The Influence

For Stephen Nicolazzo, founder of Little Ones Theatre and now artistic director of Brink Productions, Madonna is the reason he makes theatre. By Kate Holden.

Stephen Nicolazzo on Madonna’s Girlie Show

Madonna performs on stage with two muscled men.
Madonna on her Girlie Show tour at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1993, and Stephen Nicolazzo (below).
Credit: ilpo musto / Alamy (above), Brett Walker (below)

Stephen Nicolazzo works in theatre as a director, teacher and artistic director. Based in Melbourne, he’s known for his witty, provocative and sumptuous productions with Melbourne Theatre Company, Malthouse Theatre, Belvoir, Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, La Mama, Griffin Theatre Company and many arts festivals. His works have won or been nominated for many awards and in 2018 he received a Green Room Award for Best Direction. He has just been appointed artistic director of Adelaide’s Brink Productions.

In 2009 he founded Little Ones Theatre, through which he pursued the independent, original queer theatre visions he so loves. His final production for the company, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom by Charles Busch, runs from November 21 to December 3 at fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne. Nicolazzo decided to speak about the profoundly and continuously inspiring phenomenon of Madonna and her 1993 tour, The Girlie Show.

Madonna. What’s the story? When did the passion start?

The passion started when I watched that show on VHS in 1994. I was maybe eight or nine. I guess what I loved about it – and still love about it – is its unbridled sexuality and representation of the queer community. It was really inspiring. To open a show holding a whip and wearing a mask, or – one of the greatest images of the entire concert, which I think about to this day whenever I’m making a work – this giant red velvet curtain, about 15 metres high, and a giant stripper pole also about 15 metres high. A dancer appears in a G-string at the top of this pole and then makes their way down the entire pole, doing poses. The athleticism was just awe-inspiring! The theatrics of it. The haze everywhere, the laser lights, the power of this figure emerging from the stage and spinning around on a revolve. Then the background turns into a boxing match, Madonna’s dressed in Mata Hari beaded bras and headpieces doing “Vogue” on one leg. There was something powerful about the theatricality that got me going, Oh my god, I need to make something like this. So it’s been a part of me since then.

I rewatch it almost every year. Whenever I’m working with a lighting designer or a set designer, I make them watch it. I think that the production values are so extraordinary. When I start a project I want it to feel like a Madonna concert – even if that’s not the story or the intent: I just want to create that atmosphere. It’s ingrained in me as a visual vocab, which is bizarre, but I guess it’s because I watched it so young.

She presented a pretty cool set of cultural references for you to encounter: Weimar, commedia dell’arte, disco and burlesque…

There’s an intelligence to pop culture and pop music that a lot of people don’t credit. That was the first time I’d seen those genres and styles on a stage: the vaudeville, the Marlene Dietrich, Carmen Miranda. She does “Justify My Love” on a giant chess set and all the performers are dressed in extraordinary black-and-white outfits with silks and top hats. It looks like something out of a Peter Greenaway film. You go through all these different worlds over the course of two hours.

My deep love of music, referencing pop music or punk or rock and using that history to talk about the sensual world: that’s also where the intersection with The Girlie Show hits for me. How do you take something historical and smash it against the now? An example is when we did Christopher Hampton’s Dangerous Liaisons and we literally re-created Madonna’s “Vogue” performance that she did in Dangerous Liaison costumes in 1990 as the opening of the show. It was naughty! We did it at the MTC, so the context was everything. That was a really interesting place for me to take this beloved serious drama and turn it into a pop concert.

It doesn’t have to be successful, but the experiment is the joy. It’s trying and rubbing things up against each other in ways that cause friction or tension: that’s the pleasure of making camp work.

The show, designed by Madonna’s brother Christopher Ciccone, seemed so mature, sophisticated, thrilling, with intimations of secret adult business behind closed doors…

If I’m crass, by the time I’m 11 or 12 and watching it, the amount of flesh onstage – male flesh – was very titillating for me. I was always a queer person. And it’s dark. But she’s also examining the AIDS crisis, singing a song called “In This Life”, which is dedicated to her friends who’d passed from AIDS. A giant pop star talking about that dark, horrible, recent history on a main stage like that: she’s a fucking warrior.

Such amazing visuals, to be seen from the back rows! Your showreel of past work too suggests a man invested in beauty, in the dynamics of gesture and gorgeous mise en scène.

Yeah – the lushness of a curtain and the erotics of a … fabric or costume… When I was working with the designer Eugyeene Teh on sex.violence.blood.gore for MKA, the visual language of that production was absolutely based on The Girlie Show. We had all the cast in white lingerie and Chinese opera make-up, in a giant pink space: it’s definitely been an imprinted visual inspiration!

And Madonna’s queering – the defiance and extravagance of camp, but also the expression through symbols, visual winks, the sensuality – does that play into this too?

Madonna, the Sex book, the Erotica era and The Girlie Show: subconsciously, they tapped into a curiosity about sex and sexuality that sparked something in me. I don’t know if it was to make theatre, but it was to do something provocative. And naughty: that was something the work ingrained in me. To embrace my inner rebel. My parents always instilled that in me, to never agree with anything. Always against the system, ever since I was a child! As a young person, prepubescent, to see those things – it influences you.

Because so much of queer culture in the early theatrical traditions had to be masked by symbol, it does become a very visual mode of storytelling. You can embed reference or secrets within queer culture into work. What Madonna does with The Girlie Show is she makes that mainstream: she exposes it to a much bigger audience, which I think is a really transgressive move. It attempts to normalise that which is abject. Which is, for me, the modus operandi.

Many of her references were based on European culture, where the attitude to sexuality and the body is different to Anglo inhibition. With your queer theatre, do you need to be brave?

Yes, I do have to be brave. I think there’s an aversion to sexuality. I don’t mean little cheeky stuff that you might see in a pantomime. There’s an aversion to deep representations in theatres and that hasn’t changed much. Every time I begin a work I have to fight the shame that comes with exposing these things. That’s what I’m fighting against constantly: what’s too much, what’s too sexual, why can’t beauty be presented onstage in ways that celebrate female- or male-identifying or non-binary bodies? There has to be a fearlessness in presenting this stuff, even if you’re criticised for doing it.

Any last thoughts?

Madonna is the reason I make theatre.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "Stephen Nicolazzo".

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