For the better part of the past decade, Minneapolis-based performer Melissa Birch has focused on collaborations, but the veteran artist, singer and innovative cabaret entertainer is hardly a neophyte when it comes to solo performance. That's how she started her career, and at this year's Boulder International Fringe Festival, Birch will take her singular performance style out of the closet with War Queer Peace Solo, which addresses gender equality, queer identity, politics and public policy.
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Written, directed and starring Birch, the one-woman experience marks Birch's first appearance on the Fringe circuit. In advance of several runs of War Queer Peace Solo at the festival, she spoke with Westword about the evolving notion of queer identity, and how much she enjoys sharing her unique style of personal narrative with new audiences.
Westword: What's the story behind this piece, War Queer Peace Solo?
Melissa Birch: I wrote it a couple of years ago when I started to think about what we were going to run into in 2012 -- what kind of progress we had made in terms of civil rights for gay and lesbians, the peace movement and non-violence. I was sort of examining where we were at this point (versus) where we were twenty years ago, and the stretch between then.
It's my first solo show since 1999. I took about ten years off of doing solo work, so that was another strong motivation. The solos that I had made previously were theater, but sort of more cabaret; I was dealing more in drag and I was always using live music behind the narratives. They were one-woman shows, but they had a different tone that, at this point, feels fairly dated.
In the last decade, I've studied physical improvisation seriously, and brought in a movement base to the work, which is really exciting to me. So the narrative quality of the work remains, but in making and performing it, there is a whole movement vocabulary now that I didn't have ten years ago.
So no props or music.
Yes. It's very clean, there's nothing extra. There's still some music involved, but it's an exploration of a whole new genre, really. It feels more authentic to me for 2012 and the 2012 audiences; "authentic" is a bit of a scary word. What has been interesting for me in developing the piece is reconnecting with a voice, and finding a whole new voice, a new way to say what, in essence, what I've been saying from the beginning.
What is so different to you about the 2012 audience, in comparison to, say, ten years ago?
The audiences I'm performing for are smarter and quicker, and there's a whole new vocabulary that we didn't have ten years ago to talk about gender. There are also political nuances in the work, though I wouldn't call this show political. There's definitely a crossover in talking about the personal as political -- the personal being political.
When I was doing a lot of solo work ten or more years ago, I was preaching to the choir on some level. The community was a lot less diffuse; gender was a really exciting concept. We're kind of in a post-gender place these days -- but back then, it was really exciting. I was doing femme drag. I'm not a classically overly feminine person on the street. (Laughs.) I'm androgynous, but femme drag was a new concept, both for the mainstream and for what was then, you know, the gay and lesbian community. What was exciting then is pretty passé these days. It feels like it has changed so quickly -- ten or fifteen years ago, GLBTQ visibility in the mainstream was limited to people over thirty. Like you're saying now, this post-gender conversation is more inclusive of all types of people. It's not just "gay people look like this" kind of blanket identifiers.
Exactly. The conversation has changed and is much more sophisticated. What's fresh for me is to still be having that conversation with my audience, as an artist. I think you're right on the money, too, that part of what has changed is this sea change of generation; I think that was the root of starting to write (War Queer Peace Solo) in 2010. Looking around at the 22-year-olds and the people just getting out of college and going, "Wow -- what is their experience?"
Wondering, what is their experience of being queer? We didn't have "queer" back then -- it's a relatively new word. The conversation has changed because the audience has changed and people are a lot more fluent. It is a whole different dialogue, really.
How does this performance come across to you? Is it a positive experience? Are you expressing your own experience?
For me, the process of making and presenting work has got to be a positive experience. It has to be one for me, and if it isn't one for my audience, I should just go home. That's just how I feel. I'm a teacher, but I don't get up and preach. It's still crafting a live art. It's funny and for me, pleasure has to be a primary part of what I do. It's a strong principle in why we are here, why I'm an artist, and why I go to see work. I guess I'm just making the kind of work that I want to see. I want to be moved and challenged. I want to see work that makes me think and makes me feel and doesn't bore me. (Laughs.)
This is the debut of War Queer Peace Solo. Why did you choose the Boulder International Fringe Festival as the setting?
Yes, it is the premiere of the full-length piece. I've had little bits of it done for the last year and a half, but this is the full premiere. It was kind of a fluke: I was talking to a friend of mine who lives in here in Minneapolis who performs at (different) Fringe fests. It's sort of her primary mode of producing and performing her work. I also have friends in Colorado, and I was sort of looking for reasons to go back there this summer. She mentioned Boulder and that it was this really cool, word-of-mouth Fringe. The light bulb went on -- it just kind of fit. This will be my first Fringe Fest performance ever.
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Melissa Birch's War Queer Peace Solo debuts at the Boulder International Fringe Festival with an inaugural performance at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, August 16, at Trident Booksellers. For more information on additional performance dates and times, visit the festival's website. For more on the artist, visit Melissa Birch's website.