I have never been to a drag show. Quite honestly, this is something I never had any desire to attend prior to my “I have never...” year. While I’ve heard drag shows are highly entertaining events from many people throughout the years, I just didn’t understand the appeal of seeing men dressed in women’s clothing perform on stage. To me, a performance worth seeing constituted more than cross dressing, grabbing a microphone, and getting on a stage in front of a group of people. If I was going to go see a performance of any kind, I wanted it to be a full experience of people with real, indisputable talent, and before I knew what went into a drag show I didn’t see how “talent” fit in the picture of a drag show. That stated, I knew all of the positive comments I heard about drag shows meant there must be something to them. In turn, I added attending a drag show to my “I have never...” list early in my journey and kept my eyes peeled for an opportunity to gain the experience.
As luck would have it, one of the acclaimed drag shows, Rupaul’s Drag Race, happened to be coming through Madison this month. When Rachael caught wind of the event a few months ago, she promptly made me aware of it, which set into motion our plans to attend my first drag show tonight. Although I was still a bit uncertain about what to expect from the event, I knew it was likely going to be a memorable, entertaining, and slightly awkward experience. As a result, I headed to the Barrymore Theatre in Madison with Rachael tonight, and braced myself for an “I have never...” experience unlike any other before it.
Upon arriving at the Barrymore, I was stunned to see a massive line of people winding down the street outside the theatre. I expected the event to be well attended, but the sheer volume of people waiting to see the show was far beyond what I anticipated. After getting our tickets and clearing the line, Rachael and I found some seats near the center aisle and settled in for the show. With nearly 45 minutes before the scheduled start time of the Drag Race, we tinkered with our phones, chatted about what we expected from the pending experience, and took time to people watch among the outwardly diverse crowd of people clearly prepared for a party. The show hadn’t yet begun, but I was already intrigued by many of the sights and sounds emanating from the theatre around us.
Eventually, the theatre lights dimmed and the drag show began with a musical number from the elegantly dressed hostess, Michelle Visage. To my surprise, her voice was powerful and clear as it echo through the theatre. Stated plainly, this girl could sing. We listened on as she worked through the song, which contained a soaring melody wrapped around some suggestive and downright raunchy lyrics. The mix of humor and quality entertainment was great to see so early in the show, and it made me look forward to the body of main performances that would inevitably come. With her song complete, Michelle introduced herself as the only true woman that would performing at the show before running through a list of each performer that would be making an appearance throughout the night. Although the list of names was unfamiliar to me, the crowd erupted in applause with Michelle’s announcement of each new name. The response made me realize the drag show performers we were about to see were celebrities of the drag world, which made me hopeful the level of entertainment would continue through the night.
|Working the crowd|
Once Michelle’s introduction was over, the first performer, Willam, took the stage via the theatre’s main aisle. With energy flowing through each of his movements, he danced his way to the stage and took the spotlight. Scantily clad in leather and latex women’s clothing, Willam’s appearance was a bit awkward for me at first, but his talent and energy on the stage were quick to distract me from those initial feelings of seeing a grown man masquerading as a woman in full makeup wearing next to nothing in front of a group of people. The performance showcased a blend of song, dance, and humor as Willam worked the stage and the crowd. With a taste for the profane, Willam’s first performance made it clear we were in for an entertaining and nasty show that sought only to push the envelope as far as physically possible.
With Willam’s performance complete, Michelle Visage returned to stage and introduced the next performer, Detox, who took to the stage behind closed curtains. With music slowly swelling, the large red pieces of fabric separated to reveal Detox in an artistic pose wrapped in an elaborate white feather display. The accompanying extended black eyelashes and bright red lipstick made it clear Detox had spent hours achieving an elegant look that I will admit was quite convincing. Like Willam before him, Detox worked through his song with a well-choreographed performance, albeit a little less in your face than the performance that opened the show.
Two performances in, it was clear my earlier perspective on drag shows lacking talent was clearly off base. These men were entertainers to the fullest extent of the word. With their body as their canvas, it was clear they spent hours preparing their costumes and makeup, which was amazing to see in and of itself. Of course, they also had obvious stage talent that outshone some modern popular performers. Say what you will about the perceived taboos of their entertainment genre of choice, but these men were real performers that have mastered their art form. Sure, it is awkward at times to be a straight man watching men performing in women’s attire, but their talent is obvious when you get to experience it.
|The intro to the song "Nails"|
|...and there you have it.|
This pattern continued over the next two hours. Rachael and I watched as other performers, including Manila, Alaska Thunderfuck, and Sharon Needles, took on performances of their own and participated in duets of original songs. With each performance the energy and excitement of the audience around us grew. Everyone in attendance was engaged and entertained, which anyone would say is difficult to do for a two-hour period. While there were times the performers’ live singing left something to be desired, their costumes, interactions with the audience, and humor more than made up for what could have been potential lulls in the performance. Every one of the drag queens on the stage blasted through the boundaries of what many would define as social norms with extravagant displays, charged words., and interactive performances. Needless to say, the entertainment value of the event was obvious, and I was surprised to find I was having a good time.
|Cheeseheads and PBRs? Well, you fit right in!|
Ultimately, the show began to draw toward a conclusion with some ruckus duets that made no effort to filter their lyrical content. As members of the audience were singled out as the focus of some songs and rows of people became a part of the drag queens’ performance area, the crowd moved to their feet and cheered on the entertainers. There was little room for anyone, regardless of persuasion, to feel anything but entertained by the unrestrained performances and the hilarity of the drag queens’ more profane moments. With movements between music and what could easily be defined as comedy routines, the performers were making the most of every moment on stage. It was obvious the queens were there to have a good time, and they doing everything possible to make sure every person in the audience having the same experience.
|Take a bow!|
With one final arching musical piece the event, and my first experience with a drag show, drew to a close. As Rachael and I made our way out of the theatre, we discussed some of the more memorable moments of the performance and talked about my thoughts on the experience. While the core of the drag show was what I expected (men dressed as women on stage), the quality of the entertainment floored me. Once I was able to get past the apparent awkwardness of watching men perform in elaborate drag, it was easy to appreciate the time, effort, and expertise required to pull off such a show. The performers in Rupaul’s Drag Race are the real deal, and they make it easy to respect the effort they put into making sure everyone in attendance has a good time at such a unique performance. Although I didn’t expect I would walk away with such a perspective, I can honestly say I would attend a drag show again. If presented the opportunity. It was certainly a new experience, but it wasn’t a bad one. In fact, Rachael and I had a really good time, and that makes me glad I made the decision to gain a new experience I likely would have never gained if not for my “I have never...” journey.