Thursday, June 11, 2020


In Conversation with Julia Zemiro. Artistic Director of Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2020: BiteSized and Home Delivered. 

Streamed online at June 5-7, 10-13,17-20 2020

By Peter Wilkins

Julia Zemiro
Artistic Director 
Adelaide Cabaret festival:
BiteSized and Home Delivered

Life is full of surprises. From her home in the beautiful Southern Highlands town of Bowral, Julia Zemiro reflects on the unusual circumstances surrounding the fate of her second year as Artistic Director of the highly popular and world renowned Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Originally, she had thought that she would only have the time to contract herself for one festival in 2019. Then it occured to her that it would be great to also direct the 20th anniversary festival in 2020. By the end of 2019 she had lined up a terrific list of top local, national and international cabaret artists for what  would be her final festival.  But that was before the Corona virus changed everything; well almost everything.  Julia and the team at the Adelaide Festival Centre resolved to make the 2020 Adelaide Cabaret Festival happen. And so was born Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2020: Bite Sized and Home Delivered. Australia’s much loved and effervescent host of the enormously successful TV shows Rockwiz and Home Delivery was not going to be defeated by the devastating shut down of the country’s performing festivals and companies, which saw the industry and its artists cruelly brought to their knees. And yet, it is at a time of crisis that the artists find new ways of bringing their creative forces to the public. The way through this incredibly difficult and challenging time was to find a new way to use technology and one’s creative talents to keep their work alive, albeit unsupported by the government and its aid packages. But that’s another story.

In the beginning it really was a day by day matter. “We were thinking maybe we could make it smaller.” says Zemiro. “Maybe we could make it different and then suddenly all the doors were shut. It was all about not leaving an empty space and how could we mark the twentieth in some way. We could see  that so many performers around the world were trying to put out their work online and I couldn’t believe how between that moment and now how sophisticated some of that has become in terms of how you put it out there.”

The cabaret performers who were to come to Adelaide this year were approached and asked whether they would be prepared to present a 90 second bite-sized song or comment or anecdote that could be streamed into people’s homes.  Over the usual three weekends of a festival, six to eight performers would be asked to present their pieces in a segment being screened at 6 p.m. Central Standard Time and 6.30 p.m. in the eastern states. One evening’s performance would last  about ten minutes, the time to drink a glass of champagne, Zemiro tells me. What has resulted and may be viewed by accessing is thirteen nights of bite sized gems from a variety of cabaret entertainers. Some are household names in the entertainment industry like Julia Zemiro, David Campbell and Robyn Archer. Some are local sensations like Libby Donovan and Beccy Cole. Some are international luminaries like Caroline Nin, Marcel Lucont and Jeanne Plante. And for the cabaret lover who can’t flock to the Adelaide Festival Centre foyers this year, there are still surprises in store within the comfort of your own room.

The cancellation of the live Adelaide Cabaret Festival was heartbreaking, but as Zemiro says, “There comes a point where you just have to process it and live with it” Sadly, some of the artists will not be included in next year’s festival, assuming that the festival returns to normal. That programme will be for the new  Artistic Director, who will be announced at the end of Zemiro’s Covid festival, to decide. Zemiro had planned to bring the touring Rockwiz Musical to the festival. It sold out in six weeks last year and the 2020 festival programme was to give a nod to New York and the Broadway musicals and what was happening at the time of Andy Warhol and Patty Smith and Deborah Harry. The smash hit musical Six about the wives of Henry Vlll is another casualty of the proposed 2020 programme. “Six was going to be the first musical in the revamped Her Majesty’s Theatre.” These could be something you might possibly be able to bring back in 2021.” Zemiro says optimistically.

“Part of the sadness is thinking of those six performers. Six women and an all female band as well. They’re young. They’re looking forward to those big breaks. You know, I’ve had heaps of big breaks I’ve got memories I can draw on and even when times are tough at the moment I go ‘Oh, God, that first tour of Rockwiz we did. They would be sitting there thinking, ‘This job is hard enough and I’ve got this thing I’m looking forward to.’” Six is one example of the highlights that Cabaret Festival audiences will miss out on this year. Another is the attendance of the composer of Les Miserable (Claude-Michel Schoenberg  ). “They were going to come out and talk about their music and we were going to have a big show featuring the music of Les Mis and  and Miss Saigon and I was going to interview him in French. We had some really beautiful events, but that’s how it goes” Maybe next year I wish, hoping that wishes can come true. After all, as Zemiro points out, producers of the hit New York musical Hamilton have said that it will premiere in Australia in March. “What do they know that we don’t?” says Zemiro. “If you just think of people singing and spraying everywhere”, Zemiro says, “we still won’t have that gay abandon of loving it and being in it. We can but hope that by next June, audiences will be thronging the foyers and lapping up the cabaret delights that the new AD will bring to Adelaide.

