Exclusive Interview: Australian drag superstar Courtney Act on her Sydney Theatre Company debut “this feels like a whole level jump”

Australia has never been shy of drag. From the legacy of Sydney’s Les Girls and Carlotta, to Barry Humphries’ iconic Dame Edna and Stephan Elliott’s classic 1994 movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, drag has long been part of nation’s cultural mix. But things changed when Courtney Act rose to fame in 2003 as a contestant on the first season of Australian Idol. Each week, a young, sexy drag performer was on television screens in Australian households, not as comedy or risqué entertainment, but as mainstream talent. 

Courtney Act. Photo credit: Magnus Hastings.

She hit international fame on the sixth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, making it to the final three with Bianca Del Rio and Adore Delano. Out of drag, it was Shane Jenek’s turn in the spotlight in 2018 when they became a contestant on UK Celebrity Big Brother alongside a right-wing politician, with a long record of voting against LGBTQ equality, Ann Widdecombe. The two would have frank and sympathetic discussions about gender and sexuality that became headlines around the nation. 

More recently Shane has turned to theatre, starring in the drag murder mystery Death Drop in London’s West End. They’re now in rehearsals to take on the role of Elvira, the deceased first wife of socialite and novelist Charles Condomine who haunts him through a medium, Madame Arcati, in the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) production of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, opening at the Sydney Opera House on March 21st 2022. 

Courtney Act as Elvira in Sydney Theatre Company’s Blithe Spirit. Photo credit: Rene Vaile/ STC.

During a break in rehearsals, The Queer Review caught up with Courtney Act for an exclusive chat.

Chad Armstrong, The Queer Review: how did Blithe Spirit come about, were you auditioning for plays or did the STC approach you? 

Courtney Act: “Sydney Theatre Company approached me. I was in London last year doing Death Drop, then I had to go back to Australia for Dancing With the Stars. So I was trying to decide, am I leaving London for good? Should I pack up my flat? Am I moving to Australia? I wasn’t sure what was going on and then two days before I was meant to be leaving I got the call that the STC was interested in me for a play.”

“Paige Rattray, the director, had seen me on an episode of One Plus One [a biographical interview series on Australia’s ABC presented by Courtney Act] and she was like, ‘Oh, you know who’d be great to play Elvira in Blithe Spirit? Courtney Act!’ I’m not religious at all and I don’t believe in star signs or anything like that, but it feels like something cosmic happened. For Paige to sit there and think to cast me in a straight play in a cis female role is pretty incredible. I thought I’d be a comedy bit part. This feels like a whole level jump.”

“STC has got Glace Chase’s Triple X, Blithe Spirit with a drag queen, and a return season of The Picture of Dorian Gray. So out of the six shows already announced for 2022, three are heavily queer! That’s so cool.”

Bessie Holland, Courtney Act, Brigid Zengeni, and Matt Day in STC’s Blithe Spirit. Photo credit: Rene Vaile/STC.

You’re obviously known as a performer, but what is your acting background?

“I grew up in theatre in Brisbane and I went to acting school. I originally came down to Sydney to go to NIDA’s open day [Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts, school to the likes of Cate Blanchett, Sam Worthington, and Hugo Weaving], but instead I discovered the Stonewall Hotel and men, and I never made it to the open day in the end!”

“I did a production of Rent in Perth, playing Angel. I lived in L.A. for a while and did some acting there, and went to the Groundlings. Then of course I did Death Drop in London. So from a drag murder mystery to the Sydney Opera House! I was like, ‘Oh fuck, I’ve made it!'”

Courtney Act and Matt Day in rehearsals for Sydney Theatre Company’s Blithe Spirit. Photo credit: Prudence Upton/ STC.

How would you describe your Sydney Theatre Company experience so far?

“I was so nervous when we did the script read and Paige was like, ‘Babe, it’s a script read, not an audition. You’ve already got the part!’ But I wanted it to be an audition for the integrity of Sydney Theatre Company. She was like ‘You’ll be fine, doll, this is what you do!’ But it’s very different to just being yourself on stage.”

