Archive for “January, 2015”

Planet Arts Melbourne: Life Is A One Woman Show

Matthew Grant

Five years ago I returned to Australia after living abroad. To my dismay, I discovered the vibrant cabaret scene that had re-emerged in Melbourne, in the late 1990’s had undergone a transformation. The wise old whore that is Cabaret had once lingered in the back alleys and hovered on the fringe of this city, commenting on what she saw. Now, she’d been tarted up, was minding her “P’s” and “Q’s and was welcomed into the most mainstream of society. She looked good. She could sing pretty songs, but she really had nothing to say.

Cabaret had been sanitized!

In a state of disillusionment and with my expectation bar set low, at the recommendation of a friend, I ventured along to see Yana Alana and the Paranas in Concert as part of the Midsumma Festival. I’d encountered Yana Alana (Sarah Ward) a couple of years earlier on Melbourne’s Drag King circuit and again in her 2007 Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, Bite Me. I’d delighted in her irreverent poetry then, but I was unprepared for the theatrical maelstrom that Yana Alana had become. She wasn’t afraid to push her envelope and challenge her audience.

Here was, an intellect in the low arts; a true cabaret artiste. Yana Alana was exciting to watch. She was an inspiration. “Cabaret is not dead”, I thought. “She is alive and thriving and living in Yana Alana.”

The critics agreed and in 2010, Yana Alana and the Paranas in Concert, creamed Melbourne’s premier theatre awards, the ‘Green Room Awards’, taking six out of the eight cabaret categories including best production and best artiste. Sarah Ward, aka Yana Alana, was now a force to be reckoned with. The bar had been set.

Then – there was theatrical silence. Where had this provocateur of the absurd disappeared?

From seemingly nowhere in 2013, she was back. Bigger, better – and blue! Sarah Ward’s Yana Alana’s cabaret comeback was breathtakingly daring. Her show, Between the Cracks, proved to be a cabaret tour de force. From a humble beginning, a next to nothing budget, Between the Cracks marked the return and on-stage breakdown and redemption of this exceptional stage diva.

An intelligent, tender mockery of cabaret, Between the Cracks, under the direction of Anni Davey and dramaturge, Bec Matthews, proved an entirely original show. Together with her musical accompanist, Louise Goh, Sarah Ward’s Yana Alana took the cabaret genre and turned it inside out. Yana’s fantastical poetry, vocal prowess and Ward’s innate understanding of stage craft, left its audience on the edge of their seat, soaking up every precious moment, as Yana, unafraid to speak her truth about the failings of others and society, slapped us in the face with the realities of a dysfunctional world.

The show is provocative, musically beautiful, hilarious, and brutally honest.

Again, the critics and audiences agreed. Last year, Ward’s Between the Cracks walked away with two Green Room Awards (Best Production & Best Artiste) and a Helpmann Award (Best Cabaret Performer). Over the past 18 months, Between the Cracks has toured nationally and internationally. In December last year, the show played a return sell-out season at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne, then smashed out a run at the Sydney Festival. Next week, Yana Alana goes west, taking this award winning show to Australia’s longest running arts festival, the Perth Festival and then onto Adelaide for a three week run as part of the Adelaide Fringe Festival.

In the midst of what may appear a life of glitz and glamour, I caught up with the unassuming Sarah Ward. I wanted to know more about the development of this extraordinary character, Yana Alana, and the origins of the genius that is Between the Cracks. Sarah proved to be as equally inspiring off stage, as her alter-ego, Yana Alana is, on-stage.

“At the Helpmann Awards they said: ‘Isn’t cabaret a series of audition songs sung by out of work music theatre actors?’ – and I laughed and I thought: that’s not what I do” – Sarah Ward

“Yana has been around for a while now and as I get more life experience, Yana becomes more three dimensional. She’s changing. She’s not evolving. As in she’s not becoming more emotionally intelligent…But her world is becoming fuller. Sarah simply does less of the thinking and Yana takes over.

I’m often asked: “When do you become Yana?” Its not when the wig or costume go on. It’s when the light hits me. Yana doesn’t live out here in this world. She belongs out there – on the stage. That’s why I don’t interview as Yana. That could change, but I don’t want to bring Yana out into this pedestrian world. When I feel the lights, I surrender and Yana takes over…particularly in this show. I’m on stage with someone else, but I’m very much on my own.

A couple of years ago, Monique Harvey contacted me. She had a very small budget and asked me if I could perform two nights at the sub-station in Newport… But I didn’t have my band – I didn’t have my peeps to work with. They were all unavailable – working with Circus Oz… I called my friend, Ebony Bott. She’s my producer now. She said “Its easy isn’t it? You need to write a new show…You need to move forward.

I was working full time in a coffee factory after I left Circus Oz.. I really wasn’t doing much about finding performing work. I didn’t have an agent. In fact, it was quite depressing really…

Hmmmm – a new show. Me – on my own…alone… So – I wrote Between The Cracks, because that’s how I felt. I had literally fallen between the cracks. No-one knew I was working full time at this coffee factory. When people saw me in the street they’d ask “So Sarah, how’s it going?” and I’d say “Great. I’m fantastic… I’m not performing at all”… and I’d smile.

