Thursday, October 9, 2014

Reflections of a Retiring Drag Queen


Splitsville!
 
The Affair of a Lifetime
 
It was Kahlil Gibran who first famously said, if you love someone, let them go.
Which has got to be the stupidest advice I’ve ever heard. I mean, yes, if they don’t come back, they were never yours, blah blah blah. But who wants to find that out? And then you’re just left full of high-fallutin’ principle, surrounded by people you don’t particularly care for. No. If you love someone, hang on tight.
And that’s what Winnie and I have done. We’ve stuck together for 21 years now. She’s seen me through a lot: legal practice, new love, marriage, children, the boomeranging of a long cast-off rabbinic calling, and the loss of both my parents. And she’s no picnic either. I’ve seen her through meltdowns, relationships, hairdos, artificial insemination, Republicanism, cleaning obsessions, and even prison (trafficking in Julia Child pornography, if you don’t recall).
But sometimes it is time to say goodbye, and you may be surprised (or relieved, or sad, or indifferent) that Winnie and I are, at long last, bidding each other farewell. No scandal. No drama. No cheating. No vicious fight over the labradoodle. It’s just that we want different things. She might nod towards domesticity, but she loves her life on the stage. I love life on the stage too, but after 21 years, I want to be home.
And so I offer this tribute to my time as a member of the Kinsey Sicks, to my colleagues therein, to my hopes for the future, and to Winnie, the second greatest love of my life.

The Old Gray Mare, She Ain’t What She Used to Be
By now the story of the founding of the Kinsey Sicks is well known. There was a Bette Midler concert. There were friends. There was a crazy idea. There was an enthusiastic ovation from an audience full of people not there to see us.
That was in December of 1993. Seven months later we were on an iconic street corner, Castro and Market, at Harvey Milk Plaza, performing our first show. Luckily we thought to shoot video of it. There we were, the Kinsey Sicks sprung fully formed out of the pounding heads of Ben Schatz, Jerry Friedman, Maurice Kelly, Abatto Avilez, and me.
Well, maybe not fully formed, but well on our way. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Rachel was already obnoxious, Trixie already a slut, Vaselina already a dipshit. Winnie was the one waiting to begin a long journey of self-discovery. At the beginning she emulated her mother – me – far too much. She was Irwin in a dress. I wasn’t an actor; I didn’t know how to create a character. I look at the videos and see myself in those years: bearded, wooden, Irwin-in-a-wig, engaging in some side task like finding props or adjusting someone’s microphone, thinking that no one would notice. As if by sheer force of will, I could make my on-stage multitasking invisible.
But luckily, Winnie began asserting herself. I confess that I liked her well enough, but didn’t start falling in love with her until maybe 7 years later. That’s when I began loving her for her faults. I began to realize that while my own insecurity on stage and determination that nothing go wrong were an impediment to my performance, they were the stuff of sublime comedy for Winnie. Slowly I learned that she’s far more entertaining in her foibles than her triumphs, unless the triumph is obviously illusory. Winnie standing center-stage in nervous, wide-eyed silence, searching for a way to cover up the awful thing that the other girls undoubtedly just did is Winnie at her funniest and her most lovable. Not just to the audience, but to me.
Like all of our characters, Winnie grew to embody the traits that make me bad dinner company. Winnie would come to blurt out esoteric trivia (which the other girls, at the instigation of Maurice Kelly, came to refer to as unnecessaria, as in "Well thank you, Winnie, for that little bit of unnecessaria."). Often it would have to do with grammar, or subtle points about Proto-Semitic lateral fricatives. She would, with great enthusiasm, try to amuse an overdrinking Puerto Vallarta audience with a bizarre tale about Jewish-American writer Grace Paley who, according to Winnie, once visited the nearby fishing village of Yelapa, met the love of her life, married him and changed her name, causing her to utter the now-famous palindrome, “A Paley Was I Ere I Saw Yelapa.” And Winnie would stand on stage in the silent, puzzled room, and laugh at her own joke, unaware that no one else was amused.
Over time, her belief in her correctness and infallibility, a belief not shared by all, became her stock and trade. She would brag about the cute little pet names her sweetheart called her, such as “Ouch” and “Don’t.” Or in a beautifully cutting Ben Schatz-written moment, Winnie would turn to the girls with authority, and begin, “Girls, is it just me?” And Trixie would quickly interrupt, “Usually,” before another word could be uttered.
Winnie has been good medicine for me, good medicine for my tricky ego and my belief in my own infallibility. She has proven to be iconic for many people, myself included, who think particularly well of themselves, sometimes out of fear that they’re not actually good enough. She demonstrates that insecurity and overconfidence can still be lovable. She has saved me thousands on therapy and has, as any good partner should, made me a better person in the process. She’s made me ready to go on without her.

