Victoria Melody is a British visual and performance artist and theatre-maker. Inspired by ethnography, she immerses herself in different communities and 'becomes an active participant in their rituals as research for her work.' The worlds she has explored so far include pigeon fancying, Northern Soul dancing, beauty pageants, dog shows and funeral directing. Writing in The Oxford Mail in June 2013, Katherine McAlister described Melody as 'a real-life Louis Theroux who gets her hands dirty....Earlier this year you could find Victoria spray-tanned and manicured in her attempt to become Mrs Glamour UK, as well as waking at 5am to begin her dog Major Tom's arduous training schedule in their bid to win Crufts, all of which culminates in her...show Major Tom.'
Melody has presented her work nationally and internationally at venues including Soho Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, The Lowry, Bristol Old Vic, Battersea Arts Centre, Summerhall (Edinburgh Festival Fringe), Push Festival (Canada), Aarhus Festival (Denmark), Bucharest International Theatre Festival (Romania), All For One Theatre Festival, New York, and Virginia Arts Festival (USA), and Brisbane Festival (Australia).
Melody has a BA degree in Fine Art from the University of Northumbria in Newcastle and a Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Art from Chelsea College of Art. She first exhibited her work in Southampton, in two solo shows in which she combined film with live performance: All Fur Coat and No Knickers (a space, 2004) and Ventilation (Millais Gallery, 2005). The Millais Gallery catalogue described the theme of her work as 'the ways in which negative emotions are displayed and vented in contemporary society.' In the shows, she filmed herself and members of the public venting their angers and frustrations in their own individual ways. Melody also created a series of alter-egos to express different emotions. As 'Pissed-Off Pumpkin', she dressed as a pumpkin who abused the audience/viewer through a shiny megaphone. 'Bemused Bear', with Melody dressed in a bear costume, was an expression of gloom and loneliness. For her most exasperated character,'Bastard Bee', she dressed as a childlike representation of a bee, wielding a chainsaw which she used to attack a wooden chair. Melody also took her alter-egos out into the real world. In 2004, Bastard Bee 'occupied a cubicle in ‘The Blue X’ a lap dance club in the centre of Leicester where he gave free one-to one-lap dances with a difference to a mainly male unsuspecting audience.'
Demographics of a Pigeon Fancier
Melody's first 'ethnographic' work was her 2009 exhibition, Demographics of a Pigeon Fancier (Crab Fair, West Cumbria; The Basement, Brighton). This was the result of months spent living with British pigeon fanciers during the racing season. In her research, she gathered data using film, interviews, photography and notes. Melody was interested in the homes fanciers lived in, how much they weighed, and how their hobby affected relationships with family and friends. She met the pigeons and collected fanciers' anecdotes, stories and poems. The show also became a dialogue about regional differences between people living in Egremont, Cumbria, and Brighton. Cumbrians were asked, 'Northerners what do you think about the South?' and Brightonians were asked, 'Southerners, what do you think about the North?' The responses were then delivered to Cumbria and Brighton by homing pigeons.
The North was also the theme of Melody's next project, an investigation of Northern Soul dancing, in which she visited soul clubs, and learned how to dance in strangers' living rooms. Melody then created her first theatre show, Northern Soul (2012), working with the director Ursula Martinez and the choreographer, Janine Fletcher of The Two Wrongies. The show brought together material from the pigeon and soul projects, with stories from Melody's own childhood in Cheshire. Reviewing the piece in Total Theatre, Thomas Bacon wrote, 'Victoria Melody just wants to join in, and in Northern Soul she presents herself as a sharing artist....The premise of Northern Soul builds upon this sense of sharing as Melody leads us through the documentation of her endeavours to immerse herself in two distinct, yet marginal worlds: Pigeon Fancying and the cult of Northern Soul. Melody celebrates the social oddities of these cultural institutions with a respectful tenderness that resonates with her own peculiarities as she relates her project-work to personal experiences of growing up as an ostracised figure – unpopular in schools and society, and sidelined to a certain extent at home.'
Melody's second theatre show, which premiered in 2013, was an exploration of dog shows and beauty pageants. It was called Major Tom, after her pet basset hound, who appeared on stage with her ('The dog is remarkably placid and never lets his hangdog expression slip. As such he becomes the straight man to Ms Melody's oddball.') The piece tells the story of Melody's attempt to win the title of Mrs Galaxy UK, while also entering Major Tom for Crufts. Her own process involved intensive physical training and various makeovers, including hypnotherapy, gastric bands, hair extensions and a spray tan. 'The comparisons [to dog shows] are uncanny.' she told Alice Vincent of the Telegraph, ' The criteria is the same, the ridiculousness, the absurdity, it's all the same.'
Despite being aware of the absurdity of the competition, Melody said, 'I definitely fell for all the promises that people made me to become more beautiful and when I was the most conventionally beautiful I could be, I had the least self-esteem. But somewhere in the process I became a competitor, and I really wanted to win.'
Major Tom was reviewed by Lyn Gardner in the Guardian: 'But what is the right look – whether you are a dog or a human? Who decides? Having simultaneously embarked on a project to turn herself into a beauty queen, Melody sets out to explore these issues – and presents her findings in this dramatised piece....Like Major Tom, she is prodded and primped; like her dog, she has to learn to walk the right way in the show-ring. Major Tom has his balls judged; Melody has her figure and smile assessed. It's a neat parallel, and one that Melody plays with a mixture of inconsequential charm and sly knowingness in a piece that is both startlingly bonkers and utterly ordinary at the same time.'
