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The latest Betty Grumble show by performance artist Emma Maye Gibson is based on her traumatic experience seeking justice for intimate partner violence. By Fiona Kelly McGregor.

Performance artist Emma Maye Gibson

Performance artist Emma Maye Gibson as Betty Grumble.
Credit: Joel Devereux

I

“The mask is disintegrating. It began small, then over the years became swollen and garish. I had lots of rules about it. Wearing the wig (huge, blonde, curly) a certain way, having little talismans. Then in the last five years, it started slipping off.”

Betty Grumble is instantly recognisable with her high jagged eyebrows, pink and green square eyes and large, crooked lips outlined in black. It’s a “mask” that can now be applied in seconds on stage without a mirror, sometimes even by audience members; a trademark visible on T-shirts and hacked as a filter on Instagram. Graphic, geometric, lurid as a poisonous caterpillar, part clown, part drag queen, “she allowed me to discover myself within her armoury, to contort and confront but also welcome people”.

Despite seeing Betty Grumble perform almost since her inception in 2009, it was years before I knew what her creator, Emma Maye Gibson, looked like. The inclusion of her show Enemies of Grooviness Eat Shit in this year’s Vivid Festival was a sign she’d finally established herself as a serious theatrical entity. The cancellation of Vivid has hit her, like so many artists, hard.

We meet in a park near South Eveleigh. It’s the second week of the Sydney lockdown when the prognosis for the festival is still reasonably optimistic. Like most performers, Emma Maye is shy, sometimes circumspect. It’s cold and she is dressed in leggings, bright socks, sneakers and parka. With her honey-brown shag and glowing olive skin, she could have come straight from a 1980s disco class. Which is sort of true. When lockdown began, she immediately reprised her 2020 Grumble Boogie, a 10am online “dance ritual dedicated to the heart pump”. Done in parks, studios, anywhere at hand, it now takes place in the astro-turfed backyard of current abode the Dirty Habit, a tumbledown two-storey Newtown terrace, sanctuary to Sydney queers for decades. Testament to her generosity and work ethic, Emma Maye bounces around in high-waisted tights with housemate Megana Holliday every morning, stirring fans from their lockdown torpor. Thank you body, thank you body.

“I come from 5-6-7-8 suburban dance land,” she says. “I had speech and drama lessons, swimming squad. I was convinced I was going to become an actor and tried out for NIDA [National Institute of Dramatic Art] a few times, then instead went to UNSW Sydney and did media and communications with a major in performance art.

“My mother has had a huge influence on me. I grew up watching her teach classes. She became one of the most sought-after personal trainers in town, with clients like Marcia Hines. We have a very intense and beautiful relationship. I’ve lived at home a lot to help take care of my younger brother who has a physical disability.”

Betty is in fact the name of Emma’s maternal grandmother; Grumble her grandfather’s nickname. “She was a wild woman, she fell pregnant to him when she was 15,” says Emma Maye. “He was 24 and Maltese, so they had to run away to be together. There’s a lot of frustration and anger within the matriarchal lines of my family.”

Enemies is based on Emma Maye’s experience of seeking justice for intimate partner violence through the criminal justice system. “I was cross-examined for three hours straight,” she says. “They tried to humiliate me and paint me as hysterical, a woman scorned out for revenge. The cops lost evidence. One of the opening remarks of the defence attorney was something disparaging about my homosexual friends; the magistrate said, ‘This isn’t the ’70s.’ This lawyer had pages and pages of me as Betty, you know, ‘Isn’t it true you’ve committed self-harm and done live sex acts?’ My parents were taken out of the courtroom. So I wrote Enemies as an alternative statement of what I would have said if I’d been able. There’s so much you can’t say, because you risk being in contempt of court.”

Enemies had a run at the Red Rattler Theatre in October 2020, “unfinished, done within the community”. In a series of vignettes loosely strung together as a narrative of destruction to restitution, The Grumble – dressed in white chaps and a bra with flames on it – invoked nature, the sacred female and cunt energy, her affirmations laced with rage.

Shards of previous work showed. Love and Anger (2016-19, The Bearded Tit/Griffin Theatre) wherein Betty the sex clown mouthed off at the leery male gaze. “I created these things because I was excited about discovering my sexuality but really angry at what the world did to women who pursue pleasure,” she says. “I could see a pattern. A lifetime of patriarchal violence.”

There was also The Unshame Machine from Dark Mofo and Liveworks in 2018. By then, Betty’s wig had been cast off, the mask simplified to blotches of colour. Daubing her cunt with red paint, straddling a bench, the artist lowered herself onto a ream of A4 white paper, deftly changed by assistants, monologuing against the patriarchy, a quasi-endurance performance that produced thousands of cunt prints.

Early Grumble had so much costuming and props, the forest was sometimes hard to see. I remember an installation in the back room of 107 Projects: Betty in voluminous blonde wig and bright regalia, making weird little sounds like a monkey or tittering teenager. A performance that seemed to denote embarrassment, irritating at first, but staying with it, you recognised a meld of fear, vulnerability, viciousness and defiance: the epitome of caged animal.

Initial iterations of Love and Anger included apologies and trigger warnings, dampening the quotes from Valerie Solanas’s 1967 SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto, radical to this day. With Enemies, The Grumble has shed the deeper shame of anger. There is always humour; what some mistake for sentimentality is genuine altruism and political commitment; and vulgarity in Sydney is a vital flame, a piece of dynamite in the wall of the penal colony.

