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Ruby McCollister

Ruby McCollister image

Interview by Michael Whitham

Ruby McCollister’s Fringe debut is a wild ride from the haunted attic of an L.A. theatre to the late night comedy clubs of New York, via addiction, larceny and the odd torch song ballad. Seeing (and indeed, seeking) tragedy around every corner, McCollister wraps personal frankness and intellectual curiosity in a vividly camp comedic voice pitched somewhere between Mae West and a latter day Lucille Ball. I spoke to McCollister about bringing her L.A. story to Edinburgh, with a little help from the ghosts of old Hollywood.

“I was raised in a theatre my father ran in Los Angeles. A lot of how the theatre was kept alive was by one woman shows, so on a base level, making a show is what I thought adults did with their life. I was like, you grow up and you make a one-woman show.”

Like many debut Fringe hours, Tragedy started life as a way of pulling together some of McCollister’s favourite material from recent years of stand-up. “However, in this incarnation it has become a different thing. There’s a theme and there’s a transformation. My onstage persona is incredibly exaggerated, but the stories themselves are from my own life. Truly, I have had a bizarre life and growing up in that L.A. theatre is my origin story.”

The theatre industry in L.A. has a certain inherent sense of tragedy, which made its way deep into McCollister’s psyche from an early age. “L.A. has one industry – the entire city is operating in response to film and television. Theatre in L.A. is changing but when I was growing up its felt like 1900s vaudeville. It was really the last idea on a struggling actor’s list. I realised the theatre I grew up in was haunted by tragedy. This endless interaction with death and tragedy and failure and success was the chronic backdrop of my life and I think Tragedy the show is an ode to the way I metabolised these things. It’s shocking that I’m a performer and an actress really, having grown up around the reality of this business.”

The show navigates itself through the stories of tragic women that McCollister became obsessed with in her youth. “We’re all obsessed with the chaotic downfalls of famous women, and there’s a deeper, more abstract quasi-spiritual meaning behind all of it. In the U.K. Princess Diana is a perfect example of that – these women become, for lack of a better word; saints, icons. There’s a deeper, unspeakable level of why we feel intimate with her. She’s magnetic, there’s something ineffably beautiful about her that is reflected in you. That you feel shines in yourself on the best day.”

I am reminded of McCollister’s peers Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak discussing Deborah King’s concept of ‘psychic attack’ on their podcast, Poog. They consider King’s idea of ‘psychic cords’ (which King believes cosmically tie us to people’s negative perception of us across time and space) as a way to conceptualise the unimaginable pressures of being a woman both adored and derided in the public eye. They posit Marilyn Monroe and Monica Lewinsky are the perfect examples. “The shame of a national projected onto her… To take on the hatred of the nation!?” Says Novak about Lewinsky.

“Biblical loathing”, replies Berlant.

“I totally agree with that”, says McCollister. “These people carry a lot of psychic and emotional weight. Marilyn Monroe is a goddess of the phenomenon I talk about and I couldn’t not say her name in the show. That would be totally dumb.”

A less well-known name whose story McCollister weaves into the spine of the show is Barbara Peyton. “She is like a patron saint of these tragic L.A. stories. She was famous for two years, she got mixed up in the wrong situations, her career exploded, she was an alcoholic, her contract was dropped. She ended up being a prostitute who was barely scraping by, just ten years after being one of the most photographed women in the world. She wrote this incredible autobiography called I Am Not Ashamed which tells her story in her own voice. She experienced extreme highs and lows and the book is about a woman who takes knocks with real bravery and dignity. These are stories of women who took it on the chin when they got slammed by forces much more powerful than them. The stories of how they dealt with these systems are profound.”

The show is very personal, too. It tells the true and sometimes shocking tales of McCollister’s own flirtations with tragedy throughout her life so far. “It really doesn’t come naturally to expose myself in this way. It took the director I am working with (Casey Jane Ellison) a long time to get some of these stories out of me. I am a big campy performer so sometimes I know I blur the line between fiction and reality, but they are stories from my life. It’s very vulnerable. With my first show at the Fringe I’m sort of announcing myself in a way I would’t have expected to, with a show about my real life. But it felt like these are things I needed to say before I can say anything else.”

McCollister’s grasp of the tragedy laced throughout Hollywood’s storied history is thorough and thought-provoking, but the show is ultimately an hour of very silly, energetic comedy, calling on tropes from her heroines’ work in Vaudeville, Music Hall and B Movies. “The way L.A. is dark and gothic is so funny to me. And the truth is, I tried to be like these women in so many different ways. The show tells that story, of how I really did try to be as tragic as humanly possible. I really attempted to do it, but something much larger than myself would always kind of stop me in my tracks. So the show is really about my failure at being tragic, while being obsessed with chasing this darkness. It’s also just about show-business and the ridiculousness of the industry. It’s a campy romp that’s also weird and bizarre.”

Camp is a natural bedfellow of tragedy – one can become the other with just the widening of an eye. “Camp is a huge part of my mission statement while I’m on the planet. I believe in it, I am here to protect it. I am actually noticing the world is becoming more attuned to camp in general though, it’s less of an endangered species. The Barbie movie! I’m so glad that a movie crossing the billion dollar threshold is this level of camp.”

But why bring her particular take on campy tragedy to her Edinburgh debut? “It felt like this was my origin story and it was seeping into everything I did. I thought, what is it going to take to make me feel like I have said it once and for all. So I thought, let’s go to Edinburgh and raise the stakes. Let’s tell this story to people who aren’t from America, let’s do it every day for a month, and then I’m sure I will feel like I have really said it. And so far, I do feel like it’s working its way through me. Everything is sort of in sync.”

Ruby McCollister: Tragedy is on at 17:45 at Underbelly, Belly Dancer until 27 August.


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