Melody's 2015 theatre show, called Hair Peace, was directed by Paul Hodson with dramaturgical guidance from Rachel Chavkin of the New York TEAM theatre company. On the Warwick Arts Centre website, Melody explained how the work developed from the themes of Major Tom: 'During my reign as Mrs Brighton a hairdresser gave me real human hair extensions. This prompted me to ask where the hair had come from, the hairdresser didn’t know. Last year HM Revenue and Customs recorded more than £38m worth of human hair entering the country. Right now obtaining that high maintenance preened and pruned and big haired 'The Only Way is Essex look' is big business in the UK. But then why is there little or no information about where and who the hair comes from and if it is ethical? I plan to trace the hair on my head back to the person who grew it and to start a cross-cultural conversation.'
Hair Peace opened at the Pleasance as part of the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Donald Hutera, reviewing the show in The Times, wrote that Melody 'must rank as one of the most charming independent performance-makers in Britain — smart, warm, unpretentiously funny and informative, just like the piece itself....She interviews a forensic scientist, travels to India to go on a pilgrimage with a young woman keen to sell her own hair, and exposes the exploitative practices of rampant human hair traffic in Russia. Throughout her journey Melody observes rather than judges those she meets, sharing with us what she's gleaned. It's the human face of social consciousness, with gags. All of the above is accomplished through a combination of direct address, meaning that Melody just talks to us, and judiciously used video footage. The latter provides an unforced emotional climax as we watch, on neighbouring screens, Melody's cousin — a big fan of hair extensions — watching Melody's Indian buddy having her head shaved, which we also get to see. The gentle layering of images and feelings has a quiet but telling impact. On its own modest scale, Hair Peace might change how you think.'
In 2016, Melody began work on a new show, Ugly Chief, a literal translation of her name in its original Gaelic (Maoiléidigh). Ugly Chief is a collaboration with her father, the antique dealer, Mike Melody, who regularly appears on daytime television programmes. The inspiration was Mike Melody's mistaken diagnosis with a terminal illness. She wrote, 'When we found out that dad was ok I asked him if he would collaborate with me on a new theatre show – he said yes. We decided that the show would take the form of dad's funeral. In my signature ethnographic approach to creating work I am going to train to become a funeral director to demystify the British funeral system. An aim of the show is to destroy the taboo around talking about death.'
Ugly Chief had its premiere at Battersea Arts Centre on 30 October 2017. In her Guardian review, Lyn Gardner described it as 'a ridiculously enjoyable show, not least because the tension is always apparent between Victoria's desire to exert control and Mike's natural talent for chaos. “You’re not going to like this,” Victoria tells the audience when Dad wrests charge of the second half, creating his dream funeral in which he is buried in a beer barrel in a barbecue pit with the mourners wearing Blackpool FC's tangerine strip, and a band playing his trad jazz favourites. Of course we love it. Just as we love the rest of this generous, funny show...'
In 2019, Melody announced that she had begun a new project, Professional Stranger, a work-in-progress about her attempts to become a stand-up comedian. 'Wearing technology that shows in real time what happens to the brain when you tell jokes, Victoria reveals what happened when she immersed herself in the world of British amateur stand-up comedy.' While resident artist at Watershed's Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, Melody collaborated with the neuroscientist, Silvana de Pirro, using an EEG mobile headset that reads the brain's electrical activity. 'It measures emotional states, such as stress, engagement, interest, excitement, focus and relaxation. It’s like a mind reader and you can train your brain, like a Jedi, you can actually fly a drone with your mind. Rather than showing data to audiences as a boring chart with waveforms we’ve created an avatar. The avatar is projected onto a screen and is controlled by my brain through the EEG headset. People can tell how I’m really thinking. If I tell a joke and I look happy but inside I’m dying because nobody has found it funny, like a truth telling machine. Audiences always want to know what’s real and what’s made up, the person behind the persona. I’m working towards a show that will be combining all of these elements.'
- 'About Victoria Melody', http://www.victoriamelody.co.uk
- Katherine MacAlister, 'Major Project', The Oxford Mail 20 June 2013
- 'Ventilation', Millais Gallery catalogue, Southampton Solent University, 2005
- Melody's description of the exhibition on her website
- Thomas Bacon, 'Victoria Melody: Northern Soul', Total Theatre, 5 November 2012
- Juliet Hindell, review of Major Tom, Exeunt Magazine 2 May 2015
- Alice Vincent, 'Pageants, dog shows and Major Tom', The Telegraph, 10 Mar 2014
- Lyn Gardner, 'Major Tom - Review', The Guardian, 12 May 2013
- 'Hair Peace' Warwick Arts Centre website
- Donald Hutera, 'Hair Peace', The Times,15 August 2015
- Victoria Melody, 'Newsletter 2016 New Show, Hair Peace Tour and Me and Dad Sitting in Chairs.'
- Lyn Gardner, 'Ugly Chief review – how to have fun at your own funeral', The Guardian, 3 November 2017
- Description of the project on Melody's website
- Description of the project in Melody's newsletter