A Short History of Drag in Theatre

Mosaic showing gargoyles in form of theatrical masks of tragedy and comedy, from the Baths of Decius on the Aventine Hill, Rome.

For as long as there’s been theatre, there’s been drag. Transvestism on stage, which began as a form of sublimation (casting men in female roles to exclude women from the arts), eventually became a way for men and women to explore nuances of understanding of gender as society has evolved.

Following on from Shakespearean times with the King’s Men, to cross dressing in popular Hollywood culture (Some Like it Hot, Mrs Doubtfire and Victor/Victoria), Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a modern expression of a tradition dating back to the earliest theatrical performances.

Ancient Greece

Much western theatre history traces its origins back to Ancient Greece, including the custom of male actors in female roles. Greek society considered women unfit for the stage ensuring their complete exclusion from the theatre productions. Early Greek theatre was staged at festivals attended by men only, which reinforced the need for men to perform as women.

Imogen by Herbert Gustave Schmalz

Shakespeare and Drag

The revered bard wrote some of the greatest female roles for the stage, such as Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra or Juliet, yet it would not have been until 1660 when James II lifted the gender restrictions on stage that these roles would have been performed by women. All the original performances of Shakespeare’s heroines would have been given by men or adolescent boys, cross-dressed to give their audience a guide as to their dramatic gender.

Castrati, Early Opera & the Church

Women were forbidden to appear on stage in the Vatican ruled Papal States from the middle ages until the 19th Century, giving rise to one of the more extreme sacrifices for music, the Castrato. In Vatican choirs and early Italian Opera, female roles were performed by male Castrati. Boys were castrated prior to puberty, and as adults possessed very high, yet powerful voices. The most successful Castrati achieved rock star status and great wealth. Female roles on stage were performed by Castrati in early Opera, and although the practice declined, it was not until 1903 that it was banned by the Vatican.

Victorian Drag

The Victorian era, far from being prudish, saw an explosion of cross dressing on stage. The stars of the theatre world were frequently men dressed as women, and this gave us the first recorded use of the word ‘drag’, used as theatre slang to refer to the long skirts of the day that would drag across the floor as the leading actors filled the stage with their flamboyant performances.

Panto Dames and Principal Boys

Mary Martin as Peter Pan from the 1956 presentation of NBC’s Producers’s Showcase.

Pantomime is a predominantly English theatrical tradition still popular today in Commonwealth countries. It draws its roots from folk theatre and commedia dell’arte, and grew in popularity during Victorian times, surviving to the modern day with its traditions of gender reversal and cross dressing accepted without question. The leading male juvenile role is commonly performed by an attractive young woman, in fitted garments such as tights or breeches – creating a gender tension throughout the romantic scenes with the principal girl. An older male actor as the frequently unattractive Pantomime Dame is a source of much of the humour.

Christchurch Operatic Inc’s  Drag Connection

Frank Perkins and internationally famous New Zealand female impersonator Stanley Lawson from the Digger Pierrots. Auckland War Memorial Museum call no. D570 E8 M956

During the first and second World Wars, Kiwi troops in Europe and the Middle East were entertained by the New Zealand Army ‘Concert Party’, with female roles performed by men. Private Stan Lawson excelled in his role as a female impersonator during WWI. The “Digger Pierrots” as the troupe were named post war, toured New Zealand, Germany, Australia and America to great acclaim, appearing at the Theatre Royal, Christchurch in 1919. Stan Lawson retired and went on to become the original producer of the first Christchurch Operatic Inc productions (now called Showbiz Christchurch) from 1938 onwards.



Reviews: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Christchurch talent coup in entertaining ‘Desert Queen’ fabulousness

Staging Priscilla Queen of the Desert has to be one of Showbiz Christchurch’s most ambitious undertakings. Cast and crew must grapple with the challenges of 500 costumes, 200 wigs and headpieces (primarily sourced from previous productions), the choreography and vocal demands of an array of disco tunes and pop songs and some moments of pure pathos in the midst of camp chaos. For the most part, Showbiz can be proud of this epic spectacle.

