Stella Duffy: "I want to do a show about mortality that feels lovely"
The writer, performer and theatre-maker opens up about her new live improv death show
Creative powerhouse Stella Duffy is an incredibly busy woman. This week alone, she’s performing her solo improvised show Learning To Swim In The Abyss, launching Fun Palaces, the campaign putting community at the centre of culture, and preparing to release her new novel, Money In The Morgue. Somehow, she also managed to squeeze in time for a chinwag with DIVA.
DIVA: Your totally improvised one-woman show is on this week. How are you feeling?
STELLA DUFFY: I’m starting to get nervous, partly because it’s not written and rehearsed. I’m really interested in what it’s like to do a show that’s honestly in the moment. I have some idea of things I want to talk about, and perhaps that will be physical, perhaps that will be vocal. It’s the how I’m going to do it that I really don’t know. If it all goes horribly wrong and everyone storms out because they despise what I’m doing, well, I’ve had eight hour cancer surgeries for god’s sake. I can cope with that.
What is about the show’s themes of life and death, grief and joy that interests you?
Having a cancer recurrence knocked me even more than having cancer for the first time in my thirties. It’s really important that anyone coming knows I’m not going to be talking about the funerals of loved ones. I want to talk about what it is for each of us personally. I think we actually make it slightly easier for ourselves by putting death at one removed all the time. In order to look honestly at life, we do have to acknowledge the presence of death in the room. I’m trying to pay attention to my own mortality. When I do, I gain a deeper gratitude for the life I have. Quite heavy stuff, but I’m hoping it won’t be too heavy. I’m hoping it will be light and enjoyable and maybe a laugh, as well as some serious bits. I’m hoping that when people go away they feel warmed by the light of their own life. I want to do a show about mortality that feels lovely. And I’ll be giving away chocolate!
I think if anyone can make it lovely, you can. I heard you say on Radio DIVA that talking about your own death onstage is a queer act.
It’s funny because it's for a queer festival and people have been like, “Well, what’s queer about your show?” And I’m like, “Well, I am.” Right up and down, sideways, through me. Being out has been a constant in my life. I’m 55 this week. That means I’ve been out and coming out since I was 15. That’s 40 years of outness. So what’s queer about the show is me, but I also think it’s very transgressive to talk about death in the middle of life. People don’t like it and they don’t think it’s very polite and they get all weird about it. Anything that’s transgressive is pretty queer. Saying things that they don’t want us to say is very queer and being honest about who we are is very queer. People don’t go around daily saying, “Well, I’m going to die at some point.” The transgressiveness is talking about death and trying to do so positively and warmly and generously and comfortably. We do a lot of things about death, but they’re all about how awful it is. Somebody said on Radio DIVA that I was the sexy death goddess. I was like, "Yeah, let’s have that." Let’s be the sexy death goddess.
Ok, sexy death goddess, tell me about your new novel, Money In The Morgue.
It couldn’t be more different! In February the paperback of The Hidden Room came out. It’s a crime novel with a lesbian couple as the parents of these teenagers. But the one that comes out on 8 March is me writing a Ngaio Marsh novel. Ngaio Marsh was as famous, as successful, and certainly sold more copies than Agatha Christie in the 1930s and 40s. She was a New Zealander and a theatre director and loved London, so lots of things in common with me. Harper Collins has, for many years, had three chapters and some notes. They got permission from the estate and asked me if I wanted to finish the book. So I’ve done something that is nothing like anything I’ve ever done in my life. It’s been really daunting, really challenging, and I’ve had a great time doing it. I really love that it’s got her name and my name on it, even though she wrote 5,000 of the words and I wrote 85,000 of them!
I can't wait to read it. And as if that wasn't enough on your plate, you’ve also got the Fun Palaces launch on 1 March.
We go live for sign-ups at midnight on Wednesday and then we’ve got a public launch at Rich Mix in Shoreditch on Thursday morning at 9.30am. Last year there were 362 Fun Palaces and we’re hoping we might go for 500 this year. It’s exciting. Strangers tell me, “Oh, we’re getting ready to sign up.” I’m like, “Wow, brilliant!” Five years ago, this wasn’t anything. It didn’t exist. Now it’s a thing.
Learning To Swim In The Abyss is at 7.30pm 26-28 Feb at The Omnibus Theatre - more info here
Money In The Morgue is out 8 March - find out more here
Fun Palaces is open for sign-ups from Thursday 1 March - learn more here
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