Can a sex clown save the world again? The love and anger of Betty Grumble

Betty Grumble is an enigma — she’s an obscene beauty queen, a surreal showgirl, a sex clown. Emma Maye Gibson chats about creating this avatar for herself, and the importance of remaining on the fringe of the Fringe.

“The thing that I like about Betty and her show is that it’s a genre-smash,” Emma Maye Gibson says of her creation. “There’s burlesque in it, cabaret, poetry, visual art and performance art. It’s very much a performance-art-meets-cabaret type spectacle.”

As Gibson says, it’s hard to nail Betty down to one simple description. On one hand, she’s a sharp satire of the world’s superficiality, and on the other she’s a primal scream from deep within Gibson’s own experience.

Betty Grumble: Love & Anger (or Sex Clown Saves the World Again!) will be Betty Grumble’s second show to visit the Adelaide Fringe, having toured through “the very fertile spaces for experimentation” of London, New York and Edinburgh. In contrast to Betty’s first show here, Betty Grumble: Sex Clown Saves the World, Gibson says that this performance goes deeper into her own psyche, letting the mask of Betty slip to a degree.

“I think the difference is I’ve evolved as a maker and as a sex clown,” Gibson says. “Love & Anger occupies a space of maybe deeper vulnerability and the people in the audience bear witness to what’s underneath the mask… I’m scratching, digging down deeper on this one I think.”

Photo: Liz Ham

Having trained as a theatre actor and performing in a wide variety of cabaret and burlesque, Gibson says the avatar of Betty Grumble was formed as a somewhat satirical take on those worlds and the expectations audiences have when they encounter them.

“Running alongside theatre training and performing on more traditional stages, I did a lot of experimentation in cabaret, drag and nightclub burlesque spaces,” she says. “What was interesting for me there was to play with expectations, especially with my woman body. The tropes of striptease and titillation and entertainment have such yummy colourful expectations around it that Betty was so able to fuck with.”

Yet there is a deeper feminist element to Betty Grumble outside of the satire. Gibson says Love & Anger is “a protest piece, a call to arms and a big hug” and aims to push back against the commodification of the female form and experimental art forms.

“I’m aware of how the underground and any subculture gets commodified as soon as anything becomes dangerous or threatens the status quo,” Gibson says. ‘”It can get sold back onto itself and be sanitised. That’s definitely what’s happened to the sensual woman body, so Betty and her Grumble-ness is about addressing that reclamation.”

And while Betty Grumble is a wild, surreal character, Gibson says that she is an expression of her own experience as a woman.

“It’s all autobiographical, even in the hyper-real and the abstract,” she says. “Everything comes from at least a seed of my own lived experience. Betty reflects my experience of being a woman, and my discontent with the imbalance of the world… There’s a lot of melancholy that goes along with that kind of exploration, but I’ve found a lot of solidarity with audiences in terms of a celebration of my fleshiness, but also it’s a celebration of all of our fleshiness in the ecosystem that we all occupy.”

Photo: Liz Ham

In a fringe festival that continues to attract more mainstream acts and audiences, Gibson says she is determined to pushback against any sort of sanitisation of her work.

“This is what I was saying about anything that’s subversive getting hijacked and commodified so you can make bank on it,” she says. “That’s definitely what has happened to fringes. As artists we have to negotiate that in whatever way we see fit, and I think audiences do that as well.

“I believe ‘fringe’ by its very definition is outsider art. It’s a time to celebrate ideas that keep society healthy, and bodies that are different to what the status quo is used to. It’s exciting that people seek that out.”

Asked whether she ever receives a negative response from audiences when Betty Grumble breaks a genre or shatters a norm, Gibson says it happens, but that’s all part of working on the edge.

“In this new show, I make it very clear that it’s totally valid for them to want to walk out,” she says. “I encourage it if they’re not grooving on it. That’s the risk you take when you go and see live performance. You should be up for anything, and we as artists should be giving you that true diversity.”

Betty Grumble: Love & Anger (or Sex Clown Save the World Again!)
Cupola, The Garden of Unearthly Delights
Wednesday, March 14 to Sunday, March 18
adelaidefringe.com.au

Header photo: Dean Tirkot

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