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Performance Arts: a self-made man

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Performance artist Diane Torr didn't have time to change for the opening of the 1989 Whitney Biennial. Wearing a fake mustache and men's clothes, she had posed as a man for a magazine photo spread that afternoon. Torr had cross-dressed a few times onstage but not on the street. "I thought I would go as this guy and give all my friends a laugh," she says. But what happened next wasn't funny. "No one recognized me. I kept waving at friends, and they would just ignore me or walk away." She stayed incognito and "found a beer and a wall to lean against."

Soon a woman began flirting with Torr. "I just stood there, looking dumbfounded. It wasn't the kind of behavior women do to women, not heterosexual women." She walked away, but the woman followed. Torr's only means of escape was the men's room. "I thought, God, this just proves the adage, Treat them mean, keep them keen. It was at this moment I thought it could be really interesting for women to be able to find out something about their own behavior and also to see what it's like to go into the world as a man."

Since then, Torr's cultivated an expertise in portraying male stereotypes and shares it in workshops acround the country and Europe. Setting out to "bring cross-dressing into the mainstream, not ghettoized within the dyke community," Torr has her students supply their own set of men's clothes, hair gel, breast flatteners, and fake penises (she recommends tubular bandages). Makeup artist Johnny Grant constructs facial hair, while Torr tells women how to dress, sit, stand, and act like men--you know, looking "disinterested, arrogant, staring right through someone, and not to give too much."

In a flier for her Drag King Workshop, Torr writes that the male "alter-ego can be of untold value, as when showing your artwork to gallery owners and curators. Just learning the behavior is useful in career advancement, or even in something as simple as getting your full share of a seat on the subway." Torr will offer the workshop Saturday afternoon at Randolph Street Gallery. After mastering the basics, participants will take to the street to try out their new identities.

Torr's male characters are based on famous figures or men she's met. Her misogynist "Danny King," a fictional father of four and member of the NRA, evolved from a disastrous experience on the Jerry Springer Show, where she was joined by two of her students opposite a surprise guest claiming to be from a male separatist group. "He was talking about how women were taking over, taking men's jobs and guys better get in gear."

Torr discovered drag in her hometown of Aberdeen, Scotland, where her brother would dress like their mother on Halloween. "None of us thought that was at all queer. He just wasn't into being a spaceman." When Torr was 16, she found out he was gay. They later planned to cross dress as each other, but never did. Her brother died in 1992 of complications due to AIDS. To mourn his death and the deaths of other gay friends, Torr says she sometimes takes on the persona of a late friend who was a writer, reading his favorite books and frequenting his many haunts, from cafes to gay bars, "places that me, Diane, wouldn't go."

Before she simulated men, Torr stimulated them. Armed with a dance degree, she arrived in New York in the late 1970s, looking for parts in dance companies and on Broadway. Instead, she became a go-go dancer, using whips and rubber snakes in her act in New Jersey bars. "Doing this kind of work, you are considered the lowest of the low," Torr says, "but you can take on that aura of being a sex queen."

Torr recalls reading the work of feminist Andrea Dworkin on the bus ride to her job. She later attempted to unionize her coworkers, and in the early 1980s she spun those experiences into a performance piece, Go-Go Girls Seize Control. Torr currently works with PONY, a New York prostitutes' advocacy group, and plans to travel with its members to Beijing this summer for the United Nations' World Conference on Women.

Torr's toughest critic is her 11-year-old daughter, Martina, who recently refused to let Torr perform in drag at a parent/faculty meeting. "When she dresses up like a man, I think she looks so much like my mom." Martina, an aspiring basketball star, says she would never dress up as a boy, "not even once, no matter what."

The Drag King Workshop (for women only) is held this Saturday from noon to 5 PM at Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee. The workshop costs $60. Torr will then perform and screen short films at the gallery at 9 PM; tickets are $10, $6 for students and seniors. Call 666-7737 for reservations. Torr will talk about her work at 6 PM Monday in the auditorium of the School of the Art Institute, Columbus and Jackson; admission is $3, free for students and seniors. Call 443-3711 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Mark Morelli.

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