theatre

A PSA from a Producer

NOTE: I wrote this originally as a Facebook status, but it got so widely shared and commented on, I figured I’d write it out (and extend it) as a blog post. I’d love to know any additional ideas you’d like to add to the list, so feel free to comment below.

Communication:

Regardless of how many shows, etc you perform in - It’s always a good idea to touch base with producers, event managers, etc every 6 months or so to let them know what acts you currently have, your schedule, what you’ve been up to, etc.

On the topic of communication…

I understand 100% that life happens. Things come up, problems occur, stress makes us forgot deadlines, etc. I’ll never get upset or frustrated at someone for handing in music, tech sheets, etc late if they keep the lines of communication open. As someone who has anxiety, I understand it can be overwhelming at times. However, you have a responsibility to communicate with those who have employed your services. Please don’t ignore us. We’re just trying to do our job. Please try to do yours and if you can’t, for whatever reason, please talk to us.

Read the email in full:

My biggest gripe is when I explicitly ask for information or photos from performers in an email and don’t get what I need. This shows me you haven’t read the email properly and it creates extra work on my end to harass you for them. May sound trivial, but about 70% of the time that I end up having to follow up people for photos or information. I literally have a hallelujah moment when someone does what I have asked of them, without me having to follow up. Be that person.

Producers are clueless:

I know personally - a lot of the time, even if you have been in a show I’ve cast, I tend to forget what acts people have in their arsenal. Basically - assume that if you personally haven’t told a producer, then they don’t know. If you have, and it’s been a while, remind them.

Meet your deadlines:

When a producer says the music is due in at 5.00pm on a Thursday, that’s when it is due. Time management, folks. If you can’t meet that deadline, see the second point re. communication. If you know you’ve got a busy week ahead and you’ll be pressed for time to get things in, ensure you make time earlier the week before. If you want to be booked again, please meet deadlines and do what your producers ask of you. 

A producer with good time management should give you at least 1.5 - 2 weeks minimum to get information, music, etc to them, which is more than sufficient. Producers may have a bit of memory loss when it comes to what acts are in your arsenal,  but they definitely remember those who have been professional, met deadlines and made their lives easier. They are the people who will be re-booked. 

Sit your ego down:

Never get too big for your boots to assume that gigs will just “come” to you and producers will come door knocking. 

Back yourself:

Never assume someone won’t put you in their show - if someone talks themselves down directly to me, it’s very off putting. If you don’t have your own back, how do you expect anyone else to?

What is in your arsenal?

Have some way for producers to find your acts and what you do. YouTube channel, website, something. Facebook pages or Instagram are OK and give producers a taste - but how is someone meant to know what is in your repertoire if you don’t have it listed somewhere?

No low resolution, blurry pictures please:

Please invest in some professional studio shots! Promotional shots for posters work best when it’s a clear background that can be erased or manipulated, with full length, medium shots and close ups in a variety of looks. In full colour please. Sending me a low res photo you’ve pulled off Facebook that’s partially blurry in low lighting from a live show isn’t going to cut it, sorry love.

Be courteous backstage:

You may be the most talented performer this side of the sun, but if you are disrespectful backstage to your fellow performers (i.e. taking selfies while there’s someone half naked with their boobs out trying to put a pastie on in the background, spreading your mess like it’s peanut butter, getting within others personal space, having a diva moment or not handling your anxiety in a respectful way) then you can be pretty sure that you won’t be booked again.

Know Producers take a risk:

When we produce a show, we take on the financial risk. Now, don’t get me wrong, if you’ve agreed with the producer that they’ll pay you an outright fee (please make sure you get it in writing) the producer is liable to pay you regardless. If you’re working on a profit share, where there’s a risk that you may not get anything, then so be it. But, if the show makes a loss, they end up being out of pocket. A sad truth is that a lot of industry producers don’t even allocate themselves a fee - they basically have the dregs that are left over (if there is any left over) despite the fact that they’ve done the most amount of work. Be kind to them, and always thank them for giving you stage time and for doing their job. 

Rehearse:

You’ve been booked to perform an act. Ensure that piece is rehearsed, costume is bang on and you hit those beats. The amount of times I have heard performers (not in shows that I’ve produced, but shows I’ve been booked to perform in) say they’ve only rehearsed once, or will just improvise on the spot, is insane. Yes, for some performances you can improvise, such as dancing while lip-syncing, but you still need to know the words, have your outfit sorted, and at least have a few moves up your bell sleeve, etc.

Conduct yourself professionally in public:

Whether you are attending a show, or you are in one, please, please, please, for your own brand and the sake of those who are contracting you, please behave in a professional manner. 

For example, if you’ve been contracted to perform in a show, and you know there will be audience members having a couple of drinks at the venue afterwards, ensure you have something nice and appropriate to wear, be open and inviting to people coming to talk to you, be prepared to allow a couple of selfies from guests (if appropriate - you can always politely say no, consent is sexy) and if you wish to drink, have one drink in hand. 

Do NOT come out in your tracksuit pants, be intrusive to patrons conversations or photos (again, consent is sexy) and for goodness sake, don’t go and order 5 tequila shots and shoot them at the bar with an audience watching and then stumble around the venue like a (hot) mess (leave all of that until AFTER you’ve left the venue if you must). You are your brand. Be professional in public. Be professional in general.

