The holiday-themed drag musical that's all about family
Nightmare Before Xmas: The Family Drag Musical means a lot to the performers, not just the audience
In 2010 I began writing a one-person play entitled 32C. Inspired by the bus route that I took to get home (32C Eglinton West: Jane and Lawrence via Trethewey), the story moves through the experiences of three generations of women and nine different characters, a rich challenge for an actor. Without question, my favourite experience acting 32C was playing Reggie, a smooth-talking, dangerously charismatic teenage boy from Malvern — "light-skinned with the Iverson braids and a du-rag, of course with the ski-goggles on top." In him, I tapped into a memory of hip-hop-informed masculinity in 1990s Toronto, drawing from old crushes and favourite rappers to create his physicality, voice and intentions. The more I exaggerated the performance, the more intense the audience response and I became intoxicated with the power I found in this theatrical masculinity.
A lot of traumatic things happen in this world to people and our voices get silenced. How do we reach into those stories and create something out of it?- Patrick Salvani, director, Nightmare Before Xmas: The Family Drag Musical
After attending my first drag show, I thought back to the liberation I had felt in my performance of Reggie and immediately connected to the world of drag. The first drag show I ever attended featured drag queens in wondrously extravagant outfits and dramatic make-sure-you-see-me makeup lip-synching passionate songs from Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and pretty much any other glamorous diva from the past six decades. A few years later, I attended a show called Colour Me DRAGG where I witnessed more experimental forays with drag kings, multi-act dance numbers, over-the-top mimed dramatic monologues and Bollywood remixes.
But drag can be more than just a flashy, exuberant spectacle. In Toronto this week, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre will be hosting Nightmare Before Xmas: The Family Drag Musical. The show is a culmination of a three-month program for young people run by Asian Arts Freedom School in partnership with OCAD University and the 519 Centre and funded by the Ontario Arts Council. Started in 2010, co-founder and director Patrick Salvani told me the idea to put on drag musicals was a response to the changing demographics among the participants in the programs offered by Asian Arts Freedom School. Initially attracting second-generation, university educated young people, over the years the programs saw more participants who were newcomers, queer, trans and gender non-conforming. Salvani says the school realized they needed something that would serve their particular needs and issues.
The drag musical became the first program at Asian Arts Freedom School where participants were paid, and was opened to participants of colour beyond Asian communities.
"I think a lot of people might just come to the program because they get paid to be in it but they come out of the program with a very transformative experience."
Recognizing that there was an opportunity to welcome new bodies into the space, Salvani and his team began pushing to make the program more accessible and inclusive.
"Part of being in this queer community for a while now, you see regular faces on stage. So we really wanted to make an effort, and that included outreaching outside of downtown, outside of the [Church Steet-area] Village to street-involved youth, trans people, people in Scarborough, Mississauga and North York, those of kind of places. People you haven't seen. There are a lot of community shows for people of colour, really great shows, but sometimes when it's around queer politics it can be kind of inaccessible for a lot of audiences. Sometimes the language becomes very academic."
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The Toronto drag scene has some well-established heavy hitters that Salvani recognizes as inspirations. They provide key lessons in the fundamentals of drag, but he also asserts that the drag musical takes things a step further, providing necessary spaces of exploration for young people.
"In Toronto, there are a lot of drag shows in clubs, weekly really great shows at [Church Street club] Crews and Tangos, a lot of beautiful black drag queens like Michelle Ross and Jada Hudson. The drag musical takes all of those teachings of those fabulous, extravagant showcases of drag. But also the show and the program is interested in exploring and exploding the constructs of gender. That helps a lot of LGBTQ youth who are exploring their own gender identity."
Nicknaming their program the Dragulator — a special salute to RuPaul's Drag Race, the long-running drag-themed reality show — the three-month program provides participants with mentors in drag and movement, lessons on makeup and dance and critical workshops on storytelling.
"Everyone is basically a first-time performer. So there has to be something very fierce, something people want to share and haven't been able to for whatever reason. A lot of traumatic things happen in this world to people and our voices get silenced. How do we reach into those stories and create something out of it? There just needs to be a willingness to push yourself. It requires a willingness to learn, a willingness to build together and just have fun. I always look for people who want to have fun."
Salvani argues that in curating a space where people have fun, they discover their own potential. He has observed as participants found untapped elements of themselves, formed a language for their stories, owned their performance and transformed the stage into their throne.
"If you've never been on stage, when you have the experience of being surrounded by hundreds of people who are just loving you up, it is such a wonderful experience. The participants when they're on stage are just enjoying that time and I feel like the audience gets that back, it's a kind of reciprocal relationship.
"And alcohol helps."
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This year's drag musical was inspired by the holiday season and the challenges that often abound during this time of year for queer and trans people. The musical is a reimagining of this time, a queering of the holiday season and an invitation to build new experiences and memories.
"There's a thing around being able to share and witness each other's stories and then actually create something together through this drag musical. It's really transformative. Everyone at the end of the program says this is family. They're building a home together."
Nightmare Before Xmas: The Family Drag Musical. Starring River, Juliandro, Sean Kua, more. Directed by Patrick Salvani. Tue, Dec. 8-Wed, Dec. 9. Buddies In Bad Times, Cabaret Space, 12 Alexander, Toronto. Doors 7pm, show 8pm. PWYC.
Watch Exhibitionists Sunday at 4:30pm (5pm NT) on CBC Television.