It's a Drag! And Hopefully A Career-Booster

After four years of pavement pounding and endless classes (in self-marketing, as well as acting workshops), frustration fueled actor Michael McDerman's ambition to try yet another strategy for getting noticed: a drag act. That said, he admits he didn't come to the notion comfortably—quite the reverse.

"When a manager said to me, 'You sound too gay,' that didn't motivate my drag act," McDerman recalls. "In fact, I was turned off, I was offended, and I hired a vocal coach to help me lose my gay twang and deepen my voice."

Nonetheless, the prospect of appearing in yet another student film or some crowd scene in a TV show palled. Those gigs had become self-destructive. Indeed, McDerman was convinced that within short order he'd be typecast into obscurity. "The doors couldn't be more closed to me than they were already," he says. And so with some reluctance, he donned his onstage alter ego, Carmella Cann, a glitzy chameleon who can, depending on mood, morph into a Madonna or Joan Collins prototype.

And the decision has served McDerman well, at least so far. In addition to earning positive reviews for his Carmella gig, he has been tapped for a role (albeit in drag) in Wallace Shawn's upcoming film, "Marie and Bruce," and a couple of stints on "The Ricki Lake Show," also as Carmella Cann.

"Once I accepted the idea of performing Carmella full-time—or as often as possible—doors have opened for me," insists McDerman. "The visibility I now have has given my manager ideas about what I can do and he's now sending out my Carmella pictures. I'm currently auditioning as Carmella for a 'Law & Order' episode. And the visibility has given me, Michael, leverage to play boy parts as well. I've already played a boy on 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.' "

McDerman is not an isolated case. There are other actors out there—tracking down precise numbers is virtually impossible—who have come to the same conclusion as McDerman. Back Stage talked with several actors who have created drag personas for themselves in order to further their acting careers in and out of drag. Among the questions asked were: What are the business and acting challenges in doing a drag act? How has performing in drag helped career advancement? And, how does one even launch a drag act?

Playing 'Vinnie'

Consider Toni Kasper's entrée into the world of drag. Kasper, musical theatre performer/standup comic/playwright, came to her new identity, Vinnie Goldstein, serendipitously. In fact, Vinnie is a character in "Stripped," a play Kasper wrote not with herself in mind at all.

But when the actor who was slated to play Vinnie—a sleazy, funny club owner—couldn't make it one night, Kasper stepped in to fill the gap, totally unprepared for the response her performance generated, especially among her friends.

"They truly did not recognize me in my mustache, goatee, sideburns, and suit," she recalls. "And, instead of telling me what a great playwright I was, they were complimenting my performance as Vinnie."

That said, the Vinnie gig has led to writing opportunities along with a host of nightclub engagements for Kasper. "I've now done Vinnie at the House of Pleasure, the Duplex, and Don't Tell Mama," she says. "I've also been asked by male playwrights to help them write dialogue for the male characters. They believe that I see a male character—and the potential for comedy—from a more objective standpoint. Playing Vinnie has given me incredible freedom as a writer and actress. In fact, a producer who is planning to produce 'Stripped' at an Off-Broadway theatre sometime this spring, wants me to continue playing Vinnie. In addition to liking the way I do the role, he likes the way the other actors have been freed. Doing drag puts fun back into acting for everyone—me and others on stage."

Kasper continues to be optimistic that playing Vinnie will lead to other acting assignments, not just more Vinnie stints. The key is her enhanced performance (thanks, in part, to the abovementioned freedom) and, the old standby, exposure.

Actor Dennis Mathews—aka Bubbles Pellegrino—echoes the view. "I've only been doing Bubbles for a year now, on average twice a month at various cabarets," he says. "But I do feel that my playing Bubbles—she's a cross between Judy Garland and Karen Walker, a woman who is a little crass but has a big heart—will lead to other work. It helps distinguish me from the other actors out there. That's the reason I got into drag. I hit my 30th birthday and realized that there were just too many actors and too few roles. I was not unique.

"Playing Bubbles shows agents, casting directors, and producers my versatility and ease in dealing with the audience," he continues. "Doing drag, like doing any cabaret show, requires an ability to improvise and ad lib. You have to be topical in your comments and be able to switch gears quickly if you encounter an audience that's just not responding to what you've prepared."