Do not guilt trip your producer:

Producers, in a contract or written agreement (which can be as simple as an email), will generally specify date, time, act/role, compensation and an approximate time as to when compensation will be paid out. Compensation should be money (whether by cash or bank transfer) + additional compensation. Additional compensation is entirely dependent on the producer, but it can be things like drink vouchers, a complimentary ticket for you to give to a friend or fan, airfares, accommodation, etc. 

Once you agree on these terms, they’re set. 

Please, do not try and get your pay fast-tracked if you’ve agreed to the producers terms. Some producers need to wait until the ticketing company has paid them in order to pay you, which can take from 3 - 7 working days. The producer doesn’t need to hear your story about how you are low on rent money. This sounds harsh, I know, and a lot of the time, the people I contract are my friends, which adds a whole other level to it as I care for them and don’t want them to be stressing about their finances. But, contracts and agreements are set in stone for these exact purposes. Of course, if I get paid out early, I will endeavor to get you paid sooner than agreed upon, but please don't press your stresses upon us - it makes us feel pretty terrible and adds another layer of stress onto our already demanding job. 

Also, don’t try to change your agreed fee. A lot of the time, our budgets are already stretched, so to have someone, who we’ve likely already been promoting, come to us and try and get a pay increase at the 11th hour, it’s really not on. If you had a problem with the rate to start with, you shouldn’t have agreed to it or at least brought it up for discussion before confirming. 

Of course, there are allowances for this. For example, if the producer goes and demands another act from you or throws added rehearsals at you without consulting you first or discussing additional payment, then they are also going against the contract. Definitely talk to them in that instance, and don’t let a producer take you for a ride. 

Long story short…

Keep up communication, don’t assume gigs will always come your way, you still need to hustle. Have your own back and invest in your art and brand by getting some professional shots done. If you have to pay for it, so be it. Be professional. Be considerate of others. Don’t guilt trip your producer and read your contracts thoroughly. 

Lilly x

Drag in Burlesque & Theatre: A Theatrical History & My Story

Performing in Hugo Grrrl’s ‘Tragic Mike’ as one of my original drag king characters, Jethro Jenkins. Photo by Pip Clark.

Performing in Hugo Grrrl’s ‘Tragic Mike’ as one of my original drag king characters, Jethro Jenkins. Photo by Pip Clark.

For those who have been following what I do as a performing artist, you would have known that I have been including drag (mostly Drag King) into my repertoire with original characters such as Gary Krumbert and Jethro Jenkins. It’s also important to note I have been performing as male identifying characters in theatre since I was a child. Also, over the past 6 months, I have started dipping my rhinestoned stiletto’s into the world of Hyper-Drag. 

What is that, you ask? Well, basically, Hyper-Queens are drag artists who present as biologically female or are non-binary. When I am a Drag King, it’s basically the reverse of Drag Queens, where someone who presents as either biologically female or non-binary dresses in drag as the opposite gender. 

Myself in Hyper-Queen drag. Photo & editing by me.

Myself in Hyper-Queen drag. Photo & editing by me.

But I realised, although I have chatted about my history and involvement in drag with various media such as NewsHub and TV3, I haven’t actually been able to inform those who follow all the various things I do how I got started in it, why I do it, what I represent and why I continue to do it. Also, I figure, since my foray into drag is so closely intertwined with the theatre, that it would be a good chance to talk about the theatrical history of drag. 

So, if you’d like to know more,  pull up a pew, pour yourself a beverage of choice and let’s get onto it. 

I guess the best place to start is at the beginning! I have been dabbling in gender-bending and exploring it through theatrics since I was pre-school little. I explored gender bending in the unconscious way you do as a kid. I’d make my parents sit and watch skit’s I’d created: sometimes I was a woman (eg. being Miss Otis and lip-syncing and running around like a mad woman to Bette Midler’s take on Miss Otis Regrets) and sometimes I played a man (one of my earliest memories was donning a Charlie Chaplin character in a little pantomime skit and dancing to an Eric Clapton song). 

Also, my family are big fans of British comedy, and it’s made a huge impact on my life: Mr Bean, Monty Python, Dad’s Army, ‘Ello ‘Ello, Last of the Summer Wine, The Two Ronnies, Benny Hill, ...I could go on. These were my idols I grew up on, and the material featured drag heavily often for satire and comedy’s sake. Watching these programmes only drove me further into exploring gender and playing male roles - which pretty much became something I was known for within drama classes and high school, and right up unto the present day.

When I hit school age, life took a bit of a turn. I was bullied a lot in primary and intermediate school. I was a different kid. I didn’t have quips or clap backs, and once a popular person deems you a loser, then usually the rest follow suit. My parents and I lived rural and so I didn’t have a lot of neighborhood kids to play with. So it wasn’t exactly the best ingredients for making friends. To escape from the dread of having to go to school, sitting by myself or with other ‘outcast’ kids and the ride home on the bus as one of the favourites the older kids loved to mock, I dove head first into my imagination. 

When I was 7 my family FINALLY decided to join me up to a local drama school. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I belonged somewhere. From being the outcast at school who was always off in her own head (Dad called me “Dolly Daydream”) to going to being part of a tribe of people like me who loved to perform... I finally felt a part of something. Like I belonged.

Those classes became Theatre 101, and when I was 9 I landed my first role as part of the end of year theatre show - I was Lockup Lottie from Fagan’s Gang in Oliver Twist. I had one line and I was absolutely chuffed. My second role, which then became my first lead role, was that as a male identifying Hare in The Hare in the Tortoise. I may have possibly gotten that role by chance, as I was the only one out of all the female dominated class who wanted to play a male, but it was here that I was able to start putting my gender-bending to use and to my advantage. 

