Victoria Melody and Farnham Maltings present:
Hair Peace is an experimental show that is political, ethical and very relevant to many social and global issues today. Touring nationally between March and June 2016, reaching Oxford, Brighton, Leeds, Cambridge and London.
One of the UK’s most entertaining actors and genuinely funny girl Victoria Melody loves to go on a quest. She has morphed into a beauty queen previously and gone undercover in the world of dog shows. Her boundless curiosity takes Hair Peace’s live audience from the temples of India to the shopping malls of Russia, via hair salons and forensics labs on a humorous, moving and serendipitous journey around the world.
With dramaturgy from Obie Award winner Rachel Chavkin (The TEAM) and directed by Paul Hodson, Hair Peace is a comedic exploration from an unlikely sleuth whose personal odyssey provides astonishing insights into ethics, diverse cultures and the personal realities of the global economy.
Amidst Victoria’s busy schedule, we managed to snag a 15 minute Q and A session with her to get to the roots of her one-woman show, Hair Peace.
Q What was the most extraordinary moment of your journeys to India and Russia?
Hair is a huge export for India where most of the hair comes from temples. Men, women and children shave their heads in a Hindu ritual in temples in Southern India. The temples then sell the hair to factories through auctions. Before I left for India, I had spent 2 years researching supply chains and the hair trade as a business.
I wanted to make the invisible – visible, by finding the faces in this faceless industry. Who does this hair come from? Eventually through translators and the wonders of social media I managed to find a women who would allow me to go on pilgrimage with her to have her head tonsured (shaved).
Neeharika wasn’t actually that dissimilar to me. She’s a writer, a dog owner and is fiercely independent whilst not taking herself too seriously. We hit it off instantly. It took a week for us to get to the temple in Tirumala. En route I found out her reasons for wanting to tonsure her hair. In India, it is hard for a single woman to live independently from her family. She made a deal – if the Gods help her to build a successful career that will assist her in getting her own place then she will give them her hair.
It turned out to be more difficult to tonsure Neeharika’s head than we had anticipated. We arrived into Tirumala during Diwali (festival of light) not realising this was one of the busiest times of the year. Thousands of people tonsure their hair during this period and the temples collect tons of hair. Some people at the back of the queues would be queuing for three days!
Days later, we eventually get to the tonsure hall and a barber dressed in white shaves Neeharika’s beautiful black hair and it falls to the floor. It was very moving: it’s a pinnacle moment in Neeharika’s life and she was very emotional. It was a real gift that she let me share this with her.
Q How did audiences respond to your show in Edinburgh?
Edinburgh’s an interesting one. A lot of companies premiere at the festival. It’s a dangerous place to premiere a show because audiences are mainly made up of industry people; including bookers and press. I had done a few previews before the festival but it was in essence a premiere. For the first 2 weeks I was still working things out about the show and my performance within it. Unlike my cooler colleagues who succeed brilliantly in premiering shows at the fringe and tweaking them along the way, the idea of presenting something incomplete freaked the hell out of me.
But despite my own criticism of myself the show did well. We received large audiences. The show got booked for a national tour including a 2 week run at Battersea Art Centre in June. We received 4 star reviews from The Times, The Scotsman and Broadway Baby. And there was interest from TV production companies to turn it into a documentary.
Q Has the show altered since Edinburgh?
My theatre shows always evolve and get better with age – like wine. It’s quite a technical show with different TV monitors and lots of cues. Edinburgh venues try and squeeze as many shows back to back as possible so we couldn’t alter the show technically during the run. I could make script changes but it would be too risky to move cues because we couldn’t do a technical rehearsal. With this in mind I made a note of things I would like to alter after the festival.
I have been back in the rehearsal studio with Petra Massey from Spy Monkey and Hair Peace is looking great. There is a change in tone and atmosphere in this new version. The show has a serious message but we get to it through a lot of humour and aeroplane chairs. I can’t wait to share this new version with audiences.
Q Have audiences felt compelled to share their stories with you?
Yes – the mystery of the silver tray keeps popping up. I first heard about it whilst I was on BBC Radio 4’s Loose Ends talking about my previous show – Major Tom. I was chatting to Katy Brand about what I was up to next i.e. Hair Peace. She told me that when she was a young girl, she had grown her hair long past her bum. She went to have it cut off and the hairdresser put the hair in a ponytail and then went to fetch a silver tray to put it on. Unknown to Katy the hairdresser would sell the ponytail without her seeing a penny of the proceeds. I thought the “silver tray” was a one-off. But audience members have stayed to talk to me after the show to tell me that they also had a “silver tray” experience. I researched into it and asked hairdressers if this was a thing that used to happen but I can’t find any record of it.
