MEDIA 2004


DECEMBER 30 2004

Jacques Brel's songs were alive and well, while the rest of the scene was a more variable feast, writes John Shand.

If the memory banks had space for only one deposit from 2004, it would surely be the seductive embrace in which Micheline Van Hautem held the songs of Jacques Brel. Her voice, although big enough to periodically fill Kabarett Voltaire unmiked, is actually a rather modest instrument in itself. The Belgian's virtuosity lay in the way she played upon the listener's heartstrings, and in the fact her presentation could be so beguiling without sacrificing a gram of truth.

Van Hautem's accordionist and pianist, Frederik Caelen, was, if anything, even more remarkable. Dream accompanist and startling improviser, Caelen would stand out in any musical company, and the pair's return visit next year is eagerly awaited.

Two of the most memorable jazz concerts of the year were provided by tenor saxophonists. Having the great Pharoah Sanders and his quartet contained in the Basement was akin to hosting Metallica in your living room, or to sitting on the edge of an active volcano's crater; his sound was transfixing. Jan Garbarek's aesthetic could not be more different, although he does share with Sanders an ability to extract vast tone from a saxophone. Perhaps not quite as miraculous as on his quartet's previous visit, this was nonetheless a masterclass in layering sounds and shaping a concert.

Among other internationals, Ahmad Jamal disappointed as he and his trio - unlike Gabarek's band - lost the long-running battle with the Concert Hall's acoustics, the Sydney Festival belatedly got the message that this is not the venue in which to host its jazz component.

Renowned classical violinist Nigel Kennedy teamed up with the cream of Sydney jazz - to play rock. It was as heart-warming as it was odd, as raucous as it was sophisticated, and revealed as much about the talent and versatility of Kennedy's local band - Mike Nock, Phil Slater, James Muller, Jonathan Zwartz (who also played brilliant stand-in bass with Sanders) and Hamish Stuart - as it did about the undoubtedly gifted violinist.

Other visitors - the Tord Gustavsen Trio and Dave Liebman - came for the Wangaratta Festival. Thanks in no small measure to the brilliant control of drummer Jarle Vedspestad, the soft-focus sensuality of Gustavsen's music worked surprisingly well live, given that on CD it had seemed like something possibly best kept to the intimacy of the bedroom. Liebman, once such a regular visitor to these shores, was unfortunately accompanied by the rather ho-hum Guilfoyle-Nielsen Trio from Ireland, but had a decidedly more intense 75-minute encounter with his old sparring partner, Mike Nock.

Wangaratta was just one of many triumphs for Felix Bloxsom. Quite possibly the best drummer Australia has produced in more than two decades, Bloxsom took out the National Jazz Awards at Wangaratta, having already pocketed the Young Performer of the Year gong at the Bells, the Australian jazz awards. He was heard to enthralling effect in a diversity of contexts throughout the year, including with pianist Mark Isaacs, saxophonist Ian Chaplin, veteran singer Mark Murphy, cabaret star Paul Capsis and with James Muller as the guitarist won this year's Freedman Jazz competition.

Beyond the Freedman concert, the Opera House's wonderful Studio also hosted a commendable and new-for-this-year initiative, the Jazz: Now festival, a collaboration between the Opera House, the Sydney Improvised Music Association and the Jazzgroove Association. It featured the debut of a genre-bending band called GEST8, led by Sandy Evans and Tony Gorman, which, in a second performance at the Side-On Cafe, confirmed itself as a major new artistic endeavour in terms of composition and texture.

Graeme Bell turned 90 and, typically, celebrated not with a "greatest hits" concert, but with a repertoire of Australian compositions in the classic style, effervescently and acoustically realised by his septet in the exquisite and curiously under-utilised Independent Theatre.

Nock again showed his superiority to most local jazz composers in his pieces for the new Mike Nock Project: a brilliant 10-piece band which had both Sydney and Sydney/Melbourne incarnations, the latter heard to mesmerising effect at Wangaratta.

In terms of hitting emotional bullseyes, Ruby's Story, a collaboration between Ruby Hunter, Archie Roach, Paul Grabowsky and the Australian Art Orchestra, was as strong as anything heard all year, and was easily the most important work the AAO has done. Grabowsky also released his finest recording to date, Tales of Time and Space, in which he and outstanding trumpeter Scott Tinkler teamed up with the likes of Joe Lovano and Branford Marsalis - something that will happen in the flesh as part of the forthcoming Sydney Festival.

Other CDs of note came from David Murray (Now Is Another Time and Gwotet), Mark Isaacs (Keeping the Standards), Steve Hunter (Condition Human) and a must-have rerelease from the Bruce Cale Quartet (Live).

Cabaret kept its head above water and periodically flourished.

After staging the goofy Kooky Tunes at Bar Me, David Hawkins moved Kabarett Voltaire to the downstairs bar at the Seymour Centre. It was there that Van Hautem wove her spell, there that Wednesday Kennedy presented Last Night in New York, a depiction of post-September 11 New York to shame most journalism on the subject, and there that Christine Anu captivated with her ingenuous Intimate and Deadly show.

New Yorker Steve Ross returned to grace the stage at Woodfire Cabaret with his unerring sense of how to bestow stardom on a song and then ride shotgun, rather than the other way around.

Villa Caprese became a cabaret venue and hosted a valuable initiative with its Premiere Cabaret Showcase for bright young things - made more important by the glaring absence of the Sydney Cabaret Convention. For sheer class, the Three Divas - Judi Connelli, Suzanne Johnston and Rosemary Boyle - were hard to beat.

All in all, a good year rather than a vintage one.














NOVEMBER 27 2004

One man's crusade to get the soul back into Sydney is going strong, writes John Shand.

Passion and contempt erupt from David Hawkins like lightning. Deluges of words, studded with exclamations, whether he's expressing his undying admiration for such Australian music-theatre artists, as Nancye Hayes and Reg Livermore or his fury at the criminal demolition of such theatres as the magnificent old Regent in George Street.

