Dickie Beau’s show, Blackouts left me feeling like I’d just watched someone exorcise a David Lynch film and found Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland at the other end: their voices, their personas. It was an eerie, evocative and inquisitive experience.
Dickie Beau’s world is one of icons, of queer culture and lost voices. You might have encountered him during his fabulous appearance for Antony Gormley’s One&Other commission on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, as Hal in a version of Steven Berkoff’s Kvetch or maybe in his postdrag performance Retroflection, pondering the myth of Echo and Narcissus.
Beau’s world is one of otherness. It’s easy to get completely absorbed by his shape-shifting personas and his aesthetic politics. His work travels between the occult, the archival, the ritualistic, encompassing cabaret, theatre and live art. None of his shows ever stay still.
“More than one person has suggested the show is Lynchian”, Beau says, telling me that he’s almost embarrassed to admit to only ever seeing Blue Velvet and The Straight Story. What’s more important is the atmosphere of the show, this kind of dream logic. “And I suppose it’s in occupying that kind of headspace that I can play with stylistic slippage, explore the tenuousness and mutability of boundaries, question the given-ness of received wisdom. A blackout is, of course, a theatrical term denoting the extinguishing of lights, but it’s also a title about what happens in the unseen parts of our minds, what is censored, unwritten, not quite tangible, unknown…. A blackout is also a period of being so extremely drunk one can’t remember what happened, that leaves a gap in the memory. And it brings to mind erasure, the void, the negated space, a queer space.” This sense of space is fundamental, because Beau’s work uses theatricality dramaturgically, not stylistically.
His show Blackouts emerged from Richard Meryman’s final recordings with Marilyn Monroe and Dickie Beau’s own interviews with the journalist. It also features segments from Judy Garland’s Judy Speaks. Beau encountered many challenges in obtaining the Monroe tapes, which are rarely, if ever shared. “There is quite a long story behind my acquiring the Marilyn tapes”, he tells me, also noting he is working on a book around that very story. “The most significant development was that, in the process of meeting Richard Meryman, I stumbled upon a new perspective, that I hadn’t considered when I began working on the project. He chose to help me because he could see something of his younger self in me, and in recognising this, I wondered what would happen if I looked for my future self in him. And the show then became a kind of queer Krapp’s Last Tape, where I played forward to this future self, reflecting on the integration of the personas that made me who I am.”
Beau tells me that as a result, Blackouts is also about becoming. He speaks of the editing process as him finding himself in a hall of mirrors: “I found myself naturally drawn to material that spoke to that idea.” Sound is key in Blackouts; Beau allows these shadows to speak, but also speaks through them. He tells me that part of him wanting to make this show was the need to give a platform to the real voice of people like Monroe and Garland. These public personas were not theirs to own, he adds. “And I think it’s something many of us find in our lives, delimited as we are by the force of expectation imposed by those with whom we are in a relationship.” He speaks of entering a conversation with the material, which is paradoxical: “it takes my “channelling” the voices of others, to find a space in which I can speak for myself.” It is also however the power of Blackouts: it never rests with one character, and somehow, these are personas we never trust, but we get to know. The drama unfolds in between the cracks of history and those of present time, subtly and elegantly.
In the process, Beau follows his nose. He reads, he watches and listens, tries to be a sponge and join the dots. “There is usually some conscious mapping along the way, but nearly always that gets superceded by instinct.” He works references in context, and finds interplay between conscious and unconscious. “if the distinction is true, it’s my unconscious mind that is breathing me, beating my heart, regulating my hormones, seeing sights, smelling smells, tasting and digesting food, monitoring and processing messages throughout my incredibly complex nervous system – supervising an unfathomable array of bodily processes, all simultaneously. I couldn’t do that consciously. I can’t even manage my calendar.”
Speaking of the figures that are at the heart of Blackouts, Beau speaks of this tension between publicness and privacy. “I think that the figures who are elevated to the status of icon-hood have special resonance for me”, he tells me, “because of the way they sometimes articulate through their so called real life scripts some of society’s most prevailing maladies.” It’s clear that Beau’s work however is not bogged up by historical or cultural resonance, but by unpicking those maladies he speaks of through an aesthetic that challenges mere appropriation. It’s why he’s come to be known for his use of lip-syncing and playback, which is very much what Blackouts draws on. This is however working from the body as archive, rather than attempting to re-enact. It is precisely the aesthetic investments that Beau brings to an icon, matched with the fidelity of the voice which we identify so naturally, that marks the theatrical in his work.Beau recalls the ways in which some of these icons never owned their names, had no childhoods to speak of, matched extreme grandiosity with low-self esteem. “They speak to issues of addiction within society, the feelings of otherness in the queer child, the uncertainty of one’s place in the world, the need to be recognised, the desire to hide, the questions ‘how much agency do I actually have here?’ and ‘who is this me that they speak of’?” So we’re entering the territory of the public and private self, of hidden narratives which he’s bringing to light.
