When he really wants to feel like a man, Matt Miwa puts on a dress. The Aurora-born artist has been acting since graduating from the University of Ottawa seven years ago, including a stint with the National Arts Centre’s resident company. But when it comes to his own creations, he finds his voice best by channelling the voices of women.
“I’d prefer to be a boy my whole life, but when I need to feel like an adult, drag is my best outlet,” he laughs. “I associate performance with speaking to a community, and I’ve found if I want to speak wisely, it’s best to use the wisdom of women. In my mind, I need to be a grown-up person to do that, and my grown-up clothes just happen to be dresses.”
Often reinterpreting existing characters, he’s drawn to women in states of isolation (Amy Winehouse and Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie, from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, form part of his repertoire). His new piece sees him tackle Juliette Binoche’s unnamed role in Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s 2010 film Certified Copy. Melding performance with clips from the film, Miwa brings the character to life, speaking directly to the audience.
“I’m interested in the ways we find release,” he says. “We’re so stupid sometimes, and we don’t know how to let go of things and move on. The characters I connect with are usually at catharsis points where they are about to begin a transition.”
More gender-queer than full-on queen, Miwa’s performances meld masculine and feminine elements. Chest and leg hair are freely exposed, contrasting cascading wigs and high-camp makeup. His gender-flexible approach may be a small rebellion against his years as a competitive gymnast. The sport’s rigid divisions between sexes mean overly feminine flourishes by men are frowned upon.
“It’s often very homophobic, at least when I was doing it,” he says. “You’re expected to express masculinity in movement, which can be defined in very limiting ways.”
The pressure of performing often left him an emotional wreck, leading him to quit competing before university. But elements of the sport still pop up in his performances. Even in a dress, he’s not afraid to pull a handstand.
“It was my first introduction to performance and a huge part of my life for 10 years,” he says. “Performing now is a way for me to transform a lot of what I learned during that period and make it my own.”