a home for satire and artistic commentary that challenged the status quo. But perhaps its pinnacle of political expression was reached during Germany’s Weimar Republic.
Germany after World War I saw an era of unprecedented artistic and intellectual activity. The government abolished censorship, and voices that were previously suppressed found new freedom to sound loudly. The quintessential images of cabaret that still spring to mind today date from this period. As Hitler’s power rose, however, cabaret was forced back underground, a moment immortalized by Kander and Ebb in the 1966 musical Cabaret, and the subsequent 1972 film.
The Third Reich essentially squashed anything that hinted of a rebellious spirit, but the scrappy and resilient cabaret proved it has a life force that’s impossible to extinguish. Its beating heart remained alive, and it thrived in New York and Paris, and today everyone from Bette Midler to Louis CK to RuPaul owes a debt to this groundbreaking genre.
Perhaps Meow summarizes best why this art form has proved its staying power:
I love the flexibility of a cabaret format to take risks—to be endlessly reinvented, to respond to the personal and political circumstances of the audience, the performer, the larger world environment. It is a vehicle built for changes, in all senses and for me, at least, drags its history marvelously with it. There is something also about a kind of exposure that is possible within a cabaret song—the vulnerability of a vocal fold or a human heart, or a viewpoint. There is always a sense of rawness, or perhaps just ‘realness,’ even when covered in sequins and lush chordal structures. It should be a dangerous and passionate mix of art and craft, heart, head, and spirit! It’s Life in macro-microcosm. How fabulous! I’ve made myself excited! Let’s put on a show!
There’s no one quite like Meow Meow. She has thrown her arms around the art form of cabaret—imagining, inventing, amalgamating, and appropriating, to create the stunningly unique performer we know today. Her influences range far and wide. But her heart lies with the vamps and vixens that cabaret gave rise to, and who helped bring her magnificent persona into being.
Some of Meow’s idols and influences
(As she says, “An array of fabulous and ferocious women stampedes its way nightly through my head. The exotic beasts and vipers all these women possessed, their capacity for self-sensationalism, the business of the body, the old business we call ‘Show.’”)
Anita Berber’s dances of “depravity, vice, and ecstasy”
Theda Bara poised over a human skeleton for a publicity still
Sarah Bernhardt photographed sleeping in a coffin to “better prepare herself for tragic roles,” her keening “golden voiced” recordings for Edison when she happened to be in New York, her performance for the condemned inmates of San Quentin State Prison
The Marchesa Casati’s wax reproductions of and for herself
Lola Montes on the Victorian goldfields
Alla Nazimova (“Herself”)—far from peacocks and pearls—in a Lucky Strike advertisement
Irene Andessner’s works on the Edison light-bulb-covered dancer Milli Stubel
Loïe Fuller’s experiments with light and shadow
As well as:
“Sexy, crazy, and fun!”
Audience members love Meow Meow!
Meow Meow has a message for you
The über-award-winning comedienne takes a break from her glamorous photo shoot to deliver a tongue-in-cheek missive.
Meow Meow on TV
See the international singing sensation in her new TV spot.
Introducing Meow Meow!
Meet the international singing sensation and über-award-winning comedienne who’s opening our 2014–15 season.
Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com
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Berkeley Rep’s literary department has hunted down the most enticing tidbits of Meow Meow’s fabulous career and the history of cabaret.
- Meow’s official website includes a biography, a list of upcoming performance dates, and links to many other things Meow.
- Meow’s Instagram is a spectacle unto itself. Her Twitter feed, which includes her recent hashtag trend #MeowInBerkeley, is also quite fun, and can be found at twitter.com/MeowTopia.
- This feature and interview in the London Guardian on Meow Meow provides some insight into the diva’s persona. It includes quotes, some spectacular photographs, and a few interspersed links to videos of particularly fabulous Meow-moments.
- In this interview from 2013, Meow answers questions about her style of performance.
Albums featuring Meow
Meow Meow Revolution: Vamp
- A collection of songs by Meow with Maestro Iain Grandage and the Wild Dog Orchestra.
Lance Horne: First Things Last
- Meow’s accompanist and the show’s music supervisor, Lance Horne, is an accomplished composer, lyricist, and performer. His recent debut album, First Things Last, features Meow Meow as well as other spectacular stars. The New York Times called the songs on his album “witty, melodic folk-pop tunes with meat on their bones.”
Songs from a Little Match Girl
- The official soundtrack to Meow’s award-winning show, Little Match Girl, which one reviewer called a “purrrfectly wild take on Hans Christian Andersen’s bittersweet fable.”
Amanda Palmer: Theater is Evil
- Alt-rock icon Amanda Palmer’s album Theater is Evil was released in 2012 and features the Grand Theft Orchestra and Meow Meow.
- The Arts Desk interviews director Emma Rice, illuminating moments from her education as a theatre artist and highlighting some of the particularly remarkable productions she’s created as a member (and eventually, co-artistic director) of Kneehigh Theatre in England.
- This interview was conducted two seasons ago when Ms. Rice was at Berkeley Rep directing The Wild Bride. In it, she answers questions about her theatrical process at Berkeley Rep and with her company, Kneehigh.
Cabaret and the femme fatale
- Ben Walters is a prominent theatre journalist for the British newspaper the Guardian. In this essay, Walters inspects the historical context of cabaret. He features Meow herself as an example and the source of its closing quote.
The Cabaret by Lisa Appignanesi
- Reviewer John Lahr of the New Yorker wrote, “Lisa Appignanesi’s well-researched and gracefully written Cabaret is as frisky, smart, mischievous, and high-stepping as the art form she comprehensively chronicles.” This book chronicles the cultural history of cabaret as an art form and traces its journey across Europe and to the U.S., examining cabaret’s roots and earliest forms as well as the splintering of the form into stand-up comedy and club life. For a taste of the book’s contents, see this article by author Lisa Appignanesi.
- This feature by Theodora Goss takes a look at the archetype of the femme fatale, examining female monsters and women classified as such in classical literature and arts. Gross bookends the piece with a nod towards femme fatales of modern culture.
- The American Spectator profiles Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress notable for her seductive, dangerous beauty and listed by Meow Meow as an idol and an influence. The piece takes a looks at Bernhardt’s tremendous success in America and at the personal history of the actress who came to be considered Hollywood’s first femme fatale.