The changing face of drag: How performers are keep the show going during a pandemic

There are different performance styles when it comes to drag — the art of dressing up as a fabulous queen or king, typically of the opposite gender.

There are “look queens,” who are recognized for their fashion.

There are “comedy queens,” who are recognized for their quick wit and ability to make a crowd double over in laughter.

There are “dancing queens,” who can kick and flip around a stage, all while making it look effortless.

But there’s something all drag performers have in common — the ability to quickly adapt.

An outdoor drag show at Dr. Wilbert McIntyre Park in south Edmonton’s Old Strathcona area in July 2020.
An outdoor drag show at Dr. Wilbert McIntyre Park in south Edmonton’s Old Strathcona area in July 2020. Global News

Performers had nowhere to go and strut their stuff when COVID-19 restrictions shut down venues. Like most things in the early stages of the pandemic, online video chat application Zoom did the trick — for a while.

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“But then when it started to be nice [outside] we wanted to see people in person because the atmosphere really is about the people and the energy that they give us as performers,” said Sister Mary Clarence, the founder of Party Queens — a group of local drag performers who saw an opportunity.

They started putting together free, socially distant, all-ages outdoor drag shows. The events have been running — weather permitting — every weekend since June in parks around Edmonton.

An outdoor drag show at Constable Ezio Faraone Park in central Edmonton, Alta. in September 2020.
An outdoor drag show at Constable Ezio Faraone Park in central Edmonton, Alta. in September 2020. Global News

Sister Mary Clarence said the response has been amazing — but, it was only a temporary fix.

“This was like a band-aid until we could get back into the clubs and back onto the stages that everyone is used to seeing us on.”

Read more: ‘There’s kind of been an explosion in popularity’ of drag culture in Calgary

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Evolution Wonderlounge, Edmonton’s only gay bar, recently reopened at 10220 103 St. under COVID-19 guidelines.

Rob Browatkze, who is part of the owner and management team at Evolution, said the concern was so big within the community they decided to close their doors days before it was mandated by the province.

“It was sad, but at the same time you just have to accept the fact that this is the new normal,” local drag queen Artasia said. “I missed seeing the people that I do it for. The people that I love.”

Evolution Wonderlounge, Edmonton’s only gay bar, recently reopened at 10220 103 St. under COVID-19 guidelines.
Evolution Wonderlounge, Edmonton’s only gay bar, recently reopened at 10220 103 St. under COVID-19 guidelines. Global News

Barowatke was hopeful they would be able to fully reopen within a month. When that didn’t happen in June, it was Pride Month. Now, he says they’re looking forward to Halloween or New Year’s Eve.

Like all businesses reopening in the age of COVID-19, Browatkze said things look different inside.

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“We’re so restricted in what we’re allowed to do and the size of audiences we’re allowed to have. We’re barely open.”

Browatkze described drag as “theatrical art that plays with gender.” Tickets to drag shows are now bought online in groups of two to six and are assigned to a table.

Capacity has been reduced to 40 people — a significant drop from the former crowd of 300.

Evolution Wonderlounge, Edmonton’s only gay bar, recently reopened at 10220 103 St. under COVID-19 guidelines.
Evolution Wonderlounge, Edmonton’s only gay bar, recently reopened at 10220 103 St. under COVID-19 guidelines. Global News

The bar switched to table service and customers keeping tabs in an effort to limit guests from moving around.

Tips for performers are placed in glass jars, which sit in the centre of every table, and are sanitized before being given to performers.

“Drag performers live on applause just as much as they do on tips,” Browatzke said.

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Tips for performers at Evolution Wonderlounge (10220 103 St.) are placed in glass jars on each table and are sanitized before being given to performers. Edmonton, Alta.
Tips for performers at Evolution Wonderlounge (10220 103 St.) are placed in glass jars on each table and are sanitized before being given to performers. Edmonton, Alta. Global News

The reopening, however gradual, is welcomed by community members. Browatzke said a lot of drag performers were trying to transition into performing for a living, so losing all the venues and abilities to do that was a challenge.

“Especially given the nature of the work, there wasn’t necessarily a lot of government support,” said Browatzke, who set up a GoFundMe to distribute amongst those who most in need.

An outdoor drag show at Constable Ezio Faraone Park in central Edmonton, Alta. in September 2020.
An outdoor drag show at Constable Ezio Faraone Park in central Edmonton, Alta. in September 2020. Global News

Sister Mary Clarence agrees the reopening of venues was “amazing” for performers, but sees the park shows as an eye-opening experience.

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“We wonder why we haven’t been doing this forever because it’s so fun, it’s free, anyone can come, and it’s all ages.

“It’s been really fun for us to just do something different like this and be silly.”

Artasia was impressed with people’s compliance of COVID-19 guidelines during the outdoor shows. “People have been a little safer because they’re not in a confined area and we can literally separate everyone.”

Read more: Calgary drag kings vying for place in spotlight: ‘It’s a man’s world’

Performer Artasia at an outdoor drag show at Constable Ezio Faraone Park in central Edmonton, Alta. in September 2020.
Performer Artasia at an outdoor drag show at Constable Ezio Faraone Park in central Edmonton, Alta. in September 2020. Global News

Sister Mary Clarence is eager to hit the stages in venues again. Party Queens have more shows in the works as they continue to adapt and work within the changing COVID-19 guidelines.

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“We’re used to adapting. If our dress comes undone we have to quickly get it on to do the show.

“We’re the queens of adaptation.”

Upcoming drag shows at Evolution can be found on their Facebook page. Upcoming shows with Party Queens can be found on their Instagram.

An outdoor drag show at Dr. Wilbert McIntyre Park in south Edmonton’s Old Strathcona area in July 2020.
An outdoor drag show at Dr. Wilbert McIntyre Park in south Edmonton’s Old Strathcona area in July 2020. Global News

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