Melissa Chambers: director and performer
Melissa Chambers is a busy London-based Australian, director and performer. I caught up with her ahead of the UK premiere of 'Close' at the Landor Space in Clapham.
I began by asking Melissa about her forthcoming show, Close. I wonder why she felt it was an important story to tell.
“The play is about a group of teenagers who’s classmate has gone missing. They get together in the local scungy toilet block to talk through events.
The interesting thing about the story is that no-one knew the missing girl very well. The missingness of this kid, known only as “the new girl,” turns into a mirror for their imaginations. They sort of invent the missing kid as she disappears.
I think that figuring out your relationship to horrifying events that you have nothing to do with, and didn’t cause, but that may nonetheless change the paradigm in which you live, is an idea that has some traction in the world the way it is right now.
It’s a moment of self-invention whether you like it or not.”
Close was written by fellow Australian, Kit Brookman, with the support of Playwriting Australia. As director of the show, Melissa is bringing new Australian writing to a London audience. I asked how she felt about such a challenge.
“I’m really pleased about it. Kit is an incredible writer. His work straddles the every-day colloquialism of quiet humans with a sort of deafening poetic centre that is a joy to investigate.
When I left Australia about 10 years ago I was sad to not be tracking the development of the writing there anymore, because it’s world class. Kit is one of the best for my money. He’s got the scope of an international writer with a definite smell of something 'Adelaide Hillsy', something you can sense but can’t put your finger on.”
Melissa has created theatre in New York, Melbourne and has toured with shows throughout Europe. I was curious to know what was unique about making theatre in London.
“It’s very literary, and I like that. When I was living in New York I was involved in a lot of big scale experimental stuff that pushed ideas through all sorts of formal approaches but wasn’t necessarily to do with words. Since I’ve been working here my work has been much more text-centric. I adapted a book to the stage for instance, with a terrific company at East 15 ('The Secret History'), and the world of ‘Close’ really lives in the language.”
A graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts and The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Melissa has worked with leading and innovative theatre companies across the world. I wondered why it had been important for Melissa's career and creativity to leave Australia.
“To be clear, there wasn’t really a plan. In the beginning I was just looking a few steps in front of me, and this went on for years. New York was very accepting to me, I think that was a personality thing, I’m shouty and ask blunt questions. I had a sense when I was working in Melbourne that if I went to a place that was full of artists, that was known for it’s artists, then I’d probably know what to do. In the beginning I wasn’t leaving Australia so much as going towards something with more scale and diversity. Besides, I didn’t leave Australia really, I’m back there working this year with a company called Optic Nerve Performance Group which I’m very excited about - a 10 year anniversary tour!”
Melissa has lived in London for three years. I asked what first drew her to London.
“I went to graduate school, to The Royal Central School. I’d been working in Europe a bit in 2013 with a company called Awake Projects and started thinking about moving over. What you get in the deal with London is Europe. And it’s astonishing. The finest piece of performance I have ever seen was in a small house Belgium in 2015, it was a dance piece called GRIND at the Beursschouwburg. The best integration of visual, sonic and rhythmic storytelling I’ve ever seen and it was there and gone in a few performances I think. This kind of dense work - integrated, expert stuff - is what makes me better at what I do. There’s a gulf stream of stuff in Europe and the UK that feels like it’s very close to the volcanic core of art-making. It’s hot. It’s gooey. Amazing looking, but don’t put your foot in it.”
Many creative Australian women seek opportunities outside of Australia. Melissa first moved to New York at the age of 26. I asked her if she'd recommend international travel to other Australian creatives - and what were her top three tips for maximising opportunities abroad.
“Yep. My best advice is to listen, be curious, do what you say you’re going to do. And ask blunt questions. Be known for that. New York was a great place to start for me because New Yorkers really do run up to you and want to know what you’re doing, nothing will perpetuate your creativity like community, and I’ve been lucky enough to find a great community in New York and here.
Also, live in shared houses, for the same reason!
On a practical level, go where you have a passport. I’m lucky I’ve got two passports and an ancestry visa so I’ve never had to buy visas. They change how you do it when you’re an artist, so if you can go where it’s legally the easiest, then do. Boring advice, but it’s a thing.”
Finally, I Asked Melissa about her favourite parts of London.
“I like the members bar at the Tate Modern, with that view of St Pauls. The swimming pond on Hampstead Heath. Waterloo Bridge with the Renaissance stuff on one side and the new city on the other. The canal walk in London Fields, Senate House Library and the southwestern train to Gatwick, usually if I’m on that train I’m going somewhere amazing.”
Follow Melissa Chambers here:
Acknowledgement to photographers Maria Baranova-Suzuki (Melissa Chambers) and Matthew Kaltenborn (The Secret History & Close production shots) for images in this article.