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Drag on stage: why it gives me life through the coronavirus

The performance artform is more than looking pretty and posing, it's a full on theatrical production

Matt Henry as Lola in Kinky Boots
© Matt Crockett

With theatre venues closed for the foreseeable future and theatregoers deprived of these sources of entertainment, everyone is looking online for performances that can lift their spirits in such uncertain times.

As a theatre fan, I have done the same. But while I have been scouring the web for live streamed or pre-recorded performances to watch – with some fab examples of free productions in this WhatsOnStage article – I have also turned to an old faithful TV show that is always guaranteed to leave me stunned, RuPaul's Drag Race.

Noah Thomas (Jamie) and Bianca Del Rio (Loco Channelle)
© Matt Crockett

And why not? A show like Drag Race has many of the qualities that make great theatre – the thrill of a spectacular costume Ruveal on the runway, the drama and passion of a classic lipsync battle and all the plot twists that occur behind the scenes.

Those artists that have slayed the catwalk in the wake of RuPaul's global success have made their way onto the theatre stages too. Whether it be the likes of Bianca Del Rio and Vinegar Strokes in Everybody's Talking About Jamie, a Christmas panto starring Baga Chipz, or even Divina de Campo, BenDeLaCreme, Jinkx Monsoon and Sasha Velour touring the country's biggest performance venues with their own shows, the Drag Race contestants have used their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent to break into Theatreland and beyond.

Baga Chipz in Cinderella at Trafalgar Studios
© TuckShop

But this comes as no surprise, for there was drag in theatre long before the idea of a modern-day drag performer. The word was first used in the 19th century to describe actors dressing in women's clothing, with pantomime dames a particularly popular European form of female impersonation – at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the music hall comedian Dan Leno would wow his public every year in the pantomime role that audiences still adore to this day. Drag kings are a staple of the art form too, with Susanna Centlivre – the second woman of the English stage after Aphra Behn – playing a long career in breeches at the Drury Lane venue. As one of the veterans of the Stonewall riots, Stormé DeLarverie regularly performed and hosted at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. The very concept of playing an alternative character on stage is a foundation of any performance discipline.

Fast forward a hundred years and drag is now a core part of the musical scene. Some of the more famous shows featuring artists cross-dressing include The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hairspray, Tootsie, La Cage Aux Folles, Rent, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Kinky Boots and Everybody's Talking About Jamie. But even more unexpected productions feature impersonation in their storylines – the 1930s German film Viktor und Viktoria eventually became the musical Victor/Victoria and the 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie sees the male salesman disguise himself as a woman. And with Mrs Doubtfire briefly playing on Broadway before the shut-down, drag has well and truly cemented itself in today's perfomative culture.

Le Gateau Chocolat
© Helen Murray

Not only the shows, but drag and theatre cross over in their stars as well. The likes of Divine and Harvey Fierstein brought the art form to the main stage with roles in Hairspray and Torch Song Trilogy, while in the UK Danny La Rue and Lily Savage broke through into West End culture, with La Rue taking the lead in Hello, Dolly! and Savage featuring as Nancy in Oliver! at The London Palladium.

More recently are the likes of Le Gateau Chocolat and Vicky Vox, who were both involved in the 2019 WhatsOnStage Awards. On stage, Le Gateau was unforgettable in Emma Rice's Twelfth Night at the Globe in 2017 and Vox was nominated as Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for playing Audrey II in the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's 2018 production of Little Shop of Horrors.

Vicky Vox as Audrey II with design by Tom Scott and lighting by Howard Hudson
© Johan Persson

Many of these shows and performers made their mark on the theatre scene before cover girl RuPaul brought it to the runway and took over the mother-tucking world, with a generation calling her mother, champion, glamazon and super queen. And in the wake of the programme's success, both in America (with season 12 currently in progress on Netflix) and in the UK (season 1 went down a storm on BBC Three), it is almost inevitable that shows and venues will be featuring more and more of these drag stars in the future.

And I am excited to see what they can do. With the current atmosphere one of fear, anxiety and concern, the positive energy and community spirit that a drag performer exudes when they walk the runway or take to the stage is more than welcome. When the performing industry is back up and running, we will all need as much of that as we can get. So right now, Drag Race is just one of the sickening shows – along with all of the wonderful digital performance platforms – that I am living for. Shante, it can stay.

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