Behind the Scenes: The Cast of ‘Sophisticated Lady’

13 Sep 2015, by Auslan Stage Left in Interviews

Mama Alto, Ilana Charnelle and Satta portray three legendary songstresses of the past; Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald; in the upcoming show, ‘Sophisticated Lady: A Nightcap with Billie, Judy and Ella’.


Before their Auslan interpreted performance at Hares and Hyenas, they spoke with Auslan Stage Left about the show, their relationship with the deaf community and the importance of access.


ASL: How did you three come to make a show together?

Mama Alto: The three of us met at Monash University, where we were all involved in some capacity in Monash University Student Theatre. It’s really fabulous that, after years carving out our own niches – my own jazz performances, most recently singing the songs of Billie Holiday for the Melbourne Recital Centre, Ilana making herself known as a vintage-inspired songstress, and Satta working with her bands Red Ribbon, Twisted Ties, and as an independent singer-songwriter – that we can reconnect over our love of these legendary singers.


Ilana Charnelle: We all have a shared passion for these artists, and it’s something that’s kept us going as performers.  It is incredible to think that something like this project has grown out of the bonds forged back in our days at Monash, and the fact that we have all gone on to foster professional careers as musicians and performers. This was a project that we have talked about doing for years, and to see it finally come to fruition is very exciting.

Satta: It’s exhilarating and exciting! Sharing the stage with each other is a dream come true, and the fact that we are such good friends is an added bonus. I feel very privileged.



L-R: Satta, Ilana Charnelle and Mama Alto.


ASL: Tell us about your feelings about the iconic women you are playing in Sophisticated Lady.

Mama Alto: I’ve listened to Billie Holiday’s music for as long as I can remember, and she has always been a role model for my singing, but I first played her for the theatre in Neil Cole’s play ‘An Audience with Billie Holiday’ in 2014.  To me, Billie is not only an extraordinary singer and consummate musician, but also a captivating and complex person. Her philosophies on life, the psychology of her mind and her emotions, and her stunning empathy for the human condition; these are things which we might overlook about her, but when you look again, it’s all right there in her songs. The reason people still listen to their songs, and arguably the reason that the greats retain their popularity, is because they manage to express feelings and experiences that are universal. Billie’s still relevant to us today, and even if you can’t put your finger on why, you can feel it when you hear her sing.



Mama Alto as Billie Holiday. Photographed by Sarah Walker.


Satta: Ella Fitzgerald has been such an inspiration, not specifically to my songwriting, but how I feel a song. I started performing at fourteen, and feel that music is such a powerful way to communicate. My songs are personal and intimate… Ella taught me what it’s like to put feeling into a song and simply be lost in it, but also enjoy it! I feel I’ve had similar experiences to Ella in terms of being a kind of bandleader. Whilst Chick Webb’s passing allowed Ella to lead the orchestra, I’ve initiated both my bands, seeking out musicians and being a driving force of organisation and structure, sometimes acting as a sort of manager. Ella is one of my inspirations, such an incredible vocalist and beloved across generations.


Ilana Charnelle: I first paid homage to Judy Garland in performances at ACMI’s Hollywood Costume exhibition in 2013. Being a foot away from that checked dress she wore in The Wizard of Oz, allowed me to form a bond, a connection. Judy taught me that music is a way of opening up. It is raw and confronting, and makes you vulnerable, but it’s how one can truly live. That’s what I’ll be keeping in mind as I return to play her again. I feel honoured to be able to share her story with more people. I hope they will find their special connection with Judy as I did that day at ACMI.



Ilana Charnelle for Hollywood Costumes at ACMI.


ASL: What drove you to provide an Auslan interpreter for your show?

Mama Alto: Every year during the Melbourne Fringe Festival, an extraordinary amount of shows, productions and live art events take Melbourne by storm. But how many of these are accessible to deaf audiences? I suggested a showing of Sophisticated Lady at Hares & Hyenas – a venue that is universally accessible for audience members using wheelchairs or mobility aids – and Ilana and Satta brought up the idea of providing deaf access for the performance as well.


Ilana Charnelle: I’ve been involved with the deaf community for years now, and my relationship with the community has developed through my work at the Deaf Arts Network, Australian Theatre of the Deaf, and Auslan Stage Left. I am passionate about providing the deaf community access to the arts, and I am thrilled to not only advocate for the cause but also actively provide it with our Auslan interpreted showing of Sophisticated Lady.


Satta: I started my involvement in the deaf community with work experience at the Victorian College for the Deaf, and I now work as a speech pathologist and use Auslan to communicate with some of my clients. Being able to advocate for the deaf community within my profession is an extreme privilege, and allowing the deaf to access an allied health service such as speech therapy for language development is exceedingly rewarding. The children are so keen to learn and communicate. Allowing access to the deaf community through Auslan Stage Left, who are interpreting the show, is so incredible. I know I have deaf friends that I want to share my performances with, but never really been able to do so in the past. I might even learn a thing or two to improve my proficiency in the language too!


Satta as Ella Fitzgerald.


ASL: What would you say to encourage other independent theatre makers to provide access to their performance for the deaf community?

Ilana Charnelle: I have been absolutely astounded by the way that young, independent theatre makers are committing to providing access in a way that we are still waiting for larger theatre companies to.  It makes me so proud! I believe that every one is able to provide an Auslan interpreter, but people often don’t know where to start.  I’m proud to be a part of an organisation like Auslan Stage Left that is committed to guiding people through the process of having an Auslan interpreted show, including catering to a variety of different needs and negotiating to different practitioner’s requirements.  Having an Auslan interpreter will not only open up your show to a whole new audience, it will engage hearing patrons and provide awareness of Auslan and the deaf community.  It’s a simple, achievable way to start making your shows more accessible.


L-R: Satta, Ilana Charnelle and Mama Alto.


Thank you to the cast and crew of Sophisticated Lady for keeping access a priority.  Sophisticated Lady will be Auslan interpreted on Tuesday September 29th at 8:30 pm.  Click here to book tickets to see Sophisticated Lady!


If you are curious about making your show accessible, please contact us by clicking here.

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