A Brief History of Drag
Ian Stroughair's new show 'A Brief History of Drag' is one not to be missed! Lali and Rosie asked Ian some questions about the creation of Velma, the show and the importance of drag as an art form. Have a read below:
Ian Stroughair performs 'A Brief History of Drag'
A Brief History of Drag comes to Australia after a successful UK tour and a smash hit run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year. What made you decide Australia was the next step for Velma Celli?
There are so many reasons, but the main one being that the Aussies are OBVIOUSLY the coolest people in the world. That, and I played Perth and Adelaide last year and loved it so much. The level of talent and variety of fabulous people has me hooked forever. I live for cabaret and you guys love, appreciate and do it so well yourselves - so it makes sense for me to be there. Also, I've never visited Sydney, Melbourne or Brunswick Heads, so the travel junkie in me is crazy excited.
I know your show is about more than just pop and glitz, so I wanted to ask you, how did you work out what you wanted your message to be? Did you know from the start or was it a slower process?
In complete honesty, I had no idea what the message was, nor did I know what I was writing. It was all just a series of accidents. Wonderful accidents!
What inspired you to create this show, and what do you hope to achieve?
In January 2015, I was in Tanzania performing, holidaying and having some down time with family and friends who live out there. Oh, and performing in full drag which that makes no sense in a country where it is very much NOT okay to be gay. It’s just the kind of “gal” I am.
I was preparing for my return to London and working on set lists for my upcoming gigs. As usual, I hopped on Twitter and asked my followers what songs they would like to hear and many responses included those standard cliché songs one associates with drag and gay culture. “Something from Rocky Horror” or “please belt out a RuPaul”.
I had always stayed well clear of the drag classics; I didn’t want to be yet another man in a dress singing the obvious. In fact, I was very proud to be known for doing the exact opposite of that.
Being the youngest of four sisters, I always like to keep folk happy, so I thought, “Screw it. I’ll do one gig and shove all the classics together in one set, rip off the proverbial bandage in a ‘One Night Only Drag Extravaganza” and put it to bed once and for all.”
Then something wonderful happened.
I started compiling the list of “drag songs” and it struck me: not only was this a show, it was way overdue. I realised that these songs were the soundtrack to the history of the LGBTQI community. This is not dissimilar to that of an anthem played at a football game. These songs at sporting events bring unity, a sense of community and, when sang in gospel chorus, they invoke strength and positivity. I had seen this in the bars and clubs over the years and if I am completely honest I could be found rolling my eyes or popping to the bathroom when the ‘queer anthems’ started.
Writing this show has completely changed how I feel about these songs forever. Icons of drag – whether it be in film, music, popular culture or even politic – have been our trailblazers for an age. The drag queens always on the front line representing us and these songs are the very heartbeat and soundtrack to a message, that message being “F*** my label, I am a human, much like anyone else and my sexual preference is as important or unimportant as anyone else’s”.
I’d love to know more about your drag persona, Velma Celli. How did Velma come to life, and how has she evolved over the years? And then further to that, how much is Velma a part of you or is she someone completely separate?
I was in the West End production of Chicago, first understudying Mary Sunshine which I then went on to play, weirdly opposite Jerry Springer.
Back in the day, by tradition the gays from the shows go out on a Wednesday night. Each week, a different show decided the venue and the theme. During my last week in Chicago, I got a text from the gays (it’s almost 10 years ago now, it may have been a pager or pigeon) saying “we are going out on Wednesday but we are going out in drag.” You see, Pricilla Queen of the Desert had opened and La Cage Aux Folles was having a revival and it was their turn to choose this week’s ‘night out’. The text read: “We are keeping our makeup on and going to Madame Jojo’s, are you in?”
I was like “YES”. So before my show, I went to Primark, got myself a black dress, some questionable makeup and some kitten heels. My plan was to go out as Velma Kelly, the leading lady of my show. The show came down, I ran up to my dressing room, downed some gin, got into man drag and left stage door. We got to the club and got VERY drunk. I was asked by the drag queen host to sing a song, protested but eventually gave in. I think she just felt sorry for me - I looked awful.
Apparently, I gave them 7 or 8 numbers and jumped into the splits at the end. When I came time to leave the little promoter man came running up – he said “You were fabulous. Do you want your own show here? Can you start next week?” Like any thespian I just said yes. We tend to do that: just say yes and figure out how to do it later.
Velma is ever changing and growing, thank goodness. That’s the greatest thing about having an alter ego: I call the shots on how I want her to play out and can change it whenever I like. She is very much part of me. Any live performing artist gives a little piece of them away every time they perform, and it is impossible not to have an emotional attachment to her.
A Brief History of Drag has been described as a show that celebrates the most iconic drag moments of film, stage and popular culture. Can you give our readers a little sneak peek as to what some of those iconic moments might be?
My show celebrates not only those classic ‘drag songs’ (rearranged in our own unique way) but also artists of various sexualities who pushed boundaries and teared down the walls of stereotypes. To mention one: David Bowie, whose gender bending images pushed gay culture into the public conscience and in doing so forced many to consider acceptance for anyone different, whether or not we knew it at the time. A more recent artist who has rather vocally had our backs and challenged perceptions is Lady Gaga. I actually open the show with one of her hits.
We touch on the struggle of those who simply couldn’t come out and live life in the music industry as their authentic self, like Whitney Houston, who happens to be my favourite artist of all time.
We also explore legendary and defining roles in Musical Theatre including Angel in Rent, Frank in The Rocky Horror Show and a tender homage to the grand high witch herself, RuPaul Charles.
What is exciting you about how the drag scene is developing and what, if anything, is worrying you?
The exciting thing is the tearing down of old stigmas and preconceptions as to what the art form is.
The scary thing is making it too mainstream and putting it in a box.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a wonderful thing and it’s crazy to think how much that show has changed the face of drag and gay culture forever. That has to be a great thing.
A couple of years ago I was the face of a McDonald’s advertising campaign in full drag. Boy George tweeted a picture of me saying something along the lines of “McDonalds and drag. Perverse or progression?” Definitely progress wouldn't you say?
What can audiences expect from A Brief History of Drag?
A blooming good time. Learn some stuff? True cabaret escapism and hopefully folks will leave feeling uplifted, fabulous and to want to see more drag shows because there are SO many different types. I would like folk to feel inspired by the stories I tell about those trailblazing queens who gave us the freedom we have today. There are countless queens throughout history, of which we all should be thankful for. Of course, many of them will remain nameless for all time. Celebrating the art form of drag and supporting your local queens is a great way to give thanks.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
Rent on Broadway
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
New York (with Liz)
Dream show/role to perform?
Angel in Rent. It was a walk in the park - great writing
Plays or musicals?
What’s next for you after this show?
Food! You'll understand when you see the dress.
A Brief History of Drag is a show that you will not want to miss. Click here for more information and tickets in Sydney