By Ben Walters, Friday 4 August 2017, 3.30pm
“I’m like the Royal Mile in August come to life and walking among you,” declared Panti Bliss as she opened her Fringe Central Welcome Address to performers and others as the 70th Edinburgh Fringe kicked off.
The rousing speech highlighted the iconoclastic pre-punk spirit of openness behind the creation of the Fringe, and the festival’s ongoing role “making room in the mainstream for the weird and wonderful”.
Speaking as “someone who has performed many times for audiences that didn’t want me to”, Panti championed art that doesn’t seek approval or permission from “gatekeepers” and hailed drag as “inherently punk, inherently fringe, inherently political”.
Touching on issues that have shaped her work and career, Panti recalled early gigs pulling strings of fake pearls from her arse to the accompaniment of Je ne regrette rien. She noted that the drag queen can be considered “the ultimate expression of the dramatic arts” because she does it all, from writing to stagecraft to performance, and “carries the stage with her”.
Panti offered varied perspectives on fringe performance, sometimes instrumentalising it as a stepping stone to mainstream success; sometimes hailing it as a powerful mode in itself, as in the work of “heroes” such as Taylor Mac and Justin Vivian Bond and her own career; sometimes calling out “bullshit distinctions” between fringe and mainstream at a time when popular TV comedians play Edinburgh and Panti herself is “flown around the world by the Irish government” on her own terms.
Panti offered practical advice to young performers, and also observed the current shift in debates around drag and gender representation. “We’re in this state of flux where it’s very easy to upset people because it’s all new and being discovered,” she said.
“I was doing my show in New York, two years ago, I think, and there was a group of 15 students from Vassar [a liberal arts college in New York state] and clearly they were doing Gender Studies 101 or something and one of them stood up in the middle of my show to sort of harangue me for reinforcing the binary – whatever age I was at the time, 46-year-old bloke in a dress was reinforcing the binary. It has become so complicated. But complicated isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
Asked about RuPaul’s Drag Race and the recent mainstream popularity of drag, Panti said: “I personally think [drag] fits better when it’s not so fashionable. I think it’s inherently underground and discombobulating and confronting and that’s all the reasons I got into it in the first place.
“So I don’t think it fits so perfectly well in the mainstream. It’s sort of been defanged a bit. On the other hand, I love to see all the kids dressing up. I like that people are into it. I like that people are playing with gender and gender presentation.
“I think [Drag Race] is a fun TV show as a TV show. But do I think it’s necessarily good for drag? I’m not so sure. Now everyone seems to think that drag is just about being a make-up artist and, of course, that’s the least interesting area of it. Like everything in life, it’s a grey area. There’s good and there’s bad.”
Asked about the role of critics at the Fringe, Panti granted that “most of the critics here do come with very positive attitudes” but suggested they “can forget how powerful they can be” and should bear in mind “the shit that [performers] are dealing with. So just think about that in how you write. You don’t have to love everything but if you don’t like it, dislike it constructively.”
Sound advice. But she also described critics as “a necessary evil, that’s what they are,” which seems a bit harsh for a group of mostly low-paid, hard-working people passionately engaged with the public value of art. Call it another grey area…
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