Bringing their signature combination of queer, femme aesthetics, outlandish performance and a good time for all involved to Knox Street Bar in Chippendale each month is The Oyster Club. Comprised of Marlena Dalí and Porcelain Alice, the two are performers themselves, but have created a niche and safe space for acts that cross boundaries and refuse to be limited to a single label.
BYO: It’s your second birthday on Thursday, how’s it been going getting the show ready for Thursday night?
Marlena: It kind of came up as a surprise. We've just been going month to month and it's like ‘Oh wait, it's our second anniversary and let's make it a bit bigger than usual.’ Somehow people have really enjoyed what we've created and we're really proud of it and so we have more acts this time.
Even though this is a big special event I'm still really interested in having brand new performers that are not professional, that are just starting, and so this is a big special event with some experienced people but it's also the second performance ever for one of our artists.
BYO: And what's the process like of curating the line-up - how do you connect with the artists you have on stage?
Porcelain Alice: Marlena has a way of finding people that you don't know about or see in the real world and then Marlena brings them to the Oyster Club.
Marlena: I try really hard to go to as many underground events as I can that are melding performance art and cabaret. I try really hard to have a variety in terms of performance. We try and have a very inclusive event but I don't like to do a tick box system of having, [for example,] one drag king and one person doing a cultural act. Because of everyone has different stories, it's mostly about having a wide variety of stories and perspectives on stage. Our stage is a megaphone for all different kinds of marginalised folks who might not necessarily have that space in other cabaret events, or queer events.
BYO: Do you try to create a narrative that ties together a night, or what's the balance between the individual performers and curating the night as a whole?
Porcelain Alice: There is narration the whole night but there isn't a narrative because it is a celebration of difference. All the stories that are told are about the experience of being human, the narrative is beyond loose, and that's what makes Oyster Club so magical; you never know what you're going to see. There'll be some real highs and then there'll be pieces that are done in silence, and it means that the audience has to stay focused.
BYO: It seems you’re more than happy to cross between different genres of performance, and I’m wondering, how do you see Oyster Club within the performance scene of Sydney?
Marlena: We started it because we didn't know of anything else quite like this.
Porcelain Alice: There are amazing spaces where different performers perform and I think Unicorns is probably something that always comes to my mind when people ask what's similar to Oyster Club, but that's still a party experience. We made a show that we genuinely felt didn't exist in Sydney and I guess because we've never not sold out other people agree with us.
BYO: How has Knox Street Bar become a home for Oyster Club?
Marlena: The venue is incredibly unique and cavernous and it almost seems unmanageable in a way and that's the same with our line-up. There's these little pockets and there's a cave and so I feel like it's definitely mirrored. The owner has been very open to us doing things that would maybe be too gross or outrageous in other places. To be able to go into a real legal venue and do things that are really pushing the boundaries, that's been really quite liberating.
Porcelain Alice: It's been a really nice and rewarding experience to work with Bjorn [Godwin, owner of Knox Street Bar] on that as well, he's been able to assist us every step of the way with visuals and things that we need, he built us a catwalk…
Marlena: The oyster was already here though.
BYO: Oh really! Is that where the name came from?
Marlena: [Porcelain Alice was] maybe telling me about something under the sea themed, sexy femme night, and I was like, ‘Uhh oysters!’ And we wanted it to be a club because we wanted people to feel like they could dress up and be themselves. It's sit down, have a cocktail, imagine you're sipping on oysters and you enjoy all these colourful creative people on stage.
BYO: How did the two of you come together to start Oyster Club? What's the genesis story?
Porcelain Alice: Marlena was my first friend in the Sydney performance scene, and Marlena used to put on a show called Cabaret Sasquatch which was in the warehouses and I performed in that a few times with them, but it was still in warehouses which is obviously an amazing, legitimate space for art to be created but we really desperately wanted to find somewhere that was licenced which we could hopefully bring in new allies. We didn't want to have the same audience and also we wanted people to feel legitimate on an honest stage that was under lights. You deserve it, let's give it to you.