Clearly, there are many levels of drag performance and a spectrum of venues, with their respective requirements. In many instances, drag artists perform in and/or host variety shows. Some of these productions are all-drag evenings; others are not. The karaoke aesthetic continues to be alive and well, especially among drag artists. It's no accident that a star of the drag genre, John Epperson, dubs his onstage alter ego Lypsinka.

Most drag performers do not audition for variety shows. Friends serving as hosts usually invite them, or they may just come on board, not unlike a comic at an open mike night. If the bookers like what they see, the artists may be asked back as variety-show hosts or even as solo acts, although the latter bookings are more difficult to come by and money is in short supply.

"And like many cabaret performers, drag artists—at the early stages of their careers—are expected to bring in their own audiences, pay for the musicians [if needed], and be responsible for their own marketing and advertising, not to mention occasionally bringing in acts if they're hosting a variety show," says McDerman, adding that, if nothing else, he has learned how to produce a show. He now knows what it's like to be on the other side of the table, as it were.

"I've turned down acts, not because I didn't like them, but because I knew the act wouldn't be right for the audience. An East Village audience, as an example, isn't interested in drag performers doing show tunes. That's more suitable for a Midtown club."

Liberation's History

Drag shows are not new. Indeed, they go all the way back to antiquity. In the Belle Epoch, they were thriving too. Consider some of Toulouse-Lautrec's vivid Parisian club scenes. America saw its share of drag performers on the vaudeville circuit. Sophie Tucker frequently did her shtick with a black drag performer. Also, Julian Eltinge was a major player; indeed, in the 1910s and '20s he was the most popular female impersonator of the time, known for his fashionable garments and quick costume changes. In television's Golden Era, Milton Berle donned a dress, although arguably that might be a little different. In 1970, Jim Bailey made it to Carnegie Hall with his parade of great female stars.

The most influential Manhattan-based drag theatre troupe was the now defunct Ridiculous Theatrical Company, headed by the late Charles Ludlam, although New York's longest-running drag extravaganza had to have been Howard Crabtree's costume-driven musical "When Pigs Fly," with its stunning, eye-popping numbers.

In one of the most memorable, "Wear Your Vanity With Pride," 18th-century French aristocratic ladies—all played by men in drag—primping in front of their vanities, float upwards and, with a flip of the wrist, attach the vanities to their hips, transforming the overdone furniture into even tackier boxlike rococo skirts, awash in ruffles, sequins, beads, and bangles galore.

Spoof and homage had met head on. So did giddy excess, a dollop of dada, and amateurism as celebratory art form. And the crowds, including the blue-haired dowagers from Westchester, were pouring in.

The most publicized of drag performers are the mega-star impersonators: Tommy Femia's Judy Garland and Richard Skipper's Carol Channing and Steven Brinberg's Barbra Streisand, to name just a few. And then there are the original drag creations, from Miss Coca Peru to Lady Bunny to Kiki (of Kiki and Herb) to the aforementioned Lypsinka to the incomparable Varla Jean Merman (Jeff Roberson), with her glandular-sized boobs and breathy voice and high-pitched giggle, who demurely tells her audience that she is the much-maligned love child of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman.

The three performers Back Stage interviewed for this story—McDerman, Kasper, and Matthews—-also see their onstage alter egos as original creations: fictional figures embodying all the acting challenges of any character out of dramatic literature, with the additional burden of cross-gender acting.

"Clearly, the comedy stems from the fact that I'm a man playing a woman," says McDerman. "But what makes the piece crafted is that I'm a man playing a woman with a persona. Without taking away from the comedy, I have to be naturally feminine. And that's an art all by itself. Charles Busch is naturally feminine. I'm not sure I am. So for me the central challenge is getting in touch with my feminine side. It's a balancing act: doing comedy in a live venue and not being too flamboyant. And I always have to keep in mind the audience—what will the audience like about Carmella?"

Matthews also talks about the need to be likeable without violating the integrity of his character. Kasper says the same. But she is willing to push the envelope. "This summer, Mike and I will be doing a two-person act, featuring Carmella Cann and Vinnie Goldstein. We will be exploring role reversal and show that men can think like women and women can think like men. And therein lies the comedy.

"Still, for me as a woman, to think like a man in relationship to another man, and especially a woman, is a big challenge. It's a whole new way of viewing the world," she says. "But I love playing Vinnie. He has taken on a life of his own. It's very liberating to realize I don't have to be a beautiful young thing in order to work."

Or, indeed, have an identity.