On Saturday May 11, 1996, a group of women met at the greenroom in Manchester to embark on a new and exciting experience. They were about to become men.
The change, however, was only to be a temporary one, achieved via clothing, make-up and training, and was part of a workshop (the first of its kind in Manchester) delivered by performance artist Diane Torr as part of the 1996 It’s Queer Up North Festival. Selected materials from the festival are stored at the Greater Manchester County Record Office, and these include letters exchanged between Diane and the festival organisers, plus background information on past performances and workshops.
Diane Torr is world famous for her performances, lectures and workshops on the subject of male impersonation. Her work is now being showcased in the film Man For A Day, named after the title of her popular workshop. Attached to the file I found at the Greater Manchester County Record Office was the image below, of Torr in drag:
This is Hamish McAllister, one of Torr’s many male alter egos – a shipping clerk and Robert Burns fan from Dumfries. Some of her other characters include Danny King, a macho middle management man, and Jack Sprat, a middle aged cockney and ex-mod – all of whom are mentioned in the archive materials. Also included is the biography below, which describes her work in more detail:
Above: Torr’s biography from the archive collection (source)
As a volunteer for Archives+ I often find myself writing about individuals and groups who are no longer alive, so it feels strange to be discussing material that is a) relatively recent and b) about a living person. I contacted Diane, and she kindly took the time to respond to my questions. I began by asking her about her visit to Manchester.
She remembers that her workshop was the first of its kind in the city, and that it was enthusiastically received. Several participants, having heard of her work, even considered visiting New York in order to take part in one of the workshops. Luckily for them, Diane was able to come here, to Manchester, where she stayed in The Princess Hotel. Below is an advert for one of her workshops:
Above: Example of publicity material for the Drag King Workshop (source)
The drag king workshop, which Torr has delivered all over the world to rave reviews, sounds fascinating. The premise is outlined below in her proposal for the It’s Queer Up North Festival:
So far I’ve been unable to locate press coverage of the Manchester installment, but if you have a look at some of the articles on Diane Torr’s website, you can get a sense of what the workshop might have been like. She was interviewed in New York shortly before travelling to Manchester in 1996, and you can view a copy of the article here.
After reading the materials in the archive, and a variety of articles online, I asked Diane how she felt about the archiving of her work, both in Manchester and more generally.
I appreciate that my work is archived in the Manchester archives. It is also archived in other places like the New York Performing Arts Library, The British Library, Bildwechsel, Hamburg, Schwules Museum, Berlin.
In terms of the fact that my workshop was not documented by IQUN, this is normal. I don’t expect anything from festivals in the way of documentation. Sometimes a festival will video a performance, but I was teaching a workshop and I have a responsibility to the participants to maintain a confidence. In fact, as I recall, a couple of the participants took the workshop because they thought they were trans. This is very intimate information and I am aware of the need for privacy.
The lack of documentation concerning the workshop now makes perfect sense, and Diane raises an important point about archiving, research and the potential intrusiveness of both processes. Her responsibility towards those she works with, is mirrored in the work of archivists and researchers, who also have a duty to treat the information entrusted to them with sensitivity and care.
I also asked her how she archived her own work:
I have extensive records of press clippings from workshops I have taught and presented performances in venues from around the world.
I also have notes on workshops and feedback from participants who have taken the MAN FOR A DAY workshop through the years. I want to work on a new book which will incorporate a lot of this material.
I keep everything. I have digitised documentation of the performances I’ve done from the 80s onwards. I have press clippings, photographs, interviews, and so on. The MAN FOR A DAY feature film has certainly given me a public airing, and while it mainly focuses on one area of my work, I feel that it’s very well thought out by the filmmaker, Katarina Peters and a good representation of my work in gender. I am fortunate to have such a film made about me in my life time. Most artists don’t get a feature film until they are no longer on the planet (if then).
You can view the trailer for the film here.
