Petra Massey contains multitudes. Prior to originating the role of Boozy Skunkton, host and HBIC of Atomic Saloon Show’s eponymous bar/brothel, the petite, British-born powerhouse honed her scene-stealing skills across a series of stage, film and TV roles—both alongside and independent of her comedic compatriots in the celebrated international physical theater company, Spymonkey.
In celebration of Women’s History Month—and in recognition of her role as Spiegelworld’s first solo female lead—we talked to Petra about finding her calling, always choosing adventure and the path to becoming Boozy.
What first attracted you to the stage?
I’ve always been into theater, always wanted to act. When I was 18, I discovered physical theater. There was this truly brilliant company called Théatre de Complicité (now Complicité). I saw them perform at the Almeida Theater with my friend, Charlotte, and I just went, “That’s it. That’s what I want to do. That’s where I want to go.” It was everything I loved: clowning, physical comedy, acrobatics, all within an emotional play. I actually ended up working with them later, which was just incredible for me because they were my idols.
How do you describe what you do?
I’ll say different things depending on my mood. Sometimes I’m an entertainer. I like the word entertainer, because it’s kind of like an all-around thing. And at the moment, I feel like an entertainer. I’m entertaining.
What I’m doing as Boozy Skunkton, as you know, I’m the emcee. I’m the lead of the show. But I’m also acting. I’m doing a play, I’m clowning and doing a bit of standup… it’s a bit all-around. I use “performer” a lot. “Physical clown” or “physical comedy” is another thing. When I’m speaking to people who understand, I say I’m a clown—which still has this attachment to “red nose, big shoes, squirty flower.” So when I talk to people like my neighbors, who aren’t entertainers, that’s their take-away. Which is fine. Nothing wrong with that.
How did you come to play Boozy Skunkton?
[Atomic Saloon Show director] Cal McCrystal came to dinner and, after quite a few glasses of wine, said, “I’ve been asked to direct a show in Vegas, and I’m gathering the most beautiful entertainers in the world. And I want you to pay the old, ugly hag.” I started to laugh, and I said, “Well, I’m going to need a lot of makeup for that, Cal.” And we kept chatting and laughing. And then he went, “No, I’m serious. I think you’d make a great hag.” I thought he was joking! The next minute, there was a contract on the table saying “sign here.”
It was a bit scary, because I had my own brilliant company, Spymonkey, that I’d worked with for nearly 24 years. And we had lots of work going on and gigs coming up. I was in this terrible quandary: wanting the adventure, because I love an adventure—and I love Vegas—but I also loved my work and my friends and my life in England. I didn’t really want to leave. I just got really excited about the project. Being a lead in a show in Las Vegas at 54 years old? Yeah, I’ll take that. I’m so shallow!
My clown within Spymonkey was always wanting to be the star of the show, only I was never ‘allowed.’ It was always about wanting to be that person, that lead. And then suddenly, I’m being offered the lead and it was quite scary, like “Oh, no! What if I’m not really funny anymore? How do I find my funny?” Because it’s a totally different dynamic.
What does that mean? Does everyone have an inner clown? How does one “find their funny”?
Well, the clowning that we do is actually very much about who you are—what your friends laugh about you behind your back. Whatever’s your biggest vulnerability, the thing you like least about yourself or least want anyone to know, that’s actually the funniest thing about you. And if you’re brave enough, and honest enough, to show that humanity; to be generous enough to show who you really are, that’s your clown.
There’s a huge amount of joy in clowning, you just have to come with an openness and a positivity and the willingness to fail. All our lives we’re told, “Be successful. Be the best. Do this, do that.” In clown, it’s the opposite. Your failures are your gold, because that’s what makes people laugh. When people are honest about themselves or y’know, try really hard—that’s what clowning is about: doing the best you possibly can, and failing miserably.
Tell us about becoming Boozy Skunton.
Boozy has grown as I’ve grown, and I really do enjoy her. I enjoy getting into her skin, which is also my skin. I love all the costume changes and the wig changes, She’s very flirty and, hopefully, charming. And she’s a real bitch, as well. I just love her extremities.
At the beginning, I was a bit too aggressive, playing too much of the whip-cracking madam. My friend Jonathan reminded me that I didn’t need to be so hard, because that was already there—we already know that she’s the madam. So I started to soften her up, to find the moments where I could be something else; where I could be Mae West or whomever—because I do think of Boozy in terms of film; she’s quite filmic.
And I just love playing her. I’m delivering more or less the same script every night, but can really change the emotion or the delivery, and that’s what keeps it so fresh. There’s a moment in the show now where I really want to shag the mayor, and he walks off, and I’m genuinely hurt. I don’t have tears in my eyes every night, but nearly—and every time I get an “awwww” from the audience, I say, very quietly, “thank you.” Just that. It’s such a subtle, little moment, which is really hard to do in cabaret and these big, loud brash things. I love finding those little moments.
When you were cast, you became the first female lead in a Spiegelworld show. How did that feel?
I didn’t even realize it, to be honest. I never think of myself as being Spiegelworld’s first female lead clown. I knew The Gazillionaire, of course, and Captain Kunton, because [he’s] a friend of mine. Mostly, I just felt a responsibility to the show. To serve the show as best I can, serve all the other performers and just do the best possible job that I can.
Comedy is very much a male-dominated discipline. Is the same true of clowning?
I’ve worked with three men for the last 23 years, and we are very much equal. If anything, I’m probably the most aggressive [member of Spymonkey]. OK, by far the most aggressive of the four of us. And the most pushy, the most bossy, the most mouthy… the most male, I would say. I can’t believe I’ve just said that, but it’s sort of true.
But I’ve had quite a different journey. I think that clowning, just by the nature of it—the innate vulnerability, humanity and generosity—is very different from standup comedy. The nature, the ethics… it’s just a much more egalitarian platform. I’ve never really felt, in any of the clown companies I’ve been part of, a male dominance. Maybe a bit in the directorial sense, or the producers… you know, outside of the actual meat of performance, the actual clowning skill. In that world, no. I don’t think there is the same kind of male dominance as with straight comedy, Especially not in my experience.
I’ve done a bit of standup, but that was years ago. More women are coming through now, and I love that. I mean, that’s one of the things I love most about Atomic. It’s got such strong female players: myself, Fofo (Sister Maria) Suzanne (Bridey O’Skunkton), Fanny, Sweet Cheeks and Sister Victoria… sometimes we even have a female Outlaw and a female Mayor, and I just love that. I mean, who needs the boys? Let’s make it an all-female show! C’mon!