Flourishing on the fring
By Michael Lallo for The Age.
Published on 17 June 2011
Moira Finucane bills her latest burlesque show as a love letter to Melbourne writes Michael Lallo, see it in it’s original contect here.
HAVING being told her show would never attract more than a ”fringe” audience, Moira Finucane opted to take bookings through her home phone. ”We thought, ‘We’ll just see how it goes’,” she says of the 2004 debut of The Burlesque Hour, now seen by more than 60,000 people internationally, ”and the phone rang every minute. It was just crazy.’
Startled by the response, she found herself pretending to be a receptionist named Stacey. ”They’d ring me up and say, ‘Tell me, Stacey, what kind of show is it?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, it’s wonderful, like a rollercoaster ride. We take you to your table, give you a glass of champagne, strap you in and you’re off on the ride of your life’.”
The appeal of these ”sumptuously demented” performances, as one French reviewer described them, is obvious. A world away from the fishnets and striptease of mid-century American burlesque, they’re transgressive, provocative and thrilling (indeed, the first time I saw her show, it involved the unlikely sight of Julian Burnside QC cowering behind a plastic sheet in the front row as a bikini-clad Finucane did her famously splashy ”Dairy Queen” routine).
With other acts featuring fake blood, coffee and haunting Gothic imagery, I arrive at her North Fitzroy home expecting a velvety, bordello aesthetic. Instead, her single-fronted cottage – which she shares with partner and artistic collaborator Jackie Smith and their twin girls – is a cheerful, sunny abode with glossy, wooden furniture in white and pink.
”When we premiered The Burlesque Hour,” Finucane says, ”we opened with a gorgeous girl doing the Charleston. Last year, we opened with Ursula Martinez setting fire to herself. It gets wilder every year.”
This latest incarnation, billed as a ”nine-week love letter to Melbourne”, features performers from around the world and a different local icon each week, including Rhonda Burchmore tonight and tomorrow, Deborah Conway, Meow Meow and 79-year-old showbiz veteran Toni Lamond.
”When I asked her to be part of it,” Finucane says, ”I said, ‘Miss Lamond, I need to be very clear that there is nudity in the show.’ And she went, ‘Oh, darling! We were doing nudity in the Tivoli in the ’60s! Really, you don’t need to worry about me.”’
Finucane moves with the graceful fluidity of a born stage queen. Yet she came to performing relatively late, following a career as an environmental lobbyist and campaign manager. ”I was such a little firebrand,” she laughs. But her earnestness did not impress a politician from her native Perth, who described her as ”a Joan of Arc – and not in a good way”. Eventually, she came to a realisation: ”If you walk into a room and tell people what to think, then what do they do? They go, ‘F— you’. Which is why my work now is not prescriptive … we’re not interested in telling the audience how shocking and smart and avant garde we are. We’re interested in saying, ‘Check this out’, holding their hands and taking them on the artistic equivalent of a bungee jump.”
Having forged her craft in the underground club scene of the early ’90s, she learned the dos and don’ts of keeping an audience engaged. ”I did monologues at 3am, which is not advisable,” she says. ”You need to come on, grab their attention, keep them riveted for a short time, then get off.”
Of the many productions Finucane and Smith have created over the years – collecting seven Green Room awards along the way – all have aimed to ”challenge and cherish” the audience. It’s clear they have no interest in being wilfully obscure or avoiding ”mainstream” crowds. ”A lot of people think that if something goes mainstream, it loses its value,” Finucane says. ”I don’t agree; I think it only loses its value if it actually loses its value. Besides, you can just sense when a performer on stage thinks they’re a little bit hotter than everyone else in the room.”
The couple was warned, however, that the arrival of their twins would see their careers grind to a halt. ”People told us, ‘Oh, you’ll never perform or tour again’,” says Finucane, who returned to the stage 12 weeks after giving birth to Margaret and Eleanor three years ago.
”It hasn’t slowed us down one iota, though.”
”Someone once asked me about balancing work and motherhood but I don’t think of it as a balance, I think of it as a ramble. When you think you’ve got it sorted, something changes and you just keep going.”
Creatively, her ”over-the-top, dramatic” writing is balanced by the more ”more naturalistic, restrained” approach of Smith, a theatre director with a Patrick White Playwrights Award to her name. ”I’ll create a show that’s twice as long as it needs to be,” Finucane says, ”and then Jackie will say, ‘OK, let’s pull it right back.’ She knows how to cut things – entire characters, even – without actually losing anything.” Fortunately, Finucane’s new ”homage to the water wall at the National Gallery of Victoria” has made the cut.
“It’s called Reach Out and Touch Me,” she says. ”Of course, see-through umbrellas will be provided.”