'Make Me Gorgeous!' star Wade McCollum on the healing power of queer stories

McCollum discusses what brought him to theatre, his favorite shows, and why the story of LGBTQ trailblazer Kenneth/Kate Marlowe is urgent now more than ever.

Gamal ElSawah
Gamal ElSawah

Once celebrated as a prominent figure in mid-century American LGBTQ+ culture, Kenneth/Kate Marlowe led a multifaceted life as a renowned celebrity hairstylist, the madam of a notorious gay prostitution ring in Hollywood, an author, a drag performer, a private in the U.S. Army, a call boy, a Christian missionary, a mortuary cosmetologist, a newspaper columnist, and more, before transitioning genders later in life.

That lesser-known true story is the subject of Make Me Gorgeous!, a new solo play by writer/director Donnie and starring Wade McCollum as Marlowe. A queer actor himself who finds intrigue and hope in Marlowe's story, he stars in the production through December 31 at Playhouse 46 @ St. Lukes, right before he moves to Broadway in Water for Elephants from February 24, 2024.

New York Theatre Guide caught up with McCollum to talk about his performance in Make Me Gorgeous!, what brought him to theatre, how his art overlaps with science, and why Marlowe's story is so important to tell right now.

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What brought you to work in theatre?

I grew up in rock and roll. My dad is a drummer. I was born into a family where making music was how we made a living. But the theatre, specifically, was for people with a lot of money, if I'm being honest. I didn't see a play until very late, when my middle school ended up taking us. I was in Ashland, Oregon – home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is this ginormous regional theatre. And basically, the little town of Ashland, its entire industry is theatre. Millions of people come!

Because of my proximity to the Shakespeare Festival, once I saw a play, I started very quickly realizing that's what I was built for. I dropped out of high school when I was about 15, went to a conservatory in California, and I've been acting ever since. It's been over 30 years.

What are some of your favorite shows of all time?

August: Osage County really rocked my world, both productions of The Color Purple. I have a real strong connection to that book. It was really important to me as young, queer kid. It was very powerful to see that translated into a theatrical medium.

[And] Angels in America. I actually read the play on the floor of Bloomsbury Books in Ashland, Oregon, the year it got published. It was one of those fulcrum points in one's life where, for the first time, I really saw, in Prior, somebody I felt like I could emulate. I saw myself reflected, to some extent, in this spiritual queer man. It transformed me. It gave me a lot of hope. And it helped me mourn.

Being 13 or 14 during the height of the AIDS crisis was a complex coming-of-age moment for a queer kid. And so Angels helped me grieve. It helped me hold the sacredness and the loss at the same time.

When the national tour came through Portland, Oregon, I ended up driving up there with some friends, and saw Stephen Spinella as Prior. That was totally transforming, and then I had a goal to play that part someday. Some years ago, I did play Prior, opposite my husband playing Louis.

What excites you about playing with drag and gender non-conformity in theatre? You’ve starred as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Frank n Furter in Rocky Horror, Mitzi in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in I Am My Own Wife, the Emcee in Cabaret, and now Kenneth/Kate Marlowe in Make Me Gorgeous!

Being queer and gender-non-conforming myself, that's probably a huge part of it. But also, outsiders make the most interesting drama. Stories about dynamic individuals who are walking to the tune of their own drum just make really interesting stories.

Whether it’s about being neurodivergent, or it's about being queer or being trans, grappling with one's identity as it brushes up against societal norms makes for a really interesting and rich character.

And with a lot of the characters I play, also, perhaps being on the autism spectrum, like myself, there's this question of, “How does this person navigate the world, when the world is not necessarily set up for this person?” That type of adversity perhaps creates a resilience and a muscularity of character that I'm drawn to.

This is a particularly shaky time to be queer in America, with anti-drag and anti-trans bills being floated across the country. Did that have any effect on how you approached Make Me Gorgeous!?

Absolutely. One hundred percent more urgent. There's a strong sense of optimism and dignity in this character I found in playing them and reading their story. Though they were doing things a lot of people would consider fringe, people never really did, a lot of the time. There was this real sense of dignity and a sense of belonging they carried with them. That's not to say they didn't undergo hardship; of course they did. But highlighting that thread of dignity, that thread of belonging, and also that unapologetic flamboyance feels so vital. Now, unfortunately, it still feels very relevant.

