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Alan Cumming to helm 2021 Adelaide Cabaret Festival

Cabaret Festival

Scottish actor and cabaret star Alan Cumming has been announced as the first-ever international artistic director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival – and he promises a 2021 line-up that will be ‘provocative in all senses of the word’.

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Cumming’s appointment for the 2021 event was announced last night, on the final evening of the Bite-Sized & Home Delivered online Cabaret Festival offering presented to fill the gap left after COVID-19 forced the cancellation of outdoing artistic director Julia Zemiro’s planned program.

Born in Scotland but based in New York, where he owns a cabaret bar in the East Village, Cumming played political spin-master Eli Gold on long-running TV series The Good Wife and has had an extensive career as an actor, singer and Broadway performer, winning Tony and Olivier awards and multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.

He presented two sold-out performances of his show Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs at Her Majesty’s Theatre at the 2017 Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

Speaking to InDaily from New York, Cumming said he was thrilled to be invited to curate the festival in Adelaide, which he first visited more than 30 years ago while touring Australia with a two-person show called Victor and Barry.

“It was the first thing I was famous for,” he says of the show, which he and a drama school friend originally created to entertain students at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 1982.

Cumming says the warm welcome he’s received during his visits to Adelaide remind him of being in Scotland.

“What I like about it is that it’s a manageable size of a city … when I was there for the Cabaret Festival, I felt like the whole city was involved in the festival and knew about it and was excited about it. I really liked that – that the whole city was immersed in it.”

Cumming had hoped to be here for the announcement of his new role with the Cabaret Festival, but COVID-19 stymied that idea – along with his plans to meet up in Edinburgh in August with the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Ebony Bott to check out artists during the festival season there.

I think we all need to feel challenged

“The plan now is that we will do most of it remotely and then I will come over in June next year,” he says of the 2021 program.

Asked what type of flavour he will bring to the festival’s 21st anniversary year, he says he hopes it will be “provocative in all senses of the word”.

“I think cabaret should be provocative.

“We’ve gone to a time that is very provocative and my sensibility is quite provocative… It’s a wide brief, and I think we all need to feel challenged with what’s going on.”

Cumming believes the best cabaret comes from artists having a clear and often intimate connection to the material they are performing. Most of all, it should be authentic.

That was certainly the case with his own 2017 Cabaret Festival show, a performance filled with hilarious and heart-wrenching songs and stories inspired by his career and life – including his Who Do You Think You Are? journey to unlock the mystery behind what happened to his maternal grandfather.

“At Club Cumming [his New York cabaret club], I’m constantly surprised by the performers and material I see,” he says.

“Last year I dropped by and there was a boy doing this poem, a spoken-word thing, and it was all about Daniel Day-Lewis and I realised he was quoting his Oscar speech. It was this crazy freestyle thing all based on things Daniel Day-Lewis had said… it was really authentic and wonderful.”

Like all venues, the New York club has been closed during COVID-19, and Cumming’s often busy performance schedule is also on hold.

He was acting alongside Daniel Radcliffe in the Samuel Beckett play Endgame at the Old Vic theatre in London when the pandemic shutdown began. After the play’s season was cut short, Cumming went to Scotland for a few days and then returned to New York.

He’s spent most of the recent months in isolation at what he’s described as his “country pile” in New York’s Catskill Mountains – working on a new book and “just having a nice time”.

“I’ve been doing a lot of yard work and have discovered the joys of power washing… It’s so exciting. I’ve become obsessed with power washing everything.

“I also have a little tree house, so I go into that and write in the afternoon.”

When we talk just over a week ago, however, he’s back in New York City. The faint buzz of a police helicopter can be heard down the phone line – an indication of the tumult in the city during the Black Lives Matter rallies sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.

Cumming is known for his humanitarianism and social activism (he was awarded an OBE in 2009 for both his work and his commitment to LGBTIQ rights), and Club Cumming opened its doors as a “safe haven” during the Black Lives Matter protests. Staff have also provided supplies like water, snacks and first-aid items for protestors in Union Square, as well as organising fundraising auctions to support associated organisations.

The club owner is clearly proud of the political activism of his employees and the people who perform at the club, and is optimistic this is a turning point for America.

“There’s been marches and things like this before … but this time I think it was the combination of so many in a short period of time, and the brutality of the attack on George Floyd.

“Everyone is talking about race in a different way now. They’re talking about systemic race issues and how things have to change.

“It’s a very fractious time … I think it feels like a real sea-change.”

The 2021 Adelaide Cabaret Festival will take place from June 11-26 next year. Meanwhile, if you want to see Alan Cumming in action “power wash protesting”, check out his Instagram post @alancummingsnaps.

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