Ron Whyte’s Bureaucratic Drag
In the 1970s, disabled artists, activists, and their allies repurposed the material culture, stock characters, and mise-en-scène of bureaucratic institutions to produce a new performance genre: bureaucratic theatre. This emergent form circulated across a diverse array of theatrical institutions and locations, from Upper West Side foyers to political protests at conferences for vocational rehabilitation professionals. This talk focuses on one such example of bureaucratic theatre, a multi-year epistolary project in which playwright Ron Whyte and art critic Gregory Battcock assumed the identities of senior university administrators at Onassis University, a fictitious institution of higher learning. Tellingly, Whyte and Battcock began this performance of bureaucratic drag in the months preceding the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which included provisions that allowed – or compelled – people with disabilities to enter the labor market. McKelvey argues that in their staging of bureaucratic drag, Whyte and Battcock rehearsed ambivalences about efforts to transform people with disabilities into workers and performed a complex politics of affective attachment to social institutions in the age of their material deprivation. Whereas the activist performances that populate the annals of disability often mobilized against the glacial pace and inefficiency of bureaucratic procedures, Whyte and Battcock mined both the theatrical and temporal meanings of such drag, and refused to relinquish it.
This work is excerpted from McKelvey’s dissertation, which examines the intertwined cultural, institutional, and theatrical histories of efforts to professionalize people with disabilities as artists in the United States since the 1970s.
Patrick McKelvey is a PhD Candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies at Brown Univeristy. He has published reviews in Theatre Journal and Modern Drama, and his essay, “Choreographing the Chronic,” is forthcoming in a queer dance studies anthology published by Oxford University Press.