As Drag Machine's Shirley Delta Blow, actor Stuart Sanks tells drag's vibrant history

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As Shirley Delta Blow, actor Stuart Sanks has been entertaining audiences through his charity-supporting drag shows at Hamburger Mary's. But his performances blow away standard drag routines -- the trained actor is known for his comedic timing and infamous retelling of Steel Magnolias using Barbie dolls, a feat that won him the "Queen of Aces" drag title in 2011. Emily Tarquin, co-curator of Off-Center, the versatile programming component of the Jones Theatre, caught wind of his work, and, after Sank did a few hosting stints at the venue, she asked him to turn the Shirley Delta Blow show into a full-on performance for the 2012 season.

And so Drag Machine was born. This Friday, November 2, Blow & Co. will travel through time in a tricked-out time machine (also known as the Jones Theatre covered in glitter gussied up to look like an airplane cockpit) to tell the story of drag and GLBTQ civil rights history. In advance of the three-show run, Sanks spoke with Westword about Drag Machine's creation, and what brought the actor to drag in the first place.

See also: - It ain't easy being queen: Luke List on the "anti-masculinity" stigma of drag performance - Slideshow: Drama Drag at Tracks - Don't call him queen: Paul Soileau talks about more-punk-than-drag persona Christeene Vale

Westword: Can you give a little background on how you got into performing?

Stuart Sanks: I graduated from college in 1990 with a degree in theater. I wasn't really thinking I was going to have a life as an actor; I wanted to be a missionary. But because I was gay I got denied -- the spring semester of my senior year. So I didn't know what else do.

They turned you down because you were gay?

Yes. My plan was to go on a one-year project with a para-church organization, and through my interview it came out that I was gay. They said, well, because of this, we're not going to accept you into this year-long program. That was going to be the first step to what would come next, life in the field as a missionary.

I was a competitive volleyball player in college as well, so I accepted to go on a project with the same organization in the Philippines. I came back and didn't know what do to, so I did what anybody else does who doesn't know what they want to do does -- I moved to Boulder. (Laughs.)

I'm from Kansas, but I ended up in Boulder, kind of finding my way around -- I was there for six or eight months and I moved down to Denver. I found a job waiting tables at Chili's and a job acting in a show at Theater On Broadway in the same weekend. That was 1991. For the next fifteen years I found myself calling myself an actor. I did lots of small local productions -- mostly plays, musicals, a commercial here and there. A little film, stuff like that.

Then I was like, wait a second: I was the one kid in my acting class who didn't really want to do this and now I'm finding myself being an actor. Up until about 2006, I was making my living being an actor -- that was the only job I had. It was pretty cool story that way. Do you consider yourself a drag queen?

A couple of my loves have always been theater, volleyball and people. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine -- Todd (Peckham, also known as queen Daniella DeCoteau and a player in Drag Machine) -- approached me from the Colorado Gay Volleyball Association and said, hey, we do this fundraiser every year. It's a pageant where people dress in drag and we give the title of "Miss Queen of Aces."

Daniella had won the pageant the year before and was like, you should do this. I had never done drag -- I was in a play once where I had to play a bunch of different women. But I was kind of resistant -- and he talked me into it. It was this natural fit, you know, you put on some heels and a dress and all of a sudden there is this other character living inside your body.

It's really no different than acting, obviously -- you put on a different pair of pants and you're a different character than if you're wearing a cowboy hat. I entered the pageant and won. So for the next year, I thought I would see where this thing went -- I produced some of my own shows down at Hamburger Mary's (with) some of the performers you'll see in Drag Machine. I've done that ever since.

So, yes, I do consider myself a drag queen.

Not that drag queen is a negative label by any means -- I just ask because don't like to make any assumptions.

I mean, yeah. I'm a drag queen. I'm a man in a dress who does it for entertainment value. In regards to Drag Machine -- Emily from Off-Center approached you about bringing Shirley Delta Blow to the theater and developing your show in some capacity, right?

Yeah. The first, fully produced season of Off-Center was last season. They had heard of me through some friends at the Denver Center for Performing Arts, and they asked me to be the emcee -- or be the hostess, if you will -- for the season announcement party. That's where our relationship began.

