Jewels in the Glory Box
“Well, it all started in a nightclub in southern China…”
Ten years ago Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith were on the veranda of a southern Chinese avant-garde nightclub watching the pouring rain make hundreds of red lanterns “sway like jellyfish in the branches of a giant tree”.
The exotic locale, the tempo of the swinging lanterns and the offbeat entertainment whipped up in their minds a wild vision – they wanted to open a salon; “a salon of the extraordinary and the underground, the unforgettable and indefinable, as seductive as it was subversive, as provocative as it was entertaining”.
They finished their drinks, bought boxes of red lanterns, went home and premiered The Burlesque Hour in the middle of the Melbourne winter.
Selling out the night it opened, The Burlesque Hour has since played for over 190,000 fans around the world, won eight theatre awards, including six Green Room Awards and Scotland on Sunday’s “Hottest Temptation of the Festival”; been acclaimed in eleven languages, had 50 sell-out seasons, including three under the sails of the Sydney Opera House.
It has played from Croatia to Tokyo, London to Ljubljana, Italy to Edinburgh, Budapest to Buenos Aires, and continues to evolve and surprise.
In 2012 Finucane and Smith evolved again and The Glory Box “Burlesque Hour meets Pandora’s Box!” opened its velvet lid.
Direct from South America to South Australia, Adelaide audiences summed it up in one word “Wow”.
Performing Glory Box at the 2014 Fringe, Moira Finucane chatted to Stories Well Told about their momentous rise as the jaw-dropping, smile-making, avant-garde burlesque show that pushes the boundaries of originality.
SWT: You had a career in environmental science before becoming a burlesque star – how did that happen?
Moira: “Under a potted palm of course – I call it my “potted palm epiphany”. I was sitting under a potted palm at Canberra airport after a gruelling lobbying session at Parliament House where I had been called Joan of Arc – and not in a good way – and a friend of mine who was part of a very hip Polish Theatre Group came up and said, “You look terrible”.
“I know” I replied.
“What will you do?” said she.
“I’m going to quit” said I.
“And then what will you do?”
“I thought I would try doing acting” just popped out of my mouth – it had never occurred to me before. “You’d be great” she said, “It’s so stressful, but then you get a break”.
Four hours later we hopped off another flight, and I was determined to give it a go. I was living in a share house in Fitzroy with the usual array of suspects (aspiring film-maker, aspiring director, and aspiring politician) and I told the director that I wanted to ‘try doing acting’. She immediately suggested I audition for her Fringe Festival Play, cast me as the lead in Dorothy Hewitt’s Chapel Perilous; and I still have the clipping that describes my “insolent schoolgirl swagger”. And I still have the insolent swagger!
SWT: Do you miss anything about working in science?
Moira: I am still an avid naturalist – I love the way insects work and breathe and move and metamorphose. I love the epic and the minute of the natural world, it inspires my work in myriad ways. This year I am going to Antarctica as part of winning an Australia Council Fellowship which recognizes my particular genius for agency and for engaging the epic in the imagination. Antarctica is the very definition of epic, and I will be completely imaginatively over stimulated!
SWT: Had you always had an interest in burlesque?
Moira: I have always been fascinated by old style entertainment genres from around the world. All those historic forms: music hall, burlesque, cabaret, (Parisian theatre) Grand-Guignol, variety, Cantonese Opera, storytelling Tishu Engaki Japanese downtown public face theatre. They all share a seduction, a capacity to draw an audience out of their everyday lives and take them on an adventure. They make the audience feel special, they prioritise the audience; they are, in other words, entertaining. The combination of entertainment and politics is a very powerful one, because if you take care of people, if you make them feel special and cherished you can take them anywhere. That is the core of what I do – mine old style entertainment genres and meld them into indelible visions of humanity, liberation, oppression and desire. Entertainment is like an electricity cord, it can take power anywhere. You just have to have the power that you want to deliver at the source of it.
SWT: How would you describe your burlesque style, and why do you think burlesque has become increasingly popular?
Moira: I’ve travelled the world, and the only thing that my audiences have in common is that they have NEVER seen anything like me. A French artist said to me last night, “I have never seen this kind of work and felling on stage. You will be special for a very long time”. It was a beautiful moment.
