In women’s clothing. In the dark. Dust motes just float in a shaft of light. Music plays. Cross dressing = comedy gold, right? Perhaps. The music took me there. Twice.
It’s a refined performance tradition. Some suggest the term drag emerged as an acronym (Dressed As A Girl), others suggest it’s so-called because of the long skirt dragging along the stage, but for me it started with the songs, not the clothes. I collected songs of love gone wrong from the sixties and seventies. The female vocalists implied a feminine perspective on romance, though most of the writers are male. Some obscure. Some iconic. I collected quite a few, then whittled them down to a mini-set. This set of songs implied a story. And it wasn’t a walk in the park.
Put A Little Love Away (Potter/Lambert performed by Sergio Mendes and Brasil 77) ; That’s The Way Boys Are (Barkan/Raleigh performed by Lesley Gore 1964), which “…Music critic William Ruhlmann called the song “a well-crafted reflection from a sympathetic and understanding female perspective on the obtuse mating habits of boys.” The classic Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (Carole King version from Tapestry 1971) Then there was He Did With Me (Sklerov/Lloyd, performed by Vicki Lawrence, 1973) a number one hit in Australia, 1972. I remembered this one from my childhood: it was on a K-Tel compilation LP of love songs called ‘Reflections’. What a song.
I love them. Syrupy, but sincere. Beautifully crafted lyrically and compositionally. Each was tacky in its own way, but I was compelled to get inside them. So I learned them, arranging them for solo guitar and using them to explore the lighter edge of my voice. I’ve never been a confident singer, but (like many people) when I’m singing along to a recording, it lifts my throat out of ordinary land. That’s how it feels, inside. It may sound different outside, but we’re all amazing singers in the car, or in the shower. Seemingly private spaces when you’re in-between other places.
1996. Jude, running a performance venue in an inner-city bar asked me if I had anything to contribute to an evening’s entertainment . I said I did, then had to come up with something, but the idea had been brewing for some time.
I wanted to create a musical and theatrical frame that enabled me to play these songs. I didn’t want to make fun of them, or sing them in a woman’s voice, just to ‘set’ them, as you would gems in a piece of jewellery..
The idea was to dress up as a woman and present a musical slideshow depicting the trajectory of a romantic relationship.
I sorted out a costume and half-composed a story of a couple meeting, consummating, and then ending a relationship. I probably did up a list of locations first. Living in West End, Brisbane, at the time I saw it happening there. Scenarios interior, exterior; geographical and emotional. All were suggested by the songs. Here’s the performance from 2003.
My mate Stephen Davis had created a revolting character called ‘Wesley’ who enabled him to explore his more exhibitionistic side and liven up some of the more problematic street-performance gigs we were doing at the time to survive. He agreed to be the object of my affections.
I found a wig and searched for the components of a costume in second-hand places and came up with a name. Leanne. It was a relatively common name when I was growing up and I’d known some lovely ones.
I took a look in the mirror and found what I expected. A man in a wig. Perfect. I would make no apologies, not make much effort to create a ‘character’. I would make no ‘female’ movements.
I’d met my friend Jane on the set of a film. I was acting, she was holding a boom. She said she was a photographer and was willing to help. Off set, off we set, effectively storyboarding as we went, horsing around outside the west end library (it was implied Leanne was a librarian), under the house I was living in, and the ferry stop in the riverside Orleigh Park.
We waited for the slides to come back from the developers, and I then sequenced the images in more detail to the songs, rearranging them in the carousel of the projector. I hand-wrote a cue list and my band-mate Anthony agreed to operate the slides while I played.
The first performance in 1996 was in Jamieson’s Bar, near the river in the CBD, a converted shop or industrial space with big wooden columns that made sightlines an issue. I remember the gig going over OK, but felt no need to revisit it or develop it further. Later in the same year I attempted something similar with new-romantic music (Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet) dressing up as Destiny the space minstrel at The Zoo, playing alongside Jamie Clark. With that one I spent more time on the costume than the performance, and it showed. The opportunity to revisit Leanne didn’t emerge until 2003.
The Angry Mime was a performance venue at the Brisbane Powerhouse, a large-scale arts venue in a converted power-station that had opened in 2000. They let a group of artists populate one of the rehearsal buildings one night a month with an eclectic assemblage of whatever they decided to curate, and it was quite a popular night. Everybody did it out of goodwill, there was little money involved. The definition of a mixed bag, when it was good, it could be remarkable. The venue’s reverb wasn’t conducive to dialogue-based things but it was perfect for gentle music. I performed there quite a bit, experimenting with new ideas in new vaudeville mode. I thought Leanne might work there.
I was a more confident performer by that stage, and had decided to do even less with Leanne. I would not speak. I would only sing and play. The songs would do the talking. I decided I would operate the slides myself, and removed one sandal, pressing the slide button with my toe. This required some rehearsal, as the slide show ran behind me, and I would only look at the images occasionally, for emphasis.
The costume had shrunk slightly. Or perhaps I had gotten a little wider, so I re-dressed the character. I still played the same songs, in the same order, with the same slides, but now with these changes, and the (actual) passage of time, it looked like the character was reminiscing about something that had happened in her distant past.
As a solo performer, I had no-one to work off but the audience, and I held them carefully as I could. Leanne had a meek power. Allowing the initial welcoming ripple and sigh of welcome to subside, I took my seat and tuned up. I recall making a decision in performance to have the character ‘search’ for a G chord as if the instrument was unfamiliar. But I dropped it, as I clearly can play the guitar reasonably well. It would look like me trying to do something, which would spoil the purity of the performance I was aiming for.
The slides looked great in the dark space. They were still silly, but plausible.
There was more ambiguity now. Was this light shining through celluloid a kind of visual thought bubble, a cinematic window into the character’s mind, or had ‘Leanne’ clumsily re-staged her relationship for the purposes of this show?
Who knows? The audience enjoyed the pictures and I allowed the images to converse with the songs, extending the duration of each picture for longer than I might have the first time around.
I was more careful now to allow gestures to find their specificity, framed by space and stillness. If I made one movement during a song, it would say more than three. I wasn’t pretending to do something. I was really doing it.
In women’s clothing. In the dark. Dust motes just float in a shaft of light. Music plays.