Read full review: What’s Up review by Ruth Agnew

Priscilla shakes her groove thang

Full of fabulousness and the original pre-meme Felicia, this camp costumed comedy caper has more mince and flesh on display than the Mad Butcher. More funny, funky, flash cheese than the Canterbury cheesemonger.

Not that the story matters so much as the sights and sounds of the sensational set-pieces, but essentially it’s about drag racing across Australia. It’s the tale of two drag-queens Mitzi (Isaac Pawson, last seen in the Court Theatre’s pert musical comedy Legally Blonde, but also swimmingly good in The Little Mermaid) and Felicia (an unflinchingly brave Tom Worthington), and a transgender woman Bernadette (the versatile Cameron Douglas, who impressed in the terrific That Bloody Woman, among many recent Court appearances). The tart, tucked trio are contracted to perform a drag show at a casino in Alice Springs in the remote Australian desert. Beautifully bitchy, they head west from Sydney on a fine feathered, rather reckless roadtrip aboard their pink party bus, Priscilla.

Well chosen, the three male leads’ voices blend beautifully, even hampered by unwieldy Ocker accents and some technical sound issues.

The sheer exuberance of the entire triple-threat cast matches the calibre of the astonishing OTT costumes, which damn near steal every scene.

The touching father-son storyline as well as the budding romance manage to be poignant and heart-warming, amidst the extravagance of hundreds of costumes.

The Christchurch crowd is always a bit staid and standoffish to start with but by the frocking-up of the Australian-themed finale the marvellous cast had earned the standing ovation. This accomplished quick-change diva-licious cast deserves a crowd ready to party. Eat your heart out, Adele.

Read full review: Backstage Christchurch review by Margaret Agnew

A stunning array of costumes that just keep on coming

Cameron Douglas is particularly impressive as the ageing transgender performer Bernadette, played by Terence Stamp in the film. He is utterly convincing and embodies the tricky role with aplomb.

Emily Burns, Jane Leonard and Naomi Ferguson are also fabulous as the three glittering divas that descend on wires from above to provide a kind of camp Greek chorus and knock-out some disco classics.

The flying singers are just one of many impressive feats of stagecraft on display in this technically outstanding production. Priscilla the bus becomes a character in her own right – turning on the stage, roaring across the outback and providing a lofty stage for dance numbers.

There is also a stunning array of costumes that just keep on coming like an unending waterfall of glitter and feathers.

This show is a great excuse to hear some rocking pop tunes performed with style and verve and enjoy some Broadway standard production values.

Read full review: The Press review by Charlie Gates

Amid the Gloss, Most – but Not All – Comedy Rooted in Truth

Showbiz Christchurch does spectacle really, really well. Their production of Aussie jukebox musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert plays to their strengths; it is a glitzy, glamorous, camp, high energy carnival that really pushes its cast to deliver an outrageously over-the-top evening of entertainment.

Read full review: Theatreview by Erin Harrington

Conquering fears all in a day’s work

By Kineta Knight Booker

Jane Leonard, Emily Burns and Naomi Ferguson talk with Kineta Knight Booker at the start of Priscilla rehearsals

If you think belting out pop tunes, while wearing big wigs, big costumes and big makeup and flying was challenging enough, try adding in a fear of heights to the mix.

That’s exactly what one of the Divas in Showbiz Christchurch’s Priscilla, Queen of the Desert will be working to overcome this month as the trio will spend a lot of time suspended above the stage during the show.

Jane Leonard, who plays Diva 2, used to love abseiling and rock climbing but a bad abseiling fall a couple of years ago broke her confidence with heights. However, she’s working on it.

Diva Jane Leonard prepares for a photoshoot in the expert hands of wig specialist Sarah Greenwood Buchanan, assisted by Scott Campbell and watched by fellow Diva Emily Burns.

“I went to Adrenalin Forest last year and forced myself to get used to heights again. At the end of the day we knew it was in the job description so whatever previous feelings or fears I have towards heights can’t overcome the feeling of singing some banging tunes with some equally banging ladies,” Leonard says.

Showbiz Christchurch’s general manager, Michael Bayly, has assured Jane that every possible technical safety precaution is in place. “We work with the finest technical crews in New Zealand. The Divas will be safer than Lady Gaga at the Superbowl!,” says Bayly.