II

Two weeks later I meet Emma Maye outside the boarded-up, scaffolded Dirty Habit, and we walk to the park again. At this point, Vivid has been postponed until September but as the Delta variant rips across the world, nothing feels sure. Further to this, a close friend has been diagnosed with cancer. Emma Maye admits to “feeling very vulnerable and stuck”.

We talk about Candy Royalle, performance poet and activist; the third anniversary of her death has just passed. Emma Maye sang backing vocals in Candy’s band The Freed Radicals and Enemies is partly a homage to her.

“We were soulmates. She saw my sensitivity. She was an amazing friend, she called me on my shit,” she says. “Her love and intelligence changed my life and I live and perform in her honour. She made me feel like a kid; we had this inherent dagginess. We showed ourselves as warriors to the world but she helped me speak about the intense loneliness that’s on the other side. You show your whole self to an audience, then go home alone.”

Emma Maye cites her Stephen Cummins Bequest residency at Performance Space as a turning point.

“Jeff [Khan, the director] kept talking about ‘the space in between’. It took me a couple of years to figure that out.” Hence the unravelling of the mask, the discarding of props. The literal stripping away of Betty to Emma Maye.

For me, Betty/Emma came into her power about five years ago. All those years of training, her natural athleticism and attitude, nurtured by years in the supportive subculture of the queer community and sex workers, achieved fusion. The strut, the swagger, the Eat Shit gaze, unadorned by nothing more than high heels, or not even. She could hold a stage just by standing there.

It was like watching someone grow half a metre, a psychosexual muscularity that commands crowds in seconds. She developed a routine to Prince’s “Purple Rain”, which lucky punters at bars, parties or performance nights were sometimes treated to, unannounced. Emma Maye literally wiped the floor with “Purple Rain”, a soapy length of cloth her only prop. A version of the routine features in Enemies. Nudity is nothing in many contexts, black box theatres adept at translating (excusing?) it for highbrow audiences, but I credit Emma Maye with smashing the ban on it reimposed in Sydney’s licensed venues in the early 2000s. We were understandably cowed by the heavy policing – one performer was taken to court – but at some point in the 2010s Emma Maye just got up and got it all off.

“I don’t even think I knew it was banned!” she laughs.

“And penetration,” I remind her.

“Well, once I had a firecracker in my arse.

“That would’ve contravened health and safety regs against fire too.”

Her audiences vary. Some need more care. “Come on, it’s beautiful!” she crooned to the front row at Griffin Theatre, revealing the skin tag on her labia. “You’re beautiful too! All of you! Thank you body, thank you body.” The intellectual snobs who can’t see deeper to the craft and soul can go home early. The rest of us have gratitude for this witchy guide, teaching exultation in embodiment, in cycles and elements, in the gift of life.

“The queer community was lifesaving,” she says. “I identify as pansexual, although I have monogamous relationships with men, which is kind of funny to me. When I first met Annie Sprinkle, who became a big mentor, she was talking about performance as sex work, and the sexuality that exists between audience and spectator. That has been huge medicine for me, being able to share my body in that way.

“I got permission from Annie to perform the masturbation ritual. For me, it became about releasing grief. I changed it to appear vulnerable in a new way and I wanted to unlearn some of the things I’d been brainwashed into. It’s really interesting doing that in front of people because it’s technically a sex act, but it becomes something else.”

“I’d forgotten it was in the show!”

“It’s a political act. And the labia sync, or cunt song, that seemed a beautiful way to disrupt the shaming. It’s a part of the body that’s been silenced, it represents shame.”

“It’s still the worst thing you can call someone.”

 

Emma Maye’s generosity is infectious. Even today, staring down months of lost work. Elders and peers are constantly acknowledged, on stage and off. Elizabeth Burton, septuagenarian queen of striptease, lauded in the gay community since she prowled the catwalk of RAT parties in the 1980s. Candy, Annie. Aaron Manhattan, bibliophile drag queen, credited for teaching her history. Glitta Supernova, Victoria Spence. Megana, Stelly G, Iya Ya Ya, peers with whom Emma Maye performs as The Working Bitches. Paul Mac and Jonny Seymour, whose duo Stereogamous has produced much of her music. Matt Stegh from Haus of Hellmutti, who designs her costumes. Traditional owners, the environment. The list goes on.

“To be honest, performing Enemies was difficult. When I put a show together, I think about it ritualistically, compose it of different acts. There are specific things that happen to my body, or poetry I speak. Water has become an element. What it does to my skin, the cleansing ritual.”

“I think your verbal delivery’s become more refined,” I say.

“Lockdown’s been interesting. I’ve been reciting things more, going over and over to get the poetry. I’d like the show to get to a place where I can unpack hysteria more. Because if channelled correctly, I find it to be pretty valid.”

“Kafka’s axe breaking the ice.”

The sun is fading, and we leave the park to walk back to the Dirty Habit. “If performances are ceremonies where we open a portal at the beginning and close it at the end, then I hope to go on a journey guided by the body as a place we can regenerate: ‘making kin with the trouble’.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 14, 2021 as "Shameless desire".

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Fiona Kelly McGregor is the author of seven books.