We are just home from a whirlwind week in New Delhi with Step Into My Parlour. Many thanks to all that made the tour possible. Special thanks to Creative Scotland for their support and my partners in crime Anna Massie and James Ross! One of the shows we performed opened the 11th edition Meta (Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards) in the Taj Mahal Hotel. We were delighted to get a write up in The Hindu newspaper.
Michelle Burke’s “Step into my Parlour” stirs the memories we all grew up with
The songs are Irish, popular melodies from a different country and a different time. Their context is unfamiliar, and the performance they are part of, “Step into my Parlour”, has crossed a continent to come to India. So what makes this show such a suitable opener to an Indian theatre awards festival?
Irish singer Michelle Burke’s “Step into my Parlour” carries threads which transcend geographical contexts and boundaries; threads that pull on the idea of storytelling, theatre, history, nostalgia and the good old love for a sing-along. Each of these is a familiar trope across India. Languages and stories change, but the thrill of sitting around listening to old tales from a time gone remains. We hear grandmothers tell us about simpler worlds, rifle through old yellowed photos and discover odds and ends which have, through a king of magic that only passing years bring, been transformed into little treasure troves. The history that was born in parlours and kitchens and neighbourhoods is kept alive by the songs and stories it created and passed on, so that even little nuggets that would have been lost otherwise find a new place in new memories.
‘Step into my Parlour’ raised the curtain on the 11th edition META (Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards) and immediately reeled in its audience, reminding them of this aspect of theatre — the power it has over time and memories. Everything about it seemed cosy, and the impression Burke brings to the stage is that of a warm, cheery little room, full of music and stories and nostalgia. It’s interesting, how the idea that transformed into this play was born in a setting that sounds as cosy as the show itself. A little more than three years ago in Ireland, Burke and her artist sister Laura were having a chat over tea and biscuits and cakes. Laura had recently moved into their grandparent’s house, and the sisters had discovered their great-grandmother’s old scrapbook, full of cut-outs from newspapers.
“Most of the cut-outs were from the Women’s World supplement in The Irish Times. We never met our great-grandmother, but looking at the clippings she had decided to cut out and save, we could get a glimpse into her personality. Some of them were really funny, and she must have had a strong sense of humour”, says Burke, remembering how she and her sister sifted through housekeeping tips (Newly-wed, the inside of the outer portion of your saucepan should always be washed well after use) and agony aunt columns (Wanda, yes, rounded figures are fashionable…), along with several recipes, sketches of ladies’ dresses, poems and lyrics of popular songs.
The discovery of this dusty scrapbook, forgotten for decades, spurred the idea of a parlour show. Together, the sisters decided to use the lyrics of the songs, the tiny tales the clippings told, and their own memories to create a kind of tribute to the past. “When it first started, it was just me singing the songs, accompanied by the piano”, says Burke. The songs, Burke adds, were the first to catch their attention. “These aren’t traditional Irish songs. They are songs that were immensely popular in the 30s, 40s and 50s. I guess they are traditional now in that way. Laura and I remembered singing them ourselves as we were growing up. They were familiar, nostalgic.” The numbers in the show include ‘My Boy Billy’, ‘Dublin Diner’, the tragic story of ‘Dan O’Hara’ and the Burke sisters’ grand aunt Peggy’s personal favourite, ‘Whooped and Died’. With each song, Burke has brought in new elements in terms of arrangements and instruments, adding a stamp of her own to these old time classics.
With each performance, the show evolved and grew, and in its current form, it uses the set that resembles a cosy little parlour. Burke intersperses the songs with a little anecdotes and stories about the song itself and its context, and adds little nuggets from her own family history. Around her, the clippings from the scrapbooks are hung from art installations designed and created by her sister, Laura. First staged in 2012 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the show has seen several performances. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities to take ‘Step into my Parlour’ to different festivals. We also performed at a Glasgow festival called Celtic Connections in 2015. That gave us opportunity to think bigger with the show”, says Burke, adding that it is important for the show to stay interactive.
After all, while the songs, and the arrangements, are both rehearsed and perfected, the rest of the show is pure improvisation. “We gauge the audience, and shape the show accordingly.” There is a lot of back and forth with the audience, as Burke asks them to help her knit, passes around little teacakes and glasses of sherry, and continues a charming banter through the performance. “Our routine differs depending on where we are performing. This kind of show works well both in a large theatre and a cosy parlour setting.” What really works is the way Burke involves the audience in the performance, so that there seems to be a direct connection between her and the listeners. “The mindset that I work with is that when I put up a show, people are coming to enjoy themselves; they are kind of coming into my space, my living room, and I want them to enjoy themselves, have a laugh. That’s what is really important.”