Diane Torr obituary

Diane Torr obituary

Drag king and gender activist whose performances and writing blazed a trail in feminist theatre and lesbian culture.

A true original and provocateur, the performance artist, drag king and gender activist Diane Torr drew on working-class roots in Scotland, dance training in Devon and the creative crucible of 1970s New York to become a pioneering figure in female-to-male gender-crossing. Through her performances, participatory workshops and generosity of spirit, Diane, who has died aged 68 of a brain tumour, had a transformative effect on the lives of generations of fellow artists and cultural outsiders, in both Europe and the US.

Diane’s singular importance in her field is documented in her book Sex, Drag and Male Roles (which I co-authored with her, 2010), and Katarina Peters’s film Man for a Day (2012), which explores the impact of her 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.

A border-crosser in every sense, Diane was born in Ontario, Canada, but grew up in Aberdeen, 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 for three years to a reform school 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 aged 19, Diane threw herself into the radical counterculture of the late 1960s, working in support of various causes, including Release, an underground organisation that provided guidance to young people arrested for drugs offences.

She studied dance at Dartington College of Arts, in Devon, from 1973 to 1976, before moving to New York, initially to study with the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Yet the strictures of modern dance proved less alluring than the city’s punky, do-it-yourself downtown performance scene, and from 1978 Diane began making experimental movement pieces for loft spaces, clubs and bars in the East Village. She was also a founder member of the a cappella art-punk group DISBAND.

Having overstayed her student visa, she survived by working cash-in-hand as a go-go dancer at New Jersey strip clubs, a role she critiqued in one of her early performance pieces. In Go-Go Girls Seize Control (WOW Festival, 1981), she recontextualised erotic dancing within the downtown art world, giving a voice to fellow strippers. At a time when the women’s movement routinely condemned sex workers, and writers such as Andrea Dworkin were loudly critical of pornography, Diane’s overtly sexualised self-expression was controversial. A performance at Amsterdam’s Melkweg in 1982 ended prematurely when the audience rioted.

Still, her brazenness proved influential in the early development of the Women’s One World, or WOW, Café, which she helped to establish. From 1983, at this women-only performance space in the East Village, the erotically charged work of artists including Torr, Peggy ShawLois Weaver and Holly Hughes brought about a revolution in feminist theatre practice.

Diane’s 80s works focused increasingly on questions of gender identity: Arousing Reconstructions, with Bradley Wester, at Danspace Project at St Mark’s (1982), explored androgyny, while Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Queens, with Chris Koenig and Lizzie Olesker, at BACA Downtown cultural centre (1986), drew on Michel Foucault’s research into the 19th-century hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin.

From 1989, Diane began experimenting with physical movements and gestures that would permit her (at 1.6 metres, 5ft 3in tall) to pass as male in everyday encounters in the city. Together with the transsexual make-up artist Johnny Science, she developed “drag king workshops” in which women were trained in male character roles before venturing out into the city. The workshops were initially taught at the Lexington Avenue salon of porn-star-turned-performance-artist Annie Sprinkle, but demand for them quickly took off all over the US, and subsequently in Europe.

Initially run by Diane as a subversive form of empowerment for women of any background, the workshops became influential in the emerging popularity of drag kinging in lesbian subculture. Diane herself 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 (1995) translated her gender experiments into theatrical form. Her TV appearances on daytime talk shows including Donahue (NBC, 1991), Jerry Springer (NBC, 1993) and Montel Williams (CBS, 1995) brought drag kings to a still wider audience.

Diane always retained a strong sense of Scottishness, hosting riotous Burns Night suppers in New York, and in her performance Ready, Aye Ready (a standing cock has nae conscience), based on Robert Burns’s bawdy poems, at the East Village theatres La Mama and PS 122 (1992). She moved home to Glasgow in 2002, from where she was able to further capitalise on interest in her work in Europe. That year, she co-curated the month-long, multi-venue go drag! festival in Berlin, with Bridge Markland. She subsequently undertook residencies as far afield as New Delhi (2006).

Having received an MFA degree in 2004 from Bard College, New York, Diane taught as a visiting lecturer at Glasgow School of Art. Her final theatre show, Donald Does Dusty (a homage to her younger brother Donald, who had died of Aids in 1992), played at Summerhall during the Edinburgh fringe in 2015. The following year, shortly before becoming ill, she presented a talk for TED (the Technologym Entertainment and Design network) on performances of gender.

Diane 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.