Telling Stories

Feature in Issue 21-2 | Summer 2009

Dorothy Max Prior meets cult cabaret diva Ursula Martinez, whose new theatre show premieres at queerupnorth.

A woman works her way through the crowd at La Clique. She’s dressed in a white bikini, wearing a shaggy blonde wig, fag in hand, grinning, grooving to the music. When she reaches the podium, the act that follows is minimal but perfectly pitched: a bit of go-go dancing, then each triangle of the bikini is in turn lit by the cigarette, breasts and crotch bursting into flame as the dancer grins cheekily and winks at her audience. In the telling it sounds very slight: in the witnessing, Light My Fire is a rich act that holds the audience captivated. This is Ursula Martinez – writer, performer and cult cabaret diva. Or at least, this is one of the many personae of Ursula Martinez…

A middle-class girl of Anglo-Spanish heritage, Ursula Martinez was raised in Norwood in South London (a stone’s throw from Croydon – the subject of another of her hilarious cabaret turns, a flamenco skit on the joys of South London multiculturalism where ‘Cordoba meets Cor Blimey’). She made her name in the 90s on the queer cabaret circuit, appearing at Screamers, Club Bent, and Vauxhall Tavern, and later in Duckie shows The Class Club, and the award-winning C’est Vauxhall.

Ursula had originally trained in theatre, and on leaving Lancaster University worked with both Forced Entertainment and the Glee Club, but in the early years of her career had ‘lacked the courage’ to create her own theatre work. It was the experience of creating cabaret work that led to her having the confidence to make her own theatre work. Her first show was A Family Outing, which was created in collaboration with writer/director Mark Whitelaw. It proved a fruitful partnership.

She points out, when I meet with her, that people tend to think of her as a solo artist, but her theatre work is collaborative. Not just in the making (all the ‘Ursula Martinez’ theatre pieces to date have been created with Mark Whitelaw), but also in the performing, for she usually shares the stage with others – that first show, A Family Outing, famously featured her parents, Arthur and Mila, appearing on stage with her in an exploration of family relationships.

The show premiered in 1998 at queerupnorth in Manchester, and Ursula speaks of the ‘absolutely electric’ atmosphere as the three of them took to the stage for the first time for ‘an extraordinary moment when anything could happen’.

Whilst neither parent is a performer, both being teachers, Papa Arthur, I learn, had in fact already featured in Ursula’s performance work. He was, she says, a physics teacher at Norwood Tech, where he was famous locally for his energised experiments and lecture-demonstrations, and was persuaded to present his science experiments at Duckie, with his daughter as his lab assistant. From there to inviting him and her mother Mila to appear in her first show. ‘They loved it,’ she says, ‘and want to know when they’ll be in another show!’

A Family Outing was the first of what was to become a trilogy of works – the second being Show Off, and the third OAP. All three are co-written by Martinez and Whitelaw, and directed by Mark Whitelaw. Show Off ‘exposes the myth of celebrity and questions the notion of identity and the performing ego, both on and off stage’, and OAP ‘presents her fears and paranoia about growing old alongside some comforting, harsh and illuminating words from those with first-hand experience’.

The cabaret turns that have been delighting audiences for more than a decade also get incorporated into the performance text of her theatre work. The magnificent Hanky Panky, in which magic and striptease combine seamlessly in one of the cleverest pieces you are likely to encounter on the cabaret circuit, made its way into Show Off – and is now being revisited in Ursula’s new show, My Stories, Your Emails, which premieres at this year’s queerupnorth (May 2009) before moving on to a run at The Barbican in London. The Barbican are long-time supporters of her work. Following their programming of the Duckie shows she starred in (The Class Club, and C’est Vauxhall, which was renamed C’est Barbican) they then presented the re-staging of her own trilogy under the new title of Me Me Me (2006), and, in 2007, commissioned Office Party, an immersive theatre experience which blurs the boundaries between ‘performer’ and ‘audience’, which Ursula made with long-term friend and collaborator Chris Green (aka Tina C and Ida Barr), and director Cal McCrystal. The Barbican, she says, have been wonderfully supportive: ‘Office Party was a complicated and unpredictable show, and they took the risk. I feel privileged to be part of what they are doing.’ They are now (with Queer Up North) co-commissioners of the new show, My Stories, Your Emails.

As with Office Party and the earlier work that forms the trilogy, in My Stories, Your Emails Ursula’s cabaret acts are used as material to be explored within the context of the new theatre show. The two main strands of her work have run side-by-side over the past decade, with the cabaret work reaching a zenith in her appearances in the hit show La Clique, first seen in the Famous Spiegeltent at Brighton and Edinburgh festivals, and now in residence at London’s Hippodrome in the heart of showland, Leicester Square. Ursula is ‘delighted to be embraced by the mainstream without having to compromise who I am and what I do’ and is glad it has all happened organically. ‘I didn’t dream of having my name in lights in the West End, but it happened anyway. I’ve never known where any of it was going – I simply had ideas and then have gone ahead and done it.’ She expresses slight surprise that everything has somehow gone to plan without there being a plan – and in particular has welcomed the fact that her newfound status as a revered female performer has made her the subject of many a student dissertation, and a frequent guest lecturer at numerous academic institutions. It is all, she says looking round at our fellow occupants of London’s Groucho Club, ‘very grown-up – when did that happen?’

The new show, I learn, is conceived as being in two separate parts. The first part, the ‘stories’, are taken from Ursula’s own autobiographical writings from the past ten years. ‘They work a little like jokes,’ she says, ‘each with something that is almost a punchline – or sometimes a surreal footnote.’ The second part of the show, the ‘emails’, are just that: emails from assorted fans, unsolicited and sent in response to a YouTube posting of Hanky Panky. (Ursula had nothing to do with that posting, she makes clear!)

