Art / Drag / Role Models

Role Model: Diane Torr

Still from “Man For A Day” as Diane becomes Danny King

Happy Easter, dearest Filthy Dreams readers! The day that drag king Jesus rose again. What? Oh, didn’t you hear, Mary? This week, College of the Holy Cross professor Tat-siong Benny Liew angered the Fox News set after someone decided to read his chapter “Queering Closets and Perverting Desires: Cross Examining John’s Engendering and Transgendering Word Across Different Worlds” and got their panties in a twist. Liew describes Jesus as appearing as a “drag-kingly bride in his passion” and “what we have in John’s Jesus is not only a ‘king of Israel’ or ‘king of the Ioudaioi [Jews],’ but also a drag king.” I always thought Jesus was a bit hammy.

In addition to Jesus’s big genderqueer reveal, there has also been a recent resurgence and renewed interest in drag kings, corresponding with the increased zeal for drag in general, with performance nights at bars like Bushwick’s Bizarre Bar and even, at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Sure, drag kings have always played second fiddle to the glitz and glamour of drag queens. But whether Elvis impersonations or Murray Hill’s “Showbiz!” drag kings also have been dutifully and hilariously subverting masculinity’s supposed neutrality for years.

This seemed like a good excuse as any to honor one of our revered drag king role models here at Filthy Dreams–performance artist and drag king master with multiple masculine personalities Diane Torr. A petite woman with short fiery red hair, Torr, who sadly passed away last year, had the ability to not only observe the particular quirks of male behavior, but appropriate them in a way that was both convincing and uncanny. Her co-author Stephen Bottoms recalls the first time he saw Torr perform as Danny King in the introduction of their book Sex, Drag and Male Roles: Investigating Gender, writing, “The first time I saw Diane Torr perform as a man the experience was a little unnerving…By the time, he [Danny King] finally deigned to speak to us, he was indisputably in command of the stage and his audience and yet he had done almost nothing. Despite his diminutive statues (Diane is five foot four), we had ceded authority to him as a commanding, masculine presence….The uncanny effect was further underlined as Danny began to explain–in character–the means by which he was creating this impression of ‘innate’ masculine entitlement” (1).

Photo of Diane Torr (via The Guardian)

While she lived in Glasgow later in life, Torr is closely associated with the freewheeling East Village performance scene that sprung up in nightclubs such as the Pyramid Club, Limbo Lounge and Club 57, as well as performance spaces like PS122 and Franklin Furnace. It was this connection to the Downtown scene that motivated me to bestow Diane her rightful role model title, after a recent screening of the 2012 documentary Man For A Day and a reading by artist Bradley Wester, who collaborated with Torr, at the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with their exhibition Club 57: Film, Performance and Art in the East Village, 1978-1983. The dual screening and reading was part of a day-long symposium on gender and performance in the East Village scene entitled Performing Difference: Gender in the 1980s Downtown Scene.  While sadly, I could only attend the “pre-show” portion (because who has an entire day to spare on a random Thursday, MoMA), it was well worth it as Torr raced–or really sauntered with seeming God-given masculine authority–to the front of my mind.

Directed by Katarina Peters, Man For A Day follows Torr–sometimes in the guise of her drag persona Danny King–as she leads one of her week-long drag king workshops, which take the same title as the film, in Berlin. With a diverse group of women, who all seem to have firsthand experience with toxic masculinity (who doesn’t) that brought them to the workshop, Torr teaches the participants how to dress like men, transform snipped hair into five o’clock shadows and pack condoms full of stuffing to make their…ahem…package. She also trains them to believably behave like men and walk as if they, as she explained, owned the very ground beneath their feet. In one scene, for example, Torr encourages the women to go out in the street to find “their man”–the man whose actions mirrors the character they want to become. Torr notes that its easy to follow and observe men in the street because as the default observers, men are typically not used to being the ones with the gaze trained at them (of course, this is different for POC men).

