BillyD Hart didn’t just choreograph all of the musical numbers for FST’s The Legend of Georgia McBride. BillyD, (who uses they/them pronouns) is also the understudy for all three drag roles, operates the spotlight for each show, and maintains all 26 wigs (yes, you read that number right) for the production. Oh, and did we mention they can also do a backflip…in heels?
The Legend of Georgia McBride tells the story of a down-on-his luck Elvis impersonator and soon-to-be dad who is struggling to make ends meet for his wife and their growing family. Things take a turn for the worst for Casey when his act at Cleo’s Dive Bar is cancelled indefinitely due to low attendance and is replaced by a drag show. In a last-minute performance emergency, Casey is called to the rescue. The show must go on. And so must Casey. In full drag.
We sat down with BillyD to get the scoop on their creative approach to developing the choreography for Georgia McBride, what it’s like to understudy three separate roles for one show, what drew them to choreography as an artform, and more.
First thing’s first. How did you approach creating movement for our main character, Casey, on stage?
Casey is a very interesting character because we get to see him be masculine, feminine, and struggle to transition from one to the other. Prior to meeting the actor who portrays Casey, I knew that I needed to create a physical vocabulary that would help visually portray that transition. I started with Elvis who lives mostly in his lower body—wide stance, constant movement of the feet, and, of course, the infamous hip movement. Then, I moved to Edith Piaf, a French singer who Casey performs as in drag in the show. In contrast to Elvis, Piaf stands feet together, rigid, powerful, and full of emotion. Morphing Elvis’s wide masculine stance and knee movement into a closed stance and a bevel was a great launching pad.
The last piece of the puzzle was meeting and discovering how Britt Michael Gordon, who plays Casey in FST’s production, moves naturally – because ultimately, I could create the best choreography in the world, but if it looks unnatural on the actor, then it’s not serving the story we’re trying to tell. As for the other characters in the play, I took a similar approach with identifying inspiration and meeting the actors to see how they move. The character of Miss Tracy Mills, played by Kraig Swartz, is a mix of the actor and drag diva icons like Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, etc. The character of Anorexia Nervosa is a bit more of a contemporary provocateur – like Ke$ha, Amy Winehouse, early Lady Gaga – mixed with the actor who plays the role, Stanley Martin, who also happens to be a trained dancer.
As the understudy for three different roles in this production (Casey/Georgia McBride, Miss Tracy Mills and Anorexia Nervosa), you must be ready to go on in a moment’s notice. What techniques do you use to keep all three characters, their lines, and their choreography clear in your memory?
There are key factors I lock into to switch characters easily. The hit TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race searches for queens with Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent. Well, all three characters are Unique. Tracy is a sort of “den mother” who sees herself as this southern belle/debutante with all her ducks in a row – even though the world is crumbling around her; she’s got loads of Talent. Casey is sort of a puppy to me; he’s a people pleaser with a huge passion for performing – he’s nothing if not Charismatic. Anorexia Nervosa (aka Rexy) has a tough exterior – built up from years of mistreatment. She’s rooted in Nerve.
My task is to take these characters and portray them to the best of my ability so as not to throw off the other actors, but my interpretations are slightly different because I’m not the same person as the actors who play these roles. That’s what’s exciting about live theatre, where you can see the same show performed by different actors. My life and my experiences shape my interpretations of these characters and how they deal with very real problems.
Let’s go back to the beginning. What initially drew you to choreography and theatre?
I grew up as a gymnast and an athlete, so I’ve always had a physical sensibility. Beyond that, I’m a storyteller, whatever the medium. I don’t work exclusively as a choreographer – I also direct, perform, design, etc. I have a passion for the arts in general. The one great thing about choreography and movement, though, is that it is enough on its own. It doesn’t require a set, music, a script, or even another person (though it may benefit from all of those things), and every person has their own unique way of moving. The best choreographers capitalize on their own physical instincts and sometimes their own limitations.
What is your favorite line in The Legend of Georgia McBride?
This is a tough one – playwright Matthew Lopez writes a lot of great quips. One of my favorite lines is one by the character Miss Tracy Mills. She says, “If I lose this gig, I’m gonna be working a register at the Walmart by weekend next. Where do you think you’ll end up?” It really shows the level of desperation all of the characters are in at the top of the play. They are all experiencing one last ditch effort to make it – as a drag performer, as a husband and soon to be father, as a bar owner, as a person dealing with addiction, and as a woman/wife/soon to be mother, relatively.
You worked with the show’s director, Kate Alexander, and the cast to determine which songs—and therefore famous women—would be highlighted in the excerpts of drag performances that the audience sees in Act II. What was that process like?
Before rehearsals began, I had many meetings with Kate and the drag consultant, Kraig Swartz, who also plays Miss Tracy Mills. The script is very vague when it comes to the montage – it doesn’t tell you who performs when or how many performances there should be. We went through many versions. Some numbers got cut, some got edited, and some stayed. The biggest change was switching the final number to “Holding Out for a Hero,” which was actually inspired by the costume design. I wanted to pay homage to the late Tandi Iman Dupree – which, if you don’t know her, do yourself a favor and YouTube her “Wonder Woman” performance from the 2001 Miss Gay Black America pageant. It’s spectacular.