Entertainment » Theatre

Larry Daggett on Playing Trans Character Bernadette in 'Priscilla'

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Sep 22, 2016

The 1994 movie "The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert" takes its three male characters -- a trio of drag performers -- on a trip across the Australian outback, a dry and desolate stretch of land that the three travelers make fabulous.

The film is, among other things, a brilliant metaphor for how the LGBT community's struggle for full individual and family parity has often been a journey through legal and social wastelands. Even now -- more than two decades after the film become a surprise hit worldwide and entered the gay filmic lexicon -- LGBTs are the targets of unending, and often stunningly vicious, attacks.

But where others might fail, our community has been known to prevail -- and with style. That spirit is preserved in the stage musical based on the film, "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," which is slated for a run at the Shubert Center from Sept. 30 - Oct. 9, and it's by design that that spirit is illustrated with the use of pre-existing songs that would be at home on any gay jukebox. The musical's plot is familiar from the film: A drag performer who is also a gay father is called upon by his estranged wife to travel to a remote town in the desert to perform there.

But there's another reason for her to ask him to do this: The couple have a young son, and the boy wants to meet his dad. Tony sets out in the company of a younger friend called Adam -- who goes by the name Felicia -- and he also recruits a transsexual friend, Bernadette, who is in mourning for her recently-deceased husband.

The show comes to Boston thanks to Fiddlehead Theatre Company, which moved to the Shubert last spring and now launches an all-new season at the venue.

Joining EDGE to discuss the show is none other than theater all-arounder, and film and television veteran, Larry Daggett, who plays the heartbroken Bernadette, who is also a former showgirl. It's a journey of discovery, as Daggett tells EDGE, both for the three performers and for those they meet along the way.

EDGE: You've been in a number of big and beloved musicals, including 'Candide,' 'My Fair Lady,' 'Sweeney Todd,' 'Damn Yankees,' and another musical based on an acclaimed film, 'Sunset Boulevard,' among many, many others. Is it safe to say 'Priscilla' isn't quite like anything else out there?

[Laughter]

Larry Daggett: Yeah, I think that's fair to say. And correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this is the Boston premiere. I don't think the show has ever been seen here in Boston.

EDGE: So far as I know, yes, this is the first time 'Priscilla' will have been in Boston.

Larry Daggett: I'm not sure whether EDGE readers know this or not, but we're doing it at the lovely Shubert Theatre. I believe this is the first season that Fiddlehead has been at the Shubert, and we're very lucky to be here. It's a lovely space and I just wanted to say, whoever it is that got us into this space, God bless you -- it's wonderful.

EDGE: You raise an interesting point of history there. This is the first full season that Fiddlehead will have at the Shubert, but it's not their first production in that space. Fiddlehead closed out last season with 'Showboat,' and that was their first production at the Shubert.

Larry Daggett: You really have to take a hat off to Fiddlehead's artist directors, Meg Fofonoff and Stacey Stephens, for doing two such disparate productions. 'Showboat' was produced in 1927 originally, and then you're doing 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,' which on the surface -- and I say that again, on the surface -- sounds like you're talking about two completely different musicals in two completely different styles. But in the end they're really not, because in both cases they're really about inclusion, and about looking at someone else who may be -- well, in the case of 'Showboat,' a different color skin, and in the case of 'Priscilla,' someone who may have a different sexual or gender preference from your own, and learning to accept them and open your eyes and you mind and your heart to something that may be different from what you're used to.

As you may know, this story was based upon the film, which was released in 1994. I think most people know the plot of the story, which is about three female impersonators who, each for their own reasons, get on a bus named 'Priscilla' and travel from Sydney into the outback, which is the most unforgiving part of Australia. It's very dry and desolate, and they are on their way to a small town called Alice Springs to perform in [a] casino [there]. Each is on this journey for their own particular reasons. That's the plot, but the theme of the musical, just as in 'Show Boat,' is you have to look past the obvious -- look past the way somebody may look or dress. Or, in my case, I'm playing a character that is a transsexual, so she's actually had [gender reassignment] surgery. You have to look past that, and try to see the person beneath.

EDGE: Bernadette, your character, is, as you mention transsexual, which implies that she's transgender woman.

