Stage Left? Drag Performers Go Digital Amid Shortage of Paid Gigs
In the wake of Covid-induced layoffs, club closures and the cancellation of June’s Nashville Pride Festival, drag performers are left without a physical stage. So, like other entertainers, they have moved to digital platforms to connect with audiences. But will an art form so dependent upon audience interaction — and tipping — flourish online?
Studies show the COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on members of the LGBT community in multiple ways. According to a March 2020 brief by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, two million LGBT individuals work in the most affected industries, such as restaurants, bars and food service. The issue of drag performers losing work during business closures is a reflection of a bigger trend.
“Not being able to earn tips through live shows has been a huge loss,” said DeeDee Renner who works as the talent booker for Tribe, Play Dance Bar (Nashville and Louisville) and Suzy Wong’s House of Yum, and performs as Deception.
“The girls make way more at live shows than on a digital show,” she said. “Drag is a very up-close and personal art from. People like to tip us up-close with cash so they can have that interaction. People just aren’t as likely to tip on apps, even at a live show.”
Renner was furloughed in March and only in the past two weeks has been able to come back to work at an adjusted salary.
“When the clubs closed they had to lay us all off,” Renner said. “There was a large lag time before I received unemployment — weeks of not having any income. I remember that feeling of panic and I cannot imagine what it feels like to not be able to go on unemployment and not be able to do your job.”
THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
Before Nashville’s clubs closed down to flatten the curve on COVID-19, Chris Purcell, who performs as Anita Coxx, led a monthly comedy drag show called SheHaw at Third Coast Comedy Club.
While isolating at home, he has created videos for four or five digital drag shows, including an episode of Notta Contact Sport hosted by former SheHaw co-founder Mini Pearl Necklace who is based in Chicago. That collaborative episode has received nearly a thousand views, he said, but the numbers aren’t always that high.
“I’ve been able to connect with other performers from around the country that I might not have met otherwise,” said Purcell. “(But) these online shows can be unpredictable. Sometimes you’ll have hundreds of viewers and sometimes you’ll have five or six.
Many digital drag shows are hosted live by drag performers on interactive platforms like Twitch or Facebook Live, and include a line-up of pre-recorded performances from local and national drag queens and kings. Show hosts provide commentary and comedy between the videos. Viewers can tune in for scheduled shows and interact with other audience members online, or watch archived shows after they’ve aired live. Performers’ Venmo and PayPal information is listed to encourage tipping.
But not everyone can afford to to shoot and edit videos for digital shows, Purcell said.
“There are haves and have nots. There are performers being left behind in all this,” he said. “But some of the queens have been getting (technical support) from other queens, which is cool to see.”
David Williams, a.k.a., Tracey Ottomey, a relative newcomer to the Nashville drag scene, said digital drag shows present some new challenges, but can also push performers to flex their creative muscles and create innovative new content they can share on multiple shows, potentially attracting an even wider audience.
“Doing a digital drag show, there’s no audience interaction, so it’s very strange,” Williams said. “But it’s good in a way because you can do more in a video than you can in a three-minute live performance. With the online shows you may get a wider audience and in turn sometimes make more money. (But) It really depends on who’s watching.”
Before the shutdown, Williams worked as a hair stylist at Foiled and Fern in Germantown and hosted a weekly Trivia Night at Tribe. He also hosts a podcast, Gay Space, with Mike Gill.
“I’ve been laid off from both jobs, and my income has gone from pretty decent to zero the past two months,” Williams said. “I’ve had to cut back on spending on things I normally don’t have to worry about. It’s been very humbling to become broke. I have gotten unemployment and that was helpful, but other than that, that’s my only income.
PRIDE, HOPE ON THE HORIZON
Some of Nashville’s clubs and bars are reopening this week allowing performers to come back to the stage – with some limitations – and for an undetermined amount of time. But, with the cancellation of big events and festivals, including Nashville Pride Fest this year, many money-making opportunities are still off the table.
“Pride is primetime for gigs,” Purcell said. “While I have a day job, there are many who rely on drag income full time, and they are already scraping to get by. Many of those I know who are struggling are queens of color, kings of color, trans folks, people who already have so much stacked against them.”
Nashville Pride has been offering weekly Facebook Live sessions, Nashville Pride Live, one of which Purcell hosted with fellow bearded drag queen Tammy Whynot. To date the recorded video has been viewed more than 1,700 times. Last year, Nashville Pride Fest drew more than 75,000 attendees.
This year, the Pride board of directors is planning an entire slate of virtual and digital experiences to celebrate PRIDE@HOME presented by AllianceBernstein throughout the month of June.
Though not as effective as in-person events, such digital efforts are helping to maintain a sense of community and collaboration throughout Nashville’s LGBTQI community, bringing hope even in these uncertain times.
“Drag has always been a very interactive art form, and we always joke it’s a contact sport,” Renner said “Drag is going to be different for the foreseeable future, but I can tell you we are inventive and imaginative people and we will figure it out.”
This article has been supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project for COVID-19 coverage.