Q Is anyone else on stage with you?
I have always worked with film in live performance. Very often on my missions, be it becoming a pigeon fancier or a beauty queen, it is hard to believe my stories. Facts are more interesting and absurd then fiction. I need the film to backup the truth in what I am saying. I filmed my journey and I use a small amount of what I captured in the show to support the storyline.
I share the stage with TV monitors. One TV we call Neeharika TV and it presents all the footage with her. One TV we call Beverly TV and it shows all the footage of my cousin Beverly; she is at the hairdressers having hair extensions put in. The 2 TVs represent supply (Neeharika) and demand (Beverly).
Beverly’s role is to explain why people have the desire to wear hair extensions. In the shows climax Beverly and Neeharika meet via Skype and they have a conversation that offers insights into ethics, diverse cultures and the personal realities of the global economy. Beverly talks about the pressure to look good and presentable as a single mother whilst Neeharika explains how she has become a stronger person now she is not judged for what she looks like.
There are other clips of people I meet including Ruslan the Russian hair dealer, Gopi the Bollywood financier and David the forensic scientist. So although I am not sharing the stage with anybody physically, they are there in spirit.
Q Do you think hair trade should be more strictly regulated?
Yes. I have spoken to fair trade experts about how to implement a fairer trade system. They said it would be difficult to regulate because the humans who are the source don’t have an endless supply of hair.
The hair extensions business is so successful because customers don’t have to visualize the person who has grown the hair they are now wearing. All the people are removed. I think that more should be done to let consumers know about the humans who grew the hair they are now wearing.
At the moment hair entering the country is not considered a body part by HM revenue and customs. It is in the same category as hair accessories, so treated more like a hair clip. I understand that hair is not as important as vital organs; but I don’t agree with it being dehumanized. Not all hair used in wigs and hair extensions have been given consensually. More questions need to be asked about the origins of this hair.
Q Wigs and human hair often are associated with people dealing with cancer. Was that part of your research?
When I started this I had no idea that hair could be so interesting. Hair and black identity is a massive issue and Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair deals with this brilliantly. Hair loss is another huge field and I have talked to people with hair loss as well as experts in the field. I decided to concentrate on an area that I am more qualified to comment on and that I have participated in – and and that was the luxury hair market.
Q Presumably, it was quite a revelation to many of the school children you spoke to? What response did you get? Were they shocked?
Out of the schools I went to 70% of the 15/16 year old girls said they would be wearing clip on human hair extensions for their school proms. Clip in hair extensions are reasonably cheap and you buy them for around £20 a packet. The girls talked about the pressure to look good for the event. One class I spoke to in Harlow said they not only felt pressure to wear extensions but to also wear £425 Christian Louboutin shoes!
When I asked them if they knew where the hair in extensions came from there was a unanimous no – and that they had never even thought about it.
When I told them the origins of the hair extensions they were shocked but the even more interesting response came from the boys in the class. They had no idea that any of the girls wore hair extensions. They didn’t even know what hair extensions were. Their reaction was disgust and then curiosity to the reasons why people would want to wear this hair. The girls struggled to answer them.
Q How do you work with the creative team on such a personal quest?
The key to working successfully with a team is to work out who would be the best fit for each role. It might not necessarily be people you have worked with previously. The show dictates who the crew should be. Also on my shows, the roles blur. The dramaturg does some directing, the director does some dramaturgy. I’m passionate about what I do and the passion is contagious: everyone who gets involved wants it to be a success so they are honest when something is or isn’t working. I may be the only person on stage performing in Hair Peace but it’s taken a lot of good people to get it there.
On Hair Peace I worked with Rachel Chavkin from New York’s The Team as dramaturg. Rachel is writing focussed, I spilled out all of my research and stories and paraphernalia that I’d picked up en route. Rachel set me writing exercises that made up the script. She helped me generate material.
Paul Hodson directed and is the structure man. We twist and change the script so it is theatrically pleasing. We work on the staging together.
Petra Massey from Spymonkey has come on as an additional director to help me with the comedy in the piece. I have written a few new scenes post Edinburgh and I want to maximise on the humour in some old scenes. I call her the Pipe Cleaner because she can spot anything superfluous and remove it.
A full listing of tour dates can be found here