Adventures in Theatre
“What a Drag!”
I’m not sure why it started. Nobody in family, to my limited knowledge, ever did it so genetic predisposition is out. It’s like a mutation, I guess. It just kind of happened.
When I was in kindergarten I got tapped to play the title role in “The Little Drummer Boy”. I was much cuter then and a blonde with big soulful brown eyes. Despite the fact that I had no lines, I took the role very seriously. The ox and lamb had nothing on me in terms of keeping time (I’ve always had rhythm), and I did it with great solemnity. It was a hit. There were tears. And at the tender age of 5 I became hooked on something more addictive than crack: Applause.
From that point I went out for anything and everything. I was lucky enough to go to Rose Avenue Public School in Cabbagetown (In the 60’s it was a good school, I have no idea what it’s like now). Rose Avenue had what they called a “choir” program, but it actually did musicals. Luckily I could sing (I also ended up in an actual Church choir around this time, for reasons I don’t remember. I blame Davy and Goliath).
The “Choir was run by Mrs. Donaldson. She usually had a big blond beehive going on and wore a lot of makeup, but taught me one of the most valuable things I’ve ever learned. She taught me how to project. This has been both a blessing and a curse along the way, because I’m really good at it. The upside is that it doesn’t matter if it’s a 750-seat auditorium (like I worked on in High School) or a smaller venue, you’re going to hear me. The downside was that it took me a while to learn when and where to use this power, and when it was better left in the utility belt.
So in grade school I began acting, more or less, regularly. Unconsciously I began to pick up tools like timing and the beginnings of characterization. I wasn’t aware of this, because I was having too much fun. I learned I could make people laugh and, if applause is crack, laughter is heroin.
I suppose that the zenith of my grade school career would have been in 5th Grade. We were told we were doing a version of Cinderella, and I’m thinking “ Oh swell, there’s nothing in that for me”(I was already painfully aware that I wasn’t cut out for leading man parts). But I was wrong. This is not unusual. I’m wrong often, and I’ve come to terms with it.
Mrs. Donaldson took Sean Nee and myself aside, and I figured it was to give us the bad news that we weren’t going to be in the show.
If you’re my age and grew up in Toronto, you’ve seen Sean Nee. Remember those big posters they used to with a curly-headed forlorn kid sitting on a curb, with a bag of Oatmeal cookies in front of him, and the tagline “To Some kids, Dad is just the name of a Cookie”. That was Sean. He was a professional. He had an agent,commercials and everything. He was also a nice guy. i liked him.
(If the Google search turned up the right one, he’s now an Oxford Educated Ecologist who specializes in studying genetic engineering, among other things. This would make sense as A) He was English and B) He was “wicked smart”. If it is you, Sean, I apologize for the following revelation)
So when the 3 of us were alone Mrs. Donaldson began speaking in hushed and serious tones. I wasn’t sure why it was hushed since were the only ones in the room, but I went along with it.
“I have an idea for Cinderella, but I want to ask you two first to see if it’s okay. If it’s going to work I need my 2 best actors.” She said, quite seriously.
That should have tipped me off. Mrs. Donaldson was never one to ladle out the positive feedback, a trait I would unfortunately inherit as a director. She expected you to do well, and if you didn’t, you’d hear about it.
She took a deep breath and then said “I want you two to play the Ugly Stepsisters”
There was a pause. It was a long one.
In the Schoolyard Survival Manual there are certain rules that are laid out. Somewhere in between “Don’t have a funny name” and “Don’t have your mother bring you a snack at recess” is “Don’t be Different”. There are subsections to that one based on race, body type, and of course sexuality, even in grade school. I was already working at a disadvantage in terms of the funny name rule (subsection: “A name that can be changed to be funny”. At the time my last name was Boyes) and the different rule (subsection “Fat Kid”). All I needed was to be parading around in girl clothes. It was bad enough I was an actor. That was already suspect.
For some reason we decided that stealing the show trumped school survival, so we did it. And it worked. Our first entrance brought the house down, and for the rest of the show we upstaged Cinderella unmercifully. At the end of the day we escaped the wrath of the schoolyard. They were too busy laughing.
I’ve only done drag on stage 2 other times. Once when I was producing “Les Belles Soeurs” for Theatre Etobicoke when we couldn’t find an old lady to play the senile, wheelchair bound mother of one of the women, who basically sits in the background and does nothing…
The other was when we did Rocky Horror at the Kingsway, the Brighton or the Roxy or whatever theatre was showing it. Somewhere in the archives at City TV is me on the New Music in full Frank N Furter drag for the 5th anniversary of RHPS at the Roxy. Damn near won the lookalike contest, but I lost to woman from Michigan.
The punchline is that my Uncle Ted, who hadn’t seen me in 10 years and despite the wig and heavy makeup, recognized me on television.
I think the last time he saw me was as the ugly stepsister.