Why Now?
There are lots of reasons why now is the time. In a world with seven-year professional cycles, Winnie represents three careers' worth. But that’s not an answer. I know I could play Winnie all the way to the grave, with the help of the fictitious heavy-duty concealer whose name was coined by Maurice Kelly: Spackle-tacular!
Dad on sax.
But other things have grown in importance. I have a family, including a husband (Oren is hugely supportive but nonetheless a long-suffering Kinsey widow), co-parents and fellow householders who matter deeply to me, a kid finishing middle school and one finishing high school. I’ve spent a lot of years missing birthdays and Chanukah and school plays and concerts. My own father was a bandleader. He worked nights and weekends. I never felt his absence – he was very present when he was home; plus I was secretly thrilled that the kids on the block always saw him going to and from work in a tuxedo. But I know that missing much of our childhood was his great regret, and that is something I intend to fix in my own life, for his sake and for mine. Now is the time to be home.
Another element informing my decision is the death last winter of my mother. I hate to say it, but after she died, performing Winnie became a little less fun. Fun itself became less fun.
With Mom, 2013
The performer in me is to a large degree born of the child who would caper and make rhymes and songs and dances to get laughs out of Mom and Dad. And Mom was, for 20 years, the Kinsey Sicks’ biggest fan, even courteously waiting a day until our sold-out 20th Anniversary show last year was done, before closing her eyes for the last time. In some cultures, mourners tear their clothes or shave their heads. I am shedding Winnie.
The third reason has to do with making space for my deepening engagement in Jewish life, in my rabbinical post in the Sonoma County outback. Wait, I guess I should back up and explain the rabbi/drag queen thing.

All is Foreseen, Yet Permission is Given (Pirkei Avot)
In some ways the trajectory of my life was fixed and foreseeable by the time I was in third grade. A couple pivotal things happened around that time. First, I read a story about the boy who would become Rabbi Hillel, the Talmudic sage of antiquity. The story involved his nearly freezing to death on a rooftop where he’d spent the night eavesdropping on a group of rabbis discussing Torah. It was that story that made me think that learning itself could be a value, and not just a means. I wanted to be like Hillel; I wanted to learn and learn. I decided right then that I would be a rabbi, even though I knew that in some circles it might not be so very cool to say so.
The other formative thing that happened around then was discovering how easy it was for me to walk gracefully in my mother’s pumps. 
My fate was sealed.
And yet, things didn’t play out in expected ways. Years later, when my peers were applying to rabbinical school, I had just been one year out of the closet. I was in a relationship. At that point, no Jewish denomination would ordain openly gay rabbis or accept them into their seminaries. I’d have to purposely lie in order to make good on this calling, and that seemed an unworkable contradiction. So I didn’t apply, I didn’t go. I meandered through some graduate work and into law. My activism in Chicago in the 1980s was intense and exhausting, and I finally let myself be wooed into a law job in San Francisco, just so I could be around lots of queer people, who had become the substitute for Jews in my life. I found my way into a great job at the helm of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel of the San Francisco Bay Area. I found my way into a great family. And when we finally moved to Sonoma County together I found my way to a funky little synagogue.
Ner Shalom of Cotati was a plucky congregation in a building that a century ago was a Ladies' Improvement Club, and seventy years later a hard-drinking rock-and-roll venue. When I stumbled in the door, the place was at a turning point. The rabbi was leaving, and a certain dispiritedness pervaded, as is often the case at such moments. And as is often the case, the next guy became a flashpoint for underlying conflicts in the community. I walked in fresh. I liked the place, I wanted the synagogue to survive, so I rolled up my sleeves to help. I began to cover some ritual leadership, just to fill in, and because I had the literacy to do it. And then I discovered that a decade-plus on stage with the Kinseys had netted me some good chops for this kind of thing. It was easy to bring humor and irreverence and music into what I did. This congregation that included many marginalized folk seemed to value the outsider outlook I brought to the bimah. In 2008 they decided to cancel their rabbinic search and ask me to come on staff part time as the rabbi for the community. I was not ordained by any seminary, by any denomination. I was invited by this congregation. This congregation of lovely, creative, interesting people for whom having a rabbi who was also a drag queen, a rabbi who sometimes even showed up in a skirt, made the place safe, made Judaism safe.
That was the crazy turn. Just when I thought it would never happen, the life of a rabbi ricocheted back and hit me in the face. Maybe it was bashert, predestined, that I shouldn’t go to rabbinical school. Maybe I was meant to be an outsider, and being an outsider was meant to be a deep part of what I bring.
As Rabbi Akiva, a generation after Hillel, might have seen it, life as a rabbi and life as a drag queen were both foreseen. And yet permission was given: for me to do it in my own idiosyncratic, meandering, backdoor way.
This is, I hope, the life ahead. Studying, blogging (subscribe or follow by email in the column up and to the right!), rabbying, and seeing what else grows in the garden now that I’m home to tend it.