But Hawkins doesn't just talk the talk, he moves heaven and earth to improve the lot of cabaret and music theatre in Sydney.

He runs Kabarett Voltaire, Sydney's main source of new-millenium, robust, edgy cabaret, now based in the downstairs bar at the Seymour Centre. He pockets no money from it, and when he describes what he does as a "mission", the zeal is self-evident. Hawkins is one of those rare people who, when he sees a problem betsetting others, rather than shaking his head, sets out to solve it.

While still at school, this product of Parramatta was already organising shows and routinely appearing in operas for Opera Australia. He also fought his first battle trying to save the Regent Theatre.

"As a kid I was weirdly, possessively in love with the Regent Theatre," he says. "And then when they ripped that down, it was like losing a parent or a loved one."

His anger at the demolition of the Regent subsequently fuelled his crusade. When others bemoaned the closure of the Tilbury Hotel's vibrant 1990s cabaret scene, Hawkins formed Showtune Productions, taking cabaret to the Kirk Gallery, Surry Hills, in '96. There he presented the likes of Christine Anu, David Campbell, Todd McKenney and Paul Capsis.

And when the Kirk became unavailable, Hawkins discovered an unlikely venue above a pizzeria in Bondi Junction. "I was buying a pizza," he recalls, "went upstairs to use the bathroom, and saw the room. It sort of smiled at me, and I thought I could do a few shows up here. And then when it worked, we kept going, and it ran for two years or so."

Meanwhile, he launched his own one-man show, Nom de Plume, and joined the national tour of Shout!, the Johnny O'Keefe musical, playing Lee Gordon. In the wake of this, Hawkins was smitten by the idea of being part of Kings Cross, and moved what had been called Kabarett Junction to the site of the old El Rocco, and rechristened it Kabarett Voltaire.

And this year he moved it to the Seymour Centre, which offered both a bigger room and bigger stage, and has hosted such exceptional work as Micheline Van Hautem's Songs of Jacques Brel. Surely, however, the performer in him must be irked at spending most of his life playing producer for others?

"No, I love it," he says, without hesitation. "I just love the nurturing, and getting into an artist's psyche and finding out what makes them tick; why do they want to do that?"

Hawkins has also played director, most recently on Christine Anu's autobiographical show, Intimate and Deadly, which, as he rightly observes, contrasted starkly with "performers who get up and tell their life story, and they've got no life story!"

In fact, Anu apparently was not convinced about her own story, either, and then Hawkins watched her onstage epiphany as the audience laughed and clapped. "Those moments are huge," he smiles.

The concept of the stage as a place of healing was something he learned from Liza Minnelli, whom he met while he was still at school when she was here in 1989. Having inundated Minnelli with letters, Hawkins was finally invited backstage. "We clicked, I suppose," he recalls. "I think she was a bit fascinated at such a young fan."

Three years later, having finished school, Hawkins went over and joined Minnelli's entourage for a month, travelling around America.

"She taught me heaps about the stage being a place of ritual and of healing." he says. "That's the thing that I really realised from watching Minnelli or [Judy] Garland or those people: that music, art and theatre is their life; that's what they breathe and there would be no more comfortable place for Liza Minnelli to walk out and talk about her problems than on stage before 2000 people."

He also learned to contain his ego. Having bought the Australian and New Zealand rights to the American rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch (which he expects to go into production next year), he will seek neither to direct nor star in it.

"They're big things to let go," he says, "but you suddenly realise that we're all in it together, and it's all coming together for the same goal, which is to somehow get the arts and culture and the creative landscape of Australia to be a little more important to our people ... For the amount of energy we put into the arts, and the sort of talent that comes out of it, you think, 'Whoa! If we actually took it slightly seriously...'".

In 10 years, Hawkins hopes to have established a company similar to the late, lamented J.C. Williamson's: "A company that can do repertory music theatre, a company that buys shows for artists, and actually nurtures our local talent ... I'll get that f---in' soul back into Sydney if it kills me," he promises. And you believe him.



















30 OCTOBER 2004

Short of major surgery, cancel whatever you have on tonight and hear Micheline Van Hautem give the songs of Jacques Brel a lingering kiss of life.

Not since Ute Lemper's unforgettable State Theatre show last year has Sydney seen such a complete performance within the genre we loosely call cabaret. Unlike Lemper, however, you can still get close and intimate with Van Hautem in the confines of Kabarett Voltaire. No doubt she, too, will soon have to wrestle with the remoteness of larger theatres.

New York-based Van Hautem is, like Brel and like her astonishing accompanist Frederik Caelen, a Belgian. She has reached inside Brel's breast and felt every nuance of his beating heart; touched the core of every note and word, then filtered it through her own infectious vitality and bewitching sensuality.

Above all, she exposes the rawness of Brel's passion, whatever the emotion in play: whether celebrating love or cursing it; whether dealing with loss, vice, death, friendship or yearning.

She began with Le Diable (Ca Va), exchanging tiny, stratospheric squeals with Caelen's accordion, then immediately shook up the mood entirely by singing Les Marquises off-mike, the potency increasing in inverse proportion to the drop in volume. For If You Go Away her voice was suddenly older, darker, while Caelen's accordion followed her like the perfect dance partner, and she stamped in time as the tide of passion swept in.

The Impossible Dream was visited because of Brel's involvement in Man of La Mancha. Amsterdam, like many others, was bilingual, heightening the impact of debauchery and desperation.

Caelen's accordion and piano was masterful, and he sang with Van Hautem to stunning effect.

Her own voice is not miraculous in itself, but she marshals her resources flawlessly, so they surge from the stage in waves of emotional honesty, packaged in a beguiling presentation. A must.














