Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.
Many actors like to think they’re chameleons, capable of playing any role. But Coy Covington is a stage actor with a specialty not everyone can do. He’s North Texas leading female impersonator. For this week’s profile in our Artist Spotlight series, Art & Seek joined Covington backstage as he prepared for his newest show.
Time-lapse video by Jerome Weeks
We’re in Coy Covington’s dressing room at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. He’s prepping for ‘The Tribute Artist,’ the comedy opening this weekend from Uptown Players
“Some people,” Covington says, “when they do their makeup, they’re very organized and their brushes go right back in the same place. I wish I did,” he laughs, “but I don’t. OK, here we go … ”
For Covington, preparing for such a role is a construction project. It takes two hours, two hours of make-up, wig and costume work before each performance.
“A lot of stuff in this sort of make-up,” he explains, “it’s literally black and white. To get that dramatic look you want, I use a lot of black and white.”
Covington has been performing in North Texas since the ‘90s. But while he’s played the conventional male role occasionally, his real success lies as a female impersonator; he’s a fan favorite especially with Uptown Players. “Female impersonator” is an old-fashioned term, but it’s closer to what Covington does than “drag queen.” That’s partly because the whole image and aura of drag has changed drastically since Covington was qualifying in pageants in the ‘90s for Miss Gay Texas and Miss Gay America. Now it’s not so much about ‘illusion’ as it is ‘transformation.’
“‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ is a huge hit on television,” Covington says. “They’re doing these fantastic, fantasy wigs and this just elaborate, Kabuki-type make-up and I love it. But that’s not what I do. I try to look real so that I can fit into these roles.”
Well, he looks ‘real’ as in ‘glamorous Hollywood grand dame’ real. ‘Real’ as in Joan Crawford in four-inch heels and a manic fury. Covington, after all, is a lean six feet tall. And with that height, plus his command of the stage, he can be a sight gag just paired with shorter leading men.
It’s “an old expression,” he says, drily, “with hair, heels and attitude, I’m about 6’4.””
Andi Allen has acted with and directed Covington since the ‘90s. She recalls first working with him back when Pegasus Theatre was in Deep Ellum. “He already was a professional actor,” she says. “So he actually could act a role instead of just ‘I’m impersonating a woman for the laughs.’ You buy into this character that’s being created. The illusion is absolutely and completely real. It really is kind of amazing.”
Covington says developing a female character always starts with the right shoes and the right walk. He takes a size 10 or 11 in women’s shoes – and will not wear flats on stage. “There’s no glamor in a flat,” he declares. “I’ve said it before and I stick with that.”
As for walking in high heels, “men lead with their shoulders, women with their hips – and I don’t know, but it comes easily for me. I just oil up my hips.” Allen remarks, “I’ve seen drag queens who can’t do the walk right in heels. It takes time to master,” she laughs, “even for women.”
Meanwhile, all the prep work that Covington does in his dressing room just before a show? Seventy five percent of that will be just making up his eyes.
“So I’m just going to continue contouring my eyes,” he says, peering closely into the mirror. “I know it looks like ‘evil queen,’ but when all’s said and done, it’ll come together, you’ll see.”
Covington was born the son of a Marine, he grew up all over the country. He recalls his family shipping out from San Diego – where they have an excellent young theater program, the San Diego Junior Theatre, the country’s oldest-run children’s theater — shipping out to “Cherry Point, North Carolina.” He pauses for dramatic effect. “Population: 10,000. The culture shock couldn’t have been more egregious.” He credits one high school English teacher with nurturing his love of theater. Covington graduated from the University of North Carolina with an MFA in acting. He acted in New York, then decided to try LA. On his way out west, he stopped to visit a friend in Dallas for a week. He enjoyed it. So when a touring musical he was in quickly died in California – “it was a hiiiiiideous show” – Covington re-considered his options.
“And all of a sudden, I just thought, ‘Well, I loved Dallas,’ so that’s how I ended up here, for what? 35 years.”
By the time he moved to Dallas, Covington had drifted out of theater. Instead, he drifted into hanging out with drag queens, visiting drag clubs. Part of the appeal of drag, he says, is that it’s an even more flamboyant style of theater.
“It’s just huge and over the top, and I just started getting interested in doing it myself,” he recalls. “You know, when you start out, you often have a ‘drag mother.’ And that’s somebody who helps you learn the ropes, and that tradition goes on still today. So I learned how to do make-up and that’s also when I started learning how to do hair.”
In fact, these days, Covington is the resident hair and make-up designer for Uptown Players. With his straight roles, his drag roles and all his backstage work, ‘The Tribute Artist’ is Covington’s 75th show with the company.
Much of Covington’s success in theater is because of playwright Charles Busch. Busch is a New York female impersonator who began writing comedies for himself to star in as the leading lady — starting off-off-Broadway, in the East Village, even the Provincetown Playhouse with such campy send-ups as ‘Vampire Lesbians of Sodom’ (1984) and ‘Psycho Beach Party’ (1987) . His plays often spoof old Hollywood films – with titles like ‘Die Mommy Die,’ ‘Red Scare on Sunset’ and ‘The Tribute Artist.’
