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.”