WHAT: New Orleans Drag Workshop Cycle 4 Draguation
WHEN: Tuesday (May 10), 8 p.m.
WHERE: AllWays Lounge, 2240 St. Claude Ave.
COST: Tickets $15. Click here for tickets.
Cycle 4 class: Cate Swan (aka Tarah Cards), Dane Baxter (aka Kedavra), Rocharlotte Raphael (aka Bellagio Showers), Angie Zeiderman (aka Shebrew Internationale), Cory Greenwaldt (aka Slenderella), Sadie Edwards (aka Mx. Mystic), Evan Spigelman (aka Carrie Mehome), Logan VanMeter (aka Candy Snatch), Justin Gordon (aka Jassy), AJay Strong (aka Boy Gorge)
Kedavra is nearly flawless.
Working the AllWays Lounge stage to the sounds of “Bring On the Men” (from the Broadway musical “Jekyll & Hyde”) on a recent weeknight, the aspiring drag queen struts and preens and glares at the audience, shifting from the main stage at various times to the piano at left or over toward the right. When she’s finished, Kedavra’s audience — fellow students in the fourth iteration of the New Orleans Drag Workshop — applaud wildly both out of support and awe.
As the applause fades, a voice booms out from the back of the room, up in the sound booth.
“I actually have some notes for you.”
It’s Vinsantos DeFonte — aka the New Orleans performer Vinsantos — who oversees the workshop and never misses a detail. This is where the “nearly” in “nearly flawless” is revealed.
“I feel like you straight up stole two of Jassy’s moves,” DeFonte says, noting for starters a cartwheel that Kedavra did, almost as an afterthought. But it’s a move heretofore only done by Jassy, one of the other classmates, and DeFonte is clear about each act of the 10 students being singular and unique. No borrowing allowed. Jassy smiles, almost as if to say, no harm done. Still, DeFonte concludes with, “I’m just letting you know you stepped on some drag toes.” With that, and a note to use the main stage more, Kedavra’s last rehearsal before the class’ “Draguation” day on Tuesday (May 10) looks promising.
That Kedavra seems promising shouldn’t be that big of a surprise. Her creator, 26-year-old Dane Baxter, also happens to be one of New Orleans’ most popular and in-demand body-paint artists — a fixture at BUKU Fest, Voodoo Fest, Jazz Fest, you name it, whose social media presence includes more than 31,000 followers on Instagram. (He took his drag name from “Avada Kedavra,” or the “Killing Curse” from the “Harry Potter” series. He’s a fan, and has the shoulder tattoo to prove it.)
Several of the other classmates also are known as creative in other areas as well. There’s Angie Zeiderman, who as Angie Z was voted one of New Orleans’ most popular burlesque performers (and a talented vocalist) but in this workshop has created the hard-rocking persona Shebrew Internationale and will lip-synch to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” And there’s Logan VanMeter, who as Danger Rockwell is one of New Orleans’ few regularly working boylesque performers.
Then there’s Cate Swan, an in-demand makeup stylist by day who on Tuesday night will transform into Tarah Cards, dancing a crazed dance to Diamanda Galas’s “I’m Gonna Live the Life.” And, perhaps most unlikely of all, there’s AJay Strong, a recently transgendered male who will revisit his previous feminine life onstage as a whip-cracking Boy Gorge performing to Marilyn Monroe’s “Teach Me Tiger.” This run-through is being done without costumes, but it’s their last time to get their act just right.
This Cycle’s class is a study in diversity: There are men, women, transgender, white, black, gay, straight, performers from other disciplines, and newbies. Like many drag queens, several tuck their junk, while others pump up their boobs, and yet another creates the illusion of junk — with a codpiece.
“My drag family was always a healthy mix of men, women and trans folk that were exploring their identities on and off the stage,” DeFonte says. “I’m glad I was raised in this kind of drag world. If there’s one thing that drag should not be, is narrow-minded.”
While there are plenty of complete newcomers to any kind of stage performance, the New Orleans Drag Workshop also gives New Orleans artists a chance to tap into something different, to add another arrow in their creative quiver.
But it’s also helped fill New Orleans nightclubs with fresh drag talent; “draguates” of the workshop over the past three years include Hannibelle Spector, Liberaunchy, Dasani Waters, and Neon Burgundy, a performer and producer known for such shows as the monthly “Gag Reflex” show at the AllWays Lounge.
“I’ve had many talented performers pass through the Workshop,” DeFonte says, but also notes, “The best thing about the Workshop is that it is completely transformative. It works for the people involved, including myself, on so many levels. It’s definitely a confidence builder. Whether or not a student chooses to pursue a career in drag, they leave the class changed.
“The group dynamic really creates a family style bond,” DeFonte adds. “Each of the cycles have their own connections, and most of them draguate having made life-long friends.”
Dane Baxter’s path to drag was almost as whimsical as the rest of his creative work. The first male member of Riverdale High School’s “Lassie” dance team in 60 years, Baxter dabbled in musical theater toward the end of high school and then went on to major in theater at Louisiana State University. The need for a full-time job to support himself while going to school forced him to do more set design work than performance, which eventually inspired Baxter to become a makeup and then body-paint artist.
And now this.
“I think I’ve really found a way to pull in all of the things I’ve wanted to do into one medium,” Baxter says of his work. “I’ve kind of had my eye on drag for a long time. I’ve never even done a full transformation, but I love performing. Drag was a way to try to figure out how to utilize my medium, which is body-painting, and how drag could evolve it. It’s been really fun to see how they play with each other, and I’m really, really excited about the final performance.
“In New Orleans I’ve really found beautiful, creative people that are trying to push (the boundaries of) drag, and this cycle has really brought these people together. And it’s really exciting because every single number that we’re doing is different, so it’s really cool to see how each person addresses what they want to be doing. Vinsantos has helped each one find what they want to be doing.”
