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As the Adelaide Cabaret Festival’s first international director, Alan Cumming is presiding over a hyperlocal program – and thinking about getting older. By Walter Marsh.

Adelaide Cabaret Festival director Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming
Credit: Peter Ross

“It’s funny,” Alan Cumming says, smirking into a webcam that’s seen a lot of use this past year. “I’ve started to do things, things that seemed unimaginable for so long – since I got vaccinated, it completely alters your outlook.”

In March 2020, Cumming was starring opposite Daniel Radcliffe in a sellout production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame when the play’s apocalyptic subtext began to take on an unwelcome prescience. As the reality of the coronavirus finally hit London’s West End, the Scottish–American actor, author and at-risk asthmatic walked off stage and onto a plane back across the Atlantic.

Fourteen months later, Cumming – the new artistic director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival – is still at home in upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains, but outside the world has begun to thaw. The 56-year-old now finds himself re-emerging into a post-Trump and newly vaccinated America, preparing to fly to Australia, and having to relearn how to turn it on in real life – to perform, whether on a stage or around a dinner table.

“Last weekend we had guests here, and it was really nice, but at the end of it I felt like I hadn’t had enough time to myself,” he says. “I’d been so used to doing that, it surprised me – I’ve learnt some big lessons about how I need to nurture myself a bit more.”

Like the rest of the acting world, Covid-19 forced Cumming to get used to much smaller audiences. For the most part, however, he found the industry-wide scramble towards online content only highlighted what was missing. “I’ve not performed in front of real people – I’ve not missed it,” he admits.

“I’ve really missed the idea of going to the theatre with other people; what this has really made me aware [of] is that theatre and music, the performing arts, are communal experiences. When you aren’t able to do it with other people, either with an audience or as a performer feeling an audience, then they’re not as complete – they’re not as fun. It’s made me value even more that visceral feeling of other people being affected by you, it’s really exciting.

“All these streaming things, I really do take my hat off to people for pivoting and doing all these different things, but I haven’t really enjoyed them; I haven’t enjoyed doing them, I haven’t enjoyed watching them.” He laughs ruefully. “Those ones where they turn [the camera] around and have the performers standing in front of the empty seats of the theatre? I want to say, We get it. You don’t have to remind us!”

By time of publication, Cumming will have survived one more stretch of isolation before stepping out of an Adelaide quarantine hotel and onto the stage for the first time in more than a year. As Adelaide Cabaret Festival’s first international artistic director, he’ll perform a string of shows while presiding over a hyperlocal program that at times borders on parochial.

The running sheet includes a 50th anniversary Young Talent Time reunion, a tribute to 1960s variety show Adelaide Tonight, and a song cycle inspired by the Ern Malley affair. More contemporary acts include an encore performance of Tim Minchin’s Back, a solo show from recently repatriated former festival director Eddie Perfect, and The Blind Date Project, an unscripted performance series by AFI-winner Bojana Novakovic (who starred opposite Cumming in the short-lived TV procedural Instinct). Cumming suggests its local flavour is not just a pandemic-induced necessity but more the product of a deep affection that began with his first lap of the antipodean cabaret circuit in 1989.

“I was 23 when I arrived, I turned 24 in Sydney – 23 years old and being flown across the world to do this goofy sort of skit that we mostly wrote when we were high,” he says of his first big break as comedy duo Victor and Barry, a short-lived double act with fellow Scot, Forbes Masson. “It was exciting, but also overwhelming. You think, ‘What’s going on? This is just our dopey act, why is everyone taking it so seriously?’ ”

One fondly remembered – and deeply unserious – moment came when the pair found themselves on the now long-cancelled Adelaide morning television program Touch of Elegance, in which Cumming and Masson, in character as two sardonic Glaswegian toffs, basked in the show’s prim banality. “It was this hilarious talk show where there’s a lady, and they show you knives and fruit from the local fruit place, and then they interview you – it’s like a sort of infomercial and talk show. It was iconic to me, and I’ve met various people over the years who went on it and were like, ‘Holy shit’,” he says.

“But people in Adelaide, there’s a sliver of people who know it … do you know it?” he asks with excitement. I’m forced to gently disclose that I was born in 1990, so just missed it. “Born in what? Shut up!” he scoffs in mock dismay. Like being cast as a vengeful parent, or meeting adult millennials who grew up watching him in Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids series, it’s another casual reminder of the years that have passed since the first time Cumming boarded an Australia-bound flight filled with nervous excitement.

He has plenty to show for the intervening decades. The ’90s brought memorable appearances opposite James Bond, the Spice Girls and a role in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. With the new millennium came Spy Kids, X-Men, several books and six seasons of CBS legal drama The Good Wife. Through it all, he’s maintained a close connection to the world of theatre and cabaret, from his frequently reprised Tony-winning performance as the emcee in Kander and Ebb’s musical Cabaret, to the Manhattan bar that bears his name.

