The Boundary-Busting Cabaret of Yana Alana - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Boundary-Busting Cabaret of Yana Alana

The Boundary-Busting Cabaret of Yana Alana

By Jose Fermoso


Because a one-woman show can be as liberating an experience for the performer as for the audience. 

By Jose Fermoso

Sarah Ward met — so to speak — Yana Alana when she was 28 and in a dark place. She was in therapy, struggling with her identity after coming out and feeling unsafe in the conservative environment of her native Melbourne, Australia. So she started going to drag shows. There, she found people of all persuasions. Slowly, the idea of a woman who wouldn’t care what anyone thought of her started to take shape, a woman who’d write a self-help book called Go Fuck Yourself while gleefully bouncing homophobic insults off her naked body. And Yana, the cabaret singer alter-ego Ward invented, was born.

In breakthrough shows such as Between the Cracks, Ward blurs the line between her own personal struggles and Yana’s absurdist confessionals. In Cracks, Yana starts the show talking about depression while standing onstage naked, her body painted blue. She then turns around, picks out an earring placed between her buttocks and sings a full-throated ballad to a shocked audience: “I’m as blue as remorse and as blue as a corpse, as blue as a smurf … [but] I don’t know who I am, like I don’t exist, like a character that somebody made up, some sick fuck! It’s a captivating show that also raises a poignant question: Is this woman struggling for real, or is it a put-on? In an interview with OZY, Ward admitted it’s both. She exorcises her fears onstage through that character, but sometimes they get the best of her. Ward won the 2014 Helpmann Award for Best Cabaret Performer.

In many ways, Ward was born an entertainer. Her salesman father moved the family every year but kept the mood light by encouraging playing. “And with my mother, [we’d] make up story lines to TV shows and laugh with impersonations.” But Ward’s time at an all-girls school provided the biggest boost. Being around girls, she says, nurtured her humor instead of encouraging her to “just be pretty.” Humor has helped her deal with rough times, including kidney cancer.

Yana’s political commentary also fits the traditional goal of cabaret as art that challenges the status quo. Yana has mocked former conservative Australian prime minister John Howard onstage for not considering tampons health products by imagining his ilk with vaginas for heads. “On that day,” she posited, “I’d like to ask what they think of their policies on abortion when their head starts to bleed, if it is absolutely necessary to use a napkin.” There are also songs on secular thinking and hypocritical gay leaders. But maybe the toughest subject broached is anxiety. Ward says she still has panic attacks and reproduces them onstage when Yana discovers she’s nude.

Ward praises her collaborators. Ward’s director, Anni Davey, in particular helps streamline the show and gets her to focus on pathos. She helped Ward with one of the characters’ lyrics, which summarize the worldview of both performer and character. “I don’t want to be nooormal,” she croons, “I just want to be me.”

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