Montreal drag

Charli Deville

Montreal drag performers persist during the pandemic

We spoke to local performers about how they’ve steered their careers since stages went silent.

Drag has entered the mainstream and become more popular and accessible than ever, largely thanks to the internet and a little Emmy-winning reality show called RuPaul’s Drag Race. Montreal has long had a vibrant drag scene that has also benefited from this “golden age of drag.” Perhaps the best example is Drag Superstars, an annual show organized by Fierté Montréal. Its fourth edition was presented by MAC Cosmetics on an enormous stage in Parc des Faubourgs with a cast of both local performers and Drag Race alumni, all for free (unless you wanted to attend the meet and greet). 

Montreal drag performers were getting international bookings and online followings, and some were even cast on the first-ever season of Canada’s Drag Race, which was filmed in the fall of 2019. 

And then…well you know what happened. Mid-March 2020, performers saw all their bookings, even ones three months away, get cancelled. Those whose income relied on drag were left to wonder how they’d pay rent. 

As the producer of Quebec’s only recurring drag king show, Man Spread, Montreal drag king Charli Deville was faced with a difficult choice.

“There was a Man Spread that was happening the week that everything shut down. I remember trying to figure out, ‘Should I cancel?’ What’s going on? Because we were really in the dark. I remember asking the artists, ‘Do you want to drop out?’ and everybody said no, and then they made the decision for us and shut down the venue. There was a lot of uncertainty for a good couple of weeks before and then everything really shut down.”

Virtual drag shows were quickly organized. Many were fundraisers and had a “pay what you can” model. 

“It was interesting because it took away the physical boundaries of performers so I was able to do shows in Chicago and Los Angeles and even though I wasn’t physically there, I figured it would be a way to get my name out even more,” Deville says.

Montreal drag

Montreal drag performer Pythia welcomed the opportunity to use her degree in set and costume design and get creative with a new medium for performing.

“I’ve always had an interest in creating more visual storytelling with my drag. I like having very much a concept for the theatrical, something cutesy, something that captures their attention as a way for me to tell a story, whatever I’m doing. Through online drag, having the power to control everything that is seen through a camera was very nice for me because I got to create the whole world. I used green screen a lot, and a lot of editing. I could edit myself playing multiple characters.”

Despite this, both artists explained that putting together a digital drag performance is a lot more work and ultimately less fulfilling than live performances.

“You have to do all the video editing and get somebody to film you and the process ends up taking probably about 12 hours to produce one digital number that’s good enough to be seen. Like for me, I don’t want to put something really crappy out there. It had to be nicely edited and nicely shot and you have to think about lighting and there’s a lot of technical issues that come up. I’ve never really done much video editing or production before. So we had to learn that really quickly,” Deville explains. “A lot of us are really missing experiencing something in a room together. Specifically drag for me, I used to go to three, four of them a week and not being able to go for a year… it’s been really hard. If ever I was having a crappy day at work, you could always go to a drag show and you know you’ll feel better and you’ll be entertained.”

Though there was quite a bit of interest and support for these shows in the first few months of the pandemic, Pythia says the phenomenon sort of died down, especially when summer came and a few live drag shows were organized. A lot of these shows followed a drive-in model with audience members sitting in (or on) their cars watching performers on stage. 

Despite measures like limited capacity, social distancing and mandatory masks for both the audience and performers, Pythia chose not to participate in live shows.

“There was a lot of talk within the community, people were getting COVID, bars were shutting down and then people were coming into contact…It was just too scary for me to be part of that because I don’t want to get sick or put my boyfriend and my roommate in danger. I don’t think anyone from the audience got sick or any of the queens contracted (the virus) from anyone in the audience. But they have their own lives, they have part-time jobs, daytime jobs. So, it’s just kind of transferred backstage and then quickly another lockdown came and all that was shut down.”

Deville did get to do a drive-in drag burlesque show, and two socially distanced performances last summer. 

“I was very thankful to be able to do that but it’s just crazy to have gone from three a week to three in a year. It’s a big adjustment. A lot of performers, we’re just very happy to be able to do a few things live, here and there.”

Though Pythia chose to turn her energy away from digital drag performance, it’s easy to see by looking at her Instagram that, creatively, Pythia has managed to thrive in lockdown.

“It really gave me a lot of time to work on my makeup and my skills. I had so much fabric laying on the side and a whole bunch of wigs that I wanted to style that I never got to and when everything just stopped and I had no job because of the pandemic, I really got into playing around more with makeup and producing looks. I started doing little projects. In October, every day I looked like a different Halloween costume, but my interpretation. It didn’t really halt my creativity. I’m very happy that I got the chance to do all these shows because it really got my following to grow and it got me to also improve a lot.”

In terms of the future of drag in Montreal, Deville is cautiously optimistic.

“I moved here from a small town because of the nightlife and the exciting things that this city brings to you. There are so many performances and festivals and all of these free or very accessible things you can do — just these exciting, fun, shared experiences, everywhere, all over the city, all the time. So I know for sure that here, people are really thirsty for that again, for these kinds of experiences. We’re hoping that once we can be together, people will go out and we’ll be able to hopefully make up the money that we’ve all lost throughout this time and that it doesn’t end live performance. It’s just a kind of long break, and once we’re able to go back again, we’ll all be very excited to resume what we were doing before.” ■

This feature originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Cult MTL. Find Charli Deville on Instagram here, and Pythia on Instagram here.

For more theatre coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.