25 OCTOBER 2004

When Belgian rock singer Micheline Van Hautem was introduced to Jacques Brel she fell deeply in love. Admittedly, Brel had been dead for about 20 years but he left a tangible presence with his amazing catalogue of about 300 songs.

Van Hautem fell in love with his music and has been touring the world with her band, Mich en Scene, performing the works of Brel.

They have helped spark a revival of Brel's music, not only in Belgium where he and Van Hautem were born, but around the world.

"It started in 1998 when we were celebrating in Belgium the 20th anniversary of when Jacques Brel died," says Van Hautem.

"I was asked to sing a couple of songs and that's where I met Frederick, the accordion player, pianist, my musical partner. And I just fell in love with those wonderful songs."



















27 OCTOBER 2004

Often the best interpreters of songs are artists from the same cultural background as the writer: Dolly Parton revisiting the traditional bluegrass of her Appalachian mountain childhood, k.d. lang giving glorious voice to Canadian songwriters, Ute Lemper embodying the Kurt Weill canon. Perhaps its caused by the shared experience of belonging to the same land, the smells and sounds, moods and elements, an intangible spirit of place that embeds itself deep within the communal psyche over generations.

In just such a mould is Belgian chanteuse Micheline Van Hautem (pictured), who for the past six years has specialised in interpreting the songs of her legendary countryman, the late Jacques Brel. A quarter of a century after his death, she has almost single-handedly been responsible for the recent renaissance of interest in his work throughout Europe and North America.

Her background is not that different from many singers: while still a teenager she performed with various Flemish rock bands, and for several years worked as a radio DJ. But her sea change moment was moving to New York in 1998: in the worlds greatest musical melting pot, driven by the exile experience and the need to prove herself, she went back to her heritage and the music of Brel.

Jacques Brel was a modern day troubadour, a self-revealing, confessional singer/songwriter in the tradition of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Born in 1930, he moved to France in the early 50s and sang in taverns, cafes and inns throughout the country, eventually making Paris his home. He went on to become the leading singer and songwriter in France, lauded both for his unrelentingly emotive performance style and his songs, and his popularity in that country is as great now as it was during his short life. But by the age of 39 hed quit the stage, a victim of performance burnout; a decade later he was dead, succumbing to lung cancer.

Brel left behind a legacy of extraordinary songs: elegiac, funny, angry, often heartrending, at times shattering in their emotional honesty and poetic brilliance.

He wrote with bittersweet honesty, the songs filled with regret, longing, but also optimism and desire, speaking the universal language of the heart: yes, life hurts and youth deserts us and love can sometimes be the absolute shit of all time, but despite this, or perhaps because of it, we should never abandon the joy of living or the hope that makes life worthwhile.

Van Hautens interpretations of his dense, complex lyrics and stunning melodies keep the essence of the originals, without fossilising them: her gift is to endow them with a unique and contemporary sound. The originals were recorded in the idiom of big band arrangements; Van Hautem has stripped away the layers of orchestration, reworking the songs in a minimalist style: acoustic guitar, accordion, double bass and voice. The result is the CD Songs of Jacques Brel, first released in 2001 and recently re-issued in Australia.

Van Hauten continues to live in New York, where she regularly performs in cabaret venues with local musicians. She sings effortlessly in French, English, German and Flemish, and is also a composer in her own right. This cabaret version of Songs of Jacques Brel has been touring internationally for a couple of years now, including an award winning season at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival, and has bowled critics over along the way: Her interpretation of the mesmerizing songs of Jacques Brel is pure dynamite. This is a perfect show. A real tour de force. And: Micheline Van Hautem is in a different league. She is, simply, fabulous. Phew! Thats a pretty big rap to carry round. Now, after a sell-out season at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and performances at the Melbourne International Festival, shes in Sydney for four shows only, giving us an opportunity to see this full-throated redhead strut her stuff, accompanied on accordion and piano by Frederik Caelen. It could be something very special indeed.
















2 OCTOBER 2004

There is nothing like the combination of a powerful singer and a small room. The voice seems to envelop you, so there is nowhere to hide from an emotional assault. A night after witnessing Finbar Furey sandblasting the packed souls at the Harp Hotel, here was the soaring voice of Christine Anu contained in Kabarett Voltaire.

The abiding memory will be of her scorching through the sordid byways of Jacques Brel's Amsterdam, eyes flashing and voice almost cracking with the violence of the lyric. It was potent, confronting and half a world away from the dreamy girlhood memories of songs from her Torres Strait Island heritage.

From Bangarra Dance Theatre to pop star, from Moulin Rouge to the musical Rent, Anu's career has had many twists and turns. Intimate and Deadly is something new again: a chance for her to revisit the story so far as cabaret.

Never has the spoken material in such a show seemed so spontaneous - a tribute to Anu's delivery and to the writing of Wednesday Kennedy and David Hawkins (who conceived and directed it), with input from Anu and her sister Helen.

The show had a structure of changing moods, a rampaging I'm A Woman giving way to the breeziness of the traditional songs, originals and childhood stories in which she was joined by Helen. Their rapport leavened the yarns, while the conjunction of their phrasing and harmonies was a marvel. Amsterdam jolted us out of the euphoria, and led, via some more originals and a Paul Kelly, to a medley from the shows she has appeared in, and, finally, Island Home.

While she never completely eliminated a sense of a performance veneer, Anu is such an accomplished singer that she could still affect us in many ways, notably with a lightening of the voice in the treble register.

She had the enthusiastic support of the musical director, Andrew Worboys (piano, backing vocals) and the bountiful textures of the percussionist, Blair Greenberg, and consummate professionalism of the guitarist, Paul Berton.














In the Stephen Sondheim song I'm Still Here, the female singer bemoans "First you're another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone's mother, then you're camp". It's at this final stage in a performer's career they wind up singing ditties like I'm Still Here, in the much-maligned confines of cabaret.

