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Interview: Marisa Carnesky talks to Run Riot about her much anticipated new show Carnesky's Tarot Drome

'I like to describe the new work as Pina Bausch meets Holiday on Ice.' Marisa Carnesky on her much anticipated production Carnesky's Tarot Drome (4-13 Sept at the Old Vic Tunnels, as part of the 2012 Festival). We've been primed to expect a real living tarot, a risqué performance, roller skates, a rock opera and more - dare we enter? Hell yeah! In this highly candid interview Marisa tells us about Tarot and what they mean to her. She shares with us one of her key inspirations - the film maker Alejandro Jodorowsky and his use of psychomagic. We're teased with the fact there'll be tarot rituals for us - the audience - to participate in (optional, off course!). For those of you wanting to know more about Carnesky, we ask her about winning an Olivier Award, what motivates her as an artist, along with the story of her disappearing act as a stripper - while on a horse drawn funeral procession through the east end. Here we unveil Marisa, dare you enter?

RR: Tarot - what's it all about, and what's 'Tarotica'?
I love the term Tarotica which I must admit I have never heard before! I first got tarot cards in the 80s when I was teenager. I was discovering 'alternative' culture and my friend who was into paganism took me to a psychic fair. I was drawn to the Aquarian Tarot Deck because they were a bit art deco. I remember being struck particularly by the dramatic images of the Swords. I was of course quite a major goth in those days. We all treated our tarot cards with great reverence, wrapped in black silk and hidden away in a secret draw.

Whilst at the time my friends and I would read each others cards and ask specific questions about the future - seeing them as something spooky and forbidden - I do remember always turning to them at chapters in my life when things were changing. It was always therapeutic and moving to have my cards read by a friend. In the last few years lots of things changed for me. I got married, moved house - felt like I was entering into a different phase with a whole load of new hopes and expectations. The Tarot I bought in the 1980s re-emerged from the draw, a little bent and musty, but a reassuring old friend. Still bizarrely accurate. I have found sometimes the Tarot tells you something you don't want to face and however many times you repeat a reading, you still get the same cards. Later on you look back and realise what the cards were saying.

I knew nothing of the history of the Tarot. It was just a thing that we all did, like spin-the-bottle, or the Ouija board. Of course there was a further taboo for me as my grandmother would say that Jewish people must not go to fortune tellers, or try to contact the dead - which of course made me all the more fascinated.

Well, Tarot - as I'm sure you're aware - are a set of cards that differ from traditional playing cards. They are believed to have originated in Italy or France in the 14th Century as a children's parlour game which taught principles of morality, through the depictions of archetypes on the cards - a kind of road map to the soul. They have been used for centuries and the Tarot of Marseilles - favoured by Jung and particularly the latest reprint of the pack by Jodowrosky and Camoin - are thought to be one of the oldest and the most historically accurate. The pack of cards including four suits and the 22 Major Arcana have archetypal and alchemical images that play with the psychology of the unconscious mind. The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn in England - a group of Victorian English occultists which included famous artists like the poet Yeats and bohemians of the day - did a redesign of the pack that became very popular, influencing many later versions. They focused on a more divinatory as opposed to psychological use of the cards.

For me, the divinatory association (believing in some kind of supernatural power that guides the readings) that I have from practising Tarot readings as a teenager, is something that gives them that frisson of excitement. Now that I know more about the Tarot I see it as something that can be used in many ways; as a therapeutic tool, a teaching tool and it has been particularly exciting as characters to interpret for a performance project. Like the I Ching, Tarot endures as a very popular pursuit and it can be taken on different levels, whether you see it as a game, a therapy that uses symbols to explore the unconscious mind, or a form of fortune telling or divination. Jung explored these traditional forms of delving into the unconscious and it's interesting to think that the old tradition of tarot has had a major influence in the practice of modern psychotherapy.

Now that you have introduced me to the word Tarotica it seems a fantastic description for what we are doing - as we're physicalising the concepts of the Tarot. There'll be a fair amount of imagery exploring themes of gender, eroticism, sexuality and the body. But it's not the only focus of the performance. We're looking into the themes inside the images of the Major Arcana - exploring an archetypal journey. It begins with the Fool card and describes the attainment of progressive levels of knowledge and consciousness.

I've worked with the performers in creating rituals - which will inherently describe the meaning of the chosen card with very little or no words. The audience will be invited to take part in these rituals as a physical form of a reading. I wanted this to be sensory and dreamlike, and different to an actual Tarot reading in words.


