An opera staged in a public bathroom? An opera with feminist content? We don’t know which is more outlandish!
Chamber Pot Opera is an original all-female opera that takes place in the Ladies Powder Room on Level Two of the Queen Victoria Building, Sydney. It’s the brain-child of director Clemence Williams, musical director Keiren Brandt- Sawdy and dramaturg Thomas De Angelis. The show enjoyed a sell-out Sydney season in November 2016, and recieved rave reviews at The Adelaide Fringe Festival earlier this year - 5 stars from The Adelaide Advertiser and a highly commended weekly award from The Fringe is no small feat. Now it’s back in Sydney for a longer season, and headed to the esteemed Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. The show is produced by Bontom Productions.
Over the course of the two month Sydney Season, some Chamber Potter’s are gladly allowing the show to completely consume their lives. I’m talking about producer/dramaturg Thomas De Angelis, cast member Britt Lewis, and myself (another cast-member) Sally Alrich-Smythe. In a strange twist, the three of us are living together at my grandmother’s modest little home to help make ends meet as we give up our casual night jobs, or - in Britt’s case - move interstate and prepare to save up in advance of the show’s exciting Edinburgh escapade. Over a cuppa, we chat about the show and answer questions that are commonly thrown at each of us.
Chamber Pot Opera is a feminist work. It’s the troubling depiction of women in exisiting, traditional operas that inspired a need for something subversive:
Thomas: Director Clemence Williams who attended the Conservatorium to study classical voice, was told as a mezzo soprano that she could only ever play the witches, bitches or breeches roles in opera. Undeterred, she thought up the idea of an all female opera set inside a space exclusive to women. The show was written to address the glaring problems that exist in opera, but also with the specific aim of being accessible to the widest possible audience. Opera can be beautiful, but all too often it occupies a rarified space, is expensive, and oppressively slow. This opera tries to be cheap, unmediated by grand costumes and sets, and moves fast!”
Sally: Some people, understandably, just cannot get past the fact that it’s set in a bathroom. Often they ask me “were there no stages left in Sydney? Why set the show in an actual women’s bathroom?”
Thomas: I think It was essential to the creatives that we set the story in a space that could act as a sanctuary for women, somewhere free from the male gaze. They wanted the three characters, strangers with unique and varied personal obstacles, to be able to solve their problems using only one another - completely removed from external influence. When you think about it like this, the bathroom seems like the most obvious place to stage our show.
Sally: Site specific work can make for great, really exciting, theatre too. It's a huge part of the appeal. It's almost like everyone enters with the same understanding, because it's a public and relatable space. We don't own it, and there's not much in the way of smoke and mirrors, so the audience are very much a part of the space. In fact, the 'feel' of the show will depend a lot on them, where they're sitting, when they're clapping (or, dare I say it, when they're not clapping...), how they've shaped the room... Also, the bathroom we’re using happens to be beautiful, opulent and, well, it’s a heritage powder room! Which really only serves the theatrics. Readers will understand what I mean when they come along...
Britt: Singing in a bathroom is just the best. The acoustics are phenomenal, and I think that’s something that anyone who’s belted out their favourite tunes in the shower knows only too well. But aside from the sounds that we can produce in a bathroom (no, I don’t mean those kinds of sounds, don't be rude), the space brings out the best in us as actors too. The audience is seated so close to us that any need to “play out” or make grand gestures, as you might in a large theatre for the sake of the back row, simply isn’t necessary. That means that we’re free to play off each other almost as you would in real life, if you were to come into a bathroom in search of advice from a stranger, or a place to touch-up, or a sanctuary from the world outside.
Some obstacles have naturally presented themselves:
Britt: People are generally very sceptical of our venue when they first hear about it. Often they think we’re joking, or assume that the bathroom we’re talking about is actually a set in a “proper theatre” somewhere. It’s an almost nightly occurrence that someone will try to enter the bathroom when we’re setting up, and we’ve had cases of people slipping in unnoticed and locking themselves in a stall, unaware that we’re taping down lights and setting up a keyboard right outside the door. But more often than not it ends up being a good selling point - “Opera? In a BATHroom? How odd! Yes I will buy tickets! Now excuse me, I just need to wash my hands…”
Finally, what makes us most proud of Chamber Pot Opera?
Sally: I’m just so chuffed to be doing this special little show. It’s a great gift for an actor, to be able to perform in such an intimate space. There’s nowhere to hide, and so you go in every night absolutely committed to giving it your all. I’m pretty new to the scene and there’s a lot of growing to be had for this nervous little performer, but Chamber Pot Opera is the best place to learn. I’ll grow with this show, and as such it will change each and every night… How lucky am I?!
Thomas: I’m most proud of the fact that this production is generating revenue that will fully support the touring company of ten people to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We’ll be able to debut this work on the international stage at no personal cost ourselves!
Britt: I’m most proud of the fact that every person that has come on board is invested in this show in ways that go above and beyond their roles. Because it’s such an unconventional space and concept in general, you have to expect the unexpected. The producers are also techies and chauffeurs, the actors help make props… I saw the director the other night spray-painting a toilet gold. That’s what makes it such a special show, I think. We love doing it and we want it to be a success, so every one of us is so willing to do a little extra wherever it’s needed. I guess I’m most proud to be a part of a show with heart - and Chamber Pot Opera has that in spades.
... Now, who's making lunch today?
Chamber Pot Opera, at The Queen Victoria Building, is running every night except Tuesdays and Thursdays until July 22, twice per night, 7:00pm and 8:30pm.
Ticket details here.