saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
Honest to God With... Michael Twaits
9th November 2014
With the Mimetic Festival looming, we at Views from the Gods thought it would be a good idea to have a bit of a natter with one of the people on the bill. Mimetic describes itself as a "two week celebration of the very best emerging devised, physical and visual theatre, puppetry and cabaret" and no one encapsulates that better (minus the puppet bit) than Michael Twaits. After taking a largely traditional cabaret show, The Red Shoes, to Mimetic last year, Michael's returning for 2014 with The Libertine has Left the Building.
Building on the success of his breakout work Confessions of a Dancewhore seven years previously, Libertine sees Michael embrace his theatrical roots with a multimedia study of "the self, the artist, politics and the dichotomy of modern life." Sounds intellectual - but if that's not your bag, there'll be plenty of pop culture and cabaret too.
Here, we chat with Michael about Mimetic, his history, LGBTQ works and, of course, the current state of cabaret.
Photography © AbsolutQueer Photography
VFTG: You've been doing things for quite a while, but the one show it always seems to come back to is Confessions of a Dancewhore. Is there a pressure on you to make sure this show is up to scratch given the acclaim?
MT: I got into the whole theatre, performing, producing, writing conglomerate through Confessions of a Dancewhore during my Masters at Mountview. It was my dissertation, did really well and they helped me put it on again a week after I graduated as a showcase for the new intake coming in. We invited a lot of off-West End, fringe venues to come in - Soho Theatre came, Drill Hall (now Rada Studios), Oval House and Battersea Arts Centre. A couple were interested, I ended up going to Oval, developed it there, they gave me a two-week run, then a three week run, then six months later we did it again. At that point, I started developing a second show with them.
I then went off and did lots of other things. I did what I'd describe as a pure cabaret show here (at Soho Theatre) called Icons. It fell into that weird space where some people came in expecting theatre, some came in expecting comedy because there was little cabaret there. People either loved it or hated it. Off the back of that I got introduced to Trafalgar Studios and met someone from London Pride, both of whom were interested in doing something. I suggested we come together and do something for London Pride at Trafalgar Studios. Because it was Pride, I wanted to do something political as I take umbrage with it just being a party.
The show Confessions of a Dancewhore, despite its pithy title, is quite political and engages with everything a gay man can be. It got written because at Mountview I got bored with getting told I couldn't play gay men. They try to push you away from your casting, so I was playing Macbeth or a sea captain - it was the end of the year when I wrote the show, so I was sticking two fingers up at the Academy saying: "You said I couldn't play gay men because it was too easy, well here's eight gay men who show the colour and the variety of everything they could be."
Confessions went on for four years on and off and became a bit of a calling card for me. I promoted it on the cabaret scene, which is how I became a cabaret artist as well as an actor...
VFTG: Is this your character Lady M?
MT: No, Lady M was a pastiche of the drag circuit that I put into Confessions at the very beginning. There was this seven or eight minute drag act that made the audience feel: "We've just paid £10 to come to see something that's billed as being edgy, queer theatre, but it's actually just a drag act. What the f**k?"
Until I got into drag I wasn't a fan of drag because I feel the type that's promoted is very dated, misogynistic, reductive. But it was the easiest to take onto the circuit, and it still has my politick even if it is that character. Lady M was very much a way of separating myself from my points, and that drag character in a way became the most fully rounded character. Now when I perform, whether I'm dressed as a man or woman, I'm always Michael Twaits. It is drag, and it's playing with gender, but I don't shave my legs or stuff my bra. I do look quite pretty...
VFTG: If you do say so yourself...
MT: Well, that's just the way it goes. I don't do any of this cinching in of my waist, I just put on big eyelashes and I've got quite a feminine structure. I'm tall and thin anyway.
VFTG: So with that in mind, is your new show Libertine a natural progression from what you've been doing, or something slightly different?
MT: When I was developing Confessions, I used multimedia to have dinner with myself seven years younger - I was live, seven years younger was projected. In that seven year window, I'd come out, moved to London, so there was a huge gap between where I am and where I was. I was working with a mentor Bette Bourne and he said: "Put a note in your diary in seven years' time, go back to the initial questions and the process and do it again" which is how the Libertine started really.
