'Georgia McBride' team: 'Subtlety is our enemy'

by John Moore | Jan 28, 2014



"Georgia McBride" Choreographer Will Taylor, left, and Director Mike Donahue.

On opening day of the Denver Center’s world-premiere comedy, we took some time with director Mike Donahue and choreographer Will Taylor to talk about staging the story of a straight Elvis impersonator in the Florida Panhandle who turns to the world of drag to support his growing family. It plays through Feb. 23 in the Ricketson Theatre.

John Moore: What did you guys think months ago, before rehearsals had even started, when you saw the video that showed 82-year-old Dan Ritchie, CEO of the largest performing-arts organization between L.A. and Chicago, undergoing a public drag transformation just to bring attention to this play? That video has had nearly 3,000 hits, and I just don’t think there are many other CEOs out there who would have done it.

Mike Donahue: I thought it was awesome. And he looks fabulous, by the way. We had big plans for him to be one of the drag queens who perform in the lobby after every performance. But after some discussion, he politely declined. But still, I love his sense of humor, and his commitment to the show.

Will Taylor: I thought it was a great gesture.

Daniel L. Ritchie does drag.

John Moore: Let’s talk about what first attracted you to this script by Matthew Lopez.

Mike Donahue: Well, the play is incredibly funny, and there is this wonderful world of drag at play. But at the end of the day, the thing that is most exciting for me is actually what a big heart the play has. At its core, it's two love stories. The first is between this guy and his wife as they struggle to figure out how to survive in the world and take that next step toward having a family and raising a kid and having a house. And then there is the love story between this same straight man his drag mother; this artistic mentor who comes from the most unlikely of places. Somehow they are able to establish this really close and loving relationship. That's what is particularly special for me.

Will Taylor: There is something really great about the fact that it’s about this very specific part of the country (the Florida Panhandle) and this very specific world of performance (drag) -- and yet it’s still somehow universal.

Video montage of scenes from "Georgia McBride"


John Moore: I'm curious about your thoughts on the Denver Center taking on this project in the first place. Because staging and selling any new play is inherently difficult. There is a lack of familiarity with the title and the subject matter. And they say producing any new play typically costs about 30 percent more than producing an existing script. From an outsider’s perspective, what does it say about the Denver Center that they were willing to take on this play as part of a 10-play new season in which there are four world premieres?

Will Taylor: The Denver Center has a great reputation for being a place that has a lot of resources and open arms in embracing new works and nurturing them. 



Mike Donahue: For me, it is remarkable the way the Colorado New Play Summit works. They do readings of five new works every year, and most of them are then fully produced the next season. There are very few companies in the country that are able or willing to make that kind of promise to developing new work through to full production. I think that’s extraordinary, and the fact that four of the five readings from last year are being produced this season says so much about the Denver Center’s commitment to developing new work. It’s also exciting to me that we can do a world premiere here of a play like “Georgia McBride,” and many of the people in the audience were there at the staged reading last year. They really have an investment in the development of the piece. They have more of an attachment to the play than a lot of audiences typically get to have.

John Moore: Are you at all surprised by how warmly audiences have received this story?

Mike Donahue: One of the things I think (playwright) Matthew Lopez has done so brilliantly is how he introduces the audience to the world of drag. Your guide into that world is Casey, this sort of fumbling, straight-guy Elvis impersonator in the Panhandle. And then you consider all of the curatorial elements that have been added by the Denver Center to extend the experience into the lobby after the show. Everyone at the Denver Center has been so sensitive to exactly how we should be introducing this play to audiences. People here have been very respectful in trying to honor what the play actually is. It isn’t really a drag play. It’s a play about a guy who is trying to take care of his family. It’s a coming-of-age story.

John Moore: You know, I think the fear that (actor) Ben Huber's character sheds during the course of the play speaks to the inherent squeamishness in our society about the bending of genders. But at a time of quickly changing opinion polls on subjects like same-sex marriage, Casey represents the Everyman. He’s got to get over his own fear of how he is being perceived by his wife and family in the same way the audience might have to get over whatever preconceptions about drag that they bring into it. But why do you think we are still somewhat hung up on this issue?



Mike Donahue: Oh gosh. Well, I don’t know, but I hope that we get over it real fast. Maybe it is our innate Puritanism.  I think the thing that is so beautiful in the play is that Casey is not a guy who is outwardly homophobic.  He just has a lack of familiarity with gay people and with drag queens. It's not something he or anyone in his life has ever come into real contact with before. There is an innate fear of the unknown and shame around participating in that, and he has to get over it. He approaches life with such openness, and hopefully that is infectious for audiences as well.

John Moore: It's interesting timing with "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" having toured here just a few months ago. The messages of tolerance are similar. The Denver Center turned opening night into "Drag Night in Denver” and invited drag performers to come see the show and pose with audience members for photos in the lobby. Everywhere you looked you could see these suburban, white-haired grandmothers having these tearful conversations with these 6-foot-6 performers, one of whom later told us that her half hour in the lobby was the most validated she ever felt as a drag performer. When you look at how warmly audiences are now responding to Georgia McBride: Are we further along than maybe we think we are?

