10 Apr Virginia Gay shines as Calamity Jane
Actor Virginia Gay gets under the skin of rootin’ tootin’ frontierswoman Calamity Jane and uncovers a feminist super hero. Cec Busby reports.
“She was a real person who lived by her wits outside any kind of gender norms or cultural expectations,” explains actor Virginia Gay of her title role in Hayes Theatre’s latest production, Calamity Jane.
“She was total iconoclast. She worked however she could, passed as a man before people discovered her true sex, she worked as a prostitute, a nurse, a scout in the army. She’s just a real feminist super hero.”
It’s clear Gay is enamored of the real life Calamity, whose life was the inspiration for the 1950s musical starring Doris Day and was recently cleverly reimagined in the HBO series Deadwood.
“Calam was a remarkable woman… and let’s not forget the importance of the queer love story in Calamity Jane. It’s a hugely important queer text.” She lists off the songs… “‘Secret Love’, ‘A Woman’s Touch’… So we are trying to find all the moments where we can explore that this is also a love story between two women. Plus it’s a comedy, a farce and it’s all about the performance of gender roles. We have the play set as a rag tag bunch of performers… I think that came from the idea that all gender is performance,” she explains.
Thanks to the Doris Day movie, most musical aficionados are familiar with the story of Calamity Jane, but Gay she says half the fun for the audience is Calam’s journey not her destination.
“We treat it a bit like Shakespeare, in that everyone knows what happens to Romeo and Juliet – but how you get there – how you subvert it or highlight it – that’s why people keep coming back. That and in this case, all the fabulous songs.”
Gay says she’s been working “super hard” to get her vocal chops in shape for the demanding role.
“We’ve been singing it all the way through and I’m coming away not tense… So that’s great. We’ve taken some of the songs into more of a range that is a bit more like my speaking voice, until she finds love and then it goes into the higher range.
“And the costume designers have been great – we start super masc and then she goes super femme. It’s like she tries on this gender role that’s really CIS and hates it. Then by the end it’s a bit of a hybrid where she is comfortable.”
Gay says since taking on the role she revisited the movie musical which was a childhood favourite.
“I misremembered it,” she says. “She was a lot more scrappy then I remembered. As a kid I thought she was the one who owned this one horse town. Which I think was really interesting because it’s something that can happen now but couldn’t 60 years ago…”
Calamity Jane is now play at the Hayes Theatre, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point. Go to hayestheatre.com.au
Image: Virginia Gay as Calamity Jane. Photo Cec Busby