The three Divas provide much of the live entertainment in the stage spectacular. Without a doubt, Showbiz has chosen three of the city’s biggest vocal talents.

Leonard, Emily Burns, and Naomi Ferguson are established solo artists, but it’s the three-part harmony they create together that puts any singer at the top of their field.

Burns, who plays Diva 1, had a busy 2016 with The Court Theatre’s Mary Poppins, Showbiz’s Mamma Mia!, Poppins in Invercargill, Evita with Showbiz, and ended the year at The Court in Legally Blonde.

Although she’s keeping a tight lid on her plans for 2017 with a determined “Watch this space”, the naughty sparkle in her eye always tells more than she’s letting on. “I would love to give you more information, but that I can not disclose,” Burns laughs.

Some might consider that a ‘diva’ response, but secrecy and tight contracts is the business of show business.

Leonard adds, “Beyonce said, ‘Diva is the female version of the hustler’… You’ve got to do your own hustle. Hustling doesn’t need to be a negative thing. Hustling is finding your work, working towards your craft in our field. That’s your hustle.”

Leonard too had a big 2016, starting the year in Poppins, then We Will Rock You, Ben McDonald’s HMS Pinafore, kids shows at The Court, Showbiz’s Evita and ended the year in Legally Blonde. She hopes to keep the momentum going, but remains as elusive as Burns when it comes to her next project. She works as a nanny and teaches drama between acting gigs. “You audition and you may get offered a contract, but you can’t really disclose information.”

Naomi Ferguson has been a stalwart on the Canterbury music scene for many years and last appeared on stage for Showbiz 10 years ago as Grizabella in CATS. She has since started a women’s performance company, Empress Theatre Collective, which will have seasonal events this year, and appeared as Blanche DuBois in last year’s Repertory production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Ferguson reflects on her role as Blanche while looking towards her new role as Diva 3, and says it’s a “spectrum opposite kinda role”. She says “Blanche was awesome but emotionally devastating every night, so this is more like – woohoo, party! And I get to hang out with these two cool ladies and make three-part harmony which is such a treat.”

And “hang out” they will. Ferguson doesn’t mind the heights the Divas will be soaring to, and says “This is just like abseiling in crazy costumes.”

Listen to Kineta Knight Booker’s entire interview the Divas:


Postscript: In April 2017 Emily will move to Los Angeles to begin rehearsals in famed Broadway and West End composer Stephen Schwartz’s new show Born to Dance for the Princess Cruise Lines.

Muffin Break Riccarton unveils the official Priscilla Cupcake

Stephen Robertson, Director and Choreographer of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Ollie Bubb, one of the actors who plays Benji, tuck into official Priscilla cupcakes.

The team at Muffin Break Westfield Riccarton are all on board for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical. Showbiz Christchurch is the first New Zealand theatre company to stage Priscilla which opens at the Isaac Theatre Royal from 24 March – 8 April 2017.

Based on the 1994 Oscar-winning hit movie, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical has been captivating audiences worldwide since it debuted in 2006. It has played sold out seasons in Sydney, the West End and on Broadway, toured internationally, and won numerous accolades including the prestigious Olivier and Tony Awards. Priscilla is without doubt Australia’s most successful theatrical export.

The story centres on the journey of two Sydney drag artists and a transsexual, who hop aboard a battered old bus named Priscilla, searching for love, friendship and family. Their journey of self-discovery takes them on a road trip to the heartland of Australia where they find more that they could have ever dreamed of.

The cupcakes in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical from the UK Touring Production. Photo credit: Paul Coltas.

The owners of one of New Zealand’s most successful Muffin Break franchises, Violet and John Blay, are enthusiastic supporters of Christchurch musical theatre. Violet has worked on many Showbiz Christchurch productions over the last 25 years and is on the board of Christchurch Operatic Inc. She also dresses all the male leads. For Priscilla she will dress actor Cameron Douglas for his role as Bernadette Bassenger – one of the original Les Girls and famous for many of the brilliantly caustic one liners in the show.

