Tegan Jones on dad jokes, connecting through theatre and her new show ‘Miley, Moon Unit and Me’
Cabaret artist Tegan Jones picked up a lot of her love of music from her Dad. In her new show Miley, Moon Unit and Me Jones explores this relationship between fathers, daughters and music. Interweaving her own experiences with those of artists she admires, Jones takes a look at how dads and daughters have shaped the music she (and her dad) love. Tegan caught up with Til Knowles to discuss what drew her to this topic, balancing creative drive with business acumen, and asking the audience for dad jokes.
How did Miley, Moon Unit and Me come about? What prompted you to write a cabaret?
Well, cabaret’s quite a loose term. I play myself on stage, I’m storytelling and singing songs. I’ve done other cabarets before, but usually about an artist who I really liked and had an affinity with, like Eva Cassidy and Ella Fitzgerald, who do feature in this show too. But those shows were telling their life stories and singing their songs. That was good when I was younger, and too freaked out to reveal anything person. I didn’t reveal anything. I was going to write another show similar to that, but I thought ‘no, that’s not actually good performance’. All the good stuff that I’ve ever seen, of this very intimate cabaret style, it always has a personal angle. So it became a question of like ‘what do I have to say?’, and after like eighteen months of thinking I eventually asked the question ‘what do I have in common with my favourite female vocalists? Oh, we all have Dads! Have their fathers influenced their music?’ And then it just poured out. The show is about fifty-five minutes, but it could be so much more. There are so many artists whose fathers have influenced their music. I’m also more broadly looking at father-daughter relationships, from how Dads embarrass you when they’re daggy or tell Dad jokes, to when they’re pretty cool and they’re there for you, and then when Dads are absent. So I have little chapters and tell stories about my relationship with my Dad, which is overall very positive.
So definitely highlighting the positives of those relationships, without ignoring the negative?
Yeah. So I use Amy Winehouse and Demi Lovato as examples of Dads who are not there. In Amy’s it’s more complex and I don’t go too deep, but her father was monopolising her success. Demi’s was absent, he left the family when she was a little girl, and they reconnected. She wrote a song about it. Then Eva Cassidy’s father was so there for her, even as she died of cancer. So I tell these stories, and talk about what my Dad’s done for me, and then I tell Dad jokes. I ask the audience for Dad jokes. Every cabaret needs some audience participation!
What’s your favourite memory of your Dad that’s not in the show?
One of my earliest memories of Dad… he was mopping the floor, and I was jumping on the couches, pretending the floor was lava, and on TV was this VHS of a live concert of the Who. I just remember feeling really good, because that music was playing and he was enjoying it. I would’ve been about four or six, and just like ‘oh, Dad thinks this music’s cool.’ I paid more attention.
I also remember sneaking into the study and taking his discman, and pulling out the first album of the Beatles, because he had the whole anthology in a rolodex. He probably would never have let me touch it by myself. I put the headphones on and it was the first time I’d ever listened to music in my ears, and it was the Beatles’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. Even though he wasn’t physically there, it was his discman and his CDs.
And his rule that you were breaking!
Hah I know right?!
It’s so funny that though that my strongest memories of him as a kid are always tied to music.
It makes a lot of sense that this show has evolved from that then.
Yeah! If I could do this show with a band, I’d pick different songs. I could do a Who song probably!
Would you ever write a cabaret about your relationship with your mum?
Nooooooo *laughs*. Mum would kill me!
I wouldn’t do it musically. My mum is amusical, she doesn’t have an affinity with it. I’d probably do a monologue-based performance, and it would be more largely about having an Asian mother and being half Chinese. It would be more broadly about identity. It would be about the cultural aspect. She moved here when she was 19. She became an Australian citizen, she renounced her Malaysian citizenship. But she’s so quintessentially Chinese-Malaysian still. Your formative years are so influential. It would be a lot of trying to remember all the colloquialisms and sayings that she would stuff up.
