In the weak warmth of an early spring sun, comedian and theatre-maker Zoë Coombs Marr sits opposite me outside the Malthouse Theatre. It’s lunchtime on a busy weekday, and the courtyard is packed with creatives and techies from the Malthouse, Chunky Move and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, all of us soaking up what we can of the Melbourne sun before it disappears.
It’s strange to see Zoë looking so much like, well, Zoë. I’m used to her face covered in bum fluff, grinning goofily from ear-to-ear, affecting a manspread wide enough to turn off an entire tram network. That is, I’m used to seeing her dragged-up as her alter-ego, Dave, a sad-sack archetypal male comedian persona Coombs Marr has adopted for the past few years. Brought to life as a shrewd but collegial comment on the masculine environment of the Australian comedy scene, Dave has proved so brilliantly wry, affecting and emotionally attuned, he’s won Coombs Marr a slew of comedy prizes, including the prestigious Barry Award at the 2016 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
It’s often hard to get a comedian out of ‘character’ (if you can call that persona they adopt onstage a character), but this time Coombs Marr is in Melbourne sating the other half of her artistic identity: as a live theatre-maker and performance artist, and one-third of the performance collective Post. Together with Mish Grigor and Natalie Rose, Coombs Marr creates work for the stage – sometimes theatre, sometimes wilder performative work that consciously resists genre categorisation.
‘I think genre is a bit bogus,’ she says. ‘It’s sort of made up. It’s just these rigid parameters set up so that people can understand a marketing blurb. So they can go, “Oh, what sort of show is it? Ah, it’s this show! I’ll go see that”.’
Post have always played with genre in their work, so much so they quip that their performances are ‘genre-queer’. The three women met in 2003, during a contemporary theatre course that Coombs Marr was convinced was an acting class. ‘It ran for a year, and it took me a year to work out it was not that. I was like, “This is a really weird acting course! Why do they keep getting us to lie on the floor and, like, run in slow motion?”’
‘I think genre is a bit bogus… It’s just these rigid parameters set up so that people can understand a marketing blurb.’
Gregor and Rose were put together with Coombs Marr, and they began creating work together. ‘After that we were really hungry to keep making stuff and doing things and, you know…just kind of kept on doing it.’
Their latest venture together is Ich Nibber Dibber, which will run at Malthouse Theatre until 23 September. The show, which premiered last year at the Sydney Festival and has just come off an August run at the Sydney Opera House, draws on a decade of recorded conversations between the three women, about ‘life and love and friends and poo and fingering’. Coombs Marr grins. ‘There’s quite a lot of fingering.’
‘One thing that’s surprising’, she tells me, ‘is what sort of people really connect with it.’ Post’s general demographic, she says, tends to be people like them – women in their thirties. ‘But this particular show has really connected with older people as well, especially older ladies who’ll come along and connect with the way we converse with each other. And they’ll stop us after and say it really reminds them of the way they talk with their friends, or it made them want to get back in contact with people they hadn’t seen. So I think there’s something really nice in that.
‘We had a woman in Sydney who was just talking to us the whole time,’ Coombs Marr says, a hint of that Dave-ish grin playing across her face. ‘But she was really loving the show so we couldn’t be like, shut up. But she was like, “Aw, this is great – Aw, that’s the best – Oh no, that’s just like me!”
‘And then she came up to us afterwards and – I don’t know her actual name – but she was like, “I thought you were going to say at the end, Cheryl McDonald, this is your life!” Yeah, she loved it.’
‘Women are seen as being personal and niche and men’s work is seen as being universal. And it is frustrating. ‘
And though it’s been women in particular who have responded to Ich Nibber Dibber, Coombs Marr is keen to avoid ‘ghettoising’ the show as ‘just for women’, simply because Post comprises female theatre-makers.
‘It’s a bit of a myth, isn’t it?’ she asks. ‘Women are seen as being personal and niche and men’s work is seen as being universal. And it is frustrating. It’s the same as queer work. I don’t set out to make work specifically for myself but I feel like it’s what comes out. But it’s not like women are watching going, like, woooo! and men are sitting there with their arms crossed. There’s something for everyone – ’
Coombs Marr interrupts herself, for a moment, to point out a gaggle of seagulls she sees causing a commotion across the courtyard. ‘Oh look – a bird orgy! I mean, listen,’ she says, switching back to earnest without missing a beat, ‘gender’s made up anyway.’
Despite the warm reception for Ich Nibber Dibber, Coombs Marr and Post haven’t always had the most comfortable relationship to criticism – from the public and the press. In 2014 the trio produced a show for Belvoir St Theatre called Oedipus Schmoedipus, which took on death and tragedy in some of the (white male) theatre canon’s most significant works.