Both ‘stories’ and ‘emails’ will be read aloud by Ursula, who will, in this instance, be the lone performer in the show. The audience are free to form their own associations and connections between the two sections – although in dramaturgical terms, the structure of the show invites a sense of ‘before’ and ‘after’ that links the two sections: Martinez’s life ‘before’ her magic striptease became a global, viral phenomena and ‘after’. The reading aloud, she feels, is a crucial choice, a decision taken at the start of the process: ‘I am not an actor, and I don’t particularly like “acting”. Reading is of course a performative act, but what it says is “this is what I’m doing, reading to you, I’m not pretending…”’ She also says, with an ironic smile, that perhaps it is a ‘Brechtian choice – showing the edges of theatre’.

The exploration of the email response to the YouTube Hanky Panky posting started with an appearance at David Gale’s Peachy Coochy, which is one of Arts Admin’s current hit projects. At each Peachy Coochy Nite, a projector projects 20 images for precisely 20 seconds each, whilst the ‘coocheur’ speaks for precisely twenty seconds per image on their chosen subject. Ursula has been using this format to share the email responses she has been receiving, which vary, she says, from the mildly odd to the outright obscene. And no, she won’t share the most outrageous of those here as she feels that context is all: ‘what is right onstage, in a live performance, isn’t necessarily right if extracted and placed on the page’ – although she is kind enough to subsequently send me a few examples of stories and emails…

Ursula says that she is very much looking forward to the May premiere in Manchester: ‘I feel ready, excited.’ The staging will be ‘minimal – static almost’. It’ll involve some video including the screening of that infamous YouTube post, but will mostly be Ursula reading the texts. The performance will come through the delivery of the texts, and she is, she says, ‘confident that I’m at a point at which that feels right’.

She is also delighted that she will once again be part of queerupnorth: ‘It’s important to me to touch base with the community that first took notice of me. Queer Up North were really influential in launching my career; they championed me – booked A Family Outing unseen, even though I hadn’t done a theatre show before.’

Which brings us to the question of sexual identity. ‘I have always been open about my sexuality within my work, which will naturally draw in a queer audience,’ she says. But she has never made work about her sexuality or geared it specifically towards a queer audience, and this, she feels, is the key to her broad appeal. When in her twenties, her lesbian identity was at the heart of her self-image, whereas now, she says, she identifies as ‘first a human being, then an artist, then a woman, and then as lesbian’.

The ‘first a human being’ mantra manifests itself in the love of the audience that is so evident in her work – in fact, could be seen as the factor that pulls together the disparate strands of her practice (that and the humour that permeates all her work). That she ‘loves being on stage’ is apparent; and it is not surprising to learn also that she ‘loves people – I’m a starer on the Tube, I watch people all the time, and I ask people personal questions to get at the nitty-gritty’. In all her work, she is so completely in the here and now, so completely engaged with whomever, as audience, is there to share this moment with her, that we are drawn into the ‘play’ wholeheartedly. Reading stories or stripping; playing flamenco guitar or literally burning her bra; tabletop dancing as a Mexican wrestler or interviewing older women about the effects of ageing – whatever she’s doing, she does with complete engagement.

‘The only thing you can say I’ve been aiming for all these years is a positive response,’ she says. That I think I can safely say is what she’ll receive, wherever she might venture next. Viva Croydon! Viva La Martinez!

More on Queer Up North

12–25 May 2009

Over 100 artists and performers meet in Manchester for Europe’s leading queer arts festival. This year’s programme includes productions from Italy, South Africa, Canada, USA, and the UK. The Belgian Spiegeltent La Gayola pitches in Manchester for the final four days of the festival. A continuous programme of cabaret, music, circus, dance, comedy and pure pleasure will bring the festival to a close (May 22–25).

Theatre highlights include: Ursula Martinez (see above feature); Chris Goode, who premieres The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley, a queer, superhero, bedtime tale for grown-ups featuring animation from Adam Smith (Contact Theatre, various dates up until 23 May). A Queer Up North co-production and commission, Wound Man also tours nationally. Celebrated South African performance artist Steven Cohen makes his UK debut with a sixty-minute programme blending choreography, documentary film and finely-wrought costumes, including his visually extraordinary signature piece Chandelier. (16–17 May, Martin Harris Centre).

The exquisite Victoria Baths will be transformed with light and sound for the world’s first underwater opera by Los Angeles soprano Juliana Snapper and Parisian composer Andrew Infanti. (17 May).

Other highlights include: Italian theatre company Motus; the extraordinary circus-cabaret performer Empress Stah; and New York’s celebrated Taylor Mac with his poignant autobiographical show The Young Ladies Of… (Library Theatre 12–16 May).

For full details, and to book online, see www.queerupnorth.com

Ursula Martinez was interviewed in London, March 2009, by Dorothy Max Prior. Further information taken from the artist’s website. See www.ursulamartinez.com

My Stories, Your Emails is commissioned by barbicanbite10, London and Queer Up North International Festival, where it premieres 13–16 May 2009 at the Library Theatre, Manchester. See www.queerupnorth.com

See also:
Duckie ‘Performers+Pop+Poofters’: www.duckie.co.uk
La Clique at The Hippodrome: www.lacliquelondon.com
For more on Peachy Coochy Nites, see www.artsadmin.co.uk

Referenced Artists
Referenced Festivals

This article in the magazine

Issue 21-2
p. 6 - 8