Interview with Monica Salvi

Editor Wendy Thomson talks to Monica Salvi about her cabaret 'Mad Women in My Attic' Sunday 26th October, St Paul's Church, Covent Garden.

Q - How did ‘Mad Women in My Attic’ come about?

For years, drama teachers, colleagues and friends told me I should think about putting together my own cabaret, but I've always waited as I wanted to find a special theme that would both suit my personality and make it stand out amongst the gazillion wonderful cabaret acts out there. In the past, I've often been cast (or should I say typecast) in roles of mad women, or women locked up in asylums, or quirky characters with particularly crazy songs or speeches... Some were comedic, some were dramatic, but all were more or less crazy. I don't complain, as they definitely are the most interesting characters to play, and those who really give an actor a good challenge. Anyway, I soon realized I had enough crazy songs in my repertoire to create a cabaret act about mad women. I wrote a script to connect the songs, which is partly inspired to the characters I've met in my career, partly dramatized, as if I was an inmate in a mental asylum, recounting her story to all the other inmates (you, the audience!). But please, don't be fooled, despite the crazy theme, and some poignant and haunting songs, Mad Women In My Attic is a show with lots of humour and seduction and of course some good old audience participation.

Q – Do you think there is still a stereotype that more women than men are affected by mental illness?

I think the stereotype has to do with the fact that typically women are more in tune with their emotional side, therefore they are less in need of controlling their outbursts of anger or their episodes of angst.. Men are by nature more detached, so if their mental health is affected (which is usually when their emotional health is affected), they are very good at keeping it at bay.. This is why the figure of the madwoman was always a lot more popular in fiction than the figure of the madman.. And even if there was a story about a madman, he would often be a man of science, or an evil genius.. while the poor madwoman was often just that!
My point of view in the show, is that we are all more all less affected by some form of insanity, or -in the mildest case- quirky antics. It's the society around us that, from a century to another, decides whether these quirky antics are a serious mental health problem or not. Personally, when I walk down the street and see dozens of men and women -me included- bumping into each other, cause they have their nose in their smartphones, it often occurs to me we should all be confined in a big asylum.

Q - What made you choose St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, for your production?

I wanted a venue that was central, well known, and quite atypical, that had a lot of personality -like the show- and that would allow me to play in the space, as opposed to just stay in the middle of the stage and sing songs. It took me a long time to find the right one, cause I was concentrating on the usual cabaret venues and fringe theatres... Then -in typical madwoman style- one afternoon I fell asleep on the couch, and I suddenly woke up hearing a loud voice in my head saying "Do it in a church!" (for the record I'm not really a churchgoer). So I immediately thought of the Actors Church in Covent Garden, where I had already performed a couple of times in the past, and there is where I decided to do my first performance back in April, in aid of the MAD (Make A Difference) Trust. The Actors Church turned out to be a perfect venue for my show, as it provides a natural set with lots of features to play with, and the rector and his assistant were lovely, and allowed me to do pretty much all the stuff one shouldn't really do in a church... Come and see the show, to understand what I mean!

Q - Where did you train in musical theatre and how long did it take?

I did three years at the Bernstein School of Musical Theatre in Italy, then came to London to do the One Year Postgraduate Musical Theatre course at the Royal Academy of Music. Best choice of my life!

Q - What women in musical theatre have inspired you to create 'Mad Women in My Attic'? (A mad woman in an attic makes me think of Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, or the Phantom of the Opera although that's a man!)

You are spot on! The title of my cabaret is inspired by Bertha Mason, aka Mrs. Rochester, the mad woman in the attic in the "Jane Eyre" story (and then, in its beautiful prequel "Wide Sargasso Sea"). I played Bertha in "Jane Eyre, the Musical" at the Bridewell Theatre, after graduating from the Academy in 2007. I had a great time running around the stage in a wedding gown, howling and cackling and being scary to both audience and cast members! Amongst the other characters that are mentioned in my show, we have Johanna from "Sweeney Todd" (the first important role I played in a musical back in Italy, and my first introduction to a character who gets locked up in an asylum); Violet Gibson, from the musical "Violet and Mussolini" (an Irish woman who ended up in an asylum after having attempted to shoot Benito Mussolini); and of course Norma Desmond, from "Sunset Boulevard", a role I've never played in its entirety but that I've often portrayed in recitals, showcases, and dinner parties, just because I love it!

Q - Can you tell me more about the songs that will be included in the show, and how they relate to the theme?