The show was reviewed so poorly by critics at the time, who reported members of the audience leaving in disgust during every performance, it caused the closest thing to an uproar in Sydney theatre’s recent memory.
‘Oh, I mean, that was really stupid,’ Coombs Marr complains, rolling her eyes when I mention the Oedipus drama. True to form, however, she doesn’t seem entirely serious, laughing as I describe some of the best, most hysterical Oedipus reviews I found in news archives online.
‘People didn’t recognise it was a feminist work, at all,’ she explains. ‘And people couldn’t understand the personas we were playing onstage were not the people who we are. So that was weird. And there was also a complete lack of credit – because we were young and women and kind of irreverent in that space – for what we were actually doing.’
Coombs Marr describes the frustration of reading reviews that panned the show, and hers and Grigor’s performances, but praised the chorus of volunteers they’d wrangled onstage for each production – without handing any credit to Post themselves for curating that moment. ‘We were like, “That was us, you idiots! We put them there.” They didn’t just run off the street, like, “God, there’s a show needs saving!”
‘I think the most important thing is not pandering to artists at all; but understanding that what’s on stage the artist’s probably chosen to put there, at the very least. And then you can go: and I hated it! And that’s fine.’
Last year, Coombs Marr performed alongside Adrienne Truscott and Ursula Martinez in Wild Bore, a Malthouse Theatre/Soho Theatre, London co-production which examined the relationship between critics and performers.
‘I don’t hate critics!’ Coombs Marr protests, when I press her on her interesting history with the form. ‘My partner is actually a film critic. I think criticism is totally valid and useful and crucial, really. Because the worst thing is when you don’t have any criticism at all, and people are kind of operating as a vacuum thinking they’re amazing.
‘I think there’s people who are very serious about that stuff. And we’re all working in the arts because we care about it, but you can’t take it too seriously, I think.’
‘The worst thing is when you don’t have any criticism at all, and people are kind of operating as a vacuum thinking they’re amazing.’
As a comedian, Coombs Marr is an expert at balancing silly and serious. After spending the past few years performing as Dave, this year in her show Bossy Bottom she returned to performing as Zoë (or at least as ‘Zoë’). I ask what prompted the change, and she laughs, ‘I got sick of gluing hair to my face!’
‘It’s weird because I have all Dave’s mannerisms now,’ she says. ‘So there was a real crossover point where it was very difficult. I was grabbing the microphone stand and leaning on it while I was doing my own jokes.
‘There’s also a number of layers of irony that aren’t there anymore. When I was Dave I would do a very ironic sexist joke, and there was a period where my brain was still in that mode. I would go for that joke and then be like, that’s…I’m just being actually fucked.’
Coombs Marr insists Dave isn’t gone forever. ‘He’s not dead!’ she jokes. ‘But it was time. It felt like I needed to say what I wanted to say as myself. And it really scared me, so I thought, well, I have to do that, don’t I?’
Now back performing as herself, she’s finding similar problems to the ones faced at Post, being pigeon-holed by her identity and her ideology.
‘I think when people kind of commercialise radical politics it feels really odd… Like, I want to profit from my work, not my ideology.’
‘It’s difficult in different ways and at different times,’ she explains. ‘Right now I find it difficult because your work is defined and formed by your politics, and feminism is very hot-button at the moment. And I have a real unease with the idea that my ideology would be used as a selling point, because it’s not a brand. Like my politics – it’s not a brand.
‘I think when people kind of commercialise those radical politics it feels really odd. So that’s something difficult that’s happening at the moment: trying to maintain integrity within your own politics in a way that’s within your own work, informs your work and is vocal and out there but is not trying to sell a product. Like, I want to profit from my work, not my ideology.’
I remark that in some ways your work is your ideology, and she nods soberly. ‘It’s a really fine line. You see major fashion brands that have shirts, like, This Is A Feminist!!! And you’re like, “You’re a multinational corporation. I’m not sure if the women working in your sweatshops would feel the same way about your feminist shirts.”
‘And so if I’m like – ’ Coombs Marr gestures and clicks at the seagulls pottering around our feet in the courtyard, startling and scattering them – ‘Come see my show, everyone! It’s feminist! Hashtag feminism! It’s like…nah.’
Ich Nibber Dibber runs at Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne from 5–23 September.
Zoë Coombs Marr will perform her solo stand-up show Bossy Bottom for Yack Festival at Giant Dwarf in Sydney from 1–4 November.