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Taming the diva

Arts & Entertainment

Taming the diva

La Cage aux Folles's Greg Armstrong-Morris shifts into character. IMAGE 1 OF 1
Backstage hissing at La Cage aux Folles
What is the collective noun for a group of drag queens? A tantrum? A pique? A cat-fight of drag queens?

I began to wonder when I heard that director Max Reimer was auditioning real drag queens to play the notorious Cagelles queens in the Vancouver Playhouse’s production of La Cage aux Folles.

I was, shall we say, skeptical.

I mean, look at the math: six drag queens divided by one dressing room multiplied by eight weeks. The last person to put together a calculation this dangerous was Oppenheimer.

When the Playhouse staged Death of a Salesman earlier this year, did they cast real suicidal salesmen to play Willy Loman? Of course not. They’d have had to hire 30 of them to guarantee there would be someone to go on each night as the bodies piled up backstage.

I couldn’t imagine how casting real drag queens would be manageable, let alone successful. How would we ever hear the orchestra over the hissing?

But if Max Reimer, the managing artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse, a multimillion-dollar regional theatre that has been around for almost half a century, thinks this is a good idea, who am I to second-guess him?

After all, I’m merely his leading lady, Albin, known to adoring Cage fans everywhere as Zaza, “the greatest star on the Riviera.”

Obviously, my concerns are meaningless. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to be upstaged by community outreach casting!


***


It was a sunny Monday morning coaching session when our musical director, Bill Sample, mentioned en passant that he would be holding his first rehearsal with the Cagelles that night.

Playing the role of Gracious Leading Lady, I immediately thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to pop in and say hello. Maybe bake muffins.”

Of course, lurking just below the surface of this benevolence was my green-eyed Inner Diva thinking, “Girlfriend, we better get our royal ass to that rehearsal hall and pee in all the corners!”

I decided that just after work (yes, in the glamorous world of theatre, even leading ladies need day jobs) I’d cycle over to the Eastside rehearsal hall in the late afternoon sunlight on my way home. It was only a few blocks out of my way. Okay, 17 blocks out of my way, but who’s counting?

By 6pm, the temperature had dropped, the clouds had obliterated the sun, and it was beginning to rain. But I was determined. So I strapped on my helmet and my metaphorical pumps and pedalled across East Hastings with my freshly baked Muffins of Domination.

I’m not sure what I was expecting to find.

A low-ceilinged studio seething with attitude and self-importance?

A windowless hall reverberating with the unmistakable frisson of too many drag queens squeezed together in too small a space?

What I found was a group of professionals (like any other chorus I’ve been a part of), with varying degrees of experience and training (like any other chorus I’ve been a part of), working hard and showing no signs of bitchiness or backstabbing (unlike any other chorus I’ve been a part of).

It nearly made me drop my muffins.

It certainly made me drop my attitude.



***


Several weeks have passed since that first meeting. And I’ve been humbled by our Cagelles.

Not only are they triple-threat singer/dancer/actors, but if it wasn’t for their spur-of-the-moment makeup tutorials, unwavering encouragement and limitless generosity with glitter, Zaza’s face would be, at best, a hot mess of blush and lipliner. Think somewhere between Joan Collins and Heath Ledger’s Joker.

And don’t even get me started on the shoes. I once spent three weeks learning how to walk on two-metre-high stilts for a musical in Toronto. Zaza’s two-inch heels have been almost as daunting. But just when I was about to throw a Bea Arthur–inspired fit and demand flat shoes for all my numbers, I’d see Iona, Peaches, Chantal, Celeste, Kiki and Afrodesia strut, pose and tap-dance in death-defying stilettos.

It was time to stop being a princess. It was time to grow up and join the queens.

At some point during rehearsals, I confessed my initial misgivings to Max and associate director Cameron Mackenzie. I also told them how much I’d come to appreciate their casting choices.

They saw the opportunity to make the Cagelles something more than a homogenous gaggle of gender-non-specific showgirls backdropping the play’s central battle of the (conservative vs gay) inlaws.

They wanted to create a chorus of individuals, each with a unique back-story and a complex set of talents that would reflect the diversity of the Playhouse audience. And they have.

Some of these talents might not be showcased to their full potential in this production, and some will certainly be reserved for the opening-night afterparty, but they certainly add a depth of authenticity to our St Tropez nightclub.

“Good theatre presents the oppor tunity to both transform and confirm,” I heard Max say recently.

This production will no doubt transform the way some people think about drag queens. I hope it will also confirm some of our own experiences by reflecting them on a mainstream stage at a time of year notoriously obsessed with celebrating more traditional family incarnations.

Being a part of the Playhouse’s Cage aux Folles has certainly transformed me.

From the moment I was cast as Albin, I knew it would be the role of a lifetime, a professional actor’s dream job. I didn’t realize I’d also get to bake muffins.