“I’m constantly shocked at how the world has evolved in the way people react to me and other queer people, especially drag performers. I’ve got a lifetime of conditioning, so I’ve been shocked over the last few years how I get treated…well, like a human! Treated as being valuable and worthy of these kinds of things instead of having to go out there and make my own stuff happen.”

“The cast is wonderful to work with. It’s so diverse, and I don’t mean that in a box-ticking kind of way. Paige has cast the most wonderful actors who are all hysterically funny. I think Matt Day was the only box tick. We had to cast a straight white male because they’re obviously a protected species these days!”

Matt Day, Courtney Act, and director Paige Rattray in rehearsals for Sydney Theatre Company’s Blithe Spirit. Photo credit: Prudence Upton/ STC.

Coward’s play was first performed in 1941, so is this production a period piece?

“No, our production is set in modern times, but because they’re all posh British people it still feels period! They all dress for dinner and one of the costume references is “Rihanna at the Met Gala”, so it’s full of these luxurious costumes and there’s a big full set. Because they’re so rich, there’s something timeless about it.”

You’re playing Elvira, the deceased first wife, but is it Shane Jenek playing Elvira, or Courtney Act playing Elvira, or Shane Jenek playing Courtney Act playing Elvira? 

“It’s Shane playing Courtney playing Elvira!”

Courtney Act. Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair.

I get the impression that the line between Shane and Courtney is pretty thin.

“It’s not that different either way to be honest. I’d give you the same answers if I was being interviewed as Courtney or Shane. I always feel it’s a shame that I have two names. Like Willam is always Willam, and that makes so much sense to me. It’s like being dressed for bed or being dressed for dinner. It’s still just me.”

What’s your take on the character? I’d ask how good you are at “playing dead”, but Elvira is definitely not resting in peace!

“She’s not resting in peace and she’s not letting anyone else rest in peace either! The thing that keeps coming to mind for me is how in Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, both Samantha and Jeannie had an evil twin or cousin (played by the same actress in a brunette wig). She’s the mischief, sneaky glamorous version. She’s a lot of fun, but when she doesn’t get her way she can turn like a cut snake. Elvira is like that. She’s described by Charles as having ‘a gay charm’ which I love.”

“One thing we’re looking at is the makeup. Traditionally Elvira is in gray scale, to represent that she’s dead. We don’t want it to be cartoonish, and I don’t want it to be like Detox’s amazing black and white runway look on Drag Race! I need to work out how to look dead, but also extremely glamorous. That’s the big challenge for me, well, that and learning all the lines!”

Courtney Act. Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair for 1883.

Can your fans expect a Courtney Act show or is the energy different?

“It’s a different energy, but the show itself is like a freight train, the energy is epic! It’s lovely because we all share the workload. I’m used to being on stage by myself and having to hold the audience for 90 minutes on my own. It’s wonderful, but it’s so physically draining and I can’t have any fun after a Courtney Act show because I need to rest and get ready for the next one. So this show is great because everyone’s in it, everyone’s supporting each other, and everyone’s feeding off each other’s energy, and they’re an energetic bunch!”

“It’s a farce so everyone is heightened. It’s not like I’m the sore thumb in this very cishet world. The characters are all very much larger than life. I don’t think you could do the play completely straight anymore. The cast really play it up, then there are the clothes, the sets, and the magic! We have some of the team from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child working on the tricks. So Shane, as Courtney, as Elvira is glamorous, but everyone else is glamorous as well.”

Dominique Jackson as Elektra in Pose. Photo credit: Eric Liebowitz/FX.

Finally, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

“I’ll choose a modern classic and say Pose. Three seasons of Pose changed the game. We went from having one Black trans actress on television with Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, and trans representation in Transparent—which was groundbreaking—to Pose, which level jumped things with an almost entire cast, crew, and creative team of trans and queer people, and specifically trans and queer people of colour. It took the ideas that society has about trans people and it gave them context and humanized them. You saw a trans women of colour doing sex work and you empathized with them. It challenged the way you looked at sex work and trans people and HIV. I feel like it changed the way people, including a lot of gay men, see trans people.”

By Chad Armstrong

The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Blithe Spirit plays at the Sydney Opera House from March 21st – May 14th 2022. Click here for tickets and more information.

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