RR: How did you conceive the concept for Carnesky's Tarot Drome?  
I was playing around with getting a new idea for a big show. I was looking at waxworks and religious icons for a while: 'waxwork come to life' show with an occult theme. I did a scratch of the idea at the Roundhouse Studio and then Chelsea Theatre but it wasn't flowing right. I started to research The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and thought I might do a show featuring the characters of that group as a promenade show with esoteric themed installations. I was thinking of building pyramid structures to put the performers in, but it all seemed bulky and quite obscure. Then I thought of creating the design of the Kabbalsitc Tree of Life as a set design of multiple round tents and putting esoteric themed fairground games inside. This seemed too constrictive for performers. The inspiration to focus on Tarot came from watching the old opening credits of Tales of The Unexpected. There's a shot of Tarot cards stood up in a circle, slowly turning like a mini carousel. Another inspiration was taking part in the Spill Tarot project that my friend Robert Pacitti curated - a pack of tarot with Live Artists as the characters. It seemed obvious to take that further and make a live show of the tarot and my interpretation plays with fairground art and rollerskating.

RR: Many artists strive their whole lives for British theatre's most sought-after award - the Olivier Award - you have one of these thanks to your work with Duckie's C'est Barbican in 2004. Was that a crowning moment, and what spurs you on now?
That was an exciting time but I don't see it as a crowning moment particularly. There have been many challenges along the road and different achievements and disappointments. It's always a bit of a fight to get a big new project off the ground. I am of course thrilled I won an Oliver Award as a collaborative performer on the C'est Duckie team but I'm more proud that I produced and directed an alternative fairground ride - and that eight years on it's still going!

Getting Carnesky's Ghost Train - which started life as an art project and featured the young Paloma Faith (who I cast after meeting on a bus between Stoke Newington and Old Street) to being a permanent ride on the Blackpool seafront - is by far my greatest achievement - so far. I am interested in how the avant garde affects popular culture and gains larger audiences - how to bring the work to more people without becoming corporate and overly commercial. Some projects do this really well, like the Sultans Elephant, and I hope that's what we do in Blackpool with Carnesky's Ghost Train.

Yet there are always new challenges ahead. Of course I would like to win awards for a show that I direct and produce and mainly get this show on the road as a touring piece. It takes so long to get to the point of production - so much insane bureaucracy - but when it all starts to happen with my company of performers then I'm very happy. The more projects you do, the more you understand how to do them. With Tarot Drome I am working with a great team of Co-producers including Lara Clifton who I have known for many years. She was one of the creators of Whoopee who did incredible lavish shows. I think we're just about to reach the top of our game on this one because we know how to avoid the extreme production stresses now.

RR: Carnesky's Ghost Train has become a permanent fixture on Blackpool's sea-front since 2010, you've been a fellow at the National Fairground Archive, you're currently associate artist at the Roundhouse (home of CircusFest), and your work has been described by illusionist Derren Brown as "a scary, intelligent, layered, disconcerting experience". You've clearly been a leading figure in the circus renaissance! How do you describe your work?
Well, I don't see my work as exactly new circus first off. I come from a performance art / live art background. I also studied contemporary dance and choreography (at Laban) at first and did a lot of cabaret in a time when the scene hardly existed. I often work with performers with circus skills and have spent some time working with the Insect Circus. What I do is really a mix of performance art, spectacle, circus, experiential / promenade installation theatre - or perhaps it's easier to say it's 'experimental visual theatre'. I find these definitions very hard to fit into. It lives somewhere between all these things - and I do a variety of things which also confuses people.  

So I direct and produce big shows like Tarot Drome and Ghost Train which mix all the genres. Then I do one-woman live-art / theatre type shows; then I do a bit of cabaret / magic acts in clubs. The main thing is - it has all the personality and politics of good, edgy cabaret. Along with all the dreamlike spectacle of theme parks and promenade installation theatre with some death defying physical acts thrown in for good measure. I like to describe the new work (Tarot Drome) as Pina Bausch meets Holiday on Ice.

RR: One of your major influences for the show is the film-maker and artist Alejandro Jodorowsky - could you tell us more.
I saw the film Santa Sangre [see trailer above] in the early 1990s and it was - and still is - my favourite movie of all time! I then saw Holy Mountain [see trailer below] which has lots of Tarot imagery and over the years had heard that Jodowrosky did tarot readings in Paris.

