Betty Grumble: ‘I want to tell stories ferociously, from my guts’. New form of rebellion invented.
Wed 10 Apr 2019 14.00 EDTLast modified on Thu 11 Apr 2019 04.07 EDT
In the back row of Sydney’s Griffin theatre, Betty Grumble’s mother covers her eyes with a fan. Her father faces the wall. It’s their first time attending their daughter’s “womanifesto” Love and Anger, which means she’s as likely to be doing a “showgirl poo” as she is to be bent over, rear to crowd, lip-syncing with her vagina to Minnie Riperton’s Loving You.
“The first time my mother googled me there was a picture of me in a G-string with six tits and a pig nose,” says Grumble (real name Emma Maye Gibson). “She had motherly concern about how the world would perceive me but now they’ve come to shows, they’re really proud and supportive.”
A few weeks after the show, we meet at Redfern’s beacon of inclusivity, the Bearded Tit bar. It’s strange to be here with Gibson (small, brunette, gentle) in place of Grumble (brash, blond, larger than life). Last time I was at the Tit, she was throwing a party called Grumblism during which the bartender assessed the escalating melee and calmly began to cart furniture out the front door.
Over the past few years Gibson has gone from club appearances to sell-out shows at fringe festivals, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and speaking on the ABC’s Q&A program.
It began with failure. “I didn’t get into drama school,” she says. “I got all the way to audition and it was … that paradigm of the acting world – ‘You look like this, so you should do this’ – but to tell whose stories? Stories I wasn’t interested in. So I started making my own work.”
In the nightclubs, Gibson thrived. “The queer underground gave me a spontaneous, quick response space to make work in drag, strip and cabaret. I was in the muck and guts … that nightclub space, where chaos and abandon rule, allows you to test your body and your ethos and you can fail catastrophically. It made me resilient in lots of ways. I am very grateful for it.”
In 2009, while attending the College of Fine Arts, she entered a queer talent quest on Oxford Street. “It was the first time I wore a blond wig and painted my face. I was vibing off pageant queens and the idea of a feminist tantrum or feminist strip, and I ended up winning the quest.” Betty was born.
Gibson’s shows as Betty are a mash-up of cabaret, comedy, political pep talks and stereotype-smashing strip. She’s a trained dancer so, at a minimum, it’s pleasurable to watch her move. Refusal is integral to her shows – mainly refusal to arouse in the way the male gaze is accustomed to. She toys with tropes of sexual objectification then yanks the rug out; a hard landing for anyone who’s actually buying it. Such as the bunch of blokes at a free show in a Kings Cross pub who, on seeing her flesh, had awaited titillation. But they were met with defecation instead.
It’s a routine Gibson calls the showgirl poo. “It’s terracotta clay,” she clarifies. “I love that act so much! It was Betty saying, ‘What else can I reveal?’ So it’s her insides, like ‘Is that what you want? You’ve got all of me now.’ Sometimes it feels like a war dance.”
Gibson “really needed” Betty in her early 20s. “I created her as a healing mechanism because I, like many woman bodies and vulnerable bodies, have experienced male violence. The show is an unshaming ritual because the violent shame I experienced is avoidable in a social landscape that creates healthy humans. ”
Yet unless it’s also “a little bit funny” it doesn’t work, she says. You find yourself tremendously fond of Betty. This freakish exhibitionist who gives it all yet seems only to be seeking something everyone needs: understanding and acceptance. The show may be deemed “vulgar” by some, but it’s far from harsh. It is tender and inclusive, even of people who want to leave. “Who’s feeling a bit overwhelmed, like it’s too much, too soon?” she asked at the Griffin. “If at any point you need to groove on out, it’s OK.”
She says: “I might be very liberated with my body but I don’t impose that on others. For me, ripping off my clothes feels natural and good. People cast this mode of being as less serious than other ways of being onstage – which is a sign of the reductive gaze we’re trained in. But I want to tell stories ferociously, from my guts, and the body was an immediate site for that excavation.”
In Love and Anger, Gibson reads passages from Valerie Solanas’ radical feminist book, The SCUM Manifesto, published in 1967, the year before Solanas tried to kill Andy Warhol. “I have so much softness in my heart for Valerie … I feel she’s connected to other figures in history, misunderstood witches like Joan of Arc.”
Even while reading this lesbian separatist screed Gibson extends a hand to those less woke. “Maleness is a metaphor, yeah?” she explains. I tell her she is charitable to do this. “We’re living in the time of a crumbling macho system,” she replies. “How men are receiving that is interesting to me.”
Growing recognition – and sold-out shows – mean Gibson is living a more balanced life. “I don’t need to do a million gigs a week any more. I get beautiful long emails from people … feeling heard and feeling solidarity. There’s been a lot of that.”
Asked what’s next, a list tumbles out including theatre collaborations, a show that “unfurls” like a TEDx talk, “radical performance in Mexico with La Pocha Nostra” and a children’s book collaboration with a young girl called Mona.
“I’m thinking about what direct action looks like too because I believe in the arts space and in shared experience as a medicine and an action. As the world gets hotter and the convergence of fascists gets darker, I wonder how we mobilise and how art can give us the weaponry to that.”
The applause is pretty good, too. “I gotta have some kind of love for being applauded, I mean, it’s luscious. To be seen and heard know your story has landed, it’s amazing.”
Categories: LGBT Agenda