The by-line for this year’s festival was going to be What Good Is Sitting Alone In Your Room. For the twentieth anniversary that classic line was about  ‘How are you going to encourage people to come out?’ All of a sudden this had a completely different meaning. The irony is unmistakable. So, we asked our artists “You are literally trapped in your room, and especially our French artists who were not allowed to leave their house, except for essentials. What you have to present online you could not just stream as a   live package. It doesn’t work that way, but we could say ‘As an artist living in this way there is nothing more important than an artist responding to the world about them, physically and personally. So in ninety seconds what can you give us about what you’re feeling right now?”

“ The response has been fantastic.” Zemiro says. “It has not all been sad. Some of it has been hilarious. A lot of it has been ‘I’m going to sing you the best song I know and the best song I have.’ They’ve all been so happy to prepare something for it. ”You’re always trying to find opportunities for the artists”, Zemiro says. She cites Gunhild Carling and Davina and the Vagabonds as examples of artists who were brought out by the Cabaret Festival in 2019 and wowed audiences with their energy and unique talent. That is what the festival can do and provide opportunities for new and emerging artists to build their careers.”

If you haven’t heard of All The Queen’s Men, do look them up on line. They were a success in 2019  and Zemiro has again  included them in her Bite-Sized and Home Delivered festival. I was surprised to hear Noel Coward’s This is to let you know. It is such a sensitive and moving departure from his more flippant and satirical work. All The Queens Men allows these safe spaces for the elderly and the LBGTQI community to come and be together. “To say that there is no homophobia left in the world is to say that there is no racism.” says Zemiro. Noel Coward’s expression of love remains a plea for love and tolerance today. “For me that is something that is in the programme that is about the great pause” Zemiro adds. It compels us to reflect.

I couldn’t let Julia go without some reflection on the political response to the decimation of the live arts. “Do you have any reflections I asked? “I’ve got heaps of them. I’ve got heaps of them” she said. “It is astounding to me that there are so many people – audiences I can forgive – but people in government who still don’t understand how artists are paid and how they work – that the work is intermittent, that the work is up and down. People must look at me and say “Well. she’s got a six year contract with the ABC. She does Home Delivery. I don’t. It is a year to year contract. Sometimes it’s every six months, Sometimes it’s every eighteen months. There is a real disconnect with knowing or wanting to understand how artists work. I worry about the word artists. They go ‘Oh, painters.’ That sounds a bit high-falooting. Australia is sophisticated in so many ways and really dumb in others I find it incredible that a Minister for the Arts and a Prime Minister, who listen to music and I’m sure enjoy reading a book and enjoy watching their favourite TV show don’t quite understand how that job works., and indeed when Covid hit the irony is we were used to that structure, of being trapped at home without any money to do whatever we wanted to do all the time. But to be cut out of jobkeeper when you could have very simply gone ‘Hang on, if you haven’t been in a job longer than twelve months, well let’s include them as well.’ That would have been a very simple thing to do. I still think that during Covid we still have to remind people that this is how it gets done. You don’t know that? You have to keep explaining the process. But people say, ‘Oh but you love what you do. Won’t you put up with anything. No we won’t put up with anything. We do, mind you, so maybe  the whole of society is experiencing a seismic shift. It’s exciting to see what’s happening with Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Lives Matter It’s very exciting that a government can all of a sudden come up with a plan to  help homeless people by putting them in a hotel that noone’s using.  You know things could be very exciting. It’s ridiculous that  you give people $25,000 to add something to your house  when some people have no house after the bushfires. Why not give it to them? So people are having to think how governments don’t work.  And they may be starting to go, ‘Hang on, I pay tax so I should be able to see where that money goes. It’s quite incredible to me that the thing that’s been getting people through this is watching television, listening to music, being able to get online and talk to your favourite performer and all that. They don’t see that as important as sport for instance. It’s so obvious to you and me but it’s still not getting through . The message is not getting through and you would have thought that with TV that would have been an easy sell, but apparently not. I want to know why it is not getting through and I am going to spend a lot of time on advocacy. So that’s what’s in store after Zemiro leaves the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. And you couldn’t ask for a more passionate, articulate, intelligent and energetic advocate for the arts.

Zemiro’s cabaret might be bite-sized, but in the tradition of cabaret it’s bite is sharp and in the many cabaret artists’ online offerings of one evening’s short ten minute snapshot the original songs and comments present an art that will not be silenced or shoved aside in isolation. The very fact that Zemiro and her team have not let the Adelaide Cabaret Festival’s twentieth anniversary go by unnoticed augurs well for the festivals to come when the pandemic has passed.

In the meantime, be sure to tune in to Julia Zemiro’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2020: Bite Sized and Home Delivered at www.adelaidecabaretfestival2020. In the time that it takes to pop the cork and settle down with a glass of bubbles, artists from around the world will set your taste buds for cabaret a-tingling.

Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2020: Bite Sized and Home Delivered,

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