Becoming Bernadette from Showbiz Christchurch on Vimeo.

Muffin Break Westfield Riccarton staff members Paige Ogilvy & Gaby White are geared up to support of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

How does Violet find time to volunteer her time and run a successful business in the busiest mall in Christchurch? She puts it down to having great staff, who have enthusiastically swapped their Muffin Break shirts for Showbiz Priscilla T-shirts to support the show.

The team daily bakes special Priscilla cupcakes inspired by the cupcake costumes worn in the show. The cupcakes are proving popular with customers as each purchase gets them in a draw for a Priscilla Prize Pack which includes show tickets and Muffin Break goodies. “We’ve one customer who comes in every day since the competition started to buy a Priscilla Cupcake and enter the draw,” says Violet. As well as the competition, Muffin Break Westfield Riccarton is offering a 10% discount voucher on tickets to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with every purchase.

The competition closes on 27th March 2017.

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500 costumes, 3 flying divas, 1 spectacular bus – Priscilla arrives in Christchurch

The Divas: Emily Burns, Naomi Ferguson and Jane Leonard

The Divas: Emily Burns, Naomi Ferguson and Jane Leonard

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert rolls into town on 24 March for what will be the first production in Showbiz Christchurch’s 2017 season.

Utilising over 700 costumes, wigs and headdresses from the UK touring show, Showbiz’s production will be the first New Zealand theatre company staging of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical. The show opens at the Isaac Theatre Royal on 24 March until 8 April.

Translating the iconic movie to a stage musical setting required significant changes by the authors of the film, Stephen Elliot and Allan Scott, and the musical’s writer and first director, Simon Phillips. The musical has evolved considerably since the first production left Australia eight years ago, there are now several stage versions, all different yet all preserving the audience focus on the show’s three unique characters and their personal and physical journey. The show’s enormous success has seen versions staged from South Korea to Sao Paulo and in just about every language including French, Portuguese, Spanish, Greek and Swedish. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is without doubt Australia’s most successful theatrical export.

The Showbiz version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert directed by Stephen Robertson will be a new interpretation of the show using the costumes and script that recently toured the UK and was last staged in Auckland.

Tom Worthington as Felicia

The title role of Priscilla is not played by an actor but is instead a bus which is being built in Christchurch by Scenic Solutions – along with a myriad of other set pieces designed by Harold Moot, including a nightclub, a casino and two outback pubs. Priscilla is set to be a visual feast on stage, with another Christchurch business, Lightsite, designing the lighting effects which will transport the audience from an inner city Sydney flat into the wide open spaces of the Australian outback.

Markham Lee as Bob and Cameron Douglas as Bernadette

Robertson has cast Cameron Douglas in the principal role of transsexual Bernadette, the oldest in the trio. Douglas has enjoyed a busy career since graduating NASDA in 2002, including performing in over 20 musicals and as the lead singer and guitarist in NZ’s premiere skiffle rock and roll band, The Goldonies.

The two other lead roles will feature Isaac Pawson (Tick/Mitzi) and Tom Worthington (Adam/Felicia), both graduates of the National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art (NASDA) who are carving out careers in musical theatre.

Providing many of the pumping disco hits that Priscilla has become synonymous for are the three flying Divas: Emily Burns, Naomi Ferguson and Jane Leonard accompanied by a rocking live band lead by New Zealand’s leading musical theatre maestro, Richard Marrett.

Also joining the cast at the end of February will be Auckland actor Melinda Joe who will play Cynthia, a woman with some unique talents!

Garry McQuinn of RGM Productions, the shows lead producer, is immensely proud of this version of Priscilla which will be staged by Showbiz. “The show is in better shape in every way – including dramaturgically, scale, production-wise, book and music – than the version we took from Sydney in 2008,” says McQuinn. “It’s a production I’m proud of in every respect.”

At the heart of the story is a message of tolerance, diversity and anti-bigotry. Its producers are committed to seeing the bus journey continue for as long as possible – not only on the world’s largest stages but in regional theatres as well. “I am really delighted that Christchurch will host the first season of the show produced by a New Zealand theatre company,” says Showbiz Christchurch President, Di Brodie.

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