Glitter and Politics: Drag Performance in SF Theatre
Thursday, June 26, 2014
By Rotimi Agbabiaka
If Pride Month is the time to celebrate the past year's queer accomplishments, then this upcoming Pride should be extra festive. It's been a great year for queer visibility. As the LGBTQ community continues to make political and social strides, its cultural sensibilities are also becoming more embedded in the general culture. Drag, a traditionally queer means of expression, is experiencing a surge in mainstream popularity: on television, RuPaul's Drag Race dazzles growing audiences in its search for the "next drag superstar." The theatre world is gaga for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the Broadway musical featuring Neil Patrick Harris in drag, and Kinky Boots, last year's Tony-winning musical about drag queens and their spectacular footwear.
|Alex Brown, D'Arcy Drollinger and Nancy French in Shit and Champagne. Photo: Robbie Sweeny
Here in San Francisco, the drag scene is riding a fresh wave of popularity thanks to performers who are expanding the scope and audiences of local drag and making inroads into the worlds of theatre and film.
"Drag is more mainstream than it's ever been," says D'Arcy Drollinger, a San Francisco writer, director, actor, choreographer and star of Shit and Champagne, a self-penned, campy send up of 1970s exploitation films that enjoyed a three-month run at Rebel, a nightclub that regularly transforms into a theatre space.
In Shit and Champagne, Drollinger played Champagne White, a crime-fighting, scantily clad drag character in an ensemble comedy; the other performers were also in and out of drag. The show, which opened on January 17 and was originally scheduled to close on February 8, extended until April 26 because of audience demand.
"Our initial audiences were mostly queer," Drollinger says. "And then it migrated into a straighter audience that wanted to have a drag experience. And it doesn't hurt that it's a funny show."
Drollinger represents a San Francisco practice of taking drag performance beyond gay nightclubs and into more traditionally theatrical spaces. This practice goes all the way back to the Cockettes, the San Francisco theatre troupe that formed in the 1960s, who performed original drag musicals (and featured future disco superstar, Sylvester!). In 2009, Russell Blackwood, the artistic director of Thrillpeddlers, resurrected the Cockettes by remounting their original musical Pearls Over Shanghai as part of his company’s Theatre of the Ridiculous Revival. The production succeeded beyond expectations, running for 22 months and employing over 60 performers, including several original members of the Cockettes.
|The cast of Thrillpeddlers' Pearls Over Shanghai. Photo: David Wilson
According to Blackwood, the Theatre of the Ridiculous is a wholly American art form, which takes elements from high and low culture—operetta, camp, vintage design—and presents them through a queer lens. It's a formula that reels in audiences. Pearls Over Shanghai is back again at Thrillpeddlers in a revival that was originally slated to close in May; it has now been extended through the end of July.
"I can't underestimate the fact that we tapped into something that the queer community recognized as part of their history," Blackwood says.
Today, San Francisco is a veritable smorgasbord of options for seeing drag performance. On any given Friday, glitter-seekers can go to Pearls, which presents drag in the style of a comic operetta, or attend a show at T-Shack (formerly known as Trannyshack), where drag queens perform lavish production numbers to pop hits. Alternately, they could gaze at drag queens performing as living sculptures at a museum or see a gritty drag show—with a punk sensibility and the creativity of performance art—in a SoMa dive bar.
"The queens of San Francisco are willing to take a lot more chances," Drollinger says. "They are willing to experiment and be outrageous in ways that I don't see happening in Middle America, and even in places like New York and Los Angeles."
This variety exists because many San Francisco drag queens regard drag as an accessible medium whose sparkly exterior can contain a myriad of complex messages.
"The drag value of spectacle is very important," says Mica Sigourney, a dance and performance artist whose alter ego, Vivvyanne Forevermore, hosts a weekly drag show at the Stud, called Some Thing. "Spectacle is an aspect of drag that people can easily read," Sigourney observes, "and from there you can take their hand and lead them somewhere else."
At Some Thing, the performances often possess the typical trappings of drag—elaborate makeup, sequined gowns and lip-synching to a track. However, many performers use the form to say something political or transgressive, using the language of drag to perform what Sigourney describes as a sort of populist theatre—one that doesn't require special education to understand and speaks to a generation raised on music videos and sound bites.
Sigourney, a self-professed "performance nerd," studied theatre in college, but chose not to work in the field upon graduation. Instead, he performed drag, which he considered to be a more accessible genre for his generation of queers. Today he has come full circle; he takes his drag performances into museums like the deYoung and dance spaces like CounterPulse, exploring how drag values can translate to other forms of performance.
|Mica Sigourney and Maryam Rostami in the Work More series. Photo: Robbie Sweeny
"Drag is a folk art based on tradition and oral transmission," Sigourney says. In shows like his annual Work More series, he encourages drag queens to collaborate on larger-scale pieces and share their drag knowledge with each other and with new audiences.
This transmission of knowledge and resources fuels the creativity of the San Francisco drag scene. Drollinger and Sigourney agree that there is a generosity within the drag community and in the city at large that encourages their boundary-pushing work.
Without such generosity, Peaches Christ, one of the city's best known and most beloved queens, might not have built Peaches Christ Productions, the company through which she merges drag, theatre and film in a popular franchise.
Peaches, the alter ego of Joshua Grannell, hosts a series called Midnight Mass, in which screenings of cult movies like Clueless, Mommie Dearest and Purple Rain are preceded by live drag parody shows. Grannell studied film in college and, drawn to drag by his love of cult movie characters, initially proposed the series to his former bosses at the now-defunct Bridge Theater in 1998. Despite their initial skepticism, they were swayed by his vision of midnight film shows preceded by Cockettes-like drag performance, and allowed him to launch the series.
"They took a pretty big risk," Grannell says. "It was protested by the League of Catholic voters...[but] it went from being this little 15-minute drag show to longer performances and little one-act plays. By setting some small goals but continuing to raise the bar for ourselves we grew into this big thing."
Today, Midnight Mass happens at the more standard theatre time of 8 p.m., in the much larger Castro Theatre, and features high-profile guests such as RuPaul's Drag Race winner Sharon Needles and actress Ricki Lake. Peaches Christ has also taken the show on the road, produced shows in SF Sketchfest, directed an indie film, All About Evil, starring Natasha Lyonne, and currently teaches performance and film at the San Francisco Art Institute.
When asked if they feel a part of the Bay Area theatre community, these San Francisco drag performers do not respond with a definite "yes," but acknowledge growing acceptance. And in recent years, various styles of drag—from comic and campy to dazzling and daring—have appeared at several established Bay Area theatres. Last season, actor Danny Scheie played the female role of the Duchess of Berwick in Cal Shakes's Lady Windermere's Fan to great acclaim. And in 2012, Boxcar Theatre mounted a hit production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in which actors of various genders played the title character—a transgender woman.
Obstacles still remain, however. Drollinger and Sigourney can both recall instances in which they've been denied theatre grants and funding because some organizations are reluctant to consider their work to be theatre. However, it looks like the boldness of the artists and the continuing embrace of audiences will encourage the drag and theatre worlds to keep intersecting.
"I think there's a real craft in using drag," Drollinger says. "It's almost going back to the roots of vaudeville, and people want that kind of visceral physical comedy."
"And, he adds, "nothing makes people laugh like a drag queen falling down."
Rotimi Agbabiaka is a San Francisco-based actor, teacher, director and writer. He's performed at Cal Shakes, TheatreWorks and Beach Blanket Babylon and written an award-winning solo play called Homeless. He is currently a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.