A Conversation with Monica Salvi

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A Conversation with Monica Salvi

August 18, 2017

by Harold Sanditen for Cabaret Scenes

Italian actress and singer Monica Salvi has made a name for herself in London as a “madwoman.” Typecasting or mere coincidence? Either way, she’s developed a unique, semi-autobiographical cabaret show, Mad Women in My Attic, which has played to critical acclaim in London, Brighton, and Edinburgh. Her next stop is Manhattan’s Theater Row this coming October, before the show’s triumphant return to London. I sat down with her to find out all about it.

Harold Sanditen: Why did you devise this particular piece of cabaret? What are you hoping to communicate to your audience? 

Monica Salvi: It was a fortunate coincidence of necessity and personal experience. I had wanted to develop a cabaret—my very first one woman show—for a while, but I wanted to make it unique, as there are a thousand brilliant cabaret acts out there. I thought, “What theme could make it stand out, while still representing my taste and personality?” It then occurred to me that, having often being typecast as a mad or quirky woman in almost every show I’ve done, I had a very large repertoire of songs with a “mad” theme. Somehow, I had become specialized as a flamboyant, nutty, or totally deranged woman. So I started to research a few more songs on the same theme, as well as any songs from the musical theater and cabaret repertoire that had a connection to psychotherapy. I wrote a little script to link the songs, which is in part autobiographical, in part fictional, and so Mad Women in My Attic! was born: the story of a mad woman locked up in a lunatic asylum, who, during the recreational hour, decides to entertain her fellow inmates, by recounting—through songs and speeches—how she ended up “between these padded walls” while trying to pursue a musical theater career. Now, which parts are fiction and which are reality, is something that I leave to the audience’s judgment.

HS: Why are you bringing this show to New York? What do you hope to accomplish from doing the show there?

MS: Most of the great things that have happened in my life have happened when I’ve followed an instinct by acting on the spur of the moment. Last New Year’s Eve I decided that I didn’t feel like going out to party. Instead, I wanted to stay home and plan some stuff for the new year. I started to research festivals that specialized in solo performances, and at some point an ad popped up on the internet: It was a deadline to send applications for the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York. Up until then I had only performed in the U.K. and in my native Italy. New York was a fancy but distant dream. I also thought of how complicated and costly it would be to transport all my costumes and props overseas, as well as other logistical issues. Not to mention, how unlikely the chance that my show would be picked among the thousands of submissions the festival surely received every year. Basically, my brain screamed, “Don’t do it!” But my crazy hands had already filled out the application form, and my mad finger had pressed “Send.” I then thought, “Oh well, they’ll never pick me anyway.” I heard and thought no more of it for three months. Then, when I had forgotten everything about it, an email arrived, which invited me to do a one-off performance of my show at the United Solo.

What do I hope to accomplish? My dream was always to tour the world with this show. Maybe this is a good start! I also enjoy the idea of bringing this quirky cabaret to the discerning audiences of New York, to see if my style would be appreciated overseas, as it seems to be in the U.K.

HS: You’ve done the show at the Brighton Fringe and Edinburgh Festivals already. What did you accomplish at those? Is there something that you learned from those experiences that you’ll be taking with you to New York?

MS: Theater fringe festivals are one of the biggest challenges for any kind of performer, let alone a solo performer! Especially in the case of the Edinburgh Festival, where there are about 4,000 shows competing for audiences throughout the month of August. The performance itself is the most relaxing part of the whole thing. It’s the hours spent flyering around Edinburgh—often in the pouring rain, and dressed in your show’s costume—the late night guest spots in other people’s revues, the wake-up calls in the early morning to attend press events, and the constant need to come up with clever and never-seen-before promotional stunts that really make the biggest chunk of the Fringe Festival experience.

I came back with some great reviews and almost a nervous breakdown! Every time I tell myself, “Never again,” but every time I’m lured back into the festival machine. In fact, I’m already preparing for Edinburgh Fringe 2018!

HS: As a self-producing artist, do you find the slog overwhelming at times? What are the biggest obstacles?

MS: Something I’ve learned from my own experience is that you can never start too early with the pre-production and the organizing, and that you better have the performing part well under your belt and tested, ‘cause once you are out there, you will need to concentrate all your energies on the promotional, financial, and technical side of things. The performance/show itself is usually an oasis of calm amidst all the other unpredictable and unexpected obstacles you encounter on your way! The obstacles usually come in many forms: logistical nightmares (trains cancelled on the day of performance), marketing misplacements (10,000 flyers disappearing from the face of the earth along with their delivery guy), bad organization and mistakes from the venue managers (like in Brighton, where they even printed the wrong venue and times on the festival program.) Not really helpful when you are doing your best to get people to come to your theater!

