Interview with Aletia Upstairs

aletiaupstairsandpatrick

Patrick Harrington with Aletia Upstairs

Interview with Aletia Upstairs who is currently starring in her fringe show ‘A Queer Love of Dix’

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be a performer?

I come from Cape Town, South Africa. I’ve lived in London for the last 12 years. Apparently, I had an hour and a half of singing repertoire at the age of 18 months. My parents met on stage in a school play, so it was my destiny.

Do you hold strong political opinions? How would you describe them?

I come from South Africa….Our country changed a hell of a lot during my first few years at university. I couldn’t really see myself being involved with political cabaret in South Africa because everything had to be so PC. And of course, cabaret SHOULD be political. A Queer Love of Dix is my most political show to date and it is still quite mild, I think.

My political opinion is simply that everyone should be treated equally. I grew up seeing the inequality in South Africa…and I became more and more aware of that as I grew older. My idea of feminism is tied in with this view.

You cover some great songs from the Weimar period in your show, (“Pirate Jenny”, “It’s All a Swindle” and “The Lavender Song” to give a few examples). Do you have a song that you like to listen to more than the others and is that different from one that you really like to perform?

I don’t really listen to my show music when I am performing it, as I would get sick of it, and because I listen to it A LOT when I’m learning it. Recently I was listening to ‘Just a Gigolo’ in German (‘Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo’) the Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester version, on a loop… constantly…on my bicycle, in the tube, in order to learn the German words. This song was composed in 1928 by Leonello Casucci to lyrics written in 1924 by Julius Brammer. I am interested in the history of the songs (maybe because of my Musicology studies) and with that – especially Lavender Song (‘Das Lila Lied’), which was composed by Mischa Spoliansky under the pseudonym Arno Billing.

You describe Weimar as a ‘utopia’. How far do you think our impression of 1924-29 of Weimar in this period is skewed by Berlin’s reputation as a city where “anything went”? Do you think this vision of Berlin has made us forget that it wasn’t typical of the country, traditional attitudes persisting particularly in small-town and rural areas and amongst the older generation?

I think, most of what we are aware of through say the Cabaret movie – as this is the first taste of that world for many, is the decadence and hedonism of the period…but then there is a part in the movie where the people in the countryside sing a folk song and make the Nazi salute. This makes me think a lot about Brexit, since it was mainly the people in the rural areas who voted out. The people in the cities – London, at least, were generally not that positive about Brexit.

Berlin, in the 1920s, was a forward-looking place though. There were many lesbian and gay bars. People had this little taste of freedom just before the worst event in history set in. When you go on a walking tour in Berlin, specifically The Christopher Isherwood’s Neighbourhood walking tour http://www.isherwoods-neighbourhood.com/  you learn a lot about the LGBTQI community at the time, but also about how people were taken away to concentration camps. There are these little plaques at the entrances of certain homes with people’s names and when they were taken, whereto and when and where they died.

During the Weimar Republic, homosexuality was certainly tolerated but it wasn’t legal (The 1871 Code which criminalised it wasn’t repealed until 1994). Also, outside of Berlin, social attitudes were still very conservative. The Eulenburg Scandal in 1907-8 drew attention to the goings-on in the Kaiser’s own circle, where the death in 1908 from a heart attack of the Chief of the Military Cabinet while dancing in the Kaiser’s presence dressed in a ballerina’s tutu added to rumours that the Kaiser was bi-sexual. The point, however, is that it WAS a scandal. The magazine “Simplicissimus”, the “Private Eye” of its day, made sure of that. The Nazis hated Weimar culturally as well as politically. Would you accept that, to a degree, they reflected the opinion of many in this regard?

In the show, I say it was ‘permitted’. Of course, generally, social attitudes were still very conservative, but we always think about the majority being cisgender. Is that really the case though? Was that the case then? Is that the case now? Or are many, many people just going along with societal norms which are based on gender norms dictated by the main religions?
Are you saying that the general public didn’t agree with the liberal lifestyle practiced in the Weimar Republic? I guess not…and that’s one reason for the Nazis rise to power. They had the populist support in combination with the support of those who were fearful of opposing them. Of course, we know that the Weimar Republic was, as I say in the show, ‘an attempt at a perfect democracy’, but it failed because it had some major flaws.