Aside from the characters and shows I've already mentioned, I chose to include all those songs that tell stories of women who live in their own fantasy world, for example Kurt Weill's Pirate Jenny, then I added some cabaret songs by various authors, to relate a woman's "emotional" point of view at various stages of a relationship.. But the best songs in the show came to me by chance: when I was browsing the web, looking for some more material, I stumbled into a whole cd by an american folk singer from the 60s, Katie Lee, in which every song was about mad women, psychotherapy, mental issues, and every number was extremely clever and delicately funny. Which is exactly what I was looking for, as the tricky part in trying to sell a show like this, is that its theme is a very delicate subject, but I think that if it's done with elegance and respect, it doesn't come across as offensive. In fact at my first performance back in April, I had a bunch of psychotherapists and psychiatric doctors who enjoyed the performance immensely, and have been keen on coming again with their colleagues!

Q - I've seen from the trailer you wear different costumes in 'Mad Women in My Attic', can you talk me through your process of choosing the right outfit for each character and song.

Ha! Yes, costumes and costume changes are one of my biggest passions! At the Royal Academy, upon graduation, the students held a party to give out all sorts of awards.. I was the proud winner of Miss Costume-Change Award. I love to change characters in the space of seconds, and I love to make each character completely believable as if it were a real person... and this means making the outfit as real as possible, cause each of those mad women still want to be unique and stand out, and not be confused with each other. Also, all my costume changes in the show are almost part of the story, they're not just happening for their own sake. My favourite compliment received, after my performance back in April, was from Ben Darmanin (assistant to Cameron Mackintosh) who tweeted me "You redefine the meaning of a costume change".

Q - You're working with Simone Manfredini (musical director) and Clare McKenna (director), how long have you all been working on the show, and has it changed in any ways since the production in April?

Simone is a very old friend of mine, as we worked together on a few shows when I was still living in Italy. Then I moved to London eight years ago, and we lost touch. Then, about a year and a half ago, I heard through the grapevine that he was moving to London to become the Associate MD for Disney's Lion King in the West End. So we got in touch again, and when I mentioned that I was looking for an MD to do a one woman show, he was very happy to offer his skills! Despite being extremely busy with his West End career, and a thousand other bigger projects all around Europe.

Clare and I worked together on a fringe show years ago.. Then we lost touch (same story as Simone), then she came to see a show I was in, last year, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. After that we went out for some drinks, and I mentioned my intention of doing a cabaret about mad women.. She said she really liked the subject and story and that she would be happy to come on board, if I needed help. Clare is an amazing director and deviser and we have the same vision and taste, when it comes to a cabaret show: we want it to be "more than a cabaret", almost a theatrical experience, even if it's just one performer and a pianist.

It took us about 6 months to work on it, but that's because it was very complicated to find dates and times when we would all be free.. Since the performance in April, I've only changed a couple of passages that didn't quite flow, took out one song that I felt wasn't all that great, and added two other brilliant songs about psychotherapy, by folk singer Katie Lee.

Q - Who do you find inspirational?

In the cabaret scene, those people who, as I said in my previous answer, add something special to a performance. There are thousands of great voices out there, so I personally love to see something more in a cabaret performer and cabaret show. I really love acts like Meow Meow, Camille O' Sullivan, East End Cabaret, Frisky&Mannish.

But also in all aspects of life in general, I am inspired by those people who are very energetic and with a positive attitude, and that despite being a bit "over the top", are actually very much in touch with their authentic self and use their charismatic stage persona to get a strong message across. Kristin Chenoweth comes to mind (those who saw her incredible performance at the Royal Albert Hall this year will know what I mean)!

Q – What are your ambitions for the future and what’s next in the pipeline?

My goal is to bring this show around, first to London's best cabaret venues (my favourite being the Crazy Coqs and St. James Studio), then next year to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I've had a great response from the audience who was at my first performance, so my efforts now are concentrated on making it known to more and more people.

Madwoman aside, I have a few other projects this year, a big concert at Prince Edward Theatre (home to Miss Saigon) on the 30th of November, to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Royal Academy of Music's Musical Theatre Course, and a performance of my other cabaret show "Ladies and Gentlemen, Buonasera!" with colleague and friend Simone Douani and musical director Tom Wakeley, who kindly invited us to be part of a new series of cabaret evenings he's presenting at Missenden Abbey. Follow me on Twitter to know all in due time!

'Mad Women in My Attic' Sunday 26th October, 7pm, St Paul's Church, Covent Garden
Twitter account: @MissSalvee
Facebook: Event page

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