Culture: Theatre

Interview: Dickie Beau

Dickie Beau

Dickie Beau is the recipient of an award for Best Alternative Performer in the 2012 London Cabaret Awards and has received Arts Council funding for his first full length show, BLACKOUTS: Twilight of the Idols, which will premiere this March at The Chelsea Theatre as part of SACRED, Chelsea’s annual programme of live art and contemporary performance. The show will bring together artefacts from Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe and will feature never-before-heard audio footage from Monroe’s final interview published in Life magazine.

What can audiences expect from BLACKOUT: Twilight of the Idols?

It’s a kind of study of icons in exile from themselves, as well as from the rest of society. It’s also like a trip – almost a death bed hallucination of my future self.

You are the first person to have been granted full access to Marilyn Monroe’s final audio interview with the journalist Richard Merryman. How did this come about?

Jim Sweeney at Gay’s The Word lent me a video of Marilyn Monroe talking in her own words and some of that was taken from the tapes of her last interview with Life magazine. I figured that there must have been more material and contacted the producer of the film who put me in touch with Merryman in New York. I called him and he was quite intrigued I think, and said that he’d let me listen to the tapes, but that I’d have to be in New York to do that.

I held a fundraiser at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern to get the money to go to New York. I had to sign an agreement with Merryman as he was reluctant to give me the material outright and I had to pay a fee. I didn’t have the money so I put in an application to the Arts Council explaining that I had access to this rare material and they gave me an award. What’s unusual about all this is that while Merryman had released certain excerpts from the tapes in the past, he’d never given anyone full access to them in their entirety. He gave me full access.

What was your instinctive reaction to the tapes when you heard them and how did you think you would go about incorporating them in a performance piece?

There’s actually another dimension to the story. Merryman got cold feet about giving me access to the material the second time we spoke. We’d exchanged emails and I’d booked flights and hotels and we’d agreed on dates for me to listen to the tapes, but then he said I couldn’t have the material. I then asked if I could at least interview him, because then I’d have something to show the Arts Council. We had a long interview and then we arranged to meet a few days before I left New York, in case I had any other questions. In the time between our first meeting and second, however, Merryman had a change of heart and let me have access to the tapes.

I think I was informed by the things that had come up in the interview with him. I only had one day with the tapes and there was five hours of material, so I just sat there and noted anything that jumped out at me or spoke to the feelings I was mulling over. I couldn’t take everything from the tapes away as Merryman had limited me to having 10 -15 minutes worth of material to use in the show, so I had to be on the ball.

Everyone has their own perception of Marilyn Monroe and the myth that has developed around her since she died. How did listening to the tapes reinforce your own views on her or alter your understanding?

I think my understanding was enhanced through my conversations with Merryman about him meeting Monroe. He told me stories around the tapes, about the things that occurred during the interview and also the things he’d heard from other people – anecdotes from that generation. Overall, I came away from the experience with a more pronounced sense of her humanity and I felt closer to her. You could hear her playing out her insecurities on the recording. The first thing she does when she meets Merryman is ask him if she can help him with anything, while he is setting up the tape recorder. Then she offers him a tuna sandwich and towards the end of the material she says ‘please don’t make a joke out of me.’ To hear that coming out of her mouth was almost chilling.

You’ve also worked with tapes made by Judy Garland, in which she sat alone and talked into a Dictaphone. What similarities do you see between Garland and Monroe?

They were both vulnerable women, but also had great strength. In Monroe’s case this strength came across on the tapes in her intelligence, sense of humour and yearning to be understood and accepted as an intelligent person and an artist, rather than a bit of fluff. Both women had a desire to be heard on their own terms. I don’t think either of them were given the opportunity to articulate what was going on for them; they were often just pawns in a game. The main difference between the recordings is that Monroe is giving an interview to a journalist, not just talking to herself, as Garland is. This means she is more guarded, while Garland is naked and raw. There’s so much anger in Garland’s recording. Yes, there’s also loads of humour and wit and sensitivity and poignancy, but it all culminates in rage, which is quite unsettling.

I heard Lorna Luft say something very beautiful about her mother in an interview at The Southbank Centre. She explained that she was wary about how the word ‘victim’ can be used, but felt that it was an appropriate word when used to describe Judy Garland because it’s a word that pertains to children. I thought there was something very insightful about that, but also compelling – Garland’s own daughter viewed her as childlike. It says quite a lot about the conditions of people who are child stars. In a way Marilyn didn’t have a childhood as she grew up in orphanages. This makes me wonder if either of these women ever really stood a chance.

Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe are two of the biggest ‘gay icons’. What do you make of the term ‘gay icons’?

I think I prefer the term ‘queer icons.’ I also think that if you’re queer as a child, different, then these figures can be particularly powerful to you. I knew my sexuality from an early age and was aware that it wasn’t ok in the mainstream, so I think a part of me missed out in childhood because I felt wrong and then, as a teenager, I couldn’t participate in the courtships of the heterosexual community. I think there’s something about women like Monroe and Garland that we connect with because of an otherness that they also seem possess. Both women were ‘other’ in a queer childhood and yet they overcame it, and in doing so offered some sort of hope to me. They were idolised by masses of people and survived those tough early years.

How do you think gay/queer icons have changed over the years? Who do people idolise now?

I find that difficult to answer because I’m not sure who the queer icons are now. May be it’s because I’m getting older, but it feels to me that Garland and Monroe are just as important now as they’ve always been. Having said that I did a work in progress of my show at an all boys’ school and a lot of the pupils didn’t really know who these women were. I’m not saying they were all queer, but one or two of them must have been.

What has creating this new show taught you about your own relationship with these icons?

I don’t know whether I relate to them because of something in me that I see in them, or actually if they’ve influenced the person I’ve become. This question is played out a bit in my shape shifting in the show. Rather than trying to capture the totality of Monroe or Garland I think I’m really tapping into the stuff that speaks to me.

BLACKOUTS: Twilight of the Idols is part of SACRED, Chelsea’s annual programme of live art and contemporary performance, which has always featured noted gay performers as well as many highly influential live artists.

Chelsea Theatre, 7 Worlds End Place, London, SW10 0DR, 27-28 March

Words: Alex Hopkins


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