Drag performers ‘blossom under Covid'
- Credit: The Glory
Drag performers and alternative cabaret acts working in clubs and pubs have had their livelihood sucker punched twice by the pandemic - with restrictions on both live performance and the hospitality industry.
Yet despite London flip-flopping in and out of lockdowns, and social distancing guidelines radically changing interactive acts, 2020 hasn’t been completely bleak for drag in Hackney.
John Sizzle, co-owner of queer pub and cabaret venue The Glory, says while one of the downsides has been that performers with day jobs “have hunkered down and disappeared”, those reliant on gigs for income have “really focussed and honed their skills”.
“They have had to present themselves as a more rounded performer and put together a longer form show because all those club gigs went buckle under,” he says.
“They really grabbed hold of their careers.”
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In normal times, The Glory shows are a tangle of performers and punters. But now there is no audience participation or interaction on a physical level.
“Performers found it tricky getting around the restrictions at first - they’re not known for their research on legislation – and it was left to me to keep them up to speed with all the changes,” John says.
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“They had to keep their distance and be a bit calmer.”
But the change in performance style has “added more strings to their bows”.
“Performers love it," says John. "They’re building confidence. They've got a captive audience who are watching and it is an opportunity to really learn how to engage with an audience as opposed to flinging themselves around. It’s a more intense relationship that everyone is benefiting from.”
Drag queen Jonbenet Blonde, aka Andrew Glover, agrees: “Normally, when you’re on the mic, people are in their own worlds, in the corner doing whatever they are doing. When you say something funny you’re like, ‘Please I’m being funny, give me a bone for God’s sake, I’m doing my best.’," he says.
"But now, they are literally hanging off your every word, stone cold sober because everything is early now,” he goes on to say.
The Hackney resident is one of the performers John says has “blossomed under Covid”, after Andrew's club and event work stopped with the pandemic's arrival.
Andrew’s 11 years as performer and events director at queer collective Sink the Pink, and parent event company East Creative, had seen JonBenet Blonde perform with Little Mix and go on tour with Melanie C.
He was also one of the key creatives that put together Sink the Pink’s popular club nights. “I was living the pop star life,” says Andrew.
“I was constantly busy and I loved it. I didn’t have time to do anything else because we were doing such fab things.”
However when the pandemic hit and all events were cancelled for the foreseeable future, the self-employed freelancer found himself looking for work and "twiddling his thumbs for six months wondering what to do”.
John encouraged him to put on a show and he emerged from the first lockdown to perform two-hander SHECAGO at The Glory.
“As a performer you battle with yourself everyday whether you’re valid or not, and I’m not really a ticket-seller solo,” says Andrew, “but SHECAGO sold out within a day and I thought, 'Ok I can do this'.
“You just have to be brave because if you don’t do something as a performer, your creative outlet is being squashed and your personality and your mindset is being squashed too.”
Andrew has gone on to perform several more shows at The Glory, Bistrotheque, and The Bethnal Green Workers Club and is currently working on his new show – a queer murder mystery with a “bit more Jackie Collins” to it - funded by the Arts Council.
"I feel I'm in my stride now," he says.
The Glory received £140k from the Cultural Recovery Fund and an additional £15k from the Mayor of London’s Music Venue Trust.
When it has been able to open for shows, the venue’s full calendar of events in the basement space (operating at a reduced capacity of 50 rather than 90 people) have been selling out. “People were thirsty for entertainment,” says John.
“They couldn’t go to gigs or raves, so we did very well out of that and it was quite sustainable.
“You couldn’t get a ticket. We even succeeded in reaching a new audience who previously wouldn’t have been caught dead at an alternative cabaret show. They were desperate for some kind of stimulus.”
In the absence of Lip Sync 1000 and Man Up, two annual events which showcased new drag queen and king talent, coupled with the inability to develop new work or present works in progress, The Glory set up GASP – Glory Artist Support Programme to so that performers could continue making work.
“We diverted money we would normally spend on live performance to an online presence and to new work for the new year,” says John.
GASP supports performers to create online content for The Glory’s Instagram channel and for Glory TV streamed on Facebook, which was another initiative to come out of lockdown.
“We were lucky we had this money from the Arts Council and were able to spend it to support people in the community and keep this whole thing alive.”
John says the online content is a way to keep in contact with the community and see familiar faces.
“It’s been a tough time for the queer community, especially for the people who had to move home,” he says. “You come to London and you create your authentic self so to speak, and develop your identity as a queer person,” says John. “For a lot of people, they have had to dismantle that and move home. It’s been really tough.”