By Kathy Marks
Founded just 16 years ago, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival has become a major fixture on Australia’s arts calendar – and 2016 artistic co-directors Ali McGregor and Eddie Perfect are promised to serve up a feast of classical and cutting-edge performances by leading local and overseas artists.
The two-week festival, the biggest of its kind, features a mix of music, satire, comedy and musical theatre.
In 2016, acts included Australia’s Tom Burlinson performing Frank Sinatra’s iconic live album Sinatra at the Sands and the German-Dutch star Sven Ratzke with his Starman show based on David Bowie’s music.
For McGregor, a singer who has starred in international hit shows including La Clique, La Soiree and, more recently, Club Swizzle, the opportunity to co-run a festival which has shaped her own cabaret career fulfilled a longstanding dream.
“I’ve been eyeing off this job for about six years,” she admits, “and as a result, I’ve had a list on my phone that I would add to constantly of people I thought should be in the festival … So when [the organisers] did approach me, I bombarded them with hundreds of names.”
Perfect, too, said that the artistic co-director role is “literally the stuff of my dreams”, describing the Cabaret Festival as “my muse, my teacher and my support … a source of inspiration, a connection to creatives all over the world and a place of passion and risk”.
The pair bring “slightly different focuses but really similar tastes” to the job, according to Perfect, a singer-songwriter, comedian and actor who joined ABC TV’s Play School presenting team in 2014.
While his main aspiration is to foster new writing and new music, McGregor – a former Opera Australia principal soprano who “ran away to join the circus”, as she likes to tell it – is passionate about “what some people call old-school cabaret … I really love the art of interpretation, to see people take a songbook song and do something really unique and different with it and make it their own”.
Creative launch pad at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2016
Those divergent interests – not to mention McGregor’s extensive contact book – enabled the duo to “cast a fairly wide net” and assemble a smorgasbord of talent, she says, representing “all that is cabaret in the world, or at least the Western world”, including variety and burlesque, under the Adelaide Festival Centre’s roof.
That breadth and inclusiveness characterised her and Perfect’s vision for the festival, a platform over the years for artists such as Michael Griffiths and Tim Minchin who have gone on to achieve critical acclaim.
The event has also been a launch pad for hit shows including Perfect’s own Shane Warne The Musical, which he presented in development, concert-style, in 2007.
As well as Burlinson and Ratzke, 2016’s program included the opening night’s Variety Gala Performance and the Adelaide premiere of The Wharf Revue, a merciless pillorying of politicians by Jonathan Biggins, Amanda Bishop, Phillip Scott and Drew Forsythe, long a favourite of Sydney audiences.
According to McGregor, who has hosted a late-night variety show at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the past decade, cabaret has undergone a resurgence in recent years.
A counter to reality TV
After a long period of being seen as stale and staid, and “just something that a music theatre singer did between shows”, she says, “it’s now being seen as an art form and a genre in its own right”, with talented artists “making their living from it, not just doing it in the off season”.
One reason for this evolution, she believes, is “a backlash against the lack of genuine and visceral art, with the rise of the reality show and all that manipulated entertainment on our TV screens”, while a shortage of musical theatre work has meant artists “just had to create their own work, and they were performing it in cabaret-style venues”.
Australian artists have been at the forefront of the rebirth, “creating something brand new with the concept of cabaret … developing their own work from scratch and creating their own voices and their own way of presenting their own story, including hard subjects, but with plenty of tongue in cheek”.
McGregor and Perfect are relishing the chance to build on the work of their predecessors, who have included the musician David Campbell, singer Kate Ceberano and, in 2014, Barry Humphries, who presided over a rise in attendance numbers to nearly 54,000.
Like a good marriage
For McGregor, whose Cabaret Festival acts have included Jazz Cigarette, Alchemy and the children’s show Jazzamattazz, Adelaide audiences are “incredibly loyal and supportive”.
“They can look quite conservative on the surface, but they’re actually willing to be pushed and challenged and go out of their comfort zone.”
Another attraction of the festival, for artists accustomed to performing in tents and fields and back rooms, is “to see our genre in a proper theatre with proper lighting and proper sound, yet with still an intimate feel”.
And with everything under one roof, friendships are quickly struck up between the “glorious misfits” who populate the cabaret world, says McGregor, describing Adelaide as the “best school camp ever”.
She and Perfect, who have known each for about a decade through the cabaret and comedy world in Melbourne, have great respect for each other’s respective talents and strengths.
“It’s like a good marriage,” she says, “in that our differences complement each other rather than grating.”