Ali McGregor Interview; Artistic Director Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2016
Craig Fossey | On 23, Jun 2015
During the final show of the 2015 Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Backstage Club hosted by Lady Rizo, Barry Humphries gave his closing address. As he came to his conclusions, it was his turn to pass the baton of Artistic Director to the recipient for 2016 (or that should be recipient[s]). As integral performers of the 2015 Cabaret Festival, the dynamic pair of Ali McGregor and Eddie Perfect was announced as Co-Directors for 2016. If fans of the festival were excited about the diversity of Humphriesâ€™ program this year, then the possibilities for curation next year appear endless. The diversity in McGregorâ€™s CV is outstanding in itself; to combine that with the musical and comedic talents of Perfect bodes well for a really exciting program in 12 months time.
On the final Saturday morning of the festival, before the official announcements had been made for 2016, The Creative Issue got to sit down with Ali McGregor and gain an insight to her visions for the future direction of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.
TCI: What sort of impression do you think 2015 Adelaide Cabaret Festival is having on it’s audiences?
Ali McGregor:Â It’s been an incredible year. The 2015 program has been fantastic. There has been a big increase in sales, which I think is definitely influenced by having Barry Humphries here at the helm, because he is a draw card. Also, ticket sales have gone up every year because this festival has always stuck to really high standards. There’s a lot of trust that has been laid with audiences. Quite a number of festivals need a lot of big names because audiences will only go to those big names. In contrast, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival has always had such a great standard, and people will now come to see someone they haven’t heard of because they trust there will be a certain standard. I think that’s a testament to all the artistic directors we’ve had over the past fifteen years that have made it that way.
TCI: What made you put your hat in the ring to direct this festival next year?
Ali McGregor:Â I’ve performed at this festival six times and for a long time I’ve been doing cabaret festival shows. Cabaret is something I’m really passionate about. I host a variety night that I’ve done also for ten years, so I’ve been programming that and by doing that and working in festivals, I’ve got to know pretty much everyone there is to know in the cabaret scene. I’m just really passionate about getting cabaret to people. When I see the reaction that audiences have to cabaret, there is something so real, raw and emotional about it, which I don’t always get with just a live music or theatre gig. There’s something just a little bit more about cabaret, which is why I’m just so passionate about it. I was more than happy to be considered for directing this festival.
TCI: Personally, you’ve had quite a ride with your own career. Opera Australia to La Clique, some jazz, your cabaret performances and now soon to be artistic director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festivalâ€¦Was there a plan for this kind of progression or was this just something where new opportunities led to exploration of new ground?
Ali McGregor:Â I’ve never been someone to really plan too far ahead. It’s always been something where I’ve just wanted to continue challenging myself, by never knowing what’s going to happen or what’s going to be fired at you, it can inspire something completely different. You can be somewhere and just one person will hear just one song and it will change what you want to do. If you only have one idea that you want to head for, you could get disappointed. If the world is your oyster, then there’s barely any disappointment because everything is a gift.
TCI: Yes, that’s true. Can you name a career personal highlight?
Ali McGregor:Â When I first got to Opera Australia and suddenly was working at the (Sydney) Opera House. That was pretty exciting and getting to work with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge conducting me, was pretty exciting. Also I think coming here (the Adelaide Cabaret Festival) the very first year was a life changing experience. Dave and Lisa Campbell brought me for their first year and I did a show. The people I met through working in that show have become my closest friends now. Really it felt like I found my thing when I came here. And, joining the cast of La Clique; I ran away from the opera and joined a show that traveled around the world. La Clique, which has now become La Soiree, which is kind of bohemianist, was also a career highlight because it changed the direction of my life.
TCI: It also sounds like that was one of the starting points for Cabaret. Speaking of Cabaret, how did you feel when receiving the ARIA for contribution in Cabaret?
Ali McGregor:Â I was so touched with that, I can’t tell you. It was the Green Room Awards and was for the contribution to Cabaret. I’ve actually got a Green Room award for opera and I haven’t ever received one for Cabaret so that was special.
TCI: I didn’t know about the one you received for Opera, so that’s even more impressive.
Ali McGregor:Â That was a few years ago now (2003) and I’ve been nominated a few times in that category. Now that I’ve got my Cabaret award, it is kind of cool to have won in a different category. It was also really cool to go to an award ceremony knowing that I had won the award. I wasn’t just nominated; I had the award. I didn’t have to sit there and sort of pretendâ€¦That was cool.