Something important to note - yes, I found a place I could feel safe to express myself, but I still felt a little bit on the fringes, and although I found this safe space on the stage, bullying still ran rife in my normal day-to-day life. I changed schools, I had learning difficulties, I started to crave and dive further into my passion of being on stage, because it was the one place the noise of my reality didn’t reach me. It was during this time that I realised, like actually clicked, that drama and theatre weren't just my passions, it was what i needed to survive. 

I became these other people, male, female, animal, robot, whatever, because I wanted so badly to escape who I was. Everyone told me I wasn’t ok, except for my amazing parents who were absolute champions and did everything they could to support me. I became watchful of other people, mimicking their body language, movements, facial expressions, tones, accents, which I would then channel through various roles and then sometimes apply to my own self. I felt like I had to change, because I wasn’t being accepted for me. I wish I had the foresight to know that it was OK to be different then, but different wasn’t OK in the playground, and I so desperately wanted to fit in.

Leading the Spanish Cultural Group at my high school at age 17 in drag.

Leading the Spanish Cultural Group at my high school at age 17 in drag.

Fast forward through my high school years - I went to a local college to start high school and lasted 2 months (turns out the people who bullied you when you were younger don’t forget who you are, even 5-6 years down the track)  and changed and went to an all girls school in Ponsonby. It was here that things finally started to turn around for me regarding bullying, although I wasn’t totally devoid of it, and I started to become a lot more comfortable in my own skin. I had the lead roles in high school for two years in a row, one as a male identifying Satan in a play called The Devil You Know (quite risque for a Christian school, but I lived for it) and then as a female identifying lead in the play The Cagebirds. Also, a fun note, I also performed in drag (as a Drag King) as the leader of the Spanish Cultural Group at school, and lead the 30+ strong group of students through a hilarious bull flight dance-off scenario when I was 17 (see the above pic… yes, my drag has improved a lot since then, haha!).

It was at high school that my love for drag and theatre heightened with theatre and my education. I became obsessed with Elizabethan Theatre, Classical Studies and Art History (which I all went on to study at University). It was here I started to learn about the history of not only westernised theatre, but how drag was incorporated into theatre. 

Classics was a great eye-opener here, with playwrights such as Aristophanes, who were writing plays such as The Assembly Women (which is my favorite of his) which basically used drag inception. So this play was written in 391 B.C. This play, in summary, is about a group of women, lead by Praxagora, who sneak into the male-only senate dressed as men, manipulate them into handing over parliament to women (basically their case in point is that if woman can run a household effectively, then they sure as hell can run parliament) and effectively take over, stripping away their male garb and completely over-turning the senate, for the better. 

If you do ever have a chance to read it, please do, it’s amazing, but what you would have seen on stage is young men, dressed as women, pretending to be men, hence the drag inception. At this time, women were not deemed “fit” to take to the stage, thus only men played the parts. It also didn’t help that men were predominantly the ones in the audience seats, so it made sense (in their minds) to have males play the roles. 

Fast forwarding to the Elizabethan Era, things had changed a wee bit, but in the big scheme of things, not so much. This is what a women’s role was in Elizabethan England: 

  • Elizabethan women were tutored at home - there were no schools for girls

  • Elizabethan women were not allowed to enter University

  • Elizabethan women could not be heirs to their father's titles (except female royals)

  • Elizabethan women could not become Doctors or Lawyers

  • Elizabethan women did not have the vote and were not allowed to enter politics

  • There were no Elizabethan women in the Army or Navy

  • Elizabethan women were not allowed to act in the theatres

(reference: http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-women.htm)

Basically, if you were a woman, you were subservient and had most things decided for you. The main difference in terms of theatre here though, as opposed to back in 390 B.C in Greece, is that it was permitted for women and children to attend shows. What mattered more was your class. Young men, mostly those who, for lack of better words, “balls hadn’t dropped” were chosen to play the female roles. It has been said that Shakespeare himself was the person who coined the acronym DR.A.G (DRessed As Girl), as it was footnoted in his play scripts.

Around this time too, there was a rebellion of biological women who took a stand against this appalling gender diversity and challenged it by performing as men, hence the rise of the Drag King. It’s important to note that that drag has always had a political undertone running through it, especially here, with women using drag as satire, basically being fabulous feminists and taking a stand against male identifying people and the political climate of the time. 

Art has always been used as a way for those using it as a form of expression to show how we feel about certain politics, morals, genders, etc. Aristophanes, through his plays, projected his own thoughts and feelings about politics, gender roles, etc. BUT - because he, himself wasn’t actually saying it, it was showcased through his characters and narrative, and in the guise of something fantastical and VERY much burlesque (The Assembly Woman is the epitome of what burlesque was - yep, before strip-tease came into it, it was used as a form of satire - burlesque, when stripped back to its roots (like the pun) means “to mock”) the senate couldn’t prosecute him. 

The same goes for drag and performance art in general - we use it as a frame in which we project how we feel about things, but it’s not as confrontational as you walking up to the steps of parliament and throwing eggs at a MP. You can still make your thoughts and feelings known, but because it’s cushioned within the guise and fantasy of art, it’s less likely to get you in trouble. 