And yet this week sees Christine Anu, aged only 33, take to the cabaret stage in a show at the Seymour Centre entitled Intimate And Deadly.

Anu explains, after a big pause.

"I'm gonna be a bit cheeky and say this. My sister rang me up one day and said, 'Oh my goodness, you should see the Drum Media review on your album [45 Degrees].' It was hilarious, I gotta say. The person that reviewed it said it was a cabaret album. I just burst into laughter and went wow, that's very interesting," Anu says.

"It was interesting because they must have really delved into it . I guess people are used to hearing the sound of me depicted by one song and one song only and that's My Island Home," she says. "And to hear me source other parts of my voice and my sound and just being able to evolve musically and to produce what I have on my most recent album, 45 Degrees, he picked up on all of that vibe. If his answer is cabaret, then I feel a bit complimented, thank you very much."

The show will be autobiographical, with songs about the culture of her Torres Strait Islander people, her professional life in shows such as Rent and films like Moulin Rouge, as well as cabaret standards including Jacques Brel's Amsterdam. And of course, My Island Home, which almost didn't make the playlist.

"That question doesn't just apply to this particular show. It applies to everything," she says. "You know that it [My Island Home] basically encases me in a time that is so completely far removed from the person I am now. I look at that and I think, 'That's such a little girl, who just has no idea of who she's gonna turn out to be in a minute.' Then a minute later I'm this. I've been pickled as My Island Home."

"I am a woman, I have two children, I'm not one-dimensional, I'm three-dimensional. We all are. I bleed like anybody else. I fart, I shit, I cry. I do all of those things, and when I'm hurt, I'll say it," she says.

"When you're a single mother of two children, they command and they demand your honesty. Now I have to start speaking the honest truth. This is the real Christine."













Writer and performer Wednesday Kennedy instinctively took to the streets of Manhattan after September 11, 2001 to record the city's responses to the attacks.

Ms Kennedy was compelled to document people's reactions without knowing what she would do with the results.

"I was working and having a really good time and then September 11 happened," Ms Kennedy said.

"Every other plan had been shot out of the window and I just felt sort of useless."

Ms Kennedy has since turned the recordings into her multi-media performance Last Night in New York.

"There was a real shattering that happened, shot like shrapnel all over the island," Ms Kennedy said.

"My idea was that I'd take those voices that I had from the streets and piece them together into a quilt of sound and image in some way of making the whole again what had been shattered."

The Inner West artist edited the work in Sydney but when she returned to New York a year later, no one wanted to see it.

"They were still healing, mourning the dead," she said.

"I had no problem getting pre-publicity... but I couldn't even get the people who were in it to come and see it."

Ms Kennedy said while she did not take a political slant, she understood people's reluctance to revisit those emotions.

"They didn't want to be made to relive and regurgitate that trauma," she said.

Ms Kennedy deliberately excluded footage of the actual attacks and the towers falling for this reason.

It was also important for her to humanise the event and present voices not heard on the likes of CNN.

"I like the idea of being a messenger to my friends in America and Australia," she said. "I now want to do a piece on Australia and take it back to America."














Kings Cross artist Wednesday Kennedy left Sydney for the United States in 1999.

"America became my hope at a time when I didn't have any hope left in Australia," she said.

In New York City she was like a kid in a candy shop. The wealth of ideas on which to build her poetry, music, interviews and writings were overwhelming.

"But all my plans changed on September 11," she said.

She spent that Tuesday morning in her apartment on the upper west side, having been dragged to the TV by her landlord.

She spent the next six weeks on the streets of New York City, capturing the way the people were coping with the attacks on film and in sound.

The final product of her time there is a multimedia presentation with live spoken word titled "Last Night in New York". It has already played in Europe and the US and comes to the Seymour Centre in September.

The first time it showed in New York on the first anniversary of the attacks, the city's wounds were still too raw.

"There was a defensiveness and a fear that first year," she said. "No one would even review the show."

On her second attempt in 2003 she played to full houses.

"New York is a magic place, it sort of wears its heart on its sleeve," she said.

But September 11 changed many things in the city - people became scared and protective of their homeland, she said.

"It was a weird time to be a foreigner in New York," Kennedy said. "But I was able to see things in a way that some of the locals couldn't. I wanted to capture all the voices - left-wing, right-wing, religious, all of them."

Kennedy had to rethink the role of the artist, her role, while living in New York during that time.

"After September 11 there was just too much shock," she said. "Artists want to shock sometimes, but not then. My role was to heal, not shock.

"On some level watching something like 'Last Night' helps to bring us back to the heart and make it personal. [Prime Minister] John Howard has dried us out on empathy levels and made things political," she said.

"In order to heal you have to remember how you felt at the time. That's always a good place to start the discussion," she said.












Aeroplanes flying into skyscrapers. Images of everlasting horror. The impossible made real, and the world changed forever.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, touched us all, even here, 22 nervous flying hours from the epicentre.

After the twin towers of the World Trade Centre were reduced to rubble, the public response was left to George Bush and his cronies in America and around the world. Talk about compounding a tragedy.

The exception was the performance poet and actress Wednesday Kennedy. Originally a Sydneysider, Kennedy happened to be in New York that day, and for the next month she filmed, recorded and interviewed her way into the heart of the trauma. The results have been edited and interspersed with her delivery of a live, spoken-word component - part poetry, part reportage - for a package running about 50 minutes.

Kennedy's perspective helps make the unreal real, and even if we cannot make sense of it, we can sense the making of the America that would soon wage wars in response.

She did not catch the attack on the towers on camera, nor has she used stock footage. Rather, she has opted to create an audio montage of the initial catastrophe, thereby engaging our imaginations rather than shocking us anew.

A sense of apocalypse leaps at you, whether metaphorically - a sale sign that screams "Final Days" in a shop window - or more literally, with a bull-necked New Yorker urging the nuking of the entire Middle East.

