The next day, I met a pleasant, outgoing, chatty festival volunteer named Lana.
It took a good few minutes on that second meeting to realise that the performer and the volly were one in the same person. That’s a good as any recommendation for the skills of an actor as you could hope for.
The chance to see ‘The Sickle Of Life’ passed me by due to conflicting festival obligations, and as you’ll read below, it mostly passed others by due to circumstances beyond Lana’s and the audience’s control.
Not even the former Soviet Union’s security services could fix the problem.
But the show is coming to The Venue at Fannie Bay on Friday 6 December, and will hopefully return to the Darwin Fringe in 2020.
On a mercifully mild November Sunday morning, I met up with Sveta and Lana at The Fannie Bay Coolspot for a cup of coffee and a chat.
* See the bottom of this document for a very important security advice about this website.
Bill Quinn: I hope this interview goes OK, because the only Russian language I know I’ve learnt from Billy Joel: Live In Moscow and The Hunt For Red October. So I trust your English is better than my Russian.
Sveta Lyublyu Knokyablokov: Well, I’ve been learning English, so hopefully you can understand my accent.
BQ: When did you come to Australia and what brought you here?
SLK: I’ve only come recently because I have been in the search for love, and I know my true love is waiting for me. I’ve been looking for him all around Australia… well, maybe it last six months.
And I started in Adelaide, and then I went to the Brisvegas, then I went to the Gold Coast, and I’m searching for this man that I met in Moscow – that’s part of my story – and apparently, he is waiting for me here in Dariwnd.
That’s why I’m here.
BQ: Aha! Now are you talking [about looking for love] generally, or is there a specific person?
SLK: Specific man!
BQ: Ah, see I thought that the problem was you’d run out of men to find in Russia and had come here looking for love.
SLK: Oh, nyet, nyet, nyet. I am saving my treasure chest for special gem.
And you see, I am the last hope for virgin [pronounced ‘wirgin’] bride in Knokyablokov family. It’s getting a bit of a worry for the family, but I am saving myself for the right man, and that’s why I am here because I met him, and I’m here to find him.
BQ: What part of Russia is your family in, and are they monitoring your progress?
SLK: We live in Stripchevsk. They not follow what I do, because where I live in the rural village, we don’t have mobile phones, we have homing pigeons deliver the messages. And so nyet, they’re not following. I guess somehow I will contact them when I find him and I’m going to get married.
BQ: So, what’s the backstory here? Did he flee the country for some reason?
SLK: Nyet. In the story of my show, I explain what happen. But he was my one true love. He gave me engagement ring – I insisted on engagement ring, to not compromise my morals.
And then when he wanted a little bit more pleasure, and I was putting the boundaries down, all of a sudden he said that the KGB agents in Russia send him back home. Suddenly.
He is my true love, so that is why I’m looking for him, because I think he wanted to stay with me, but he was forced out of the country. That’s what I believe, very strongly.
BQ: Ok, now it occurs to me that we’ve got elections coming up in the Northern Territory next year. Has he got anything to do with influencing elections?
SLK: Oh, I don’t know. I hope not. I have connections with Vladimir Putin, but I have to let you know that he never put in – because I’m not that kind of woman.
BQ: So at what point did you realise that your life is a cabaret, and was worthwhile putting into a show?
Lana Jankowiak: Ah, you want me to speak now?
BQ: Ok! We can do that!
LJ: I’m Sveta’s manager!
Where it all started was… If I had my time again, my path would be down the creative side. I really love theatre, whether it be on stage or behind the stage.
But I grew up in an Eastern European family that very much believed in education, so the thought of doing musicals at school just was unheard of. But I’d always been thinking that’s what I really love to do, and I’ve had a few dabblings, just indirectly.
But I’d been dabbling with the thought of trying to write something to do a tribute to my Russian heritage around the 1990s when I went to Russia with my mum, and I met my relatives for the first time.
It was also the first time that I realised that mum kept repeating herself, and that was really the beginning of her dementia, which she got very young. So I had been talking about doing something as a tribute to her and my heritage for years. And then she seemed to deteriorate.
