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Q&A with Vashti Hughes

Underground theatre and cabaret performer Vashti Hughes talks about her one-woman show Dictionary by a Bitch: The Journals of Bee Miles.

YOU’VE PERFORMED ON STAGES ACROSS SYDNEY FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS, THEN YOUR INDUSTRY WENT QUIET WITH COVID-19. HOW DID YOU SPEND YOUR TIME?

I started going for really long walks. I live in Kings Cross and I would walk to Watsons Bay along the harbour shoreline, and into the inner-west. It was so beautiful, and I found it really relaxing. I saw our city with such different eyes — no traffic, no people, no urgent rushing.

Headshot image of Vashti Hughes

Portrait of Vashti Hughes, photo supplied

DID THE PANDEMIC RAISE ANY QUESTIONS FOR YOU AS AN ARTIST?

Yes, after a while I feared that our world — including live performance — wouldn’t come back. I had the depressing realisation that if we had no theatre, no live music and all the other ways communities gather, then our world would be bleak. Luckily, live performance seems to be thriving again, so fingers crossed it stays this way.

IS THERE A FAVOURITE CHARACTER YOU’VE INVENTED AND/OR PLAYED?

Mavis Brown, repressed secretary extraordinaire, from my show Six Quick Chicks. She’s a heart-warming hilarious klutzy clown, who falls through the world in a state of absurd anxiety.

HOW DID YOU FIRST ‘MEET’ BEE MILES?

When I was at school, I heard about Bee Miles reciting Shakespeare in the street for money. I thought, that’s entrepreneurial of her! And she must have known a lot of Shakespeare if people could request whatever they wanted to hear. I told my mum, who told me she sat next to Bee on a bus when Mum was a student. Bee wanted to bet with her about which car would overtake them first. Apparently, Bee played a lot of games like this with whoever she sat next to.

WHAT DID YOU DISCOVER WHILE RESEARCHING YOUR SHOW?

I read through all the material available in the Mitchell Library. She was an articulate writer, who shared personal insights into living on the fringes of society for a few decades from the 1920s. Bee’s journals detail her time in psychiatric institutions, as well as her epic journeys around Australia. She even gave the journals glossaries. I love the fact that she’d get into taxis and demand to be taken anywhere in the country she wanted to go — even Perth! If she was thrown out, her occasional revenge was to rip the car door off the hinges. She had extraordinary physical strength. I discovered that Bee got into medicine at Sydney Uni in the early 1920s, which was really unusual for a woman at the time. She train-hopped around the country, running alongside trains when they slowed down at lights, and then hauling herself into them. She also played a lot of classical piano.

CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT DICTIONARY BY A BITCH?

It’s based on information about Bee Miles’ life that I found interesting when I read her journals. I took away things that exemplified her free spirit and would translate to live performance. Then I approached the director Liesel Badorrek, who’s very resourceful, funny, a strong feminist and makes bold creative choices — perfect for Bee Miles! Creative development was lined up at East Sydney Community Arts Centre in Darlinghurst as part of the Flying Nun series. But then Covid hit. So Bee went on the back-burner. Eventually, it was rescheduled and, after only a week of rehearsals, we did three shows in December 2020, with my partner Ross Johnston on sound design and visuals.

HOW Do YOU THINK ATTITUDES TO BEE AND HER LIFE STORY HAVE CHANGED OVER TIME?

As time goes on we lose the first-hand experiences of those who encountered Bee in the streets of Sydney. So we’re celebrating her life and bringing together old stories about her and looking forward to hearing ones we haven’t even heard yet. We honour her as an eccentric of times past, but I wonder how her rule-breaking behaviour would be tolerated now. Bee’s life and notoriety inspired the naming of the BMiles Women’s Foundation, a specialist homelessness service for women.

See Dictionary by a Bitch at the Library on Thursdays at 7 pm and Saturdays at 2 pm & 7 pm (one hour) throughout June.

Book here

Supported by City of Sydney CBD Activation Grant