Saturday, March 26, 2022




Artistic Director Tina Arena. Adelaide Festival Centre. June 10=25 2022 Bookings: 131246

Preview Feature  Peter Wilkins

Tina Arena Photo by Claudio Raschella

It wasn’t quite the conversation I had expected.  But then I hardly expected a conventional phone interview with Australian icon Tina Arena AM.  Arena has taken on the role of Artistic Director of the 2022 Adelaide Cabaret Festival and lovers of Adelaide’s favourite winter festival are abuzz with excitement at what she will bring to audiences at the festival from June 10th-25th. Since delighting viewers as an eight year old performer on Johnny Young’s Young Talent Time, Arena has risen to international stardom as an internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter, record producer, actress and consummate performer.  Arena has been inducted into the Aria Hall of Fame and her contributions to her industry have been recognized by the French and Australian governments. She has worked with leading artists across the world and her appointment as this year’s Artistic Director is a coup for the Adelaide Festival Centre.

It is quickly apparent that Arena is her own woman, immensely talented and acclaimed, forthright, generous and a staunch advocate of diversity and individualism. Her response to my opening gambit about her vision for her festival revealed a highly intelligent woman with a profoundly philosophical aspect on life and the art that has informed and nourished her for the past five decades. The interview became an illuminating and inspiring philosophical discourse on authoritarianism, coercion, discernment, education and diversity.  I was curious to discover how that might be reflected in the Cabaret Festival programme she had created.  

“I want the programme to bring hope and happiness to audiences.” Arena tells me.  “I hope that this year’s festival takes you on a  journey  of  much needed connection and healing. Cabaret is a magnificent fusion of stories, song, dance and all things theatrical. Cabaret is escapism of the most fabulous kind and boy, couldn’t we use a little escapism after the year that’s been?”

Paul McDermott in The Funhouse
 “For me the happiness and healing is absolutely vital.” Arena says. On the other hand, nor does Arena shy away from controversy and neither does cabaret. Paul McDermott’s nightly variety show The Funhouse will offer audiences  a dark carnival of minstrels and misfits, comedy and music featuring Claire Hooper and Dilruk Jayasinha as well as special guests each weekend.

“We can seriously no longer sit back and entirely believe what is dished up.” Arena continues. “Discernment is a human asset that has not been particularly worked on. I find the conditioning especially frustrating. I will not be force fed and told what to think and what to do.” Hers is the voice of reason, of individual empowerment and rebellion.  It is the cry of Cabaret from Le Chat Noir to the Weimar cabaret of Berlin. Her Cabaret Festival will confront. It will provoke, but as Bertolt Brecht claimed, her main aim will be escapism and entertainment, happiness and healing.

Reuben Kaye in Live and Intimate
 This is why Arena has assembled artists who will help her to achieve her vision. “My job is to challenge the status quo.  I have to be challenged so that the audience can be challenged.”  And who better to challenge status quo than the irreverently scintillating Meow Meow with her show Pandemonium or the outrageous Reuben Kaye with Live and Intimate?

In an industry that can be controlling and constantly at the beck and call of managers, agents, producers and networks, Arena has struggled to control her own narrative and survived. It is this that has prompted her to include personal stories by leading performers in her programme.  Nostalgia and cultural heritage provide an invaluable insight into who we are, where we have come from and the lessons we have learned.

“As an Artistic Director that’s what I love to see, everybody coming from different worlds and different perspectives. That is art for me. It’s not the status quo. It’s the challenges and the struggles.”

Marcia Hines. Photo by Daniel Boud

Audiences will have ample opportunity to experience this with Rwandan refugee and comedian Oliver Twist’s belly-laughing one man show about his story as an overpowering antidote to trauma. Arena will be joined by Lior, Thando, Jess Hitchcock, Wendy Matthews and Sophie Koh in Songs My Mother Taught Me and Marcia Hines will perform her show The Gospel According to Marcia about her childhood growing up in Boston and her life and career since she came to play Mary Magdalen in Jesus Christ Superstar.  First Nations stories will be reflected in a special Adelaide premiere by regional musicians and performers, Kuko, Katie Aspel and Rob Edwards. It will be a very special evening of blues, jazz and folk storytelling.