What’s Not to Miss?
People in the know ask me constantly, “Won’t you miss the Kinsey Sicks?”
Duh.
What’s not to miss? I’ve had the chance to sing with brilliant musicians of the caliber of Chris Dilley and Jeffrey Manabat. I’ve gotten to share the footlights with people who are so funny on their feet that I can barely be around them without laughing, like Maurice Kelly, the late Jerry Friedman and the ridiculously delightful and hilarious Spencer Brown. I’ve gotten to watch talents like Kevin Smith Kirkwood dazzle audiences and me, and then go on to make good on Broadway. I’ve enjoyed and will miss untold hours of late-night and pre-dawn car conversation with Jeff Manabat, while the other Kinseys slept in the back seat.
And what can I say about my friend Ben Schatz? The brother I never had, he and I have been friends since I brought him to speak at University of Chicago Law School in 1987. We are often at each other’s throats and we always have each other’s backs. I’ve often felt called to temper the extremity of his imagination, and thankfully, I have succeeded less than half the time. His work is clever – brilliant really. Cutting and shocking and subtle and subversive and politically meaningful and simply appalling. Having Winnie as the vehicle for delivering some of Ben’s best lines and lyrics has been one of the great honors of my life. What a delicious treat for Republican Winnie to turn and say, “But Trixie, we don’t think of you as Asian! We think of you as not black.”  And “Tranny Boy,” written largely to please me, was a gift.
I am prouder of this group than I could ever imagine being proud of anything. I have business partners who are thorough and dedicated and principled and funny. I have traveling buddies whose eating and sleeping habits I know much better than I’d like to. Together we’ve played everywhere from Montreal to Mykonos, Sydney to St. Petersburg (Florida and Russia), not to mention every major US city and a million minor ones that I might never have had the unexpected pleasure to set foot in, from Idaho Falls to Salina, Kansas, to Greenville, SC. We've been Off Broadway, we've done Vegas, we've been on the silver [plate] screen. It’s been a privilege to work with some of the loveliest people to ever inadvertently land in the theater and music worlds, including ShellyWeiss, Ed Decker, Paul Reder, the late Ron Lanza, Ken Bielenberg, Alonzo Ruvalcaba, Danny Scheie, Maurice Molyneaux, Maria DiDia and Glenn Casale. It’s been a delight watching the Kinseys grow from an idea to an act to a phenomenon to a staple, a slow, casual unfolding, like a flower. Or a pox. Of course I’ll miss it.

La Winnie est morte. Vive la Winnie!
But I have no worries about The Kinsey Sicks. This group has a life of its own. The Gestalt of it is bigger than any individual player. Every change we’ve made has made the group richer, more interesting, more relevant to the moment. The Kinsey Sicks will not just survive but thrive. The next era is going to be brilliant, with new ideas and songs and twists and character flaws.
I know this for several reasons. First of all, last winter, in the emergency that followed my mother’s stroke, my three fellow performers did a multi-week run of “Oy Vey in a Manger” as a trio (as they will for several performances this December too – a rarity not to be missed!). Last year’s 3-person run was a huge success. To my colleagues’ credit (and, I admit, to my disappointment), people who had not previously seen the Kinsey Sicks had no clue that someone was missing.
Nathan & I: The Bilateral Winnie Brain Trust
I also know this because the next person to take up residence in Winnie is himself a wonder. Nathan Marken. How did we find him? We went onto a matchmaking website, looking for skinny, 5’11”, baritone, bespectacled, Jewish, vegetarian, native Illinoisan drag queens. We couldn’t take the time to audition all of them, but Nathan was enough. His sense of humor was so good, his singing so precise, his Winnie-ness so apparent, that we all knew immediately that this was a match. Truth is he quietly began making some Winnie appearances already last month, to rave reviews. And he makes me laugh. In rehearsal he began doing some things with Winnie – gestures, faces, improvisations - that made me smile through clenched teeth while thinking, “Why the fuck didn’t I ever think of that?” I suspect Winnie might be a little darker in her next regeneration. But she will be brilliant.
Nathan is an accomplished actor, and holds a Masters Degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The true story is that we prospected him at San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center, the same fertile ground whence we landed Chris Dilley (Trampolina) and Jeff Manabat (Trixie). Nathan, talented young man that he is, will undoubtedly introduce into Winnie a DSM’s worth of new neuroses that I couldn’t have imagined, each one a pearl.
Will Winnie and I meet again? I can’t imagine we won’t have the periodic reunion. Or the occasional appearance of two Winnies in the same place, like some temporal anomaly. Mostly I will enjoy her in Nathan’s capable and tastefully gloved hands.
Winnie has been a loving friend. Loyal, lanky, always a-dither. I will miss her.