Still of a participant from Man For A Day

Rather than culminating in staged performances, though, Torr’s Man for a Day workshop has the women take to the streets as men. And some of them are really good at it. Man for a Day was, at once, hilarious, tender and thought-provoking as it made me even more aware of how I move in the world as opposed to men. The film not only provides a fly-on-the-wall look at the multifaceted process of the workshop, which certainly has resonances with feminist consciousness raising, but it also gives a bit of background into Torr’s history with drag, performance and her interest in embodying masculinity.

Giving more insight into Torr’s early performances, Bradley Wester’s reading from his forthcoming memoir took readers back to the good/bad old days of the East Village. First drawing audience members in by reminiscing about restaurants and cafes on St. Mark’s Place, he, then, detailed a harrowing near rape in his apartment on Avenue A and 10th Street, which immediately quelled the frequently romanticized nostalgia for that period of NYC history. Eventually, Wester narrated meeting Torr and their eventual collaboration in performances like 1982’s Arousing Reconstructions at Danspace. This duet questioned stereotypical gender roles through different postures, moving eventually toward androgyny. Perhaps Wester’s best story concerned a night at Club 57 itself. Told by Diane he couldn’t attend a WOW (Women’s One World) night at Club 57 since he was a cisgender man, Wester decided to dress up in Torr’s clothes to see if he could pass. Surprising her inside the club, making it past the door person, Diane, rather than being pissed off like some of her fellow feminist contemporaries, thought it was hysterical and touted him around the bar.

Diane Torr and Bradley Wester’s AROUSING RECONSTRUCTIONS (1982) (Photo Credit: Mariette Pathy-Allen; Courtesy the artists)

Through both the film and the reading, Torr emerged as a performer who continually pushed the boundaries between art and life, as well as more obviously the gender binary. This even started before Torr got into drag king performances. Born in Canada, but growing up in Scotland, Torr moved to New York in 1976 in order to pursue dance, particularly with Merce Cunningham. But, like many, she gravitated toward the more experimental East Village scene. In the U.S. on a student visa, she let it expire, eventually working as a go-go dancer in New Jersey to make money without getting booted out of the country. This go-go work would become the inspiration of some of her first performances. As Stephen Bottoms explains in his obituary for Torr in The Guardian, “Having overstayed her student visa, she survived by working cash-in-hand as a go-go dancer at New Jersey strip clubs, a role she critiqued in one of her early performance pieces. In Go-Go Girls Seize Control (WOW Festival, 1981), she recontextualized erotic dancing within the downtown art world, giving a voice to fellow strippers. At a time when the women’s movement routinely condemned sex workers, and writers such as Andrea Dworkin were loudly critical of pornography, Diane’s overtly sexualized self-expression was controversial. A performance at Amsterdam’s Melkweg in 1982 ended prematurely when the audience rioted.”

Everyone knows a riot is better than a standing ovation.

Screenshot of a Mr ‘EE’ performance

Eventually, Torr’s performances became more and more focused on drag. Now it should be said Diane’s performances were never all drag as she also created work around her pregnancy, her brother’s (who died from complications from AIDS) obsession with Dusty Springfield and many other subjects. She was also a member of DISBAND, an all-girl punk band that included fellow artist Martha Wilson.

However, drag led Torr to develop a set of detailed male characters that ranged from the sleazy, masked Mr. ‘EE’, who is probably too old and lecherous to be doing the go-go moves at which he still excels, to Torr’s eponymous Danny King. Rather than a stereotypical sketch, each of Torr’s personas was deeply fleshed out, as exemplified by Torr’s description of Danny King:

“Danny King is a middle-aged, middle-American, middle-management guy. He works in the men’s wear department in a department store in Pittsburgh. He is married, has a wife and two children. He represents a stereotype of what it is to be a man. A lot of Danny’s behaviours could be seen as anachronistic, but in fact are still contemporary as his “typical male” behaviour can be seen all over the world. For me, Danny represents an American male, or how a typical American male might be considered. I use this male character to conduct my Man for a Day workshops. I am immediately recognizable to the workshop participants, and in demonstrating Danny King, I show a range of physicalities – gestures, ways of walking, eating, sitting, looking, engaging, etc. that are connected to a stereotype. I do not want the participants of the workshop to copy me, but to go out in the street and find their own male characters. In representing the stereotype, I own that. What I like about Danny King is that he is transparent. I can demonstrate “maleness” as him and it is believable. I spent many hours studying “Dannys” in diners, sportsbars, pool halls, in the US senate, in TV newsrooms, and department stores among other locales. Danny is able to gain access to places that might be off-limits to women. Danny has an innate sense of privilege and entitlement, and through this character, I can demonstrate how this is done. I can call the bluff on “inherited male superiority”.

We all know Dannys.

Still from “Man For A Day”

Beyond her own performances onstage, Torr began teaching drag king workshops in 1990 with fellow Downtown denizen Johnny Science in, as Stephen Bottoms describes, “the Lexington Avenue salon of porn-star-turned-performance-artist Annie Sprinkle,” who herself deserves a role model post. In an interview with The Brooklyn Rail, Torr recalls the development of these workshops with Johnny Science: “Annie Sprinkle was doing an interview with a female-to-male transsexual and wanted to use somebody who could do a transformation of female-to-male as an illustration. So I met Annie and I met the transsexual, Johnny Science. Johnny was teaching something called drag king workshops, and I thought, that would be interesting, and took his workshop. It basically was composed of dress-up and makeup, and I said, isn’t there any training involved? And he said, what do you mean? And I said, well, voice training, or working on male behavior or gesture, and he said, well, no I don’t know how to do that. So we joined forces. I worked with Johnny for a while and then one day he just didn’t show up, so I learned to do hair and makeup on my own.”

Conducting her Man For A Day workshops all over the world, Torr encouraged the participants to realize that, as Stephen Bottoms writes in the introduction of Sex, Drag and Male Roles, “To take a male character created in the studio out onto city streets as a functioning identity is to cross over not only the line between art and life but the line between female and male experience, thereby challenging all kinds of constructions and assumptions” (9). Bringing this male character into the streets was partially inspired by her own experience, as recited in a TED talk, of attending the Whitney Biennial opening dressed in drag after a photoshoot with Annie Sprinkle. Treated differently because she passed as a man, Torr realized the gender subversion that could occur when a woman performed what is often seen as ingrained and non-performative. As Stephen Bottoms notes, “Her apparent ease in exposing this strange artifice of naturalized masculinity is an unsettling reminder that the assumptions men have about their own identities are themselves based on performance, even pretense.” (2).

Diane Torr (Photo via dianetorr.com)

One of these drag king workshop participants was writer Paul B. Preciado who speaks of attending a workshop in his book Testo Junkie (Preciado would go on to do his own drag king workshops). As Preciado remembers, “The goal of Diane’s workshops is to experiment physically and theatrically with the ways in which masculinity is produced by an array of performative cultural codes learned and incorporated through what Judith Butler has called ‘regularized and constrained repetition of norms'”(371).

Of course, in 2018, everyone is very familiar with the notion that gender is a performance. And yet, masculinity is still seen as essentially natural to femininity’s artifice–the real to the feminine’s fiction, which render Torr’s work still extremely relevant. In an interview on Sex, Drag and Male Roles: Investigating Gender As Performance, Torr describes, “The idea of mimicking men is not something that most men want to see. They don’t find the idea of women impersonating men amusing…Unfortunately, many men feel threatened when they see a woman impersonating a man. They need to loosen up and enjoy the spectacle!”

Amen, honey!

As Preciado echoes, “Becoming a drag king is seeing through a matrix of gender, noticing that men and women are performative and somatic fictions, convinced of their natural reality” (374). More than just a spectacle, Torr’s performances and workshops stripped all gender of its assumed naturalism, revealing that it’s all just a show. So powder on your mustache shavings and watch some of the best Diane documentation on the YouTubes:

 

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