“Even the syntax he writes in, it’s what I call ‘glamor talk,'” Covington says, putting on a huskier, almost mid-Atlantic voice. “I can just fall into it so easily.”
Busch developed a kind of camp comedy – full of the usual outlandish outfits, posturing character types and what ‘The New York Times’ calls ‘harmless depravity’ – but in a typical Busch comedy, theatergoers know full well the diva-ish woman is being played by a man. But none of the other stage characters do. The result is all the puns and double entendres are directed over the slow-witted characters’ heads straight to the audience. This kind of tongue-in-cheek humor was made for Covington, and Busch has called him one of the best interpreters of his work.
“Charles and I are often in touch,” says Covington, “and I’m always saying, ‘I can do this as long as he can keep writing plays!’ And I’ve made that very clear to him.”
“This is your five minute call,” the dressing room’s speaker crackles. “Five minutes til the top of the show.”
This year, Covington turned 60. It doesn’t bother him, he says. “Doing one of these female characters, I feel like I could be any age,” he says. “I feel timeless.”
Even so, ‘‘The Tribute Artist’ is likely to be a memorable benchmark in Covington’s life. Ten members of his family have decided to come and see it.
They’re scattered all across the country – from Alabama to California – so this will be the first time nine of them have ever seen Covington play a woman.
When did you discover theater?
My parents are in the military [the Marines], and I was born in Meridian, Mississippi. But then we got stationed in various places, a lot of places in the South: Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia.
Our best gig — [laughs] I guess you could say — was in San Diego. That was where I first started really getting interested in theater. San Diego has a very thriving youth theater program, the San Diego Junior Theatre. When I was there, it was housed in beautiful Balboa Park, and that’s where I first thought, ‘I want to do this. I see that there’s a place here for me.’
But then my father got stationed in Cherry Point, North Carolina! Population: 10,000 [laughs]. It was culture shock at its most egregious. But, luckily, there was a lady. She was an English teacher. Her name — I’ll never forget it — was Sandra Hunsucker. She cared about theater. She didn’t know a lot about theater, but she saw the importance of it. We would do one musical a year. And I was cast in the lead both years I was there.
So at least I had that. For college, I’d been studying both acting and singing, so I applied to both the North Carolina School of the Arts – it’s a major arts school – and the University of North Carolina. But UNC accepted me in theater, while the School of the Arts accepted me in singing, and I’d decided by then I wanted to do theater. So that’s where I got my degrees.
When did you first consider yourself or call yourself an artist?
You know, I think I started calling myself that only when other people started calling me that. I had become relatively well-known within a certain circle for doing these Charles Busch plays [as a female impersonator], and people had told me, ‘You elevate that to an art form.’ So I think I took my cue from others who thought I was an artist, and I began to see it in myself.
So although you’d acted before, you didn’t really consider yourself a theater artist before performing in drag?
No, I’d always considered myself an actor, but it was only when I found this special niche, I think, that I realized, ‘This is where I can make my biggest impact.’ And so far, that’s proven true – at least here in Dallas.
How has North Texas affected your art?
What a lot of people don’t understand away from the area — although it’s very well understood here — is how thriving this community is. I don’t know if there’s a list somewhere of exactly how many theaters operate in North Texas, but there are so many opportunities. And that’s not understood elsewhere
I was away from theater for a long time, but when I wanted to get back into it, there were a lot of opportunities. Moonstruck Theatre and Pegasus Theatre [both in Deep Ellum in the ’80s and ’90s], then from Pegasus, I went to Theatre Arlington and did some shows there. And typically, you meet people, and you become involved in the circle — the family, quote unquote. We all feed each other information: ‘Oh, here’s an audition and there’s an audition here. You oughta come to that.’
So North Texas really brought me out and actually gave me the most opportunities I’ve ever had in my career.
Have you had to keep a day job to pursue your art?
Oh my god, I have the most wonderful day job. I work in executive administration for Dallas Children’s Theater. We’re about to go into our 34th season, and this’ll be my 10th season there. I work directly with Robyn Flatt. Of course, she’s got her fingers in all the pies in the theater, and because she does, I do, too. It’s very interesting because there’s always something different going on. It can be something artistic or something happening with the building. We’re just getting some brand new signage that we’re really excited about because for the first time people from far and wide can see the actual symbol of Dallas Children’s Theater.
But it’s been terrific for me because of one thing. It’s like an artist’s community there. Robyn’s built a staff where a lot of them have been there for a number of years. It’s a very congenial group and we support each other. Robyn and the rest of the staff support people who do outside things, and because Robyn came from a show business family, she just gets it.
Have you had to give up anything for your art? Money? Social life? Other dreams?
I honestly think I’ve received more than I’ve ever given up. So I’m not doing a very good job of answering your question.
Perhaps it’s because I really think it’s enhanced my life. It hasn’t taken anything away from it.
Interview questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.