Fancy Piece: Embracing the power of queer sexuality
- Published: 10 June 2011
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After being confronted with censorship at their jobs with a circus, duo Holly Bennett and Simone Craswell created bent performance outfit Fancy Piece and run one of Sydney’s most successful queer and erotic cabaret nights, the Pussycat Club. They spoke with Katrina Fox.
11 June 2011
So, you ran away from the circus! Why?
We were Performance Coordinator and Administrator for Circus WOW. We had been working on a series of M-rated shows designed to express the individual voices of the circus’s women through their performances.
The M rating was agreed on to allow more freedom in expression, and we were also running G-rated shows to accommodate the large junior following the circus had.
After several sellout shows had been going hummingly well, Holly stepped forward with an act with a distinctly queer voice: a supermodel drag king by the name of Matt Gloss who stripped to a singlet and Y-fronts and closed the act by rubbing mud all over his pristine bits. The act was called Dirty Secrets and it explored the notion that by coming out of the closet and proudly declaring who you are and what floats your boat, you disarm your enemies and ascend to a stronger and happier place.
As it turns out, it wasn’t a voice that was well welcomed by Circus WOW. An emergency meeting was called to have it pulled from the show and Holly was subjected to a barrage of comments at that meeting that included her act being called “filthy pornography”.
We were told that work like that only belonged in “Sydney lesbian clubs” and should be done under our own names and not the banner of Circus WOW.
It became increasingly clear to us that at Circus WOW queer was only acceptable if it was made a mockery of, it was not allowed to be strong, beautiful, powerful, and definitely NOT allowed to be sexy. We left the circus and began working passionately towards making queer all the things WOW would not.
Although we left Circus WOW nearly five years ago now, this incident is still a big one for us because if this was able to happen in a place that was touted as a safe one for women and only an hour’s drive from Sydney, what else is happening to emerging queer performers in the regional and rural areas of Australia?
We feel that the arts organisations of Australia have a real responsibility to nurture and protect the work coming from artists from all areas. The attitude that queer work only belongs in queer enclaves such as Oxford St and Newtown denies the very real existence of queers in all areas of this country.
As far as queering Wollongong goes, keep an eye out for The Phoenix Theatre as they are just inches away from getting their POPE license and going gangbusters.
Sexuality is a big part of your performances and events – with dildos, whips, themes of dominance and submission and nudity being regular features. Why?
We want our work to be unmistakably queer. We are relentlessly bombarded by images of heterosexual sexuality, yet images of queer sexuality are heavily censored and blocked. We want to make those queer images so entertaining and powerful that folks not only want to see them, they demand to see them. We want to make it impossible to ignore queerness and its fabulosity.
Dildos, whips, dominance and submission, and nudity are all parts of our sexuality, so we own them, show them, and love them. Phalluses and whips are also symbols of power, and we want to challenge people’s assumptions about power, as well as ideas about what is considered “good” and “bad”.
In many of our acts power is passed back and forth so often and fast that it becomes a shell game. Nudity represents a lot of things in our performances: it is beautiful and powerful; it is considered dangerous and taboo; it’s an act of protest; and revealing nakedness is always a ritual of transformation.
It dares people to stare their fears about sexuality fair in the face.It’s also a way of saying, “I have so much faith and belief in what I am saying that I will lay down my armour and face you stripped bare”.
Why the name Fancy Piece?
We took the name from a strap-on dildo! We also liked the idea that fancy pieces are often under-estimated as pretty little shiny things with no substance, till they blow your head off or pierce you right through the heart.
Sydney is a hub of unique, bent, queer burlesque events and performers – why do you think this is?
We think one of the big factors in creating today’s amazing scene was Gurlesque. Glitta Supernova and Sex Intents worked determinedly and tirelessly to make it so.
But prior to Gurlesque, there were events like Wicked Women, so there is certainly something about Sydney. Sydney queers definitely have a way of saying, “Fuck you” with sequins and glitter.
The incredible efforts of the Red Rattler crew have also made a huge difference in supporting the continuing presence of queer events and performers.
What are your aims as performers and what do you hope the audience will get out of seeing your shows?
The big thing we hope audiences get from our shows is to be entertained, because when people are interested in what you’re doing, they’re more likely to think about what you’re saying.
