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'Being brash, living out loud’: Actor-director relates to ‘La Maupin’ character

Writer-director Kelsey Milbourn stars in "La Maupin: The French Abomination," about a 17th-century bisexual opera singer who dueled men and bedded women. The show premieres this month as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project series.
Evan Michael Woods
Writer-director Kelsey Milbourn stars in "La Maupin: The French Abomination," about a 17th-century bisexual opera singer who dueled men and bedded women. The show premieres this month as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project series.

Julie D’Aubigny dueled men and bedded women. A 17th century bisexual opera singer, she once set fire to a convent to escape with a girl she had slept with. Sentenced to death, she was later pardoned. It wouldn’t be the last time. She could be persuasive.

“She just did what she wanted and loved so hard,” says Kelsey Milbourn, who at 34 is a year older than D’Aubigny was when she died. She may have met her match in Milbourn, who identifies as a trans-masculine nonbinary lesbian and, like D’Aubigny, is a multifaceted artist.

“As someone who also loves women to that degree, I related to it. I would burn a church down for a woman, 100%. Julie’s curiosity about people, but also just being brash, living out loud, that was something that me as a kid I always wanted to do.”

A native of Kansas and a graduate of the musical theater program at Texas Christian University, the actor-dancer-choreographer has written a movement-oriented play about D’Aubigny called "La Maupin: The French Abomination," La Maupin being the opera singer’s nickname. It premieres this month as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project series. Milbourn portrays D’Aubigny and directs.

Kelsey Milbourn (center) stars in "La Maupin: The French Abomination."
Prism Movement Theater
Kelsey Milbourn (center) stars in "La Maupin: The French Abomination."

"La Maupin" received a stunning workshop production by Jeffrey Colangelo’s Prism Movement Theater two years ago. Built around sword-fighting, dance, recorded narration and live dialogue, it will have another run at the Latino Cultural Center in late July and early August. Prism is hoping to take it to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and on tour.

“I just wanted to respect Julie in the way I would want to be respected if I was that badass in the 17th century. I wanted to give her all the things that I could, given all of the skills that I have,” Milbourn says in a Zoom interview. “I feel like most stories are really hetero, or there’s a small little queer through-line, but it kind of dies off or it’s a joke. I remember Jeff gave me a little pep talk. ‘If you finish this play, you’ll get to be a queer person on stage,’ which is very important to me, to show all these other queer humans that they can be on stage. It’s about a queer human going through normal human emotions, as opposed to us dying off tragically. I really was pushed by that need to be seen, to be represented.”

Kelsey Milbourn played the lead in one of North Texas most memorable pandemic-era productions, "Everything Will Be Fine."
Prism Movement Theater
Kelsey Milbourn played the lead in one of North Texas most memorable pandemic-era productions, "Everything Will Be Fine."

Milbourn played the lead in one of North Texas’ most memorable pandemic-era productions. Produced by Prism and called "Everything Will Be Fine," its first run took place in the Latino Cultural Center parking lot before moving to other outdoor venues. The wordless dance and pantomime piece depicted the kidnapping of the main character’s lover as a symbol of COVID’s toll.

Milbourn, who is about to relocate to Los Angeles, has been gaining steam in Dallas after years of mostly working in Fort Worth. This season alone, they choreographed "The Rocky Horror Show" for Dallas Theater Center and appeared in the play "This Time" at Undermain Theatre.

D’Aubigny was the daughter of the secretary to King Louis XIV’s horse master, Count d’Armagnac. Her father trained her in swordplay alongside the boys. She was married off by the count, who immediately sent her new husband away so he could continue the affair he had started with her when she was 14. Soon, she ran away with a fencing master.

“It kind of started with her father,” Milbourn says “They all saw something in her. Throughout her life, people would pop up and be like, ‘I can help you do that.’ Something was just protecting her, letting her explore her sexuality publicly, her gender publicly. ... Yeah, she made a lot of mistakes but had people that loved her or were charmed by her enough that they gave her a lot of favors. She kind of rode the universe.”

By 17, D’Aubigny was a star at the Paris Opera. During her relatively short life, she got into a lot of skirmishes, some of which are dramatized in "La Maupin," including the time she dueled three men who objected to her scandalous behavior. She beat them all.

After another duel in which she injured a nobleman, she nursed him back to health. They became romantic partners. In another one of her escapades, she became so angry at having to work as a maid that she dressed a countess’s hair in radishes. She wound up with Madame la Marquise de Florensac, “the most beautiful woman in France,” whose death made her distraught and led to her own demise.

Kelsey Milbourn (top center), a 34-year-old graduate of the musical theater program at Texas Christian University, found a passion project with "La Maupin: The French Abomination." "I want to do work that is about more queer people being seen, Milbourn says.
Prism Movement Theater
Kelsey Milbourn (top center), a 34-year-old graduate of the musical theater program at Texas Christian University, found a passion project with "La Maupin: The French Abomination." "I want to do work that is about more queer people being seen, Milbourn says.

Milbourn is moving to L.A. to take a job marketing queer stories and to help run a drag show but plans to continue to work in North Texas as well.

“Since 2020, I really came into my own gender identity, my own sexuality,” Milbourn says. “I was bored playing these classic hetero humans. Other people can play those. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I fought to wear pants. I wanted all my tattoos to be shown. I’m adding my own queerness into all of these characters. That’s not to say I won’t ever play a straight person again. But the way that I look, it’s kind of obvious that I’m queer. And I just want to lean into it. I’m sick of trying to fit into other people’s molds. I want to do passion projects. I want to do work that is about more queer people being seen.”

Details

"La Maupin: The French Abomination" runs July 11-13 at 7:30 p.m. at Hamon Hall in the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St., and July 25-Aug. 3 at 8 p.m. at the Latino Cultural Center, 2600 Live Oak St. $29.50. at Hamon Hall and $15-$25 at the Latino Cultural Center. prismmovementtheater.org.

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The University of Texas at Dallas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Manuel Mendoza is a freelance writer and a former staff critic at The Dallas Morning News.