This makes me think of Apartheid South Africa, again, where I know, for a fact, that white people were killed who opposed the government, so, as a result, some people just took the easy way out, ignorant, or oblivious of what they were actually supporting.

Have Brecht, Weill, Isherwood, etc. captured our imagination and distorted our perception of the country and period?

Generally, people are more au fait with Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret than with any of them. Based on the movie, I wanted to be Sally Bowles. When I was in my early twenties, I used to write my bio as ‘Aletia Upstairs wants to be Sally Bowles’, but Isherwood’s Sally Bowles is quite different from the Liza Minelli version everyone knows. Naturally, I wanted to explore the period more and more.

None of them paint a purely utopian picture of the Weimar Republic and Berlin of the time, however, I would say that Otto Dix with his New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) style gives us a much more realistic view of the period. This is why I had to combine his work with the music, some of which quite well-known, of Brecht and Weill.

Do you think that our own period in our own country where homosexuality is legal, and discrimination outlawed still struggles with negative social attitudes amongst some?

Absolutely, yes. There are still numerous homophobic attacks taking place. The two lesbians who were attacked on a bus is in London, for example…that happened on May 30th.

What can we do to win hearts and minds and change these attitudes?

Keep preaching…to the non-converted. I’m trying to change some people’s perceptions with this show. I rejoice in the fact that cisgender people can sing along to the words ‘We’re not afraid to be queer and different’. It is educational in a subtle way. And if they didn’t know that we say intersex these days, rather than hermaphrodite, they will when they leave the show. I hope that experiencing the show might open their hearts and minds and make people more accepting of the whole LGBTQI spectrum. I think, in a small way, I am accomplishing that.

What attracts you to the culture of the Weimar period so strongly?

I had that image of Anita Berber, used for the poster, as an inspirational picture for many years before I made the show. Although cabaret did not originate in the Weimar Republic or, more specifically Berlin, it is the kind of cabaret similar to how it was performed in South Africa when I was growing up and the way I was trained in cabaret.

Why do you think that many are fascinated by the Goldene Zwanziger (“Golden Twenties”) of Weimar?

This was a moment in history when, like I say in the show, the outsider could be the insider. It was a time of an explosion in artistic activity and personal freedom. The New Objectivity style, used by Otto Dix, originated during this time. Androgyny was fashionable, as documented by Dix’s painting of Sylvia von Harden. It was the time when women cut their hair in the bob hairstyle. This act, in particular, indicated more freedom for women, in particular.

You feature the work of Otto Dix in your show as a backdrop to your singing. What connects his work to the songs for you?
I see it as his work illustrating the songs. I have never seen Brecht and Weill performed in, as I call it, the world of Otto Dix, but I feel that they were talking about the same things, so I thought it would work well in combination.

Who/what do you blame for Hitler’s rise to power and how might it have been prevented?

As I say in the show, in the Weimar Republic, the left and the right could not come to an agreeable compromise, and meanwhile, nationalism was rising. The Weimar Republic’s democracy was flawed. The people were too passive; they went along with the Nazi party for what it promised them – employment and so on which was necessary following the Depression and the period of hyperinflation. I think a lot of people didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for until it was too late.

How has the audience reaction been to the show? What kind of feedback have you had?

People have said it’s been educational, thought-provoking and enjoyable. That’s my intention…exactly that. I don’t want it to be like a lecture, but I do want people to feel that they’ve learned something from it: maybe take another look at their own attitudes to the Other. Some have said it was unique, which is nice to know.

Have you ever thought of presenting the content of your show in another format – a documentary or book for example?

No, not at all, but on a previous project I collaborated with a documentary writer, so it’s not out of the question. I just have to see what opportunities come my way.

What plans do you have for shows in the future?

I am hoping to tour this show to other parts of Europe. I am in negotiations about taking it to Romania and Germany. I don’t have a plan for another show at the moment. It will come when the time is right.

Tickets for A Queer Love of Dix are available from:https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/queer-love-of-dix

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