It also challenges notions about what audiences are ready for. We are told so often that this or that social change can’t occur because ‘people’ aren’t ready for it, that we have to just be patient and change will come. It’s bullshit - if we can keep showing that the general public is already ready and waiting to celebrate what has been labelled as “outrageous” or “immoral”, we are chipping away at prejudices.
Religion features quite a lot in your performances – tell us about some of your religious-based acts and why you do them.
“In The Name of God” is two Cardinals performing a dark Mass involving blood, sex, candles, and flogging.
During the course of the act, they are exposed as being their own golden idols and the very demons they preach against. We put it together for Hellfire Sydney as our World Youth Day gift to the Pope.
“Hail Mary” is a passionate interlude between a nun and a statue of the Virgin Mary. This act overthrows the Catholic Church’s promotion of the role of women as either mother or bride of Christ, both devoid of sexuality.
“Passion of the Christ” is our love story – well, lust story – between Jesus and the Devil to Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”. We liked the idea that God has a vendetta against Lucifer because he was Jesus’ bad-arse boyfriend, and that if He could just accept that His Son is queer, we could all get on with some lovin’.
The reason we do them is that Christianity and in particular institutions such as the Catholic Church play very powerful roles in making and strongly enforcing the laws that discriminate against queers in our society.
We both have Catholic backgrounds and have been strongly influenced by the indoctrination processes we experienced. Many of our acts explore aspects of this, from the symbols, imagery and rituals to the mythology, pornography, and hypocrisy.
As well as performing, you currently host two nights: Pussycat Club at the Supper Club, Oxford Hotel which is monthly, and Queer Central at Sly Fox, which is a weekly event that you host once a month. How did these come about, and what are the necessary elements needed for queer burlesque/cabaret/performance nights to succeed?
Both of these gigs happened around the same time. We’d been performing on and off at the Sly Fox for several years, and stepped up to a hosting spot when the planned host couldn’t make it, and after that they let us have a monthly spot of our own.
The Oxford contacted us to do a couple of gigs for them on the recommendation of Jess Rockwell, and then they invited us to host a regular night they’d been planning.
Among the elements we think are important for a successful night are first and foremost, venue management that supports the night; a variety of performers, respect for the audience, working with other community events for a vibrant scene, maintaining a professional approach, and the wonderful punters – nobody can do it without them.
What skills do you both bring to the table in order to make these evenings succeed?
We’ve both got backgrounds in performance coordinating and stage managing, and have done a fair bit of public speaking, spruiking, and a lot of roving performance.
There’s a fair amount of flying by the seat of our pants and DIY in the background, including everything from sewing stage curtains to protect the venue from act-splatter, to making the Pussycat Club and Fistful of Queers flyers ourselves. Fistful of Queers was a night we put on at the Red Ratllter.
We do fruit-porn photoshoots in the loungeroom, herding the cat to keep her from sneaking into shots, and then we twiddle the pics with ancient technology like MS Paint. The local fruit and veg place is now used to us coming in and getting really excited by sexy pomegranates and pears with nice moist cleft bums.
How did you end up on the Sydney queer scene?
Holly grew up in a succession of small NSW country towns and spent most of her time living the heady lifestyle of the debating team and tearing up the Rock Eisteddfod. She followed the bright lights to the big smoke of Canberra, where she studied creative writing and haunted the uni theatre. She moved to Wollongong in 2003 and stepped out in the Sydney queer scene a couple of years later.
Simone grew up in Rabaul, Bougainville, and Lae. She was often traipsed about the world by her parents. Leaving PNG tore out her heart but she found some solace upon stumbling into the Sydney queer scene in her early 20s. She has left it occasionally for her own world jaunts and stints in rural Australia and yes, The Gong, but she does always seem to make it back relatively unscathed.
Gurlesque was pioneering for its women and trans-only audience policy. Queer Central and the Pussycat Club are open to queers of all sexes, genders and sexualities. You’ve performed at all of these events – can you say something about the different dynamics and experiences of performing for women compared with mixed audiences?
Every audience is a different beast, but gender hasn’t been a defining factor that we’ve found. We do believe that many of the queer Sydney audiences that we perform to have been well-educated in respecting performers through attending events such as Gurlesque and Club Kooky.
One factor that tends to influence how audiences react is whether they consider themselves a theatre audience, club audience, circus audience, pub audience and so on. It’s not that any one of these is better behaved than the other, but their expectations are different so they behave differently.
Tell us about a particularly memorable moment in Fancy Piece’s history.
