BWW Interview: Peter Groom Talks DIETRICH: NATURAL DUTY, Politics, Queer History and Visibility
Peter Groom is an actor, dancer and choreographer, originally from Newcastle. Since graduating from Guildford School of Acting in 2013 he has gone on to work both in the UK and internationally, with credits including Schaubuhne, Berlin and Aquilla Theatre, New York.
Alongside this he began to create his own devised work, and then in 2016 started working as a drag performer, with performances at Battersea Arts Centre, The Glory and Royal Vauxhall Tavern. His new show Dietrich: Natural Duty has its world premiere at the VAULT Festival later this month.
How did you get first into theatre and performance?
I started performing from when I was seven or eight. I went to a theatre group called First Act, and stayed there until I was 17. I think I was lucky to have landed there at a time when there were about five or six of us who all just took it really seriously.
They're all still my really close friends now. We're like a small group, and everybody became an actor weirdly. So, in all the shows it was always us five, and there were of course others who came because they wanted to have a laugh, but we took it really seriously. They also invited professionals in to give workshops; it was really incredible.
It sounds great. Who ran that?
It was a guy called Barry Wilmot, but he had a daughter called Lynne Wilmot who was in Les Miserables amongst other things, and she would come up for a day and direct us. But she would direct us professionally, so we were 16 year olds who knew we had to work.
And it was her who sort of said, "You guys should look at drama school." And I did. So then I trained, and left, and did lots of jobs; you'll kind of do anything. And I actually then went to Berlin to do a show there for nine months.
What was the show, and how was it different to your experience of the British industry?
The show was called Meat, and it was on at the Schaubuhne. It was an installation that ran for 240 hours - so for ten days straight! They sort of built a village, which had everything: a nail salon, a supermarket, bedrooms and apartments. And then as an audience you bought a ticket to walk around this installation and live with these people for a few hours.
Because the installation was built so thoroughly, you could live in the apartment that was there; and about half the cast did that. I was a part of the other half that needed to go home, so we didn't lose our mind. I have a love for Germany, and feel very connected to it. I also speak German now.
So coming back from Germany, I imagine that altered the way that you made performance?
It opened my eyes to what is possible. They're very about pushing what you can do, and what is new, so I was trying to do different things. I started to create dance-theatre work, and then this idea of cabaret just sort of came in.
Even in the work that I was doing, we'd use Marlene as an inspiration. I find the way she moves really fascinating. Especially older Marlene; when she's doing her concerts she's so robotic. She's pulled up, like on strings; the back of her head is really lifted and she's not languid or flowy. And she's always aware of light. She's an expert in lighting.
She and Josef Von Sternberg made seven films together, and he taught her all about lighting. There's a great story of when she went to work with somebody else, and she got onto the set on the first day, looked at the lights and was like "This is all wrong, what am I going to do?"
So apparently she went home that night, and watched all of her old films she'd created with von Sternberg, made notes, and came in the next morning and moved all of the lights around. She then went to the director, "Look down the lens", and the director did, and said "Yeah, that's it." Marlene knew exactly were to put light.
She just knew her craft. For people who don't know much about Marlene Dietrich, could you tell us a little bit, and what you think is so brilliant about her?
Well her life in a nutshell is that she's a German girl, born in Berlin, who becomes a huge Hollywood star, so moves to America. Then, her homeland changes, and is taken over by Hitler and the Nazis, resulting in her having a choice to make. She makes a very public choice to say 'No', and she gets rid of her German citizenship, becomes an American, and joins the US army to march against her homeland, in order to free it.
And to think what that must have cost: she's out there fighting against her cousins, and she goes on rallies to raise money for bombs - when the US are going to bomb Berlin, which is where her mother is still living. But if she doesn't do all of this, Hitler might win.
And I think it was an incredible thing to take such a stand against him, at such a personal cost and so publicly - she used her fame to protest. There are great war photographs of her marching in her paratroopers uniform, but her hair is perfect and her face is done.
The reason why it's a drag show is because she did all of this in drag; she did it as Dietrich, this movie star that she'd made and referred to as a separate person. She really made a huge impact, and it cost her her country - she could never really go back. She tried to go back for concerts in Germany in the 60s, but they put bombs in the theatre and booed her off stage, calling her a traitor.
I imagine there must have been so many times during the war when she thought, "Do I go back, do I not go back" - do you think?
I think so. Before the war broke out Hitler said to her, "Come back, be the queen of the Reich. You can make anything you want" etcetera, and she said no. But later on she said, "I wish I'd have listened to his advances, because imagine if I'd just had one night with him, I might have been able to talk him out of it."
And in order to create a show about this person's life, you really have to dig deep into their history, their family, and even yourself - what's it like to do that?
Well I started by reading everything. I think I've read about eight biographies. And they're all very different, and then her autobiography is entirely different to those as well.
So then where do you position yourself? Is it a mixture of nine?
It is a mixture. The show isn't an expose. It's not Mommy Dearest. It's not the bad things about Dietrich, because I'm not interested in that. So the things about her maybe sleeping with Presidents, or that person I leave behind, because people can go off and find that out themselves. I think to ever see her when she's unguarded is very rare.
So where do you go to find that then?
There's a documentary that was made in the 80s. She was very old at this point and she refuses to be filmed, so it's just tapes of her talking. I don't think she wanted anybody to know what she looked like. Shortly after the documentary she went into her room in Paris for 13 years, until she died.
