Dickie Beau’s Imagined Self-Portrait From the Soup of Culture
When I covered the 2016 Fusebox Festival in Austin, one of the hands-down stand-out shows was from a British artist I’d never heard of, Dickie Beau, with Dickie Beau: Unplugged. The performance began with Beau, in glamorous and slightly intimidating drag, taking center-stage and beginning to lip-sync to an audio track. But rather than a campy performance of a pop song or the like, the audio was determinedly dour, a news show interview with Kenneth Williams.
Williams was a British actor who bears the painfully ironic distinction of playing one of the first openly gay characters on a BBC show, the radio comedy Round the Horne, at the same time he was closeted in real life due to the social standards of the time (homosexuality was still a crime, after all). And given those standards, the only truly “open” aspect of his character’s sexuality was through camp, double-entendre, and the use of Polari, an old gay lingo. All of which left Williams doing a careful double-performance, a complicated hire-wire act of code switching, which Beau adopts onstage as his modus operandi: A camp drag performance of a serious interview with an actor who suffered for his sexuality but was known for a camp performance.
After a few minutes, Beau broke character, the audio ended, and he briefly explained (using his own voice) the concept he was exploring, a sort of interrogation of performance of self, based on the intertwined myths of Narcissus and Echo, enacted through lip-syncing. His evocation of Narcissus was by turns funny and troubling, a series of self-aggrandizing messages a man left for a woman unfortunate enough to have given him her number. But the coup de grace was Beau’s performance of the Echo myth. The recording has an odd genealogy: It was an audio letter, recorded to cassette tape, and found with no identifying information on a train, where it traveled through various circles until making it to Beau. The letter is dictated by an older woman to a lover, and begins with the quotidian and sundry details of an unremarkable life, marked by the usual issues with job and family. Then, as the speaker begins expressing her longing for the recipient, she becomes aroused and would appear to bring herself to orgasm, and then finally closes with a heartbreaking acceptance that she may never meet the recipient of the letter again.
“The responses I’ve had from women to that have been very positive. Generally,” Beau told me recently in a Skype interview. “Which delights me. She speaks for me in lots of ways that I could speak about more, but won’t go into now. And I know that it’s really an ethically contentious thing to do to lip sync to that tape because of its content. But I feel like it’s worth the risk. It seems to touch people in a way that I suppose justifies my intention.” He paused, as he often did during the interview, seemingly caught up in divergent lines of thought.
“I’ve had more than one person come up to me and say, that person reminds them of their mother, and it creates an emotional connection and understanding between us,” he continued. “There was a situation where a guy, at a Q and A afterwards, he was not impressed that I had felt that it was my right to use that material, and felt that it was morally wrong, basically, for me to do it. So…and I did have a bit of a crisis of confidence when he said that, I thought, ‘Maybe he’s right,’ you know. Perhaps I shouldn’t.” Another long pause for thought, then Beau seemed to pull himself out of his own contradictions, and simply said, with ambivalent acceptance: “But I did.”
This week, New York audiences have the chance to become acquainted with Dickie Beau, when Blackouts, his first evening length work that debuted in 2011 in the UK, plays at Abrons Arts Center as part of the 2017 Crossing the Line Festival (Oct. 5-8; tickets $30). Previously, I believe his only performance in New York was in fall 2015 where Unplugged played as part of the Queer New York International Arts Festival, where it sadly seemed to slip under the radar.
An artist in his later thirties, Dickie Beau took an odd way around to the performance practice that’s now defined his career. Early on, he pursued various creative pursuits, taking conventional acting roles on stage (he did Shakespeare with the recently deceased Robert Hardy), worked in TV and drama development in London, studied theater at university in Manchester.
“I wanted to be on the front line in some way. Creatively. I wanted to do everything,” he told me, which eventually led him abroad. “I went to Milan joined a physical theater company and that’s really where everything changed.”
Upon returning to London, Beau began performing on the party and cabaret scene. Asked if he’d ever done more conventional forms of drag lip-sync, he laughed and said, “It’s the exception that proves the rule. I haven’t done very many traditional lip sync performances. They’re almost been in one way or another interventions.”
Among his early performances was a short where he started in more conventional drag mode, performing a camp version of a Britney Spears song before veering into radically different territory, performing lip sync bits from Judy Garland. Garland is of course a long-standing queer icon, and Beau certainly isn’t the first to have done some version of her in drag. But he did approach it differently – rather than concentrating on the persona, the “public figure,” his approach was aimed at finding “a way to reveal a complexity to that figure” that might not otherwise be explored.
It was that early performance that led him on the exploration that resulted in Blackouts. “Judy Garland was the lip sync that changed everything for me,” he recalled. “And I knew there was more to that figure and the world that she opened up than a ten-minute piece, and that’s why it became an hour long.”
Filling out the evening, though, was material of a far different and more complicated lineage: Richard Merryman’s audio recordings of his infamous 1962 interview with Marilyn Monroe, which was published in Life magazine days before her death. More than anything, the Monroe interview established Merryman’s career, and the tapes previously inspired the 1992 documentary Marilyn: The Last Interview.
Armed with a small development grant, in 2008 Beau came to New York for the first of several meetings over the course of two years with the aged Merryman, who died in 2015.
