Friday, September 26, 2008

Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Dressing up and stripping bare

The Daily Advertiser reporter Cody Daigle is cast as the lead in the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Here, he's made the transition from Cody to Hedwig.

The Daily Advertiser reporter Cody Daigle is cast as the lead in the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Here, he's made the transition from Cody to Hedwig. (Claudia B. Laws/

Cody Daigle • • September 26, 2008

"Acting is not about dressing up. It's about stripping bare." - Glenda Jackson

I've been an actor for almost 14 years, and in the whole of my stage experience, I'd never been asked to do full-on theatrical drag. I'd done shows where I'd played women, but it was always the winking, "I don't expect you to believe I'm a woman, so you'll forgive the lousy drag attempt" kind of drag.

But a few months ago, local director and designer Duncan Thistletwaite called me and asked me if I'd be interested in taking on a musical.

I hadn't been in a musical in almost three years, so I eagerly asked which show he had in mind.

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch," he said. "Know it?"

Almost 10 years ago, my best friend and fellow actor Cara Hayden gave me a copy of the Hedwig score as a gift. She's found it in a discount bin for $2.

At the time, I had zero interest in the show. All I knew was it was some rock show about a German transvestite, and for a musical theater snob like myself, that spelled trouble. But, I graciously accepted the gift, thinking I'd give it a listen then add it to a shelf where it would collect dust.

From the crunching first chords of the show's opening number Tear Me Down, I was hooked. The Hedwig score pulsed with a vitality that I wasn't prepared for. Yes, it was a rock score, but it was a rock score with a defiantly musical theater sensibility. Theatrical, playful, clever and ultimately deeply moving, Hedwig and the Angry Inch became one of my favorite musicals.

And Hedwig was a role I swore to myself I'd play if I ever got the chance.

Throughout the rehearsal process for this show, we've constructed Hedwig in parts. First, we went shoe shopping and scored an eye-popping pair of five-inch red platform heels that look like something out of Showgirls. Then, we consulted a former drag queen and designed a high drag makeup design (Hedwig's eyebrows are perilously close to her hairline). We had a denim-and-sequins outfit constructed with a skirt so short, I've been requested never to bend over in it. And it's all topped off with a platinum blond wig styled as a cross between 1980s prostitute and German house frau.

And all of these parts were being placed on a 6'2", 260 pound man with a preference for jeans and a earth-toned pullover.

Each piece, when I first put it on, felt like a shock. The foreignness of it was jarring, and it brought up dozens of concerns: How do I move in this? How do I keep my balance? Will this look real? Does this look remotely feminine?

But after a few moments, the shock wore away, and something unexpected happened. My weight shifted on my hips. My gestures went from being sharp and masculine to rounded and feminine. I'd extend my neck, arch my brow, and my usual semi-confident walk turned into the strut of a punk rock lead singer.

Suddenly, there was Hedwig.

That has been the most interesting thing I've learned in the process of becoming Hedwig: Every addition is really a subtraction.

Everything I put on - the makeup, the false eyelashes, the wig, the pantyhose, the high heels - takes me one step further away from myself. And each step away brings me closer to Hedwig.

In a nutshell, Hedwig is a character stuck between two worlds. Born a boy named Hansel in communist East Berlin, a botched sex change operation and a shotgun marriage to an American GI left Hedwig genderless and alone in the Midwest. Now, with her band the Angry Inch, Hedwig travels the country performing gigs in seedy dives and telling her life story in an attempt to make some sense of who she is.

Every night, the character puts on the Hedwig drag, just as I do. And for both us, it causes a transformation. We both leave behind whoever we were in the past and we step out on stage.

The lights come up, and the music begins.

And all that's left is the glitter, the makeup, the hair and the heels.

And the beating heart of Hedwig stripped bare underneath.

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