Look. I know this reads as a love letter to Sisters Grimm. I know that it runs the risk of becoming an “I-liked-them-before-they-were-cool-if-there-was-ever-a-time-before-they-were-cool-because-OMFG”. I know this. And I am fine with it.
This post is part of my ongoing series of audience conversations, recorded mere minutes after the applause. Often I try to grab strangers but yesterday Cat Commander, Daniel Lammin, Joe Brown and Elisa Ghisalberti were so animated by Calpurnia Descending that they started spouting outstanding responses before I had even looked around for interviewees.
“Okay, just hold that thought. No, just – Shut up! Clearly you are already being super smart so can I pull out the recorder?”
So this is a biased document. I haven’t grabbed randoms, I have recorded people whose love for this work and this company meant that they couldn’t shut the fuck up. And I’m fine with this. I’m fine with this because Sisters Grimm means something to emerging theatre makers on a personal level and because their success on national stages feels like a validation of what makes Melbourne’s theatre scene so unique, vibrant, ridiculous and important.
Here be spoilers. Here be biases. Here be excitement and some damn fine responses to an hilarious, complex and wonderfully trashy piece of theatre.
Fleur: So, what just happened? What was that?
Daniel: Calpurnia Descending. The new Sisters Grimm show.
Elisa: A multi-media explosion of – I don’t know! – of everything! It is kind of everything!
Daniel: It just starts off as a – as a – pastiche honouring of films like All About Eve or Sunset Boulevard and the 30s diva dramas and then turns into this really biting social commentary/satire and then there’s just an explosion of… stuff –
Cat: Which then kind of accelerates through time in our visual-cultural associations.
Daniel: The moment it started with that cut to black and then blare of sound and just that – that reminder of what you are in for! You’re about to walk into something that is big and ridiculous. You’re going to have to re-align your expectations based on that and it’s not going to give a fuck whether you’re up with it or not. It’s just going to do its thing.
My whole body hurts from watching it. That always happens when I see one of their shows. At the end of it, I’ve been kind of assaulted by ideas and images and feelings and just screaming with laughter the entire time and you just walk out going —- You need a moment to kind of physically realign yourself.
Fleur: How to transcribe Daniel Lammin doing his little zombie walk to demonstrate the physical exertion of Sisters Grimm?
Daniel: Whenever they do something intelligent they have to kill it at the very last second. Like “don’t – DON’T forget what we are doing. It is trash. It is camp. It is ridiculous.” They always just have to have a little sting in the tail.
Elisa: But then not at the end! Not at the end when you completely feel for Paul Capsis’ character. They could have easily killed that with a gag and they chose not to.
Daniel: It’s always the extraordinary thing with their shows: you always forget that there will be a moment when suddenly your heart will break. Like the moment in Little Mercy where you see that the wife is genuinely out of her depth because her child is the spawn of Satan or in The Sovereign Wife when everything is going to shit. There is always the human moment in it and I can’t wait to see what that’s going to be each time. Yes. By the ending you’re not laughing! It is devastating. The sight of Paul Capsis standing onstage for a good two minutes not saying anything, in his underwear and you’re like –
Fleur: Looking so strangely innocent in that moment, after being this knowing, calculating, if crazed diva throughout.
Daniel: But also taking advantage of the fact that what we’re watching is someone who we associate as an icon. The thing of seeing Paul Capsis take his costume off… It stopped being about the story and for a moment it was just watching this incredible performer we all know so well from such an incredible career just be… There.
Cat: And the visual trickery of both drag and just costume in general. Watching him in the beginning I was like “look at his fucking tight body. Look how ripped he is” and the way he holds himself, he just has this – like he – like he just lifts weights all day long. Then he takes his clothes off and you’re like “wow. There’s a soft, real human there.” And you feel so tricked and it just makes you empathise even more with him because you’re like “wow. Everyone is really, really human.”
Fleur: A couple of you have mentioned the big ideas it is saterising or the big concepts going on. Talk to me about what those concepts are. What’s it about?
Cat: Well femininity –
Elisa: The performative aspects of femininity.
Cat: Or gender as a whole. And I love seeing a woman cross-dress. Love it.
Elisa: Oh god! More! Please. Yeah.
Cat: I think it allows you to comment more on gender when it’s not just your stereotype of “drag is men dressed as women and that’s funny!” No. Drag is social commentary because it allows us to reflect on how performative gender really is.
And I think it is about popular culture as well! Declan and Ash are such connoisseur of popular culture from way back to the beginnings of cinema that they are able to satirise what people value and what they find entertaining. And they are such entertainers.
Daniel: The expendable-ness of – Having watched the first three quarters of the show which is about an era and a time where to be a star, to work on a particular text, to be onstage, is such a sacred thing and then to have that assaulted with the most expendable, consumable shit? Like the sight of having Paul Capsis running through a video game? It was both incredible and utterly disturbing. All of a sudden the richness of the world you’ve been spending time in is just obliterated. Like at this particular point, fame, art, creation, everything is just kind of pointless and disappears at a moment’s notice. A click of a screen and all of a sudden it disappears.
Fleur: Joe, you’re sitting there looking thoughtful. What’s going on for you?
Joe: I’m hideously out of my depth. It usually takes me a little while to kind of digest. Yeah. I’ve never seen a Sisters Grimm show before.
Elisa: Neither have I!
Fleur: So tell me about seeing Sisters Grimm for the first time. I’m guessing you have heard a fair bit about them.
Joe: I’ve heard so much about them. So much about them.
Fleur: Is that what you expected to see?
