You probably know her as the self-obsessed chanteuse whose outrageous performances attracted cult-like admiration. From Spiegeltents to the Sydney Opera House, with a helpman and nearly a dozen Green Room Awards along the way, Yana Alana earned her cabaret queen crown. But the queen is dead. She had to die so that her creator could be herself.
This is the hackneyed, pop-psychological version of the story, in which Sarah Ward sheds her various alter-egos on stage to be more authentic. However, there is a literal truth to the story that is far more complex. Ward has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which equates her with feeling like an unsolved mystery.
She has been seeing the same therapist weekly for 15 years. In her first session, Ward said, “I’ve got all these pieces of a puzzle and I’m looking at them on the table and I have no idea how to put this puzzle together. But that mystery is me.”
We all contain multitudes, but people with BPD find it difficult to pull together the different aspects of themselves into a coherent whole. Ward compares it to Mike Teavee, the kid from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory who travels into a television set. “But for that he becomes particles in the air. That’s how it feels… You’re just fragments in the air trying to come together as a person.”
Ward was 21 when she began psychotherapy. “It wasn’t until my early 30s that I started saying, ‘Okay, I’ve got the edge of the puzzle. And everything else can go in. I could start to visualize who I am.”
It’s hard to imagine the neo-punk queer feminist anti-icon growing up in the Sutherland Shire, NSW. This is Scott Morrison country, right? “Oh my god, shut up. How dare you?” says Ward. “OK you’re right. Looking back on my upbringing, I’m so confused about how I got here. And so happy I came here.”
The county was “white, white, white,” says Ward. The Cronulla race riots of 2005 came as no surprise to her, “because she was growing up there on the beach, there was a lot of anger towards everyone who wasn’t white. Anyone wearing a hijab or anyone playing soccer instead of surfing. Which I always found very confusing. And also so ironic that all these white people said, ‘This is our beach,’ but they had only invaded 200 years ago and there was genocide on this land.”
It’s easy to imagine young Ward feeling out of place in such a climate, but she admits she was shaped by her surroundings. “It affected me as a woman more than anything else. I felt like I needed to adapt, I needed to diet, I needed to be with handsome men. It was a very straight world for me. My self worth depended on how men thought of me. I was very much a product of patriarchy at that point.”
But the distant city beckoned, and live performances were her passport. Through Theatersports and Belvoir St Theatre, she developed a new circle of friends and soon someone was looking for a roommate. She moved into an apartment above a lesbian bookstore, then came love, parties, bush scents and an acting class.
This is the part of the story where our protagonist feels like she has found her people, found her place, found herself. It’s elusive when you’ve never had to find a solid self. During her teens and twenties, Ward didn’t find it easy to put down roots.
“It wasn’t until my early 30s that I really started to understand what friendship and community are. Because I moved so much when I was young, I never knew how to maintain a friendship.”
She was a subject in a state of flux. BPD means “You don’t know who you are, so you’re constantly reinventing yourself and reinventing your circle of friends, your style, and your life.”
Therapy provided Ward with tools to piece together the puzzle that was herself. She remembers the moment she first started crying. She thought, “Oh my god, I can cry now without seeing myself cry.” By then, even the most devastating emotions had been auditioned. “I couldn’t even grieve because I would watch myself grieve. I couldn’t be in anything. I observed myself to try to understand myself.”
Throughout all of this, Ward was building a career as a comic book performer with chops. Early on, there was Sista She, the groundbreaking hip-hop/comedy/theater outfit that was a decade ahead of its time. There were shows with Circus Oz, Finucane and Smith and Arena Theater. But Yana Alana and the Paranas increasingly began to evolve into the juggernaut that would take Ward to the next level.
Between the cracks In 2013, Yana Alana peaked, winning a Helpmann and two Green Room awards and touring to five-star reviews across the country. Off the stage, things weren’t so rosy. “This show happened and then I got really sick.”
Surgery for endometriosis was followed by a diagnosis of kidney cancer and more surgeries. “It was a really tough two years,” she says today. In an alternate timeline Between the cracks The tide of acclaim would have surfed into international waters, but by the time Ward was well enough to return to the role, the tide was gone. “I whipped a dead horse.”
She found herself in Edinburgh feeling like a failure. “Me in the shower with the blue paint peeling off and I’m crying my eyes out and hating it. I hate every second of it. As far as I was concerned, I had failed. But actually it wasn’t a failure, it was a rebirth.”
Yana Alana had to be put to rest so Sarah Ward could live again. There wasn’t a moment to celebrate the passing of her famous creation. “I didn’t care. I just let Yana fade into the ether and become a memory. No goodbyes were necessary.”
Take 7: The answers according to Sarah Ward
- Worst habit? My ground robe.
- Biggest fear? Having no control over my body.
- The line that stayed with you? It is a Taoist poem: Looking over the steep mountain, how low the valley seems, and yet because it is so low, it gathers all the streams. The valley spirit cannot fall because it lies so low and yet it is the source of everything and all things flow to it.
- Biggest Regret? Allowing “casual” sexist behavior from men because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.
- favorite room? My bedroom with our cat on the bed and the lavender outside.
- The artwork/song you wish was yours? The moving image artwork by Pipilotti Rist color is dangerous.
- If you could solve one thing… The gap between excessive wealth and abject poverty.
Unlike Yana, who loved the limelight, Ward is anything but a narcissist. Her post-Yana work is deeply collaborative, often pushing the voices of others to the fore.
There are F — Fabulousthe queer variety show “Anti-Glamour, Neo-Punk” that Ward curated in 2021 (a family-friendly spin-off, Fart fabulousplayed at last year’s RISING Festival).
“That was a transition point where I went: I’m really interested in creative producing. I’m really interested in having our own company where we have our own ethos.”
That company is Fat Fruit, made up of Ward and her longtime partner, Bec Matthews. The two are about to go on tour with Fat Fruit’s new show. The Rainbow Tree. The work was created in collaboration with a group of children from Rainbow families whose imaginations were used to create a show that celebrates identity and community.
Then there’s her work with deaf artist and writer Asphyxia, who has spent the last few years exploring the potential of music making. “It’s so amazing that one deaf visual artist said, ‘I’m going to be a musician and I’ll write my own songs’ … She went further and got an extensive education in music and understood how harmonies, rhythms and dynamics work, and she has all of those Wrote songs.” The result is Stranger than usuala music show fully accessible to deaf and hard of hearing viewers.
Ward is appearing on both shows at this year’s Midsumma Festival. Premiering two new works in as many weeks may sound ambitious, but neither show is about seeking audience approval. Yana Alana was the one who wanted to be a star. Her creator never fully shared that desire.
“It’s not in my personality. I’m a tired person, do you know what I mean? Although I am a very ambitious person, I need daytime sleep.”
Many of Ward’s works also have small audiences: for years she and Matthews have taught music at their local elementary school. You will be directing pop-up performances for kids in the Tuckshop line.
“We don’t have children, so we’ve actively gone to the right, we have to deal with children. And we’re in our local community, we walk around and meet them and say hello. We know her parents. It’s quite an amazing and rich life.”
Maybe Ward has finally found her people, her place, herself. Maybe she built those things, just as her work builds connections and communities today. Either way, “I’m human now. You would like to be 44, wouldn’t you?”
stranger than usual takes place 2-4 February at Abbotsford Convent; The Rainbow Tree will be in Engineering, Bendigo, on February 11th.
https://www.smh.com.au/culture/theatre/sarah-ward-felt-like-an-unsolved-puzzle-killing-off-yana-alana-helped-20230116-p5ccui.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_culture The rebirth of acclaimed cabaret artist Sarah Ward