Corinne Lea: Drag racing at East Vancouver's Rio Theatre! Con-drag-ulations! You’re a sports bar now!

How RuPaul’s Drag Race inspired the Rio Theatre’s performance-art pivot

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      By Corinne Lea

      “When the going gets tough, the tough reinvent.”

      - RuPaul

      In January 2021, after yet another Monday press briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry announcing that B.C. theatres would remain closed indefinitely, I hit rock bottom. As the owner of Vancouver’s indie Rio Theatre, I was overwhelmed with frustration and sadness. So I decided—Fuck it!! Let’s become a sports bar.

      At the time, bars and restaurants were open for business but theatres had been ordered closed even though they are much less of a risk. Theatres have much more space for people to spread out, with high ceilings and better ventilation, and they also have much less socializing than bars. But if we wanted to stay open we needed to pivot and I was ready to become whatever the health authorities would allow.

      When we announced our sports bar pivot to the world our marquee said, “SCREW THE ARTS—WE’RE A SPORTS BAR NOW”, and it went viral in all the news media. Most people got the joke but some people took it too literally and wanted to know why we had turned our backs on the arts. To which I explained—"if you can’t beat 'em, join 'em!"

      We didn’t want to be a sports bar; we were just trying to draw attention to the fact that the arts have been getting screwed for this entire pandemic. And if we had to become jocks just to stay open, we’d do whatever it takes to save the Rio. Ironically at the time, I had no idea that our success as a sports bar would involve drag queens, but as RuPaul says, “When the going gets tough, the tough reinvent.”

      Our temporary pivot was part protest and part survival. But we still managed to find a way to be creative. At the Rio we love any excuse to dress up in costumes, so all our film-nerd staff put on sports uniforms even though they have no idea who any of the teams are and they had never heard of Tom Brady! The Rio fans were also super supportive, dressing up in their sports jerseys and fun costumes, coming out to games whether they were sports fans or not. The whole experience felt like performance art.

      When we were trying to find all the sporting events we could play on the big screen, that’s when it occurred to me: RuPaul’s Drag Race is a sport, right??!! While looking at the schedule for the NHL, NFL, NBA, and UFC, we thought why not drag racing? I couldn’t wait for health authorities to tell us RuPaul’s Drag Race wasn’t a sport. Have you seen how fierce these queens compete on the runway? Especially in high-heels and a corset? And how about those death drops while they lip-sync for their life?

      We hoped our “performance art” stunt of becoming a sports bar would alert health authorities to the hypocrisy and unfairness of the rules that kept cinemas closed while more high-risk businesses were allowed to operate. But despite all the media coverage, nothing changed. In fact, health authorities publicly congratulated us on our “ingenuity” for our creative pivot to keep the theatre doors open. And even more absurd, as a sports bar we were allowed to double our seating to 125 based on social distancing, instead of the 50-seat maximum that cinemas were limited to during the six months we operated from July to November in 2020.

      At the Rio Sports Bar, patrons must sit in their seats, where the drinks are served to them.

      It’s been three months since we made our pivot and thankfully, the Rio has had ZERO COVID transmissions. In fact, there has been no known COVID transmissions related to any theatre nationwide. Instead of changing the problematic rules and allowing cinemas to reopen the same as restaurants, health authorities doubled down and arts venues didn’t even get mentioned in their weekly briefings. Although it’s been fun pretending to be jocks, we just want to get back to playing movies again. But that’s just it, WE’RE NOT ALLOWED TO PLAY MOVIES! Not even sports movies! Let that sink in.

      And now with the third wave of the pandemic, we’re all in a race to get the world vaccinated and once again the arts are on hold indefinitely and this time, here in B.C., even the sports bars are closed.

      All over the world the arts have been one of hardest hit during the pandemic with most theatres and cinemas shut down repeatedly. No live music. No live performance. No movies. No dance. No art. People who work in the Arts and entertainment industry have lost their livelihood and their mental health is suffering.

      Known for their passion for the arts, protesters in France occupied empty cinemas shut down by authorities in several cities. French actress Corinne Masiero stripped naked at the "French Oscars" with “No culture no future” and “Give us art back” written on her body. Since then #noculturenofuture has been trending on social media.

      Meanwhile, back at the Rio Sports Bar, the only ray of glittering hope was RuPaul’s Drag Race.

      Not only was Drag Race good for business, which kept our doors open, but ironically, it was the only way we could show “art” on the big screen. In fact, Drag Race was our busiest night of the week!

      People dressed up in drag-inspired costumes and came out with their small pods or out on a date. They applauded the best runway outfits and cheered when their favourite queens won a challenge. And they laughed out loud when queens threw some serious shade at their opponent. As Jasmine Masters from Season 7 says, “No Tea, no shade, no pink lemonade”.

      While running the sports bar, drag queens became my emotional-support animal to get me through the week. Not only are queens fabulous from head to toe, but they are such an inspiration of resilience and triumph.

      “Don’t get bitter, just get better.” says Alyssa Edwards from Season 5.

      Every drag queen I’ve ever met has a story growing up that will break your heart. Often ostracized from their families or bullied as kids, when you see a drag queen shine on stage you know how much adversity they’ve had to overcome. It takes such bravery to be so fierce, as Raja from Season 3 says: “I have a master’s degree in fierce.”

      Drag queens bring so much joy to everyone around them—they flirt with the world and everyone is charmed. They don’t just survive against all odds—they SHINE in the face of adversity!

      And essentially, the Rio Sports Bar IS one big interactive drag show! “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag,” as RuPaul says, “It's a sort of piss-take on culture, because a drag queen is a clown—a parody of our society. It's a sarcastic spoof on culture, which allows us to laugh at ourselves—but in a way that is inclusive of everyone.”

      But alas, now that we’re in the third wave of the pandemic, even the bars are closed. So once again the Rio has been shut down for the third time in a year and with no Drag Race on the big screen how are we supposed to find any inspiration?

      I wish we could resolve this whole thing like a Drag Race competition and theatres could just lip-sync for their life to remain open—safely of course! At least then we’d have a fighting chance for survival and it would be a hell of a lot more fair than the current regulations keeping the arts closed and always last on the health authorities' list.

      But in these uncertain times, at least there’s one thing I’m certain of: RuPaul’s Drag Race will return on the big screen as soon as the Rio can reopen, no matter whether we’re a sports bar or a theatre. Can I get an "Amen"?