TCI: That is coolâ€¦Have you worked with Eddie Perfect before and are there any gems out there with Eddie like your collaboration with Tim Minchin, covering Radioheadâ€™s Creep?
Ali McGregor:Â No. You’ve seen that have you, on YouTube?
TCI: I have, yes.
Ali McGregor:Â Well, that’s a two-part question. Eddie Perfect, yes, I’ve know Eddie for around ten years as well. The early days of my involvement with him was through the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. There was a show called Laughapalooza, that had an act Chris McDonnell put on and it included all the musical comedians around the festival, including Eddie, Tim Minchin, Maxwell Wilson, Sammy, Joe and Randy, and a whole bunch of people. Darlene Quinn was all part of that.
TCI: That’s a pretty stellar lineup.
Ali McGregor:Â It was pretty awesome and many more to boot. It was with these shows that I started getting to know Eddie and then over the years we’ve obviously crossed paths a huge amount. We always got along really well and we’ve both got young families now and our lives have kind of been at similar stages. Although Eddie has my dream job being in play school now. I’m a bit bitter about that. I love a Craftanoon; I would be so good in that show, but anyway.
Then Minchin and Creep; that came about because of British comedian Mark Watsonâ€™s 24 shows that he had done at both the Edinburgh Festival and the Melbourne Comedy Festival â€“ and essentially there was a moment when random people turned up and no one knew quite what was going to happen. I was doing Creep with La Clique at the time, so Mark had asked me to come down and sing that. Then Minchin was there so he’s like, oh, I’ll jump on that. Then someone else was there playing piano accordion, so we did it and it became a real thing. Now every year we try to do it and this year they were in London, I was in Sydney; I was doing a show called Club Swizzle at the Opera House. My husband (Adam Hills) had turned up to Mark Watsonâ€™s show and they were live streaming it. I was in my dressing room that night watching it live, watching my husband straddle Jennifer Saunders and riding her like a horse. Then I woke up in the morning with all these messages going, can you get on Skype? We want you to do Creep – Minchin’s here…I had just woken up, got the Skype out and I didn’t realize until afterwards that I was on this massive live stream to the world. I was in my nightie and I was just waking up and Minchin got on the piano and we sang it from different parts of the world. It was kind of special. And so from that first little moment, I have done Creep a lot.
Ed. Note â€“ Ali performed Creep as a closing number to the 2015 Adelaide Cabaret Festival to massive cheers and applause from a very satisfied closing night audience. It was an unforgettable experience.
Ali McGregor: Â Yeah, we have. We’ve discussed it a lot. We’re really excited to work together. We’ve always gotten along and I think we’ve got slightly different interests, but our tastes are the same. It’s been fantastic because we’re both kind of learning from each other and we’ve both come up with ideas that the other hasn’t had, but I think every single time so far we’ve been really inspired by each other’s ideas and really batting off of each other really well. It’s good because together we cast a really wide net. Eddie’s got a real passion for new music and new writing and created some interesting collaborations between writers, and I have this firm solid basis of what I like to call the cabariety; that real kind of people around the world who are just doing fantastic things with cabaret.
TCI: Any specific details of that vision that you can share at this stage?
Ali McGregor: Not really.
TCI: No? It’s too early?
Ali McGregor:Â It’s going to be awesome.
TCI: It’s still a year away!
Ali McGregor:Â Yes, all the stuff is just being talked about at the moment. We might be pre-empting everything.
TCI: You’ve picked a big year to follow; Barry Humphries is the biggest name in this space and you’re going to follow him as artistic director for what is rapidly becoming a massive international festival. How do you personally deal with that?
Ali McGregor:Â Well, obviously it takes two of us to fill those massive shoes. I think it’s kind of exciting because in a sense Barry represents the beginnings of cabaret in Australia. The beginning of cabaret back then was very much variety shows with comedy and music. Barry was absolutely at the forefront of that. I think Eddie and I represent where cabaret has been in the last little while and where it’s going. I think in some ways it’s the perfect way. It’s like let’s celebrate the past and honor that history. Now, let’s take what we’ve learned from him (Humphries) and from his era and let’s take it into the future. It’s going to be good for us when we’re off to New York and London soon and we’re going to go seek out new acts and chat to people. For us to go in there and say Barry was our artistic director last year is a foot in the door already.