VFTG: So would you say it was a sequel?
MT: I'm avoiding the word sequel but I it definitely is a continuation of that autobiographical exploration. So seven years ago I was at drama school I was working three other jobs, I was in debt, renting, travelling a lot, I was single, dating lots of interesting characters. Now, I've got a mortgage, established as a cabaret artist, an actor, I've a partner I've been with for six years.
VFTG: You talk a lot about your politick. Does the show reflect how you think things have changed in society too?
MT: Well, as for gay politics, from the outside it seems like everything's rosy because we've had civil partnership, gay marriage, those were two of the biggest steps forward for what I was after. Being gay is just one facet of me, my partner and myself live very normal lives, it just so happens we're two men. We're not out all night, pissed, having anonymous sex and all of those dated clichés that are no way based in fact any more. So yes, gay marriage was a big thing.
Also, I do have issue with the new generation that, because there's seeming equality, they're very unmotivated to be politically-minded people. I always grew up in a time where Old Compton Street existed, in London, it was very open, but it's become so easy it's taken for granted. I don't think people want to get any closer to equality than we are, and that's a shame.
VFTG: Do you think there's an issue of that in fringe theatre as well? Of the scene being deliberately "other"? I think I read that when you started Confessions, you wanted it to appeal to a married woman with two kids as well as...
Photography © AbsolutQueer Photography
MT: The appealing to everyone, it always sounds pretentious when you call theatre art, but it is, and it should be - in its own way - for everyone. The show Confessions and now Libertine aren't narrative-based, it's almost like it's a mixed bill cabaret line up show and each performance, each act, has a different style with a different point to be made. But it shouldn't be dictatorial, it should be open. The danger with autobiographical work is that it can be navel-gazing, it's a fine line between it becoming about me as a person or me as a human and so it's also about you.
VFTG: That was going to be one of my later questions, actually. How do you balance having a message but not being worthy about it?
MT: It's tough. I don't think I always get it right and that's fine as far as I'm concerned. When you're doing a solo show, promoting it and talking about work that is one way or another autobiographical, whether it's exaggeration or not, you're always going to be dancing on the edge of narcissism. The poster - I haven't finished it yet - but it's going to be a picture of my face. But that's the product, what you're selling. It's finding a way for the work to be about the humanity in us all and using myself as an example rather than being so person-specific that you can't relate to it.
With Confessions, I got a lot of positive feedback from anyone who, I think the word "other" is the best for it, anyone who has been on the outside. Quite a lot of people felt it had issues akin to race issues, one of my friends is a devout Christian and she said it really hit home about that. Which is great. I think the people who found it hardest were the straight, middle-class men. And that's fine.
VFTG: I'm sorry...?
MT: There's enough stuff for them.
VFTG: Yup, we'll just go home and watch My Family and leave you lot to it, if that's alright?
MT: Oh, no...
VFTG: Absolutely not, because My Family's atrocious.
MT: I think all work should be open to everyone and accessible, not saying that I want to dumb it down so that it's easy, but it shouldn't be close-minded audience-wise.
VFTG: So going back to the previous question...
MT: About the mainstream? Yes, I think in the last seven or eight years, cabaret has become fashionable again and it's brilliant. The fact that the Soho Theatre has a cabaret room, the London Wonderground has opened, so we're not always having to fit into a comedy format or a theatre format, there are now actual showrooms for cabaret. I've always come from a theatre/cabaret crossover background and that's where I'm comfortable.
That said, I think there are a lot of non-performance venues trying to cash in on the cabaret hot ticket. Me, and others I'm certain, get a lot of requests to bring it to a non-performance space, which I'm keen on because I love performing in unusual venues. It's quite exciting. But it does sometimes feel they're only doing it to be fashionable rather than caring about it. But I also like the fact that within the cabaret world you don't need to discuss the LGBT status about the world any more.
