Me and my muse: in preparation for the premiere of his new piece, Shoot the Sissy, Nando Messias reflects on the nature of the creative process
‘In show business,’ says Honey Whitlock, ‘we say Break a Leg. NEVER fucking Good Luck!’ She’s a character in John Walter’s marvellous film Cecil B. Demented, and she speaks on behalf of many: ‘That cocksucker put a curse on my whole fucking premiere!’ she realises.
The character, played by Melanie Griffiths, may be a high-maintenance Hollywood A-list diva, but she has a point. Whenever I’m wished ‘good luck’ before a performance, I go into ridiculous paroxysms. I can’t help it. I simply have to reverse the curse. I hop three times on my left foot by way of exorcism and spit over my left shoulder. It’s like the ‘Don’t mention Macb**h’ sketch in Blackadder. For we actors are superlatively superstitious creatures.
So indulge us, if you please, by withholding your good luck wishes before a show. Instead, try saying Chookas like the Australians, or Toi Toi Toi like the Germans. Just don’t ask me what they mean – I’ve no idea. There’s also Skata as the Greeks would have it, or simply Merda as we put it in Brazil. They’re just different ways of saying Shit. It might sound more vulgar than Break a Leg, but it’s no more nasty.
Whatever you do, do not provoke the wrathful envy of the strange spirits. After all, what would they think if they perceived us, performers, to be having a bit more fun than they are?
Yes, I’m full of such superstitions. If there’s music in a show I’m in, I don’t hum any tunes outside of the theatre or rehearsal space. Nor will I speak any text from a performance outside those hallowed confines.
You see, I’m very protective of my muse. I say ‘muse,’ but sometimes I might call her my genie or my daemon. I’m not sure I know which term she prefers so I switch between them. I do know, though, that she’s a she. Definitely female. I wouldn’t dream of telling you her real name – she’s a bit sensitive about things like that. Touchy, even. She might storm off in a huff.
She can be pretty petulant, and she doesn’t just come to me when I call. It’s true that I can feel her presence in a room, but that’s usually after she’s been visiting me, and has left me a gift. She’s very generous like that, but I wouldn’t want to count on it.
So I try to pay her back with presents. She’s very fond of flowers. Peonies, especially. Sarah Bernhardt peonies, are perfect. She likes going to the cinema, listening to music, and having books read to her. She is also rather partial to department stores where she likes to pick up expensive shoes and stroke them.
Some will say that my muse, genie, daemon – this female being – is a personification of my creative process. Well if so, I can tell you she’s damn capricious. She’s fickle and volatile, like a troublesome lover. There is a pattern, though.
My work always begins with what I call dream images. They’re my new performance before it’s happened: colours, costumes, objects, set, music, even smells and textures, all in my mind’s eye.
I then start to find real images, online or in newspapers and magazines. They end up in my blog, my journal and my playlists. By now I have a subject for a performance and next I read everything I can about it – novels, articles, theory books. Somehow these end up in a sort of script and I take all this material into studio. There the practice begins. Ah yes, the practice.
I test the images on my body. I listen and dance to the songs. I do the things I imagined myself doing. It all has to work. I’m trying to cultivate a dialogue with my muse. And this is where it begins to get interesting – ‘interesting’ of course is a euphemism: engaging my muse means inviting utter chaos to screw everything up.
Now all logic and any pretence of method falls apart. Things start to get real. There’s no more intellectual machinations. On a good day – why can’t they all be good? – the work starts to take shape and becomes more material. Now these images become mine: I inhabit them, they mean something.
If I manage to get out of the way and let my muse do her thing (it doesn’t always happen), then she shows me who’s boss. The result is never what I might have predicted. And that’s the real reward: I want to be surprised. Only the creative process can grant me this sense of sheer wonder. The paradox, of course, is that I cannot prepare to be surprised. What can you do?
I don’t know how you measure success. I’ll tell you instead about satisfaction: that’s what comes when all the dream images I had at the start of the process return to make an appearance at the end. The thing is that they’re never in the same configuration my imagination would have had. The muse mixes them up in a different order, and with shockingly different meanings.
Creating, in other words, for me means letting go. Easier said than done. Relinquishing the possibility of getting something just right is, in many ways, a small encounter with one’s own demise, the death of an idea or a dream. There’s another paradox (they’re everywhere in this game): death as an urgent creative impulse.
The process for me is agonising: I can’t move for self-doubt, criticism, fear. There are lots of tears. But I would not wish it any other way. The small failures highlight the small victories.
The stage is a sacred place, full of demands and responsibilities, and full of joy too. But, shhhh! – we wouldn’t want the strange spirits to hear that!
Nando Messias’ work straddles performance art, dance and theatre. Informed by queer ideology, he combines striking images with a fierce critique of gender, visibility and violence.
Following on from his national tour of acclaimed work The Sissy’s Progress, reviewed here by Total Theatre Magazine, Messias now invites us to witness secret insights into the murky depths of doubt, terror and dreams, bringing compulsive gazes closer to the bold fragility of his trademark body — a Sissy body.
Shoot the Sissy is a disturbingly beautiful freak show; a queer menagerie of carnivalesque contortion and florid fantasy. Confronting the everyday danger of death inherent in the queer condition, Messias pulls the audience into the firing line. In response to the shootings in Orlando, it is time to reflect on whether ‘queer lives matter’ too.
The world premiere of Shoot the Sissy is on 18 & 19 October 2016 as part of And What? Festival, Chelsea Theatre, London. Book here.
Tour Dates include: Outburst Arts Belfast, 19 November 2016; Duckie London, 11 February 2017; and Marlborough Theatre Brighton, 9 March 2017.
Further dates to be announced. For more information and updates on the tour, see Nando’s website.
Featured image (top) of Nando Messias: Shoot the Sissy by Holly Revell.
Other images by Holly Revell, Darrell Berry.