On Point With: Barbra Herr

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This gorgeous Bronx native has been entertaining us in NYC, Puerto Rico and beyond for decades as a drag queen, a cabaret performer, and a thespian. With stage and screen roles quite limited for trans performers, she has taken matters into her own hands by creating projects and roles for herself–the latest of which is debuting on Friday, and will be her first dramatic piece. Thotyssey is honored to have a chance to speak to the legendary Barbra Herr!


Thotyssey: Barbra, hello and thanks for talking to us! I know this is a very busy time for you. Does this feel like “busy” in a good way, or a somewhat overwhelming way?

Barbra Herr: Both! It is good because I am doing what I love, and overwhelming because I am a perfectionist. I constantly strive for perfection in my work. This new play will be Off Off Broadway. I need it to be perfect.

I’m sure it will be as close to perfect as can be with you in charge! You’ve been an entertainer on all types of stages over the years… is theatre where you feel the most home now?

Theater is where I have felt at home my entire life. As a trans actor, when I was transitioning, it was not a cool thing to be, especially in mainstream acting: theater, TV, film. So, I basically made a career in cabaret in order to pay the bills.

Do you like to mix it up between musical/comedy and more serious drama, or do you have a preference?

I like the mix. This new show is my first really dramatic piece.

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Can’t wait to talk about it! First, let’s get a little background info on you… are you a native of Puerto Rico or the Bronx?

Bronx, NY. Puerto Rican parents. I moved to PR at 15 and stayed until I was 35. My career basically started there.

Drag?

Drag and theater, yes. In the 70’s! A whole other world.

I bet! Were you drawn to drag because you were exploring your gender at the time, or was it just the best way to be gorgeous and the type of performer you wanted to be?

Both! I knew my calling was theater: acting, singing, but I also knew there was something calling me even stronger: my identity. So I needed to explore it.

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Did you ultimately move back to New York because you thought that was a better place to do that?

I moved back because I had done everything in PR as far as performance was concerned. I did it as a drag queen and as a male actor.

It was time to live my truth. I knew I was not gay. I could not do it in PR in the 80’s because there was huge discrimination towards trans persons in the gay scene. I would not have worked. So I came back to NYC and transitioned here.

What neighborhood were you living in when you first returned to NYC… the Bronx?

I never lived in the Bronx until now. I lived in Manhattan for a while, and later moved to Queens for 17 years!

Oh wow, you’ve been in most of the boroughs. Did you feel basically safe in the city then? 1980′s New York was no joke!

I have had only one really bad experience in my entire life. I lived in Corona, and I got beat up by a bunch of guys. They’re all in jail. They got 20 years for a hate crime. After that, I moved to Sunnyside and remained there until I went back to PR to care for my Dad.

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What was your first drag gig here in NYC, do remember? 

My first one was in 1973, in the Bronx. I came here for a few months to study hairdressing. When I moved back in 1989, my early gigs were at Sally’s and Escuelita.

And who were your early drag sisters?

Dorian Corey, Lady CatiriaLady Bunny, Perfidia, Sweetie, and so many others.

Legends one and all! Lady Catrina passed away several years ago, and It was so sad to hear of the recent passing of Sweetie. Were you aware of her declining health?

I knew for three years. She has asked me to keep it quiet. We were very good friends. I recently performed at her star-studded birthday bash at Highland Ballroom. It was the last time I saw her.

 

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Very sorry for your loss, she will certainly be missed. So as far as your own New York drag career goes, I know you hosted popular Latin nights at the Monster and Evolve, plus several Jackson Heights venues, and many others beyond. But drag is on the back burner for you now?

I don’t do the bars anymore. I have one bar gig that I have kept because I have been there 18 years, and that is Friends Tavern in Jackson Heights. I have moved on from the bars. I am not really interested in lip syncing anymore. My focus now is mainstream cabaret and theater.

We can find you last Sundays hosting at Friends.

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As far as theater goes, what have been some of your favorite roles you’ve played, outside of your own stage shows? And what are some dream roles you’d like to play someday?

Good question! I loved playing Zsa Zsa in La Cage Aux Folles in PR. The rest of my credits have been shows I have written, because otherwise I would never have gotten cast in anything mainstream. The trans actors are being recognized, but not enough. A dream role would be Norma Desmond, or Mama Rose. I am at that age now.

OMG, that would slay

So, how do you enjoy writing your own shows? That must be a long and crazy process. 

Writing is not my comfort zone at all. I do it because I need to work.

Do you have trustworthy people in your circle that you can bounce ideas off of, or do you kinda write in a vacuum?

I have a great creative team working with me, and I get feedback from them.
I basically write about my own experiences..

That’s the best place to write from, especially when you’ve led a life as rich as yours! Last spring you performed your show I’m Still Herr at the BAAD! Theatre in the Bronx and the Duplex. How happy were you with how that turned out?

This was a cabaret show dedicated to my stage mother mo! It was pretty light, comparing it to my new show. It was me, my story and a piano.

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You’re new show that’s you’ve written and are starring in, Trans-Mission, is a much more serious bit of business that’s opening May 5th as part of Teatro Círculo’s Callback Series. First of all, how did this opportunity come about? Did you write the show and then shopped it around, or did you create it specifically for this venue and series?

I had spoken to my friend José Oliveras, the director of Teatro Círculo, about doing a cabaret show there. He jumped on it for the Callback Series. I got my friend Luis Caballero, who is a Helen Hayes Award nominee, to direct, and Rachel Kaufman to be my accompanist a musical director.

Rachel informed me that unlike a cabaret venue, a theater performance with music requires payment of royalties to ASCAP. It would run in the thousands. I quickly had a meeting with everyone and cancelled the music, and the show went from cabaret to a dramatic monologue.

Trans-Mission is about my many psychiatric sessions on my journey towards sex reassignment. During these sessions my trans journey is unveiled. I am very proud of this show.

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This sounds like nothing you’ve ever done before. Did you learn a lot about yourself from writing this show?

Yes. Still am. Rehearsals are hard for me in some scenes, because I need to relive situations that were painful and I had put behind me. It’s a catharsis.

What might be the most important thing people learn about you from this show?

Probably that I am just like everyone else. I have the same worries and difficult situations in my life that any person would. Being trans comes with some differences in living life, but don’t we all have difficulties? Only the strong survive!

Amen! Anything else to discuss?.

Well, I must say that I am very blessed to be able to still do what I love at this stage of my life, and I am only looking forward to bigger and better things. Age has no limitations!

Amen again! Thank you Barbra, and have a great show!


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Barbra Herr stars in the play “Trans-Mission” which runs at the Teatro Circulo May 5th-11th (check here for times and tickets). She performs at Friends Tavern in Jackson Heights on last Sunday nights. Follow Barbra on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.
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