It goes without saying that a major new event devoted to cabaret should include drag performances. But what makes the offerings at the Cultch’s new Transform: A Cabaret Festival so intriguing is how well they illustrate the changing face of the age-old art form—and how open and inclusive it’s become.
“Up until five years ago it was mostly seen as cisgender men dressing up as women,” comments Chris Reed, an Indigenous artist who’s part of the artfully theatrical, multiracial, and nonbinary Darlings troupe at the fest. “What we’re doing is not that original campy, glamorous drag—but I don’t think people realize we also love that! Growing up, we saw these big drag queens that were luxurious and had big hair and pretty diamonds—they were the people pushing definitions of gender, and I definitely go to shows like that all the time. We’re just different; there’s no better form of drag. It’s diverse.”
The Darlings don’t just challenge the conventions of drag through gender, they also do it through their one-of-a-kind mashup of dance, poetry, performance art, physical comedy, theatre, and art installation.
Members Continental Breakfast (Reed’s on-stage persona), PM (Desi Rekrut), Rose Butch (Rae Takei), and Maiden China (Kendell Yan) weave together their different skill sets in the Darlings. “All of us come from different artistic backgrounds,” Reed explains. “Rose was training as an actor, I was training as a comedian before drag, PM trained in dance, and Maiden China is a writer as well as a performance artist. Those four skill sets really give us a direction; we have all those components to put in the puzzle.”
The collective creates a new show for each performance, building a narrative around a theme—in this case, memory and the trials of queer existence. “It has to do with everything from cultural teachings to trauma, every type of memory you have,” Reed explains. “We like to make people feel happy and sad and laugh and cry. It’s all really real to us; the stories contain tiny details that are all from us.”
In addition to their storytelling skills, the Darlings sport wildly artful makeup that goes far beyond the glam female impersonation often associated with drag, melding the male and the female, as well as, sometimes, clowning or conceptual-art looks.
“Sometimes drag artists get a face—they call it a mug, and they have fully realized that and that’s just how their face looks all the time,” Reed explains. “But the four of us change our look, typically every time we do a show.”
The Darlings also make inventive use of space, surrounding the audience, using projections, and playing with lights. That makes the transition into a conventional theatre—an opportunity they’re eager to explore—a bit of new territory for these performance mavericks. “Usually we have up to six stages around a room, and the audience has to move themselves.…So this is a space we haven’t really considered our work in, and it’s really interesting to get tech support,” Reed says, adding with a laugh: “We are usually holding a spotlight for each other on a rave dance floor.”
Long-time Indigenous drag artist Quanah Style is also a trailblazer—one who now lives her life as a woman, full-time.
To those who might question whether a post-op trans woman can technically be a drag artist, she has only this to say: “Honey, if I spend three hours getting ready, I’m still doing drag!
“What’s so cool about drag is it’s so diverse and so inclusive now,” she adds, reflecting the Darlings’ sentiments. “Drag is changing and there are so many different types and that’s amazing.”
Style has made huge strides toward raising the visibility of trans people and drag alike, starring in Quanah TransOp on the streaming network WOW Presents and Season 2 of CBC’s Canada’s a Drag!, working in theatre productions like Zee Zee Theatre’s Trans Scripts, and bringing her powerhouse meld of music and performance to open for everyone from Peaches to Bif Naked.
But the world did not always welcome her with such open arms.
Style was raised on a remote reserve in Moberly Lake, in northern B.C.
“I grew up in a very small community and I used to take a little yellow school bus in to school,” she recalls. “I was a little boy who was very feminine and my personality was very loud and outgoing. I felt bullied and ostracized by my peers.
“It wasn’t until I realized that my differences are my strength that things changed.”
Growing up, Style always loved to perform, enjoying powwows—though she was relegated to the boys’ grass dances instead of the girls’ jingle dances she would secretly perform in her sister’s costume. “I tried it at home but I was paranoid about being caught in the jingle dress,” she says.
Fear not: more recently, Style has been able to perform the jingle dance in public, at a powwow at Trout Lake. But at Transform, expect her to blend music with the dancers from the local voguing and waacking crew House of La Douche.
“When I’m at festivals people are so warm and inviting. And that’s beautiful, because as a kid I didn’t feel accepted,” says Style, whose next dream leap is into acting, thanks to Trans Scripts. “I’m hoping that by living my life so openly it breaks down barriers that have been normalized. And maybe it’s someone who doesn’t know a trans person.”
And when it comes to her Indigenous community, Style is now proud to call herself two-spirit—if only so no one goes through what she did on that little yellow school bus. “I want to represent that term for kids coming up,” she says.
At Transform: A Cabaret Festival, the Darlings appear in the Opening Night Bashes at the York Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday (October 2 and 3), their own show at the Historic Theatre on Friday (October 4), and Drag Transforming at the York Theatre next Saturday (October 12). Quanah Style features in the Opening Night Bashes and in Drag Transforming.