Teaching and Learning Institute

Theater professor explores the history of drag in new course

Domenick Scudera, Professor of Theater, offered a new class in Fall 2014. With help from the TLI, the course, THEA 250: From Shakespear to RuPaul: A History of Drag Performance, allowed students to experience two different kinds of drag performance firsthand.

For centuries, playwrights and performers have crossed and mixed gender roles, creating a distinct art form that brings into focus issues of identity, gender variance, and social structures of masculinity and femininity. Scudera’s course explores the history of drag entertainment and how it reflects and responds to cultural shifts over time. In organizing his plan for the semester, Scudera explains, “Iquickly realized that, in order for my students to understand and analyze the art form, experiencing live drag performances in context was essential. But how could I bring them to performances which demonstrated various forms of drag?”

He first reviewed theater listings for the greater Philadelphia region and began focusing on several theater companies who were employing male actors to play female roles. Quintessence Theater Company was presenting an all-male version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Perfect, he thought! Taking the students to see this performance with TLI funding allowed the students to experience Shakespeare’s play as it would have been performed originally. Plus, the plot of the play contains multiple layers of gender disguise. At one point in the play, the male actor playing the female role of Rosalind pretends to be a man named Ganymede, and Ganymede then pretends to be a woman named Rosalind! This is difficult to follow when reading the play. By seeing the scene performed by professional actors, the students gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of the playwright’s meanings, and Scudera notes, “it opened up terrific discussions about gender and identity when we returned to the classroom the next day.”   

Also in the fall, People’s Light and Theater Company was presenting a traditional Christmas panto, a nineteenth-century English tradition that features the “panto dame” character – a bawdy, funny female played by a male actor. When the students saw this performance (thanks to TLI funding), they were able to see, in context, another drag type. This allowed them to later discuss the evolution of the drag character from the earlier Shakespearean model to the later panto style. It was also interesting for the students to see how drag performers are sometimes used in family entertainments such as the panto. This is a different type of drag performance, one at odds with, say, a drag queen that the students might see on a television show such as RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Scudera concludes that “the TLI grant allowed me to put the “performance” into the History of Drag Performance course.” Without these experiences, the students would not have had the opportunity to fully understand different variations of the art form, and our discussions in class would have been much less full and meaningful. “By adding this performance component to the semester, my students and I were given the opportunity to explore this theatrical form on a deeper and more substantial level.”