Number 17, Dancing Queen!
Drag has evolved quite dramatically over the last decade. There was the surge of the drag king scene and there is also alternative drag otherwise known as 'alt/drag'. The poster boy for alt/drag is London’s Jonny Woo who’s on his way to Australia, and he’s got your number.
Jonathan Wooster was nicknamed ‘Jonny Woo’ by a friend when he was 16 and working at Woolworths. Contrary to rumour, he does not have any Chinese heritage.
Over a decade ago Woo moved from London to New York. He was looking to pursue a career as a dancer – he had trained at the London Contemporary Dance School. Prior to this he had also studied acting at the University Of Birmingham, but had decided against pursuing the latter for fear of spending the rest of his days playing bit parts in plays he didn’t like.
While in New York he became enchanted with the queer performance art scene and found that cabaret afforded him more creative freedom than dance or theatre.
“My career took its own route when I went to NYC,” Woo says, “[I] started hanging out with trannies and strippers and the freeform world of performance art became more rewarding and fitted better with my party lifestyle.”
“I started off making installations on 42nd Street after 9/11 and with a friend we would create short skits on a regular basis for a downtown burlesque night. I love the immediate creative satisfaction I get from making work for cabaret and the tangible dialogue you get with the audience which is missing in formal theatrical performance.”
Arriving back in London, Woo was now armed with a confidence that was fostered by New York comrades such as Justin Vivian Bond. Like generations of artists before him who had fled England (and Australia) to escape the obligatory British self-deprecation and overt modesty that can often stunt the creative spirit, Woo revelled in the boldness of New Yorkers and their attitude that it’s ok to call yourself an artist.
“I saw a fridge magnet in a friend’s apartment. It said 'You came to New York to be an artist, so be one.' It remains my mantra, even though 'You are 40, MAKE SOME MONEY' should be my current one,” Woo says.
“Whilst I love to entertain, I was part of a community [in New York] who also loved to provoke, disgust, attack. I loved the performance in all clubs. A disco and theatre all in one. It was the basis for the parties I threw when I returned [to London]. I left NYC because I did not want to become American.”
Back in London, Woo forged a new drag scene. The Alt/drag scene which as Woo says, was a term coined by Simone Baird from Time Out. The definition of Alt/drag is simple for Woo – “It basically [means] I perform in heels with a beard”. And while Woo identifies as gay, not as trans like Justin Vivian Bond, like Bond, Woo draws power from feminine energy.
“I find drag extremely empowering onstage as feminine energy is so strong. All my heroes are women,” Woo says.
For the past ten years Woo has been staging his wildly successful event, Gay Bingo, which is what he is bringing to Melbourne next month. The night started in the same “experimental vein” as did his first London parties.
His friend and current collaborator, Ma Butcher, asked Woo whether he would host a bingo night at a bar he was doing public relations for. Woo had never been to a bingo night let alone called a game, so Woo did what he does best and improvised.
“It was a blank canvas,” Woo says. “It was pretty loose and wild. I like it like that. So did the crowds.”
Australian audiences can expect much of the same.
“The night is pretty much an improvised happening slash show punctuated with ridiculous lip-synchs during which we inevitably strip.
“We play bingo usually at speed and you win very silly prizes. It's as much about the rapport between its three hosts. I used to do all the nonsense, now John Sizzle who has been the amazing DJ from the start joins me on the mic and Ma Butcher plays a totally bizarre, if superbly glamorous, straight man to mine and John's shenanigans.
“In Australia we are joined by super performer, A Man To Pet, who does gorgeous performances and is super sexy.”
And what of the notorious Gay Bingo ‘69er’?
“The 69 is a highlight where I invite, well drag, an audience member into the performance pit and try out the classic karma sutra position.”
Woo also flags that there may be a conga line and some 80's dance routines too.
“I know when it's a good night when no one has a clue what's going on, but everyone is willing to take the ride.
“No one plays bingo like we do.”
Gay Bingo - March 6, 7pm, Red Bennies, Level 1, 373 Chapel St, South Yarra, redbennies.com