I’ve said it before but World Stage, the exciting contemporary theatre season curated by the smart-as-a-whip Tina Rasmussen, a series that descends on Toronto’s Harbourfront right when we need it in the dark depths of winter, serves up some of the best theatre in Toronto. Exciting and unconventional, it is nevertheless always accessible.
This is the same series that last year bought us a stage full of dogs – and no humans - in the decidedly wacky but uber-fun Dachshund UN, which I reviewed here. Now, from the UK, we have just one dog on stage – he goes by the name of Major Tom, but what a dog he is, and what a story he has to tell. He’s accompanied by his owner and creator of the piece, actor Victoria Melody
The engaging Melody, uses the show to weave a tale of Major Tom’s rise from local dog show winner to – well let’s just say he doesn’t make it all the way. Meanwhile Victoria decides to turn the guilt she feels for putting him through this into an exploration of the human equivalent, the beauty pageant, with herself as the willing participant, documenting it all as she goes. The audience is left to draw parallels between the two forms of competition in an evening of comic mayhem with a thoughtful undercurrent.
I was thrilled to be able to sit down with Victoria Melody in Harbourfront’s green room, while Major Tom snoozed on the couch beside her.
Bob Leahy: Victoria, where do we start? Let’s start with Major Tom himself. Should I call him Major? (Major Tom lifts an eyebrow)
Victoria Melody: You can call him Major, he doesn’t come to Tom, but he’s a basset hound and he doesn’t come to anything.
(laughs) I know basset hounds well. He’s six years old?
He’s just turned seven
Now I have bassets too and they are known for being a bit stubborn.
He is very stubborn, He doesn’t do anything he’s told, even though I’ve taken him to lots of types of training. If we take him for a walk and we let him off the leash he won’t come back – and he’ll never find his way back . .
That’s basset hounds for you . .
Yes. When we got him we didn’t know how stubborn he was going to be, but we were attracted to the breed because they do have their own mind – and he was really cute and really loving.
So, Victoria, how does that stubbornness translate to being a performer on stage? I’m guessing he doesn’t do a lot on stage?
Hardly anything. He does completely what he wants. Basset hounds, as you know, don’t like being on their own, and so since he was a puppy he has come everywhere with me so he was in theatres, galleries and on the underground and everything from an early age, so he’s really mellowed. He’s very chilled out in front of big bunches of people. So for him being on stage is just like being at home. So he’ll wander in to the theatre, he’s say hello to everyone and then he’ll go to sleep.
So he sleeps most of the time on stage?
But his comic timing is genius and that’s why I decided he needed to be in the show; I have to improvise in parts because I never know what he’s going to do. There have been times where I have been telling a really important part of the story and he’s just walked off the stage. And of course the audience loves it, but I have to think on my feet, it always keeps the show fresh.
Has he ever had any accidents on stage?
No, thank goodness. Not yet. He has an absolutely pivotal role in the show. It’s not a solo show. His presence is important because we are talking about beauty pageants and dog shows and the parallels between those two things and how odd it is that these competitions exist, where we are judged against a “breed standard”, a sense of perfection that’s created by other people. So when you see us on stage together you realize how ludicrous those competitions are.
So you entered him, am I right, in local dog shows?
The amateur shows were lovely. And I was making a show about what I thought was in-group behaviour in Little England – I make work about immersing myself in to different tribes or subcultures.
The dog show scene is quite odd, isn’t it. I know a little bit about it.
It’s quite odd.
And Major Tom – is he a pedigree dog?
He is a pedigree dog. In Brighton, England where I live he is a massive character, he’s very popular, very well known. He was even invited to be part of Brighton’s gay pride parade. And wherever we were going people were saying “he’s gorgeous, you should enter him in dog shows.”
He’s a terrific specimen.
But I was thinking, this could be good for a show, this could be good material. I started entering him in amateur shows and I always document everything, and to my absolute amazement he won. He kept on winning everything at the amateur level. The judges said he had it in him to win and we should start entering him into professional competitions – championship dog shows. And that’s where the whole mood changed.
So you set your sights on Cruft’s then?