And in the middle of it all it is you, the self-producing madwoman, who is spending all her waking hours organizing, promoting, designing posters and websites, hiring team members, answering interviews, contacting press, tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming, and every now and then you remember: “Maybe I should practice the script, too!” After all, that’s the most important detail!

I long for the day when I will have a producer taking care of all this stuff, and let me just concentrate on the creative aspect! (*hint hint* to any producers out there who are reading this interview)

HS: You spent a month in New York over the summer, networking and getting people on board for your show. How did that go?

MS: I was there throughout July. It was a home-exchange holiday I had organized months before knowing I would have to bring my show to the United Solo festival in October.

Then the invitation to the Festival came along, and I thought it would be a good idea to use the time in July to start promoting and networking, as well as getting some New York-based team members on board. I was very lucky to find the brilliant and lovely Michael Ferreri, who will be my pianist for the October date, Andrea Alton, a super energetic PR lady who has great experience in the NY festival scene, and Rocky Noel, a sound/light technician, who, incidentally, often does sound and lights for my idol, Kristin Chenoweth. A dream team!

I also spent that time bringing my “Mad” gospel to New York’s open mics and cabaret venues, like the Metropolitan Room, Birdland and, my favorite, the multiple award-winning The Salon, where I met some incredible people. What I found is that the New York cabaret community is very supportive and kind. As well as words of encouragement by the other performers, I’ve also been asked by Tanya Moberly and Mark Janas, The Salon’s organizers, to co-host one of their evenings when I’ll be back in New York for my show in October. The evening will be on October 1, and the title/theme of the open mic will be A Little Bit Off. Needless to say, it will be an event where performers will be encouraged to bring their quirkiest songs and mad personas to the stage!

HS: You’ve performed this show in the U.K. in a church in London and in a cathedral in Edinburgh. What do you think it’ll be like to perform in a theater with rows of seats? How will you adapt your performance to the space?

MS: Actually, the show was already adapted for a theater space when I did the Brighton Fringe Festival. That was a proper black box theater, very much like the one I will have in New York, so it was be more of a normal theater show setting. In the churches I performed in, in London and Edinburgh, I had some very cool “natural” scenery: I used to hide in the pulpit for open-scene costume changes, climb over the pews to get up and close with the audience, use the organ balcony for the final encore. Doing the show in a church was a lot of fun, even if a bit daring. After all, there are some kinky moments in this show!

I’m not gonna say how I will adapt it to the new space. First of all because, being a festival, sadly, I haven’t been able to view the space yet. Second, because I don’t want to give spoilers!

HS: What’s your greatest joy in performing this piece? 

MS: This show is very “Monica.” It’s the perfect representation of my taste, personality and natural quirkiness. So my greatest joy is when I see sheer delight and real emotions in the audience’s faces. It means I’ve managed to create that subtle exchange of energies that allows an artist to communicate her soul through the means of art.

HS: What is your biggest fear?

MS: Hoping this won’t turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy…my biggest fear is that no one will come to see the show!

HS: Who are your greatest musical influences and how do they come to stage with you?

MS: I adore anyone who brings real emotion to a musical performance. I love performers who have mastered the art of acting through song, and connect to each word they sing. Kristin Chenoweth comes to mind. In the cabaret world, Camille O’Sullivan and Meow Meow are my inspirations for how to stay true, while doing the most eclectic and crazy things in a performance.

And you’d be surprised to know my teenage passion, before turning to musical theater, was going to heavy metal concerts. So one of my main influences was, and still is, Alice Cooper, whose crazy theatrical shows are always filled with multiple costumes changes, weird props and characters, and tons of dark humor, which he cleverly uses to address real life and world issues.

Musically speaking, I love everything that has “epic” melodies and themes, and richness of different styles and flamboyancy—from Bernstein to Wagner, from Queen to Murray Gold (composer of Doctor Who’s soundtrack). Anything that stirs big emotions. I think this is reflected in the songs I chose for the cabaret. Almost all of them, apart from some exceptions to create balance, are “big” numbers, and very different from each other, but, true to the madwoman’s style, all larger-than-life songs performed by larger-than-life characters.

HS: You have quite the array of unusual props. What will you tell the customs officials at JFK if they ask you about these?

MS: I already smuggled all my weird props and costumes into the New York territory when I travelled there in July. They are now safely stored at Michael Ferreri’s house!

HS: Who do you see as your target market in NYC?

MS: Fellow performers and musical theater/cabaret fans; people of the flamboyant and eccentric disposition; audiences who love a strong female character; people who find their inspiration in those songs that bring the whole range of human emotions to the surface; anyone who enjoys quirky cabaret shows, with more than one unexpected twist! Also, people with an interest in psychotherapy. On my very first performance, in London, I had a bunch of psychotherapists and psychiatric doctors in the audience who enjoyed the show immensely.

