I first saw David Drake when he was a gay superstar. It was 1994, and I was lost, bleach-blond and wandering the West Village, trying to imitate Neely O'Hara.
There was a half-naked Drake on a billboard. His groundbreaking (Obie-winning!) solo show The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me was all the rage, and he had the humongous billboard to prove it. (It's the space on 7th Avenue that Barney's uses now to hawk high-end fashion.) "Who the hell is he?" I thought. Little did I know that a few years later he would direct my own little solo show, BJ The Trail of a Transgender Country Singing Star (a Fringe Fest Award winner). Since then I've moved on to writing novels and have become a huge fan of Drake as a writer, actor and all-around amazing artist. I caught up with him this week as he took a breath, having just opened his latest brilliant creation, Tawny, Tell Me True, in New York at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, running on Saturday, Jan. 19 and 26.
Scott Alexander Hess: Talk about how your approach to writing a solo show like Tawny differs from your approach to writing a play, prose or other types of work.
David Drake: As a writer I'm a Joseph Campbell archetype guy who follows Stephen Sondheim's old rule: Content dictates form. With creating Tawny Heatherton, it's been all about finding her authentic voice. She's inspired by a collection of forgotten blonde starlets, and so I realized her archetype was The Wanderer: in search of a spiritual experience. But she also has the shadow of The Magician: to shed light on the miracle of life. In creating Tawny's backstory -- shaky show-biz family (and her brief dance with fame as a "one-hit wonder" of the disco zeitgeist of the 1980s), raised by hippies in the '70s, closet pryo, rainbow expert, abducted by aliens -- I found the parameters of her worldview and her voice. A Farrah Fawcett kind of girl, Tawny's a free-spirited wild child buried under a sexy showbiz cloak. She's a chanteuse and a shaman all rolled into one.
As most of my work is autobiographical solo stuff, my first play, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, was about my coming of age as a young gay man in the early 1990s. The archetype was The Warrior. I needed to tackle the issues that informed the AIDS crisis. So the play became a collection of monologues -- each with a different style -- that, cumulatively, became my personal-is-political witnessing of the ACT UP era. My follow-up show, Son of Drakula, was a search to unearth the roots of my born name, Drakula. The play became an international travelogue (Romania, Croatia, America), so it was very populated with others people's voices -- often in different languages! I had over 30 characters in Son of Drakula, including recreations of taped interviews with my father, which was the heart of that play.
But Tawny is also autobiographical. Underneath the mask of that forgotten starlet in Tawny, Tell Me True is the energy and experience of my own coming up on the other side of the war that was AIDS (Larry Kramer), and my deeper acceptance of myself as my own man (Son of Drakula). Tawny has become my way of discovering a newfound sense of happiness and freedom that I totally share with anyone and everyone who's traveled a tumultuous journey. Indeed, Tawny's about the celebration of our collective survival.
Hess: I know Tawny as an astonishing creation, but when I tell friends to go see the show, they say, "Oh, it's a drag show. What does she do?" What would you say to them?
Drake: Like Justin Bond's Kiki, Tawny's a raconteur. Being a classic cabaret show, her storytelling swirls out to include improved banter with the audience. Tawny's only interested in joy and laughter -- and of course singing and dancing! With her piano player in tow (the amazingly talented Lance Cruce), Tawny's presentation has an old-school quality, too. Armistead Maupin saw her in action this summer in Provincetown and, I think, put it beautifully: "Tawny is an utterly original creation, a free-form madwoman who doesn't do 'jokes' but dares to engage her audience on the strength of her rambling mind and tender, broken heart." Ultimately, Tawny's intention is a personal quest to try to make sense of -- and pull us all together on -- this crazy, unknown rollicking journey called life, hence her motto: "Guessing is living!"
Hess: What has been the most self-revelatory aspect of the creation of this character and show?
Drake: Well, I've certainly rediscovered a deeper, childlike sense of wonder through her. Life is an adventure! Enjoy it! But also, Tawny has given me a greater understanding and appreciation of the power and pitfalls of what it's like to be a woman. Every time I doll up as Tawny -- blonde hair going everywhere, bare-legged (Tawny never wears pants) -- I gain insight into the navigations and negotiations they must make. It's been a fascinating journey into gender. Interestingly, it's also given me more comfort in my own skin as a man!
Hess: How are Tawny and Joey similar and different?
Drake: Well, since they're both showgirls, they're both out to dazzle a crowd with a song-and-dance and a splash of glamor. But where Joey was sassy slick, Tawny is much more raw. While she's definitely still a showbiz creature, Tawny isn't really about "making it" as a star; rather, she's about "living it" as a star -- 'cause as Tawny says, "Everyone's a star... to someone."
Hess: Will Tawny live on in a new show, or are you on to a new project?
Drake: I've got several ideas for future stage shows for Tawny, and a few TV and film ideas, too! Since I've started performing her this past year, Tawny's drawn a terrific audience mix: straight, gay, young and old. It's been astonishing to see how vast her appeal is. Culturally, it makes me see how we really are heading into the Age of Aquarius! As for myself, Tawny will rest this spring as I head to Boston to act in a super-cool adaptation of Fritz Lang's M by Ryan Landry at the Huntington Theatre Company. I'm playing Fritz! But as the sun also rises, so will Tawny.