Melanie Thompson interviewed by Vicki Steward Feb 2020
Vicki: Have you always been an artist?
Melanie: Yes I have always been an artist. Shall I explain what I mean by ‘artist’ though? That word has many connotations, for different people. I call myself an interdisciplinary artist. And I don’t do that to be clever. It’s taken me years to clarify that for myself.
I grew up in London and both my parents were in the theatre. My dad died when I was young so my mum and I grew up together. She was a film actress as well as a TV actress, and when I was a child I did mother and daughter TV commercials with her, Fairy Liquid, and Peek Freans biscuits.
I did all the normal stuff of going to the youth theatre club down the bottom of the road, but it happened to be quite a special one and I had an amazing theatre teacher at my school. So from a very early age I wanted to be involved in sort of live performance, but I always knew that I didn’t want to follow a conventional route. When I went to the theatre I never looked at the actors, I was really interested in the lights, the scenography, the costumes and all the things that made the event happen.
I was lucky enough to go to Dartington College of Arts. I was actually supposed to go to Central School of Theatre and Drama, but I’m so glad I went to Dartington, because that’s been my artistic roots ever since. Dartington was quite radical, believing that artists have a responsibility to society.
Over the years, I have been trained in and have studied dance, theatre, art, writing and film. And so, about 25 years ago I realised that what I was really interested in was the relationship between all these art forms.
Vicki: I’ve never heard the word ‘scenography’ before
Melanie: I spent a lot of time in Europe, where that’s a common word. It’s connected to a whole concept of dramaturgy, which is a training that they give people in Europe, where they look at the whole picture of what is happening in a performance work. So scenography is all the visual aspects of a piece of performance work. The reason I enjoy working in Europe and I love this use of language is they understand that everything is connected to everything else. We have this terrible habit in this country of separating everything into boxes and Europeans are much more interested in, not so much the differences between things, but the similarities between things.
The process is the key word – what I’m fascinated in is the process. I’ve made many performances and art events and made things happen, but what I most enjoy is the actual act of the making. And what happens when you really interrogate something deeply.
Vicki: What happened between Dartington and Glastonbury?
Melanie: After Dartington I was really lucky. I joined a company called Cardiff Laboratory Theatre, which spent most of its time, not in Cardiff but abroad. I spent five years collaborating with many different European performance, and theatre companies. And then I started my own company. This was at the time the Arts Council supported you properly. For 10 years I ran a company with my partner. We made seven major performances, all funded and we travelled all over Europe.
Meanwhile, I was teaching a lot in Scandinavia and Dartington College of Arts. In 1992 I gave birth to twin boys. This was because in 1988 I had moved to Glastonbury, bought a house and decided that I would like to get pregnant quite soon. The reason I moved to Glastonbury was not because I knew anything about it, but because my mother lived nearby. And I was desperate to find a house that was cheap and near the country.
You can’t, however much you try, and I have tried, separate your life and your work. Therefore, I have an interesting relationship with Glastonbury. I can say it in a few words – I have a complete love / hate relationship with it. And I only recently really understood why I’m here. I have spent 30 years, hoping that there might be something here that I can do creatively. I have made six major projects in Glastonbury / Wells / Street over the last years. All of which, if I had done anywhere else would have developed into much more work.
I’m quite clear about this. Glastonbury is the most conservative place I have ever lived. I say this, because as a radical artist, there seems to be no interest in true experimentation or professional work with any rigour. Which is why most of my working life over the last 30 years has not been in Glastonbury or Somerset.
Kim wants me to write about this on the blog for the gallery because I feel very strongly about this and, you know, I find it appalling. I was giving up hope, until The Heart of the Tribe came along. And you know, with a heavy heart, I really hope that it will be able to survive in this environment.
You can watch the video of Melanie talking about the importance of Heart of the Tribe here:
It is a preciousness, but it’s also a sort of holier than thou thing. So there isn’t any room, like there’s a whole world out there and there isn’t any room to talk about the world. It’s just all about whether you went to see your acupuncturist, or whether you’re greener than green, I don’t want to talk about those things anymore. I know about them and they’re all very much part of my life, it’s like talking about what’s happening sexually for you at the moment, that’s what you do when you’re teenagers. Sorry but, you know, I think it’s very adolescent.
Vicki: My theory that I’ve come to recently, is that for lots of people they come to Glastonbury and feel that they can express themselves for the first time in their lives, they feel free to be themselves. Which is great. But it takes a while before they become prepared to compromise or cooperate enough to work with others, and some of them never do.
Melanie: People come here and they think “I could be a kid again”. It’s a wonderful forgiving environment and I love that. But you have to grow up, you have a responsibility to grow up and what I feel is that we have created an environment where people stay teenagers forever.
Vicki: There’s a lot of people here who aren’t neurotypical
Melanie: Yes, who are wired differently, that’s why I’m happy here. But, it means there’s very little room for manoeuvre. Which any good experimentation needs. You need fertile ground, you need empty space, it can’t be so busy. Over the years I have tried to teach workshops here but it’s impossible. People, because they’re in the adolescent stage can’t commit. And the sort of work that I teach needs a commitment sometimes over a long period of time.