When we were doing a freebie show for South Coast lesbian orgs REAL Illawarra and LISA in Berry, we had a significant proportion of the audience walk out because apparently real lesbians don’t buy into the patriarchy by wearing drag and strap-ons.
They ended up having a meeting about it to debrief the incident, but we weren’t notified or invited, so we can’t share the outcome of that with you. We can tell you we’ve never been booked by them again.
On the flip side, at the same event we had a woman take our hands in her hands and heartily thank us because she thought she’d never see anything like that in her hometown.
Other than organised religion, where else do you get your inspiration for your shows?
The difference between love and possession is a big inspiration to us. One of the most interesting things to us is the way people react when they don’t get what they want.
Both of us have suffered stalkers, and quite a few of our acts look at different ways that this type of behaviour is often excused and even glorified as ‘romance’ and ‘passion’.
How do you go about creating and devising a show?
The devising process varies – sometimes we are planning for a specific show and we have a bath and a brainstorm together, but a lot of the time we are listening to songs in the car on the way to gigs and go “What if this song is really about X?”
There are sometimes issues or themes we want to explore; occasionally Holly will find a costume piece or a prop that sparks off an entire concept, and sometimes Simone gets magical brain gifts with acts that arrive fully-formed in lightning bolts.
The creation process depends on time, budget, and a bunch of other factors: figuring out what size stage it will go on, what backstage facilities are available, and how many stairs there are in the venue can make an act change drastically from idea to execution.
We each usually have a really clear idea of the aesthetic we want for an act, but it’s when we get to the shops to hunt out props and costume pieces that we find out if it’s the same aesthetic. Sometimes there’s a moment when we meet up in Spotlight with armloads of stuff and we realise that we’re shopping for completely different visions and we are not Borg.
Then we have to have a cage fight to see whose vision gets picked.
We try to make whatever costume things we can with a combination of sewing machine and hot glue gun, particularly when there are big time and cost restrictions, but for anything more complicated than a nun’s habit we run to Steph at Gallery Serpentine and make outrageous requests.
Holly makes a lot of smaller props for our shows, and we try really, really hard to come up with acts that don’t have many large props, but then one of us will say “You know, if we had a ladder...” or “It’s a pity we couldn’t use a chest of drawers at this point”. Most of the furniture in our house has had a stage debut – if it can fit in the car, it’s probably been used in an act.
What challenges have you faced as radical, in-your-face queer women – both in the mainstream and in the GLB/queer community?
We’ve been told by the Theatre Development Coordinator for the Merrigong Theatre Company that Wollongong audiences aren’t ready for our work because it’s too lesbian.
We also spoke with the Thirroul Seaside & Arts Festival coordinator about putting on an 18+ queer performance event during the festival and were told “over [her] dead body”. So we’re not expecting any support from those quarters any time soon!
What do you see as the main challenges and political issues for queer people?
Finding ways to work together to achieve equality and respect for all within our society, and breaking down bigotry and the laws and ignorance that enable and reinforce it.
Your pet hate/s?
Performance competitions are something we’ve been frustrated about for years, because to us they undermine professional performance by making it far more difficult for events that do pay a fair rate to performers to operate.
There have been some great grassroots community competition nights, like the way that King Victoria began, but there are so many competitions where the audience pays, the performers work, and the promoter pockets the profits.
People taking photos and filming performances when they’ve been asked to refrain from doing so.
Acts that don’t push beyond colour and movement.
People who take credit for work that is not theirs.
Your inspiration/s? And why?
Glitta Supernova & Sex Intents, for the mindblowing wonder that was Gurlesque, and for their incredible performances.
Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith, for proving that mainstream audiences really do have a thirst for edgy queer burlesque.
Wicked Women, for showing Simone how it should be done.
The Red Rattler crew, for making so much possible.
Performers who keep raising their own bars.
Performers who keep saying what they have to say, no matter what.
You can find Fancy Piece at:
The Pussycat Club (The Oxford Hotel, Syd) every 3rd Saturday of the month.
Queer Central (The Sly Fox, Enmore Rd, Newtown) every 1st Wednesday of the month.
Oz Kink Fest (Melbourne) 16-26 September 2011
Queer Fruits Film Festival (Lismore) 29 December 2011.
Katrina Fox is editor-in-chief at The Scavenger.
Images from top: Fancy Piece at Lunamorph 2010; at GenderMash, photo by Alison Bennett; at Blue Moon Cabaret, photo by Zelko Nedic.