Hetty King

Hetty King

So, the rise of the Drag King. The most famous kings of the 18th Century England are definitely (in my mind) Hetty King and Vesta Tilley. They were both coined as ‘Male Impersonators’ and sung, danced and were incredibly invested in their art. You see, they could still project their feminist views, but because they were taking on the guise of men, and they identified as women, men wouldn’t be threatened - it’s parody, in a sense, but they weren't slapstick or overtly insulting to men. Interestly too - Hetty King and Vesta Tilley were (from what we know) married, hetrosexual females, with husbands who were either in showbiz or supported their career choices. Both played principle male roles in pantomimes and had illustrious careers. 

Vesta’s immense popularity was another fabulous example of drag as protest art and feminsit rebellion. According to sources, “A true professional, she would spend months preparing the new character types she wanted to represent on stage. These roles had a slightly mocking edge, furthering her popularity among the working class men in her audience. She was wildly popular among women as well, who viewed her as a symbol of independence. Newspaper reports of her performances emphasised how popular she was throughout the country, drawing capacity crowds in England, Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and Wales. Often, people were turned away from the theatre as all space, including standing room, had been allocated. In some cases, theatre proprietors were able to ('obliged to' in their parlance) raise ticket prices for her week-run in their theatre. As at the time ticket prices were set regardless of the performers arriving that week, Tilley's ability to sell out even when prices were raised indicates her immense popularity.”

Vesta Tilley - in and out of drag

Vesta Tilley - in and out of drag

This tradition of female rebellion continues to today, where female identifying performers have also bitten back, taken back their status and their sexuality by performing as what is now known as Hyper-Queens (formally known as Bio-Queens). What is a Hyper-Queen? Well, basically think of it as a female, female impersonator. A female identifying person (who can also be gender-neutral or biologically female) who is a hyper, fantastical version of their female self. Hyper-Queens have just as much of a role as Kings and Queens in drag, in terms of playing with traditional gender roles and norms for the sake of entertainment. For example, I have a lip-sync, Hyper-Queen act called ‘Donatella’, performed to the song Donatella by Lady Gaga (which has the opening line “I’m blonde, I’m skinny, I’m rich, and I’m a little bit of a BITCH”) which is basically an act I created as a nod to all the fabulous, unapologetic, femme blonde bitches of history I look up to, such as Lady Gaga, Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, Jerry Hall, and of course, the formidable Donatella Versace. It’s a satirical play on stereotypes, while injecting moments of comedy to heighten the fantastical. All with a feminist twist that parodies some of the modern ideas of being a ‘woman’ today.

Also, from the last time I performed it, I was told by an audience member they thought I was a Drag Queen (male identifying person in the garb of a female) and it wasn’t until I revealed myself (I strip off my dress at one point) that they realised I was female - so yes, it does also challenge gender norms. 

Ok, so, going back a bit. A lot of the above information I learned at both school and university. But, for the sake of my storyline, we’ll go back to 2016 when I transferred from Waikato Uni back to Auckland and met Patrick Graham and the Stage 2 Productions whanau. 

After high school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I wanted to perform, or do something in the arts, but I was being constantly told, not only by family, but by my school, that the arts isn’t a “sustainable or financially viable option” and to pursue it only as a side hobby. I’m an all-or-nothing kinda girl, and I knew I wanted to throw myself 110% into the arts, but was being told from all sides not to. Truthfully, I worked at Starbucks at the time and you’d have been surprised how many of them were performing arts graduates, so that didn’t exactly make me feel any better about things. I got a scholarship to go to Waikato University, did a bunch of papers (mostly theatre, film and English based) but decided after a year that if I really wanted to pursue the arts, I should go to a uni with a stable and thriving arts faculty, hence the move back to Auckland.

The vibe at Auckland Uni was VERY different to Waikato. Waikato was a lovely, laid back atmosphere, with people rocking up to lecture theatres in their dairy farming gear for their 9 o’clock lecture. Everyone was super friendly, kind and willing to engage with you. Auckland.. Not so much. I felt very alone for the first 6 months at uni - I tried to talk to people in lectures, but everyone seemed disengaged and only there to do business - go to lecture - take notes - leave. It wasn’t until I joined Stage 2 Productions that again, I found my place and theatre became my solace. 

I learned the most I had ever learned on stage treading the boards for Stage 2 as well as in class. This is where I met the person who pushed me, challenged me, and helped navigate my path as a performer, Patrick Graham.

As a white, tall, straight, cis female identifying performer, who had quite a presence and was able to project her voice, I was often made to audition for lead female roles. Note, at the time I was performing and auditioning for a lot of Shakespeare, which was one of my main focuses at University. I didn’t really like the female leads, and to be honest, I thought they were no fun. Shakespeare used burlesque (in its original form - as in a mockery) hugely in his plays. A great example of this is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You see, a lot of the upper class “lead” characters are usually too consumed in their own, mostly trivial problems to help the narrative move forward. I realised that I didn’t really like being a lead female - I wanted to be a base character, someone I could really get my teeth into, someone I could have a lot of fun with. 

Through playing Lavinia in Tom Sainsbury’s Titus Andronicus in 2006, I met Patrick and our relationship and my respect for his craft grew. I then auditioned for his adaptation of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ in 2007 and it was here that my gender-bending performances really took hold as part of my repertoire.

Patrick called me to inform me I had been cast, but I was a bit taken aback. He called me to inform me that he’d like me to perform as Grumio, in character as a male, and as a lower class, comedic servant to the lead male Petruchio. To be honest, I was expecting him to tell me I’d be cast as a woman. I was a little unsure if I could rise to the challenge, as Grumio is quite important to the projection of the plot. 