Although she captures heated exchanges in the streets to illustrate the diverse of points of view, the question of "why?" is barely mentioned.

At first this seemed a monumental flaw, until I realised she was merely reflecting the ignorant insularity which characterised America before the evil was perpetrated, and which would soon result in at least two wars of revenge, but no Palestinian state to neutralise the hatred.

There are bizarre stories of McDonald's and KFC having "emergency" mobile units to feed the workers at Ground Zero, and footage of mobile evangelical broadcasters cruising the streets and blasting out the message of the one true faith.

It is sensational filmmaking, which is lent an added layer of density by Kennedy's lively spoken material, even if this is not always quite as successful.























Remarkably little artistic response came out of New York after September 11. A voice that did respond and has toured New York and Budapest since, is that of Australian multi-media artist, Wednesday Kennedy. Last Night in New York is a phenomenal hybrid show based on interviews, live footage and personal narratives around S11 and premieres at Kabarett Voltaire @ the Seymour Centre 4 September.

After the S11 attacks, Kennedy roamed the sleepless streets of New York for weeks, talking to people, capturing their words, their signs, their political and personal bents and her own emotional rollercoaster. Then she came home to create the unique, brave and insightful Last Night in New York.

Basically New York was the source of the wound, says Kennedy, recently retuned to Australia, and when I was on the streets and shot the video, it really captured that anger, the confusion, the fear, the emotions that Bush harnessed to wage war on Iraq. Similar fears are being harnessed by the Howard government now, she believes, which heightens the immediate relevance of the show for Australian audiences. The internal political landscape of Australia has a lot of similarities (to the States) not only the way we manipulate but the way we respond to fear and to threats and its not always rational.

For me now to look at this video in retrospect gives a certain kind of insight into the emotions that were bubbling around after the shock. After S11, everything was completely shut down in New York so by the time I got back - I raced back (with the show) for the anniversary - there was really hardly any art on it. Why? Its hard to think with all that fear in the air; hard to digest the emotions. There was a whole empty era of talking about nothing; the whole Seinfeld era; then there was too much to talk about...

'It's November 2002 and they're threatening to bomb Iraq and i'm sitting in New York with my friend, trying to work out whether the alert is orange or amber.
has a child been kidnapped or is it over.
it's over for Iraq....I tell my friend.

'Dont worry about that,' he comforted me. 'It wont affect us here'.

It wont affect us here? Do you remember that clear blue sept day when two planes arrived outta nowhere and into the worlds trades centre...or were we dreaming...

Dont get too excited, he said, patting me. Dead people hate you to get excited. They dont like anything that might remind them that they too have a pulse.

Anyway what's Saddam got to do with it ? I asked him. And what happened to Osama?, and whats the name of that other little towel head who maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, or maybe next week is going to sit next to you at the bus stop and blow your dead heart to smithereens!

He didnt buy me any more drinks after that. In fact the more I talk the less I drink in this town. What is happening here? I was just getting into this freedom of speech vibe and nobody wants to play.

(Excerpt from Emotional Deflective, a piece Kennedy wrote in 2002 after her first tour.)

Emotional Deflective was written after the first anniversary tour, which was the hardest, says Kennedy. Then she toured to Budapest: It was a European and expat. audience; non-defensive intelligent and interesting people who gave me confidence in the piece again. Then the Cherry Lane in New York for the second anniversary and the show was accepted in New York.

As for the Australian premiere, Kennedy says it was wonderful to have it received well in New York last year but the piece was originally conceived as a radio feature with ABC and being here to create it gave me a critical eye when I was really close to have that personal eye and the Australian eye gave me luxury to digest it quickly. And so many people here helped create it.














The annual Sydney Cabaret Convention was mysteriously dropped from the city's cultural calendar this year although moves are afoot to ensure the event happens next year. The convention, run by the City of Sydney, is getting another overhaul and organisers are hoping to clinch a deal with a co-production partner.

The council's senior events co-ordinator, Gillian Minervini, said that the convention would remain under the auspices of the City of Sydney and retain its link with the prestigious New York Cabaret Convention.

Although the Sydney Cabaret Convention was a popular fixture each winter in the Lower Town Hall, the venue was considered too restrictive for audience numbers to grow and meet the cost of producing the event, which was usually capped off with a lavish gala.

The new venue and format of the cabaret convention is expected to be announced by November, ruling out any chance of the competition being held this year.

The Sydney Cabaret Convention burst on the scene in 1997 shortly after Sydney lost the famed cabaret stage at the Tilbury Hotel. It was championed by Geoffrey Williams and Michael Freundt, the Tilbury's proprietors, who directed their creative energies into getting the event up and running. It was a roaring success, initially attracting some of the world's leading lights of cabaret, such as Julie Wilson, and giving all signs of a promising future. But in the past couple of years the grand vision began to unravel, and changes were made to keep the enterprise focused and afloat.

Last year's event, directed by Ron Creagher, was more user-friendly than in earlier years and was launched in fine style at the W Hotel. The competition format was also streamlined to offset some of the funding lost when Qantas withdrew its sponsorship of the event.

Whatever the situation behind the scenes, there's no doubting that the event has showcased an extraordinary range of cabaret talent in Australia - seasoned entertainers such as Toni Lamond and Nancye Hayes, driven young talents like Hayden Tee and, of course, the unknown hopefuls.

Tee was one of the more promising performers to come to notice via the convention two years ago - a graduate of NIDA's first singer/actor/director program in 1999. He immediately revealed his ringing voice and comic instincts, which have developed to a high standard in the past year or so. At its best, the cabaret convention can serve as a career launch pad.

The event, modelled on the renowned New York Cabaret Convention, required each contender to perform a couple of songs and deliver linking banter in seven minutes, watched by an appreciative audience and two adjudicators. Hosts in recent years have included Genevieve Lemon, Geraldine Turner and Spencer McLaren. And the prize was a trip to New York and a chance to take part in that city's cabaret convention each October.

