A set of legs protrude from a twisted upturned trash can. All around it the stage is littered with rubbish and there is an eerie quiet. It’s a bizarre Caravaggio-meets-Midsommer-Murders image; at once decadent and distressing. And then the music starts and Betty Grumble springs to life. As Shirley Bassey belts, Betty kicks a neon-green heel straight towards the ceiling. It’s a mark of things to come; absurd, indulgent, outrageous fun. Her show is as eclectic as she is; she who embraces the earth and herself, becoming one of Sydney’s most beloved female artists and drag performers.
RuPaul, one of the undisputed giants of the Drag community, once famously stated the Drag performer serves the same function as “the shaman, or the witch doctors, and the court jester whose job it is to remind the culture: This is all façade.”
It’s fitting then, that Betty Grumble has travelled the globe off the back of a show called Sex Clown Saves the World. For every performance she dons a full face of extravagant, colourful make up. She mimes, she lip syncs and once she pulled a hidden maraca from her vagina to a crowd of adoring fans in Newtown’s Tokyo Sing Song.
We spoke to Betty, one of our 2017 Fringe Ambassadors, about life as one of Australia’s premiere performance artists and the myriad of things she has to say in her work.
Before Betty arrived on the scene you were interested in being a traditional actor. How seamless was the transition from acting to performance art?
I was always a big nerd for theatre and performance. As a real young one I recoiled at that ShowBiz Headshot Casting Couch psycho-drama that acts as a lens you have to pass through before you get to connection. I just didn't want to compete to tell stories that were not vital or didn't turn me on (and I would do impressively shit auditions). So I went DIY. Performance Art, nightclub experimentation, rigorous training for the people by the people. I really admire the other modes of approaching performance, but I'm glad I hitch-hiked my way into making. Tradition and the new can/do converge, and that's a healthy thing - but there is something to be said about the relationship that 'traditional acting' can have to capitalism and its rigid ideas about how we 'play'.
Betty’s look is a bit surreal, a bit draggy, a bit clownish; from where did you draw your inspiration?
I'm inspired by insects, kabuki 'bizarre' theatre, psychedelics, beauty queens, dreams and obscene beings. I believe in Beauty. I believe in the Glamour spell. I get turned on by nature and by the tragically beautiful (to borrow language from Stryker Meyer).
Your work has always been deeply political, but anyone who’s ever been to one of your shows could attest, it’s also really funny. What role do you think humour has to play in protest art?
When we are dealing with such mammoth cruelty, greeding at the expense of life on a global level, environmental vandals and apathy... Laughter can be a connective tissue, it can conjure up questions of our shared and different bloods, it can reverberate around the room and shatter shackles, pull down barriers, the cackle can also comfort. We want to laugh. It is what we focus the laughing beams on that can be an antidote for fatalism.
The name of your new show “Love and Anger” is something that has come up in a lot of your work. How important do you think it is to balance those two themes?
The balance is in constant negotiation because WE are IN the process of figuring out how we react to what enemies of grooviness want to do to ours and the vulnerable bodies we need to be making space and sticking up for. A close friend of mine sent me some writing on a Japanese Goddess of Love 'Aizen Myoo'. The citation on one sculpture read that the Goddess had a 'penetrating love... that made it possible for passion and desire to transform into compassion.' We are only so angry because we are so full of love, because we can see and feel how things could be, that is why the corruption is so deeply fucked. Because its a choice to be cruel. For whose benefit? This capitalism greeds beyond the needs of the community. In fact, it is actively seeking to annihilate community. Without the commune we are not a people, we are individualised and easily controlled. Sound Orwellian? It is!
You recently travelled to the Ecosex Symposium in Santa Cruz, California. How do you personally understand the relationship between sexuality and the environment?
Ecosexuality's playful approach to sensuality and our relationship to the Earth speaks to the intersection of my spirituality and sexuality. My erotics are deeply connected to my sense of self and bodily being in this realm. We are of the natural world, so for me, its makes perfect sense to keep dropping deeper into a poetics of eco-consciousness and Gaia worship. Healthy loving respects and nurtures, it gives and takes. Ecosex reminds me that my body doesn't end and that there is no one way of being. Love and making love is endless.
These days you’ve performed everywhere from Underbelly Edinburgh to the Sydney Opera House. Where’s your favourite spot for a gig?
Sydney's The Bearded Tit is holding the flame for alternative, kooky, vibrant and spontaneous gathering space. I LOVE that place and the family that makes it.
Now that you’ve performed in several continents, how do you think Australia’s queer performance scene compares to the rest of the world?
We've got it going on. I think our sense of humour combined with a mastery of the art of low-fi sublime and unique party spirit sets us apart from the rest.
As someone who performs a lot in clubs and bars, what’s your take on the nightlife in Sydney over the past few years?
The powers that be are trying to turn this city into a place for only one kind of person. The police state neurosis that Sydney is itching away at like a rash is connected to the conservative government and its policies that want to foster elitism, white corporate supremacy and boringness. The lockout laws being about curbing violence is bullshit mama! We haven't addressed the REAL problem. Young frustrated dudes punching each other to death. Something is broken in how we relate. Culture and cultural livelihood are spaces for humans to remind each other of their humanity. We need more culture, we have it. Developers have a LOT to answer for. It's about money, its about money and the fact the Murdoch Cronies try and sell us on 'coward punches' and do nothing to examine maybe the holes in our education system and the new ways we might address how young people are growing up so ready to pop. Why are they/we so frustrated? No one got King Hit dancing to Donna Summer. (I don't think.) BUT.... Sydney still has the best parties and happenings. The lockout laws have failed to lock us out... They are just symbolic and very inconvenient.
What do you think is the recipe for a healthy cultural landscape?
Written by Michael Kennedy