BYO: And what's been some of the milestones over the past two years, that when you look back it's really amazing hitting those notes?
Porcelain Alice: I just think there's a magic in that the Oyster Club can happen every month, because there's a lot of process that goes into finding artists, curating artists, making sure they're happy, selling tickets, marketing. When you're just an independent production it's just the fact that you can get up on a Monday and be like we just did that on a Thursday and now we start again.
Marlena: We're good at making a show because we know what it's like when you're backstage and you're like, oh where is the line up?
Porcelain Alice: What's the call time, where's the bathroom, where's my free beverage?
Marlena: Exactly, and accommodating that is being really reassuring to say you've got this.
BYO: And how does putting on a show influence you as performers?
Marlena: Well definitely learning what behaviours are easier to work with and to try and accommodate producers as well. For me, because I MC every single one, I've become a much better MC.
Porcelain Alice: I would say I'm a show girl, by trade, but we don't have very much burlesque here because there are a lot of spaces to see and to perform burlesque is Sydney, so it was really important when we got together [that] I don't need to be on the stage. When I have my heart and mind creating something strange, I'm like, it's time for Oyster Club.
Marlena: The thing I think is really wonderful for performers about this space is that it's the combination of being a space for very experienced, established performer like Betty Grumble to be like ‘Can I actually do a month coming up because it's something I want to trial,’ and she feels very comfortable trialling out something for our audience because they are very receptive. It's both a nursery for new performers as well as a playground for established performers, which is really fun and seeing how they bounce off each other as well.
BYO: I wanted to ask about your own performance trajectories and I was intrigued by how both of you use found objects and incorporate that into your outfits and costumes and I was wondering, what's the process of putting together a show for either of you and putting together a character and persona as well?
Marlena: It’s very strange because there's so many different facets of what makes myself and I don't have any real specific character, Marlena Dali is just me. If people ask what is my gender, I always say it's a clown and they say ‘Well what's in your pants?’ and I say ‘It's none of your business but it's a squirting flower.’ Part of the clown thing as well is that it's just who I am, I'm just a goof, I'm just silly and I say I'm trying really hard to be sexy, [but] I don't know if anybody notices it. I want to be the trans, non-binary feminist Groucho Marx.
Porcelain Alice: I found cabaret and burlesque and showgirl stuff kinda interesting because you didn't have to be amazing at any one thing and I really liked that. Making costumes means it's also authentic, Porcelain Alice is just a better dressed version of me, and she's got a stage where she gets to be sassy and gets to take off her clothes and gets to tell people that I am in charge of my sexuality and my femininity and my body, and I'm going to tell you the stories that I want to tell you.
Marlena: something that I'm more vocal about but Porcelain Alice does as well with her work is that we're very political in our work and being on stage and doing what we do is representative of our politics. It is our chance to be like, femme is strong and power and it can also be funny and silly and gross. Beauty is power and it's not just because of you watching, but beauty is staring back at you. For me it's that I represent something, I don't see very many other people who are like this androgynous clown thing that's not fully glam drag. I do a lot of talking but I can't dance and I can't sing, but I can stand on a stage and talk for a long time, and those are political acts.
BYO: Thinking about that connection between art and activism and also the grants you receive and the political nature of performance in Sydney, how do you navigate all those things - putting on a show and involving your activism and the politics of local government?
Porcelain Alice: Just the Oyster Club's existence, and also knowing that this is a place that you don't have to tread cautiously. There are a lot of places that if you've got a microphone or you're going to reveal part of your body you need to tread cautiously in the way that you do it and what you're going to say and how you're going to present nudity or how you're going to present politics but we've really encouraged people to just get it out, however you need to.
Tickets are sold out for The Oyster Club: Big Beautiful Birthday but further details can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/events/186226918986040/