Despite the obvious interest in cabaret and dedicated festivals in Adelaide and Brisbane, the scene in Sydney tends to be a stop-start affair although the enterprising David Hawkins has kept the flame burning bright at Kabarett Voltaire while Villa Caprese at Milsons Point also fills the void by getting behind such talents as Avigail Herman, who begins a season on Friday.

But there's no reason why a city this size can't sustain a cabaret convention and help get the names of a new generation of performers up in lights.
















24 AUGUST 2004

Just a few metres from where pelvises were grinding and sniggers were flying as Debbie supposedly did Dallas, something of rather more consequence was happening in the downstairs bar at the Seymour Centre. More so than drinking, even, although that, too, is arguably more consequential than Debbie actually doing very little.

A cabaret show concocted from two people just spinning yarns and singing songs from 20-odd years in showbiz is hardly a new concept, yet Rodney Dobson and Margi De Ferranti do it remarkably au naturel, shall we say - though not in the Debbie sense.

They are good at the fine art of being themselves on stage. Their show has been carefully scripted, without ironing out the scope for spontaneity, and the songs have been better integrated than they are in any of the welter of lame jukebox musicals.

Those wretched shows get their come-uppance in a spoof based on Playschool, with De Ferranti playing Little Ted and Dobson a marvellously lecherous Scarecrow. His designs on the dear little bear culminate in the Bananas in Pyjamas theme becoming a lewd anthem to outdo Debbie any day.

Both De Ferranti and Dobson have substantial careers behind them. She won the 1997 Sydney Cabaret Convention, and their collective credits include Jerry's Girls, Mamma Mia, Buddy, the wretched Aspects of Love and the incessant Les Miserables.

As well as revisiting his Big Bopper from Buddy and his aborted career in the The Full Monty, Dobson took us back to his performance as Tobias in the memorable AO production of Sweeney Todd. This was the highlight of the night: before our eyes and ears he became Toby, wringing our hearts in a stunning evocation of the pathos of Not While I'm Around, while De Ferranti offered Mrs Lovett's empty reassurances.

De Ferranti's own show-stopper was Stephen Schwartz's rousing Defying Gravity, marginally weighed down by the harshness of her upper register, but, like everything else, astutely accompanied by Nigel Ubrihien.

This latest incarnation of David Hawkins's Kabarett Voltaire initiative (following tenures at Bondi Junction and Kings Cross) is the best space yet. The room is spacious without losing immediacy and, despite being the smallest of the four Seymour Centre theatres, may well host some of the complex's best work.














In New York supper clubs have become part of the cultural fabric of the city. There are jazz clubs, soul venues, clubs where you can perform yourself, post-musical clubs and just about everything you can think of. We don't tend to think of Sydney as having the same culture, but tucked away in basements, alleyways and old theatres made new again are an abundance of supper clubs on the rise, and they are all overflowing with first-class live performances.

From boutique 70-seater cabaret clubs in Kings Cross to 200-seater theatres in Surry Hills, as well as bars in the CBD, there is no shortage of small-scale venues. There are a host of Sydney stars who debuted at the smaller theatres, including Cate Blanchett whose career began at The Stables in Darlinghurst, and Christine Anu, Human Nature, Paul Capsis, David Campbell, Georgie Parker and Todd McKenney have all performed at underground shows at different times in their careers.

"We are at an all-time high in Sydney in terms of the quality of performance and artists in underground theatre," independent theatre publicist Troy Dodds says. "I see a lot of Sydney people discovering it for the first time, and they are stunned. There are so many venues now and so many good performers. There is always room to grow and I wouldn't be surprised to see it really expand over the coming years. In some ways underground theatre is more real than the big shows which tend to take you off into a fantasy world.

"Writers and directors put a lot of their own experiences into this type of theatre, so it has far broader appeal, and is very real."

Acclaimed theatre personality John Bell says smaller theatres play a significant role in contributing to the cultural melting pot of a city. "Small scale theatre is really really important," says Bell, "a) it's an opportunity for aspiring actors and directors to work and b) it's an alternative to mainstream theatre which has certain constraints on it.

"The smaller fringe theatres can afford to be far more out there and challenging and groundbreaking than the mainstream theatre."

Bell worked on Sydney's first professional theatre company The Old Tote in 1963 and went on to open the Nimrod (now Belvoir St), then the Stables in Darlinghurst.

"We always need that grassroots thing to be coming up, providing new talent and challenging the status quo." As the artistic director of Bell Shakespeare, which this year will travel more than 125,000 kilometres around Australia, Bell finds Sydney has the most thriving alternative theatre scene.

"If you look around any night of the week you'll find at least a dozen alternative productions happening in odd little venues. I've just been to Adelaide recently and there is some activity there, but the fringe culture is more established here.

"Melbourne had a really dry stretch for a while but now it's coming back now there is some great stuff happening. I can't speak of Brisbane because I haven't been there for a while, but for the past 10 years Sydney has had a pretty thriving fringe culture."

Thriving and confronting, theatres Sydney-wide are continuing to give way to many a famous actor. Bell recalls working with Mel Gibson in the early '70s at the Nimrod when Gibson played Romeo in Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet. More recently Bell worked with Secret Life Of Us star Joel Edgerton in Shakespeare's Henry V.

Sharon Millerchip winner of two Mo and a Helpmann awards has performed alongside an array of stars in big-budget musicals including Hugh Jackman, Marina Prior and Anthony Warlow. She has just completed a season in Kooky Tunes at Kabarett Voltaire (known in the 50s as the El Rocco Jazz Cellar) in Kings Cross to rave reviews and says the response to underground theatre has been overwhelming.