My favourite Mum story, I was fourteen and it was cold outside and we had this hallway cupboard filled with coats. We were running late for something and she says ‘put on this coat’ and I said ‘no, I don’t want to wear this coat’ and she said ‘why not’ and I said ‘it’s a man’s coat Mum, I don’t want to wear a man’s coat.’ She said ‘no, put it on, it’s bisexual!’
So you have your own production company?
I’ve done a lot of theatre. I started in musical theatre and then moved into straight theatre after about thirteen years. I ran a theatre company called Boutique Theatre for five years (it’s currently on hiatus). We were trying to be like a small MTC – we had a season for the year and we would just churn out plays. That was exhausting, because I was producing everything. I had a drive to want to break even, to make a bit of money. In the end I realised that was taking more energy out than it was giving back. I realised I wanted to write Miley, Moon Unit and Me (before it was called that), that I wanted to write other shows, so I realised I wanted to create a production company, not just a theatre company. That way it’s not tied to just straight theatre, it could be anything!
So, slowly! I’ve got the name.
Oooh! Can you reveal the name?
Well… there’s nothing online yet, but it’s called Ignite Productions. It’s called that because all the products and ideas that I have, and this is true for Miley too, they’re about igniting conversation, creating social connection, creating opportunities for people to talk to each other. Plus ignite is very action based! When I thought of it, it was this moment like ‘ta-dah!’
I’ve got three products in my head, in various stages of development. Miley is the one where, on the surface, it’s about father and daughter relationships and sharing the music, but you could replace that with any two people that have a relationship and want to share things with each other, whether that’s sport or art or a TV show like Queer Eye, or Nanette, that kind of connection. I would love if by the end of the show people want to say ‘hey, go listen to this song, it’s amazing’, and share passion.
I’ve also got a show called Beneath the Skin that’s about anxiety and depression. I use songs, slam poetry and monologues to curate a set of performers, vignettes of thoughts. I did two nights of it back in 2016 to test it out, and it was really well received. At the end of it people were having conversations and opening up and feeling safe to share mental health stuff. So my idea for the next iteration is to have a slightly shorter show and then talk to mental health care professionals and create a workshop. So you have a workshop, or a council hires the product, and you do a fifty minute show and then a facilitated workshop. It could be quite provocative but it could really help people open up quite quickly through art. It’s a safe space.
And then I’ve got a fun one about the history of beer! And you get three beers included. That’s the fun one, you go out, there’s pantomime, different characters. That one is still an idea, and I’ll be writing that… after I have a break!
That’s awesome. And the beer show taps into that combination of business and art. Beer companies love sponsoring stuff.
Exactly! That’s partly why I’m doing a MBA.
So you’re doing an MBA, you work, and you have the production company?
I also teach acting!
So you have FOUR JOBS?!
Hah yeah. Not all of them pay… the goal is that the production company will eventually!
The way I’m setting it up is to be very flexible. Gone are the days where lots of independent theatre companies would put out shows, get a venue, market and bust their balls trying to get audiences in. It’s really hard. Whereas if you can create a product and then tour it, and go to a venue and say ‘buy my show, it costs this much’, and then I can pay people! That’s the end game – paying other artists. Like beer show, I should be able to tour that up and down the eastern seaboard! Every pub, every beer festival, bars. Because the way I want to design it, it could be done in any space, it doesn’t need a stage. Just changing the way people view art.
A lot of the time people choose to do stuff that they like. They just go ‘oh hey, I like that’ and they haven’t though ‘ok, but will audiences like that?’ They haven’t thought through this will actually appeal to people. Don’t put all your energy into something that no one’s going to want to see. There’s time for that, but you need to offset. You need to have stuff that the majority of people will identify with and connect with, and that will pay for the stuff you want to do. That balancing is hard though.
If you could star in any musical theatre show, what would it be? Imagine full production budget, everything.
The one role that has missed me is Eponine from Les Mis. It needs that feisty energy. I’d love to play that role.
When I’m a little bit older, I’d love to do Next to Normal and have a biracial family.
Miley, Moon Unit and Me is on at 8:30pm at the Butterfly Club until Saturday 7 July 2018. Tickets and accessibility information are available from the Butterfly Club website or at the box office.