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Cabaret artist Leah Shelton discusses how “enthusiastic consent” inspires her Soho Theatre show Bitch On Heat

Aussie performance artist Leah Shelton is bringing her show Bitch On Heat to the Soho Theatre this December. The show’s toured extensively in Australia, but this is it’s UK debut. One of the central themes that made the show popular back home was rethinking the terminology around consent: “I love the concept of enthusiastic consent,” Leah tells us.

“Rather than the absence of no, we should be looking for a passionate, emphatic ‘yes’.”

Bitch On Heat more broadly is a “fucked-up journey through the rulebooks of how the sexes “should” live and love and fight and fuck,” and combines pop culture references with mythology and masses of lip-syncing (Shelton only speaks four words throughout the entire show).

It’s directed by Ursula Martinez, who worked with Leah on Best Entertainment Olivier-award winning cabaret show La Clique, whom Leah describes as “performance art royalty.” Here’s what Leah has to say before opening night...

Adam Bloodworth: Hi Leah. Welcome to London! You’ve toured your live show extensively in Australia but never in London. How does it feel to be here performing for the first time?

Leah Shelton: Thanks! Happy to be here! I’m so thrilled to be premiering my work in London, especially at Soho Theatre which is a landmark venue for me, given their program of quality, cutting edge, shit-hot work.

Adam: Could you sum up Bitch On Heat please for our readers?

Leah: It’s an absurd, fucked-up journey through the rulebooks and cultural messaging of how the sexes “should” live and love and fight and fuck, starting with the ancient Greek myth of Pandora (a latex-clad Barbie-esque sex doll), then drawing on dog-training, porn, instructional records, dating seminars, and pop songs. All of the mixed messages that we assimilate into our ways of being. It’s also a visual feast, with a Greek-inspired set design that morphs and transforms into a banquet table, a stripper pole, a revolving bed, and a hot-tub. And lots of wigs.

Adam: The show’s press release says it’s “soaked” in cult references. Can you tease any to get us excited?

Leah: My incredible sound designer Kenneth Lyons has a cult library in his head and it’s a massive part of the work we create together. As Ken says, ‘the show overall has a John Waters vibe with the bitch cherry-picking the juiciest bits from contemporary and retro culture across multiple media to re-image and revision feminist mythologies.’

My fave is Helen Gurley Brown: editor of Cosmopolitan magazine in the 1970s, an American chat show host darling and subject of the very camp movie based on her book Sex & The Single Girl. Helen has a whole lot of excellent romance advice that is so deliciously questionable and perfect for this show!

Then there’s all the music references - Deee-Lite, Maria Callas, Cilla Black, Brenda Lee, Britney Spears; and there’s even some film references including Blair Witch Project, 2001 Space Odyssey and Oliver (The Musical!). So there’s plenty for the cult trainspotters out there!

Adam: You say the show is ‘alt-cabaret’ and ‘anti-burlesque’. Can you dive a little further into what both of those mean?

Leah: My work likes to take from mainstream forms (like cabaret and burlesque) and then fuck with them: referencing, questioning and subverting what we think we know; and in doing so, reclaiming the objectified female body. It’s a combination of homage, critique, anger, riot, and celebration. With some idiocy thrown in for good measure.

Adam: The show’s press shots are sickeningly amazing. Did you have any style icons in mind when you were shooting those?

Leah: So many style icons and references! Nadia Lee Cohen has been one of my most recent obsessions (go watch her short film Guide to Indulgence now). I’ve always been drawn to the melodrama of the old-school film noir sirens, scream queens and Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in their hagsploitation days; and of course I can’t forget Joan Collins in Dynasty who I was definitely channelling when doing the photo short for the poster!

Adam: Which other Aussie cabaret stars should we have our eye on over here in the UK?

Leah: There is so much great Australian work that is hitting the UK. My top pick would have to be the incredible Hot Brown Honey, a powerhouse outfit of femmes of colour, Directed by one of my dearest friends and collaborator Lisa Fa’alafi – if you get a chance to see Hot Brown Honey or Hive City Legacy (their collaboration with UK femmes of colour), do it! Also Yana Alana, Jess Love, Reuben Kaye, Little Death Club, Tommy Bradson, Carla Lippis and Betty Grumble all rock my world.

Adam: One of the show’s key themes is consent. What’s your take on the current conversation? For instance, should we all be asking permission from one another before we kiss our lovers, or does body language still count?

Leah: For me there are two key issues in the conversations around consent: respect, and power dynamics. So, if we have an awareness of the balance of power in any encounter; and we also have a sense of respect for every person’s experience, then we are equipped to judge what is appropriate in each situation. Sometimes it might be necessary to ask permission to kiss or touch a long-term partner; and conversely there might be times when two people who have just met are both so ready to jump each other, it’s clearly understood. And this is where the concept of enthusiastic consent comes in – which I love. So rather than the absence of no; we should be looking for a passionate, emphatic ‘yes’ – and isn’t that really what we all want for our sexual experiences?!

Adam: You only say four words in the whole show. What’s the eternal appeal of lip-syncing?

Leah: Lip-sync and sampling is a massive part of my work. It’s a way to take the audience into a whole other world, to reference something familiar and again fuck with it, parody it, subvert it, undermine it. And, with the rich history of lip-sync in drag and queer culture, we also understand it as a tool that subverts gender norms. Also, I feel like you can really have fun with lip-sync: there’s a sense of play and melodrama and ridiculousness that I love acting out on stage.

Adam: We love the idea that your images are purposefully “sexy” to draw in diverse audiences and “trick them into thinking about feminism for a bit,” as you say. Was that a conscious choice, or just something you noticed happening when you toured the show?

Leah: Yes totally! I’ve always been interested in work that treads the line between entertainment and politics, and I think art can be funny and accessible and still challenge people – even while they walk away having enjoyed themselves. After all, no-one wants to join a boring revolution, right?

Adam: The show fits in a lot of characterisation in a short time via a raft of mythological and pop culture references. How have you attempted to create a broader overarching narrative, or have you not?

Leah: The driving question of the work asks why we are so limited by this ridiculous social conditioning that surrounds us … so I would say this is the overarching narrative of the work. Bitch On Heat, in a way, is a kind of ‘call to arms’ – perhaps the audience feels implicated at the end, and perhaps the audience has thought about the politics of consent in a different way, or perhaps it will provoke conversations or maybe even lead to radical change!

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Bitch on Heat
05 - 14 Dec
at Soho Theatre
Info and tickets: sohotheatre.com