Q&A with Michelle St Anne – Art meets academia and taxidermy meets hysteria

We sat down with Michelle St Anne from the Living Room Theatre to get all the details on her collaboration with Macleay Museum for She Only Barks at Night.

Image by Michelle St Anne

This weekend Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney will host a special talk between theatre-maker Michelle St Anne, curator Jude Philp and the Design Lab’s Dr Lian Loke. They’ll be discussing a one-of-a-kind collaboration between the Macleay Museum and the Living Room Theatre that will bring the museum’s taxidermy exhibit to life through art and performance. We sat down with Michelle to get an idea of her vision for She Only Barks at Night.

What made you want to collaborate with Macleay Museum?

I was hosting an event there and I noticed there was something interesting about the energy in the room there – it doesn’t move. If you walk through the space the energy behind you closes straight down and I found that intriguing, it means you can’t actually make a mark in the space. It reminded me of existing in that “other world” a place that really fascinates me. Is it the collection of deceased, posed species or the spirits lingering. My imagination raced…I wondered how I could disrupt the energy with a performance. So that’s what I’m endeavouring to do!

What drew you to the taxidermy exhibition in particular?

Jude Philp mentioned it to me when I told her that I’d love to do something in the museum. It was so evocative. The positions of the animals make them appear antagonistic, and I felt they fit with my body of work around the female psyche. I’d just read Asti Hustvedt’s book ‘Medical Muses’ which is about female hysteria in the 19th Century. The Macleay Museum’s taxidermy collection is from the 19th Century too, so I thought what if the traumas of these women manifest into these animals? I thought that would be a beautiful world to make…a haunted castle!

What inspired you to create a work around female hysteria?

The book ‘Medical Muses’ was my biggest inspiration. She Only Barks at Night buids on from my last work, I Love Todd Sampson, which was about a women who suffered from dissociative disorder and how in her trauma Sampson comes to her as a moment of comfort. So that was about an individual and now I’m looking at the universal, looking at the whole movement of what was happening in Paris in the 19th Century. Basically, we haven’t learnt much since then. We still treat the mind as this distant mystique thing that we don’t know how to treat, acknowledge or, dare I say it, listen to.

 So far how has your experience collaborating with Macleay been?

Jude Philp has basically been feeding me, and she’s very generous with her knowledge. It’s really exciting to be with someone who gives you information to inspire you, and allows you to just run with it. She doesn’t curb the dreaming until you come back to her and then she offers little tweaks. I think that’s so important in collaboration – allowing an artist space to dream. When I first started the process earlier this year I think she thought it was going to be a tiny little thing, and then the next minute I’m saying ‘I want a horse, I want twelve teenage girls, I want to use the surrounding buildings’. But she’s really just let me run with it and has been supportive of the process of making contemporary non-linear performance work.

How do you see the role of art in academia?

I think art allows important ideas to be communicated differently. A platform, like the Sydney Ideas public lecture series, can bring these ideas into the public conversation but you can still see academics struggle with that. As an assistant to a range of academics I often overhear them, and I dream large landscapes where I could use sound and image to speak to a different audience. Of course it wouldn’t be for all academics – some might prefer to sit in their room and write a book that five people will read. Maybe that is all that is required. I don’t want to be mean – I just can offer a new platform, I guess.

What can we expect from ‘In Conversation’?

I think you’ll get all your perverse questions answered. I think you’re going to understand taxidermy and it’s role in society, and it’s role in science. That’s what I found really interesting because at the end of the day taxonomy is all about ordering, and understanding the world. That’s a really lovely parallel to hysteria, where Charcot was trying to order the female mind. You’re going to see some interesting animals and interesting techniques around taxidermy too – the stitching and the wiring and the stuffing, these gorgeous little poses that they were put in that evoke these classic English names. I am not sure why!

When can we see She Only Barks at Night?

She opens on the 25th March next year and she runs for five nights.

Michelle St Anne is the Artistic Director and founder of the award winning Sydney based theatre company ‘The Living Room Theatre’. This not for profit company has produced over 11 ambitious productions and has received the 2013 national IDEA (Interior Design Excellence Awards) Award in the Event Category. To register to attend ‘In conversation: She Only Barks at Night’: click here