Kate Zibluk in conversation with Egregious Philbin
Brooklyn-based drag artist on gender performance as a form of political resistance
I met Teresa Braun (Egregious Philbin) at the 2019 Interrobang:New Works festival at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg. I was working behind-the-scenes, witnessing a nightly showcase of Brooklyn’s most transgressive performance artists. That night, Teresa was performing as Egregious Philbin, just one of their drag alter-egos. Within a span of ten minutes, they morphed from a set of disembodied hands to a BDSM bride, regurgitating their own wedding ring in a subversive marriage ritual. We recently sat down to connect over the intersection of drag nightlife and experimental theater and the similarities between my upbringing in the midwest and theirs in a remote Mennonite community in Canada.
Kate Zibluk: I recently moved to NYC from the midwest to study theater at The New School. I’ve always been drawn to fairly traditional forms of theater, but working backstage at experimental festivals and drag shows has opened my eyes to Brooklyn’s underground performance scene. Your work seems to straddle these two worlds and revolve around your gender identity. How do you identify and what’s the background of your work?
Teresa Braun: I’m an assigned-female-at-birth drag king and genderqueer performance artist. Like you, I studied in educational institutions and did my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Fine Arts. While I value those experiences and have always thought of my work as experimental, the general assumption was that we would show our work in traditional galleries. After I graduated, I moved from sculpture and video into performing in both traditional and experimental theater spaces. My work has always revolved around multiple identities and gender performance, which led me to the drag scene. The more transgressive the venue, the more at home I feel. Drag has challenged me to re-examine and expand my gender identity, which I now see as a continuum between my “everyday self” and “performance self”. I use they/them pronouns as a way of acknowledging this multiplicity.
Kate Zibluk: We’ve talked about the 2016 election as a catalyst for your transition into drag. Can you expand on that?
Teresa Braun: Obviously that was a moment that shook many folks, including those within the NYC art scene. As a Canadian it was particularly surreal and I questioned my decision to live here. I’m unable to vote but challenged myself to respond. I became Peter Funk, a far-right drag king. I performed as a political figure, joined a wrestling league, held campaign rallies, spoke at a university, and created a YouTube news channel where I edited myself into talking-head political debates. I really connected with Rohit Chopra’s line about “the fool (that) speaks truth to power — (using) satire as a small, democratic weapon”.
Kate Zibluk: Moving to NYC from a small, conservative town has had a huge impact on me. My assumptions about the world are regularly blown apart, but at the same time, our histories stay with us. How does your upbringing relate to your current work?
Teresa Braun: Peter Funk is Mennonite, which is where my cultural history and political identity meet. I see deep similarities between traditional Mennonite culture and secular patriarchy. I was raised on my family’s farm in the Canadian Prairies and to an extent identify culturally as a Mennonite. We have a complicated history and I draw on its most conservative aspects. I want to note that many Mennonites don’t live this way anymore.
Mennonites broke away from the Catholic church in the 1500s which was very controversial. There’s an aspect of radicalism: we were historically persecuted since we’re staunch pacifists and refuse to go to war. Despite this admirable quality, gender stereotypes were deeply embedded and rarely questioned. Like many religions, early Mennonite colonies were microcosms of patriarchy. Peter Funk’s mannerisms and dress are that of the Mennonite “Über-Schultz”, male authority figures that instill guilt, find fault, and are so certain of their dominance that alternative power structures are unfathomable. The early Mennonite aesthetic was utilitarian and most churches are still plain. The Amish and Mennonites share roots, but Mennonites tend to be less strict. My own family is supportive of me and my work although I don’t share every detail.
Kate Zibluk: I also grew up in a religious environment and went to Catholic school. In one of your Egregious Philbin performances you transform from a nun to a Roman soldier to a sinister televangelist. Given my background, I’m fascinated by the ways you use religious symbolism. Can you expand on this and explain how it relates to your own religious upbringing?
Teresa Braun: Catholic churches are very flashy compared to Mennonite houses of worship, which is handy for drag. I’m particularly obsessed with communion, which shows up in all Christian denominations. I love the idea that you’re literally eating and drinking Jesus. At the end of the act I stab myself in the chest, pour wine out of the wound, pull bread out of my pants and take communion. All of my acts feature some aspect of eating. I strip away each layer to reveal a different archetype but I want the ending to actually permeate my body.
Given the fact that I switch gender identities, I like that The Virgin Mary is such a present symbol in Catholicism, even though she’s thought of as a vessel. I have another act where I pop out of a body bag as the Virgin Mary and give birth to a golden egg. There is a faberge egg inside which contains a real egg yolk. When I eat it, symbolism and reality overlap. In this version, Mary is in control of her body rather than relying on immaculate conception. I think of the yolk as re-fertilizing my body and the ritual going on forever.
Kate Zibluk: Can you talk more about the underground drag king/gender-queer performance scene in Brooklyn?
Teresa Braun: It’s a transgressive and under-represented world in terms of media coverage, since drag is often associated with a cis man dressing up as a “passing” woman. People aren’t afraid to make messes or use their bodies in vulnerable ways. People will pull huge objects out of their orifices. They’ll cover themselves with giant balloons and slowly pop them to titillate balloon fetishists. They’ll smash bags of oranges to reclaim their anger. They’ll paint their bodies to talk about the pain of being trapped in a skin that doesn’t feel like home. Bearded queens and genderless otherworldly creatures are the norm. Drag, burlesque, pole-dancing, and sideshow collide and overlap.
When I tell people outside of this scene that I’m a drag king, they sometimes don’t know what I’m talking about. They can be huge fans of Rupaul’s Drag Race but the idea of drag being anything other than transforming into a beautiful woman is confusing. I do want to acknowledge that many amazing drag queens also work in the underground scene. I highly respect this form of drag and its long history. But when it comes to the general population, these assumptions are still there.
Kate Zibluk: How do you think these assumptions have and continue to affect the drag scene in general?
Teresa Braun: One of the problems is that we don’t often hear about the history of drag kings or gender-nonconforming performers. In the late 1800s and early 1900s many drag kings became British music hall stars. Stormé DeLarverie was a notable male impersonator in the 1950s and 60s. It’s worth noting that her father was Caucasian and her mother was African American. She’s said to be the catalyst of the Stonewall riots. She was in male drag at the time and eyewitnesses say she was arrested and fighting with police during one of the regular Stonewall Inn raids. They beat her over the head as she continued to resist. Bleeding, she screamed at the crowd of bystanders: “Why don’t you guys do something?”. This is still a question we need to ask one another.
I will say that the public perception of drag is slowly shifting as conversations around trans/non-binary rights increase. We tend to think of history as progressive in a linear way. But the story of Stormé DeLarverie is still radical. Why don’t we hear it more often? It’s hard for me to understand the underrepresentation of our history as unrelated to racism and patriarchy.
In terms of today, I feel there’s an insular aspect to our community. When a group of people experience exclusion and violence they often form boundaries around their communities in order to feel safe. While this is incredibly valuable, I’ve noticed a gap between drag nightlife and theater venues. I was just appointed “drag/genderqueer” performance curator of the Brick theater and am very committed to bridging that gap while respecting the differences in each community.