by Pamela Rogow
For her final project at Pace University in New York City two years ago, Wyndmoor resident Shannon Agnew, who will be performing the one-woman show, “If I Were a Drag Queen, I Would Be Famous,” in the Fringe Arts Festival next month, took on the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning show, “I Am My Own Wife.” Based on a true story, Doug Wright’s play is usually performed by a man, and one man only. The play is about someone who survived childhood under the Nazis and adult life under the secret police in East Germany, and was a male-to-female transsexual, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. It’s a “100% true story, and 90% based on interviews Doug Wright conducted in Germany over several years. The rest is poetic license.”
“Jefferson Mays was the original performer on Broadway,” Shannon explained, “so it’s generally thought to be a man’s role. But we learned that in one of the early read-throughs, they used a woman. My teacher at Pace [University] emailed Wright in Texas to let him know our plans, and we were thrilled to hear back from him, and to receive his encouragement for the gender switch here.
“It’s one actor, 37 characters … You talk to yourself. It takes tremendous physicality. And specificity has to be so on point, to make it work … an exhilarating thing to work on. I’m hoping to bring it to Philadelphia some time.”
Unless you consider Shannon’s childhood obsession, which was watching “The Wizard of Oz” endlessly and impersonating its characters, this play was her first exploration of the artful gender bender. Now 23, Shannon grew up in an artistic family with shows in their Wyndmoor backyard, puppets for playmates and sisters who joined in the fun, even if one eventually became an equine veterinarian and the other headed to politics. Their mother, Ginger Agnew, a longtime theater professional, will direct “If I Were a Drag Queen.”
“I had my first taste of the theater at Woodmere Museum in Chestnut Hill where I was in the children’s ensemble for a performance of ‘La Boheme,’” said Shannon. “I loved it, and by the time I was at Springfield Township High, I knew this is what I wanted to do, though I thought it would just be a vocation.”
She reveled in recounting her training at Pace. “The musical theater program is rigorous, but it allows you to find your niche and cultivate something about yourself. It’s not cookie-cutter training. It’s also about what you bring to the art.” And of course, the school is in New York City, the ultimate theater town.
Shannon recalled how college friends asked her to create their voicemail messages in the different characters they knew she could impersonate — Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, Patti LuPone, Liza Minnelli, Billie Holiday and others. “I’ve been impersonating since I was a little kid.” You should hear her Judy Garland!
Fast forward past professional work on a national tour and locally to last summer when she wrote a 30-minute show for a cabaret series. It had four characters she knew well from impersonating their singing styles and personae. “People loved it, so for the Fringe this year, I rewrote the show and gave it more technology, and now it’s nine characters like Barbra Streisand, Billie Holiday, Julie Andrews, Patti Lu Pone … ” And nine costume changes.
Shannon will debut “If I Were a Drag Queen” on Wednesday, Sept. 11 at the Society Hill Playhouse’s Red Room. “The show interpolates a lot of Broadway hits and standards … and also uses melodies of hit Broadway show tunes and lyrics, some with parody lyrics. It’s part ‘Forbidden Broadway’ and part ‘Legends,’ the Atlantic City show that features impersonations of celebrities.”
So why call up the Drag Queen in the title? “I saw a lot of drag theater and performance art in New York. I understand the art of drag. I love the exploration of femininity, the over-the-topness,” she said, “and last year I was hired by Quince Productions to sing at Gay Pride at Penn’s Landing, the openers for the closing of the Festival. I sang ‘We Kiss in the Shadow’ from ‘The King and I’ and ‘Lesbian Love Story.’ I had 100 people there who loved it, but I was followed by a drag queen performance. They looked fabulous, and they were lip synching! The drag queens gave diva realness, and Penn’s Landing filled right up! More than a thousand people streamed in! I thought, ‘If I Were a Drag Queen, I Would Be Famous!’”
Then the light bulb went off, in the way of all performers: “I know, I’ll do a show!”
And now, ladies and gents, come see it! Shannon’s fast-paced, one-woman cabaret-style “If I Were a Drag Queen” brings all the prime suspects you’d see in a drag show — parody, live performance, struts, costumes — but also live performance of song, original lyrics, standup comedy, video vignettes and interaction that you don’t see in drag shows. Look for impersonations of Broadway legends and parody of Broadway today.
According to the Pace University Press, Agnew’s performances have been described as, hilarious, remarkable, magical, “haunting, beautiful, chilling and real, delivered with a skill far beyond her years”
“If I Were A Drag Queen” will be performed at the Fringe Arts Festival on Sept 11, 12, 13 at 7 p.m.; Sept. 14 at 2 and 7 p.m.; and Sept 15 at 5 p.m. in the Red Room at Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. 8th St. For ticket information, email email@example.com, purchase tickets at the door (cash) or at livearts-fringe.org (Box office opens Aug. 29.)