The marriage of drag and theatre: Guys in Disguise celebrates 35 years at the Fringe

Trevor Schmidt, Jake Tkaczyk, Jason Hardwick in Crack in the Mirror, Guys in Disguise. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

“You do know this is a theatre festival, right? You can’t just do a drag show….” 

Words that would have a major impact on the civic culture and the theatre scene in this town. It was Fringe time in 1987. And the in-house troupe of drag queens at the long-defunct gay club Flashback got it into their heads to take a show to the festival that was drawing massive crowds to Old Strathcona.

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“I’d never been to the Fringe before; we were downtown girls,” laughs playwright/ director/ actor/ composer/ sound designer/ gay activist and historian Darrin Hagen, possessor of the statuesque queen alter-ego Gloria at the time. “Whyte Avenue? That was a whole town away!” 

They christened themselves Guys in Disguise for the occasion (a name borrowed from a gay senior citizen polka band). And Hagen and his drag colleague Twiggy found themselves writing a play, under the tutelage of the then-Northern Light Theatre artistic director Jace van der Veen. Delusions of Grandeur, with its cast of eight, was half an hour long, “basically squeezed between the two acts of a drag show,” recalls Hagen. The production, which ran at Ming’s, an ex-Chinese restaurant, upstairs where Chapters used to be, lasted two and half hours. Curtain time: midnight. Fringe  audiences staggered out at 2:30 a.m. 

Darrin Hagen in the 1987 Fringe Parade. Photo supplied .

At the Fringe 35 years ago, a company was born that would marry theatre and drag in a way this theatre town had never seen before. Of the 60 productions Guys in Disguise has done in the three and a half decades since, 50 were at the festival, says Hagen, usually two per Fringe and sometimes three.

This year there’s a pair. One’s a comedy (Crack in the Mirror, the third of Hagen and Trevor Schmidt’s Orchard Crescent trilogy). The other, The Pansy Cabaret, is a re-creation devised by Hagen of the songs, monologues, comedy routines of the pansy bars that were all the rage in the New York of the ‘20s.

In 1996 The Edmonton Queen, spun for the stage from his own story — the small-town Alberta kid who arrived in the big city and found his new family in the showbiz drag world — marked a turning point for Hagen. Till then, “I’d lurked in the background of theatre,” he says, composing music and doing the odd drop-in drag gig. “It was the start for me as a writer … the first time drag and theatre came together for me,” says Hagen. He told his partner Kevin “I’m going try this ‘play thing’.”

The very next Fringe, sequins and stilettos gave way.  Tornado Magnet: A Salute to Trailer Park Women, inspired by his own boyhood, was “so scary for me,” says Hagen, who played formidable Mrs. Dotty Parsons, queen of Tupperware, with strong views on loaf tins. “Not glam. Rural-based. There I was onstage in my gardening shoes and a denim skirt.”

Since then, occasionally the Guys have dipped into the existing theatre repertoire (Michel Tremblay’s Damnée Manon Sacrée Sandra and La Duchesse de Langeais, for example). Mostly, though, they’ve created their own. And a continuing pursuit through this distinctive catalogue has been satirizing gender roles, Hagen thinks. “Drag is such a powerful political and social tool … and the way women respond has been fascinating.” 

Brian Dooley, Trevor Schmidt, Darrin Hagen in Flora and Fawna Have Beaver Fever & Fawna Have Beaver Fever (and so does Fleurette), Guys in Disguise. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Flora and Fawna does that,” he says of women’s reactions to a series led by the earnest 10-year-old founders (played by co-authors Hagen and Schmidt) of the NaturElles, a girl collective devoted to progressive ideas, cultural diversity and inclusiveness (with one significant exception: No Mean Girls).

Trevor Schmidt and Darrin Hagen in Don’t Frown At The Gown, Guys in Disguise. Photo by Epic Photography

The Orchard Crescent trilogy takes us to the same American suburb in three different decades. Prepare For The Worst (2016), set in the ‘50s, has the ladies addressing a sadly neglected aspect of nuclear apocalypse preparedness: hostess snacks. Don’t  Frown At The Gown (2019) takes us into the ‘60s wedding vortex. Now, Crack in the Mirror revisits the ‘70s feminist idea of ‘putting women in touch with their sexuality.” Hagen calls it “a precursor to The Vagina Monologues.”

“It explores the changing role of women…. Every decade women have come up against a new set of (social) expectations,” says Hagen of the trilogy. “Inch by inch they discover individuality, empowerment, a bit of freedom from the patriarchy…. Some characters are more reluctant than others to explore!” 

Bert Savoy, 1929, The Pansy Cabaret, Guys in Disguise. Photo supplied.

For Hagen, an indefatigable queer history researcher, The Pansy Cabaret, starring Zachary Parsons-Lozinski and Daniel Belland, showcases a mind-blowing discovery. “It was an entire world I hadn’t heard of before. So rich!”

While he was writing a (yet to be produced) play about Mae West — her showbiz persona, including the signature walk, the sassy attitude, and many of her famous aphorisms — he uncovered the history of a bona fide showbiz craze in New York. It was the flowering of queer and drag culture in “pansy bars,” in Broadway shows, in vaudeville, featuring some of highest paid entertainers in showbiz of the day, a century ago during the Prohibition years.

“It just goes to show how effectively institutionalized homophobia can completely erase a culture in a decade…. When Prohibition ended, you couldn’t get a licence if you had an ‘unruly’ establishment (if you had homosexual performers).” Says Hagen, ‘they were chased off Broadway…. Careers ended; it was shockingly sad.”  

Karyl Norman, “the Creole Fashion Plate.” Photo supplied.

“In our 45-minute cabaret we bring some of their material back to life — comedy routines, monologues, funny songs by huge stars of 100 years ago who died in obscurity, erased by homophobia.” The material is “so ahead of its time in many ways.” Hagen predicts we’ll find it “amazingly new-sounding…. You’d swear The Lavender Song (first line: “we’re not afraid to be queer and different”), for example, was written last month…. I was blown away by their courage — in a world where they were illegal.”

Crack in the Mirror runs at the Varscona (Stage 11) Friday through Aug. 20. The Pansy Cabaret is at the Nancy Power Theatre in Theatre Network’s Roxy (Stage 27) Friday through Aug. 21. Tickets and full schedule:

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