Larry Daggett: [Transsexual] is just what it was called in the '90s, but she's had the surgery so this is actually a woman now.

EDGE: And she has been married to a man who has recently died -- that's another point of interest.

Larry Daggett: Right. That's her reason for joining this journey. Her husband was only 25 years old when he died. Naturally she's upset about this. She could choose to stay at home and cry her eyes out or she could take up the offer from this friend of hers [to travel across the desert]. The more I play Bernadette, the more I love this woman because her thinking is, what have I got to lose? 'I'll never know unless I give it a go!' She says that many times throughout the show. And that's also the actor's credo when it comes to going to auditions: You'll never know unless you give it a go. That's how everybody in this company got cast: You get up and go to the audition and give it your best shot and hope for the best.

EDGE: Your comparison of this play to 'Showboat' is striking because in a sense 'Priscilla' comes from a time that's fairly similar in terms of societal attitudes. In 1994, there wasn't the same kind of visibility for gay and lesbians, or for trans people as there is now. There's quite a lot of education -- and debate -- going on in the U.S. around trans issues, and also marriage equality, so has the current cultural conversation informed your approach to the character?

Larry Daggett: Absolutely. I remember how in earlier days, back in the '90s, anybody who had any sort of sexual variance, or who even had, as in true this case, [gender reassignment] surgery, you sort of would say, 'That's odd, that's strange.' But the longer you get used to seeing something, the more you accept it. Look at our country and how long it has taken us to accept racial equality. You would think that so many years after the Civil War that would no longer be an issue. Now, we've gotten to a point where there's interracial marriage, so much so that I'm hoping in a couple hundred years there'll be no more racial problems because we'll all be one big blend, somewhere between white and black. We'll all be somewhere in the middle, and your race won't make any damn difference, and that's the way it should be.

In relation to what we're talking about in this particular show, with 'Priscilla,' the same thing is true. At first, whenever you have something new come into the public consciousness -- say, in this case, transgender -- people are going to say, 'I don't understand; that's weird, that's strange.' But if you're smart and informed, you have to try to look past the obvious. Love is love. It doesn't matter what form or shape it takes, when two people meet and fall in love, that's what really matters. It's what you see in that other person, that spark of the divine. I'm not a religious person, but that's what it boils down to.

As an actor, I have worked with a number of people who are on the wide range of sexual preference. I have worked with some men who were married with kids and have sworn to me, 'I had no idea that this could ever happen, but one day I met somebody -- another man -- and all of a sudden, my whole life changed.' I remember this one guy telling me -- we were doing a show at Arkansas Rep, and he said, 'Yeah, I had no idea; none at all, and then all of a sudden I realized this was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I told my wife and my kids, and they were very understanding.' He happened to be a bigwig in a software company so he transferred all his shares of stock to his wife and children so that would support them for the rest of their lives, and he moved in with this other man. He's been happily -- well, now he's married -- ever since. So you never know when or how it's gonna happen.

EDGE: What research and preparation did you undertake to play a trans woman?

Larry Daggett: I researched online what happens when you have the surgery, but you have to remember that what happens now and what happened in 1994, when [the movie was released], surgical procedures are more advanced now than they were then. When you're playing a role -- any role, it doesn't matter who it is; Bernadette in this case, but it doesn't matter if it's Jesus or if it's Hitler -- what you try to do is see the world from that person's point of view and then try to relate it to yourself as an actor.

I say: 'Is there anything about my person, my being, Larry Daggett, that I find so uncomfortable that I would have surgery [to correct it]?' And I would have to say that yes, there is; almost all of us feel insecure about something. Take that and multiply it by ten thousand, and [imagine yourself as] someone who was born a man and finally says, 'Okay, after years of this I am so uncomfortable that I can't live this way any longer; it goes against who I feel I really am.' And [this was] back in 1994, when the surgical techniques were not the greatest; 'I want to have surgery because I cannot continue as a man.'

When you look at it that way, I have such great respect for Bernadette, that she was able to go through with this. And in some cases -- it's true in this show, you'll see, one of the other drag queens, there are three of us on the bus -- is very upset about this. He is not happy that someone would have this surgery. I don't know why. You would have to ask that actor why.