No other films that have been so influential to me with their mix of surreal images, acting and performance art. I went to Paris recently to meet Richart Carrozza who is Jodowrosky's appointed teacher of his reprinted Marseilles Tarot deck. We invited Richart to run a workshop for our performers. It was very intense and revealing! The Jodowrosky method of tarot looks a lot at your family history and has a psychotherapeutic result - a kind of short cut to the heavy stuff. We're also looking into Jodowrosky's ideas about psychomagic - rituals that you perform that transform the unconscious. They can be quite bizarre to a lot of people; things like go out naked down the street, or dress as the Virgin Mary and give out books in a public library. The ideas for how to make transformative acts that speak to the unconscious are something that Jodowrosky has explored and created over many years through art and working with traditional healers and shaman. It seems to me that is what I am often doing in my performances, doing physicalised rituals that address taboos or reveal - and subsequently heal - old psychological wounds.

RR: Tell us more about how you use the Tarot of Marseilles in the show?
We studied both the Rider Waite Smith deck with Diana Taylor at Treadwells and The Marseilles tarot with Richart Carrozza. In the show we made a decision not to follow dogmatically one particular tarot design, but to make our own interpretation through performance. We have studied both these decks and are working a lot with their symbols, colours, numbers - and of course themes. The show is set in a dystopian futuristic landscape where the internet is no more and old telephones prevail. I play The World card, the final card in the Major Arcana - as a lady in an old fashioned exchange who connects the audience to their cards. The audience are sent into the street of cards, guided by The Fool played by Rasp Thorne - who is like a street performer with a bizarre act of faking his own death by pretending to hang himself. Like a giant penny arcade you see ten performance installations of the cards come to life. Each with their own rituals - which you can choose to go and perform with - or just watch. There is a surreal wrestling match between The Devil and The Lovers and an incredible rock opera on roller-skates where you meet the constellations, The Sun, Moon and Stars before the final Judgement. It's gonna be good.

RR: You are The World, the creator of the show - but tell us about your collaborators, and your audience (players) to be.
We have some amazing performers on our team. It's really exciting to have Rasp Thorne and The Briars as part of the show to play a live set with the roller skaters. It's also their long awaited debut album release 'The Lecher's Waltz' - Rasp is an incredible front man and they're by far the most exciting new band I've seen in years! The rest of the fabulous cast include: live art Duckie star H Plewis, body art roller-derby queen Traumata, wrestling star Phil ‘The Playboy’ Bedwell, visual cabaret mime legend Rhyannon Styles, aerial wonder Rowan Fae, surreal contortionist and sculptress Nina Feila, Indonesian Burlesque goddess Suri Sumatra, the ephemeral erotic Vicky Butterfly, tattooed hoola sensation Chi Chi Revolver, Esoteric TV presenter from Britain's Most Haunted Jason Karl and renowned Slavic actress Marusa Geymer Olbak.

I also have to mention the incredible team of makers who are busy sewing and sticking together the material of dreams as we speak! Claire Ashley - London's best costumier; Rebecca Stevenson - maker of waxy, fleshy sculpture; Natasha Lawes -extraordinary headresses; Louise Riley - Ornate embroideries; Martha Copeland and Bear Gateaux - Fairground Art and carpentry.

I want people to feel they have been in a dream and met the tarot characters they needed to meet to make changes they need to make and for them to feel like you do with tarot - excited, mysterious and alive.

RR: Finally, could you treat us to a 'Marisa Carnesky London anecdote'?
I did a show with Duckie a few years back where I hired an old horse drawn Victorian funeral carriage. I had asked Paul Kieve to create an illusion, allowing me to lay in the glass box and then disappear. I laid on a bed of lilies in my old stripper costume, while the driver took us past all the strip clubs in the east end I once worked in. Outside each club I had a performer dressed as a pall-bearer who would lay one of my old costumes on the ground - drawing chalk around it like a crime scene. Then I would disappear (in the box). We did it on midsummer's night from 10pm-midnight. We had about 200 people with posies following. At one club all the girls ran out to find out what was going on. They all thought it was a real funeral and that I'd actually died. We'd moved on before anyone had a chance to tell them it was an art procession. Some months later I went to see a friend who was working in one of the clubs. As I walked in the dressing room it fell silent - as if they were seeing a ghost. One girl burst into tears. 'We thought you were dead!' That's the tricky thing with experimental art projects - it's important to let people know you haven't died for real.

Carnesky’s Tarot Drome
4-13 September 2012
at the Old Vic Tunnels
Station Approach Road
London SE1 8SW



The show may contain nudity and does contain promenade performance and optional audience participation. It is fully wheel chair accessible.

Save £5! £20 tickets sold for £15, for the below dates only. Subject to availability.
Quote: '£5-off' when booking via telephone 0844 8717628 or use this promo code 'TDROME' via the inter-web at bookings.oldvictheatre.com
Offer valid for: Tues 4, Wed 5, Thurs 6 September
All shows start at 8pm.


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