Hir Say: Interviewing Johnny Blazes
“NYC area Tweeps: @johnnyblazes show at WOW Cafe is MUST SEE. Johnny makes slapstick sexy and opera jazzy. Ze should be a regular on #MadTV.”
– Kate Bornstein, author of Gender Outlaw
Johnny Blazes is known for hir genre-bending, gender-blending, tongue-in-cheek performances. Ze draws from hir training in theater, dance and opera to create a graceful clowning style that incorporates drag, burlesque and circus arts to create works that defy categorization.
Johnny first made hir mark on Boston as the director and choreographer of The Madcap Rumpus Society’s “Mischief in the Machine,” a circus-theater performance set to the boisterous music of Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. The show made use of mask-work and combined non-verbal storytelling with poetry and music to tell a steampunk-inspired narrative. Johnny also founded and directed Oberlin College’s OCircus!, a 95-person student group with whom Johnny created five original shows. The final OCircus! show that ze directed was a small ensemble circus that drew upon vaudevillian traditions to create a dark and sexy narrative with a cabaret feel. The show wowed audiences in Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, New York, DC, Richmond, and Boston.
Johnny has collaborated with The ExtraTerrestrial Circus Experiment, The Theater Offensive, Big Moves, and is a touring performer with both The Tranny Roadshow and The Femme Show. Ze has performed in spaces ranging from Carnegie Hall in New York (as an aspiring young opera star) to the Fox Theater in Tucson (as part of The International Drag KingCommunity Extravaganza). Ze is a core cast member of the monthly variety show TraniWreck, and often contributes to other local shows such as Bent Wit Cabaret, Intro to Anatomy, Perestroika, and others.
Johnny’s current solo project, “wo(n)man show” , makes full use of Johnny’s broad range of talents. This semi-narrative, evening-length performance uses drag, dance, theater, clowning, circus arts and classical voice to tell stories that are both personal and universal. “wo(n)man show” is a humorous look at the gender stereotypes that pervade our world, and the performativity of one person’s daily genders. “wo(n)man show” has played at venues and colleges throughout New England, and continues to tour the US throughout 2010.
GayRVA: Your performances seem to defy description. Can you sum up what we should expect?
Johnny Blazes: My show is an hour-long performance that weaves together theater, drag, dance, circus arts, clowning and classical voice to explore and explode gender stereotypes. Expect to laugh a lot.
A lot of labels have been attached to your work. Do you embrace these labels, reject them, or search for new labels that haven’t been invented yet?
All of the above! I engage with labels for my work when it’s possible to list any and all that apply—such as above. But when someone calls me just a “drag king” or a “burlesque dancer,” it chafes a bit, since I think those labels on their own give the listener the wrong impression of what I do. The trickiest label is “clown.” I consider what I do “clowning,” even when it also involves drag or lip synch or opera, because I’m using physical theater for comedic effect, but I fear that when I say “I’m a clown,” people listening envision whiteface and a red nose. The label I like to use most is “vaudevillian.” It’s not a new term, but its one that hasn’t quite returned to being en vogue yet, so it still needs to be followed by the laundry list of skills when I use it.
Do you feel that gender is itself performative in nature? Do those outside the binary man/woman become natural performers since they must adapt to the world?
Of course gender is performative! But I can’t take credit for that idea—for anyone new to the conversation; check out the works of Judith Butler. Or Ru Paul, for that matter. She famously said, “Honey, you’re born naked. Everything else is drag.” We all perform our genders every day—it’s simply a question of whether we are aware of it. A young female person, raised as a girl, must adapt to the world. She has to learn how to sit, how to walk, how to speak aloud—how to perform femininity. Even though most of the time this process is completely unconscious, it is still a process of adaptation. People who refuse to be labeled as “man” or “woman” face different challenges in the ways they must adapt, but those ways are no more or less performative—but it’s more likely that they are aware of the performative nature of gender. But being aware of gender’s performativity doesn’t necessarily mean hamming it up! I think most of the genderqueer people I know are simply moving through the world as themselves, just trying to express themselves in ways that feel natural, which in a way is kind of the opposite of being a performer.
Can you explain non-gender specific pronouns? “Ze,” “hir,” etc. Are many people using them today?