So, I wrote this song. It was about my mental health. It was about my identity, my sexuality…and it was just Yana and a piano…Before that, I’d had this whole band, ‘The Paranas’.

I wrote the music and as usual, jammed ideas with my partner, Bec… She’s the dramaturge on this show… Because we’re partners, the discussions – our work – happened at home –  while we’re in bed…or she’s in the shower and I’m on the toilet and I’ll ask “What do you think about this song?”…

In this show, there’s so much trust. I simply have no choice. I must trust! I have anxiety – at times debilitating anxiety – particularly before I go on stage…and so. I surrender to Yana and I trust.

So.. I had no band. I contacted Louise [Goh], my pianist. I’d worked with her once at the Spiegeltent. I contacted her and said: “This is how much money we don’t have. Do you want to develop something new with me?”..and she took a punt and said “Sure”. We had one rehearsal before the show went up with Anni [Davey]… More of a walk through really. And Anni couldn’t even be there for the show.

I had one week to manically write the end song. ‘Life is a One Woman Show’. I wrote it on my phone.

The show was created out of sheer necessity. I didn’t have my usual band… I have this new relationship with this pianist. We have the space at the sub-station. We have Anni [the director] for a couple of days. I have to write these songs whilst working full time at the coffee factory…I’d call Bec while she’s in Montreal with Circus Oz – crying- what am I doing? I’m going do the show at Midsumma without Bec being there. Now Bec has been at every show I’ve done. She’s my emotional support….I’m alone. I was so exposed. More exposed than I’d ever been and I’m exploring my mental health. Which is really what this show is all about. The show was created out of necessity and it came from a very real place.

That’s why I’m nude.

I had a chat with Adrienne [Chisholm]. She’s the designer… “I’ve written this song about being blue, about being depressed – exposed. Do you think I should be nude for this song?” The idea of blue paint came up…and then – I’m doing the whole show like this. Not just the first song…

And so – I did Between The Cracks – and then I got sick.

I had to have exploratory surgery – Their was a suspicion I had ovarian cancer…. I was booked to do the Melbourne Cabaret Festival. Seven weeks before, I had surgery. Fortunately, no cancer. But it was discovered that I had endometriosis. I had two rather large cysts removed and I had to deal with the fact that I had this illness.

And then my career took off. I was getting so much work. Here in Australia and overseas… That’s when Ebony [Botts] stepped in. She has been such an amazing help.

March last year – finally- a holiday. We went to Bali. I got food poisoning and when I came back I went to the doctor, who insisted I have an ultra sound. I thought it was a bit over the top. But as it turned out – that saved my life. There was a mass on my kidney…That was such a long journey. The surgeon removed my left kidney. Cancer!!! That was June 2014.

When I faced the reality of cancer and my mortality – It became clear to me just how important my friends and family are. Performing came a close second.

People wanted to book the show and I wanted to perform it. “I’m alive” I thought. I want to live. That’s why I’m doing it. The show takes a lot out of me. But it gives me just so much back.

Managing my fatigue is a challenge. But I am so fortunate to be surrounded by such fabulous people. My peeps…And my Bec.

My illness caught me off guard. My perspective shift hadn’t really allowed me to put a lot of energy into how well received this show is. The Helpmann Award was a surprise. It helped me realise that this show communicates something important… Prior to my illness, my identity was tied into my performing. Not so much now.  Now I just let it be without the investment of expectation. Having a producer now helps a lot too. Ebony works so closely with me. She takes care of business together with Auspicious Arts who advise about contract legalities. So, I don’t have to deal directly with festival producers, and those financing the show, which is so much easier for me. I just couldn’t do the show.

I had no idea how demanding this show was going to be. At the beginning, if a show didn’t sell, I felt undervalued – when I’m giving so much of myself – and going out in front of an audience exposing so much – literally – you need to feel valued. Ebony makes sure I’m getting a fee which equates with what I’m doing and with what I’m giving…. I’m more comfortable to receive now. I’m also totally ok not to give, give, give until there’s nothing left. My illnesses has taught me to give and receive in equal measure.

Why do I do it? It’s one of the only things I’m good at.

I have a skill – I don’t know why – but I posses it. Songs come to me – All the time. Stories, ideas – they come to me…and what I do makes people feel they’re not alone. It makes them really, really happy. Some people have profound moments, particularly in this show. So I have an obligation to share my skills…. So I’ll do this show until I can no longer do this show”.                                                                 *

On a personnel note: Sarah Ward – Thank you. Your on stage antics and your off stage resolve is inspirational. This week, I was diagnosed with cancer. I begin my treatment in ten days. Life, is indeed, a one- wo/man show. Your courage transcends the stage.


Between The Cracks: Gay News Network


Garrett Bithell

Wildly talented cabaret provocateur Sarah Ward is bringing her notorious alter ego Yana Alana to Sydney Festival with her Helpmann Award-winning show Between the Cracks. Sarah opens up to Garrett Bithell about just what is underneath all that glamour and damage.