Joe: Um… No. I expected the beginning. But then that slow, steady – not decline but – movement into this bat shit crazy territory caught me by surprise because it was so… It was more visceral than I was expecting. Far more visceral. It was… It was more than I was expecting as well. I was kind of expecting camp fun but it turned into something pretty real by the end.
Fleur: I think that is why we love them as a community: because they don’t just go for the gasp or for the laugh. If that was the case then they wouldn’t have stuck around. If it was only that joke. Like in the musical I saw last night, La Cage Aux Folles: the whole joke was just “they’re men! But in drag!”
Joe: Yeah. The first thing that came to mind when I saw this was Little One’s Neon show this year, Dangerous Liaisons. They stayed with that joke. They stayed with the “people in drag” and it was funny and I really liked it but looking back I’m realising that it didn’t have the movement that this one had.
Daniel: Has seeing Sisters Grimm at full force changed your perspective of what this style of theatre is capable of?
Joe: I think it has changed my perspective of what theatre can be. It was one of those ones.
Daniel: I think that’s the reason why they stick out in our cultural landscape: other people try to do what they do but Sisters Grimm knows where they come from. They know that trash and camp theatre come from being reactionary and being angry. It didn’t come out of being clever. It isn’t just about “hey, there’s men dressed as women and women dressed as men”. It’s about an idea that you have to rebel against something and every time you see their shows they make you feel. They make you think. Most people who play with camp and trash don’t understand that basic concept.
Cat: It’s not just queering of a classic text. It’s ripping apart layers upon layers of our own preconceptions of society and of culture. That – that – that’s what I get off on.
I met someone recently who said they left at halftime of The Sovereign Wife and I was just like “you are a fool. You are a fool.”
Elisa: Like if you left halfway through this, you’d just be like –
Fleur: “Yeah, I’m not really into that whole Noir thing – ”
Elisa: “I’d rather just see Joan Crawford.” Yeah!
Fleur: So it was also your first time seeing Sisters Grimm. Do you want to tell us about what you were expecting and what you got?
Elisa: Well see, I know Ash’s work. I know Declan’s work. I just haven’t seen Sisters Grimm before. But I think it was kind of what I was expecting because I know what they’re capable of. And because it is at The Malthouse I know I’m not going to come out traumatised.
Fleur: Is that a level of safety that you appreciate?
Elisa: I don’t need theatre to be safe. I don’t want to be scarred by it but I don’t even know how I could be. I don’t know what it would take! The stuff that I’ve seen! It’s like, if I was going to be scarred it would have happened already.
So they are doing their own thing but it is a safe theatre that they are playing in.
Daniel: The difference between seeing Summertime in the Garden of Eden in a shed as opposed to on the stage was extraordinary. In Theatre Works it just wasn’t quite as extraordinary because it wasn’t the same. I didn’t get to see Little Mercy at STC but I can’t imagine that not being in a shitty car park. It has been interesting thinking about this compared to their early work. In their mainstage work you probably couldn’t see Ash with his balls hanging out like in Cellblock Booty or a nun pissing in a priest’s mouth like in the original production of Little Mercy. It has been interesting seeing how they have transitioned and how they’ve been able to slip in their anarchy whilst also having to adhere to the requirements of a mainstage audience.
Fleur: I think ‘adhere’ is an interesting word with these guys because I don’t – I don’t know – I – I actually think – I feel like their work as a whole has definitely matured. I didn’t feel that same kind of depth and complexity back six – seven – however many years ago when I saw Mommie & the Minister –
Daniel: Yes! Yes! Mommie & the Minister! That was extraordinary.
Fleur: Yes, it was a fucking delight! But I do think that this is a much more mature work and I’m fucking delighted to see it on that stage. I don’t feel like it has damped it. I think they’ve found a complexity that has moved beyond that gasp.
Daniel: They’ve had to find different languages.
Cat: It’s not just Sisters Grimm With Money; it is Sisters Grimm who have really thought about how they can really transcend that shed experience.
Fleur: Yet there is still an echo of the shed at all times. Part of what makes going to see Sisters Grimm so special for so many Melbourne people is that, even if you haven’t seen them before, you know that they have been massive part of our history throughout the last decade. The rise of these two creatives epitomises our re-invention as a community. They have come up through their car parks and sheds to the mainstage. And have worked fucking hard. I feel like it is such a validation when I see these guys on a mainstage. I feel like it is a validation from the mainstage theatre companies. Programming this company is them saying “yeah. We get what Melbourne is about. We get what is so unique and special about Indy theatre here in Melbourne. It is people like these guys.”
Daniel: It is interesting to see how Sydney audiences take them. Talking to my friends in Sydney who have seen “all their shows”, (They’ve seen three! Just the three they’ve had up there.) But there is that difference in terms of their perception of what Sisters Grimm is. To them, they are a mainstage company. They’re big and they’re polished and they LOVE them but it is a different perspective. They talk about Summertime and how big and beautiful and fluffy the set was and it’s like “well, you should have seen it in a shed with a broken down washing machine in the corner.”
Cat: With the “donation only” wine.
I think their work hinges on deep, deep intellect and skill in writing and skill in constructing theatre that works on many layers. That’s what I admire more about Declan’s work and specifically about his work with Sisters Grimm. I think him and Ash have the most incredible partnership. I can’t wait to see where they go.
Daniel: They demand that you participate. You can’t just sit back, be complacent and let it wash over you. When the screen is bursting with pictures of Ash flying over the world in a pink wig, you have to sit there going “what the fuck am I seeing” but also you have to go “where is this coming from? I have to engage with this work! It demands that I do because it is intelligent and important and exciting.”
Fleur: Final thought?
Fleur: You all talked really, really fast. It’s going to kill me transcribing this.