I was talking to a colleague of mine, a youth worker I worked with in Adelaide, and he basically said, Why don’t you do it? So I wrote it in six weeks, and the plan was just to perform it in front of family and friends before my mum passed away. I had my nephews were my KGB agents; one of them practised very hard to have a Russian accent.
I found a quaint little wine bar (that sadly closed this year) in Adelaide called La Boheme. A whole lot of different people were part of that story. I was going to do it for two shows, and it just took off.
I then ended up doing the Adelaide Fringe and the Cabaret Fringe in Adelaide. I did the show in Brisbane. So it took off from there.
People seem to enjoy the story. It meets my need of being creative. I certainly haven’t studied theatre or any of that, but I guess the passion and the love of the story behind it has kept me going.
BQ: I’d read some of the stuff on your website, but I misinterpreted what the story of the search for love was. So how much of it is autobiographical, and how much is pure creation?
LJ: One of the things I’ve said to people is that there’s a lot of depth behind the silliness and the comedy of the show. A lot of it is mum’s story; there are bits, for example, when she was younger, her nickname was ‘Gypsy’, so I’ve kind of entwined that in the story.
Searching for love: yes, there’s a little bit of Lana in there. There’s a lot of my aunties in my show – and when I say that, in Russia, even though they may not be a biological aunt, it’s not dissimilar to the Aboriginal culture, out of respect you call people ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’. So, part of Sveta’s character, particularly her big hair, comes from some of the friends and family we grew up with.
Most of mum and dad’s friends had children around my brother’s age – my brother’s 11 years older than me – so I spent a lot of time on my own, going to friends’ places.
So I had lots of time to observe lots of people from that culture!
And hear their accents, and watch their behaviour, and see them drink lots of vodka!
BQ: When you were performing the show in Adelaide, did you have any of the Russian community come, and did they find they made a connection with the character of Sveta?
LJ: They seemed to. To give you a bit of context, I lived in Adelaide, I grew up in Adelaide, I lived in Brisbane for 14 years, I went back to Adelaide for seven years to be with mum (with her dementia). And in that time, I connected with the Russian Community Club in Norwood in Adelaide, which is where mum and dad spent quite a lot of time.
So we went to the Russian Club, and I’d get my nephews to go and we’d have Russian meals on a Friday night down there. And so I got to know some people and they came to the show. Sometimes it was a little bit boisterous, because they’d come having had quite a few vodka shots. They were familiar with some of the music I chose for the first half of the show. Even though I might change the show and the story a little bit, I don’t ever want to compromise my connection to the Russian music that I grew up with.
When I did the show in Brisbane, though, it was quite interesting because I found a live Russian band to do the opening, and I could hear some of the older people who couldn’t speak English, and I could hear what they were saying (in Russian). Because it’s called ‘The Sickle Of Life’, which is a play of words from ‘The Circle Of Life’, and I also had a communist flag up there with the current Russian flag, I heard a man saying, “Oh, should we be working with this woman? This woman is a communist.”
Because I could understand him, I explained that it’s a comedy, and as soon as they could see I spoke Russian, it was like I got permission because I was one of ‘theirs’. Whereas I think if I was possibly an Australian person, they might have thought that I was having a go at Russian culture.
BQ: I would imagine that other cultures would find some parallels in what you’re doing with their own experiences.
LJ: Absolutely. I’ve had a lot of friends who had mums who, when they were growing up, worked in factories, and at that time migrants were a really big part of Australian culture in the 50s and 60s. So Dad worked in a brick factory, mum worked for Simpson Pipe in Adelaide, and all her friends were all multicultural. Greek and Yugoslav. In fact, that street that I grew up in was absolutely multicultural. There was Italians, Yugoslavs, Polish, German, the whole gamut.
So, I think that in my vintage, that is first generation from migrant parents, growing up with people with accents, a lot of children of migrant parents who come to the show can really relate to it.
