Lead from ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ reflects on how the show resonates with genderqueer community

Actor discusses the different reactions to the show in small and large cities

Graham Haught/Staff

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Coming to the Orpheum Theater in August, the Broadway spectacle “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” follows three drag performers driving a bus through the Australian Outback to a gig in Alice Springs. Wade McCollum plays Tick — known onstage as Mitzi — the lead character who has secretly arranged the trip so he can meet the 6-year-old son he has never seen. Tick is in a sense “double-closeted,” as he attempts to conceal his secret family from his friends while hiding his drag persona from his son. McCollum spoke to The Daily Californian about his take on the character and how the show resonates with the genderqueer community.

On the changes he has seen in the queer arts community over the years of his career:
I think that “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has had a lot to do with raising visibility and giving people a window into the craft … that drag and genderqueer art forms are not just about shock value … and that they’re not about being unprofessional, that this shit takes a lot of work. And it’s an incredible craft; it should be respected. I would say that, absolutely, the genderqueer material that I’ve performed throughout the years just gets more and more attention, it becomes less of a “let’s do this in the 100-seat theatre in the back where only a few people can witness the glory,” and it’s become much more of a main-stage thing.

On his character, Tick:
What appeals to me about Tick is that very complexity that makes him confusing to both himself and the people around him. I love ambiguity, and I love that his gender expression and his sexuality are somewhat independent from one another and somewhat mutually exclusive. I looked at his drag name that he chose for himself, “Mitzi Mitosis.” Mitosis is part of the biological process of cell division — it’s very much about being divided and a part of a creative process, and so I felt like it was a clue for me into this man who is naming his most powerful person — Mitzi is his most powerful and alive version of himself — but he names that person “mitosis,” which is about division. To me, that was a clue into the fact that he, in a way, for himself, is claiming his divided nature in that he is a kind of double-closeted, queer queer who is not really out to anybody about many aspects of his life, and that’s what’s interesting to watch.

On the show’s theme of belonging:
I believe that most everybody on one level or another feels out of place, and I don’t know if that’s just a transpersonal trope of the human experience, if there’s a sense of isolation or alone-ness or not fitting in-ness that is underneath all of the layers of our personality. I would argue that even the most heteronormative, rich, white man, who has had next to no external prejudices in his past, that on some fundamental level, he still feels out of place and that this show and its affirmation of belonging speaks directly to that transpersonal gem of isolation or whatever it is that exists even in him. You could say that that heteronormative white man could think, “Oh, there is value to these people more than just kitsch or kind of novelty.” We (the queer community) are incredible, powerful catalyzers of change and catalyzers of evolution. I don’t know if our show is necessarily going that far, but I go that far to say that genderqueer people are catalyzers of human evolution.

On the different responses to the show in larger and smaller cities:
I would say that in some markets, like in L.A., San Francisco, Philadelphia, some of the larger cities we’ve played, my character’s fear of coming out to his friends and his family as a bisexual genderqueer person and the anxiety around his son not accepting him feels a little dated. In the larger markets, it feels a little like, “What’s the deal, dude? Ain’t nobody gonna give a shit!” And that is a really awesome thing. It feels like, “Okay, we’ve made progress.” That to me is beautiful. It’s presumptuous of me, and I’m probably projecting on some level to assume that I understand how audiences relate to the material. I would say that what is incredible is in the smaller markets, we get a more apprehensive response at first. During the first act, I feel a tentativeness, where the audience is feeling each other out like, “Do you like this? If I laugh, does it mean that everybody’s gonna think I’m gay? If I enjoy myself, does it mean that I’m aligning myself with this material?” But by the end of the play, the response in the smaller markets is of epic proportions, and I think it’s because they have transcended their expectations of the material and of the people and … they feel like they got to know them and … they realize, “Holy fucking shit, we’re all virtually the same.”

Meadhbh McGrath is the arts editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Check her out on Twitter at @MeadhbhMcGrath.