Teacher, musician, director, actor and carryover champion Russell Cheek is no stranger to Adelaide, nor to Adelaide’s festivals.
Russell has been making his way across the country ever since 1976 when he hitched a ride from Sydney for the Fringe and busked outside the Adelaide Festival Centre, entertaining opera-goers with his Irish folk tunes. This year, Russell is back with his own show at Adelaide Festival – Who Am I? – a hilarious and intimate look at a fascinating man with a penchant for quiz shows.
Who am I? details Russell’s struggle through self confessed, “unemployed actor poverty” from his early performances through to his time on Sale of the Century.
Performing musically and theatrically his entire life, Russell fondly recalls playing at Little Sister’s Cabaret in the 1980s with his band The Castanet Club.
“I used to play the Tenor Sax, but there were about five of us with theatrical backgrounds and we did little skits, between the songs,” he says.
These skits quickly became the focus for a comedy routine, but the pressures of stage life took their toll and the band broke up in 1992, despite their phenomenal success.
“The financial situation wasn’t great,” he says. “We were basically hand to mouth. There were nine band members and a limited amount of cash.”
The financial low and the break up of the band led to Russell becoming tempted to compete in Sale of the Century.
“I had participated in a local quiz show when I was in high school, so that was sort of what got me thinking about it,” he says.
Russell Cheek’s attempt to climb out of poverty by becoming a contestant on the most famous quiz show of the 1980s inspired him to create Who Am I?, which will play at Adelaide Festival for three shows only on The Riverbank Palais.
Formed, as all good shows surely are, through dinner parties, Who Am I was devised when Russell was living with the show’s director Steve Abbott.
Often regaling tales of his experiences to friends at a dinner party, Russell says Steve finally saw an opportunity to make a show out of the stories.
“Steve had seen it all of course,” Russell says. “He lived through it with me, but he patiently rewatched the tapes and after the third or fourth time he started watching our guests’ amusement and said ‘you’ve got a show here’”.
The duo refined the piece over 18 months, which is now being rehearsed during Russell’s regular walks to the beach.
“I walk from my apartment, just mouthing the words, like a mad guy,” he laughs.
Steve and Russell have worked together since the Castanet Club days and have made a hilarious and poignant piece of theatre.
“I’m so glad Steve is involved. If Steve hadn’t been directing it, it would be a very different show. I like to make things very philosophical and to make a big, universal picture. Steve keeps things really accessible,” Russell says.
Having long been involved in the creative arts and been part of many key festivals on the Adelaide arts calendar including; Come Out Children’s Festival and Adelaide Fringe, Russell is finally returning to Adelaide Festival after a 35 year absence.
“I have such a strong relationship with Adelaide, it’s such a cultural pond where everyone knows one another,” he says. “I’ll be giving it my absolute best, it’s going to be a surprising and very interesting show.”
By Rupert Hogan-Turner