Well I thought it had been so lovely, the camaraderie, and I had found the whole scene fascinating. But when we started entering him in championship shows, we were snobbed. It wasn’t a friendly scene. I was a bit naïve, I forgot I was going up against people who do this as a profession, as a serious thing, and they don’t really want newcomers.
So it’s snobby.
Really snobby. And the only thing they would say to us was “who’s the breeder?” And I’d say “It’s Mrs. B. Clarke” and they would go “WHO?”
You found then there is a real class system in the dog world.
A massive class system. I felt like neither me nor Major had enough pedigree to be there. (laughs)
There was one show – we came last and I went to a judge for feedback and said “should we give this up?” and he said that I should save my money and buy myself a new dog, because this one is never going to do any good. And that was when I came up with the beauty pageant idea. I was driving home from the show. And I was really annoyed that they didn’t take his personality in to account. I mean he is a comic genius; he has his own show named after him. Why wasn’t all that character taken into account? So I came up with the idea of entering myself in a beauty pageant. Because I felt guilty about him being scrutinized and I wanted to put myself through a similar level of scrutiny.
To feel that same kind of rejection, or were you hoping to do well?
I was doing it seriously, I was doing everything I could to win. I wanted the whole journey to last as long as possible.
So you entered beauty shows locally. I read you were Miss Brighton?
Mrs. Brighton. I was too old for Miss Brighton. It’s for older married women. It was a slightly dubious competition. It was a postal application, you sent in your photos and I never actually got to meet any of the other contestants. I don’t know honestly whether there were any other competitors.
But you won. And that was just the start of your beauty pageant career? What did you do next?
Well because I won Mrs. Brighton that meant I could enter the Mrs. UK finals, so I would compete against all the “Mrs.” winners around the country. If I won that I would be flown over to America where I would compete against Mrs. USA, Mrs. Canada – all the Mrs. around the world and then I would become Mrs. International.
Tell me how it went.
Well that’s a bit of a spoiler.
OK, don’t tell me. But I’m guessing you had to go through an intensive prep process to get yourself looking the best you possibly could.
Yes. I went through an actual physical change. I lost a lot of weight, got hair extensions, eyelash extensions, had colonic irrigation, - you name it, I did it. Went to a plastic surgeon. All the time I was seeing what other people thought I needed to meet their idea of perfection.
Did you then experience the same kind of rejection and humiliation, Victoria that you felt Major Tom experienced in the dog show circuit?
Well, Bob, before doing the research for this show I had never been a competitive person. I became competitive. I wanted to win. People were saying “it doesn’t matter of you don’t win and I was saying “YES IT DOES!” Sometimes I would forget it was for research. I thought it was my life now.
What was the take home message then on the parallels between the dog show world and the beauty pageant world.
Well, it’s a very funny show, it’s very comedic. I think comedy is an important tool to enable us to laugh at ourselves, but disguised in the comedy there is a message. I want audiences to form their own opinions. It can be kind of ambiguous at places. I want the art to speak for itself. But I don’t openly criticize the dog show or beauty pageant people. I kind of criticize myself.
OK Victoria, fair enough. I can’t wait for the show. I just wanted to give you a couple of quotes about you because The Guardian said “your performances are bonkers.” And here’s another quote; “she’s either an idiot or a genius; it’s up for you to decide.” Some people clearly feel you are a bit odd. How do you feel about that? Are you odd?
(laughs) I don’t think so. I think I’m pretty normal.
Then why do other people think you are odd?
I think it’s my observations. I think they are talking about some of the ways I see the world, in funny and unique ways. I try very hard to make a show that’s accessible. I believe art is for everyone, for everybody, for my nana, but that also is thoughtful, is provocative, Audiences can get it on variety of levels – they can get it on a comedy level and just leave entertained or they could leave thinking about the show’s deeper meanings and messages.
That sounds like a good place to end, Victoria. I can’t thank you enough for talking to us and I can’t wait to see the show.
Thank you so much Bob
One thing that doesn’t come across perhaps in this interview is Victoria’s devilish English accent, the constant twinkle in her eye and her warm personality. Check out the video below for a sense of all these and more.
Major Tom runs from February 26 to May 1 at the EnWave Theatre, Harbourfont, Toronto. For tickets and information go here.
Above photos by Bob Leahy
Below photos by Liquid Photo