Ash Flanders in rehearsal for Buyer and Cellar

From the Reading Room | Ash Flanders

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Divas deserve a little devotion says actor Ash Flanders.

It isn’t difficult to work out why Barbra Streisand is such an icon in the gay community. All the credentials are in the voice, a soaring, expressive instrument that can put a thrill in any musical phrase. And if she has a tendency to exaggerate the emotional line of a song, to overload the brush with vivid feeling, all the better. Such divas do nothing by halves, neither in their art nor their private lives; they are loved for their excess.

Ash Flanders, soon to play a Streisand-besotted actor in Buyer and Cellar, believes that Streisand might be the last of the great musical divas. Our popular culture is too disposable now for a powerful and talented performer to sustain a career over generations as Streisand has.

‘The need to reinvent yourself as an artist is too intense, too quick’, he says. ‘Barbra is one of the last great, lasting artists. She’s from a circle of divas who were allowed to be divas.’

Flanders cautiously admits to being a little besotted with Streisand himself. He has all the albums, although he prefers the early ones from the sixties when she took herself less seriously. There is something about her kooky, insecure Jewish girl shtick in those days that he can relate to. It was the persona that made her a favourite in the gay clubs of Greenwich Village in the early years of her career before Broadway discovered her and made her a star. Nowadays, Streisand rarely performs in public and is happy to live a quiet life on her Malibu estate, where she tends to her collections of beautiful things. In her 2010 coffee-table book, My Passion for Design, there are pictures of the faux shopping mall she had created in the basement of her barn to display her collections. It’s from such self indulgences that her fans’ love grows.

When a couple of years ago, he heard that American writer Jonathan Tolins had written a one person-show set in Streisand’s basement mall, Flanders’s interest was immediately piqued. Although he is perhaps best known in Melbourne for his work with gender-bending independent company Sisters Grimm, solo projects have been a major part of his career so far. There’s a lot of solo cabaret in his CV and his one-person hit I Love You Bro went to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2008.

‘I love to do one-person shows,’ he says.‘I don’t play well with others. I love having all the audience to myself.’

He got hold of the play and loved it.

‘I think it’s any actor’s dream, this play. It’s a play that allows you to excel in many different parts. So it’s about artistry. And celebrity, as well. It’s about what happens when artists get caught up in their own personas. I’ve always found that really interesting.’

Early last year, he pitched Buyer and Cellar to MTC’s Artistic Director Brett Sheehy and found Sheehy had already booked to see the show on his next trip to New York, where it had become the hot ticket of the season. Before one gets the wrong idea, Buyer and Cellar is rather more than a tizzy fan letter to a celebrity; it’s also funny exploration of fandom and celebrity, the most unstable and unrequited of relationships. Flanders believes we are hooked on celebrity culture to a degree that is unhealthy.

‘I think celebrity is something that has only become more and more like a sugar rush,’ he says, ‘like the first taste of chewing gum. You love it and then it kind of blands out. That’s why our culture just chews up new talent, new experiences, everything’s now. That fascinates me.’

‘I love reading stories about people who don’t realise this. They play into the machine. And when they finally look behind the curtain and see that there is nothing really there, how do they cope with that? The older I get the more I see fame as a very strange damaging thing.’

And does that mean Flanders wouldn’t wish fame and celebrity on himself? He laughs before replying, ‘Maybe I am just trying to convince myself of that. I’m just being like Charlie [in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory] who says that the Golden Ticket must make the chocolate taste awful.’

Buyer and Cellar is now playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio from 30 October 12 December.

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