Interview: Cabaret star Yana Alana discusses art, body paint and anxiety

It takes around two hours to apply blue waterproof paint to Yana Alana's body, for a show ' Between the Cracks ' where nudity helps make an impact. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
It takes around two hours to apply blue waterproof paint to Yana Alana's body, for a show ' Between the Cracks ' where nudity helps make an impact. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Yana Alana’s a cabaret queen, but beneath the body paint and the diva persona is a heart attuned to the welfare of others. Ahead of her appearance at tonight’s A Gala For Mental Health, she discusses art and anxiety with Tim Cornwell

It takes two hours for Yana Alana’s producers to carefully cover her birthday suit with blue waterproof body paint for her revealing Fringe hour Between the Cracks. “My skin can’t breathe, I’m sweating,” she says. “It’s endurance art. It comes off easily, it’s going on that’s challenging.” It’s one reason Australia’s queen of queer cabaret is not doing one-off turns in late-night variety shows, with the honourable exception of tonight’s Gala for Mental Health at the Pleasance Dome, hosted by fellow Australian Felicity Ward.

Yana Alana boasts heart and soul as large as one of her extravagantly blue wigs. She’s been called one of the best things to come out of Melbourne since Edna Everage, with Mae West attitude, and a voice like Shirley Bassey. In Between the Cracks the wig comes off and the clothes, of a kind, go on as she bares her soul in a full-stage meltdown, chucking her meds across the room, between belting out songs like Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, and others about the many times she was abandoned.

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There are two people at the table in the Assembly Checkpoint, performer and teacher Sarah Ward and Yana, her alter ego. “Yana is a narcissist who was created to say things I felt I couldn’t say. She is rude,” says Ward, who has had her own issues with anxiety, including plane phobia so bad that strangers have had to talk her through the descent in tears.

“I created a character with narcissism to be able to highlight the kind of ills of the world. Narcissism is a huge problem, and I think it’s becoming more and more a problem. Selfies, with world leaders. Our heads are up our own arses too much and we lose a sense of community. I think that’s partly why there is so much a need for medication, because people genuinely feel alone.”

Sarah Ward got her taste for the stage when she walked out into Homebush Stadium at the Sydney Olympic Park as a young gymnast in the 1980s. “We were marching in our leotards and I remember looking up at the crowd and going ‘yeah’. I like being in front of an audience, but I hate doing backflips on beams. It’s so unsafe. I was like, ‘No f***ing gym, I want the audience.’”

While she’s won multiple cabaret awards with Yana, teaching is a vital part of her career. “I have never fully worked in a show,” she says. “My main profession is teaching songwriting to young people and people with learning differences and mental health issues. That is my passion.”

Yana Alana was first conceived as a lip-syncher. “I didn’t even know I could sing in my late twenties. People were like, why don’t you sing? You can sing. We started writing songs, and then we put together this really angry feminist poetry. “I was almost on the edge of burlesque, but spouting this really aggressive, assertive angry poetry. I needed to, I was furious, a lot of bad s**t was going on in my life.”

In Between the Cracks she lays the nudity on thick. “There’s something about seeing such a big arse,” she says. “It’s like, whoah. It’s a lot to take in.”

For two years, Yana became the MC for Circus Oz, the leading Australian circus. But Ward says she felt as if she was in a sausage factory.

“It was a kind of family circus in a way, I wasn’t able to put my politics out there in the same way, to be really subversive and really fearless.” She quit, to work in an organic coffee factory and teach toddlers to sing. It was out of this that the new show was born.

It has earned four-star reviews but has been hard work in Edinburgh, in an hour-long 8pm time slot, while the night is still young; she brought it here to take it beyond the Australian audience.

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Yana tells people on meds to raise their hands (“liars!” she yells at the scattered hands). She fires her keyboard player (Louise Goh) and percussionist and partner Bec Matthews. She is questioning: “What does it mean, to be abandoned by your family, as a queer?”

She asks: “What does it mean not to know what friends are, because of a personality disorder, you push things away. What does it mean to not know what love is, to push people away because they love you? If I push you away, that means you are not rejecting me.”

Her work with young people includes those whose parents and carers live with serious mental health issues. Several members of her own family have had such issues, from OCD to manic depression. At the same time a diagnosis is a dangerous thing, she says. “All of a sudden you are exempt from living the way other people live, you’re exempt from responsibility, I’ve got this really bad habit of doing this.”

“I am not afraid of people who are different. We try and hide those people away because it’s a reminder of what we can be. There’s shame. We go, ‘No I don’t want to see that in public.’ We have to understand that the world is full of people who don’t necessarily behave in the way we behave, that we can’t relate everything just to our experience because it’s quite limited.”

She says she is performing in A Gala for Mental Health tonight for the same reason she created this show: to say “You are not in it alone. You are all in it together. And so many people suffer.”

A Gala For Mental Health is at Pleasance Dome, Monday 20 August, 10:15pm. Yana Alana: Between the Cracks is at Assembly Checkpoint, until 26 August at 8pm