It's an exciting time for The Rubi Girls, Dayton's comedic drag troupe. They're celebrating the 10th anniversary of their award-winning documentary and they've just moved into a glitzy new clubhouse filled with colorful memorabilia. The new digs feature plenty of rehearsal space, a make-up and dressing room, a wall of wild wigs, and an extensive costume and prop room.
The group will celebrate its “decade of decadence” at the Dayton Art Institute on Saturday, Aug. 3. The festive evening will include a screening of the documentary, live performance, a Q&A with the “girls” and hors d’oeuvres by Veritas Events.
Amidst all the excitement, we visited the Rubi Girls at their Wayne Avenue clubhouse as they were dressing up and preparing to host an open house for loyal fans. Two members of the group — Jonathan McNeal and Brent Johnson — represented the group for our Q & A. McNeal, who studied motion picture production and taught documentary production at Wright State University, is the producer/director/editor of “The Rubi Girls” film.
Q. So how would you describe a Rubi show to someone who has never been to one?
McNeal: I was a Rubi fan - a “groupie” even - before I became part of the troupe. A Rubi Show is hysterical. The material is fresh and bawdy and often full of timely references. The energy of the performers is invigorating. Nothing is 100 percent set in stone … there’s lots of room for spontaneity.
Q. What’s the goal of each show?
Johnson: The goal for each show is to cast the net a little wider in getting the word out about AIDS. Finding an audience that maybe doesn’t know AIDS affects them and people they know. In addition, obtaining money to support those organizations that serve the community through AIDS-related services.
Q. How did the Rubi Girls first get started and where did you get the name?
McNeal: “Rubi” comes from Rubicon Street. It all started for a few of the boys as they were in college in the mid-80’s and were relatively broke. They entertained each other by putting on small shows that evolved into bigger parties. The drag consisted of bed sheets, lampshades, etc. At that point, it was just fun - it wasn’t a mission yet. We had four originals: Two still perform regularly with us. The other two live outside of Dayton.
Q. How did you each develop a stage character?
McNeal: I can’t speak for each of the “Girls,” but for me, my character is an extension of myself. I tend to be a bit shy, and in junior high I developed an extraordinary amount of stage fright — though I had been in numerous shows in grade school. I believe that a lot of this had to do with name-calling and bullying. Ileasa Plymouth (my drag name) is more outgoing, flirtier and willing to make a fool of herself. She’s helped me become more self-confident in my daily life.
Q. Have you had to deal with any criticism/negativity?
McNeal: On occasion. Sometimes it’s about the material — don’t ask a bunch of raunchy, foul-mouthed performers to emcee a formal, sit-down dinner unless that’s what you’re looking for. Sometimes it’s due to fear and homophobia. A guy on a bus once started yelling slurs at me, and someone said “Just blow him a kiss.” That’s a great lesson. There’s less power in someone’s words if you don’t let them affect you.
Q. To what do you attribute your growth and success as a troupe?
McNeal: I think people like the material and they value our drive and mission. That said, I think a big part of it comes from the camaraderie on stage. The audience sees that love, and they want to be a part of it.
Q. What’s the rehearsal process for you? Is there one director? How do you choose topics, songs, etc.
McNeal: Before a show, we get together as a group and brainstorm. People bring ideas to the table and we work them out as a group — we try to be timely and rip topics from the headlines. For example, Sarah Palin singing “You Must Love Me” from Evita wouldn’t be as funny today as it was right after the election.
Q. How does someone become a Rubi Girl? Do you hold auditions?
Johnson: The process of becoming a Rubi Girl is organic. Someone gets acquainted with the group or a member and then helps with props, or sells tickets. We are friends first, then showgirls. We’ve never held auditions but we’re in talks with ARC Ohio to host a “Newbie Rubi Pageant” — a fun benefit that would allow RubiWannabees to strut their stuff for us. The winner would get to perform with us.
