Sven Ratzke has been touring the globe for more than a decade with his eclectic mix of cabaret, jazz and vaudeville. As part of a whirlwind world-tour, Ratzke will be bringing his David Bowie themed cabaret Starman to Australia for a limited engagement. Chris Fung managed to grab him between cities for a quick chat.
CF: What is it that has kept audiences on their feet, excited to laud your show? What has kept David Bowie and your cabaret so relevant regardless of where you perform? Is there something about his music? His story? What is it that has kept people coming for more?
SR: It’s because it’s not just a tribute show, I re-create his unique music and made it my own. I find that over time, the world of Bowie and the world of Ratzke has come together tighter and tighter, almost melting into one other. That’s a challenge. Just like Bowie, I like challenges and always want to create, to dare to do something new. Starman is a good example of that. There is memory and emotion of something that you maybe knew from Bowie. And then there’s madness and fantasy and my emotion that will be totally new to the Australian audience.
CF: How did the idea of Starman begin? What was the process like in terms of fleshing it out into the gargantuan show it is now?
Bowie was always there in my life, but through my own artistic development it was suddenly totally clear: I have to sing his music and add my story and my entertainment and my original songs to it. You have to see: I started with Brecht and Fassbinder, doing cabaret and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and my own shows became more and more international, reaching out to larger and larger audiences. I’m always interested in the mixture of theatre and solo performance. When is theatre staged and when is it real? Who is that person on stage? Did he or she lose himself in the stage persona? Bowie is that riddle and all these masks, especially in the seventies. It’s almost opera, but it’s also very personal. If you listen carefully to his lyrics you get to know him almost personally.
CF: Starman is the work of a great deal of investment from a lot of people, not the least of which is yourself, was it easy to believe that it would work? Did you know it was going to enjoy the success that it has had?
SR: Yes I believed in it from the first moment. But let me tell you that it was not at all easy to create it. I did a lot of research – I wanted to know everything. I didn’t get to use it at all in the show but this is a legend, an icon, that meant so much to so many people. How do you decide which choices to make? Of course, those choices were a lot of fun to create.
CF: Have you been surprised by the global response?
I believe in the show. The emotions are real for me as a performer. I don’t ‘act’. That’s me on that stage. It’s a roller coaster, an acid trip, it’s fun, it’s emotional. The music is just so beautiful. It makes me enormously proud that people love the show so much.
CF: What are your favourite crowds to play for, do you prefer certain cities?
I love the diversity. I love to perform in New York, the crazy wild audiences and the stress of a short sound-check and the constant air conditioning. I love the royal concert hall in Amsterdam, posh and glamour and 1000 people. I love Berlin, Vienna, London. I really love it all, I don’t go where I don’t want to be. To visit Australia now for the first time, and to see so many cities is so thrilling. I fell in love with Australia the first time I performed here.
CF: So you work with a lot of different musicians. How do you find people to work with? How do you hear of them?
SR: My band is always my band; these guys are almost my children, family. I work together with a group of people for many, many years. So they know me in and out. Of course I also do gigs with great guest musicians like Steve Elseon, who for 30 years, was the sax player of Bowie himself. I just hear or see them and then I ask them to play with me.
CF: You’ve toured the world with a number of solo shows now, done a Broadway show – Hedwig and the Angry Inch – done all of the cabaret shows everywhere… as a child growing up, did you know that this was the direction your life was headed?
SR: Yes. I believe that you are born as a performer or not. Of course you have to study and learn and watch and make mistakes and learn again. But as a child, I was always on the stage. In private, I’ve always been a little bit more quiet.
CF: What has been the most surprising fan reaction to one of your shows?
SR: After Hedwig, somebody wanted to do some bondage with me on a wet parquet floor. I declined and said that Hedwig is a character and that I personally like a dry parquet floor.
CF: There are so many moving components to your shows, from costuming to lighting, to the storytelling direction – what is it like for you, Sven Ratzke, when you collaborate with other creatives?
SR: That’s the greatest thing, working and being surrounded by other people. I love to bring people together. That’s why I make theatre, to create with people for people. To move and shake things up. I get ideas from meeting people all over the globe.
CF: How much do your shows change night to night? In long runs like your previous world tours, do you adapt your show as you tour?
SR: I always improvise a lot, but a show like Starman or Hedwig has to, of course, have a script. Sometimes shows I do are created live in front of the audience right then and there. Those are so much fun for everyone.
CF: What is it about the cabaret/one man show style that you love so much? Have you thought about performing more shows like Hedwig? What is it about the small venues and the cabaret setting that you love so much?
SR: That you can smell it. The audience, the performer, it’s all so intimate, so real. In cabaret you can do almost anything. You have to be good, because the audience sees every detail. Having said that, I’m also into doing big shows. I do shows with big 66 man orchestras and I’m working on a major musical at the moment that will be shown with an all star cast in Berlin and Amsterdam. My goal is that it’s going to become an international title. In everything that I do, I want to think without borders.
Sven will be touring Australia performing his cabaret and running workshops, from now until 2 July with dates in Perth, Sydney, Adelaide, Bendigo, Tasmania and Melbourne.
For more information and for ticket sales, visit http://www.sven-ratzke.com/en/tour.