The season announcement party (involved) these live trailers -- they did a little piece of each one of the shows that you were going to see in the Jones's upcoming season, to build some buzz and get people familiar with the style. It's different -- it's not your standard theater fare, it's not your standard open mike. There is something different about it.

In the course of that first season, I appeared in a video for Cult Following. I was also a celebrity judge for Square of Ice, their Johnny Cash send-up -- you know, "Ring of Fire," "Square of Ice" -- (involving) a Johnny Cash cover band performance. People could take a Johnny Cash song and perform it in any style that they wanted.

I got what they did, they liked what I did -- so both Charlie (Miller, co-curator at The Jones) and Emily came to me and were like, this is what we need to do: We want to produce the ultimate drag show. We want you to write it, create it, brainstorm it, and we'll all make it happen.

I've only been to one show at the Jones, Date*, but it was great. I think the theater's programming serves as a good point of entry for "non-theater" people, or those unfamiliar with it.

Yeah -- exactly. It also (brings people) down to the Denver Center. The Denver Center Theatre Company has won the Tony for "Outstanding Regional Theater Company" and the Ellie Caulkins is this state-of-the-art opera house where the opera and the ballet perform. And there's the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and the Buell that hosts massive touring productions.

Those have very specific -- I don't want to say rules about them -- but they have their form. You go to a ballet, you're going to see some dancing. You go to the opera, you're going to see people marching around and singing in Italian. I don't want to say it is expected, but people kind of know what those things are. A lot of times, that can limit the audience.

What is interesting is, you went to see Date*, and Date* was like, the least Off-Center show of any of them. It was a pretty traditional play. But with Off-Center, it is collaborative; it is a lot of local artists and new voices. It is giving people a chance to be produced and seen that may not have the resources of the opportunity. Some resources -- the design element, the costumes, lights, sounds, setting -- are pulled from the Denver Center. But it makes something unique. What about Drag Machine is exciting for you, or differs from your previous performances outside of this theater as Shirley Delta Blow?

Gosh, there are so many things -- having an actual set, video projections and costume design. It's not just, hey, there's five queens and we're throwing stuff together and we just show up. Actually having a little bit more time to rehearse, having choreography, is really cool.

I guess what I like about it too is, I don't know, it's kind of taking this as an art form -- this kind of drag entertainment that you would see at a bar or a night club -- and elevating it. Saying, hey, there's an art form here that we're going to use to tell a story. We're going to use it to educate people, a little bit; (Drag Machine) is about the history of drag and the gay rights movement.

I think it is going to be fun. I've been doing a lot of research and October happens to be LGBT History Month, so there is lots of stuff out there. (The show) looks at Stonewall and early activists and people you have maybe never heard of before, yet were crucial in laying the groundwork for the ability to even have a show like this.

It is a great way to touch on history -- drag can be perceived as campy or silly, but behind it is a huge part of culture that goes in so many different directions. One of the things that I wanted to ground the show in was this: When we see drag queens, they are kind of the clowns or court jesters of the gay community. We're way over the top, we're big and bawdy. Some of us are crass and crude. That kind of runs the spectrum of the gay community -- there are people who are loud and crass and some who are quiet and shy.

But I think another thing about drag is that the people who started, if you will, the gay rights movement at Stonewall -- if we look at it from that point, with the uprising -- were some street kids who had everything, or you could say nothing to lose and drag queens who fought back against the police.

Then it had this critical mass, had some momentum and kind of snowballed. I look at every kind of turn when the gay community has needed someone to step up, and drag queens -- they aren't the only ones -- but drag queens have done it. When AIDS began there were drag queens out there raising money and raising awareness. There were the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence out in San Francisco who now have chapters all over the place are all about AIDS education. They go into bars and talk to the people.

It's almost like the court jester is the only person who can tell the king the truth. Because everyone else will be serious about it, but the court jester will make a joke and the king will learn a lesson -- because he's paying attention through the humor.

Drag Machine opens Friday, November 2 and repeats on November 9 and November 16 at Off-Center at the Jones; doors open at 8 p.m. and the show starts at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $12-14 and can be purchased at the door, via the Jones website or by calling 303-893-6090.

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