Q. What’s the biggest challenge of producing the show?
McNeal: Getting all of us in one place at one time is the biggest challenge. We all work full-time, some of us with multiple jobs and volunteer obligations. We do four to eight shows a year — but only a few in Dayton. Over the years, we’ve done shows at colleges (we host one of the highest attended events at Ohio Northern each year - “A Rubi Affair”), at bars in other cities and at resorts such as The Dunes in Saugatuck, Michigan and Cherry Grove in Fire Island, N.Y.
Q. Are there popular segments you repeat?
McNeal: There are numbers that people want to see again and again. We’ve been doing a spoof of “Titanic” since the movie was in cinemas the first time. “Rubidance” is our “Riverdance” parody, “The Cell Block Tango” is ready-made for a comedic drag troupe.
Q. What kind of children were you? Was dressing up in girls’ clothing something you did as kids?
Johnson: We are all different. One of us is different from the next. Some of us had single parents, some of us have parents that are still together today. Some of our parents supported our difference and some didn’t. Some of our parents come to the shows and some don’t want to know a thing about it.
In addition, some of us like sports, some like movies, some like lifelong learning through formal education and some of us dressed in girls clothing from an early age. All of us have an eye for fashion — it’s just a matter of taste.
Q. What professions are you all in real life? Have you had theatrical/dance/singing training?
McNeal: A couple of us are involved in community theater and have had some vocal training, but for the most part, we’re self-taught. Our jobs range from teachers to business owners to counselors to cinema managers (that’s me).
Q. How did you pick the charities you’ve supported and why?
McNeal: HIV/AIDS organizations are close to our hearts because we saw so many of our friends and loved ones affected by the disease in the 1980s. It continues to be a huge issue, but society has considered it treatable, thus unimportant. We want to make sure those organizations are able to continue educating and reaching out. The other charities we support are often LGBT-related, like PFLAG and the Greater Dayton LGBT Center.
Q. Who comes to a Rubi Girls show?
McNeal: The Rubi audience is diverse and eclectic. More straight than gay. More older than younger. It’s great to see such a broad spectrum of the community in a Rubi audience.
Q. How did the documentary come about? What has been the response to it?
McNeal: Someone said, “There’s a great story happening right in your own backyard. It might be familiar to you, but it’d be a fresh story for a lot of people.” The response has been great. It hasn’t stopped playing — whether in film festivals or college campuses — for 10 years. After the movie premiered in San Francisco in June of 2003, it was immediately invited to screen at festivals across the country … and it garnered several awards along the way.
Q. Where do you get your costumes, props?
McNeal: Thrift stores are terribly important to most Rubi Girls, but some of the performers do make their own costumes. That said, even the thrift store purchases get altered — shortened, bedazzled, deconstructed.
Q. Are there misconceptions about people who appear in drag that you’d like to clarify?
McNeal I can’t speak for all performers, I can only speak for myself and some of the other Rubi Girls. We like being men. We’re not trying to “pass” as women. We’re out to have fun. We don’t take drag seriously, we take having a great time seriously. Drag is an opportunity to put on a mask and let down your guard.
Q. What’s been most important to you personally about being one of the Rubi Girls?
McNeal: There’s a lot to love. I love getting a chance to be creative and let myself go on stage. I love trying to keep it fresh. But most of all, I love the fact that spending time with my friends can make a difference in the community.
Q. What are some of the proudest moments of your Rubi Girl career?
McNeal: We received a Community Service Award back in 1999. The awards that started coming in for the documentary were great, but one of my favorite moments was one that I didn’t witness. The movie played at a small festival in Akron and won the audience award. Due to my schedule, I wasn’t able to attend, but my parents were there — and they accepted the award on my behalf. As a gay man, that’s a pretty special thing. Not only are my parents accepting of me, they’re willing to stand up in a room full of people and show their acceptance.
Q. What advice would you give to parents whose children are “different” in any way?
McNeal: Embrace the “different.” We’re all different … and thank goodness for that.
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