People all over are coming up with pronouns that are outside of the binary of he/she with which to refer to themselves. Some people use ze, some use zhe, or they, or tey, or ey, or thon—look up “gender neutral pronouns” on Wikipedia and you’ll see the plethora that exist. Some people ask their friends and colleagues to call them by alternating pronouns—he in one sentence, hers in the next. I use ze/hir because he/she/him/her feel strange when I hear them in reference to myself. Ze is the subject pronoun, as in “Ze went to the store” and hir (pronounced “here”) is the direct and indirect object and possessive pronoun, as in “I gave hir back hir favorite pair of glittery boots.” Try saying those sentences with male pronouns, and it’ll make better sense!
Truthfully, I have no idea how many people are using gender neutral pronouns. I wish the Census would do a survey so we could find out! When I do workshops with transgender activist groups at colleges, we go around the circle and everyone has a different pronoun. But that’s a pretty small subset, in the grand scheme of things. Hopefully more and more people will at least have heard of gender neutral pronouns, so that we can start incorporating them into our collective language more easily.
How many different shows do you offer?
Right now I offer the one full-length show, “wo(n)man show”, and I have a vast repertoire of shorter pieces that I bring to college drag balls, local cabaret shows, and tour with groups such as The Tranny Roadshow and The Femme Show. I often pair my touring with workshops, on topics ranging from drag performance to hula hooping to incorporating object manipulation into monologues. This year I’m looking to move more into longer residencies, getting myself set up at a college or university for a week or so and creating collaborative work with students.
How’s the reception from your audiences?
My audiences tend to be pretty self-selecting: mostly people from the LGBTQ communities—and they love the show! I get people of all generations and genders coming up to me after the show and telling me how they had a similar experience to one of my hair cutting stories, or how they loved the reference to the character Cherubino, and so on. I’ve even had some straight people say they enjoyed the show! It’s not a show that you have to be queer to appreciate; the clowning aspects have a very universal appeal, and the stereotypes are ones we all face every day, regardless of our orientation or gender presentation.
How are you received by the straight world?
Like I said, most of my audience is queer, but when I do get straight people in the audience, once they get past the first discomfort of realizing that I am indeed lip-synching and looking them in the eye, they enjoy the show as much as everyone else in the audience. The topics of the show are very accessible, and actually have nothing to do with sexual orientation—it’s much more about how the world chooses to place genders on other people, which is an experience that everyone has, whether or not they are aware of it. I think my show would even have greater impact if more straight people came to see it, since I think people in the LGBTQ communities are more likely to have already been forced to confront and become consciously aware of gender stereotyping in their daily lives. But, because of where and with whom I book the show, I just don’t tend to get that many straight people out to my shows,
When did your own journey start?
As a performer, or as a genderqueer transperson? I’ve been performing from the time I could talk—my parents used to be treated to dinner theater nightly by their 3-year-old diva—and I picked up the various arts, both classical and cabaret, all along the way from kindergarten through the present. It was after college that I decided that I would be more comfortable being referred to by gender-neutral pronouns and that I identify as trans, but how does one really pinpoint where that journey started? Did it start with my first short haircut at age 5? Or when I was a teenager and paired my shaved head with steel-toed Doc Marten’s and a pink frilly dress? This is essentially the central question of my show: how do we arrive at our daily genders?
Do you have any influences? If so, who?
First and foremost Bill Irwin. Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Fred and Ginger, Harpo Marx. Kate Bornstein, Les Feinberg. Joey Arias. And my best friend and collaborator, Madge of Honor, who watches and critiques all of my stuff for me, and always asks just the right questions to get me to think about what I’m really trying to say.
Do you have advice for beginning performers?
Create a community for yourself where you can get artistic feedback on your work. So many performers—especially drag, burlesque and other “fringe” performers—don’t develop a method for critique and self-improvement, and so their work improves very slowly. It is so incredibly valuable to have other people tell you what they saw in your work, what worked and what was confusing. To that same end, I recommend videotaping oneself as much as possible. Our bodies never quite look the same from the outside as what we think they look like from the inside! When you can create a culture of feedback around your work and in your artistic community, not only do you become a better technician at whatever it is you do, but you also become a more responsible performer, inciting people to really think about your work and create dialog around it, which is what ultimately leads to real social change.
“Johnny Blazes Wo(n)man Show… Live from NY” will be performed at the Gay Community Center of Richmond on Wednesday, May 5 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $10 and will be available at the door. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. A cash bar will be available.
John Porter is a self-confessed theatre geek, former stand up comedian, writer, director, story teller, and general bon vivant. You can read more at Mondo Johhny.
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