Performer Interview: Mama Alto

03 Jun 2015, by Ilana Gelbart in Interviews

Ilana from Auslan Stage Left met with cabaret performer Mama Alto after their Auslan interpreted performance of the award-winning ‘Countertenor Diva’ at Hares and Hyenas.


Read on to see what Mama Alto had to say about working with an Auslan interpreter, providing access and why cabaret is perfect for connecting with the deaf community.


ASL: First of all, tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into performing?

MA: When I was born, my mum said that from when I was in the crib I was always making little bird, singsong kind of noises. And then, just recently, I took her to see Dee Dee Bridgewater at the Jazz Festival in 2012…and Dee Dee Bridgewater gave a speech about jazz scatting, and how that is making non-verbal sounds. And my mum said she realised that I wasn’t doing bird songs, I was actually like scatting. So I was always singing and making noise. And then my dad had a wonderful music collection, and I loved all of his music, but especially the great divas, the blues and jazz and soul divas. Partly because I loved their sound, and their attitude, and the stories they were telling, and partly because I loved that they were glamourous black women, and powerful black women, in a world where in the media I was mostly seeing white faces. So that’s what really drew me to that.



ASL: What is the best part of your job as a performer?

 MA: Connecting with audiences. Making meaningful, heart-to-heart connections with audiences, with audience members.


ASL: Have you worked with an Auslan interpreter in the past?

MA: Tonight [at Counterternor Diva] was the first time! I was very excited about that….not just because it was Marc [Ethan], but also because I was very excited to provide access.



Marc Ethan and Mama Alto on stage.



ASL: What was the best part about working with the Auslan interpreter?

MA: It definitely added to the atmosphere of the show. Because we always create cabarets, it’s about atmosphere, and it’s about keeping constantly, in the air between the performer and the audience, an open channel of communication. So working with an interpreter meant I could feel that extra level of connection and communication flowing through the room, that is accessible to some people that can’t access what I do with my voice. I loved that. It was the atmosphere, really, as well as the fact that we’re providing access, which is just fairness. I’ve always wanted to be, coming in so many ways from the margins, I’ve always wanted to be about inclusiveness. So when I started to investigate access, all different kinds of access, including Auslan access, I realised that that was also about this inclusivity that I was seeking.


ASL: Why do you think deaf access is important?

MA: It’s the atmosphere and the inclusivity, but also it’s not just about including deaf people in the conversation with me during the show, it’s also about inclusivity of communities and families and friends. Because if we aim for a world where every arts experience is accessible, and has deaf access, suddenly that’s a whole other realm of sharing and communication, conversation, that deaf friends and family, or community members can have with hearing family and friends. It no longer means that a hearing family will go to a show, to the theatre, to a comedy gig, to a cabaret show, to any kind of verbal performance, and either leave behind their deaf family member or friend, or bring them with them but at the cost of the deaf person not experiencing it to the full, the way that the rest of the family or friendship group are. So to me, [it’s] not just inclusivity, in including them in the conversation with me, it’s about it’s about including them in the experience with the other people they know.


ASL: We know you’re interested in pursuing accessible shows in the future, so why would you say to the deaf community, ‘Come along and see a Mama Alto show’?

MA: The thing is, I struggled for a long time about whether I wanted to pursue this, because as a singer what I do is so aural. But I realised at the heart of the singing is actually storytelling and communication, and I realised that that transcends any cultures. That’s one of the most important things that people have to realise, in the same way that for me being queer or of colour is not a disadvantage, it’s a culture, as well as something that’s within me. I can see that that is the same for deaf people. It’s about creating communities and spaces and events where that culture can be fostered or included within other cultural activities, like my own. So I began to realise that even though what I was doing was singing, [which] to me seems so obviously an aural thing, at the heart of it was communication, storytelling, conversation and connection.


L to R

L-R: Marc Ethan, Mama Alto, Miss Chief, Ilana


ASL: Why would you encourage other performers, perhaps cabaret performers who wouldn’t necessarily think that it’s important to have an Auslan interpreter, to provide access?

MA: The whole point of cabaret is taking people who have felt or been marginalised and putting those stories back at the centre of the culture. Putting them at the centre of the conversation that’s being had in that room between the performer and the audience…Ultimately, it’s about humanity and human conversations, and inclusion, sometimes done through subversion, and by subverting what is perceived to be the mainstream. And that experience, although no two experiences can be directly compared as the same experiences of marginalisation, you can empathise and understand other marginalised voices and experiences, other marginal narratives. If, as cabaret artists, we are trying to bring the marginalised back into the centre, access seems to go hand-in-hand with that mission of inclusion.


One of the great things about the arts is that they can act as agents of social change. To change cultures, change societies and build new visions of what our societies can and should be. It is basic fairness, that you want as many people to be able to access your show as possible…but beyond that you have a responsibility as an artist to help change the culture, and change only happens in small conversations. Having an interpreter means you’re including a whole range of people, and a very diverse range of people within [deaf] culture and all kinds of other [hard-of-hearing] groups as well, who otherwise might avoid theatrical experiences, you are including them in the conversation. The conversation that is bigger than you as an individual artist and bigger than your show, but that conversation that the arts has with society and culture to make positive change. The responsibility is bigger than just you or your show.


end article

Ilana and Mama Alto.


Thank you Mama Alto for providing an Auslan interpreter for your show. You can visit their website to find out more about upcoming Auslan interpreted performances.


If you are a cabaret performer who is curious about making your show accessible, please contact us by clicking here.

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