Yep, that’s me on the left as Grumio. That’s Chris Olwage on the right!

Yep, that’s me on the left as Grumio. That’s Chris Olwage on the right!

But I accepted, and under his tutelage, as well as the incredible skills he taught not only myself, but the cast, we thrived. We were taught and performed in the style of Buffon, we devised our characters, we challenged the script, we dove into the subtext, we learned oh so much and this experience, this role was pivotal in my devotion to drag as part of my artform. I found my happy place, I found a new level of love and appreciation for my art and it’s thanks to Patrick for seeing my base skill set and challenging me to take it to the next step. 

From here, I played various other males in theatre, such as a male presenting ‘Snout the Tinker’ (as well as a very comical and bawdy fairy) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and yes, I did and have revisited female roles in theatre, such as a gothic, irrational teenage take on Jessica from The Merchant of Venice and playing the role of Angel and M in two different seasons of Patrick’s play Lost Girls which is an incredibly emotional play based on the true stories of women disappearing in New Zealand. But now in 2008, fresh out of uni and working full time, theatre wasn’t as accessible to me, so I needed to find another performance outlet, which is where burlesque came into my life. 

Baby Lilly, performing in 2009 in Wellington at the Burlesque Masquerade Ball. Photo by Sara Jane Austin.

Baby Lilly, performing in 2009 in Wellington at the Burlesque Masquerade Ball. Photo by Sara Jane Austin.

I was taught burlesque in 2009 by the wonderful Miss La Vida, who really was pivotal in starting a ‘viva le renaissance’ of burlesque here in New Zealand. Under her tutelage, I learnt the basics of burlesque, strip tease, how to wrangle a boa, how to leave the audience always wanting more, etc. It is here, for my first ever show (which was a burlesque competition called Burlesque Idol held at The Classic in **I think** May/June of 2009) that I coined the stage name, Lilly Loca. But although this new style of performance was liberating for me, as well as a new challenge, I felt a large disconnect. I was lacking narrative, a character, something I could sink my teeth into. Yes, stripping on stage is a challenge in itself, but I felt very 2 dimensional without having a motive, or intention other than “to tease”. 

It wasn’t until 2011 that I finally had a brain wave. The “EUREKA!” moment happened when I created my vaudeville show Lilly Loca’s Vaudeville Cabaret (I know, very original name) in 2011. I dove hook, line and sinker into the history of vaudeville and I knew it was the direction I wanted to go in. Variety performances, comedy, characters, skits, burlesque, live music - yes, yes, yes, this is it! It was here, giving myself this show to experiment in, that I started to play with burlesque characters, with my first character skit being of Patrick as his drag alter ego Patty Haag and myself as Lilly Loca, playing the comedy, slapstick roles of the straight man and the funny man/woman/person (for those that don’t understand that term, see here for more info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_act) in our act ‘Wouldn’t it be nice?’ and on stage together as MC and stage hand. 

Typical Lilly & Patty. Photo by Jocelen Janon.

Typical Lilly & Patty. Photo by Jocelen Janon.

Patty and Lilly have a…. Estranged… relationship. It’s kinda love-hate, without love. Lilly acts as the serious person, who is a juxtaposition of the clownish, slapstick antics of the funny one (Patty) thus making the funny one look even more outlandish and fantastical. We’ve played that double-act for nearly 8 years now, in various shows of mine and others, and it warms the cockles of my heart to give Patty space to shine, as Patrick was the one who has helped me become the performer I am today. 

It was also in 2011, that I decided to create my first, fully-fledged burlesque/drag character. I’ve often been asked how I come up with characters, and to be totally honest, I can’t give you a straight answer. Gary Krumbert, who is the character in referring to, just kind of...materialised. 

One of Gary’s very first times on stage in 2011 at Phlossy Roxx’s ‘Queerlesque’

One of Gary’s very first times on stage in 2011 at Phlossy Roxx’s ‘Queerlesque’

They kind of grow out of me, like they’ve come from my inner self and need to be given space to bloom. I know that sounds a bit wanky, but it’s true. Gary Krumbert, who after doing some solid character development, was born onto the stage at Miss Phlossy Roxx’s Queerlesque. I am so thankful to Phloss, who encouraged me to put him on the stage and was always a huge support (love you Phloss!!). He was super well received, and I finally had my YES moment, where I knew which direction my burlesque should go. I was able to really inject my strengths in acting, characters and improv into character roles within burlesque and drag, and I have run with it ever since.

It wasn’t until I left my full time teaching job at Western Springs as a Dance and Drama teacher (I forgot to mention that I also have a Grad Dip in Secondary School Teaching that I did in 2010 after I completed my BA) to go freelance that I then had the time to create more characters and flesh out the ones I already had. Since 2013, I have performed as the following original characters and personas (some several times) as well as other characters and celebrities from TV and Film in all manner of situations, from roving corporate gigs to MCing. 

Penny Royalty. Photo by James Yang.

Penny Royalty. Photo by James Yang.

Original Characters & Personas:

  • Gary Krumbert

  • Jethro Jenkins

  • Santiago Montego

  • Nathaniel Hughes

  • Penny Royalty

  • Mistress Lilly Loca (Gypsy styled character for a one-off show)

  • Breakdancing Granny (created for a one-off performance)

Myself as David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’. Bodypaint by Yolanda Bartram of BodyFX. Photo by Peter Jennings.

