Artistic Associate & Director, The Legend of Georgia McBride
Yesterday marked the first day of rehearsal for our 2017-18 Season. Every theatre artist knows the feeling of the “first day.” Like the first day of school, it’s a giddy, excited, and nervous feeling that keeps us up the night before, anticipating the people we will meet and the play we are about to discover. Starting our process for The Legend of Georgia McBride was no different. The following is an introductory address to the cast and crew from director Lauren Shouse.
Watch an excerpt of this speech in the clip below or continue on to read the full address.
I am very grateful today to be making this play that brings me so much joy with all of you in my artistic home. On days like this, I am always reminded of the miraculous thing we do as theatre artists – we show up to windowless rooms, we sit around a table as a diverse group of human beings with different stories and backgrounds to create an experience to share with hundreds of strangers. And sometimes when the stars really align, these rooms can become places where we meet together as families of choice. As places where we are accepted for all our eccentricities, where we let each other make mistakes and find our way. And today, we get to come together to tell a story set in a bar that becomes a community space like this one, where we get to create the journey most of us can probably identify with – the transformative journey of finding your voice, finding your tribe and living out loud!
So let’s talk about Matthew Lopez and the origins of this play. The spark of the idea came when he heard about one of his straight friends in Brooklyn who had put together a mix tape to create a country drag persona – this guy was interested investigating drag as performance art and the tape included Dolly Parton, EmmyLou Harris, Loretta Lynn and then covers of country women doing Elvis or singing songs about Elvis. And so Matthew wanted to write a play about a straight guy doing drag – but not in Brooklyn where nearly every straight man has done drag – but in a place where it might be more dangerous or transgressive and this is where the personal part of the story comes in.
Matthew grew up outside Panama City FL – a very southern conservative part of the panhandle – where in the 90s there was one gay bar, The Fiesta. He would go with a friend who started doing drag and would observe men walk into a bar and transform into women. This place became a second home for him and a safe space – he described this transformative experience as essential to understanding who he was – “it was like opening a door and realizing there’s this whole other part of the house that you’ve never explored.” And so this legend becomes about a demonstrably heterosexual guy who discovers drag in a potentially dangerous place and it allows him to find another side of his identity – it changes the way he approaches the world, and most importantly it changes how he views himself.
I get this – before moving to Chicago, I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, a conservative area with pockets like Panama City. I came out after having met my now wife and though I didn’t have drag, I had my theatre community – windowless rooms like this one became safes spaces for me where I could speak openly about my identity and relationship without being judged – that freedom made me a better artist.
I think it is for that reason that in the last few months, I have become obsessed with drag – I have been doing my research out at drag clubs in Chicago (staying out way past my bedtime – for real though). I have watched all of RuPaul’s drag race and learned useful phrases like “Shantay you Stay”, “Sissy that Walk” and “I’m serving up Body-ody-ody.” Trying to work those into my vocabulary.
I have interviewed friends who are drag artists. And while everyone has a different story, there is this energy, confidence, boldness, fearlessness and freedom that I envy in drag artists. A friend shared that they feel invincible on stage and that that invincibility allows them to get through the harder days. It also allows them to continually push themselves to take risks and to own who they are in public spaces. Like Rexy, another friend describes Drag as a protest – a rebellion against conformity and a way to empower and express a part of his truest self to a world that may not understand him. Another friend described drag as a creative outlet – a chance to build a persona and be in control of their own narrative. In this process I hope we can all discover what drag may means to us, but the observation that stays with me in all of this is that while there is “T and shade” being thrown left and right, at the end of the day, there is more acceptance and love being shared through drag performers than I can begin to describe – and I think if only everyone could take to heart the words that RuPaul closes every episode of Drag Race with – “If you Can’t Love Yourself, How the Hell You Gonna Love Someone Else, can I get and Amen?”
Which brings me back to this room today and why this story is so important to me and to us now. This play was written at a time of celebration – the first rehearsals in NY began just days after marriage equality was made law of the land and the play felt like a buoyant celebration of how far we’d come. In light of the changes in this country since then, especially since November (in what to many of us has felt like a new daily attack), after Charlottesville – it is an essential reminder of what acceptance, respect, open-mindedness, inclusion and individuality look like. And we get to lift our audience every night with a feeling that I think is so needed right now – joy. A joy in knowing there are places in this world like there are in the theatre, in drag clubs where people love each other, where people are encouraged to live out loud, where we celebrate each other for our differences and where we can support each other like family.