‘We all uplift each other’: How Vancouver’s drag and burlesque scenes are coming together

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      When you go to a Homo Hardware performance, you’ll be greeted by someone dressed like your friend’s dad slowly taking off their clothes to a Bruce Springsteen song or nostalgic pop rock hit.

      The self-styled “dadlesque” performer combines dad-style drag and burlesque in their numbers, along with a healthy dash of cheesiness and camp.

      For Hardware, drag was a way to do burlesque while being able to explore and express their gender identity—something they said wasn’t possible in the burlesque class they took in their senior year of theatre school.

      “I had not figured out a lot of stuff gender-wise [and] theatre school had not really encouraged that sort of exploration,” they tell the Straight in an interview.

      These two factors led Hardware to stop doing burlesque for some years. But, everything changed when they started doing drag in 2018.

      “It just kind of clicked that all of the stuff that I learned from the burlesque side really informed how I was doing drag and then I realized that this was a way that I can bring [burlesque] back,” they say.

      Hardware isn’t the only one inviting audiences to a drag-burlesque crossover event whenever they perform. Around Vancouver, production companies like Diasporic Dynasty, Sleepy Queer Productions, and ENBY 6 include drag and burlesque at their shows, with countless performers incorporating both art forms in their numbers.

      Hardware has noticed the change over the past couple of years.

      “[In 2018] there weren’t as many folks who were doing both, but there are now quite a few people that sort of mingle in those two worlds,” they say.

      A natural pairing

      There is a lot of natural overlap between drag and burlesque, Hardware explains.

      Both involve storytelling through music or lip sync, and the term “reveal” has become deeply ingrained within the lexicon of each art form’s respective community—although there is a difference in meaning. In drag, performers reveal a hidden costume piece, while burlesque performers reveal more skin and less clothing. There are also some practical similarities, with people from both scenes using the same designers and other resources, Hardware adds.

      Batty Banks, another drag performer who incorporates burlesque elements in their numbers, agrees that there is overlap between the two, pointing to the campier styles of drag.

      But Banks says there is a misunderstanding of burlesque as a queer art form. While there are queer burlesque performers, there are also a lot of straight performers (which means majority-straight audiences). As a result, some burlesque shows might not be safe spaces for queer people.

      “Trying to just create these spaces just takes a little bit of work when we’re merging the two,” she says.

      Banks said Vancouver-based burlesque troupes like Virago Nation and April O’Peel Productions are already doing the work to bring together queer and non-queer audiences into a single safe space at their shows.

      “I’ve been very fortunate enough that I’ve been able to join a lot of these shows and help bridge these two worlds of drag and burlesque,” they add.

      Putting on a (gender) performance

      When Fairlith Harvey founded nerd-themed burlesque troupe Geekenders in 2012, she always intended for drag performers and people with different backgrounds to be involved.

      She says this was motivated by her experience in theatre school, where she was often typecast based on her appearance. While she recognizes that her experience as a “fat, tall white woman” is not the same as performers of colour or gender-diverse performers, she understands being othered.

      “I just feel like I can’t imagine the suffering of other people who have the talent and are just overlooked because of literally what they look like,” she tells the Straight in a Zoom call. “It’s just so unfair.”

      Drag is intrinsic to burlesque, she says, as both involve a performance of gender.

      “When it comes to something that is such a heavily gendered performance [like burlesque], to police it in that way would be not just detrimental, but I think completely contrary to the original spirit of the art form,” she says.

      Now, at Geekender shows, drag performers frequently star in whatever nerdy parody or pop culture reference the troupe is putting on that night. At the troupe’s upcoming The Wizard of Bras show in August (a burlesque spin on The Wizard of Oz), a drag queen will star as The Wicked Witch of the West, and the Tin Man has been replaced by the Tin Them.

      “[Audiences] will see amazing drag [at Geekender shows]. They’ll see different people expressing their genders in different ways. They’ll see people of different backgrounds and it won’t be commented on very much, if at all,” Harvey says. “It’s rad.”

      A bigger and better future

      Hardware, Banks, and Harvey all agree there is value in bringing drag and burlesque together: more interesting performances and better all-around shows.

      “When you add a burlesque element, specifically to drag performances, there’s just a certain level of intimacy that’s created and I think it really elevates drag performances,” Banks says.

      Hardware agrees, saying that performers of both can learn from each other (think a cross-pollination of ideas and practices). For example, they suggest more drag shows should hire stage sweepers to collect tips and discarded costume pieces at the end of a performer’s number.

      “It breaks my heart sometimes when I see someone do a really incredible, super fierce performance and then they go and they start picking up their own costume pieces and dollars,” they say. “Because I’m like, ‘No, stay in your character and your moment.’ ”

      Combining the two art forms allows performers to reach larger, more diverse audiences with their craft and grow community. As more and more drag and burlesque shows move to bars and restaurants—theatres, where these performances were typically held, have become too expensive for many showrunners—having access to these venues is increasingly important.

      “Ultimately, when we get these people into these spaces, we have the opportunity to connect with them to share our art forms, but also to directly speak to them about issues that are happening here in Vancouver,” Banks says, mentioning Indigenous rights as an example.

      Hardware notes that both drag and burlesque are subject to moral pushback—something that has increased in recent years as anti-trans legislation and rhetoric spreads across Canada and the US.. There is strength in numbers that comes from bringing drag and burlesque audiences together.

      “Bringing our audiences together can create a stronger resistance to that sort of thing,” Hardware says.

      From the perspective of a show producer, Harvey says audiences love variety. Nobody wants to see the same thing over and over again, no matter how many stunts, flips or splits there are.

      “I think if we all uplift each other in the independent performance community, we can only benefit the better everyone looks,” she adds.

      On a personal level, Hardware says being able to perform drag and burlesque has given them access to more venues as a performer.

      “In burlesque spaces, I feel like that’s given me another space where I feel a bit more safe sometimes, or a bit more seen,” they say. “I worry that if I do a regular drag show that someone’s going to be disappointed that like, ‘Oh it’s not a queen.’ ”

      Hardware and Banks are excited to see more collaboration between the drag and burlesque scenes.

      “I also see just continued success of a lot of the burlesque troupes and drag troupes currently that are in Vancouver … and I just see them just having bigger and better events,” enthuses Banks.

      Through drag and burlesque, Hardware found the agency to explore their gender. They think others can experience the same freedom—to be whoever they want to be—when these art forms are allowed to coexist.

      “When both of these communities in Vancouver are their best selves, they can be really encouraging people getting to take that agency and make [their] own choices and celebrate how they want to be seen.”