Show director and founding member Karmella Machiatto waited “a bit longer” than other drag troupes in town to officially cancel the remainder of The Kourtesans’ drag shows for the month of March. Even after Machiatto heard the news that the University of Georgia had moved online for the remainder of the semester on March 16, she didn’t want to cancel the coming weekend’s shows because the weekend would have brought in “a few hundred dollars” to each performer.
“The last thing we wanted to do was cancel,” Machiatto, known off-stage as Kenny Laney, said.
But she had to. The county implemented a shelter-in-place policy and the number of reported cases continued to hike. Karmella ended up canceling all shows on March 16 out of concern for the health of the troupe.
All drag in Athens — shows by FEMME, The Kourtesans, the Athens Showgirl Cabaret and Boybutante AIDS Foundation, Inc. — have been canceled until further notice due to concerns over COVID-19.
Cancellations came in the midst of exciting things for the troupes — The Kourtesans were preparing to host its first drag brunch at Trappeze Pub, Athens Showgirl Cabaret had recently began an all-ages show at Hendershot’s and FEMME had to cancel five shows in the works. Boybutante canceled its 31st annual Boybutante Ball, its biggest fundraiser of the year, which donates its proceeds to Live Forward in a fight against HIV and AIDS in Athens.
Queen Alex Suarez — Alex Suarez off-stage — canceled her shows earlier, realizing her show “FEMME” would have to be canceled after performing in Atlanta to increasingly smaller audiences due to COVID-19 during the weekend of March 13-15. Since then, the absence of shows has cost her between $1,000-$1,500, Suarez said.
Though queens and kings can’t perform in the middle of a crowded bar, some plan to begin digital performances: Lisa Couchlocker, member of The Kourtesans and DJ, is working on organizing a digital set for the troupe.
The potential digital drag show will include The Kourtesans with Couchlocker as the DJ in a “Zoom-style conference room,” Couchlocker, known off-stage as Dean Stockwell, said. Virtual attendees can turn on their camera too, and Couchlocker will encourage people to dress up.
“You’d basically be at a drag show, but you’re at your kitchen table instead, or on your couch,” Couchlocker said.
The meeting will be open to “anyone with a webcam,” so fans of The Kourtesans in other towns or states can join in too. Beginner drag performers will be able to join in the show, Couchlocker said, opening up the platform for new talent who haven’t had much exposure.
“Without these drag shows, there’s not really a space for us to gather,” — Jenn Sparx, drag performer
“In drag, the tendency is that you start in your bedroom,” Couchlocker said. “This gives a lot of people who have been doing drag in their bedroom the chance to show the world what they’re doing.”
After seeing Charli XCX perform a DJ set on Club Quarantine — which began as a small Zoom conference and grew in popularity — Couchlocker wanted to do something similar with The Kourtesans. Though the show is still “in the works,” announcements will be made on The Kourtesans’ Instagram and Facebook.
Couchlocker herself is in the process of filming makeup tutorials and other drag-related content for IGTV, Instagram’s video feature. She wants to keep producing content partly because it keeps her busy and partly because she loves drag.
“Not only is drag a source of income, we do it because we love it,” Couchlocker said. “To have something that you love that much cut off from you — you still want to figure out any way to continue doing it.”
While The Kourtesans will be moving online, Suarez is using this time to “bask in this time off.” She hasn’t had much time off in the past three years and in the time of a pandemic, she said one shouldn’t be pushing themselves to work.
The Athens Showgirl Cabaret also wants its performers to rest instead of moving to digital performances, member Jenn Sparx said.
“We want all our performers to have some time for themselves and do all of the things they haven’t been able to do,” Sparx, known as Trevor Ramsey off-stage, said. “Sew a big dress, come up with a great thing and do it while we’re not overwhelming everyone online.”
An online drag show also can’t replicate the same atmosphere as an LGBTQ+ friendly space, Sparx said, which is part of the reason for drag shows in the first place.
“Without these drag shows, there’s not really a space for us to gather,” Sparx said. “We just don’t have that physical space that lets us all come together.”
When drag shows are up and running again, each troupe plans to bring shows back as soon as possible. In the meantime, Suarez said she, and other queens in Athens, are focusing on being advocates for social distancing until troupes can return to the dance floor.
“People have seen that we’re all kind of hanging out,” Suarez said. “It’s good to see people you love and respect be leaders in that way.”