Catch one of my Farewell Performances this December!
Santa Cruz, California – December 11
Winthrop, Washington – December 12
San Francisco – December 13
Sonoma County – December 14 (a fundraiser for Congregation Ner Shalom)
Cedar Rapids, IA – December 19
Chicago – December 20 (there is an early show and a late show)
Kansas City, MO – December 21

Or find out details about all of these at www.kinseysicks.com.

Kinsey Sicks circa 1996: Ben Schatz, Jerry Friedman, Maurice Kelly, Irwin Keller

Kinsey Sicks circa 2012: Spencer Brown, Irwin Keller, Jeff Manabat, Ben Schatz

14 comments:

Cyndi said...

A most illuminating piece. Irwin I will see you soon. I can not say that Ner Shalom will not be happy with the fallout that is your additional presence. And Winnie, I will see you December 14th!

Jim Corbett said...

Winnie, You are my favorite Kinsey. Sad to see you go, but can understand the change. What an incredible run for you and the girls. I especially enjoyed meeting Irwin when we did the Kinsey show in Sebastopol. You are a true gentleman and a beautiful leader of your congregation. I look forward to the new creator of Winnie at the next show. Godspeed!

Joe Balestreri (Gessamina Bellafiore) said...

Dear Irwin, Like uncounted numbers of fans my first feeling is dismay. We know what/who we love and we don't want any change.

But you've devoted so much of your life to Winnie and the Kinsey Sicks and you will now have more time for you family, your congregation and life in our beloved Sonoma County. Hurrah!

When I do my rare little flights of performing in drag, Winnie and the Kinsey Sicks have a place in my psyche along with other brilliant performers who inspired me with their humor, costumes and chutzpah. Because of you I can get up infront of an audience and bring laughter and joy for the spectators and myself, wether I sometimes flop or succeed in delighting.

Thanks for all the laughs Irwin. Glad you, Oren and family are neighbors. We will try to make your Ner Shalom fund-raiser.

Dawn DeBois said...

I wish you well in your new life. And I thank you for sharing your previous life so generously. I've so enjoyed every moment with you. From mailings at ALRP to Ladies Who Lunch to the Kinseys CD launches and mailings. I'm proud to call you my friend. Much love to you and Oren.

Emmi said...

This made me cry the first time I read it, thinking that an era is ending. I wish you all the best in your new life, and will miss you every time I see the Kinseys.

Bill B said...

Your story of evolution is inspiring, Darlin'.

We've lost a Winnie and we've gained more Irwin and the world is still in balance. I'll be sure to catch one of your last hurrahs!

Marlene Freid said...

Mazel tov, Irwin and much thanks for the laughs. You will be missed! Beautiful post, btw. If the wife and I ever get up to Sonoma on Shabbat, we will look up your lovely synagogue!

Burton Employment Law said...

Irwin, this almost made me cry. It also made me feel really old. Congratulations, I am sure your next step will be a real adventure. I will be at your last show in San Francisco.

Jocelyn

ellenrocs said...

May your next adventures be as fulfilling!
Thanks for such a fabulous "good-bye". See you in Sonoma.

kaleo said...

Irwin, thanks for sharing this sweet story of your life so far. I"m happy for you as you move into this next chapter. I"ll probably see you in Santa Cruz. A warm hug to you.

Robin McEntire said...

Winnie (Irwin), you have given so much to the Kinsey's and so many truly wonderful memories to the Kinsey fans (and Winnie's fans). I wish you joy and happiness in all the years to come.
with love...

Philip Kuttner said...

Dear irwin,

Such a lovely, bittersweet (my favorite flavor) posting. How well I remember that first performance at Harvey Milk Plaza. I was stunned (this is my boss??) and delighted (this is my boss!!!). What a wonderful journey it's been for you and Winnie. I confess I am selfishly happy that you will be close to San Francisco full-time now.

As for you, Winnie, it's just love'em and leave'em, huh? But I forgive you: it's not cheating, it's serial monogamy.

Operashaper said...

Funny and moving! What more could you ask for. Oh yeah....Jewish! Ross Halper

Anonymous said...

When I first saw Winnie at the first of what would be 100's of Kinsey Sicks shows, I thought my Aunt Chris had started hanging out with singing drag queens. I laughed so hard and marveled at your bass line. I will enjoy seeing Nathan take Winnie's rein, but I won't forget how beautifully you crafted her. Ever. I also won't forget getting to know Irwin and our chats in Puerto Vallarta. I learned oodles from you and loved every moment. Thank you and all the best to you!