Cabaret Festival Interview: Johanna Allen

Every one of us has a story to tell. Whether it is cultural, family history, or a life changing event, our past helps define who we are today. Songs My Mother Taught Me, showing this weekend at Her Majesty’s Theatre, will explore just that. Tina Arena stars alongside musical luminaries Wendy Matthews, Lior, Thando, Jess Hitchcock and Sophie Koh in an intimate evening of song and storytelling shaped by families and linked generations.

Adelaide’s own Johanna Allen was invited by Tina Arena to write and direct this exquisite production, and I was fortunate enough to catch up with Johanna to delve deeper into this show and to find out more about the creative process behind it.

“The process is ongoing. I’ve been talking to the artists involved and learning the stories that have evolved their artistic paths, and from there I’ve been shaping it into a show. In a sense it does reflect both the artistic statement of Tina, and the show’s tagline quote, ‘No matter where you go or turn, you will always end up at home’, which is the idea that we are all the product of where we’ve come from. Our lived experience, plus our cultural story informs our artistic path. Based on that, it’s the songs that have influenced the artists so far on their journey. It’s their backgrounds, their families, their community, their cultures they come from, or who they have met along the way, that have all formed their code as an artist, their integrity and their moral code of artistic vision. It’s been a joyous thing learning this because it allows us to then celebrate their diversity, and it highlights that there is more that unites us than divides us. I know a lot of this sounds heavy, but it’s not at all. There is so much joy and celebration in this show.”

Joining Tina Arena on stage will be a sensational line up of artists who call Australia home.

“Alex Sinclair, Tina Arena and myself wanted a combination of artists whose backgrounds and stories reflected a diverse range of cultures. We also wanted people who came with something important to say, and all of the artists in the show – Wendy Matthews, Lior, Thando, Jess Hitchcock, Sophie Koh and Tina Arena – do. I love how there’s a cross section of very established artists as well as people who are doing wonderful work but are more emerging, and it was important we reflected the magical melting pot of Australian society. We have a great myriad of stories so hopefully the audience can relate to everyone and find familiarity within the stories and artists in the show.”

Johanna has been working alongside brilliant music director Mark Ferguson to collate the artists stories and bring a fresh approach to some of the pieces the artists will be performing.

“The amazing musical director, Mark Ferguson, who I have collaborated with many times, has an amazing ability to hear a song and respect the traditions of where it has come from, but to combine it with a new lens and a new arrangement that savours the best of what the song is as well as celebrates new ideas. That is essentially the heart of the show. We are celebrating where we’ve come from through the lens of our own modern understanding.

“Some of the songs will be presented in their traditional form, some are compositions by the performers and some of them are new inventions. It’s a real mixture that has been curated with care.

“I’m very grateful to be able to direct this. I think another reason why I’ve been able to come into this show is that I have a Polish mum, an Australian dad, an adopted Korean sister and an adopted brother who was born in Thailand. None of us in this world are from one place alone, and we all have a story to tell. Everyone has a cultural or family story and that’s why it’s important to make shows like this.”

Songs My Mother Taught Me will be at Her Majesty’s Theatre for two performances only: Friday 24 June and Saturday 25 June at 7.30pm.
Tickets available through . 

Interview by Ben Stefanoff

Photo Credit: Alex Vaughan

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