Charity Werk: Drama Queen

 In Podcast transcripts, Queerstories

Charity Werk is a part-time comedian and full-time natural beauty. Making her debut as a RAW Comedy state finalist in 2018, Charity has quickly established herself as a star on the rise. Her debut solo show ‘Community Service’ was given an extended season and a nomination for Best Comedy at the Melbourne Fringe. She was recently hand-picked by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival to star in their month-long showcase The Comedy Zone. After performing in the Brisbane and Sydney Comedy Festivals, Charity is glad to be home in Melbourne, earning an honest living and spending it on takeaway.

 

Hello! I am very excited to be here.

My name is Charity Werk, and as you can probably tell by my voice – I am a thespian.

*Audience laughs*

It’s true, I love a bit of theatre. It’s my one true unwavering obsession. In terms of my brain’s physical memory, I’d say it’s about 20% essential life facts, 20% the names and faces of loved ones, and then just 60% musical theatre lyrics on loop. It’s also a one-in one-out kinda deal as well, so like – new show just dropped on Broadway? …Goodbye Nana.

*Audience laughs*

Like most theatre-kids, my obsession with the stage started when I was in high school. As you can probably tell by my modest dress sense, I went to a private catholic all-boys school. I can see a few of you giving me knowing looks. I too am sorry for my loss.

*Charity laughs*

My school was as homophobic as you would imagine. Thankfully, I had a group of nine friends I would hang out with at lunch. And in the years since school, all 10 of us have come out in sequence. Or in my case, literal sequins –

*Audience laughs*

– but that’s a story for another day. But in that rough and tumble world, we were definitely proof that birds of a feather flock together. Like sometimes I think about that statistic and I’m just astounded – like that’s 10 out of 10. That’s a perfect strike in bowling. I like to specify bowling so the gays here can feel included in a sporting reference.

*Audience laughs*

Apparently it’s like when the big ball hits all the pins! I checked with a lesbian.

*Audience laughs*

We’re all about factual accuracy at Queerstories.

The other boys at school seemed to know about me and my friends long before we were even aware. Like, I remember this one morning these guys in the year above us were kinda heckling me and my friends at the lockers and my friend just screams down the corridor, ‘we’re not gay, okay!’

*Audience laughs*

‘We’re creative’.

*Audience laughs*

Which is like a really good sentiment, yeah? But like, it doesn’t do much to prevent the bullying.

*Audience laughs*

Like now we’re just known as ‘the really creative poofs.’

Thankfully we learned how to put our creativity to good use. Every lunchtime instead of walking down to the oval we’d sneak into the school hall through the back door – of course – plug our iPods into the speaker, and then spend forty minutes straight dancing to Celine Dion and the Chicago soundtrack.

*Audience laughs*

And we were like committed as well, like I’m talking like, “Pop. Six. Squish! Ah-huh. Cicero! Lipshitz!” like… it was full-on, like high kicks and everything. I think, looking back, all that exercise kinda balanced out all the sport that we regularly avoided.

Like, every year when our school would do the annual Yarra River ‘Fun Run’ – yuck – we would sneak down a sidestreet and then catch the train to Dairy Bell Icecream.

*Audience laughs*

We’d have a leisurely afternoon in the sun with our macadamia gelatis and then reappear at the finish line hours later, just like, “Oh wow! We made really good time this year! Go team!”.

Our other sporting tradition happened most Saturday mornings when we used skip compulsory Saturday sport to go to an internet Café and play an online version of Family Feud.

*Audience laughs*

We wouldn’t play the actual game, of course, we’d just start fights in the chat rooms with Canadian housewives. Just like, “survey says your marriage is a sham, Denise!”.

*Audience laughs*

It was a simpler time.

Eventually, after a few months of our amateur all-boys production of Chicago in the school hall, the caretaker, who was this old Italian guy named Mario, realised what we were doing and started double-locking the doors. Which didn’t actually deter us, it just meant we instead had to have this daily encounter with Mario just like, “Mario, let us in! Please don’t make us go to the oval!” and he’d be like “are you gonna make-a-da-mess?” and we’re like “No, we’re not gonna make-a-da-mess, just make-a-da-dance!” and he’d be like… “ok, gays, go and dance and be happy!”

*Audience laughs*

He was a really lovely man.

*Charity laughs*

The hall became for us a sanctuary where we could loosen our ties, take off our shoes and just be. It was a tiny protected world within a world, and it’s where I have my absolute fondest memories of school. I don’t know if Mario would even be aware of the magnitude of the gift he gave to us, but I am forever thankful for what he did.

When not in class, or dancing in the hall, I threw myself into every school production that I could. One year, our sister school from up the road, another elite private school with a chip on its shoulder, did a joint production with our school of The Hot Mikado, which is a jazz remake of an old Racist and Hammerstein show set completely in Japan.

*Audience laughs*

Obviously a natural fit for a cast of thirty upper-middle-class white kids.

*Audience laughs*

The production was as culturally appropriative as it was joyous, and though it was problematic as hell, it blew my gay little world.

I had always aspired to be a serious actor up until that show, the type of real performer that studies at NIDA and acts in devastating dramas about the ego of humanity. But being a part of something so glitzy and camp just changed my entire trajectory. I remember I had this one line that would get a huge wave of audience laughs every night – and each time the laugh hit I would damn-near break character from smiling so hard myself. It felt like comedy was a drug-hit, and my physiology had just changed from that moment. I no longer wanted to go to NIDA. I wanted to do comedies. And musicals. And wear bright and beautiful – and hopefully less racist – costumes!

*Audience laughs*

I started singing in choirs, and seeking out more fabulous roles. When senior plays with lead female characters would roll around, and all the other boys were like “no that’s gay” I’d step forward. And I found myself really enjoying these roles. After the curtain call of one of our shows, I remember having this epiphany in the dressing room where I realised that this was the first time at school where being feminine wasn’t treated like a bad thing. Where I not only had permission but was actually celebrated, for my expression.

I always thought it was so ironic that a single-sex school that cared so deeply about forcing a strict binary between boys and girls would actually create an environment where it’s necessary for boys to start doing drag. And the reception was also so hypocritical as well. Like, when a student blurred the gender binary for a school production. High art! Culture! But when a student blurred the gender binary outside the classroom, he’d be pulled aside by the school board.

One of my friends who came out publicly in year 12, was pulled aside by the Head of Student Welfare and told to save his coming out for uni. The Head of Student Welfare. She said because he was a prefect, it would make the school values look compromised. And when my friend refused to do that, he was then pulled aside by the Deputy Headmaster, who told him point-blank: “we don’t have fags at this school”. Which was not only monstrous, it was a flat-out lie. Because there were heaps of us. We were just too scared to speak. And how could we, when even our friend who did speak up ended up having to change schools in the middle of his year 12 because he felt bullied by the staff. He was made to feel like a failure when it was the school that failed him.

When speaking up is not an option, you learn to express yourself through other means. And theatre was the main way for me to feel heard in a time when I felt silent. Drag, as an extension of that, became for me the ultimate rebellion against the systemic bullshit that I had been force-fed in my early years. When I allowed myself, for those brief moments, to be loud and proud and visibly queer, it felt like maybe I was helping in some small way to disrupt the toxic narratives that had taken root in my head. And maybe, by making myself visible I could help to empower others in the same, but less beautiful shoes as me.

*Audience laughs*

When expressing myself through stage and drag, I felt, more than in any of my classes, that I was learning how to be a better man. It’s the greatest lesson I learned at that school, and for that, I will always be grateful.

Thank you.

*Audience cheers*

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