Myself as David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’. Bodypaint by Yolanda Bartram of BodyFX. Photo by Peter Jennings.

Characters & Celebrities (non-original)

  • Lady Gaga

  • Evil Queen (Snow White)

  • The Mad Hatter (Alice in Wonderland)

  • Riff Raff (The Rocky Horror Picture Show)

  • 2 x Roles in Murder Mystery Plays

  • Gilligan (Gilligan’s Island)

  • Master of Ceremonies (inspired by Joel Grey’s character in Cabaret)

  • Marie Antoinette

  • Baby Firefly (House of 1,000 Corpses)

  • Max Zorin (James Bond)

  • Miss Julie (The Love Boat)

  • Arwen Undomiel (Lord of the Rings)

  • Seymour Krelborn (Little Shop of Horrors)

  • Tara Dactyl & Jam Rock Lead Singer (Custards World TV Show)

  • Trinity (The Matrix)

  • Marilyn Monroe

  • Bettie Page

  • Wonder Woman

  • Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)

Suffice to say, I’ve played my fair share of roles, as both male and female presenting characters, celebrities and personas. It has become a staple part of my repertoire.

Before I finish (you’re nearly there - hold on, soldier!) I’d like to chat briefly about why drag burlesque and theatre are so important to me. Drag, in particular for those in minorities such as the LGBTQI+ community, has been used as a way to explore their sexuality and identity. It’s an art form which is heavily affiliated with the queer scene, and as such, those who do not identify as such need to respect it and learn it’s history in all capacities.

On a personal level, my experience with drag came from my imagination and play as a young child, and was also influenced by what I watched on TV (British Comedy). Not too much later, my experience came from the theatre world, where my androgyny and open-mindedness to play different genders allowed for me to grow and have some amazing experiences. It wasn’t until I jumped on the burlesque boat where I started to perform in drag as part of the queer scene and within burlesque shows.

Drag and theatre allowed me, from a tender age, to explore who I was and, in part, escape who I was. Performing is a pivotal part of who I am, because through taking on these characters, personas, looks, roles, I was able to lose myself, but find myself too. Sounds airy fairy I know - but it gave me a safe place to be who I choose to be, who I wanted to be, without bullies, teachers, anyone else hurting or touching me and telling me I couldn’t or wasn't allowed. I wasn’t discriminated against onstage, I was accepted and, sometimes, celebrated. It was my bubble, and continues to be today. I have said it many times in interviews, but the stage is my safe place, the one place I truly feel I can be my honest self, even if that is in the guise of a character.

Burlesque helped me in many ways, mostly through my issues with my body as well as eating disorders (recovered bulimic over here) and helped me to deconstruct and reconstruct my relationship with my body and the way I viewed it. It also allowed for me to feel “sexy” and get in touch with my more feminine parts of my personality. 

This is why I believe, very deeply, in the restorative and transformative power of drag, burlesque and performance theatre.

Throughout my life, I have been able to witness how drag, performance and burlesque can be transformative who dive into it. For some, it can help to overcome body stigmas, it can help people explore and release their political/social values and views. It can allow for those who feel unaccepted by society for simply being who they are to step on stage and be who they truly wish they could identify as in the real world. To reconnect to their inner goddess, who they’ve put on the back burner and lost touch with. Burlesque, Drag, Performance - it's such an individualised thing, and we should respect it, no matter who it is or what they’re performing. We all have a story, multiple stories, and they deserve to be listened to and treated with respect. You don’t always have to like it, but respect it. 

Like drag, theatre and burlesque have done, and continue to do for me today, they have allowed me to explore who I am, escape the real world and the naysayers, and allow for me to develop a deeply profound acceptance for myself, as well as a quiet confidence that I have something to offer the world which is worth pursuing. Through performance, I have metamorphosed into my truly honest sense of self, and I honestly don’t know how I would have coped or got through life without it.

If you are still here, my goodness, you deserve a medal (or a wine, whichever is more accessible to you at the present). Thanks for listening to my story and hopefully you’ve learned a thing or two about theatrical drag and my history.

Much love,

Lilly x

Are you an Artist?

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Artist (n): someone who creates things with great skill and imagination.

Why did you start performing? What's your reason for continuing? 

Was it the rush of adrenaline that swept through every part of your being after being on stage, leaving you with an addicting high? So much so that like a drug, you had to keep going back for more for fear of getting withdrawals?

Is it the desire to feel wanted? Does it give you something that your life outside of performing can't give you? Does the glorification of your creativity and seeing people appreciate you and your art fuel your ego?

Is it a cathartic way to heal your wounds? Is it a way for you to escape the real world, your troubles, your anxieties and inhabit another's world?

Or, was it the fulfillment of unleashing your thoughts, emotions, imagination or life story through your art? The unwavering, persistent need to create and curate art, all for the sake of creative fulfillment?

Or all or part of the above?

Personally, it's a way for me to process my wounds, escape as well as a medium for me to unleash my thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc through my art. The unrelenting need to create. Theatre is, in part, therapy for me. It has been since the I was young. I may write a blog on that at some point. I have discussed it briefly in a few media interviews. But, when I feel it's the right time, I'll divulge a little more as to why theatre and creating art is therapudic for me.

