Drag queens were, according to Rashawn Lee, able to shift their performance style to suit the pandemic relatively easily. Other performers and artistic endeavors might have had a difficult time coming to terms with the new pandemic normal, but drag queens were well situated from the start. “Drag queens are nothing but innovative when it comes to doing our craft,” he says.
Lee, who goes by the stage name Robin Fierce and is based in the Hartford area, is one of a small community of Connecticut drag queens who have had to roll with the pandemic punches, reinventing the scene first as lockdowns prevented live audiences and then again when the market became saturated with online entertainment options.
“The week the pandemic hit I had a small tour of my Gag Reflex gay stand-up comedy show and a drag brunch planned, so I had to cancel five shows and refund 750 tickets,” Sky Casper says. “That was certainly disappointing. Ever since that happened, I’ve been forced to continuously reinvent my way of show producing, and it has been quite stressful.”
Casper, born and raised in West Hartford, is an events producer and agent focusing on LGBTQ+ talent. He says that until March 2020, much of the scene was in person. He’s perhaps best known for a “drag brunch” called Pink Eggs & Glam, which Casper says “features live singing and comedic drag queens from around the country, and pride festivals around Connecticut,” among other projects. “I find great joy in seeing my audiences smile and laugh,” he says.
It’s not that there hasn’t been a learning curve. Courter Simmons, whose drag persona is Cacophony Daniels (who Simmons describes as “the Belty Broad from Broadway”) says there was a plethora of new skills to master. “I’ve had to learn a lot during the pandemic about how streaming services work, about lighting and, most importantly, about sound mixing and distribution,” says Simmons, who lives in Queens, New York, and performs in Connecticut. “Of course, anyone can ‘go live’ on their phone, but if you want to look and sound professional, it takes a lot of knowledge and equipment. I’m learning every day.”
Like Simmons, Lee has learned quite a bit over the course of the pandemic. He hasn’t been able to perform live, but that restriction has helped the art form mature. “Many drag performers just limited themselves to a nightclub or a bachelorette party or something like that,” Lee says of pre-pandemic life. “Yes, I love performing. And I love being in physical spaces. But it makes you realize there are other ways to express this particular art form, just like there are other ways to express other art forms.”
A new kind of community
The drag scene in Connecticut is not really analogous to the drag scene in other states. There are a few clubs in Hartford, New Haven and Norwalk, but it’s a small state by comparison. “There’s a few of us,” Lee says. “So, just in general, there’s not a lot of us here compared to New York or Massachusetts, or the Boston area.”
The comparatively small size of the scene has fostered something of a community, though Casper says “it’s been challenging” to maintain that sense as the pandemic has worn on. “I have tried my best to connect with my friends and followers on social media and make my virtual shows as interactive and intimate as possible,” he says. “Without the internet, I probably would have gone crazy!”
The new, online nature of the business has resulted in more intimate, personal experiences, more fractured though they may be. Simmons, for example, says he and his regular viewers have “formed a little community.” There is a regular audience of about 50 to 60 people, and they’re not limited by geography, disability or age. “We’ve all gotten to know and interact with each other,” Simmons says. “We’ve celebrated birthdays, toasted successes and mourned loss together. We have friends watching all over the world in real time, and we communicate through the comments. It’s not the same as being in the same room, but it’s more inclusive because people can watch from anywhere and it doesn’t focus around being in a bar and folks of any age can watch and participate.”
The more fractured nature of pandemic performing has, perhaps surprisingly, helped strengthen interpersonal bonds. “We are a community and the fact that we can’t be around each other as much has made that community a lot closer, and made us realize how appreciative we are for each other,” Lee says.
A wider audience
It wasn’t just drag shows. Symphony orchestras and burlesque troupes, circuses and poetry and live performers of every stripe shifted to an online presence. That, Casper says, saturated the market and forced drag performers to continue to innovate. “We started out with 14,000 viewers on our first two live shows,” he says. “As viewer numbers dwindled and everyone and their mom was doing online shows, I started producing some outdoor shows around Connecticut. During the winter I’m relying on private Zoom parties, the occasional online show and planning for a better future.”
Not being limited to the few Connecticut clubs that book drag shows may be helping those performers be better known. “It also helped us connect with other drag performers around the world and around the United States,” Lee says. “Because everybody was doing these online shows, you don’t have the restriction of travel. So we were able to ‘be’ in places that we normally would not have been. And we kept doing shows that way and then, when the restrictions lifted a little bit, we started doing some more shows in-person — limited capacity, as COVID safe as possible, of course. But again, we are an innovative people and find a way to do the things that we love.”
What happens after
No performer interviewed for this story was willing to give up in-person performances in favor of a digital-only career, but some pieces will hang on as the pandemic eases. “Nothing is a substitute for an in-person audience, but we’ve created an alternate, workable environment,” Simmons says. “I absolutely love my live shows, and I have every plan to keep them going even after the pandemic has passed, as long as the audience still wants me. I’ve managed to keep working as a performer, and that’s saying a lot in these times.”
Drag performers typically make money from tips. Some better-known performers with regular gigs make a base pay, but that’s not very common. Though Lee says very few performers rely solely on money made from performing, there was a learning curve for audiences. They had to be taught not only how to find drag shows but how to compensate the performers. “It was largely tip based, which is how shows are in person. So you have to train the audience like, ‘Yeah, you don’t see us in person, but you can still tip us. This is what we do for money and art.’ ”
That’s another shift that might remain post-pandemic. “Now it’s been more incorporated with the Venmos and the Cash Apps and stuff like that,” Lee says. “So you can’t use the excuse of, ‘I don’t have any cash to give you when I see you performing.’ Well, guess what? You have a bank account and a card attached. You can now Venmo me. We are like a waiter. We’re providing you a service and you are grateful and thankful for that service, we hope, and you share that monetarily with us.”
It’s also forced performers to better promote themselves. Though very few drag performers survive solely from performing, Lee says moving online encouraged change. “I always say at my shows, ‘I’m like Tinkerbell — the more you believe in me, the more I come alive, and the more powerful I am.’ So that part was definitely a struggle,” he says. “But we’ve become more digital, and it’s forced performers that didn’t necessarily do the social media thing to do that a little bit more. Because at the end of the day, we are hoping to go back to normal at some point, even when we go back to normal, you still need social media to promote yourself.”
As a result, those performers who embraced that change before the coronavirus have been able to maintain their audiences. “A lot of the opportunities that I’ve gotten is because people have seen me online, pre-pandemic,” Lee says. “So it really just made everybody up their game a little bit.”
And the people who weren’t regulars in person might have gained a newfound appreciation for the art form, Lee says: “The people that might not necessarily consistently be involved in the community, but in this time, because we’re doing more stuff online, they’re able to see that and be like, ‘Oh, wow, I really appreciate what you do a little bit more.’ ”