Artist and scientist’s heartfelt tribute to his grandmother

Robin Kelly creates music, devises theatre, and has an honours degree in molecular biology.
Taryn Utiger caught up with him to discover how he combines those skills in his multi award-winning cabaret, Valerie.

Hey Robin, thanks for chatting with us. So, you have a really interesting history and you studied both music and molecular biology. Tell us more!
Science runs strongly in the family and I could never avoid it being a big part of my life. It’s how we communicate as a family and it’s a big part of how I view the world – analyse, dissect, investigate.

At first I approached music from the same place, it was a skill and a technique. It involves anatomy and precision and thorough investigation – even though most people think of it as a purely creative space.

“I think both fields give a sense of wonder and awe at the unknown…”

Robin Kelly

As I’ve grown older and specialised in both fields I realised it’s actually the grey areas that appeal to me. It’s where science gets close to magic and metaphor (that’s why I like molecular biology. It’s all invisible to the eye, it’s all stories and make believe that becomes hard facts with rigour and experimentation) and it’s where music is simultaneously precise and playful.

Where it gets messy and starts to break the rules. I think both fields give a sense of wonder and awe at the unknown that some people find in religion.

At the moment your focus is on your music and theatre path, rather than your path as a scientist. Why?
I went all the way to working as a full time scientist in a diagnostics lab. Full, proper, professional science.

But at that same time in my life I was working on three different music/theatre productions including a national tour and a world premiere. It was all too much.

So I had to make a decision and focus on one or the other. Ultimately it was the community of the arts that swayed me. Science can be quite insular. On the other hand I had built a place of belonging in the arts. I had a community and a whānau. You can’t just walk away from that feeling of meaning and belonging.

So I embraced it wholeheartedly. Of course then I went and made Valerie – a show that features science heavily, so it’s never too far away…

Valerie is coming to Taranaki next week. What can you tell us about it?
Valerie is ostensibly a show about my grandmother (unsurprisingly, her name is Valerie). She’s a remarkable, glamorous, proud, dramatic woman and I grew up enamoured by her stories of her heyday in Melbourne in the 1950s with my grandfather.

So we started to make a show based around those stories but it soon grew into something more personal. It became an exploration of my relationship to her and to my grandfather. An interrogation of genetics and what gets passed down from generation to generation, and a look at how trauma and mental illness gets passed through family histories (and family stories).

“It is incredibly personal and I have to be quite upfront about my own struggles with mental health…”

Robin Kelly

Ultimately it came to be a very elaborate way of me thanking Valerie for everything she’s done for our family, and letting her know how deeply loved she is. That element has resonated strongly with audiences – looking back at powerful figures in their family and having a chance to pay respect to them.

The show deals with elements of mental illness, something our society is beginning to be more open about. How did you find it, creating something that dealt with mental health?
Oh boy it was confronting, particularly because it is incredibly personal and I have to be quite upfront about my own struggles with mental health. So it has been really hard work, but the payoff is how many beautiful conversations I’ve had around the show, and with audience members afterward about shared experiences. Conversations drenched in empathy and care.

Sharing is so important, and taking these conversations out of the dark genuinely saves lives, I believe that.

Was your understanding of genetics important in developing Valerie?
It was the main lens that I looked through (at first) to try to understand my own inherited mental health issues.

My scientific background taught me to be clinical and critical and approach the things that are hard to face in that way. It also helped me approach the show as a performer. I’m not a trained actor but I’ve taught science and genetics so it’s much more comfortable for me to stand up and chat with an audience about genes than it is to talk about feelings!

Ultimately though, I use that as a starting point and then start to explore things from a much more personal and emotive space. The music helps me access that, and even though the science is a great starting point – feelings are feelings and finding a way of talking about them directly is what the show is all about.

“It made me articulate some pretty deep fears, and by confronting them I’m making much more conscious and constructive choices to take care of the mental health of myself and others…”

Robin Kelly

Did creating this show help you on a personal level?
Absolutely it did. It made me articulate some pretty deep fears, and by confronting them I’m making much more conscious and constructive choices to take care of the mental health of myself and others.

But more importantly it gave me a chance to say things to Valerie in person that I don’t think everyone gets the chance to do in their lifetimes. To say thank you and tell her I love her. That’s been invaluable.

There has been high praise for the all-original music of Valerie, with some likening the lyrics to that of Nick Cave, and others calling the music evocative. Why is music such an important part of this show, and your life?
Nick Cave?! He’s an idol of mine so I’m very flattered.

As I touched on earlier, music for me is a way of cutting straight to the emotional core. I can fluster around trying to explain a certain feeling, but actually a great voice (Cherie Moore sings in the show and she’s phenomenal) singing a simple lyric can bring joy or move you to tears immediately. Sometimes both at the same time.

It’s part of the remarkable power of music and I use it all the time to try to connect to deeper themes and emotions than we let ourselves feel in every day life.

Grandmothers are wonderful. Do you have any favourite memories of your grandma?
Aren’t they though? Valerie unofficially officiated at Cherie and my wedding. During the vows Cherie surprised us all with a song and Valerie was so moved by it that when it came to saying the final words of the ceremony she was a completely flustered. She’s such a composed and strong figure and this was such a vulnerable moment. It was messy and hilarious and perfect.

You took Valerie to the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival. What was that like, and what sort of reception did you have?
It was unreal – 3500 shows in one city and an entire month where the city becomes the performing arts centre of the world. It’s daunting and exhilarating to be a part of.

That was the biggest thing for us. We felt part of the global arts community (which can feel mighty distant on this side of the world sometimes!) It’s amazing how instantly at home you can feel among artists from all over the world. In that context the reception we got blew me away.

We received great reviews and a Fringe First award which is really prestigious and brought home that in New Zealand we are making world class work. That’s exciting and affirming. I can’t wait to go back!

Do you have any cool projects you are working on now, or in the near future?
I’m thrilled to be coming back to Taranaki soon with two projects that I love dearly – Both Sides Now, a show where Julia Deans signs some of the most beautiful songs from the Joni Mitchell songbook, and Delicious Oblivion – Jennifer Ward-Lealand tackling the Weimar-era cabaret repertoire.

I’m honoured to play with incredible musicians for both shows, and to support those superb wāhine singing some of the best songs out there.

  • Valerie is onstage in New Plymouth on Friday August 16 as a part of Winter Fest. For more details and for tickets visit www.winterfest.co.nz