When Sarah Ward won Best Cabaret at this year’s Helpmann Awards for Between the Cracks, the latest show featuring her provocative alter ego Yana Alana, one of the presenters joked, ‘Isn’t cabaret just a series of audition songs?’

No, is the answer – although some performers have perhaps done little to dispel that myth. Good cabaret, as Ward says, has always been political – it is not just the purview of a talented singer in a slinky costume; it is the work of a performer with something real to say.

“Good cabaret makes people think, or at least feel something other than, ‘Gee they’re a good singer,” Ward tells SX. “For me it always comes down to a desire – and this is at the heart of Between the Cracks – to communicate to an audience, ‘You are not alone. You are not alone in your craziness. You are not alone in your difference. Accept who you are. Celebrate who you are.’ And that includes sexuality, gender, and any dysfunction or condition or fear. That’s my main message – the personal is universal. I like to put my shit on the stage and blow it up in this character so people go, ‘Oh ok, I’m not a freak’, or ‘Yeah, I feel like that sometimes.’”

Indeed it is Ward’s deeply confessional shows, defined by a brutal honesty and an utter willingness to let it all hang out, that makes her one of the most compelling cabaret performers in recent memory.

“It’s part of my nature to be honest,” she says. “Sometimes it bites me on the arse, but I’d prefer not to hide parts of myself, because they make me who I am. Making that deliberate decision to put those parts of myself into my art – that is a way of me putting my hand out to people and going, ‘You’re alright; in fact, you’re awesome.’

“It’s taken me a long time to get to a place of loving myself; and I think it’s a big journey for human beings in general. Unfortunately, Yana loves herself for all the wrong reasons! So she’s not a healthy role model, don’t get me wrong. Do not try to be Yana!”

As Ward tells, Yana Alana is a “big blown-up version of all my dysfunction, but also of all my confidence”.

“I do personally learn from the character, because she is so confident in the world.”

But don’t approach Ward after a show and expect to have a conversation with Yana – she only exists on stage. “I’m not Yana until the light is on me,” she says. “I get out on stage, the lights go on and there she is. I don’t even know how it happens. I can’t be Yana in the dressing room. She’s not a nice person, so I just can’t do that to the people I love and the people I work with – and nor would I want to put myself through that. When I say she’s not a nice person, she’s so frigging self-absorbed that she wouldn’t notice that anybody had any needs, so I couldn’t be her.”

In Between the Cracks, Ward is totally starkers but for a lick of blue body paint. “I wanted to create a work that was exposing; that made me and my character vulnerable. The first song is called ‘I’m Blue’, and the blue shows were naked shows. And so, I’m naked, but also I’m blue – I’m depressed. So there’s a bit of stuff about mental health in this show, and that’s certainly something I’ve been through, and therefore it’s something Yana has been through.”

Indeed Ward is very open about her struggles with depression and anxiety, themes that frequently seep into the contexts Yana Alana inhabits on stage. “I generally use what I’m going through, and channel it and blow it up – way out of proportion sometimes. Because Yana is pretty histrionic. She has emotional incontinence.”

But Yana is far more than just a theatrical therapy session for Ward – she is also a powerful embodiment of her anger at the world. “She didn’t come from nowhere,” Ward muses. “She was born from my anger about the state of the world and I needed somewhere to put it.”

If you need someone specific to thank for the birth of Yana Alana, call the Young Liberals. “It was 2006, and I was really angry after watching a Young Liberals documentary,” Ward tells.

“They were talking about how gays deserve no rights, basically. So what I did was go, ‘Right I’m really angry; I’m going to write some poetry!’ And I wrote a poem called ‘Young Liberals by Yana Alana’, and the first line was, ‘One day I would like all the Young Liberal men to wake up with a cunt for a head’ – and then I went through all the reasons why having a cunt for a head would be difficult.”

Her friends loved the poem so much, she wrote more, eventually performing them at a night at the Star Hotel in Melbourne called ‘Drag Kings’. “It was a great place to experiment,” Ward says. “That’s how Yana was born.”

Since premiering at Melbourne’s Midsumma in 2013, Between the Cracks is coming to Sydney Festival, playing The Famous Spiegeltent. As Ward admits, the show has come a long way in that time. “I remember the first performance, and I was pretty much frozen with – I think the word is terror!” she laughs. “The whole thing was overwhelming. I was performing without my girlfriend [musician and theatre-maker Bec Matthews] for the first time, who was overseas, and she’s such a rock for me. So I was on my own, with just a pianist and basically starkers, and it was really scary.”

After Between the Cracks finishes, Ward will get back to developing her new show called Queen Kong – I’m Not Big, You’re Small. “At this stage I think it’s going to be a rock song cycle – with some theatrics. It’s basically all about thrashing down capitalism and patriarchy, with a lot of hilarity and some really shit-hot rock as well. It’s very much about feeling too small in the world; or feeling invisible and then feeling too visible. It’s also about metamorphosis and change – and we have a guitarist called Cerise Howard, who’s trans, so she will be talking about that from her perspective. It’s pretty fucking exciting.”