How it’s New York: At the Irish Arts Center in New York
How it’s Irish: Comedy sensation and Irish National Treasure Drag Queen Panti Bliss
In the wake of the success of the recent Marriage Equality Referndum in Ireland, the notoriously funny Panti Bliss brought her hit One-Woman show to the Irish Arts Center for a sold out one-week run.
For those unaware of the power of the story of Panti, the alter ego of club owner and theatrical gender discombobulist Rory O’Neill, she came to prominence in early 2014 after a controversial interview on Irish television which created a national furor over comments Rory made about homophobia.
Follwing the subsequent media storm and legal headaches, Panti took to the stage of the Abbey Theatre and gave a riveting speech that went viral on YouTube:
Following on the tales from her best selling book of the same name, the show ran the gamut of stories of her amazing rise over the past two years to being, as she says “A National F’ing Treasure”. A ribald romp through the colorful and hilarious life of a drag performer.
Filled with stories from her travels, and cautionary tales from her everyday life as Rory O’Neill. Hysterically funny, camp and definitely irish takes on the reactions of people carried along in the wake of her newfound fame. She touched on stories of unintentionally outing childhood friends, to how reactions to her family have changed in her hometown with her newfound acceptance.
One particularly hilarious piece involved a story of Rory attending a funeral for a friend where Madonna was expected to attend. The expectations grew and were generously rewarded with the eventual appearance of the Material Girl, complete with saucy commentary on her surroundings, and Rory and his friends ending up in a private party with her at the wake. Having left following the ceremony, as “gays don’t like the hole in the ground bit”, he found a kindred spirit in Madonna who didn’t like that part either and they bonded. So great was his comfort level with her, that he went into total “Irish Mammy” mode, convincing her to have her driver take her to the airport and then deliver one of his party back to his hotel in Dublin afterwards. A testament to the persuasive power of Rory’s spirit and Panti’s bravado coming together.
The audience were not left to their own devices totally, as Rory roamed among us, calling out each sector of the LGBT contingent their, and in true Drag Queen form, reading them on their communal short comings. Probably one of the more fun segments of the evening.
But what was most amazing was the general glow that the entire show basked in from the amazing work done by Panti and thousands of others in Ireland to bring about the historic Marriage Equality vote, and I was lucky enough to have a chance to sit down and chat with Rory about the experience and the process of bringing this show together:
AF: You’ve told us how Panti feels about all you’ve been through in the past two years, but how does Rory feel?
Panti: It is a little odd, my own feel is not taking me too seriously. I’m an entertainer first, and I have to think a little more carefully about what I want to say, because people can be so much more easily upset now by the things I say.
AF: You probably check yourself more now than you did before!
Panti: Well I’ve made a conscious effort and decision not to, because I think if you do that too much, especially in comedy, you kill it. You can’t overthink it too much. So I just continue to do the things I used to do, but every now and then I have to stop myself and say “Can Panti say that?” and I say “yes, she can”.
AF: I love the whole construction of the piece and how it lends itself to wherever you happen to be so that you can plug in local sites and cultural references to reach a specific audience.
Panti: The show is very modular, and we often change it as we go along, for our own interest’s sake. Or in the unscripted parts where I may stumble onto something, we may say “that’s good, let’s put that into the show”. I was actually saying to Grace who was videotaping tonight when she asked if I wanted a copy of it, I said “that’s alright, we’ve filmed it loads of times” then I realized this show is now totally different than when we filmed it the last time, so maybe it’s good to film it again and take another look at it.
AF: Talk to me a bit about how you put it together in the beginning? Did you write a lot of it, did Philly (McMahon, the co-writer and director) write a lot of it?
Panti: I write it all and what we do is we go into a room together and talk about what it might be about and Philip asks me to tell him stories. But Philip and I have worked together so much that he knows the stories, sometimes better than I do. So he’ll say “you know you could tell that story…”, then I’ll go off and write it, because it is my voice in a way. But for example, we did a piece recently in studio for that documentary (Queen of Ireland by filmmaker Conor Horgan, due later this year), and I needed to write something and I really didn’t have time, so Philip bastardized some sections from some of our other shows, because he knows them so well. He then presented it to me as a script and I said “That’s so funny, as it was exactly what I would have written myself. I don’t always have to agree with him on what works, but we make a joint decision on a lot of what goes in.
