When David Graham is onstage, decked out in the garish wigs, Day-Glo skirts, stacked heels, and fishnets of his epic drag queen supreme Ivana Jungmann, there is no such thing as “breaking character.” Even if something goes wrong during one of her shows, or an audience member acts up, the icy stare of the vaguely German songstress does not crack. When the show is on, and she’s lip-syncing her favorite hits and obscurities by a litany of vocalists, Ivana Jungmann is Ivana Jungmann and no one else.
“I don’t even know if I can break character while I’m onstage,” Graham says. “I feel like that’s who I am. It’s very natural, and it kind of flows right out. Even if I’m responding to something I didn’t expect, it comes out as the character. That’s what I love about acting in general is becoming other characters. That’s the joy I get from it.”
Graham has been acting, writing, and making films around Charleston for years, but his Ivana Jungmann persona was born in 2010, when he appeared in drag as an old woman in a Piccolo Spoleto play called Devil Boys from Beyond.
“I was in drag, but the character wasn’t a drag queen,” he says. “Then this filmmaker wanted to add a similar character to his short film, and from there we started doing drag and putting on shows in people’s houses.”
Ivana graduated from house shows to the stage when Graham met the folks from 5th Wall Productions, a new theater group at the time that focused on cutting-edge material and more recent works than the typical fare, and one that welcomed local script submissions.
“Jason Olson, Blair Cadden, and David Moon (5th Wall founders & executive directors) are really fun people,” Graham says. “I worked with them several years ago in a Shakespeare play, and I knew that they were starting a theater, so I submitted a script I’d written. And we just got along so great. They were so welcoming. I love what they do, and they seem to get a kick out of me, too. ”
With 5th Wall, Graham brought Ivana to fully formed life, borrowing her accent from a friend’s mother.
“The voice that I do is based on this German woman who lived in rural Tennessee for many years,” he says. “She’s a hoot, and I found that I could imitate her quite well.”
Working with 5th Wall, Graham has created several showcases featuring Ivana, including the all-’80s revue Legacy and the holiday-themed Ivana Wish You a Merry Christmas. Graham’s new show, Love is in the Hair, will be out just after Valentine’s Day, and he’s expanded his reach into three different decades: The 1920s, ’50s, and ’70s.
“I’ve been working on this show for about two months,” he says. “It got started as an idea back in December, not specifically this show, but I did a party at a friend’s house and she had a 1920s theme. She said I didn’t have to do any Christmas music, there was just a ‘speakeasy’ theme she wanted me to stick to. I had about 15 minutes’ worth of material from that party, and when I found out there was a good spot to do a show at 5th Wall, I realized that all of the songs I’d picked were very appropriate for Valentine’s Day. I wanted to do the songs for a bigger audience, so I started with that, and decided I want to add the ’50s and ’70s.”
A lady never gives away all her secrets, though, and Graham doesn’t want to spoil too much of the surprise in terms of what specific songs Ivana will take on. He’ll go as far as to say that Eartha Kitt, Rosemary Clooney, and Bette Midler are all on the list, and that there’s a sci-fi theme to Love is in the Hair‘s production.
“I don’t want to give too much away,” he says. “Let’s just say there will be some very familiar songs, and one of my other passions besides acting is moviemaking, so there’s going to be quite a bit of video elements to the show. That’s where the sci-fi component comes in, through the video projection. The show is kind of a combination of a lot of things.”
And you certainly won’t find Ivana mimicking the singers she’s lip-syncing to. The performance style is all her own.
“I don’t necessarily try to imitate the artist I’m performing, even though most of it is lip syncing to them,” she says. “I lip sync as Ivana. I focus on how Ivana would do it.”