Lou Henry Hoover on the notion of gender in queer performance art (Artist Statement)

 

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(Editor’s note: As we resurrect PopSmart NOLA, we do so with more intention of making this a forum for the creative people of New Orleans. The inspiration came from, of all places, a sports-related website. (Read more about that soon.) This means more content generated BY the artists and entertainers of New Orleans who explain their craft, their performances, their intentions, their challenges, you name it, as a way of making PopSmart NOLA a forum and a safe space for dialogue and engagement. Here acclaimed boylesque performer Lou Henry Hoover explains the complications of performance on the eve of “BASKETCASE,” a collaboration with partner Kitten LaRue.)

“BASKETCASE: AN EASTER EGG-STRAVAGANZA OF PASTEL PERVERSION”
WHAT:
 Kitten N’ Lou present “gender-bending, rhinestone-encrusted drag, burlesque, and surreal fabulosity” featuring visiting performers Cherdonna Shinatra (Seattle Drag Dance Genius) The One The Only Inga (Atomic Bombshells) Elektra Cute (Minneapolis’ Tesla of Tease) and others.
WHEN: Sunday (April 1), 8 p.m.
WHERE: One Eye Jacks, 615 Toulouse St.
TICKETS: $35 (VIP table seating), $25 (reserved seating), $15 (general admission)
MORE INFO: Visit the Facebook event page

I’m sitting on my porch watching little green sprouts push their way up through plants that I thought for sure were dead from the freeze. Rebirth! Transformation! Growth! These themes are repeating like a prism in this city in this season, and I can’t think of a more perfect way to celebrate than with “BASKETCASE: An Easter Egg-stravaganza of Pastel Perversion.”

Let me tell you why.

I’m a burlesque-ing drag king who was seduced by queer performance art out of a contemporary dance career and then married into New Orleans. My wife, Kitten LaRue, was born and raised in Louisiana and got her start in showbiz in the legendary Shim- Sham Revue at the venue that is now One Eyed Jacks. We are constant collaborators in life and art, Kitten N’ Lou onstage and off.  We both had performance careers before we fell in love, and Kitten was a bit reluctant to collaborate in the early days, with good reason.  Showbiz is an endless roller coaster.  We had our wedding guests sing the Ella Fitzgerald song “It’s Only A Paper Moon” at our wedding, and the lyrics couldn’t ring more true:

Say, it’s only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn’t be make-believe
If you believed in me

Being in this business we call show requires an endless well of belief that what you are doing is important, despite whatever personal self doubts might get in the way. I’m still at it over a decade later because live performance has taught me something deep and lasting about generosity. All the costumes, the makeup, the smoke and mirrors, they aren’t there to hide behind. They are tools we get to use to create a little magic, and that magic is special because it is analogue, it is happening in real time and in real space. It’s risky by nature, and to be truly captivating it has to be an act of generosity between performer and audience member. Maybe that performer looks a little bit like you, maybe you feel an affinity with them in that way. Or maybe they don’t at all, but they make you feel something and you feel an affinity with them in that way. And either way you are invited to look at them, listen to them, and drink in a little piece of their story.

We were inspired to create a show to celebrate Easter in New Orleans initially out of a deep love for pastels, Peeps, and the Chris Owens’ Gay Easter parade, but as we write material for our grumpy gay Easter Bunny (played by Seattle’s brillikant Scott Shoemaker, most famous for his touring production of “Ms. PacMan”) and decide what best to wrestle in — Green Jell-O? Lube? (it’s even better; you’ll have to come see) — and choreograph a disco Last Supper, the importance of the actual themes of Easter are resonating with us in a very real way.

Rebirth! Transformation! Growth! Our country, our city and the queer community are all going through all kinds of growing pains right now, too numerous to list here, and drag and burlesque are no exception. The thing I currently get asked about the most in my career is gender in burlesque and performance. It’s a really interesting time to be a woman in the world, and that definitely includes the world of drag and burlesque. As I get older, I see misogyny more and more — not because there’s more, but because I’m learning to recognize something that is so ingrained that it’s hard to even notice all the ways it plays out. Since I was asked, here are a few ways that misogyny has specifically affected my experience as a performer.

It’s the so-called “Golden Age of Drag!” Hooray! I am so happy that more and more people are celebrating and enjoying drag, thanks to the visibility provided by reality TV and the incredible touring opportunities that have resulted. But so far that’s only for drag queens — so the gap between what mostly cis male drag performers (queens) are being paid and the opportunities they have and what mostly woman-identified drag performers (kings) are being paid and the opportunities they have is getting bigger and bigger.

Burlesque has been a primarily women run and dominated art form since it’s revival in the 1990s. Hooray! The burlesque community has been generally very open and accepting of all genders and gender presentations. This has resulted in a subcategory of burlesque called boylesque, which features performers who identify as male or as performing some type of masculinity. Now here’s where things get weird: When we start having these categories, people start defining them, and sometimes that leads to exclusion. Recently a festival put out a call for cis-male-only performers for their boylesque show. As the first drag king and non-cis male to ever win the title of Mr. Exotic World, the Burlesque Hall of Fame’s King of Boylesque, I find that incredibly strange and demeaning. What producer is checking under performer’s cod pieces to make sure their genitals match the application requirements? Winning the crown in this field is still not enough to make up for the fact that my penis is detachable? This kind of policy is not only misogynist, but also homophobic and transphobic.