The reason I decided to write this blog is because of a conversation I had with a fellow artist while I was filming earlier this week. For those who haven't been following my Instagram or Facebook stories, I was on set last week for a TV show (I can't divulge what yet but I will later in the year) and I was chatting with one of the performers back stage as we were getting into make-up/costume. This particular performer works full time as a performer (which is pretty rare in NZ) and we chatted about his background and skimmed over the milestones that allowed him to get to the place he is at now. He corrected me when I referred to him as an actor, he said "no, I am an artist". 

David Bowie. Artist Unknown.

David Bowie. Artist Unknown.

I stopped to think about this for a second. It resonated with me. I apologized and rectified my statement. We then got talking about why we are artists and not just actors or performers. 

Basically, what we discussed was the following. An artist has an undying need to create. Let's look at it this way: An artist, despite their profession, whether they're an actor/actress, dancer, singer, comedian, etc will find ways outside the conventional or given circumstances to make art. They may take on roles handed to them and have the ability to be creative in the way they flesh them out, but they also make a priority of creating their own projects, collaborating with other artists (often from other creative professions) to further extend their creative abilities and do not limit themselves to what is handed to them. They want to make art, for whatever personal or impersonal reasons that may be. The need is great and overwhelming and once one project is done, another must take it's place or the artist will feel unfulfilled. 

Artists are the ones who don't wait for a circumstance that art can be projected into to present itself. They're ambitious, they've got a go-getter attitude and will unwaveringly follow their desire and need to bring fourth their thoughts, feelings, manifestations into a real, tangible thing. 

The other important thing about artists is this. Artists are true to themselves. Yes, we've all had to sell our soul to the man every once in a while, creating acts or doing something which doesn't spark our creative soul for the sake of money, for example. BUT, the majority of the time (especially for personal projects) the artist will create something for themselves and a manner that is true to their style, taste, etc.

Lady Gaga. Art from Twitter @MusicNotDaBling

Lady Gaga. Art from Twitter @MusicNotDaBling

Yes, yes... it is important to consider your audience, as dependent on whether a piece is a film piece, or a performance piece, you need to keep in mind the demographic, whether it aligns with your brand, etc. BUT... your art should represent you and come from your heart. You can always tell a superficial act from one lead from the inner musings of the creative mind.

When people come to watch an act, they want two things: to be entertained and to be moved. Aligning with the principles of Stanislavsky (see my previous blog post on this here) if the artist feels the emotion and thinks the thoughts truthfully, the audience will feel it. If the artist feels joy, truly feels it, so will their audience. An example - we all know that one person who is like a dead weight when they walk into the room, a "Negative Nancy", per say. The negativity of the person will flow through the room like smoke, circling and winding it's way through the room from the ground up until all are consumed by it. We're emotive beings, and we have this incredible ability to feel. We can flip this on it's head and like the "Negative Nancy" we all have that friend who is full of energy and radiates happiness. It's like their very presence ignites a spark of positivity and lightness to anyone within a 6m radius. These types of people are consumed by their emotions, whether positive or negative, and we can feel it. The same goes for when you're on stage. Bottom line, if you're emotionally connected to what your performing, whether it be pure joy of loving being in the moment, or whether it's emotion attached to a political statement, message, etc you're trying to get across, so long as it's conveyed in a way the audience can process and understand it, they'll feel it and get it. 

Marina Abramović. Performing her public performance art piece 'Rhythm 0' in 1974. Photographer unknown.

Marina Abramović. Performing her public performance art piece 'Rhythm 0' in 1974. Photographer unknown.

The other very important defining factor in being an artist is this. The artist is in a state of constant change. They evolve, develop and grow. They allow themselves to be fluid and non conforming. They do not put a full stop at the end of their creativity. Yes, they may close the book on a project, but they'll be in relentless pursuit of the next one. An example is Lady Gaga. From when Gaga first debuted on the scene (note: she was performing LONG before we all knew of her in the mainstream) to now, she's gone through significant changes, which we can see with every album released. The "Born this Way" era, the current "Joanne" era, etc. Be sure to watch her documentary about creating her album "Joanne" called 'Five Foot Two" (see the trailer here). Bowie is another excellent example - who, like Gaga, transformed it seemed thoughout the progession of his musical journey, The "Mod" stage, the "Ziggy Stardust" era, the "Aladdin Sane" era, the "Diamond Dogs" era, etc. Another person is Christina Aguilera (see this video about her upcoming album here - it's truthful and pulls at the heart strings because you can hear it's sincerity). Another artist who I have huge admiration for his Marina Abramović. The true definition of performance artist. Her most incredible piece of art I have studied is her public performance of her work 'Rhythm 0' in 1974, which you can see pictured above. If you do not know her, please go and Google her now.

Now, another note. No artists are the same. Some go through rapid changes and some may only evolve once. You cannot compare your journey as an artist to anyone else. It's like life - if we went around comparing ourselves to everyone, we'd get a bit depressed, wouldn't we? Your journey, your path is your own. So long as you are being true to what you feel you need to express and your vision, that's what matters. 

Are you an artist?

Character vs. Persona

Lilly Loca as her original drag king character, Gary Krumbert. Photo taken by Peter Jennings.

Lilly Loca as her original drag king character, Gary Krumbert. Photo taken by Peter Jennings.

Character (n): 

1. the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.

2. a person in a novel, play, or film.

