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Queen Bs: Northwestern graduate produces off-Broadway show highlighting identity issues through drag

%E2%80%9CBridget+Bishop+Presents%3A+The+Salem+Bitch+Trials%2C%E2%80%9D+produced+and+written+by+Jared+Rubin+Sprowls+%28Communication+%E2%80%9816%29%2C+premieres+Oct.+18+off-Broadway+and+features+New+York+drag+queens.
“Bridget Bishop Presents: The Salem Bitch Trials,” produced and written by Jared Rubin Sprowls (Communication ‘16), premieres Oct. 18 off-Broadway and features New York drag queens.

“Bridget Bishop Presents: The Salem Bitch Trials,” produced and written by Jared Rubin Sprowls (Communication ‘16), premieres Oct. 18 off-Broadway and features New York drag queens.

Source: Jared Rubin Sprowls

Source: Jared Rubin Sprowls

“Bridget Bishop Presents: The Salem Bitch Trials,” produced and written by Jared Rubin Sprowls (Communication ‘16), premieres Oct. 18 off-Broadway and features New York drag queens.

Kelley Czajka, Assistant A&E Editor

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“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.”

This line from actor and drag queen RuPaul’s song “Born Naked” spoke to Jared Rubin Sprowls (Communication ‘16), who started watching RuPaul’s Drag Race during his junior year at Northwestern.

The timing of Sprowls’ exposure to drag was key, as it coincided with his discovery that he could graduate with honors by writing a senior thesis play in tandem with a research reflection paper.

“At the time, I was (also) just thinking for some reason (about) this idea that the LGBT community is corrupting our children … And I was like: ‘That is so crazy. That sounds like a witch hunt,’” Sprowls said.

This, in addition to a budding love for Donna Summer music, led to the premise of “Bridget Bishop Presents: The Salem Bitch Trials,” Sprowls’ senior thesis play which premieres off-Broadway in New York on Oct. 18.

“Bridget Bishop” is a play about a drag queen who enlists her two drag daughters, a gogo dancer and a club emcee, to perform in a drag show about Bridget Bishop, the first woman executed in the Salem Witch Trials, all to the soundtrack of Donna Summer’s greatest hits. The meta-theatrical production emphasizes the theme of transformation to find identity, Sprowls said.

“It’s a lot about transformation,” he said. “The way that drag queens and many people, especially within the LGBT community, find their identity through transformation, through this fluidity of gender and performance of gender, and sort of what that means to them.”

Sprowls wrote the first version of the play from June 2015 to January 2016 and performed it at NU in February. But that performance wasn’t the end of the road for “Bridget Bishop.” Sprowls submitted his play for consideration by the Araca Project, an initiative of the Araca Group, which selects artists straight out of college to participate in a producing workshop culminating in a New York production.

While rehearsing for the NU production, Sprowls realized the play wasn’t reaching its full potential, he said. But if he were to get accepted to the Araca program, he would use that opportunity to rework the play and make it what he wanted.

Sprowls was the only recent NU undergraduate to win the contest, said Laura Schellhardt, head of the undergraduate playwriting program and Sprowls’ thesis adviser.

“I am thrilled that we live in a day and age where this type of theater is being given funding and is being celebrated,” Schellhardt said. “I don’t know that this sort of play would have been done on campus even five years ago, let alone being given a fellowship to go to New York. That’s an exciting development, not just on campus, but I think in the theater world.”

After being selected by Araca, Sprowls spent his summer reworking the script to fully develop each of the characters and give the actors time to memorize their lines and begin rehearsals in late September.

While Araca covered the cost of the performance space and a small portion of the budget, Sprowls was responsible for finding a crew and actors. For the crew, he kept it “in the family,” enlisting director Aaron Simon Gross (Communication ‘16) and stage manager Kyle Largent (Communication ‘16), as well as co-producer Caitlin de Lisser-Ellen, whom Sprowls did theater with in high school.

For actors, Sprowls said he and his crew reached out to their top choices of New York drag queens. All ended up saying yes, which Sprowles said felt “insane.”

Largent said stage managing the show was an interesting experience because the queens aren’t actors in a traditional sense.

“They’re definitely performers, and they perform every night, but a lot of drag is improvisation and lip syncing, so it’s been a really cool experience working with them getting to act for the first time onstage,” Largent said.

Although the run in New York will only last one week, Sprowls said it won’t be the end for “Bridget Bishop.” His hope is for the play to come back to Chicago one day and be performed by his favorite Chicago drag queens.

Sprowls said he hopes his show will encourage people who would never step inside a drag show to fall in love with the art form the way he did.

“I still remember the first time going to a drag club, seeing drag queens perform, so vividly and just thinking, ‘Oh my god. This is the best f—–g thing I’ve ever seen,’” Sprowls said. “I’m just in love with it; I still am. I love the form. Every single person — I don’t care if you’re gay, straight, bi, whatever the hell you are — go to a drag show. That’s entertainment.”

Sprowls said he hopes people of all gender identities embrace RuPaul’s motto: that every person is a blank slate, and we consciously decide how to present ourselves on a daily basis.

“We have a trans character; we have a cisgendered male character as well … It’s all a performance,” he said. “Hopefully people will feel empowered to express that however they feel. If they want to go to the club and wear a potato sack and heels, they can do that, whoever they are. You are allowed to perform that however you wish.”

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Twitter: @kelleyczajka

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