Ahead of her new show at Sophiensaele this week, dancer and drag performer Olympia Bukkakis talks to Exberliner about the pitfalls of representation, dealing with trauma and why we should all try drag.
Your new performance melds theatre, drag, music and dance together. Is that why it’s called Too Much?
I can’t remember how I came up with the name because it’s normally the first thing I come up with. But, yes, at a certain point in the studio, maybe about three weeks in, I was like: “OMG this is TOO MUCH!” There’s a monologue, there’s a cello solo, there’s a talk show, a cabaret MC… I’ve almost always worked outside traditional drag formats but always insisted on being a drag queen.
Whenever people would say, “We’ll pay you to do this,” I always said, “Ok, I’ll do it!” From doing so many different things, I became interested in how particular conventions work in different contexts. So the background for the show stems from my own performing experience.
Do you see drag and dance as a means of helping the LGBTQ+ community?
The dominant atmosphere right now is what Nancy Fraser calls ‘progressive neoliberalism’ – so there’s this idea of neo-liberalism, wrecking lives but with a progressive twist. Like Kamala Harris building a prison for transgender people! When we refuse to become ornaments that help justify or pink-wash this economic system, these mediums can be really powerful. Performance is one of the ways in which we can influence dialogue directly. So I guess I’m primarily interested in getting past representation.
We just saw another load of pink-washing during June’s Pride Month. How does it make you feel to see the rainbow flag being used for blatant marketing purposes?
I grew up in rural Australia, and it was terrible. So when I was younger, I’d be happy to see a rainbow flag somewhere. And recently, I rode past the Verdi trade union in Berlin where they had a big rainbow flag out the front. I was like, “Yes! They’re not trying to make money out of this, it’s a gesture of solidarity from an organisation in the labour movement.” That really moved me.
I often sway between Mother Teresa and a vicious bitch.
But I don’t feel like that all the time. Sometimes the flag just makes me feel dirty. Like when IBM and the rest of these arseholes use it. It’s so maddening! Because it’s actually really important to show genuine support.
Is drag an art form society can learn from?
I run workshops about how we can use drag as a persona to move through the world. I think very often we can get trapped in this false idea of authenticity, about who we are, whether that’s a man or a woman. It’s a silly idea that you are one person and stay that one person for your whole life. I often sway between Mother Teresa and a vicious bitch. It can be really helpful to have a persona that you put on and take off. Everyone can benefit from using drag as a way to be more playful with their identity and to move away from this essentialism.
So you’re saying we should all try drag?
Drag is really cool because it’s very common for people who are not performers to become performers just for one night. While preparing for Too Much over the past few months, I did a lot of reading into ancient Greek tragedy. I discovered that the chorus in Greek performances was composed of everyday citizens.
I see drag as a community, a social art form. It’s much more democratic and alive than the bourgeois theatre. The traditional theatre shuts people out: the working class, plus people with disabilities who aren’t able to sit and be quiet for a long time. So I think that’s another thing people can learn from drag: access.
Last year, you were the victim of a trans-/ homophobic attack that left you needing jaw surgery. You shared your experience in ‘A Case for the Abolition of Men’, a text that was published by HKW as part of Counter_Readings of the Body.
I was physically attacked by a man last April and it was really severe. I’m still really proud of that text, but writing it was much harder than I thought it would be. As a performer, especially one who is improvising most of the time, I am normally conversing a lot about what’s going on in my life. Then I suddenly wasn’t able to talk about myself, because I was so traumatised. I was filled with rage. I wanted to kill all men because I was so sick of them.
Everyone who is not a man is so sick of treading on eggshells around them.
Everyone who is not a man is so sick of treading on eggshells around them, like, it’s fucking exhausting. Even for those of us who love them. I didn’t realise this but I was developing PTSD while writing. It came out gradually. As I was reading back over the text, I was like “Oh, those are flashbacks!” My answer was to just embrace the way I felt: furious, irrational, confused. So I came to the very reasoned and sensible conclusion that men need to be abolished en masse! (Laughs)
Is Berlin a dangerous place for the LGBTQ+ community?
In this city, violence towards trans people is increasing. Interestingly, we’re simultaneously getting more representation. For example, when interacting with government bodies, it’s becoming easier to use my preferred pronouns. But I would rather feel safe on the street than have my pronouns respected.
You moved to Berlin nine years ago. How does life as a drag artist here compare to life in Australia?
Living conditions are a lot better in Melbourne. There’s not as bad a housing crisis, minimum wage is a lot higher and I am a citizen there. So for me, at least, it’s a lot easier there. People have more time to work on their outfits, because drag is a lot of unpaid labour. In Berlin, people are doing side gigs or little jobs here and there to make ends meet, and they don’t have as much time to invest in their drag.
But Berlin has people from way more different places. In a social setting, you notice, “Oh, everyone here is from a different country!” There are more scenes in Berlin: German-speaking and English-speaking… Every year it feels like there are new drag houses or collectives sprouting up. There’s some really exciting stuff happening!
Too Much, Sophiensaele, July 7-10, in English and German, tickets €15 (concession €10)