“Originally he wasn’t going to give me any of the materials to use, so I interviewed him instead, and his experience meeting Marilyn Monroe,” Beau told me, describing Merryman as “protective” of the audio, which he, according to Beau, almost a saw as a “gift” she’d given him. “Then when I met him, something happened with him, and a light bulb went on or something, where he looked at me and saw like his younger self. Which is why he helped me out.”
It’s impossible not to see the same sort of issues inherent in the “Echo” audio here writ large with regard to Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps the celebrity icon ne plus ultra, Monroe has always been objectified. As much as she’s known as a sex icon, her “public persona” as it were, the social fascination with her private life – her violent marriages, violent mental treatments, and achingly tragic death – feel like the opposite side of the same coin: Marilyn, the object to be possessed. (And all this is perhaps even more timely at the moment, as we continue sorting through the legacy of Hugh Hefner, who launched Playboy by publishing, without her permission or knowledge, a series of Marilyn nudes taken years earlier; as though to continue proving his ability to do with her as he will, Hefner arranged to be buried in a grave next to hers.)
But these complex issues – of the personal and public, of the right to speak for another, of performing a self through the iconographic avatar of someone else – aren’t incidental to Beau’s work. Quite the opposite, they’re essential to his practice, and his success, such as it is, rests with his careful and considered approach, and the deep humanity he brings to his characterizations through what is traditionally seen as a camp form that uses an exaggerated version of the persona to speak for the performer’s experience.
“It’s really a zeitgeisty topic, who can speak for whom?” he offered. “But then who is this ‘me’ that they speak of in the first place? I feel like, the voices I’ve drawn to, I’m drawn to because they move me. I have a heart connection to them. More than a head connection. The reason I’m inclined to lip sync these voices is because, at one time, I thought that it was me giving them a platform. Because they deserved to be heard. I think that’s one part of the story. But other side of the coin is that they speak for me in a way that I can’t.”
“I got drawn to Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland because there are things that they share,” he continued. “Aspects of their real-life scripts that resonated with me as a queer person. One of those is that neither Marilyn Monroe nor Judy Garland had a childhood to speak of. Judy was thrown onto the stage at the earliest opportunity, and Marilyn Monroe grew up in orphanages. And Judy and Marilyn aren’t their real names, just as Dickie Beau is not mine. I’m just a guy called Richard, whoever that might be. And there’s this thing that Russell Brand has been talking about lately, the idea that addiction is not just an outside issue, but it’s something that runs through the very fabric of our socio economic system. Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe were, evidently, addicts, certainly compulsives. I think that people like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe and Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson and those people who become victim to their addictions, and are seen as aberrations…in a sense they are, but I think they’re more like the apotheosis of something that’s going on, rather than an oddity.”
Asked if his approach to lip-syncing – with its attention to subtlety, vulnerability and concern for representation of the private aspects of the persons he performs – was perhaps more like conventional acting that one might presume, he was ambivalent.
“I had a conversation with somebody recently where we talked about this, where I thought that yes there maybe were similarities,” he explained. “It really depends on your approach to the idea of character. the methodology of lip syncing as a physical performance technique can be very simply the idea of giving over this organism to the idea that these sounds are traveling through it. If I’m any good, that’s probably why, that I have an imagination for how these sounds travel through this organism. And maybe I’m sometimes more successful at that than others, I don’t know. Being able to imagine this organism has a background that has led up to this scene that it’s now in.”
It was a description that struck me as both surprising and obvious at the same time. On the one hand, I hadn’t much considered the idea of physically inhabiting the act of speech as part of Beau’s process, since of course speaking is inherently not the thing he’s doing while lip syncing. But on the other hand, one of the reasons I was so taken with his performance of “Echo” in Unplugged was its scenographic device. Although lip synced, Beau had prepared a video accompaniment to the audio track: recorded by an endoscopic camera inserted down his throat, the video showed the physical movements of his vocal cords as he formed the words that were being spoken. As a device, it served to help him physicalize not just externally but internally performing the text, his entire physical body employed as the vehicle for delivering someone else’s powerful words.
And so the lines grow blurry, not just between lip syncing and actually speaking, but between character and performer, identities beginning to slip into one another. Throughout our conversation, Beau was at pains to explain that, for him, lip syncing was a way of not only of expressing something for him that he was unable to any other way, but at the same time he, as the artist, was bound to honor as best he could the original speaker. And the celebrity of some of the voices he performs only adds to that complexity – whether The Wizard of Oz or Some Like It Hot, Beau grew up experiencing and idolizing Hollywood spectacles in which the performer is inherently connected to the character they play. “Through the soup of culture, they’re in me, in some kind of a way,” he said. “We exist in a feedback loop and become one another.”
“They exist as much in spite of me as because of me,” he said.
As a final note, he offered a bit of advice about Blackouts, as though to ensure we not get too caught up in the details of its materials and mistake it for something it’s not.
“One thing that could be potentially confusing is that what I’ve created in this show is not a straightforward piece of documentary theater,” Beau explained. “Really, what it is, is an imagined self-portrait. It uses documentary material but fictionalizes it; it’s a blurring of the lines, maybe this will put people off because in a way it sounds terribly pretentious. I imagine that each show has its own brain, is its own organism thinking itself into being.”