The first time I spoke with Russell Barr the sweet lilt and amble of his voice was freckled by the crackling interference of our long-distance connection. He covered the receiver to shout “Ooh, shut up, Judy!” at someone whingeing in the background. “Sorry, ma dear,” he demurred, returning his attention. Wow, I thought to myself, a real live Scottish drag queen.
I was wrong. Barr, who grew up in Glasgow and now resides in London, does not make his living performing at gay bars in jumbo jewelry and two inches of foundation. He adopts the drag queen persona, however, when playing Bernice Hindley, the protagonist of his runaway hit play Sisters, Such Devoted Sisters.
The title calls up the sugary tones of Irving Berlin’s musical White Christmas, which Barr’s play cribs its title from. But again, we’d be wrong to assume that Sisters had a soft spot for either musicals or the upright moralism they inhabit.
Sisters is a dirty, dark thing-a coming of age story rife with exploding pigeons and forays into a life of crime. But it’s also about finding your identity in a harsh environment (and learning how to kiss).
For Barr, the darker elements of life-including the travails of lonely drag queens in alcohol-stained frocks-are all connected to a lighter, comic understanding. Through comedy, which colours his play as much as tragedy does, he might relieve some of that pain. “I see lots of comedy in pain and tragedy,” he says. “I have a very dark sense of humour. People dying was always very funny in my family.” Like family members dying? “Sure.”
Barr’s notion that humour is a worthwhile mediator of pain seems to have inspired a winning drama. Audiences and critics have granted Sisters a warmer reception than Barr had hoped for.
And although Barr isn’t a drag queen himself, the harsh realities that make up Sisters do derive from his lived experience. In his youth he spent time working at one of Glasgow’s few drag bars-now closed-where “there were a lot of punchups and violence.” Not, as we would expect, from homophobic aggressors, but “mostly from the gay clientele. It’s very different from [Vancouver].”
“It’s because Glasgow is a very violent place,” says Barr. “There’s a lot of drink, a lot of drunks. You can get away with a lot without getting the police involved. And there’s a big mafia in Glasgow.” Barr was a young man in search of his community when he first took up work at that drag bar. What he discovered instead was a harsh experience-one that, after gestating for years, inspired his current production.
The London-based theatre group Out of Joint (the outfit that developed the hit shocker Shopping & Fucking) picked up Sisters, Such Devoted Sisters after Barr had already written and developed the play on his own.
When Norman Armour, co-producer of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, saw Sisters in Edinburgh (and a second time in Glasgow) he approached Barr about contributing to this year’s lineup of edgy performance pieces. “He said ‘Will you come to Canada?’ I said ‘Yeah. Sure.'”
He’s nonchalant about crossing the ocean to drag it up in Vancouver (after a short run in Edmonton) but Barr was nervous about bringing his play home to Glasgow. Would his hometown reject his unseemly portrait? But those fears turned out to be unfounded. Glasgow audiences loved it and, of course “all the little references were understood.” At Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, Sisters went on to win the Carol Tambor award for best piece of theatre. New York audiences, says Barr, “were not very sophisticated; their sense of humour was very different.”
He has faith that Vancouverites will do better than New Yorkers on that score. It’s an outrageous claim-that Vancouver’s theatre-going public is more sophisticated than New York’s-but a little outrage doesn’t bother Barr.
“Something’s a bit off-kilter,” he says of his play’s attitude (and his own). “It’s a bit mad. All my work fucks around with the conventions of theatre.”
There’s no singing involved, so Barr’s drag queen isn’t typical. It’s not a drag performance at all, so Hedwig fans would do well to stifle any anticipation of a copycat play.
You can count on a similar dose of genre-fuck, however. Barr isn’t interested in proffering dandified stereotypes of queer life.
“What you’ll get,” says Barr, “is lots of messing around. It’s not really about drag at all. On the surface, it looks like that.” But Barr wants to go deeper. “I talk about the world of it.”