Persona (n): 

1. the aspect of someone's character that is presented to or perceived by others e.g. "their burlesque persona" 

 

I've often heard performers getting confused as to how to classify themselves - is who they are when they perform burlesque a character or a persona? To me, when people get it wrong, it irks me. Why? Well, because having performed in theatre and acting most of my life until 8 years ago when I first dipped my toes into the sparkly waters of burlesque, I was very much involved in character-based roles. I still am, and very much incorporate it into my burlesque career, but how I perceive a character may be a bit different to someone else who possibly doesn't have a theatrical background. I can't expect to get frustrated if someone is just a bit naive and thinks characters and personas are the same deal. So - I'm going to clear it all up for you! 

Important Note:

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having either a character, persona or both! It's just important to get it right when selling yourself to a client or producer. If people sell themselves as a roving character, yet when push comes to shove, the "character" isn't fully formed, and when hit with questions from people your interacting with while in role like "So, who is your father?" and you can't answer it - that character isn't developed and you've essentially promoted yourself as being someone you aren't. If you're a persona, you are you, just an adapted version of you, so audience members aren't going to expect a fully developed, three dimensional back story apart from your very own! 

Character - How do I know if they are one?

As stated above, a character has the mental and moral qualities of an individual. Basically, this means your character should have a backstory. Here's a checklist of how you can figure out whether you have a character or a persona:

  1. Do they have a distinct name (that is separate from yourself)?
  2. Do they have distinct personality traits which act as a basis for all of their actions, reactions, conversations, etc?
  3. Do they have a particular way they physicality hold themselves (i.e. they are confident, so walk with a proud chest, tall stature and moderate tension)?
  4. When you are them, do you find that you fall into their mindset and let them drive the way you act, react, perform, interact, etc?
  5. Can you imagine a backstory for them? Do they have a family? what's their favorite colour? Are they married? Do they like seafood? 
  6. Do they have any particular quirks (i.e. allergies, a twitchy left eye, a distinct dislike for physical contact)? 

If you've answered 3 or more of these with "yes" - you've probably got yourself a character. If you've answered more with "no" or "I'm not sure", then it's probably safe to say you've got yourself a persona.

How do I develop a character?

So - how to develop your character (if you have one)? There are various character profiles you can download from Google - I've got them for all my drag king characters Jethro, Gary and Santago. I know everything about them from what high school they went to (or didn't) to what their preference in food is. It is fundamental if you're creating a character to have a well rounded, fleshed out, 3D one - especially if you're roving. Why? Because their history, personality, quirks and life experiences will be a huge influence on how they interact with people and the kinds of acts you'll come up with for them. Just like if you have a persona - the acts you create for your onstage persona are inspired and influenced by your own life! Same needs to happen with a character. 

Case Study - Me, Lilly and Gary.

Lilly Loca. Photo taken by Studio81.

Lilly Loca. Photo taken by Studio81.

To use myself as a case study, I'll take one of my characters Gary Krumbert and my onstage burlesque persona Lilly Loca as examples. Gary is a fully fleshed out, 3D character. He has his backstory, he in himself is a person. I am not me when I am him. I am fully, 100% in role as Gary. However I react to a situation in role as him, I instinctively know what to do and how to react because I know him so well as know his backstory well enough to be able to conduct myself accordingly. With Lilly - essentially, Lilly Loca is me. She is me, I am her. Lilly Loca is a stage name I fashioned myself to separate Nat Hugill, the mother, wife, theatre actress, producer among other things from Lilly Loca - the bawdy, silver tongued burlesque entertainer and MC. To complicate matters further, I say I'm Lilly Loca performing as Gary Krumbert, Jethro Jenkins, Santago Montego, etc. Why? Because I use my name Lilly Loca as an umbrella for all things burlesque - and if I want people to find me, or remember me, I need to link my characters to the name I go by in the burlesque industry. Weird, I know - but otherwise people think Gary is someone who isn't me - you have no idea how many times I've heard people say "OH YOU'RE GARY?!!! I WOULD HAVE NEVER KNOWN HAD YOU NOT TOLD ME!".

To complicate things further...

Lilly Loca as Absolem. Photo taken by Bruce Jenkins Photographer.

Lilly Loca as Absolem. Photo taken by Bruce Jenkins Photographer.

You can be in role in your persona. Yep - now, there's a BIG difference here between being in character or playing a role as your persona. Again, I'll use myself as a case study. 

So, as explained before, I, Lilly, am a persona. I am essentially Nat with a jazzy name. Lilly is my mask, my facade, but underneath it all, it's still Nat. 

As Lilly, I sometimes take on a role for a particular act. This is to say, they're not a character as they're not fully fleshed out or a person in their own right, it's me as Lilly taking on characteristics of a particular character to help achieve a particular emotion, feel, look, etc. Pretty much it's performer inception, haha! 

When I perform my Absolem routine - the routine is inspired by the character of Absolem from the famed Alice in Wonderland books. However I am not the character of Absolem. I take on qualities of Absolems character as Lilly to help the audience understand that the act is in homage to this character and helps them to understand the metamorphosis I go through in my routine from caterpillar to butterfly. It's like if a performer was to perform a snake inspired act - they'd take on qualities of a snake to convince the audience that that's what their doing (i.e. use fluid, snake-like movements when performing, use glaring eye contact, etc) but they in themselves are not the character of a snake. On stage, they personify the characters traits, but offstage when people chat to the audience, they're themselves, not in role. See what I mean? That's where it all get's a bit confusing. 

So, if you're ever in doubt as to whether you are a character, persona or a persona donning qualities of a character but aren't in themselves a character, read all of the above and ask yourself those questions to determine it. 

I hope this has been an insightful read for you!

Next blog: Goals of 2018 + review of my 2017 goals