I ran a dance festival here, in 2007. The Arts Council headhunted me and asked me to take over the dance festival that happened every year, because it wasn’t really going anywhere, and gave me lots of money to create a professional event.. The idea was that it would be going for three years, and I did the first year, and it was fine. But the response I got from local people was, ‘This isn’t accessible enough. This is too experimental’. I did placate and compromise, as one has to, but what I would expect or hope is that people would go ‘Wow this is different. I’ve never seen anything like this before’. So I stopped. I didn’t do any more. Also the Arts Council cut back the money, so i could not pay people properly, it was around that time all money to the arts in Somerset was abolished.
But It’s not just Glastonbury. We did this big project in Wells called ‘Palace intrusions’ see www.palaceintrusions.org.uk. For over three years, myself and a composer, worked with the cathedral, the museum, with the local bookshop in Wells, collaborating with the local newspapers and schools. We raised £90,000 from the Arts Council and other bodies. So after three years I would expect there would be an enormous amount of follow through, connections made, absolutely nothing. You know we set up all these networks, introduced people to people. Incredible amount of work, brought artists from Europe. Nothing. So it’s not just Glastonbury it’s also something to do with Somerset. It’s a sort of Island mentality. Landlocked, It’s quite interesting that Somerset is landlocked. But don’t get me wrong, I love Somerset, passionately. I love its orchards and its landscape. Everything about it. Which is why I’m still here.
The next thing that I want to try and make happen, is a contemporary art network. Because there is something changing, you know, finally there is something happening. I’m just getting little snippets of different ideas and I’m talking to people all around this area. It’s like people are waking up. It’s so interesting isn’t it? At a time of total chaos and confusion in the world, we are finally waking up. So I’m sensing a buzz around the area, culturally.
One of the things I teach and was the title of my M.A, is art in context. One cannot separate art activity from its context. So that’s why I prefer to talk about culture rather than art. I am working with lots of different sorts of people at the moment, a guy called Les Davis MBE here in Somerset, he knows everything about orchards and apples and trees, I’m helping him write a book about his life. I’m also mentoring a dancer in Mexico and in the summer I am collaborating with a whole bunch of people in their 20s in a castle in Poland creating large site specific installations. I do lots of different things.
Melanie talks about her site specific work here:
Vicki: So what would you say is your medium?
Vicki: So is that liveness exclusively in people, or in everything?
Melanie: I don’t want to sound unclear so when I say liveness, that is a real shortcut for a long, long explanation. When I did my MA. I did it in my 40s and I had got to a point in my practice where I realised that I really needed to understand and articulate what it was I’d been doing as I’d been working professionally since I was about seventeen. What I realised was that I am the art. I embody the art. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, particularly American female artists, were able to articulate that art isn’t just about what you produce, it’s about how you produce it, and what you do at every step of the way.. So that is contextual art. And so that’s why I’m saying liveness because everything counts. I always said at Dartington ‘I’m not interested in teaching people to be artists’. I’m interested in teaching people to be creative individuals, so they can be creative in every moment and feel alive. But that’s terribly difficult to explain, unless you actually experience it. It’s very difficult to sell that idea.
So, I would add to clarify, all the work I do is about encounter. I meet somebody, have a meaningful conversation and they go ‘Oh that sounds really interesting have a job’. That’s how I get all my work. I’ve never got a job through an interview in my life. So it’s about embodying the act of creativity in whatever it is you’re doing. So you try to be very present in the moment, which is what we all want isn’t it?.
Vicki: Tell me about your sons
Melanie: I have Identical twin sons, Boris and Jack, who have become quite successful filmmakers with their company Deadbeat Films. It all started here in Glastonbury because I showed them a film about parkour when they were 8. They started doing parkour outside the library and the police turned up wanting to give them an ASBO because they were jumping from roof to roof. It’s so great watching how it’s developed. They started making films, went to the Engine Room, did a degree in London, now they have their own film production business. I’ve collaborated on 5 films with them including Waiting for the Flood. It is something very special to work with your family creatively.
Vicki: You do a lot of teaching, why is that important to you?
Melanie: I didn’t do an MA for years because I thought if I got too intellectual with it, I might lose the connection to the practice. That turned out to be crap actually, because the MA gave me the confidence to talk about what I actually do, which is really important, especially as a woman.
When I teach I try to speak from my heart. But your heart can also cloud what you want to say, but if you can find the balance between your heart, your intuition and your intellect then something can really start cooking.
Everyone has a dance, everyone has a song. Everyone is creative. I grew up in the late 60’s when we were famous in the UK for teaching music, dance, art and drama in all schools. I’m very passionate about education. It’s how you change things.
You can read more on Melanie Thompson’s website
By Vicki Steward, writer of Normal for Glastonbury