Through her answers, Diane provided me with a fascinating insight into her own biography and training, which explains why and how she began to explore cross dressing and the performance of gender. She describes herself as an artist and performer, and initially studied Theatre and Fine Art at Dartington College of Arts, before graduating in 1976.
At Dartington, dance was the area that particularly stimulated me. Mary Fulkerson introduced Release Technique to the UK dance community. Mary also brought in several innovative American dance-makers such as Steve Paxton, Nancy Topf, Albert Reid and Valda Setterfield. There was a buzz of excitement around the dance department. We all knew that we were part of something new and that would make dance history.
Sadly, Mary Fulkerson’s period of heading the Dance Department at Dartington and the Dance Festival she produced there every year have barely been acknowledged by the UK dance historians. However, her influence continues and I can see that dance in the UK has benefited enormously from her endeavours
Diane’s background in dance was evidently crucial in her development as an artist, her account reveals not only this, but also details about other histories, including those of dance (above), feminism, and life as an artist in New York during the late 1970s (below):
During the hot summer of 1976, I worked as a gardener at Dartington Hall Gardens, and in September of that year, I moved to New York. I had very little money but I did have a J1 Visa that allowed me to be a student at the Merce Cunningham Studios for a year and I was able to extend it for another year.
It was an inspiring time to be in downtown Manhattan, but it was also a dangerous time, as there was very little law and order (hard to imagine given the way the city is now) and it was a bit like being in an outlaw city. I had to learn how to take care of myself so I didn’t get mugged or attacked, and I wasn’t unusual in this. All the artist friends and dancers I knew were also at risk on a daily basis. I began my studies in the Japanese Martial Art of Aikido at New York Aikikai in 1977, partly because I wanted to learn how to defend myself.
Survival in New York was very difficult, as I had no bursary or grant and no green card, so I had to find a way to make money under the table.
This depiction of New York is certainly illuminating, and Diane endured significant challenges on her journey towards becoming the respected artist she is today. This tough environment seems to have prepared her well for the bold, challenging work she undertook as an artist. Indeed, she mentions her involvement with the UK women’s liberation movement and a continuation of this activism in New York, which included working for a feminist magazine and the ideas she explored as a performance artist:
I created a performance with another friend which was a parody of pornography. We were dressed as men and played with a blow-up doll while reading passages from some very corny magazines.
New York at this time was a hotbed for artistic talent, and Diane’s peers included a number of artists who, like her, have since become famous (e.g. Kiki Smith, Nan Goldin, Tom Otterness, Keith Haring). Her recent book, co-written with Manchester University academic Stephen Bottoms, is called Sex, Drag and Male Roles: Investigating Gender as Performance (2010) and goes into more detail about her development of the drag king concept, which she later brought to Manchester:
Basically, when I pioneered the idea of “drag king”, my idea was that I was facilitating a transformation – that in creating a new persona, as a man, women could learn a lot about themselves as women.
However, the idea of “drag king” came to mean women wearing men’s facial hair, binding their breasts and giving themselves a funny, and often lewd male name.
Many then performed songs in groups, impersonating boy bands like Take That. That’s fine. I’ve participated in Drag King performances on stage myself. It’s just not what I am doing in the workshop.
The idea of a drag king is therefore a term which seems to have changed over time – and is now appropriated by many, in a variety of ways. Certainly, Manchester is now home to a number of drag kings and drag king groups, and Diane’s visit in 1996 was likely an inspiration for many. Her work raises broader questions about gender and sexuality – as constructed ideas which, via increased understanding and exploration, can potentially offer opportunities for empowerment. And this applies to both women and men.
I began this research with a handful of old photocopied documents and a great number of questions. It is fortunate that I was able contact the artist herself, in order to find out more. The subsequent email exchanges made me realise how important conversations are in the interpretation of archive materials. Such materials are never absolute, but gain currency and relevance in how they are shared, defined and added to. I like to hope that conversations such as this one might continue in years to come.
Finally, I’d like to end by saying thank you to Diane Torr, whose contributions have made this a much more interesting and engaging post.