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An Interview with Performance Artist Ursula Martinez by Zoe Catherine Kendall

Ursula Martinez' latest performance is on at Soho Theatre. My Stories, Your Emails is a two part piece comprised of Ursula's intimate little anecdotes and memories from childhood and adolescence, coupled with her response to the fan emails she received after the filming of a previous performance Hanky Panky made it's way onto the internet.

This new work is delivered in two distinct halves, first portraying the sexualised character from Hanky Panky, this time revealing something altogether more personal than a hankerchief from her never regions: memories of growing up made funny and others sharper to the taste – chewing her finger tips until they bleed and then dipping them in her mother's soup to sooth them. A smartly presented Ursula, suited with red hanky poking out of pocket cheekily and hair pulled back into a tight pony tail takes her time to introduce herself to the audience, immediately setting the tone for a well balanced dynamic between performance and reception, everyone feeling invited into her confident manner, wondering if she will strip.

Is it going to be part of the show? She says no, then yes, followed by a warning about a 19cm erection (you had to be therre) before taking her place at the lectern where her diary of stories await. The audience then wait on the edge of their seats, anticipating this supposed nudity, but instead find themselves cackling with laughter as Ursula regales them with stories of being tricked by her older sister into eating cat poo as a youngster and other such amusements. A romantic menstrual supper, black boyfriends and coming out.

These hilarities are all in a days work, Ursula would have us believe, and I don't doubt her for one minute. For the second half of the show Ursula reappears in a change of clothes, this time dressed down, hair down, altogether more relaxed looking. It's nice to see this change in her stage persona, it feels as if we're out of the office and into the pub on a Sunday afternoon. However, we are given a slide show of fan pictures accompanied by the often pervy emails she has received. Men want Ursula, it would seem, and Ursula wants us all to share in these audacious solicitations. The emails kept the audience laughing continuously for the duration of the second half. And as the show comes to a close, it would seem the nudity was in the sharing of humour and the invitation Ursula issued her audience to share her head and heart with them for the evening. Would she be taking her kit off? It seemed not, and then, one last gag and we're all on the floor in stitches. A half-nude Ursula hurriedly stripping, legs emerging from trousers whilst bowing goodnight and bidding a fond fair well. Wow, what a lady!

After the show I met up with Ursula to talk about her inspirations, aims and life off the stage. Having had the pleasure of seeing her perform her stories, I felt I already knew her a little, endeavouring to find out just what makes her tick over a latte in Clapton.

ZCK: Is your work mainly autobiographical?
UM:
It's all I know how to do. I have made other pieces that are conceptual. Office Party was a very conceptual piece, but even then it's just about mirroring what happens in the real world. I can't make anything up, I can't do fiction, I can't make up stories.
 
ZCK: You use nudity a lot in your work. Would you say it has a particular significance to the pieces you do or is it just a token gesture because you can do it?
UM:
I think there's definitely an of element of I do it because I can. In this journey of making work you just find things that you can do which work. Humour is one of them. I didn't know when I embarked on this that  humour would be one of the threads that runs through everything I do. I didn't know that nudity would become a bit of a theme or a part of my brand. You don't start out knowing what's going to work and what's going to be the thing that you keep returning to. The nudity didn't come from a profound meaning, nothing that I do consciously comes from a profound meaning; but I think sometimes it has been profound, even though that's not my conscious intention. I'm quite instinctive, I don't feel political, but I'm aware that sometimes my work feels a bit political, it's subconscious. I think there's a naughty, provocative pixie inside of me that just infiltrates the world and my politics come from that naughty, cheeky pixie. Nudity isn't provocative to me, I grew up a nudist, but I’m also aware that nudity is provocative in the world.

ZCK: You explore family relationships through stories about your sister and your parents. Is this kind of treatment or reworking of the past a main theme for you?
UM:
I don't feel particularly confident to tackle themes outside of myself, just because the themes within myself I know a lot better than the themes outside of myself. In tackling themes within myself, by default greater themes are also tackled. A lot of the things that I know and tackle in my work also become universal truths. For example I'm never going to make a theatre piece about racism in contemporary British society because I don't know how to actually talk about that, but in my piece there are a lot of references to racism in contemporary British society. I think I'm a good observer of the world around me in relation to my experiences of the world around me.

ZCK: Some of the anecdotes from the first half of the show are pretty serious like your sister feeling suicidal or your grandad and his affair. Each time that you deliver them, do you feel present in the memories when you share them with the audience or do they become something else?
UM:
It shifts and I can feel it oscillate to varying degrees. I think I'm always quite present which is why the show works consistently.

ZCK: Do you ever feel emotional when you deliver them? And does your own emotional response surprise you?
UM:
Sometimes, yes. But I don't get surprised by it because I'm used to it happening when it happens, and I'm used to re-emerging, and then not. Sometimes I do the show and I feel particularly present and I can even say to myself, 'wow I'm really present in this'.

ZCK: Does it ever feel overwhelming?
UM:
No it feels good. It's never going to be something I can't handle. I did the show at the Barbican about 3 weeks after my Dad died and it was important to communicate that so I had to put in a story that was sort of an excuse to tell the audience that my dad was dead. I just created a story that was specifically designed for that purpose, because that felt important. Sometimes I can still get a little bit choked with that story and with the one about my grandad and his affair with my granny's sister.

ZCK: You mentioned living in the 'arse end of Hackney' in a council flat, and in Wandsworth too. How has your upbringing shaped you and your work?
UM:
I grew up in Croydon. Everything you experience shapes you. Going to a comprehensive in South London but as a middle class child shaped me, but in a great way, in that it's the privilege of wider experience. If I’m a middle class child and I go to a middle class grammar school then I'm only going to experience a middle class world. But I was a middle class child going to a working class comprehensive so that gave me greater exposure to the wider world and for that I’m really grateful. Similarly my mother is Spanish so we used to go to Spain on holiday every year and that was a whole other world that I was exposed to that gave me a richer picture of the world. I've also mixed in very high society circles, I've done my performance for the King and Queen of Sweden, Elton John and Prince William. Everything shapes you and I feel privileged that I have been exposed to lots of different worlds.

ZCK: Would you say that you are a life artist? You blur the boundaries between your experiences and your creative outlet. Is there a distinction between your living and your art or do they blur a little bit for you?
UM:
I don't think they blur, but in a sort of way I'm always at work, I'm always looking at the people around me. If I’m on the train from Clapton to Liverpool street I'm always looking at characters and listening to conversations because at any time I could have an interaction with somebody that could be a story in my show tonight. Maybe that's a sort of blurring in a way. But in terms of the hour that I'm on stage, there's absolutely no blurring, the line is really clear. But out in the world I am always a bit at work with my thoughts.

ZCK: Tell me a little bit more about you, something that's not about being on stage.
UM:
One of my passions in life is food, I absolutely love food. I just love eating experiences. I make a lot of food, I love cooking. One of my best dishes is Paella. And I love the sun, I absolutely love being naked in sun, sunbathing or playing back gammon or whatever!

ZCK: And what makes a great night for you?
UM:
I go out so much with my work, so if I’m not working or going to see work, I don't like going out too much. Great nights in are good though. I really like dinner parties because it's all connected with food. I just love hosting dinner parties.

 

Ursula Martinez: 'My stories, your emails' at the Soho Theatre
Until 10 March 2012.
ursulamartinez.com
sohotheatre.com

 

Text by artist Zoe Catherine Kendall. See more of my musings and artwork on my blog.