It’s half past ten on a sparkling Sunday morning and organisers of the Sydney half marathon are busy removing the hoardings at the starting point at Walsh Bay.
The runners have long since completed the circuit, and Hickson Road is quiet. Then an arresting figure breaks the calm.
Nice morning for it, isn’t it? the paisley-clad pedestrian calls out to intrigued passers-by.
It’s actor Andrew Benson, best known as suburban drag identity Aunty Mavis but this morning embodying 1970s chic as retro creation Anita Curtain.
I’ve done tragic make-up, tragic little hair here, Curtain chortles.
Close behind her comes a second showgirl, Madison County, all sultry glamour in a platinum blond beehive and sequined micro-dress.
It takes something special to get Sydney drag queens out of bed this early on a Sunday morning.
Six months before a glittering premiere at Star City’s Lyric Theatre, organisers of stage musical Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert have chosen this sun-soaked morning to vet aspiring cast members.
Advertisements for the open auditions have asked hopefuls to frock up and be seen, giving special encouragement to drag artistes.
By quarter to eleven -“ 15 minutes before auditions begin -“ about 60 people are waiting on the wharf outside Bangarra Dance Theatre, hoping for a part in the stage version of the iconic 1994 film The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.
Priscilla tells the story of three Sydney drag performers who venture across the outback, and a selection of local showgirls are adding a flamboyant touch as they angle for a part today.
Among the leggy young women and muscled men waiting in the audition queue, Verushka Darling grabs attention in a one-legged leopard-print creation as Portia Turbo adjusts her multicoloured headdress.
Shelley Legs Diamond is a vision in pink while Freeda Corsett has gone for glamour in a backless red evening gown – and buckets of foundation after a night treading the boards at Arq.
I’ve had two hours sleep, I’m exhausted, I’m so tired -“ thank God for makeup, it’s hiding everything, Corsett says.
Thick is an understatement darling -“ you put it on with a chisel.
But there’s no sign of Mitzi Macintosh or other performers from the Imperial Hotel’s long-running Priscilla drag show, which remains a tourist magnet more than 10 years since opening night.
Macintosh told Sydney Star Observer this week other work commitments and the realities of a big-budget musical kept her away on Sunday.
They’re not going to get the audiences they want with Portia Turbo and Mitzi Macintosh on stage, she conceded.
Back at Walsh Bay, the producers are looking for members of the Priscilla chorus. The musical’s full cast will number around 25, including the three lead roles.
For some of the performers here a part in the musical would be a nostalgia trip.
I was in the movie so for me it’s full circle, Portia Turbo says of her bit part in the 1994 film.
For others Priscilla is synonymous with a shift in attitudes.
When the film came out it was really right in your face for a lot people who weren’t even exposed to the drag world, Madison County says.
It opened a lot of doors for other drag performers and for people who wanted to live that way too.
They felt like now they could walk down the street and not worry they’d have to carry a snub-nosed 38 revolver under their belt -“ like I did.
Others, like dancer Tanya Williams, are just happy to be in contention (I wasn’t sure because I’m a girl, but I thought I’d give it a go, Williams says) while Anita Curtain sees the lighter side.
It’s actually a fun show -“ we might as well send it up as well, Curtain enthuses beneath an oversize feather headpiece.
I’m just here for the laugh of it. And in a sense I think these things are a bit of a media stunt as well.
It turns out Curtain could be right when the producers put the drag queens through a rendition of disco song I Love The Nightlife -“ but it’s only for the TV cameras.
As the Priscilla hopefuls continue their wait, rumours swirl.
Have the main spots already been filled during closed auditions in Sydney and Melbourne earlier in the week? And is it true there are cast spots reserved for local drag queens?
Performer Trevor Ashley -“ also known as drag identity Cleopatra Coup? is hoping for the part of Felicia, the drag queen role performed by Guy Pearce in Priscilla the film.
Ashley tried out at the closed auditions and expects to hear if he’s in by the end of this week. The Star understands fellow drag entertainer Courtney Act is in contention for the same part.
But at Sunday’s open auditions, director Simon Phillips is keeping mum on the details of the earlier auditions. And he scotches talk of a guaranteed role for a Sydney drag identity -“ although showgirls could have the upper hand in the audition process.
There is a featured drag performer in it, but no one can just do that, Phillips says.
It’s a real, bona fide musical, and so if you’re a great drag artist, you’ll still need to be in areas of the ensemble where drag is not going on.
There’s no point in employing someone just because they’re a drag artist. They need to have the skills as well as the glamour.
[But] all serious contenders I -˜drag up’ by the time I’ve gotten through to a certain stage.
After about eight drag queens shimmy through I Love The Nightlife once more -“ this time for the audition panel -“ only Freeda Corsett and Portia Turbo are asked to stay on.
The pair is asked to sing I Will Survive for the panel, the camp classic familiar but the live vocal element less so for these renowned lip-synchers (I’ve always prided myself on my mime ability, not my singing, so we’ll see, Turbo cautions.)
But she makes a go of the song with the aid of a shimmy or two.
Freeda Corsett is escorted backstage for her vocal session and celebrates when she’s asked to stay back for more harmonising and a script reading. Corsett and Turbo were still waiting for word from the producers this week.
It’s unclear who’s made an impression, and it could be a while until those who have made the grade find out -“ the producers expect to publicly announce the Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert cast in June.
But Freeda Corsett reckons even those who don’t make it to the Lyric Theatre stage for opening night on 7 October should acknowledge the musical’s impact.
The film made [drag queens] slightly more legit, and by having the musical now it’s showing us again to a broader audience, so it makes us feel more than just crappy people working for crap money, Corsett says.
It builds our status up again.