Sydney is progressive, Sydney is inclusive and Sydney has so many stories to tell. These facts which lie at the city’s very core make it the ideal place for a myriad of fascinating creatives to settle, and Elizabeth Shearer is now one of them, bringing her unique and personal operatic comedy, Bite Me But Smile, to the stage.
Bite Me But Smile is, on the surface, a one woman show. But that doesn’t mean it’s a show of only one voice, and its primary purpose - other than to entertain - is to provoke conversation. It isn’t about Shearer, it’s about her alter-ego Zella Shear, and a talking kebab named Donna. So what are we even talking about? Let’s rewind for a sec.
Meeting with Shearer in a Newtown coffee shop is an interesting experience. Unsure exactly what to expect, the reality is that she’s an ordinary woman who happens to have extraordinary talents. Originally from Queensland and professionally trained in opera singing in London, she’s now a welcome addition to Sydney.
But back to the pressing question - what is her “baby”, Bite Me But Smile, all about? “I think there was a development phase at the beginning, where I wanted to see what I wanted to perform. And then through that development, I realised that there was a message that I wanted to portray, and it was one that was - we consume so much information, but we don't actually make opinions for ourselves. That was the main thing. And I do that through the vehicle of female desire, which is a thing!”
So far so good, but how did we get from professionally trained opera singer to a talking kebab? Shearer explained: “Zella grew! Originally I was going to do a one woman show by myself, but then … I thought, well I need something to play off that, and kind of get people thinking about the one extreme that is Zella, and then - I don't even know where the kebab came from - we need to have another extreme. We need to have Donna! The kebab."
The notion of combining opera with comedy isn’t a typical one, but it’s one that makes it a lot more accessible. Shearer agreed, and is a strong supporter of mixing genres, without wanting to discredit opera which she describes as an “amazing art form”. Bite Me But Smile is a way of bringing it to the forefront to a different crowd. “Sometimes it can seem elitist, and I wanted to play with it and make people feel comfortable playing with it. I moved to the UK about four years ago, and I met a stand-up comedian. And she said ‘have you thought about doing sketch comedy?’ and I said, ‘No, no, no, I'm an opera singer!’ And then we did some sketch comedy and we played some opera in our sketch shows.”
Upon coming back to Australia, she decided exploring genres a bit more was the path she wanted to take.
“I was a bit worried when I came back to Australia that the sort of things I was doing in London wouldn't be possible, the crazy, more silly, experimental things I was doing - the audience here would just look at me like I was crazy! But Sydney has been really welcoming.”
When you talk about female desire and female sexuality, however, it’s difficult not to frame it at least somewhat in the language of feminism. While Shearer chooses not to self-identify as such, the underlying messages are arguably incredibly so - but in a way that’s true to one of the core principles of the modern movement, that of choice.
“What I want to do is give one aspect to it, one extreme, which is Zella, and another aspect, which is Donna, and I want people to explore the grey areas in between for themselves. So I'm not giving them a message, I'm making them think.”
Shearer is simply all about developing her skills, entertaining people, and keeping herself busy as an artist. “It's sort of in my nature that I have to do something. And I sort of look at my life in terms of things that I've produced, and where I am vocally. For me that's more important than looking at my bank account, and seeing how much money I have. That's not it. If it was, it would be dire!”
Focusing on the comedic aspect too much is ignoring the subtle balance that’s gone into Bite Me But Smile. It’s allowed her to play around with elements of everything, and comedy is simply the final missing piece of the puzzle. As Shearer said “I think I was always missing something. I did opera at university, I've done musical theatre, I just feel like it wasn't the platform that I wanted to work from. It wasn't me. It never felt right. And this is something that has a message, but in a fun way. In an available way to everyone.”
Putting on your own show is one hell of an undertaking, and Shearer has literally done it all by herself. It’s not just the writing, performing and creative direction, it’s the marketing, PR, venue hire and social media as well. It’s clear how driven she is from the way her eyes light up with passion and the intonation of her voice, like it’s the easiest, most normal thing in the world. How has she made it work? We’re curious. “Deadlines are great. I would say at the start of this year I just booked the venue. And then I just thought oh, I actually have to make this work! So deadlines are great, you won't do it, unless you force yourself to do it.”
As the dates of the show are fast approaching, Shearer is ready. “I'm really proud to get to this point and it's on next week. I said I was going to do it when I came back at the end of last year, And I've done it. And for me, that's just an achievement.” There’s definitely some nerves that surround trying to pull off a feat like this - “obviously there's still concern that some people might find it a bit too silly, a bit too different, but so far I think I'm really happy with how Sydney is responding to things. And how progressive Sydney is feeling. It's great!”
Shearer wants to conversation to be bigger than her, and Sydney, too. “Maybe a young woman sees this and thinks ‘oh, I'd like to put on my own show!’, and irrelevant of the work they put on, they can think ‘she put on her own show, she did it all herself, I can maybe do that,’ and then they're at their own show, and they put their own Fringe show on, or even bigger scale work.”
Bite Me But Smile runs until September 15. Pick up tickets and fine out more here: https://sydneyfringe.com/buy-tickets?e=MTU0ODY