Performance: The life-blood of Alison McGregor

The buzzing of an excited crowd, the sounds of applause and yawping – a familiar welcome to Sparkles, also known as Canberra’s Alison McGregor. Sparkles steps out onto the stage in a familiar pink robe. Her act starts with dirty comedic love poetry, which sparks her onstage break-down.  Her ribald poetry is soon accompanied by crazy props ranging from potato and gravy to champagne; and when it’s all done, the applause from the fun-filled crowd is deafening. “Disgusting and wonderful”, one audience member enthuses. It seems to be a common sentiment.

On a cold Canberra night I wander into the Phoenix Pub to interview Alison McGregor. As I walk in, I spy Alison sitting at a table, rugged up in a warm grey coat and scarf and sporting shiny blue hair. With a beer resting in front of her, she waves me over.

Alison is a multifaceted performer who is well known for her poetry, burlesque dancing, acting, her enthusiasm for Gameboy DS and her job at Questacon. Had I missed anything? She waves the concern away with a laugh. “All those things are correct. I am all of those, I think that’s pretty comprehensive. Oh, I’m also a trivia host here at the Phoenix doing Nerd Trivia”.

As she takes a sip of her beverage, we talk about how she first got into poetry. She pauses. “Umm that’s a hard question, I think it might have been seeing my first slam at the front and realising that this was not just a way to write what was on my mind, but a way to create something that I could perform with, and performing’s my life blood. Burlesque and theatre are my priorities, but it was like hey, if I write stuff I get to perform more, this is pretty sweet”.

As another chilled-out tune filled the Phoenix air, I ask how her perception of poetry has changed since she began writing. “It’s a lot of that understanding of where performance and poetry can intersect. I get that a bit from what I do. In that I can write things that are more narrative based or more prose based rather than thinking that it has to have some sort of a iambic pentameter. But also through watching things like the slam and seeing the different, I say characters, but they are not necessarily characters they are just people doing their thing. But they have so much character and life and take such different approaches to what they do, that I find I don’t know if I have changed how I write, but it’s definitely informed the potential for me”.

The conversation then turns to her character Sparkles and how she came about. She laughs, “Well Sparkles is my most famous burlesque character, but when I first started I didn’t realise I was doing burlesque. I was asked to be a feature act for BAD!SLAM!NO!BISCUIT! and I was kinda stressing, I’ve been a feature act before doing Ali poetry but I felt that I needed to do something new. I had this dumb idea, which was to write the worst love poetry I could and to have a mental breakdown on stage and that worked pretty well. I’ve refined the act since then, but I still try and slip in things that make this person seem extremely needy obsessive and crazy so they fall in love and they get dumped straight away”

When trying to pin down her favourite/funniest moment as Sparkles Alison rubs her hands together “Oh, there are so many good ones. I think maybe getting a standing ovation at the National Folk Festival was pretty good. I wasn’t sure how the crowd would take to her because I’ve performed as Sparkle in places like the pub where it’s really rowdy and you can get away with that. I’ve also done sparkles in burlesque shows, where people are expecting something extreme. I feel at the Folk Festival people were expecting poetry and they got poetry, but they also got this other thing” she says with a smile. “But it turned out really well. I don’t think that was a funny moment, it was just a great moment”.

One of Alison’s fellow performers best describes what makes Alison stand out on stage. “Alison brings an incredible energy with her when she performs, no matter the event or context. She has this presence and enthusiasm that draws you in, and you just feel so involved. She is an absolute joy to watch”.

Alison does a range of performance arts – does she see them as interlinked or separate? “Oh, definitely interlinked. I think that skill in one can directly translate to skill in others. So I feel like my background is primarily in theatre and in physical theatre. So I’ve done a lot of work on dance and clowning and what my body is doing in space and all of that has very much informed me as a burlesque character”.

“I think any creative pursuit helps keep your brain working in that creative space. One of my favourite things to look at is how people do one thing and then see if I can apply it to my practice and vice versa. Or see where the bits match up in people’s practices, how a musician matches up with a burlesque performer, how a visual artist match up with a poet. What kind of bridges are there between these artistic practices?”

How did you find the transition to burlesque? “So I have two burlesque personas. I have Sparkles and Sparkles is extreme and she’s funny and she’s clowny and she’s weird and part of the whole point of her is that she wants to be really girly and beautiful and gorgeous, but misses the mark. So it means with her if I don’t look sexy or I fall over or if I just screw up somehow it’s ok. However Sparkles is limited in what she can do in burlesque. My other persona is Virginia Fizz who is far more classic, austere and elegant and I find Virginia very scary to perform. In terms of a learning curve it was learning to be precise and learning to be quote-unquote sexy, cause there’s no right or wrong way to be sexy. I guess learning all those things that classic burlesque performers do was scary and hard. Also playing things straight down the line is a little be scary for me then just being an idiot in front of an audience, which is really quite fun,” she says with a laugh.

One last question: if you could travel through time, where would you go and why? She sits for a second and ponders before saying, “A lot about the past is really interesting, but I would want to go to the future. Because I like to play sci-fi games and I love watching sci-fi movies and tv shows, not so much sci-fi books.  I would like to go to the future to see what it’s like. I think my favourite thing about sci-fi is it’s always our contemporary reimagining of what the future is like. Back in the 80’s everything was gritty and cyberpunk, but now everything is shiny surfaces and clean. In the 60’s everyone wore wacky suits. I would actually like to go to the future and see what it’s like because it’s probably like nothing any of us would have imagined”.

Next Stop: Alison will be performing at the Short and Sweet Festival.


  Photo by: Adam Thomas