Mike Donahue: That would be a lovely thing if that were true. Maybe Denver is just a magical place. 

Me: Hah, yes, maybe Denver is. Will, I want to ask you about your challenge as the choreographer. The drag numbers are such an essential element in this play, but this isn't just another musical. Can you speak to all of the various challenges you faced, and not just with high heels. Two of the three guys you worked with are not musical theatre actors.

Will: Yes, they aren't inherently musical theatre actors. And a couple of them are very masculine. So one challenge was finding a way to minimize the masculinity in the heels and in the clothing. Now I think a little bit of masculinity in drag is actually kind of interesting, so we haven't completely eliminated it. But we had to break it down to a science. We had to find a way to use the physicality they have in life and make it work in the clothing they have to wear. Sometimes it was a matter of keeping the legs straight as they walk, or keeping their feet closer together. When you put masculine guys in a pair of heels, they kind of want to let it all hang out, like they are used to doing. It was a challenge at first just getting them really comfortable in the heels so that we could then build the choreography on top of that. And then there’s the lip-syncing, which is a big part of the drag performance. That’s maybe the most important element in creating the illusion. When we talked with some drag queens before we started, we found that subtlety is our enemy. We really wanted to find a heightened expression of everything feminine and everything performance-related. The lyrics are heightened in a way that is almost bastardized. We decided to take the quirks and nuances the original artists sometimes show on their tracks and lift them up to an almost comedic level. We also found that working with the mirror is really helpful.

John Moore: How do you think your actors did with the whole movement challenge?

Will Taylor: They did great. I am glad we had such strong support here at the Denver Center with the costume pieces we were able to have available to us early in the rehearsal process. That were really, really integral in getting us there.



John Moore: Speaking of subtlety, were you sometimes shocked by some of the things you have gotten away with, in terms of, say, costuming and props?

Mike Donahue: Maybe … pleasantly surprised. I mean, what we are doing is nothing compared to what I feel like so many people must surely see on TV and movies. And our matinee audiences, which tend to be made up of older people, actually have been our most raucous, raunchy houses so far.

John Moore: Mike, let’s talk about Nick Mills and Ben Huber. You sent them to Drag Camp. They went through body waxing and eyebrow threading. And they both play characters who at some point have to be at the top of the drag craft. Talk about the challenge they undertook, and how they did with it.

Mike Donahue: The first thing I will say about both of those guys is that they are both so unbelievably game to do anything and everything we asked of them. They are also both so rigorous in their work. I almost think the part of their drag performance that has to be really good is almost easier for them to get to than the stuff that has to be obviously bad. That’s because you sort of know what the good thing is supposed to look like eventually, and you just have to keep working until it's as good as it possibly can be. So something like My Man, which has to be the best performance of Ben’s that we see, I think was maybe easier for him. Whereas figuring out, say, how that first Edith Piaf scene works, when Ben is walking in heels for the first time in a way that has to be believable and honest … that’s almost the trickier thing to accomplish. You have to get them to be as good as possible -- and then you have to get them to forget all of that stuff and remember what they were naturally and instinctually doing badly back when none of us knew any better. That’s unbelievably hard.

Video: Waxing Day for cast members.


John Moore: And then there is Matt McGrath, who has some experience at this.

Mike Donahue: Yeah, Matt's done a lot of musical theatre. He has played Hedwig and he’s done “Rocky Horror,” so he's done work that bends gender before. But Ben and Nick really had never even worn a pair of heels before.

John Moore: So how would you summarize your experience at Drag Camp? 

Mike Donahue: Drag Camp was like being alone in your bedroom playing dress-up in front of a mirror -- and hoping that no one else can see you. 

Will: Nobody should have to pay to see that.



John Moore: For those people who don’t know much about the show yet, what do you want to tell them about what it’s trying to accomplish?

Will Taylor: I really like what (artistic director Kent Thompson) said about the show on the first day of rehearsal: It’s not about drag. It’s about the transformative power of performance. It’s about the power of transformation.

John Moore: You mentioned the curated effort that has gone into giving the audience an extended lobby experience so that the show in some ways continues after the final curtain. How do you describe the overall experience of attending “Georgia McBride”?

Mike Donahue: Hopefully it's an event, and it's a fun night out. Come with friends and have a drink. The atmosphere in the lobby is a little more relaxed than it normally might be. It’s infectiously funny. And the whole curatorial thing just makes it easy for people to tap into that early on. I think it's a life-affirming, joyous night at the theatre.


Ben Huber and Jamie Ann Romero in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s world premiere production of "The Legend of Georgia McBride." Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen.


The Legend of Georgia McBride

  • Through Feb 23 • Ricketson Theatre
  • Tickets: 303.893.4100
  • Toll-free: 800.641.1222 • TTY: 303.893.9582
  • Groups (10+): 303.446.4829 • denvercenter.org

The Denver Center Theatre Company is a community-supported, nonprofit theatre company

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John Moore
John Moore
Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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