"The musical theatre scene has changed over recent years. Gone are the days when people would line up for 10 blocks to buy a ticket to the opening of Phantom Of The Opera. As a result, we have less mainstream musical theatre shows on and the cost of going to see one is very high. For example in Sydney at the moment, the only mainstream show on offer is The Lion King and it is over $100 a ticket, so a lot of people cannot afford to go. People are looking for alternatives."

Performers are expected to work to a high standard today and, in the past five years, more than half a dozen degree courses in performance have started. meaning a lot more competition. There are thousands of people out in the market who are qualified and capable, but only a handful of jobs. For many, their only option is creating their own productions, which is where the smaller theatres come into play.

"Underground theatre is very intimate, too. The venues are smaller, and the space between the audience and the artists is limited so much that the crowds can almost feel the performers on stage. They can see every expression on their face."

Like many small-scale production companies, Show Tune Productions stages weekly entertainment in Sydney, and offers both a modern look at entertainment and provides a springboard for new talent. David Hawkins, artistic director at Showtune, has staged more than 100 cabaret shows boosting the profiles of Christine Anu, Human Nature, Paul Capsis, David Campbell, Rachael Beck, Georgie Parker, Todd McKenney and Maree Johnson, to name a few. He has worked in venues including the atmospheric Kabarett Voltaire.

"The whole music theatre industry survives on attending each others shows," confesses Hawkins. "What it really needs is to grow into the general public, which comes back to the hot problem "how do we get our shows out there?"

Hawkins who is also a performer and has appeared in productions for Opera Australia, Bazmark, Sydney Theatre Company and, most recently, Lee Gordon's Shout, started producing shows at the famed Tilbury Hotel in Woolloomooloo in 1995 out of irritation of lack of suitable venues.

"I sense great times ahead for Australian theatre," says David Berthold, artistic director of the Griffin Theatre. "There are more talented, emerging writers around now than at any other time I can recall."

Some argue that regardless of the quality of performers, directors or hands on deck, many are unaware of the performances. Considering a postcard size advertisement in a Saturday paper in Sydney costs almost $2000, and the average ticket price at a show is around $20, it's clear producers need to find other means of filling the seats.

"In New York, they have three or four theatrical publications listing everything in town, so in New York it's easier for the smaller productions to survive because they have means of getting their shows out there. Here it's like a lucky dip! Sometimes you get reviewed, sometimes you don't," says Hawkins.

In Sydney in 1997 a group of frustrated surfers-come-actors founded The Tamarama Rock Surfers at the 60-seater venue at the Old Fitzroy Hotel. It was designed as a way of saving on resources while encouraging experimental works, including cabaret stand-up comedy, dance and multi-media.

"You can't do the big advertising with venues like the Stables," says Les Solomon, director of late-night chat show Muf-Tee, an interactive comedy talk show which has returned from a season in New York.

"It's just not financially viable. If the public really wants to see some of the best theatre in Sydney, they have to go to these places. They can't expect these performances to jump out at them in the papers.

"The biggest problem is that small venues can't possibly afford a half-page add in the SMH, they'd be lucky to afford a matchbox-size advertisement because you'd be lucky to get that much back at the end of the show!"

Solomon says smaller scale theatres rely largely on word-of-mouth advertising to fill the seats, though this usually results in the show, opening well then dying for two weeks until the word gets around and finally everyone comes in the last week.

According to the Australia Council for the Arts, there were more than 250 active theatre groups in Sydney last year. So next time you're looking for an alternative, try this city's thriving fringe culture.


















You won't need a caffeine buzz to enjoy this show! LJ Smith displays all the energy possible to capture the audiences undivided attention with her magnificent performance in her self-written piece, Confessions of a Caffeine Addict.

Polly Randall, played by Smith, is an English Ex-pat who divulges her frustrated love story in this show at Sydney's tiny Kabarett Voltaire. We also meet some of her insightful and sex starved co-workers, each with their own interpretations on love. Polly's account of her co-workers is poignant, and otherwise fetish inspired!

The budding relationship between the "coffee guy" played by Richard John and Polly is the central thrust of the show. Does her cooking kill him? For a while we are not sure, and we almost don't care as long as she keeps on singing.

This show is fun. LJ Smith is a captivating lead in this near one-woman show. Polly's English accent is not consistently maintained throughout and at times we are not sure when Polly is supposed to be Australian, English or American. This is a minor distraction, and although some of the punch lines centre around stir-fry, the well chosen crowd pleasing songs such as "Stormy Weather" keep the audience engaged in Polly's romantic adventure.

LJ Smith and Richard John bring a contemporary light-hearted love story to life at the intimate Kabarett Voltaire.












Hayden Tee has an upbeat, eager-to-please manner, a ringing voice and lots of energy to burn.

In the past year he has stretched his wings in his variety cabaret show Muf-Tee, which has revealed his comic flair and ability to fly by the seat of his pants. He recently won over audiences at Mama Rose's in New York and has a CD out, although he mentions none of this in his latest cabaret turn.

The show, ably accompanied by music director/pianist Nigel Ubrihien, begins with a firm, rousing version of Stephen Schwartz's The Spark of Creation followed by Gershwin's How Long Has This Been Going On?. Tee looks every inch the smart young man about town yet there's a sense midway through the act that a bit more delicacy and ease in such an intimate space wouldn't go astray. It's not as though this is an airy concert hall where you have to play big and belt it out for the benefit of the back row.

On the whole, Tee is a good-humoured, self-deprecating performer with keen acting instincts and, in his best moments, the thoughtfulness and passion to convey the heart and soul of a song. His versions of Flaherty/Ahrens' If the World were Like the Movies, Alan Menken/Howard Ashman's Proud of Your Boy and John Bucchino's It Feels like Home, were poignant and stirring. Although there's a reasonable amount of light and shade, comedy and earnestness in the repertoire, some of the choices don't add up to anything memorably new-minted, including Anthony Crowley's clunky gear-changer Roundabout in Paris and Craig Carnelia's You Can Have the TV.

