The email from Stages Artistic Director, Kenn McLaughlin was dispiriting, if not altogether unsurprising. It was June 20, and the company was mid-run on two shows featuring drag characters, and things weren't going well.
“As you know, we’ve been hosting a wild party at Stages for the past few weeks, presenting a rotating repertory of The Legend of Georgia McBride
and Drag Wonderettes
,” it read.
“We’ve heard from so many of our usual Stages friends that they are worried, anxious, or just a little nervous to come to these shows, and that reticence has affected our attendance….. So, I’m asking for your help.”
What should have been a fun, light-hearted easy-sell block of shows for the company, had turned into empty seats and ghosting from a significant segment of their usual audience. This despite robust marketing efforts and favorable reviews.
The issue of course was drag, or more specifically the recent demonizing and political polarization performances of this nature have been subjected to on a national and local scale.
Brandon Morgan and Jarred Tettey in The Legend of Georgia McBride.
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Jarred Tettey, who played a character in The Legend of Georgia McBride
and is also the Stages Donor Concierge, responsible for seating company patrons, saw things first hand.
“Many people just went silent when asked if they were attending or RSVP’d yes, but then didn’t show up," says Tettey. “I knew that there were people uncomfortable with the show but didn't want to say that to anyone because they didn't want to have a discussion about it.”
Then there were those who attended, had a good time, but didn't engage in the all-important word-of-mouth post-performance.
“I know people that wanted to support the shows even though drag isn’t really their thing,” says Tettey. “So, they came and enjoyed, maybe even had their minds changed, but were still unable to advertise us to their friends as their circle wouldn’t be as supportive.”
Stages isn't the only company to have recently experienced backlash from audiences uncomfortable with crossdressing. Mainstreet's Theater for Youth had its own taste of intolerance last spring when Spring Branch ISD pulled all school groups from seeing their production of James and the Giant Peach over a parent’s belief that non-binary transgender actor playing a female glow-worm and an aunt in a few scenes was male — incorrectly akin to a drag performance.
The complaint and resulting cancellation came as a shock to Vivienne St. John, Artistic Director of Main Street Theater's Theater For Youth, who says the company has done crossdressing (not drag) for years and no one has ever mentioned it at all.
Perhaps no one mentioned it because the issue of drag simply wasn't the hot-button matter it has now become. Over the last year or so, the art form has been cast in a false light by right-wing activists and politicians loudly proclaiming that drag promotes the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children.
Given this climate, are Houston theaters now going to have to rethink programming in order to keep the lights on?
“I wouldn’t say that I’m not going to think about it in future, but are we going to change, no,” says St John. “You’re not going to see drag in Theater For Youth, what we do is cross-gender casting and will continue to do that. We couldn’t do nearly the number of shows without crossdressing because we can’t afford 25 actors in a play. And fewer shows would mean kids not being able to see their favorite stories come to life on stage.”
When it comes to true drag though, Tettey doesn’t foresee many local arts organizations in this climate chomping at the bit to produce performances of this nature anytime soon.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Stages is now gun shy to these kinds of shows,” says Tettey sadly. “The loss will be huge as our shows started conversations in both straight and gay audiences and did what theater is supposed to do – show you a human experiencing something else than what you experience but expressing the human emotions we all have.”
Rebecca Udden, Executive Artistic Director at Main Street Theater, thinks that perhaps the failure of the drag shows, in particular Drag Wonderettes
, a twist on Stage’s beloved '50s and '60s jukebox Wonderettes
productions, was foreseeable.
“I think the miscalculation that Stages made is that their Wonderettes shows are immensely popular but they’re popular among a specific segment of their audience — the people who like light fluff,” says Udden. “Those people don’t want to get drawn into a political controversy.”
Still, Rent at Theatre Under the Stars drew large crowds despite a central, cross-dressing character.
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Finding the right audience may be more of a tricky calculation in this climate for shows featuring drag issues or characters, but as the recent success of Rent
at Theatre Under the Stars proves, certain shows can still draw large crowds.
The commercially popular musical which features a prominent drag queen character, often portrayed as transgender in modern productions, didn’t suffer the same outrage or empty seats as the Stages and Mainstreet Youth shows.
Laura Peete, TUTS Artistic Line Producer says no one was all that concerned about audiences being turned off of the show given the present political rhetoric. “We believed that regardless of your political view, people would see beyond biases and reservations to the humanity of the characters and that it would touch people. We just believed in the work.”
“Yeah, but it’s Rent
,” says Tettey. “Everyone knows Rent
. Your friends know Rent
. Your circle knows Rent
. There’s a larger amount of people that will go see that show and tell their friends about it.”
So, is this where we are in Houston? Does a show featuring a drag character have to be a blockbuster, a widely familiar show to get people to overlook the controversy and show up?
“I think yes Rent
has a popularity factor, says Peete. The music is great, it was a movie and a successful album, so for sure there’s validity to the popularity pull. But it’s an example of how art can reach a wide range of audiences while still challenging perspectives.”
The good news is that plays and musicals featuring drag characters exist regardless of what any politician says, the potential bad news is that shows featuring drag may become harder to find on stage unless they’re already popular and/or packaged to the consumer in a commercially friendly manner such as Kinky Boots
(which will be playing next season at Broadway at the Hobby).
“There will be no stopping people from producing this art,” says Tettey. But you may not be able to find it at big theaters that need subscribers and large ticket sales to survive.”