[Laughter]

But I think it's a great act of courage on the part of Bernadette. There's no going back from this; I mean, you can't reattach. Once it's gone, it's gone!

EDGE: You're right, she is extremely courageous. And she's tough. You don't want to mess with her. She beats up a homophobe!

Larry Daggett: Yes. Remember, she's been a female impersonator for many years, and she had to put up with a lot of crap in her life. Although she has a heart of gold, if you cross her she will put the wall back up in your face. She won't put up with it, and she's learned that if you do put up with it, it only gets worse.

She's not someone you want to cross, but she's also someone you really can depend upon. When the going gets tough she'll be there for you. And that's true in the show. I was talking before about the whole thing of inclusion, when one person looks or sounds different from you or, in this case, has a different gender [identity]. But there's also -- and I think the script is clever about this -- among the three of us a story about inclusion, because two of the three of us do not get along at first. My character is from the older generation. And then there's the character of Adam/Felicia, who is from the younger generation. We two do not get along, but by the end of the story, as is seen throughout the show, we become a family. We learn to put up with people who, in this case, have a different point of view from our own.

EDGE: Do you have your own backstory you've invented to fill in the gaps for Bernadette and understand who she is?

Larry Daggett: Part of this is explained in the script. She was a headliner in a club called 'Les Girls,' which was a club back in the, probably in the '70s and '80s, long before she loses her husband. Everyone in the show was a man but they were all dressed as women; they did such a wonderful job that many members of the audience couldn't tell that they were men.

But as I mentioned earlier, when that show closed -- there's a line in the show where Bernadette says, 'I went down with the last curtain at "Les Girls."' That means she's not planning to continue as a performer. She's planning to give all that up to be married. But when her husband dies, she thinks, 'What am I going to do with my life now?' She's at a difficult point because she's reached an age when she can no longer compete with the younger generation, she's no longer performing, she's decided to settle down to a married life, and then suddenly her entire life is pulled out from underneath her.

But it turns out that going on the road is the best thing that she could have hoped for because in the course of the story she meets Bob, someone who she would normally never meet, in a very small town in the middle of Australia when the bus breaks down. He recognizes her from 'Les Girls.' He falls in love with her, and she falls in love with him. It looks like the kind of relationship that is not based solely upon physical attraction, but upon collaboration and love. That's why I think it's the kind of relationship that's going to last.

EDGE: Are you working with a dialect coach?

Larry Daggett: We have someone in the cast who is from Australia, so we're all working on our Australian dialects. I've done so many productions of 'My Fair Lady,' Lord almighty, and so many British dialects, but Australian is an ear bender, let's put it that way, and a tongue twister, because there are certain things that are very close to Cockney, but aren't.

I'm sure you know that some of Australia was colonized by the British with convicts that they exported from their prisons, so many of the English speaking people in Australia started out with a Cockney dialect. There's a definite influence of that in the dialect, but as is true with any kind of [cultural] separation over thousands of miles, there are going to be changes over time. There are certain words that are the same, certain words that are pronounced differently... it's one of those things that's going to take practice, practice, practice.

EDGE You were talking a minute ago about actors getting up, going out, and auditioning. Is that how you came to be involved in this production? You heard about the show and decided to try out for this show -- which, by the way, I understand to be your first appearance with Fiddlehead Theatre Company?

Larry Daggett: Yes, it is. And that's the way every person in the show was cast. There are twenty-six of us and to the best of my knowledge -- and I asked around, I said, 'How did you get involved in this?' and they all said the same thing, 'I just went to the audition.'

What Bernadette says, 'I'll never know unless I give it a go,' that's the actor's credo. You audition and audition and audition, sometimes hundreds of times before you land something. With time, there's a tendency to get frustrated and to want to say 'To hell with it; I'm just going to stay at home,' but you know that nothing's going to come of that. The only way you get forward in your career and in life -- and this is true certainly in this story as well -- is to put yourself out there and meet new people, rub elbows.

That's true of Bernadette, and of all three of the principles in the show. When you think about life, if we didn't meet people who are different from ourselves, we'd live and die the exact same person. We'd never grow, we would never change. It's rubbing elbows -- and sometimes more than just elbows -- with other people that are different from ourselves that makes us expand our horizons and our perceptions of what it is to be a human being.