Kitten N’ Lou: Holier Than Thou is coming to Denver, New Orleans, and Minneapolis this Fall! from Kitten N’ Lou on Vimeo.

I am undeniably a queer artist, I draw that queerness on my face. I use the artifice of drag to reveal this queerness, to express something about gender and my queer identity. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Come for the queerness, stay for the show. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s camp, it’s surprising, it’s got great music and it’s wearing very exciting costumes. I’m an entertainer, I make work that is hopeful in challenging times, and celebrates our humanity. Live performance is very special, a whole room full of humans, sharing an experience that is creative and life affirming — this is an art form to be cherished.

So how do we do that? Make the art you want to see! Go see the art you want to see! Let’s all support artists who bring diversity to the form, and the easiest and most fun way to do that is by going to see them perform. One of my favorite things about New Orleans is that it holds seemingly contradictory truths at the same time. We celebrate while we mourn, beginnings and endings are fluid and seasons are incredibly important. Easter is no exception. “BASKETCASE” not only celebrates rebirth, transformation, and growth, but it also supports some damn good women artists, some damn good queer artists, some damn good POC artists, and some damn good New Orleans artists. Happy Easter, love bunnies!

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Jassy reflects on New Orleans Drag Workshop Cycle 4 (Exit Interview)

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INFO:
WHAT:Rat Sh*t, presented by Neon Burgundy; hosted by Hannibelle Spector
WHEN: Tuesday, June 14, 11 p.m.
WHERE: AllWays Lounge, 2240 St. Claude Ave.
ADMISSION: $3

In this second installment of our “Exit Interview” series, New Orleans Drag Workshop Cycle 4 student Justin Gordon (aka “Jassy”) recounts his and her experiences following the “Draguation” ceremony hosted by Vinsantos May 10 at the AllWays Lounge. (I previewed the show for PopSmart NOLA, and then I covered it for the New Orleans Advocate, and posted photos afterward on PopSmart NOLA.) Gordon started off by recounting his first drag experience while a student at Tulane University.

“Once a year (Tulane’s Center for Wellness and Health Promotion) puts on a drag show that’s called Miss Paul Tulane and Mr. Sophie Newcomb, with girls as drag kings and guys as drag queens. There’s one winner each for every year. This past fall was the 19th one. It’s been losing interest lately. I won that show twice because I was the only one who was really putting some interest in it. I’d started going to different shows around town, and I knew that Vinsantos hosted Drag Bingo every Thursday at the AllWays Lounge. (Vinsantos has since left that gig.)

I even won a poster one night! So I knew about the Drag Workshop. After graduating from Tulane, I started looking for drag shows, and Vinsantos had on Facebook talked about starting up the Cycle 4 of the workshop.

(Read more: Slenderella reflects on New Orleans Drag Workshop Cycle 4)

“Since I was a little boy, my nickname was Juicy. As in, I was fat and juicy. It stuck with me my entire life. Friends and family and some teachers called me juicy, and then a friend in college bastardized it and started calling me Jassy. So I think I’m going to stick with that. Jassy is more an extension of myself. She allows me the ability to explore gender in a way that I’m more comfortable with. It’s more empowering through it. I don’t think Jassy is necessarily a character. I have a lot of interests, and this was another one. I do ceramics, I do podcasts, I perform on aerial silks. I like to change things up and do new things each time. Like to be almost like a chameleon. Jassy’s the mastermind!

“I went into the workshop thinking it would be about makeup and lip-synching. It was way more intense than I ever would have imagined. Vinsantos was really good at helping everyone clean up our ideas, and to get us to just push past our limits and really go for it. She definitely pushed us to make our acts more like performance art. The majority of the class was more about how to perform. Like if your wig is ratty, you can still captivate an audience. And then you can alter your aesthetic and be as pretty as you want.

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“I decided to perform to the Bjork song ‘Oh So Quiet’ when, a few months ago I was listening to the song and thought that would be good for an Anne Frank character. It had all these loud sounds and then the shushing. So I started thinking up this funny little Anne Frank piece. At first, I was confused how I would incorporate the love theme. I remember there was a news headline controversy about Justin Bieber writing in the Anne Frank House guest book (in Amsterdam) that she if she were alive today she would be a ‘Belieber. So I started thinking about conceiving my character a Justin Bieber-obsessed Anne Frank. That was concept I was going for. For the first section, I decided to write an original diary script that the audience hears over the speakers while I’m performing. Then I used the website Fiverr, which offers a variety of tasks for a small fee, after I’d Googled ‘German voiceover actress,’ to get someone to record my ‘diary entry’ in German. It’s totally absurdist, but it makes sense in the context of what people are doing. I was excited that that many people (in the audience) got it. I was a little nervous they wouldn’t quite grasp it. But the AllWays Lounge is a great place to do these kind of conceptual pieces.

