Drag doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s an art form that thrives on stage and in front of an audience — two things that have been hard to come by during the pandemic.
This weekend, Synonym Art Consultation will create a virtual stage to showcase Winnipeg’s queer arts and drag community with its first-ever GORGE Festival. The free two-day event is supported by a Safe at Home grant from the province and will feature 31 live and pre-recorded drag performances, concerts, karaoke, bingo, panel discussions, storytelling and interactive workshops.
Festival co-founder Andrew Eastman says the variety of programming is a reflection of Winnipeg’s distinct and diverse drag scene.
"Other cities that I’ve visited (drag is) based on a fame model, where artists are kind of climbing on top of each other to get to the top," he says. "I think Winnipeg does stand out as a really strong community-based drag scene that serves to lift everyone up.
"It’s not just about performances in nightclubs… we also have performers reading books for children, we have performers doing workshops about craft-making."
Levi Foy, who performs as local drag queen Prairie Sky, is the co-curator of GORGE. He sees the festival as an opportunity to share Winnipeg’s "gritty, cosmopolitan, unabashedly raw" drag scene with a wider audience.
"Most people’s engagement with drag is through a kind of awful representation of what drag is supposed to be through RuPaul’s Drag Race," he says. "It’s awful because it’s so prescriptive and it’s often very myopic about what drag can be and I think at the local level we’ve always had our own interpretations."
The idea for GORGE has been simmering for a while. Last year, Synonym hoped to host a live drag festival but had to press pause for obvious reasons. Launching the inaugural event virtually has been a blessing in disguise.
"We probably wouldn’t have focused as much on the video aspect of the project, and that’s actually turned out to be a huge asset for a lot of these performers," Eastman says. "A lot of them only have videos of themselves like on an iPhone, in a nightclub… so we’re able to provide these really professionally shot and edited videos that they get to use in furthering their career."
Foy is hosting Sunday’s drag brunch and bingo events. Working with a film crew from Winnipeg’s BNB Studios helped take away some of the stress associated with virtual drag shows during the pandemic.
"It’s left those of us who do not want to be as technologically savvy kind of in the dark," he says. "Learning new technologies or doing drag on those types of platforms is very challenging."
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Being able to perform to a live audience — albeit a very small one — on set was a major highlight of filming. Foy prefers hosting events to other forms of drag because it allows him to engage with other performers and audience members.
"I can do my makeup in my room and put on a nice wig and maybe go to a photo shoot, but for me that’s not the appeal of drag," he says. "I’ve used drag as an opportunity to build connections with people."
Most GORGE Festival performers and presenters are from Manitoba, save for American rapper Big Freedia, who will join local activist Mahlet Cuff in a conversation hosted by The Uniter Speaker Series. In the future, Synonym hopes to expand the event with more out-of-town artists.
Eva Wasney Arts Reporter
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.