A Different Kind of Autobiography: Reflections of an Audience Member

by Hannah Cummings

in Audience & Community Engagement

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(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

Major Tom is a performance by Victoria Melody and tells the tale of her attempt to win the Mrs Galaxy UK Beauty Pageant and have her dog, Major, win Crufts.  Major came last, as did Melody.

The story is not an autobiographical tale of a usual sort since these weren’t events that befell Melody and Major through the ‘normal’ course of life’s happenings.  No, Melody chose to pursue these activities, participating with the intent of making a performance out of them.  This is how I am invited in:

Major Tom takes me on a journey.  Here was a self-proclaimed feminist who chose to subject herself to a process of objectification.  And why?  For her dog.  I listen as she talks about how she felt guilty about entering her dog into competitions that he kept loosing.  How she decided that she needed to expose herself to a similar amount of scrutiny.  I am given a serialised, step by step, insight into her research process.  Beginning with her decision to pursue the competitions, documenting everything as she went, to the final results.  I am with her all of the way.

It’s filmed. I watch footage of Melody’s attendance at the amateur dog shows and her affable relationship with the other competitors.  I then see her shrink in the professional dog circuit where she dons bland country attire in an attempt to fit in.  And I follow her progress as she conforms to the subjective criteria of others who tell her how to be beautiful – how to dress, how to exercise, how to eat, how to walk.

Still, it’s funny.  I hear stories about her lack of personal grooming being discovered on her hen night when she decided to pick up a scotch egg with her buttocks.  Watch her contend with a dog onstage – yes Major, a very large and lazy Bassett Hound, is in the performance.  And I listen with amused glee as she embarrassedly shares the story of acting like a horse during a beauty pageant interview when one judge told her she had nice legs.

It’s heart-warming.  The performance isn’t really about Melody and Major.  This is a performance that charts the communities of dog shows and beauty pageants.  And it’s a performance that says it’s okay to fail.  I see Melody’s unconditioned body, hear of her Christmas of enjoyable indulgence and learn about her winning the ‘conciliatory’ beauty pageant prize of ‘Best Smile’ even though a plastic surgeon had wanted to ‘correct’ it.  I learn of Major’s laziness, sexual deviance (he likes grey hounds) and his too large ribs.  This is a performance that trivialises the neoliberal relationship between image, success and self-worth offering up the voice of a warm-hearted and gregarious woman, and her dog.

But that’s not all.  As a consequence of the performance, Melody’s sense of identity was transformed.  She says it herself: ‘I had changed. I had become vain.  I had become vain and competitive.  And I had definitely become a worse person’.  Melody knowingly invited these negative repercussions to her sense of identity for her art and, perhaps, in the interests of her audience members.  Does that mean I am beholden to her since the performance reminded me that it’s okay to be who I want to be and not who others say I should be? I don’t know.

I do know this:  That Major Tom grew from Northern Soul – a performance that tells the story of the dying British traditions of Northern soul dancing and the activities of pigeon fanciers.  I also know that for her next performance she is tracing the origins of the hair extensions she had put in during the beauty pageant competition.  And she’s shaving her head.  I know this because I am invested in her and the journey her role as a theatre-maker takes her on as she chooses to constantly re-invent herself, giving voice to others along the way.

It’s not quite performance art.  It’s not quite documentary.  And it’s not quite autobiographical.  Nor is it perfect, and some might even say that there are ethically dubious aspects to her temporary bouts of participation.  But it’s done with compassion for, and joy about, human fallibility and British eccentricity.  And it’s fun.  Perhaps it’s the mix that means I remain interested.  In any case, I watch and I imagine I will continue to watch.

Hannah Cummings is completing her PhD in Drama at the University of Exeter. Her research is titled The Politics of Participatory Performance: Affects and Effects.

Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.