SWT: What burlesque stars do you admire?
Moira: I am a great lover of powerful, passionate risqué, status quo challenging, uber intelligent dames across all walks of the entertainment world – from Munich’s Marya Delvard – the hottest cabaret artiste of 1901, intoning her poems of lost innocence so subversive the police were called, to someone like Dolly Parton, a genius who engages and subverts femininity in ways that are sometimes truly astounding – as she said to one interviewer who asked her, “What do you say when people call you a dumb blonde?” She replied, “Weeell I ain’t dumb and I ain’t blonde either.”
SWT: Is there such a thing as a typical day in your life?
Moira: There is nothing typical about any element of my life. Sometimes I wish there was! If my artistic life was made into amuesli the ingredients would be equal parts adrenalin, fear, profound joy, unrealistic expectations, passion, wild ideas, and extreme excitement mixed with extreme exhaustion. Sometimes I wish I was bored!
SWT: Where do you get your ideas for shows? Who do you test them out on?
Moira: I eat that muesli every day and it powers me up! At last count I have tested my ideas out of about 500,000 people across Eastern and Western Europe, The UK, Australia, The Pacific, Scandinavia, and selected parts of Asia – my favourites so far being Hong Kong and Tokyo.
SWT: How long does it take to develop a show?
Moira: Glory Box has been growing and developing for 10 years now – perhaps 30 years? And of course some works come to me in the shower fully formed, and others evolve over years of inspiration, ideas, reading, galleries, museums, and the cultural feast that is mine every time I tour to a new country or a new country town.
SWT: You were awarded an Australia Council for the Arts theatre fellowship to take your art to Antarctica, Mexico, and the Galapagos Islands for two years. Can you tell us a bit about that and how it’s going?
Moira: Extraordinary, inspiring, daunting … Latin America has opened up a whole new part of my heart and imagination. I have been creating and performing work now in four languages which is completely thrilling and completely sublime. Antarctica is next. Watch this space.
SWT: How much of your year is spent touring?
Moira: In 2012 we toured Australia for eight months of dancing ovations from Tennant Creek to Sydney Harbour, the Pilbara to Hobart, and tiny country towns in between. Last year was Paris, Brighton London, South America and Sweden. This year is different again. If my sense of wonder and privilege at meeting new audiences and being invited to share their visions, culture and art ever diminished I think I would be at home a lot more.
SWT: What do you do with your days when you’re on tour?
Moira: Galleries, music, landscapes, flora and fauna. I ask people 1000 questions about their art, lives, cooking, wine, music, churches … I got to Botanical gardens around the world. I try to memorise information about all kinds of historic and natural wonders, exotic birds and beasts, local artworks… I am a curious soul. You get the picture.
SWT: What do you do in your downtime?
Moira: I am not a very downtime person – but I love the beach in any weather, I love to garden, I love to eat… very fond of a lamb roast or indeed any roast.
SWT: How are Adelaide audiences reacting to your work?
Moira: WOW seems to be the most common word I am hearing! Closely followed by “That was NOT what I expected… I was on the edge of my seat!” And we have been inundated in messages.
SWT: You’ve been here several times for Fringe and Feast Festival. What keeps you coming back?
Moira: Adelaide loves art and artists, and I love audiences with an undying passion – It’s a match made in heaven! And there is a very South of the Border theme to my artistic life at the moment – within the space of a month I will have been in South Australia and then I will jet off to South America Brazil, Colombia and Argentina! And then I am off to Antarctica – it’s the South that seduces me!
SWT: What do you love about the stage?
Moira: Live performance. It’s like a shared secret – no two shows are the same, it’s all live, all centimeters away, all happening right now and will never happen quite like that again. And audiences know that. They know there is something special, magical and unrepeatable about the live experience. That’s why they keep coming back.
SWT: Where are you next performing?
Moira: Belo Horizonte Brazil for a massive International arts festival, Buenos Aires’s iconic venue La Trastienda for a wild return season, Sao Paulo in Brazil and then Colombia to open – they called me La Diosa (The Goddess) in Latin America, and they are praying for my return!
And so are we.