HS: What can audiences expect from your performance?

MS: Some wonderful stylish quirkiness! A cocktail of beautiful, witty and haunting melodies, some well known, a lot quite obscure, but still catchy tunes. Audience participation—after all, we are all in the asylum together. Quick costume changes, erratic madwoman’s banter by me, and magnificent piano playing by Michael Ferreri!

HS: What do you expect of your audiences?

MS: I don’t presume to have any expectations of the audience, as I’ve learned they can be just as unpredictable as my performance, during the show, especially during the audience participation moments. Some of them can be quite shy and reluctant, but I’ve had a few “victims” who enjoyed their roles so much that they would almost create a little performance of their own within the show, like the 12-year-old boy in Edinburgh who thought it would be a good idea to quack like a duck all throughout one of my songs. Or the old gentleman who was losing his trousers while I did a bit of dancing with him… while his wife was taking photos from the first row.

But that’s the point of this show: to inspire people to unleash their own streak of madness! There needs to be a good balance of giving and receiving on both ends, and this is not always easy, as we all come to the theater space with our own share of worries, thoughts, and everyday burdens. It’s great when you have a participating audience that is willing to let itself be entertained for an hour.

HS:  Give me one concise sentence as to why audiences should come to this show.

MS: To be guided by an alluring madwoman along the twisted corridors of the human psyche, throughout a whirlwind of beautiful melodies and unique characters that will surprise and mesmerize your mind, and appeal and heal your heart. (Sorry that wasn’t very concise!)

HS: What question have I not asked that you wish I had, and what’s your answer?

MS: I wish you had asked me what else have I got planned after the New York debut?

And my answer would have been: I have another performance of Mad Women in My Attic! in London on the 28th of October at The Other Palace Theatre (the venue recently bought and refurbished by Andrew Lloyd Webber). It is one of my favorite new theaters in London, and I’m over the moon that they offered me to do a performance in their beautiful cabaret space. As for 2018, as I mentioned, I’m planning to enjoy another nervous breakdown at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival!

For more info on Monica and the show, go to: http://www.madwoman.org.uk/

MAD WOMEN IN MY ATTIC can be seen:

Saturday, October 7 at 4:00 pm
United Solo Theatre Festival
Theatre Row/Studio Theatre
410 West 42nd Street (between 9th & 10th Avenues)
New York, NY 10036

Tickets are of $35.00 and are available at the Theater Row Box Office or at http://unitedsolo.org/us/madwomen-2017 – or by calling Telecharge at 212-239-6200. 

Saturday, October 28 October at 8:00 pm
The Other Palace
12 Palace Street
London SW1E 5JA

Tickets £10-£20 at the box office, by phone on 020 7087 7900
or https://www.theotherpalace.co.uk/whats-on/mad-women-in-my-attic

Harold Sanditen

Harold Sanditen was born and bred in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but has lived in London since 1987. He is probably best known as the host of the über-popular "Open Mic Party" at the Crazy Coqs in London, their longest running show, now in its sixth year. Also at the Crazy Coqs, he hosts and produces "Open Mic Highlights" shows, which showcase the best of the talent coming through the open mic, both from the UK and abroad. Since bursting onto the cabaret and jazz scene in 2008, he has devised and performed seven cabaret shows - "The Secret of Life," "Love Exposed," "Thoughts 'Round Midnight," "Shades of Blue," "Full Circle," "Flyin' High," and "Harold and Broad" (with Anita Gillette), released three CDs - "Taking Flight," "Shades of Blue," and "Flyin' High," starred in "Café Society Swing" in the West End, and toured as a singer to packed houses from LA to Mykonos. He occasionally coaches singers and has directed two cabaret shows, including the UK hit "A Touch of Mrs. Robinson." Prior to singing, Harold was a theater producer for 20 years. He produced over 60 shows, ranging from the smallest fringe to large scale West End, including" Long Day's Journey into Night" (starring Jessica Lange, Charles Dance, Paul Rudd and Olivia Colman,) "Fallen Angels" (starring Felicity Kendal & Frances de la Tour,) "Unsuspecting Susan" (starring Celia Imrie - London & New York), "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" (starring Clive Owen), "The Boys Next Door "(starring Steve Guttenberg & Kathy Burke), and "Hospitality" (starring Lesley Joseph). As a writer, he reviewed for Cabaret Scenes from 2009 to 2013, and continues to be a contributing writer. He has also contributed articles to whatsonstage.com and London Jazz News. He was the Vice Chairman of LAMDA from 1998 to 2015. Prior to London, he worked as an investment banker in New York City and holds an MBA from the Wharton School. haroldsanditen.com