TCI: 2015 had such a broad program when you consider it’s covered Peter and Jack (with the ASO, Teddy Tahu Rhodes & the Idea of North), to Adam Hills and a number of TV comedy personalities, then some straight up musical theatre, to Meow Meow to Opera Burlesqueâ€¦and thatâ€™s before you even get to the more conventional cabaret style shows. How will you and Eddie curate 2016? Â
Ali McGregor:Â Well I think you obviously know history with the opera and high school musicâ€¦I’d really love to see intimate classical performance, but it has to been the right type of thing. It has to really fit. I mean for me, cabaret has to be intimate and has to be genuine and it can’t take itself too seriously. I think for me that’s what cabaret stands for. We had a little bit of the classical coming in this year and we definitely want to do that more. We’re interested in doing a few more family oriented shows. I’ve got kids. I do a jazz for kids show which I did here last year. We’re interested in getting some shows that you can bring the whole family to; matinees and afternoon shows which would be great.
We’ve also have a lot of comedy connections. We want to keep up with that as well. Again, as long as they have that a style that fits into cabaret. I think I would also from my carnival life with La Clique, I’d like to bring in more variety into the show. When I say variety, I mean variety acts. Those sort of great acts that haven’t really been seen at this festival before, but certainly in London cabaret does incorporate burlesque and sword swallowers and those old fashion kind of variety acts. I’d love to see a bit more of that.
TCI: Excellent. Almost thereâ€¦Where do you think this kind of festival ranks in comparison to other major arts festivals and performing arts generally?
Ali McGregor:Â I think of it’s kind, this is the best in the world, I really do. There’s no other festival doing quite what this is doing as far as cabaret goes. This is, in ticket sales alone, this is almost twice as big as the LA festival, proper. For me, I think it’s the perfect mix of artistic integrity, but also just giving audiences really what they want to see. I don’t think there’s ever anything that you come to that you feel like you’re not good enough to come and watch. Which I think sometimes with festivals, you can sort of think, I don’t know enough about this topic to understand the show. Or you can feel a little bit left out of it.
This is a really inclusive festival and it’s something that really everyone can find something to enjoy at this festival. It also takes a really high artistic level of integrity. For me as a performer and for most of the performers who come here, it’s in fact the best in the world. You’re treated wonderfully. You just get to meet the most amazing people from all over the world and everyone is really generous because no one is really doing the same thing as anyone else. It’s real. Everyone goes to see the shows and we all get inspired by each other. There’s no competition, it’s just a love for this festival.
TCI: I hear you, that as performers, you don’t want to be taking yourself too seriously, but in terms of audiences and critics alike, how is the Adelaide Cabaret Festival received in terms of artistic merit?
Ali McGregor:Â I really do think it is. Even things like stand up comedy and musical comedy; something that has historically been a bit of fun, but I think it’s proved itself over the last ten or fifteen years (now that’s it’s intelligent enough). Someone like Eddie Perfect; his comedy is so sophisticated that it’s taken out of the realms of just singing a stupid little ditty or rude song. There’s social aspects being covered in the comedy (and they can cover really important issues), but also hide it amongst something funny and you don’t realize you’re actually getting this really quite deep message underneath the deep veneer (of a lack of fun ditty). I think there are people like that and I think really Eddie and Tim Minchin are two of the main people who have changed the scene in recent years. And, people like Casey Benito, because all the stuff that he’s written, he is just taking it into a different realm. In turn, people are definitely taking it seriously now which is great.
TCI: Where do you see the long-term interest with this kind of festival with the Australian audience?
Ali McGregor:Â I think it’s only going to get bigger and bigger. The festival is already, to a certain degree being built on international guests who come to these festivals and incorporate it with a day at the Barossa and a night out to dinner at one of the finest restaurants in Australia. So with drawcards like the Barossa wine, I really want to make it into a destination festival. I’ve had friends who’ve come over here and spend a few days (before the festival) and felt like they’ve just had a complete experience. We’re really keen on bringing that kind of food and wine element with South Australian producers because I think cabaret really suits drinking and eating.
TCI: You’re at tablesâ€¦
Ali McGregor:Â Yes, again its’ the bistro.
TCI: And I assume that the SA tourism commission is not going to complain that youâ€™re showing off local food, wine and produce?
Ali McGregor: I don’t think they will, but I’m really passionate about that. I think in other cities, bigger cities, you might get lost a little bit, whereas here it’s small enough. It’s big enough to be a cosmopolitan center, but it’s small enough that the whole city benefits from the festival.
TCI: Excellent. Thank you Ali McGregor for spending your time with the Creative Issue.
Ali McGregor:Â My pleasure.All images courtesy of the Adelaide Festival Centre (www.adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au)
Craig can be contacted by email firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter @CraigFossey