November 3, 2009
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George Contini Is on the Fringe: Put It in the Scrapbook dramatizes the career of famed female-impersonator Julian Eltinge with sympathy and depth.
By Amy Whisenhunt
Fringe might just be theatre’s punk scene. In 1947 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the pioneers of fringe broke off to create their own all-inclusive subset of the performing arts—the more alternative, the better. Like other artists and groups of people relegated from the mainstream for ideas and presentation too radical for the masses, fringe was a response to exclusion by larger theatre festivals. Today fringe festivals are held all over the world as havens for small companies, avant-garde artists and all things weird and freaky. No matter how many times Kiss Me, Kate plays at the opera house, fringe remains a place for the risky, queer, innovative and experiential theatre that revitalizes the art form over and over again.
He first conceived of the script in 2004, and Contini spent years molding it with the help of director and fellow professor of theatre, Kristin Kundert-Gibbs. Put It in the Scrapbook is a fascinating, heart-breaking and heroic personal account of an artist’s professional demise, as well as a case study of early-20th-century gender politics. Born William Julian Dalton, Eltinge became a beloved star of Vaudeville, Broadway and silent film, earning him the highest salary of any performer in the United States. After years of celebration and success, a shift in the cultural perception of female impersonation chipped away at his reputation, distilling his celebrity and talent down to mere perversion.But fringe isn’t about ghettoizing the non-mainstream. Diversity is key in performer and audience. The spirit of openness, acceptance and exploration of fringe theatre is what makes it an avenue for identity expression and a powerful tool for conversation. Gaining its name because it suitably refers to art on the outskirts of pedestrian creativity, it pretty much guarantees audiences an unusual theatre experience. This November, local actor, playwright and associate professor of theatre at UGA, George Contini, will be transporting his original one-man show, Put It in the Scrapbook, about the life and career of famed female-impersonator Julian Eltinge, to the New Orleans Fringe Festival.
When we first meet Dalton, he seems worn down and tired, while at the same time still reeling from having everything yanked out from under his feet. The show begins with a news bulletin: The Eltinge Theatre, erected on Broadway in 1918, has been renovated into a new AMC movie theater. Who is Julian Eltinge? Just some drag queen, apparently. Contini then invites us into Dalton’s ornate, musty dressing room before the final performance of his career in October, 1941 at The Rendezvous, an L.A. club for “undesirables,” the term for homosexuals. We witness, in a half-guided and half-voyeuristic manner, a recounting of one of the most influential careers in American theatre history, from whimsical start to piteous finish. Of the play, Contini says: “[It] traces Eltinge’s career from his first performance impersonating a young girl for the Boston Cadet Academy in 1898 through his years of international fame during the 1920s to his eventual decline by 1940.”
Inside the dressing room, the audience meets a variety of characters: the aged Dalton, with a coarse voice and slumped posture, Eltinge the performer, plus those currently in his life and ghosts from his memories. We never see Eltinge “onstage.” Instead, we watch him in the mechanical and vulnerable state of preparing for a show. This is precisely what gives Put It in the Scrapbook such depth. Dalton is both unfocused and completely on point. We see him at his best, performing songs from his repertoire, and his worst, ripping dresses off the racks and throwing them on the floor. Juxtaposing fame and disgust, resilience and hopelessness, Contini captures the incredulous state of Dalton’s public favor like it’s a broken promise. How could it be that he once dazzled audiences with song and dance and, now, can’t wear a dress in public?
“The title Put It in the Scrapbook refers to a number of things; it is the name of a song from one of Eltinge’s very first appearances in youthful drag. Also, most of what we know about Eltinge is from various scrapbooks housed in archives throughout the country. And, finally, a scrapbook serves as the entry to Julian’s memories in the play,” says Contini. Put It in the Scrapbook could also be viewed as a dramaturgical opus. Contini further explains that the songs heard in …Scrapbook have not been performed for an audience since Eltinge did so nearly 100 years ago. “Every piece of music you hear is a song that Julian used in an act, many of them written by him, and nearly all the words Julian speaks are direct quotes from interviews he gave or articles he wrote.”
Put It in the Scrapbook is a celebration of one man’s rise and fall against the backdrop of an ongoing struggle. It’s also a reminder that the personal really is political. In Dalton’s words, “I go through a performance with all the keen relish of a man moving a piano on a hot day. The most satisfying part of my work is when the show’s over and I take the corsets off. I can get a full, deep breath.”
Catch Contini’s final dress rehearsal of Put It in the Scrapbook before the festival on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. in room 115 of the Fine Arts Building or, if you can make the trip, see his performance at the New Orleans Fringe Festival on Nov. 12 at 7 p.m., Nov. 14 at 9 p.m. and Nov. 15 at 5 p.m. Visit www.drama.uga.edu or www.nofringe.org for more information.