Interview by Winchester Guide editor Donald Hutera
Peta Lily is one of my favourite performers, but also one whom I’ve known personally as both colleague and friend for thirty years. I’ve happily presented several of her self-written solo shows, including Invocation and her Macbeth-inspired The Porter’s Daughter, as part of the various GOlive Dance & Performance Festival programmes I’ve been curating since 2013. Her work is funny, serious and wise, and it has a smart physical edge.
Peta is not just a fine writer and actor but also an experienced teacher, mentor and director. Her good-natured directness and honesty as a performer and a person have always appealed to me. Much to Peta’s credit, she’d probably be the first to admit that she’s full of Imperfection.
Yup, I’ve used that last word in the singular, and with good reason. It happens to be the title of a book of Peta’s poetry which, in turn, is also the major source material for her solo show of the same name.
Audiences in the Winchester area can drink in Peta Lily’s Imperfection in all its intimate glory at the Discovery Centre, where it’s being presented under the auspices of the Theatre Royal Winchester on February 11 at 7.45pm.
I threw a few questions in Peta’s direction, via email, about herself and the show. With any luck her answers will whet your appetite enough to go see the woman in action.
An image-inspired writer…
Donald: Did writing the poems come first and then the idea to perform them, or…?
Peta: A couple of things happened but I’m not sure in which order.
I’ve been capturing images of ‘lost corners’ using my iPhone – images of damaged or drear (or bright) things that have a strange, compelling vibrancy and an almost totemic quality, or so I felt. And the people I’ve shared them with seemed to find them interesting too.
I’m a big believer in the accidental. If I look back on my career path, there were pivotal points that were completely random but had huge repercussions and yielded large gains. So ‘following the accidents’ intuitively became the backbone of my photography practice. A friend suggested I write about it, and from that came the titular poem Imperfection, which begins: ‘the broken, the chipped, the darkly lit…’
Also I love my local library. I go there sometimes in search of particular things and sometimes just walk to the shelves and see what jumps out at me. I picked up a copy of CharlesBukowski’s New Poems Book 4 that way. I just loved his honest, muscular voice and relentless recording of whatever was to hand. Waiting, uncertainty, resentment…he even makes depression looks like a thing of spiritual beauty. Plus he was writing poems about the process of writing poems himself, and the process of calibrating one’s own success. (Actually that’s not true, because he always has his own unquenchable value of his work and his practice.)
I also went to my library to read about Stevie Smith. After a youth where I wanted to taste a wider life as lived by the Bloomsbury Group, or Anais Nin, I now live a quiet life. Happily so. At moments lonely, but the Saturday and Sunday supplements tell me that loneliness is endemic now so at least I’m not alone…in feeling alone.
I’d been writing a poem a week on various fractured corners of life for a while, and collected a bunch together to offer my director/dramaturg Di Sherlock (who directed Linda Marlowe in Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife). Di edited them, putting put in poems I wouldn’t have included and dropping others. ‘This is the art, death and alcohol show,’ she said. I’m no Bukowski, but I enjoy a glass of wine and at a certain point the Dionysus poem (‘Each night I meet with Dionysus/but I don’t meet him as I should…’) turned up – a nice follow-on from previous show Chastity Belt where I explored Diana/Artemis. There was a scratch showing at the Lost Theatre in Vauxhall, London of what was to become Imperfection, and an exhibition of the photographic images I’d been producing. People said they thought the images should be included in the show, and I made a short film of the images which now happens inside the show.
Opening up to risk…
Donald: How is it for you to take an audience on this trip into your sensibility – what are the challenges and rewards?
Peta: I trust Di, having worked with her a number of times over the years. Also, since making my first autobiographic show Topless in 1999 I realised that risk can pay off. That if I open up and speak about awkward or strange things I’ve noticed, done or felt (things I may not say socially), then other people step forward after the show and tell me, or tell otheraudience members about things that have happened to them.
It’s important when working with personal material to make sure you’ve ramped it to a universal perspective by going to the essence of the thing. By going to the most honest place, you can get the ludicrousness of something. By putting your hand up to your own faults there can be a strange pathos released (or so they tell me). One of the poems in this show is still quite a risk for me to perform – I didn’t really want it to go in. I was uneasy how people would ‘read’ it. But others have endorsed it. It seems they resonate with the sentiments, the predicaments. We are all imperfect. People get it.
Donald: Tell me about you…
Peta: Actress turned physical theatre performer. Occasional playwright. Mime-trained (in good company with the late Mr. David Bowie). Physical theatre and clown teacher, director, creative mentor and, um, poet? Photographer? A friend once used the word polymath – very nice of them. Someone quite close to me once called me a dilettante. Hey, I’m a suburban Aussie-born girl actually living in London – and making stuff!! Creativity! There’s a YouTube interview where the late Mr. Alan Rickman says ‘Theatre is (sort of) my religion’. Yeah. And then there’s magic, the way that Grayson Perry talks about it. You have to have your own magic, talismans, obsessions.
Donald: Have you been writing all your life, essentially, and why do you do it? Is there a need involved, or…?
Peta: As a small girl I wanted to and tried to and did write. But felt a failure. There was no model for me apart from fairy stories – it wasn’t a literary household. Later a high school teacher included creative writing in the syllabus. And he made us read, too. When I first discovered Nin’s autobiographical writing I was really impacted by her showing what was under the skin – the actual stuff, not the presented self of formal memoirs by heroic men and women. Nin had secrets, flaws, obsessions, shortfalls. Not perfect.
Coda: a (mysterious) compulsion…
Donald: What about the images you capture – how’d you characterise that work in a nutshell?
Peta: I have a website for my photography, thank you for asking (www.petalilyphotography.com). People can follow me on Facebook too ( as Peta Lily) where I post images that strike me as a record of the day, or as a kind of communication or gift to others (if that doesn’t sound too grandiose). On Instagram I am petalily and my by-line is ‘to the mysterious’. Ultimately everything is mysterious, even the banal – don’t you think? I’ve been trying to write about what my compulsion to photograph is about recently, and found myself writing about how in my solitary childhood, often in boring or unsatisfactory surroundings, I would go off into a kind of blank trance trying to find some meaning in what my surroundings were presenting me with… There may be no meaning, but if there was one wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was magical somehow? What is a compulsion anyway – when something grabs you, gets your attention, is ‘talking’ to you? It’s rude not to pay attention, no?
I had a French boyfriend when I was seventeen and he got me to read Jean Genet. You couldn’t get much less suburban Australian than that, could you? Genet’s philosophy was to take things that were vilified (including himself) and elevate them. Something there, perhaps, in my wanting to honour the humble and transform the mundane.