The Dead Ones
Margie Fischer’s career and contribution to the arts is extraordinary. She was co-founder of Vitalstatistix and Adelaide’s queer festival, Feast. Fischer is performing her latest work, The Dead Ones at this year’s Midsumma. Fischer spoke with MCV about her show, which is about family, memory and what is left behind when your loved ones die.
Can you tell us about your background in theatre?
I have worked in theatre all my working life. I didn't study acting or performance at a tertiary institution, I was part of the community theatre, alternative theatre movement in the 1970's in Sydney. I was a circus performer before circus became popular, Pipi Storm was the circus and we toured nationally. We performed in isolated country areas as well as capital cities. The work was groundbreaking.
I was a co-founder and Artistic Director of Vitalstatistix Theatre Company in South Australia from 1984- 1996. During my time at Vitals I wrote and performed in many highly successful productions, toured nationally with the company and produced an astounding range of community cultural development projects.
I went on to co-found Feast, Adelaide’s Queer Cultural Festival, in 1997 and was Artistic Director for six years.
What’s the idea behind The Dead Ones?
The show came about from my mother dying and being left to clear out the house where she had lived for 40 years. My father and grandparents had all died in the house and my brother was also dead, so it was up to me to decide what to do with what was left. While sorting through the house over a six-month period, in which very little had been thrown out in 40 years, I became fascinated with what is left when loved ones die. Throughout this time I documented my feelings and the processes involved.
My mother’s death and clearing out the house was profound for me. The only way I knew how to do this was to write about what I was doing and feeling. I wrote sitting with the objects in each room; honouring the objects and the stories they told of my family then deciding how and what to let go of.
Can you tell us a little about your family?
My parents were Austrian Jews who fled from Vienna to China to escape the Holocaust. After ten years living in Shanghai they came to Australia as refugees. I was born in Australia, I lived with my extended family in the house my father built in East Lindfield, Sydney. We spoke Yiddish at home, and I heard Holocaust stories much earlier than was good for me. Growing up I wanted to assimilate, to not stand out in anyway. I was ashamed of my parents, I didn't want to be Jewish.
I have always been an outsider and eventually rejoiced in my differences which kept on expanding - first I was a circus performer, then a writer and actor, then a lesbian, then out as a Jew, then a parent. My parents loved me throughout, although at first they wanted me to marry a nice Jewish boy and be a teacher. They always came to see my shows, even the ones where I took all my clothes off!
Can you tell us at what point did it strike you that you wanted to make a monologue out of this?
As I was writing and taking photographs of the objects in the house I didn't think, I just wrote. I wrote 60,000 words. I thought maybe I had written a book. Then I thought that the book would need to have photographs and images in it and this would make it too expensive. As I am a performer I thought it could be a show, my writing was storytelling, the photographic images were beautiful and rare. I wanted to honour my family. I knew that what I had written had resonance with others as the experience of packing up the belongings of family members who have died happens to us all.
With the idea of objects holding memory, was there a fear that if you gave the object away that memory would vanish too?
Memory living in objects is fascinating. The power of objects and the memories that resonate from them is powerful. Writing was my way of lessening the objects’ power, by honouring the objects’ stories I could then free the objects of their memories and move them on. By writing and documenting and then performing the show I am keeping the stories the objects tell alive.
Were there many things that you came across that you had never seen before? Was there anything that surprised you?
I hadn't seen many of the documents my parents brought with them when they escaped from the Nazis and from their time in China. I didn't know my father was one of the coordinators of the Stateless Refugees Association in Shanghai. Many of the objects were things I had seen many, many times before like, photographs, clothes, furniture, but when the people who used them are dead the objects have a power they didn't have before. So what surprised me was how I felt about what I had seen before and how I was reacting to these objects after everyone who used them was no longer using them.
How has your idea of what memory is and how it survives changed by going through that process and creating this work?
What memories survive has enormous resonance for refugees, stories passed on about where people come from, what happened to them, how they lived and loved, is all there is. For Jews the passing on of stories is vital, oral traditions are powerful and essential. It is essential that stories are passed on as otherwise they disappear. This is also true for queer stories, if we don't tell them, remember them and write them, who will? That said, many stories die when the people who know them die. Memories of my brother will die with me most probably as there will be no one left who knew him.
You performed this show at Feast, what was the audience reaction?
When people die those left behind go through a process involving feelings, emotions, practical decisions. All this is fascinating, not often spoken about and audience members have often stayed behind to tell me how much they appreciated my show as they remembered, identified, learnt from and were moved by The Dead Ones.
The show is not depressing, it is entertaining, a great story, original, compelling, and the combination of storytelling and photographic images is a winner.
(Image) Margie Fischer eating cake.
The Dead Ones – January 29 - February 3, Theatre Works, 14 Acland St, St Kilda, midsumma.org.au