Briefs, a recurring darling of the South Bank’s London Wonderground, opens next week with a new look. Led by the bearded beauty that is Fez Fa’anana and featuring star performer Captain Kidd (past winner of the King Of Burlesque title, as anointed by the world-renowned Burlesque Hall of Fame), the Australian all-male circus-comedy-drag extravaganza now includes James Welsby (above), a choreographer and performer working extensively in contemporary dance and cabaret.
He is already established down under where Gay News Network listed him as one of the of “25 LGBT People to Watch in 2015″. As well as bring the founder and director of the award-winning Phantom Limbs, he has produced his own drag cabaret show Yummy. He will be taking over the slot recently vacated by Dallas Dellaforce who has retired from the show.
How did you come to be a part of Briefs?
I’ve been moving in similar circles as Briefs for the last few years, and I got to know the boys through arts festival contexts. I was a company dancer for seven years, and have been working in cabaret (The Burlesque Hour) and drag (across Melbourne and Berlin) for the last three, so Briefs is a perfect fit. I died and came back to life when they asked me to work with them.
Drag has been through a sea-change over the last decade or so, especially thanks to shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. On the one hand, some would say that it has given drag a higher profile which has allowed queens to find space in the mainstream. Others point to the more alternative and less TV-friendly forms of drag being pushed to the margins. What’s your take?
I think the scope of drag has been blown wide open world-wide, and people have realised that drag, like queerness itself, is limitless. It can be as glamorous as it can be comic, or as other-worldly as familiar. I love RuPaul’s Drag Race so much, and I love alternative club drag too.
I think Drag Race has hosted some incredible avant garde queens as well as the gorgeous pageant girls. My personal faves have been Manila, Yara Sofia, Milk, Alaska, Pearl, Violet, and Kim Chi. They are all very visual. I adore every RuGirl though, and they’ve each brought something different and interesting.
I like how alternative drag can abandon conventions (like tucking or ‘realness’), and can put a spin on audience expectations. Those performers play by their own rules, and don’t try to fit in, they try and stand out. My favourite club queens are Benjamin Hancock, James Andrews, Karen From Finance, Hungry, Mikey Woodbridge, and Betty Grumble. They’re all extremely visual too, and slay in the performance department. But there’s really too many to name – how much time do you have?
“We’re all in the margins – some just more than others.”
Probably not as long as you’ll need! Where do you see drag fitting into the wider world of entertainment?
Drag has always had a place in pop culture, especially throughout theatre history. Shakespeare, pantomime, musicals, late night entertainment. Drag has always been there – maybe the difference now is that drag is not relegated to comedy and pastiche. It’s found it’s feet in the art and fashion world, and people use drag to deliver design ideas and performance skills, while simultaneously breaking gender expectations.
I don’t think I’d say drag has fallen into mainstream pop culture though. Even if there is a wider audience for it, it’s a subversive art form and thrives the best in queer spaces. I still feel unsafe walking down the street in drag sometimes, because when fucking with gender norms, the world may still respond with violence. That’s our reality as queer entertainers. We’re all in the margins – some just more than others.
We loved the look of Yummy from what we saw in the trailer. How did that show come about and will it come to the UK at any point?
Yummy is my drag cabaret that I was working on before I joined Briefs. I’ve done seasons of it in Melbourne and Berlin. It’s an incredible mix of performers who pack a punch and bring something super colourful and edgy to the stage. It’s an inclusive mix of various drag and allied artists, and it’s really so damn fun. Right now I’m focusing on Briefs, and loving every minute of it, but perhaps Yummy will shine in the future.
Looking at your videos, it seems that you are a very physical performer. Would you say that was reflected in your current work for Briefs? For those who have seen only your predecessor, how would you say you differed as a performer?
I studied at The Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), specialising in contemporary dance, so that influences my work. I also do voguing and tap, so that has a presence too. Those skills are definitely reflected in my current acts with Briefs.
Dallas Dellaforce is a legendary queen, and one of my personal faves! We decided to go in a different direction with my presence in the show and focus on a different look and feel. Dallas channels the likes of Thierry Mugler, and I channel the likes of Gareth Pugh. It’s fierce in a different way.
Finally, are there any British drag queens you’re looking forward to seeing while you’re over here?
I saw Myra DuBois recently in Edinburgh – I love British queens so much, they always bring it! Manchester queens have been serving some seriously incredible looks, and the Sink the Pink crowd obviously have the best fun ever. I want to meet every Soho and East London Queen I can. Come at me Brits!
Briefs officially opens on 13 September with previews running from 6 September. Tickets are £17.00 (including £1 online booking fee) and can be bought from the official London Wonderground website.