She never came out; she didn't want anybody to see Dietrich old. She'd spent 70 years building her image; to watch it crumble wouldn't be very good for the legend. In the documentary they talk a lot, and she really rubbishes all of her work - you get an idea of a woman who has quite a lot of disdain.
She's got so many contradictions: on one hand she's incredibly vain, but then said what she loved about being a solider is that someone gave her a uniform everyday to wear. I think when she went back to Hollywood she found it difficult, because she'd been doing some really useful.
And I think a lot of women had that experience in the war; when they were wanted they were really used, and suddenly had jobs and freedom, but then the men came back and they weren't needed. The world must have seemed so dull, and just not exciting.
How long has the idea for your show been bubbling away for?
I've done an act of her for a number of years now, and at one gig I met an older lady who knew her daughter. When Marlene died the daughter inherited all this stuff, and she asked the older lady if she wanted anything.
So this woman took two glass doorknobs that used to be on Marlene's bedroom door, and then when I met her at this gig she asked me if I wanted them. I was like, "Oh my gosh are you kidding, yes!" So she gave them to me, and I was telling a friend about this, and they were like, "Come on you have to make a show about her now." The signs were there, so I just did it.
If you could describe your new show in three words, what would they be? And then, how would you describe it in a sentence?
I'd be doing it in four, and I'd be saying: Songs, Sequins, Sex and Sympathy. A sentence would be that it's an intoxicating cabaret about the life of a legend.
Is there a plan post-VAULT Festival?
Yes. Northern Stage and Curious Festival, who are a big LGBTQ+ festival, have supported the show. Their next festival is in July, so I'll be performing it there and then hopefully taking it to some other places.
Would you ever consider taking it to Germany?
I would love to, but I don't know how they would take it. They tried to name a street after her about ten years ago and there was a protest.
There's a reason you're having the world premiere at the VAULT Festival. Why are the themes relevant?
The themes of the festival feel relevant to the people of my age. I wanted something that feels earthy and grounded. It's really nice because I'm stood in this beaded sequin gown, against a wall that's black with mould and dripping wet - it's quite wonderful. And you can hear the trains going overhead.
It's raw, and it's real and current - and the show isn't a museum piece. It's a classic story, but I think a lot of people don't know her history; and I think there's a lot to be said about the fact that we don't have to look far for comparisons to what was happening in the 30s, and now.
We all have a platform and a voice, and I'm interested in what we do with that - what do we do politically to help, or make a difference, or to take a stand against what you think is right? There are so many parallels with the time back then and now; the idea of a country changing is just one.
You know, Brexit; what do you do when your country no longer agrees with what you think? I think a lot of people feel like that; it's like, who the hell voted for this? I think Americans feel like that; who are these people voting for Trump. We have Theresa May, Tories and Brexit, but I didn't vote for it - most of the people I know didn't, but it happened, so who are these people?
And there's also the queer aspect to it. Marlene is a queer icon, and as queer people, what do we do when the place we're from doesn't agree with who we are?
What's your view on 'clicktivism' (activism through reposting)? You mentioned taking a stand; is it enough to just retweet something?
I think you've got to use what you have - that's what Dietrich did. If you can only repost then that's fine. But if you can repost and then go on a march, or have a conversation with somebody, that would also be amazing. But if sharing were all you can do, then I wouldn't want to diminish anyone's contribution to a movement.
What's been the most memorable moment of your career so far?
I've just hosted the New Year's Eve party at Battersea Arts Centre. They did a big top circus and I was the ringmaster, as Marlene Dietrich - she was a ringmaster at Madison Square Garden in the 50s, you see. For my entrance they played Falling In Love Again, accompanied by a huge orchestra, and I had to come down these stairs, with 400 people gathered round just watching me.
I did feel like Marlene Dietrich in that moment - it was wonderful. And to be with the audience is such a fun thing; it's immediate and I like playing with them.
I suppose in that moment it's alive and anything can happen.
There are bits in the show where you ask questions to the audience and you have no idea what they're going to say. I mean it's dangerous, but it's the most exciting thing. There was a moment at BAC when the microphones stopped working, and I had to hold the audience until they were fixed.
So I just stood there and looked at them; and then they started shushing one another, until the whole room was deadly quiet. It was amazing, I felt like I was in command of all those people.
Finally, let's talk about queer spaces, and the importance of them.
I think queer spaces are really important, because they're places where conversations happen, where people meet and feel comfortable, or they're allowed a sort of freedom in some way. There's something about having a queer identity that is about questioning. You question everything, and you don't only do it once, you continue to do it because that's what a queer mindset is about.
All these conversations are constantly happening, and when you're constantly questioning it can be unnerving; so if you can go in a space where you feel like those questions are okay, well, that gives a lot of people strength. But I also think that it's great when other people join that world. What's great with drag is that nowadays it has a huge straight following, which brings more people into the conversation.
There's been criticism from certain people about drag's rise in popularity, and audience's perceptions towards it - do you think it's enough for people just to enjoy watching it, or should they try to understand it more?
I wouldn't want to criticise anyone who watches RuPaul's Drag Race and that's their only experience of drag, but I would also say to them: look at Jackie Beat, Lady Bunny, and Dorian Corey. If you go way back there are so many people who are playing with gender, knowingly, and enjoying the subversion of it.
Nowadays it may have more of a platform, and it's more commercial, but it will always be dangerous. I understand that some people may have problems with it, but I think the good outweighs the bad. And also, there's just something about it that people like to see. To see a man walk down the street in drag, people go "You've got balls", and no matter what people think, they say kudos to them and think they're brave for doing it.
A trailer for this show can be found here.
Photos provided by Peter Groom