Oliver Twist. Photo by Kiera Chevell
Arena is adamant that she wants to control her own narrative.  “I want to tell my story the way I want to tell it.” For her music is such a big part of that. “We can’t talk about religion anymore she adds as an example.  She is massively frustrated that people misinterpreted her last single.  “It is called Church and everybody assumes that it is about religion. Well, no actually it’s about redemption. It’s the lack of being able to dissect and really understand something . You’ve missed the point altogether. They don’t listen.”

“That kind of assumption is massively frustrating. It is why education is so important to Arena. Each year aspiring young cabaret artists perform in Class of Cabaret and this vitally important and inspiring event will again feature. The young performers will again find themselves in the company of remarkable artists. From America, Davina and the Vagabonds will draw on the past 100 years to celebrate the music of Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin and Tom Waits. Catherine Alcott and Phil Scott will present 30 Something , an immersive show set in Sydney’s Bohemian Kings Cross. Cabaret regulars Amelia Ryan, Michaela Burger and Michael Griffiths will celebrate the golden age of rock and roll and more importantly the women who inspired the sexual revolution and women’s liberation in Simply Brill-The Women Who Defined Rock and Roll.

“Think for yourself!” Arena says to the young up and coming performers. “What is intrinsically human has been left out of the equation. We’ve somehow got to get back to that I think.”

It is the philosophy that the late founding father of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival espoused and he has bequeathed $20,000 to assist a young, promising cabaret artist to realize their dream and establish their voice in the industry. This year, successful  recipient  Victoria Falconer will make her festival debut with And then You Go – The Vali Myers Project about the flame-haired Bohemian and visionary artist.

Audiences will be bombarded with a plethora of wonderful shows from across the genres, I am intrigued by the State Opera’s inclusion with Australian ex pat writer Kathy Lette’s deliciously tempting How to Kill Your Husband (and other handy household hints) . The title says it all. It is Lette at her wittiest and wickedest.

My spine tingles with the announcement that Australia’s leading musical theatre stars will pay tribute to the late, legendary composer and songwriter Stephen Sondheim in Songs and Stories of Sondheim, featuring Philip Quast, Geraldine Turner, Queenie van de Zandt and Josie Lane. The unmissable performances just keep coming.

No cabaret festival would be complete without the Famous Spiegeltent.  This  year it will be the venue for divine decadence at the Pina Colada Room where homage will be paid to the icons of disco. This is where you can let your hair down and revel in the late night delights of the cabaret world.

Arena’s passion mounts as our conversation continues. Hers is a very unique vision combining tradition with experience and a love of people and the magical world of the performing artist. She is intrigued by audiences, what they think, what they take and what they give.  “I want to make the audience more discerning. Hers is a festival underpinned by hope and happiness and connection and healing. “I want to see where they’re coming from and I believe and think it’s a very diverse and beautiful life.”

To do this, Arena has programmed a stellar line up of talented and very gifted individuals. It’s primarily Australian. She is acutely aware of how Australian artists have suffered from cultural cringe and the tall poppy syndrome. She struggled for a very long time with her own sense of insecurity, and it was not until she returned to  Australia  after years of living in France and performing around the world that she realized while giving a keynote speech at a JB HiFi Convention of all places,  “My God! What am I apologizing for? It spontaneously came out of my mouth. Everyone was gobsmacked and then leapt up with rapturous applause.”

Rapturous applause is what will resound through the Adelaide Festival Centre when the festival takes to the various stages in June. It will be an affirmation of the enormous font of talent that exists in this country. It will be a triumphant accolade for artists who year after year have made the Adelaide Cabaret Festival a highlight of the calendar’s artistic and cultural events. It will be a tribute to the wonderful directors who have built the reputation and excellence of the festival for many years.

Above all it will be a shining testament to Tina Arena’s  vision for a festival that does more than simply provide first class entertainment but  encourages discernment while promising hope and happiness, connection and healing. From cabaret to circus, from musical theatre to burlesque, from rock ‘n roll to the Blues the 2022 Adelaide Cabaret Festival will have something for everyone. And for those who may not be able to afford as much, there will be free events such as the popular LGBTIQ+ and Elders Dance Club by All The Queens Men and piano Man Trevor Jones in the Quartet Bar to allow all visitors to the Adelaide Festival Centre to immerse themselves in the spirit and adventure of the 2022 Adelaide Cabaret Festival.