BQ: And going to school with a deli wrapped in a tea towel for lunch!
LJ: All of those things! And being teased with salami sandwiches. And being teased about names.
My name is Svetlana Jankowiak, but I changed my name very early to Lana. And mum and dad allowed me to do that quite naturally; I don’t know quite how that happened.
BQ: It’s not too much of a stretch, is it? Lopping off part of it.
LJ: Part of it is was because I was being called ‘Sweaty Lana’. So when you’re eight, I didn’t like being called ‘Sweaty Lana’, so I kind of denied my heritage for a long time. I was kind of embarrassed about mum and dad’s accents, and a whole lot of things you go through.
But I’ve embraced it, I am very proud of it, particularly when I went to Russia with mum – that was a turning point. And I really need to reconnect, and hopefully get to Russia one day again.
BQ: When you put the show on in a couple of weeks’ time, it’s going to be like a debut and a half [in Darwin], because it had an ignominious start at Darwin Fringe.
LJ: It did! I realised early when I came to Darwin, I’ll put on this show for the Darwin Fringe, and then I had this epiphany to say, ‘Omigosh, I don’t have any family or friends here’, because usually you’ve got a few people you can contact. So I worked really hard to try to get people come along. I was new to Darwin, Sveta was new to Darwin.
It’s just unfortunate about the venue I was playing at. I ended up getting a sold out show, but after two weeks into sales, I only had about two tickets sold, and I thought I’d have to cancel the show. So I went through the emotional rollercoaster that I think most performers do.
But due to sound issues, for safety, the Darwin Fringe director (who was there for support) and I had to cancel the show. I did three songs and then we had to cancel for safety’s sake and give everyone a refund. And everyone went home!
BQ: “For safety’s sake?”
LJ: The sound system started to short. I think the audience thought that was all part of the show, because I had a wonderful KGB agent to protect Sveta, so they initially thought that was part of the show. And then we had to say, Look seriously, we really can’t afford to take a risk in case it shorts again and something happens.
BQ: Are you having to rally the troops again this time?
LJ: My KGB agent is a surprise, but she’s flying in again from Tasmania, so she’s there to support me. And I’m hoping that the people who came to the Fringe show might be following me on ‘Sveta Does Cabaret’ on Facebook, and I’ll hopefully get some of those people, and Sveta will be checking those people to see who’s there. As Sveta would say, “Deja moo!”
So we’ll see what happens! I’m hoping it goes well.
BQ: And it’s going to be here at The Venue At Fannie Bay.
LJ: Yes, and I just need to highlight that it’s air-conditioned – yay! The only downfall, unfortunately, is that there is NO wheelchair access, just because there are stairs. It’s a great venue, and Kylie has been fantastic in supporting me and organising things. I had some people come along to the first show who were in wheelchairs, so it’s just a matter of letting people know for this show, we don’t have that access. But hopefully, if this show goes well, I’ll do the Darwin Fringe in 2020 and find a venue that’s disability-friendly.
BQ: Well, I hope you get opportunities before the Fringe too.
Best of luck to you – and Sveta – and I hope it all goes brilliantly.
LJ: Thank you, Bill!
You can follow Sveta’s adventures:
Sveta Does Caberet on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Sveta-does-Cabaret-1417976255084093/
The Facebook event for Sveta’s ‘The Sickle Of Life’ event on Friday 6 December at The Venue At Fannie Bay is here: https://www.facebook.com/Sveta-does-Cabaret-1417976255084093/
* Please check the volume settings on your device before clicking on Sveta’s website if you’re in a public area. Let’s just say you’re in, oh let’s say for argument’s sake, the Quiet Zone of the Casuarina Library, and you didn’t realise that your laptop volume is set to 11, you may inadvertently give those around you a very loud burst of traditional Russian music. Which is strangely impervious to the shutting of a laptop lid. Picture a middle-aged bloke bolting to the courtyard, trying to smother the sounds of balalaikas and dulcimers while loudly shhhshing aforementioned laptop. Continue!