1979 – 2017
Diane Torr, Danny King, Jack Sprat, Hamish McAllister, Charles Beresford, Mr. EE
Drag King, Male Impersonator
Country of Origin
Birth – Death
1948 – 2017
Diane Torr was a Drag King pioneer, gender activist and performance art provocateur who blazed a trail in feminist theater and lesbian culture. She was a border-crosser in every sense. Torr’s singular importance in her field is documented in her book Sex, Drag and Male Roles, co-authored with Stephen Bottoms, and in Katarina Peters’s documentary Man for a Day, which explores the impact of her Drag King workshops for a diverse group of participants in Berlin. Diane did not let drag define her; however throughout her life she remained restlessly curious in her other creative inquiries in dance, film and the visual arts.
Born in Peterborough, Ontario on November 10, 1948, she grew up in Aberdeen, Scotland before moving to London as a teenager with her family. Her mother, Jane (nee Esson), was a housewife and her father, Charles, a mechanical engineer. Diane found her father to be an oppressive figure, and eventually ran away from home to escape him. As a consequence, she was sent to a reform school for three years in Bristol, the Crescent school for girls. Despite its strictly vocational remit, she insisted on her right to study for academic qualifications. Returning to London at age 19, Diane threw herself into the radical counterculture of the late 1960’s, working in support of various causes, including Release, an underground organisation that provided guidance to young people arrested for drugs offences.
A youthful participant in feminist radicalism in London at the turn of the seventies, Torr undertook dance training at Dartington College of Arts before relocating to New York in 1976, initially to study with Merce Cunningham. The strictures of such training, however, appealed to her less than the more improvisatory, interdisciplinary opportunities afforded by the city’s downtown performance art scene. From 1978, she began making experimental movement pieces for loft spaces, clubs and bars in the East Village, but these were as likely to be informed physically by her aikido training (undertaken for self defence) or by gogo dancing (she worked cash-in-hand in New Jersey girlie bars) as by modern dance technique.
In 1979, Diane joined DISBAND, the all-girl conceptual art punk band. DISBAND performed regularly between 1979 and 1982 at exhibition spaces, clubs, and art festivals throughout the world. Torr’s performance works during the 1980s, often made as collaborations with other artists, focused increasingly on questions of gender identity and expression: Arousing Reconstructions with Bradley Wester at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church in 1982 explored androgyny, while Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Queens with Chris Koenig and Lizzie Olesker at BACA Downtown cultural centre in 1986, drew on Michel Foucault’s research into the 19th-century hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin.
Torr’s recontextualisation of erotic dancing to art contexts, e.g. GoGo Girls Seize Control in1981, proved highly controversial at a time when the women’s movement tended routinely to condemn pornography and sex workers. Her response: “morality demands a budget”, reflected her working class roots. Torr’s unapologetic embrace of the sexy and sensual proved highly influential in the early evolution of the WOW Café Theater (Women’s One World), which she helped establish from 1980 until it found its final home on “theatre row” on East 4th Street. This women-only performance space in the East Village formed by downtown luminaries Holly Hughes, Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver and others, was a venue where, free of ‘the male gaze’, a new feminist eroticism began to supplant 1970’s asceticism and brought about a revolution in feminist theatre practice.
From 1989 onwards, she began experimenting with the physical movements and expressions that would permit her at just 5’3” to pass as male in everyday situations. Together with the transsexual make-up artist Johnny Science in 1990, Torr developed the highly influential Drag King Workshop at The Annie Sprinkle Transformation Salon, where women were encouraged to venture out into the city, posing as male characters of their own invention. Initially viewed by Torr as a form of feminist empowerment, an opportunity to experience male privilege first-hand, her workshops became internationally important in the emergence of Drag Kings as a popular feature of lesbian subculture. Torr directly influenced the modern day Drag King movement through these transformational workshops where her tutelage helped to create NYC’s best Drag Kings including Buster Hymen, Mo B. Dick, Dred and more. Demand for the Drag King Workshop quickly took off all over the U.S., and subsequently in Europe. And as transgender identities also became increasingly accepted within queer culture in the 1990s, Torr’s workshops were used by many trans-curious participants as a means to experiment with new, male identities.
Diane developed a whole gallery of male characters, from the hyper-realistic to the comic-grotesque, and performances such as Drag Kings and Subjects at the PS 122 theatre in 1995, translated her gender experiments into theatrical form. Torr was also featured in TV appearances on daytime talk shows including Donahue on NBC in 1991, Jerry Springer on NBC in 1993, and Montel Williams on CBS in 1995, bringing Drag Kings to a wider audience.
Torr moved back to Scotland in 2002, after 26 years in New York, and worked extensively in continental Europe over the next decade while also being invited as far afield as Istanbul and New Delhi. In 2002, she co-curated the month-long, multi-venue go drag! festival at ‘Kunsthaus Tacheles’ in Berlin, with fellow Drag King and performance artist Bridge Markland.
Having received an MFA degree in 2004 from Bard College, New York, Diane taught as a visiting lecturer at Glasgow School of Art. Her last theatre performance, Donald Does Dusty, an homage to her brother Donald, who died of AIDS in 1992, played a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015. The following year, shortly before becoming ill, Diane presented a talk for TEDm the Technologym Entertainment and Design network, on performances of gender.
Diane Torr died on May 31, 2017 of a brain tumor. She is survived by her daughter, Martina, with Marcel Meijer, whom she married in 1983 but lived apart from after 1992, and by a brother, David.
(Submitted by: Martina Meijer, Brooklyn, NY)