Slenderella reflects on New Orleans Drag Workshop Cycle 4 (Exit Interview)

INFO:
WHAT: “The Dollhouse Revue,” hosted by Nicole Lynn Foxx and featuring Slenderella, Wednesday Bonet Iman, Ivy Dripp and Pussy Hertz
WHEN: Friday (May 27), 10 p.m.
WHERE: Golden Lantern Bar, 1239 Royal St.
ADMISSION: Free

As part of a series we’ll call “Exit Interview,” I’m cleaning out the reporter’s notebook from my coverage of Vinsantos’ New Orleans Drag Workshop Cycle 4 Draguation (for PopSmart NOLA, including a look at the rehearsal and show, and for the New Orleans Advocate), starting with thoughts from Cory Greenwaldt — aka Slenderella. Slenderella makes her professional debut Friday (May 27) in the “Dollhouse Revue” show at the Golden Lantern in the French Quarter. Here, in his own words, Greenwaldt discusses how he came to the workshop and his drag persona:

“Draguation night was one of the most liberating nights of my life. I’d have to say that it was on par with taking my final exams during my last semester of university. We spent two months constructing these drag personas and acts, with the help of Vinsantos, all for one special performance for our families, friends and fellow drag lovers. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything … however, I do wish the air conditioner was on full blast. We were melting backstage.

“Not only did the Drag Workshop provide a positive space to expand our creative minds, but it also gave us a networking platform. The class had such a diverse crew of talented people. Whether they were experienced performers, makeup artists, body painters, costumers, sound engineers … everyone brought something to the table. I learned valuable tips of the trade and how to properly communicate with future promoters, event coordinators, which in turn will help me with my future gigs/performances. I basically owe everything to our Headmistress Vinsantos DeFonte!

“He would probably snicker if he heard my say this, but he really was an inspiration to us all, which is why I wanted my performance to reflect that. At times during my number, I found myself giving him most of the attention rather than the crowd. He was front and center with the biggest smile on his face and I couldn’t help but show him how grateful I was. He’s one of the most talented artists in the New Orleans community, and I’m incredibly grateful for the time and effort he put into this. I can’t imagine the patience it took to get a bunch of artists to finish things on time!

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“The character Slenderella is a play on how skinny, and well, slender I am. I used to be very self-conscious about my slender frame, which is why I wanted to use Slenderella to help me feel comfortable in my own skin. However, she really is an extension of my personality. Silly, bubbly, a bit ditzy, and a laugh you can hear a mile away. I chose to do the song ‘Primadonna’ by Marina in the Diamonds because it perfectly represents Slenderella (and myself) as a whole. It truly represented my inner need to be perfect in an imperfect world — which can be dangerous at times. I’ve learned through the creation of Slenderella and the Drag Workshop that not everything is perfect, and at times, I just need to loosen up and have fun!

“Prior to the workshop I studied art history and architecture through the University of New Orleans and Charles University (Univerzita Karlova v Praze) with a concentration in Central and Eastern European art and architecture. I finished my studies and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine aArts on December 18, 2015. In all honesty, I wanted to do the workshop in order to find a creative outlet for myself. I’ve always had a passion for the arts but never really found an avenue that best suited my creative abilities. Drag became a way to express my inner creativity and personality through a developed persona, while earning some dollar bills. It turned into a way for me to create a living piece of art and become a fierce drag performer.”

Snapshots from New Orleans Drag Workshop Cycle 4 “Draguation” (Photos)

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My recap of the New Orleans Workshop’s Cycle 4 “Draguation” ceremony Tuesday (May 10) ran in the New Orleans Advocate (Tuesday, May 17), featuring some truly beautiful backstage and onstage photos by staff photographer Matthew Hinton.

Hinton captured the craziness in the dressing room as performers furiously applied makeup and costumes to prepare for their big debut in front of the packed house at the AllWays Lounge on St. Claude Avenue.

Each of the 10 performers presented a distinct drag persona, which I sneak-previewed earlier. I’ll have a more expanded look at the show and interviews with some of the performers to kind of clean out the reporter’s notebook, but here’s an excerpt from the Advocate piece, noting the participation of the tall, lanky Cory Greenwaldt, who put his 6-foot-3 frame to silly affect:

Greenwaldt said he was looking for a way to feel less self-conscious about his slender 6-foot-3 frame, and thus invented Slenderella — “silly, bubbly, a bit ditzy, and a laugh you can hear a mile away.” Slenderella swayed and flopped her away around the AllWays Lounge stage, wrapped in a long white wig, a white leotard with matching stockings and a blue plastic miniskirt — all to the tune of “Primadonna” by Marina and the Diamonds. “It truly represented my inner need to be perfect in an imperfect world, which can be dangerous at times,” Greenwaldt said after the show. “I’ve learned through the creation of Slenderella and the drag workshop that not everything is perfect, and at times, I just need to loosen up and have fun.”

Look for more on the site later this week.

 

For Vinsantos, Tuesday’s another “Draguation” day with the New Orleans Drag Workshop

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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.”

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