I personally don't take cabaret work at a traditional gay club, not because I'm anti it, but just because it's not my style of cabaret. I feel I fit in more in a - I'm looking for a word that isn't sophisticated. I don't like performing to an audience that's drunk. They're on a casual night out, getting drunk, and the curtain comes back, someone's on stage, tells a few jokes, sings a few songs then goes off. Tonight I'm working at Cellar Door which I love because people stumble into it and think: "oh I wasn't expecting a performance space" but it's also intimate, engaging and people get involved. I like an audience primarily there to be an audience.
VFTG: I'm sure that's a viewpoint that's shared by hundreds of thousands of others - the equivalent would be stand-up comics.
Photography © AbsolutQueer Photography
MT: I used to think what I did and what the cabaret drag circuit do are completely different, but as I've worked on the scene a lot, I've realised that other than the tone, which I change from venue to venue anyway, there's not a huge difference. Obviously we have a different take on the material.
VFTG: Do you find working in cabaret those few years has informed Libertine to a greater degree than previously?
MT: I think so, the cabaret work I've done has been brilliant training. If I could have performed the way I do now when I started performing with Confessions, I think the show could have - I don't know where the show could have gone further but it could've - I felt the thing holding the show back then was my lack of experience. I was very green as a performer in every sense and if I was following the traditional acting route, I would have been in the chorus for two or three years. Instead I was centre-stage on my own for an hour and ten minutes, which was quite a jump.
VFTG: A sort of trial by fire.
MT: It definitely was. And now I'm much more ready and capable and I'm quite excited to see what the result will be.
VFTG: So we've talked a lot about performance, but you wear a lot of hats - you're the writer, the director, you've got a lot of multimedia which is your choice. What hat do you feel comfortable wearing, what's the most satisfying?
MT: I think whatever I'm doing, I'm always viewed as the "other one". When I'm doing cabaret and it's a mixed-bill night, when I'm talking to people I'm thinking that I'm more an actor than a cabaret artist but when I get a proper acting job, I'm on set and looking round and I'm kind of like: "I'm a cabaret artist". Some of the things you take for granted on cabaret have really informed how I've become as an actor.
VFTG: Do you think the delineations are something that's helpful to you or to the industry? You seem to be someone who's very at ease with changing. You're quite mercurial in a way.
MT: The reason I'm a cabaret performer and an actor is that I don't think being just one is sustainable for me. I'm not successful enough as an actor or as a cabaret act. There's a real ceiling on a cabaret career. It's not like comedy where you can just break into TV or theatre where there's a logical progression.
VFTG: Okay, so let's yank it back slightly to the Mimetic festival. You did a show last year for the festival. Is it particularly different to the one you're doing this year?
MT: It couldn't be more different. Last year at Mimetic, I took a cabaret show that was, to my mind, pure cabaret in a theatre space. I was in my cabaret/drag guise, I had a live pianist and did maybe 15 songs, something like that, just my favourite songs I've done over the last three or four years.
VFTG: That begs the question, what are they? Give us some.
MT: It wasn't just my favourite songs, it was structured in a way which talked about my career, so it loosely fit. The reason I called it the Red Shoes is that I'm a big fan of Kate Bush. I love singing Kate Bush.
VFTG: Did you see her live?
MT: I did indeed!
VFTG: Oh you absolutely... I was working that night and couldn't get out of it. I was thinking "Why am I stuck here when I could be watching Kate Bush?"
MT: It was amazing. The Red Shoes is one of her albums, but it's also a Hans Christian Anderson story and in a way when I got into the drag thing seven years ago after Confessions I always thought "It's just for now" But once I put the shoes on, here I am now seven years later still earning money and enjoying it, still growing and learning. And that's what it was all about. It was very light. I loved it and I'm sure I'll do it again but it was almost like a - you know when you go to see The New American Songbook type things, it's like that. I don't want to say it's simple, but when I do a theatre show format I'm used to projection and lighting and I've got to keep in time with the film. Whereas this was me, a microphone, a pianist, we could have a natter, it was very relaxed.
VFTG: Is it the most challenging piece that you've done from any aspect of it, whether that be writing, directing or performing?
