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.