Kate Marlowe was born in 1926. We have always been here throughout human history – gender-non-conforming, intersex people, we've always been around. There's been such a deliberate, straightwashing of history. It is important, especially because of the AIDS crisis, when we lost so many queer elders, to highlight those stories. Kate Marlowe is really one of those queer elder people that really flourished before the AIDS crisis.

To know that is our inheritance, as queer people, is so vital. And to know that we are not disconnected. There is a continuity of history. There is a thread of this queer DNA that we can tap into. It feels like we're pulling that thread through the opaque layers of these blankets that have been put over the past to make it seem like “that never existed” and “it should never exist.” When we know that's not true. We’re medicine for the world.

Make Me Gorgeous! is a true story, and Kate Marlowe is a real person. Do you find there’s anything different or more complicated about playing a historical character versus a fictional one?

I enjoy it, and I find myself doing it often. Ernest Shackleton was another historical character; there have been quite a few. It's a double-edged sword. There is (hopefully) more research information and you can gather your character’s background from the annals of history. That is useful as an actor to have that done for you and not have to generate that biographical material yourself. That said, the other edge of the sword is that it can feel like you're beholden to historical accuracy, rather than doing service to the play itself – the drama that we have on the page.

I try to hold deep respect for the true story of these people – they walked on Earth, they had relationships, they made mistakes, they had triumphs just like everybody else — and honor that. At the same time, I realize what we're doing as theatre workers is narrative craftsmanship. We are specifically designing a narrative that can be satisfying to an audience within a very short period of time. We'd be doing a disservice to everybody, in a way, if we stuck right to the historical facts just because of a lot of factors, based on perspective and who won the war of getting to tell the story.

How long have you been with Make Me Gorgeous!?

Just a year. We did a three-week run in Portland, Oregon of a rough draft of the show. It was a great step toward the final product.

What was it like performing a version of the show in Oregon, where you spent a lot of time growing up?

It was great! I love Portland, I love Oregon. There's a really strong community of artists there, and as a qualitative emotional scientist, I enjoy seeing how certain jokes land in various population groups, and then trying to figure out why. Why does something resonate as funny in one place, but not in another?

A qualitative emotional scientist? Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

I'm getting a neuroscience degree right now, which is crazy because I didn't graduate high school. I'm in an accelerated program at UPenn, researching the neuroscience of narrative. I'm unpacking stories from a more quantitative perspective and seeing how stories affect our brain, and then also the inverse of that – how our neurobiology shapes narrative, and how this recursive feedback loop of telling our own story over and over again is creating this palimpsest of personality, creating our own narrative understanding of who we are as people.

As actors, we have these other wild layers of how we're holding our own story in relationship to a character we're embodying the verisimilitude of truth for. I'm just so deeply curious about where all that emotion lives in a person's brain when they're on stage. Is there differentiation between the character’s emotional life and the actor’s emotional life – where's the Venn diagram of overlap? I don't think I'll ever be done with what I'm doing, and that's why I love it so much. It's just this endless, incredible journey of discovery. But as a scientist for the first time in my life, I feel like a whole person.

Do you have time to see shows between Make Me Gorgeous! and your studies? Are there any shows would you recommend right now? (Besides Make Me Gorgeous!, of course.)

I want to see Becca Blackwell’s show [Snatch Adams & Tainty McCracken Present It's That Time of the Month]; I’ll probably see that in the next few days. Becca is just an incredible whirlwind of talent. The truth is, no, I haven't seen much. I haven't had time in the past two months. I wish I had – there's a lot I want to see.

What would you want people to take away from Make Me Gorgeous!?

An evidence of belonging, a celebration of wild individuality, and a dignity matched with street smarts. That you can hold all of those things, you can be a person who is aware of one's surroundings, but also walk in a dignified, wildly individualistic way, and carry one's sense of belonging with them. And also, a sense of community. We're not alone, and we never have been. And we never will be. We just have to keep holding each other up and being visible and helping each other out.

Get Make Me Gorgeous! tickets now.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Photo credit: Wade McCollum in Make Me Gorgeous! (Photo courtesy of production)

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