AF: And you find that even with Irish-isms and throwing in stories of local happenings in Dublin and colloquial stories that it still reads to a broader audience?
Panti: We do change some references depending on where we are, like a reference to Liza Minelli and Lorna Luft which would go over here, but we might not use that at home. But most of it reads, and even if you don’t exactly understand, you get the sense of it. There’s a line in there about Ginger Nuts and Chocolate Fingers, which to an American I don’t think really means much, whereas to us they are two kinds of cookies, so it’s much more resonant at home, but we decided to leave that in, because even if you don’t really know what it is, it still sounds funny!
AF: You talked also about not defining yourself as someone who is impersonating a woman but as being something other. I find it very refreshing to hear someone in your position say that and I wonder how it is that you came to feel the way that you do?
Panti: I’ve always just done what I did. I’m not Trans in any way, so I’d never want to be female in that way. I also have a big “blokey man face”. People outside of the gay world like television presenters, journalists and the like would always get a bit befuddled about how to refer to me and which pronouns to use. At home it used to be a big deal and they were always tripping over themselves, worried that they would offend you if they called you a Transvestite, instead of a Cross-Dresser or a Drag Queen, they didn’t know what you were. They would often ask me to clarify and I never would clarify. I didn’t want to say “No, I’m not a Trans Person”, because I don’t care what everybody thinks. To define it that way seems insulting to me to Transvestites I know or Transgendered people I know. So I just let them call me whatever they want. To me it’s about the theatrics of it.
AF: So in the aftermath of the amazing success of the Marriage Equality Referndum in Ireland, what is the next chapter in your life as a National F’Ing Treasure, and the continued fire that has been lit by what has happened in Ireland throughout the LGBT community?
Panti: I think one of the lovely things about what has happened in Ireland is the effect it has had on other countries. So because it was risky and very powerful to do it by referendum, of course we didn’t have a choice, but it is much more difficult and emotional to do it that way. You end up having all of these National arguments about it. It was risky because if we had lost, it would be another generation before we would have had the chance to try again. So it’s really much easier to do it legislatively. In Ireland every political party, both government and non-government, was behind it so it would have just walked right through. But we couldn’t do it that way. After doing it by referendum and having that victory it is a much more powerful way to do it, because afterwards nobody can say “Oh well it was politician led, or not what we wanted”. We all had a national discussion on it and we voted and that is what we wanted. Not it has started a new conversation in Australia and in Germany and even Italy where there has been no form of LGBT partnerships of any kind, even their Prime Minister is now being pressured by those within his own party who are saying “Well if Ireland can do that…”
Ireland is now in a position where legislatively it is basically all done, and a week later it was followed up with really great legislation for Trans people. Now it’s just the hearts and minds part.
AF: From what I’ve heard you talking about going out and being a part of the Grass Roots campaign and actually door knocking, as well as what I’ve heard from other friends that did it as well, there were so many people you had never expected would be “yes” voters that actually were.
Panti: It was a very powerful experience! Part of it was actually humiliating, as you were going and knocking on stranger’s doors and asking them to approve of you somehow. But in general it was a wonderful experience. First of all it really proved to you that there is a gay community in Ireland, they came together so amazingly and genuinely intended to knock on every single door in the whole country and we got pretty close to that. And the people you meet on the doorsteps are generally nice!
I think minorities will always have to fight for their rights, just by the nature of the fact that they are minorities, and if they don’t make a bit of noise, they’ll be trampled on!
Certainly this won’t be the last that New York will hear from Panti, and here’s hoping an annual residency for her maybe in the works. Cheers to Rory for bringing this wonderful magic Drag persona to life and sharing her with all of us and the rest of the world. Keep your hair high and your spirits higher!