Here I am searching for the pictures of me as Dr Watson in The Garage’s 1999 production of Sherlock Holmes and all of the sudden I stumble upon a few old school reports. They consistently echoed the same rhetoric: “Hannah is a bright child with a lot of potential, but if only she could stop herself from being distracted and work on her spelling.”
Cut to adulthood and we discovered I have dyslexia and could potentially have a hyperactive / attention disorder. For children like myself, the school structure can be stressful and difficult and any additional educational needs or support are portrayed as “difficult behaviour”.
More than 20 years ago I enrolled in The Garage‘s Saturday program, which gave me a safe haven where I could channel my energy, explore my creativity and got praised rather than reprimanded for my need to express and discover. Looking back on my hyperactive adolescence and this performance pictured above – in which I was entrusted with one of the leading roles – it helped me vastly at a young age.
Throughout my childhood I was constantly performing. Looking back over my roles, I always seemed to prefer to play the male parts. This was for two reasons. One, they were normally better written – I wasn’t destined to be anyone’s damsel. Two, I loved exploring the otherness that came with cross-dressing.
At university I lost my passion for performance through a rather binary course, but I found my passion again when I discovered London’s queer scene after graduation. Drag and queer cabaret for me is somewhere we explore modern gender expectations and unpick binary limitations society has placed on us.
The rebellious anarchy, high camp and glam of it all reminded me of another scene I was immersed in, the alternative / rock scene. Hence my drag persona Harley D was born – a high-glam, camp, ludicrous, big-haired, big-shoed, metal punk, riotous drag king. Yet again, performance became something I could channel my creativity and energy into.
Right now drag is having a cultural “moment” and is more in the forefront of society’s consciousness. But let’s not forget, it has always been part of our collective culture. Shakespeare was not one to veer away from male impersonation. Merchant of Venice (Rosalind), As You Like It (Portia) and a Twelfth Night (Viola) all have female characters “kinging” it up. The convention of the time was, of course, that only an all-male cast could perform in his plays.
This gender discrimination in the Elizabethan era baffled me, that only men could be valued as performers but also that women were banned from being on stage even if the character was female. Following the timeline of performance, it baffles me more so that RuPaul of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame seems to hold these arbitrary 16th Century values now.
In a 2018 Guardian article RuPaul said: “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.”
Ru has done a lot for bringing queer arts into the mainstream, but that doesn’t mean we can’t question his problematic elements. After all, whats more punk rock than a woman taking on masculinity; performing it on a stage she was once banned from, in a country where the patriarchy still rules, violence against women is rife and the gender pay gap still exists?
To me that’s a pretty big f-you to male-dominated culture. Take it up a notch from there and now we have an influx of artists outside of the binary divides of “male” and “female” talking performance to an exceptional level, where they completely explode the societal constructs of what gender is and act as a voice for those who are transgender, non-binary, intersex, gender-queer and other parts of the gender spectrum.
It’s confusing to have an art that allows you expression and freedom you so need and appreciate but yet still puts restrictions on your capabilities and limits your reach to the general public. It’s for this reason, to coincide with the launch of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK that I curated Fever: As Not Seen On Drag Race, which is at The Garage on Friday, 27 September.
Fever began in 2018. Me and my fellow show curator Sarah were looking to bring a queer cabaret to Norwich with the level of polish, representation and talent I found on the London scene. I couldn’t help but feel what a creative space like that would have done for myself as a young queer kid in a rural community.
While we were researching venues our friend Mike Baxter, co-owner of Gonzo’s Tea Room, said he’d been considering doing a drag night so we joined forces. I knew my performance experience wasn’t polished enough to host so I asked my dear friend – cabaret star and producer of the acclaimed Queefy – Rhys’s Pieces to host the night. We bundled a gaggle of cabaret friends in our cars, bumbled from London down the A11 and performed on the tiniest – and carpeted – rickety stage to an ecstatic crowd. And so the city’s first and only queer cabaret was born.
Since then many under-represented people in the community reached out to us and our shoestring show turned into a respectable cabaret. Moving from Gonzo’s to Bermuda Bobs, Open and now The Garage, we’ve been highly reviewed and had multiple award-winning acts on our stage.
Fever is about promoting those people under-represented in mainstream media, with my company Black Shuck’s ethos being to champion the underdog.
Rhys’s Pieces is a versatile performer who combines rapping, performance art, dance and camp lip-syncs that never fail to steer the show perfectly. This show they are joined by Chiron Stamp, an incredible drag creature and live singer; Mr Wesley Dykes, a suave soul king; Max Beacher, a traditional circus contortionist performer, myself as Harley D, who’s just downright rock ‘n’ roll trouble and Oedipussi Rex, a real-life drag barbarian the likes of which you’ve never seen before.
This show seems so fitting to be the one that is my Garage homecoming. Twenty years after they helped me as an “outsider” youth; I’m returning with a troupe of “othered” performers to bring together a night that celebrates our differences rather than erasing them.
The Garage team has been the most amazing to work alongside, combined with the loyal audience of my home city who have given us unwavering support from the beginning. Thank you Norwich, you are a fine city – now lets get CAMP!
Harley D photo by Lea ‘Attentive