MT: Yes, writing definitely. I feel over my career I've become a lot more self-critical, vigilant with quality control and in a way that comes back to the whole picking and choosing cabaret work. I only want to do work I want to be associated with. And the writing process this time, if I took everything I'd written, I'd have a five or six hour show. I'm more vigilant - "I love that idea but it's not right for this show, I love this concept but it's not good enough."
VFTG: So would you ever do an extended directors cut two-hour version of it, or are you just taking these things and squirrelling them away for the future?
MT: Ah, yes, squirrelling them away for the future is right. but the show isn't fixed yet. I've got a three-week rehearsal window before the show starts, so at the moment, the show is there but on Monday to Friday next week I'm having five different rehearsal days with five different artists. When you work solo, it's very isolating so I've got a dramaturg theatre critic friend of mine working with me, a very very different drag queen working with me. She's not really a drag queen, she's a comic and he has a couple of other characters. I've got a performer and director, another performance artist and a cabaret artist. I'm trying to pick people from all the different angles of my skill set and we're just going to have lots of pens and lots of scribbling and moving and trying to jigsaw it all together. When that finishes, that's when I enter my three weeks of just getting it done.
VFTG: When you're just getting it done, is it you just getting it done, or do you think it's going to be a more collaborative piece at the end of it, with these guys' ideas too?
MT: The lovely thing is, my say is final. I've picked two people I've worked with previously and three people I've met and want to work with - I don't want to say we're auditioning, but it's seeing what the relationship is like. I might say to one of them: "I need you in the week after next for a couple of days." I'm sure they'll all come and see the show. A couple of them I won't be surprised if we end up working on some future projects.
It can get too fixed, I think it can be problematic. It is very organic and very collaborative and creative. I'm the sort of person that, when I'm working on something and I watch a film, there's just one line in the film and I just have to grab paper and pen and write it down, take it downstairs the next day and say "right that's the key to everything."
VFTG: I suppose as well it's a nice way of stopping the narcissism train ever so slightly as you've got people to strike you down. Think it's an intelligent route you're taking.
MT: Aww... I hope so... People imagine a one-man show and they imagine a guy wearing black and with a table cloth that turns into seven props in a black box studio.
VFTG: I've seen far too many of them for that to be funny.
MT: It is a one man show, but it's more that it's a mixed bill cabaret with one performer playing different roles.
VFTG: Again, it might seem a daft question, but is that a conscious decision on your part, or is it just a natural way of going into it?
MT: The initial idea fed back from when I wrote Confessions. The hypothesis I was exploring was the idea of the performative self, so you have different personas that you play in different situations. Where we are now and how we are or how I'd be if you were a good friend I'd known for years, or how I'd be if you were my mum, or if we were somewhere with China teacups and saucers. You just tweak your personality a bit.
I was looking at it as an actor, like if I was auditioning for Macbeth, let's take some of that into the audition room. Not act a different person but bring that side of me to the forefront. Then theatrically I just exaggerated each of them. The camp me became a drag queen, the political me became an activist. The traditional theatre me became a musical theatre performer. It was that sort of thing. It always had this sense of different characters I was playing. The format and the function lend themselves to each other quite well. Each theatrical style is different for each character highlights the fact that each character is different.
VFTG: You got into the programme free from a public vote. So what made you decide to apply for that and, presumably you feel very happy about it. Was there ever a Plan B in case somebody else pipped you at the post? I'm sorry, I've just realised I come across badly in this interview. Firstly bringing up the childhood trauma of you being called a twat, then saying clearly your work is worthless and you're terrible...
MT: I can't wait to read it!
VFTG: I think it's just going to be an apology at this point.
Photography © Charlotte Levy Photography
MT: Yes, I was very fortunate and very happy, obviously, to win the bursary. In the seven year period from when I started confessions to now, in October/November/December-ish, I'd be doing a show. I sent out a few emails to a few relevant theatre venues. I know Alex Parsonage very well and he said Mimetic was going to be back in November and I thought: "Ooh, that sounds handy". But I also knew the work I wanted to do was, I don't want to say big, because I don't want people to come with the expectation of it being big, but ambitious maybe. It was a big shift back to a previous way of working.
