thoughts

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