“Being a bar owner is not something I thought I’d be doing,” he says of Club Cumming, the East Village nightspot he has co-owned since 2017. He will bring a “pop-up” version of the bar to Adelaide.

“I talk all the time with young artists – we try and think of new things, new shows, new evenings, and I love that, I’m so excited about that.

“I didn’t feel comfortable performing as myself, I always did it as a character. So I’m really intrigued by people who are able to do that at an early age, or have a persona that allows them to do that. It’s something that took me ages – it wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I did it.”

For Cumming, who finished a second memoir during lockdown, isolation has brought plenty of time to reflect on the expectations that middle age brings – and the thrill that comes from subverting them. “We’re fed all these things about how we have to look, what we have to do with our bodies and our lives to stay young and stay fit and mentally agile,” he says of his new show Alan Cumming Is Not Acting His Age, which he’s also taking on an Australian tour. “Then we’re also told to grow up and act your age. It’s confusing, I think, especially for someone like me – I’m 56 … and I’m making my dance debut. That’s not normal, but why not?

“It’s interesting what happens; things change in your body and your mind. Wisdom happens, and you can see patterns in your life and other people’s lives, and that’s really exciting. But also, you feel like you’re 22 and you want to go dancing and get off your tits – and you can still do that. And how you do that is you have your own bar, your own party.”

While Club Cumming is, in many respects, Cumming’s party, he’s also attuned to the importance of creating queer spaces where everyone is made to feel safe and welcome. “What I’ve learnt is that it’s all about kindness. There used to be an idea that if you’re fabulous, there had to be some meanness to it. There had to be a red velvet rope to keep people away, it was exclusive. What I’ve realised, what my ‘brand’ is – if we’re going to talk in that awful sort of way – [is that] we talk about Club Cumming being all ages, all genders, all sexualities, all colours, truly everyone is welcome.

“And nothing gives me more pleasure than someone’s granny talking to a drag queen, or some lady from Wisconsin talking to someone from Brooklyn. That mixture of people is how we make progress in the world, how ideas are exchanged, how life should be. I feel like it doesn’t happen enough – everything is so compartmentalised. Because I feel I don’t fit into a compartment, I’ve made a place where I feel everyone can come and join together.”

As the proprietor of such a venue in a time of resurgent bigotry, Cumming understands cabaret’s historic place as a sanctuary and instrument of resistance and nonconformity, whether during the decline of the Weimar Republic or the chaos of Trump’s America. “When Hitler came to power the first thing he did was shut down the cabaret clubs, because he understood their potency as breeding grounds of satire and ideas, subversive ideas,” he says of cabaret’s defiant heart. “It’s not just girls singing ‘Maybe This Time’ with a feather boa round their necks – there’s many, many layers to it.

“The act of someone getting up onstage and talking about their lives is a very provocative and subversive act these days, and I just want to encourage people to be provocative and daring. What I’ve loved about Club Cumming is that so many performers, especially young queer performers, have no other venue. Comedy, for example, is really dominated by straight guys sort of doing ‘my wife, my wife’ – that’s sort of dated, but you know what I mean.

“Having a place, having a home for people to try out different things and especially for young queer and trans and non-binary people, that’s a really great thing. I’m really proud of that,” he says. “For me, the best thing is that people go there and feel safe, and feel a sense of community.”

As once-marginalised subcultures approach the mainstream, there is always a risk of losing that sense of inclusion and justice – of sacrificing solidarity for acceptability, community for commodification. In America, as in Australia, last year’s Black Lives Matter reckonings highlighted racism not only in its starkest forms, but the less-visible structures and attitudes that support them even in outwardly progressive spaces – lessons that Cumming took to heart.

“Last summer, it was a real sea change,” he reflects. “That was something that, for me, like for everyone, was a great time of contemplation, and when you’ve got a community gathering place you’ve got to respond to it.

“That’s why it was really important not to close, even when we weren’t making any money; just to have a place for people to come to feel that they had a home, somewhere to belong to. During the Black Lives Matter marches last summer we opened the bar as a safe space for people to come and use the loo, get water and snacks. Stuff like that, to me, is as important as the performances.

“It’s a bit like when you’re the dad; you sort of feel like everyone wants to rant at you a bit as well. That happened a wee bit. But actually, I thought that is a necessary and important part of any big change – it’s people railing against the dads, the authority figures.”

In Cumming’s world, age – like the wisdom and authority it often confers – is ultimately about what you do with it.

“One of the things I’ve realised about getting old is that it’s appropriate to be nervous, to be scared or anxious,” he says, thinking back to that final Beckett performance. “I haven’t performed in front of a live audience for a year and a half. So I’ll be very nervous about this new show, but I think I should be. If you stop being nervous, stop being anxious, you stop caring – so I’m appropriately terrified.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 5, 2021 as "Appropriately terrified".

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Walter Marsh is a freelance writer and historian from Adelaide.