When Anna Camilleri enters a room, heads turn. Not because she’s wearing a red dress, but because she is one: bold, sexy, unique.
Sounds Siren Red also defies convention. Written and performed by Camilleri, the stunning piece unfolds through monologue, storytelling and poetry, with newly added movement and video. It could be described as a multimedia adaptation of Camilleri’s acclaimed book, I Am A Red Dress, but, characteristically, the truth is more complex.
Workshopped and toured last season, the stage version contains about 20 percent of the book, plus several newer pieces and more poetry. Camilleri originally wrote three drafts of a play, which she describes as, “driven by an imagined woman in a red dress and rooted in three generations of women in my family.” Around 1998, she was plagued to the point of insomnia by constant dreams of women in red dresses. “The dreams didn’t stop until I began writing the book.”
So the play became a book, which then became a play (of sorts). “While I was writing the book,” says the self-taught Camilleri, “I recognized that the work is fundamentally hybrid. Reviewers described it as a collection of stories and poetry, others called it a memoir, others described it as a novel.” One of the defining factors of Camilleri’s work is that it’s constantly “sliding between forms.”
A large portion of her 14-year performance history was spent with the notorious Taste This, a collaborative multimedia troupe with Ivan E Coyote, Zoe Eakle and Lyndell Montgomery. Interestingly, their creations also spawned a book, the instant queer classic Boys Like Her.
Camilleri is currently writing a novel and an unrelated performance, State Of The Queer Nation. “There’s a broader range of nuance to draw from,” she says of her perpetual return to the stage, “because performance depends upon the body – breath, movement, character choices. Performance is also time-based; it happens between performers and audience when the house lights go down. Reading a book is a private experience and the reader simultaneously acts as editor, choosing to start and stop and skip around.”
Sounds Siren Red marks the first time Camilleri has performed in the same theatre for more than one day. With a week in the intimate Alchemy Theatre, she has the resources for an improved lighting design, as well as more “gear,” which is a welcome change from the bare-bones of touring.
With such expanded possibilities, she was inspired to invite video artist Leslie Peters to collaborate. “Peters’ video speaks to the poetic sensibility [of the piece], and it contributes to a landscape of movement motif. Her work adds lushness and sensuality.”
Another first is that Camilleri is working with a director, Tristan Whiston. Known for his exploits with The Boychoir Of Lesbos, Central Toronto Youth Services’ Gender Play and Del ARTiE Productions, Whiston began directing Sounds Siren Red almost by accident. “We were around each other a lot, proofreading each others’ grant proposals,” he says, “and it was apparent very quickly that we work well together.”
What’s unique about this project for Whiston? “There is no real-time narrative or linear structure, although there is a clear story arc. The themes are big: love, hate, family, violence, redemption, growing up, becoming one’s own self. There is no simple message or solution, no clear beginning, middle or end. The style… allows us to leave a lot of things unsaid, and leaves the audience with enough space that they can have their own experience.”
Whiston wears many hats effortlessly: director, coproducer, lighting designer, production manager and technician. Also worth noting is that he and Camilleri are in love.
“He’s a smart director, very intuitive,” says Camilleri. “I trust Tristan both as my partner and as an artist, and trusting isn’t my strong suit…. Cons? For the whole month of January I haven’t had a date with Tristan my partner but I’ve spent lots of time with Tristan my coproducer and Tristan the director. Pros? We’re both wrapped up in the same thing, and he runs baths for me because he knows how hard I work.”
Work is invisible in Camilleri’s flawless delivery. But some might wonder about the psychological toll. The script is bursting with hot tales of love and humourous stories about growing up. It often returns to Camilleri’s complicated relationship with her grandmother and mother, both of whom were silent witnesses to Anna’s childhood sexual abuse by her grandfather. Her mother’s words, “When your grandfather dies, I’m going to the funeral in a red dress,” are the inspiration for the central image.
Camilleri, however, asserts that all art is equally challenging. “My work is often referred to as intensely personal,” she says, “but that isn’t how I think about it. A lot of artists create in response to monkeys on our backs, whether that’s an image or idea, a curiosity or an experience. The work is autobiographically based… but a lot is imagined. If I were performing me, that would limit the possibilities for performance, and it would be dull, not theatre.”
And dull is something a red dress never is.