Some of the sentimental song introductions also struck me as patchy and contrived while the constant "I'm from New Zealand" refrain gradually wore thin. Tee's solo turn isn't a huge leap from his partly biographical cabaret Quarterlife Crisis less than a year ago at The Stables but he's grown in confidence and has great fun bouncing ideas and banter off his audience.

It's his tuneful and characterful voice that impresses the most. Given the right choices and opportunities, Hayden Tee is sure to develop into a singular force on the music theatre and cabaret stage. His versatility and drive will see to that.

Hayden Tee performs at Kabarett Voltaire on Sunday at 6pm.














Bringing together the work of some of the last century's greatest gay composers, and a few gay icons, Out on a Limb is a light-hearted song-filled look at life, love and fabulous hair, dah-lings.

Featuring the work by everyone from Stephen Sondheim to Kylie Minogue, the show is a melange of styles, from musical theatre to modern pop, and promises reveal the secret of Madonna's success.

"It's all the songs that were too silly, too obscure or just too gay for your average cabaret" says writer-performer Andrew Threfall. "It's camp, it's silly, it's a lot of fun."

Following a sell-out premiere run at Melbourne's Midsumma Festival, Out on a Limb is, by all reports, quite simply more camp than a row of tents.

It follows 25-year-old Threlfall's successful cabaret debut in The Boy Who Knew Everything, a one man cabaret about growing up as a gay geek, and Significant Others, a show about love and family featuring a starring role for a big, white teddy bear.

















Joanna Weinberg was little in London, bigger in South Africa and is trying not to become too grown up in Sydney, where she has now lived for seven years.

Currently building a name for herself in cabaret, Joanna's hit show Sinksongs has been performed at numerous venues and is rising to fame as quickly as the writer and performer herself.

"In Sinksongs, I've created a character - Elspeth Dickens , a woman who used to have a career but is currently trapped at home with twin toddlers and an absent husband," Ms Weinberg says.

"She is going mad with cabin fever so she installs a webcam in her coffee cupboard in order to connect to the outside world. As her website hots up she meets some interesting people in cyberspace, who impact on her life in dramatic ways and she finds an answer to her frustrating situation."

Already, it is becoming clear that this is not just another cabaret show. In fact, this is more than a "this is my life" show, this is virtually a book musical. There are thirteen original songs, all of which give expression to Elspeth's fantasies or moods. "For instance, she is inspired upon finding a sex website, to sing a song where she imagines herself as a lapdancer," Ms Weinberg says. "In another, an estate agent and in yet another, a high flying CEO."

The show takes 65 minutes and is supported by Nigel Ubrihien.

Talking of book musicals, that's something that Joanna has managed to conquer as well.

"In South Africa I wrote a musical about a young English girl arriving in South Africa to discover that the crates and boxes discarded by her family upon unpacking, have been inhabited by some homeless black people," she explains. "She makes friends with them and discovers the joys of African music as well as the appalling injustices of apartheid South Africa. The music was steeped in the joyful urban township music of Johannesburg."

The show had a six week run at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg but proved too expensive to tour.

So, for someone who has performed all over the world, how does Sydney shape up?

"Sydney is bursting with talent, with a keen audience who support the theatre," Ms Weinberg says. 

"I hear complaints about how Sydney has the beach and sport which compete with the theatre but I have never attended a show which wasn't at least half full. I do think it is very hard to get original work noticed in Sydney - the large theatres seem to be very conservative - they prefer to mount shows which have proven track records. I'd like to see much more Australian work. In terms of people though, industry people are as supportive here as I've found them everywhere."

Whether it be creating full-length musicals or writing her own cabaret shows for smaller venues, originality seems to be the sticking point for Joanna. "People are interesting when they are real," she says. "I want to see a person's essence when they perform, whether that is in original material or not. I also have an obsessive writing chip in my brain. I can't help putting my spin on things, telling the audience the way I see a situation in a song: Its self expression, communication, danger. There are so many beautiful singers who interpret well - I admire them but I'm not one of them, I always do my own material because that is what I'm best at."














The Daily Telegraph

For a 21-year-old who has tasted success at an early age, Shaun Rennie still has his feet planted firmly on the ground.

In 2001, he went from being an unknown 19-year-old to having a feature role in the smash hit musical, Mamma Mia. Since then he has won at the Sydney Cabaret Convention and performed a season of his cabaret show Second Star to the Right at the celebrated Algonquian Oak Room in New York.

Not bad for a boy from Sydney's south-west who was initially trained as a dancer. "I started dancing lessons when I was about seven years old but I was never really any good at it," admits Rennie.

"My dancing teacher was the one who suggested I learn singing so off I went and luckily I found that I was a more natural singer than dancer."

Rennie was part of the Department of Education's "Talent Development Project" and in his final year at school took part in a musical theatre course at NIDA. "I was the youngest in the course by about three years," laughs Rennie.

The next year was spent auditioning for Mamma Mia and singing at corporate events and in local talent questions. "The whole audition process for Mamma Mia, with call-backs and everything, took up most of the year," he says. "It was a very long process."

It was during the musical's Sydney season that Rennie decided to compete in the Cabaret Convention.

"I knew that if I won I would have to make a decision between the trip to New York and Mamma Mia but I decided to worry about that if, and when, I came to it," he says.

Of course, he did come to it and Rennie chose not to renew his Mamma Mia contract and take the trip to New York.

He came back to Australia late last year with bookings already in place to return to the US - to Palm Beach next month and New York in October. But before he goes, Rennie will perform three shows at Kabarett Voltaire in Kings Cross.

"I thought I might as well do some shows while I was home," he says.

His show, Second Star to the Right, is a mix of "showtunes, original Australian compositions and 1970's pop standards.

"But I've managed to avoid all ABBA songs," laughs Rennie.


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