It ain’t easy. In fact, the 10-week process can be quite grueling, with a handful of students from a class of about 10 to 15 dropping out at some point. Each “cycle,” DeFonte explains, the class meets weekly, takes “field trips” to drag shows around town, and spent hours in rehearsal. As an artist who prefers to be considered more a performance artist than traditional drag queen, DeFonte moved to New Orleans in 2010 after spending several years in San Francisco’s more avant-garde scene, often performing with the well-known Trannyshack. It’s a style that stands in sharp contrast to the more traditional, or “pageant,” style of drag found in most gay nightclubs, especially those in the French Quarter.
So the main focus, he says, is on the “performance art” of drag: picking the right song, learning proper delivery, assembly a distinct look, appreciating “the ethics of working in the entertainment industry.” He’s welcomed performers to provide extra insight, whether it’s New Orleans’ Wednesday Boney Iman on presentation, or “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 3 winner Raja to offer tricks of her trade. For this cycle, DeFonte recruited his husband, Gregory Lyle (aka “Mister Gregory”), to share some of his academic expertise in drag history and culture.
“It’s not easy!” DeFonte says. “There are countless hours put into each cycle. At the same time, it’s the most rewarding project that I have ever been involved in and encourage others to start their own Workshops in their own towns.”
For Neon Burgundy, one of the Workshop’s “grads made good,” the New Orleans Drag Workshop offered a kind of creative and personal grounding unavailable upon trying out the drag scene while the native lived in Atlanta for a few years after Hurricane Katrina. The performer insisted on wearing body hair, including a pronounced beard, and felt shunned by other Atlanta drag queens.
“I felt like a freak,” she said.
It wasn’t until enrolling in the Workshop, and being challenged more directly by Vinsantos, that Neon Burgundy established a complete drag identity.
“Vinsantos told me I could keep the beard if I could prove to him that I could perform beyond the beard, and not hide behind the look,” Burgundy recalls. “I thought about quitting multiple times, and he helped me break through that performance barrier. See, a lot of stage performers hide behind smoke and mirrors, and he told me not to use my beard as a prop. ‘When you go out there, you give them you. Can I see you through the beard?’ That was the challenge he had for me.
“He helped me to find a way to overcome my fear and my insecurities.”
It’s difficult for even the most natural of performers, including Angie Zeiderman — Angie Z to the burlesque community, who’s appeared in multiple shows around the city and more recently has teamed up in Bella Blue’s new Foxglove Revue. A singer as well, Zeiderman would seem like the perfect teacher’s pet for the Workshop, but she found early on that drag is much more difficult than it looked.
So much of it comes down to persona, she notes. After a decade performing as the coquettish Angie Z, Zeiderman had trouble pivoting into Shebew Internationale’s more over-the-top style, a hard-rocking groupie type who’s unafraid to plow through men. Vinsantos pushed her to be more expressive, to take advantage of her full-size eyes — “They need to be bugged,” was one instruction — and to be more intense.
“I already get to do what I want to do,” she says. “And I didn’t want to waste this education. I really wanted to work with Vinsantos because I’m such a huge fan.”
The challenge has been a good think for Zeiderman, who in working with Bella Blue and Vinsantos — who often collaborate with each other — gives her the tough love she says she needs to improve her craft. That doesn’t always happen in her world.
“In the Foxglove Troupe, Bella’s all about us getting better,” she says. “She’s all about working harder. For the most part with burlesque, you’re a lone wolf. You don’t have anyone telling you to do better, and there’s a lot of circle-jerking where people are telling you you’re great.
“I feel so lucky that Vinsantos is working with me. She’s pretty rough around the edges, personally, but she cares enough to be trying to create more and better art in the world. You don’t want to disappoint her.”
The same could be said for their mutual friend, AJay Strong, who is Bella Blue’s partner personally and professionally. After moving to New Orleans to be with Blue and continue his transition to being a male, he also become her production partner in Bella Blue Entertainment and, like many others, became a huge fan of DeFonte. One night while chatting, Blue and DeFonte discussed the idea of basically trading a student — a student from Blue’s New Orleans School of Burlesque attending the New Orleans Drag Workshop.
Strong found himself blurt out, “I wanna do it!” Vinsantos immediately agreed. To them, the logic was obvious.
“He saw the same thing I did: coming back around to something I’d been running away my whole life, being feminine and being female,” Strong says. On the first day of class, Vinsantos asked everyone to explain what they’d hoped to get out of the class, Strong was more emphatic: “I said I’m very interested to see what happens to my psyche when I turn and face those sort of demons, you know?”
For Strong, the weirdest part about the experience has been how not weird it’s been. No freak-outs, no emotional realizations.
“Maybe because I’m pretending, I’m acting, I’m choosing rather than being forced into this thing,” Strong responds. “It’s so ridiculous, and so over-the-top, that when you look in the mirror, you just have to laugh. Once you put on the eyelashes that complete the look, it’s so over-the-top.”
Which is exactly as Vinsantos would have it. After each critique of that Tuesday night rehearsal, the biggest thing was “more”:
“Can you make your moves more dramatic?”
“Use more of the stage.”
“Less bendy. More rigid.”
“Do not be afraid to take it to that level.”
For Strong, it’s like being gleefully trapped with Christopher Walken in the “Saturday Night Live” ELO sketch, with the demand for “More cowbell!”
“He wants more, always,” he says of Vinsantos. “Just when you think that you’re being so over-the-top, and you’re too much, and it’s so ridiculous, Vinsantos will say, ‘You know, you could’ve done more.’
“You can’t have too much.”