As an actor you learn that there are characteristics -- like what kind of dialect you use, if you have a limp, etc. -- all those are characteristics, but that's not a person's character. Your character is how you act in certain situations. When the going gets tough how do you respond? Do you cave in or do you push forward? That is what makes a person -- that's your character. That's what Bernadette has. She may seem, on the outside, because she wears high heels and dresses, and has, I have to say this, pretensions of being a grande dame -- just because she has all that going for her doesn't mean she's not as tough a nails when she needs to be.

EDGE: So what drew you to this show and made you decide to audition? Did you say, 'You know, I've never played a trans woman,' or was it more that this is a musical and you've been in lots of musicals, so there was a familiarity there?

Larry Daggett: I'm a character actor, inside out and upside down. My joy is to always look at whoever it is that I'm playing and not judge them, and to try to say, 'How can I bring this person and this story to life to the best of my ability?' It drew me because it's a magnificent story, first of all.

I have to be honest: I think the musical is actually better than the film. I'm so sorry to those people who love the film! But I think [the musical] fleshes out the characters. It expands on their motivations, what makes them who they are. This is not just a jukebox musical. The songs are an illustration of what's going on in the story. The story comes first. It's the story of three female impersonators who, through the course of a journey that they never expected to take, cross a barren, desolate part of the country that they never thought they'd see, and in the process become bigger and better than who they originally were by meeting people who are different from themselves -- and also, on the bus, they grow just by having to work with each other. They're like the Three Musketeers; there's more than one reference to that in the story, 'All for one and one for all.' We have to band together if we're going to survive. And in the end it turns out better for all of them. It's like all challenges: most of us don't want to have to deal with challenges because they're hard work and they make us change who we are. But without challenges, we'd never grow as human beings.

EDGE: Looking over your bio, I almost had the feeling you do musicals exclusively when it comes to theater.

Larry Daggett: Oh, no, I've done many plays. The thing that most people don't realize, particularly with something like Shakespeare -- Shakespeare and musicals are so similar. As an actor you're taking verse and making it sing. You're taking words that are on the printed page and making them sound like you're saying them for the first time through the character's point of view.

When you look at it from the actor's perspective there's really very little difference between Shakespeare and musicals because with the Bard you've got iambic pentameter, you've got a rhythm there. The same thing is true when you perform songs in a show. You've got the rhythm -- it's written there on the sheet music. You pretty much have to stick to that rhythm, but it's how you inform the meaning behind the words, that's what tells the story. That's why people come to see shows. It's not -- I hope it's not -- just to hear pretty singing! It's to see, live in front of them, people dealing with challenges and how characters must adjust their perspectives in order to reach a goal that they would never normally achieve without that challenge. So, yes, I do plays; I musicals; I do whatever comes along. I'm an interpreter of material. That's my job.

I remember I was working at a regional theater once in Albany and the director there said something I thought so incisive. She said, 'Whenever I hire an actor, I try to hire musical theater actors, even for straight plays, because they are so disciplined.' And that is so true!

EDGE: In addition to theater, you also work in film, and you've just completed work on a film called 'First Impressions.' How has your film work colored your process when it comes to doing musicals like this, or 'Sunset Boulevard,' which are drawn from films?

Larry Daggett: With film, something that most people don't realize is that usually there's hardly any rehearsal. You show up the day of the filming and you've already prepared, on your own, what it is you want to do. Very often the director is only concerned with camera angles, lighting, and making sure the sound is recording correctly. Once in a blue moon you might get an acting note on a film set or TV set, but that's rare. Time is money, and there are a lot of people on a film set who get paid extra if you go into overtime. You've got to bang the stuff out as quickly as possible, particularly when working on TV. It's what I was saying before about being disciplined: It's your job to come in with the choices made.

But getting back to 'Priscilla,' I'm hoping that potential audience members will do exactly what the characters do in the show: Meet people who they normally wouldn't meet, put aside any preconceptions they may have as to how someone should look or dress or behave, and enjoy a ride on our bus named 'Priscilla.'

We'll be at the Shubert from September 30 through October 9 and I hope you'll come see us. As Bernadette would say, 'You'll never know unless you give it a go!'


For tickets and more information, please go to http://fiddleheadtheatre.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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