I hadn't written a show-show in this way for three or so years. I'd been doing a lot more traditional acting or cabaret. I just felt I needed the support of a bit of backing, so I applied for it. A lot of companies that were applying were taking a show that already existed and had these trailers of shows up and running. I was like: "Hell, I don't have any of this" so I just did a little video of me saying: "Hello! I've not written it!"But I think people got behind the fact that it's something new for the festival.
The exciting thing about the festival isn't that it's just "The best of Edinburgh". Alex went and picked up some shows and there's a whole range of new work, some work-in-progress. There's lots of different things going on. So I think that's really positive that the bursary came to a show that really is all about the festival and new for the festival, that's quite nice.
VFTG: Is that what attracted you to the festival in the first place?
MT: Yes, I also love the crossover appeal of it all. Mimetic is a festival that is basically my audience. It fits my remit. It is that crossover theatre cabaret. When I first got the show programme we had that debate: "Is it theatre or cabaret?" and I thought it goes into the theatre section but people aren't going to be surprised when they come and I do a song. That's just the way it is.
I've also been really fortunate because I also got some backing from the Arts Council. Between Mimetic and the Arts Council, I couldn't have bought this three week rehearsal process to make it something really special.
VFTG: When you're looking at all these characters or facets or you, one of the things I noticed when watching the trailer for Confessions at least was that - I presume it was Lady M - come out and read something to the audience and it was quite confrontational. We talked about the subject matter, about white middle-class males, etc, but do you also think the way it's presented i.e. like that, also mixed multimedia, do you think that's difficult for people to grasp?
MT: I think educate, entertain and engage is the trinity that theatre needs to be. Just entertainment? That's lovely but I could watch it on the telly. Or just education, go to school. I really want people to go away and to think about it. At the end of it, I think it goes back to that Brechtian device of keeping the audience on their toes - always keep them awake and invested in the moment. It's always "what's going to happen next? Why did that happen?"
VFTG: Actively engaging - at least intellectually - with it, rather than passively sitting back.
MT: Yeah, yeah. The trailer of Confession, that was so brash and confrontational because that's exactly what I disliked about the drag scene. From my experience from that point, there was no one really bringing the warmth and the love. One of the things I love is, after a show, people talking to me as if they know me and I'm approachable. With most drag queens people are steering away from them.
VFTG: So is there anything you know of going to Mimetic, or otherwise, that you aren't involved in that you're looking forward to?
MT: Yes, at Mimetic, there's Pi the mime (putting on Un Cas de Nostalgie). I saw his show at Mimetic last year. He over the last year has evolved and developed as an artist - it's really exciting. I'm very pleased I can see Holestar's Sorry I'm a Lady because I missed it and felt awful about that. She's very exciting and she's someone I've been on a lot of mixed bill nights with over the years and just someone I'm interested in - and she's lovely. And then, I had one more then...
VFTG: Oh dear, oh dear.
MT: I know there's plenty of good stuff.
VFTG: So what's the future for Michael?
MT: Oh, God knows. I don't know if cabaret's going anywhere for me. I'm very happy with cabaret; I'm not leaving it. And I can't imagine doing without it. I've had quite a bit of crossover cabaret work into other worlds. I did a little part of cabaret for Dracula for ABC - I'd love a bit more of that. I think more of that is on the cards. But you never know until you sign the contract. I'd also quite like - I think 2015 will be the year for collaboration on stage. I'd love to find a group, a company to take part in and it not be Michael Twaits.
VFTG: Any final plugs to get in?
MT: I'm always at the Cellar Door working, come and say hi, Finger in the Pie cabaret, those are the main ones really.
Michael will be appearing in this year's Mimetic Festival 2014 with his show, The Libertine has Left the Building. The show runs from 25th to 29th November 2014 and we'll be reviewing it later this month.
To keep up-to-date with news on what Michael is up to, visit his website www.michaeltwaits.com.