Beau tells me about a line in the show that asks “How do you find your way home in the dark?” It says something about his own queer experience, Beau adds. “Queer seems often to be about positioning oneself in opposition to the normative. For me, my queerness is informed by a desire for a kind of return, more than occupying a position of opposition, and a return to something pre-normative. A space before boundaries. It’s a seemingly impossible quest in a world obsessed with definitions, but somehow through making work I can try to enter the void and occasionally I think I can see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Blackouts is also about archives, their dissemination and subjectivity. “The idea behind the concept of my being a live performing archive”, Beau responds, “is to give body to voices that are not necessarily privileged in mainstream cultural discourse, or that are actively excluded from the conversation.” He doesn’t expect everybody to grant these value, but they speak of an important queer experience. “I still have occasion to render my queerness invisible in my day-to-day life to avoid unwanted confrontations with those in my neighbourhood who might feel possessed of the urge to defend themselves against my fabulousness. Using my body to carry these voices gives me a platform to be absolutely and queerly visible. This might also be one of the very few ways some of these voices will get to be heard, or at least heard in a way that is sympathetic to and hopefully privileges their point of view. “
“Describing myself as a queer clown and drag fabulist was a retrospective move”, he tells me. He speaks of the influence that clowning had on him as a teenager seeing Russian clown troupe Licedi 5 (who later went on to create Slava’s Snow Show) “and being completely rapt by the otherness of the worlds they created onstage. Their sensibility really resonated with me and I think when I started performing on the drag scene I brought that influence in there with me.” Beau tells me about the range of work he has travelled through, from classical Shakespeare to film and TV. “Apt descriptors most usually come from outside”, he says, deferring the need for any particular categorisation. He recalls a conversation he once had with a producer who kept pushing him to explain in fewer words what he does. “And I ended up saying, ‘Look, I do what Dickie Beau does, okay?’ Which I think he probably took to be a grotesque arrogance, but it really is a constantly shape-shifting thing for me, with multiple strands.”
I ask him about how much visibility his work has? Is this drag, theatre, live art – can it be all and none of those things? In its slipping between high and low art, is it able to speak of queerness and engage in new modes of performance? “I’m one of the lucky ones in that I’ve been able to take my work into drag clubs, cabaret spaces, theatres, live art contexts, cinemas.” He ascribes this to its itinerant nature and lack of fixity. He’s unsure of what the future holds, but feels fortunate in crossing all these contexts. “One of the things I’ve learned is that whatever I think a piece of work is, whether I were to call it drag, theatre, live art, cabaret, whatever, once I put it out into the world it doesn’t actually matter. It no longer belongs to me. It’s simply part of the conversation.”
He adds that “the distinction between so-called high and low culture amuses me because it’s so indicative of upside-down thinking. Low culture is often associated with the kind of work that leaves snot on the face of the audience – because they’ve laughed, or because they’ve cried, or both. High culture is associated with deep thinking. Perhaps I oversimplify. But I often think, how can you make people think deeply unless you make them feel? And without wishing to be an inverted snob, because I love thinking deeply and some of my work wears that on its sleeve, but if we operate only and always in the realm of the cerebral we are really just paddling in the shallows. And I can be as guilty of this as anyone. But if the audience leaves with snot on their face, that’s the pinnacle. It shows you went diving for pearls. “
This sense of nomadism influences Beau’s philosophy of practice. He speaks to me of the ways in which we become one another, of mutable echoes “vibrating in a vast feedback loop.” This is identity politics, I propose: not being tied to anything fixed, but allowing oneself to constantly become. What Beau recognises in figures like Monroe and Garland is a part of him. “And I suppose the figures I’m drawn to tend to articulate a particular queer subjectivity.” They are always outsiders, he tells me, and not always icons. And this being on the outside is, in Beau’s work a shared experience. “We are both and neither. And my favourite art taps into that paradox.” The value of thinking about aloneness, loss, and the shared experience of an absence.
Dickie Beau’s Blackouts is currently on a UK tour, and will be performed as part of Bristol’s Mayfest between 15-16th May.