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Holding for Applause: On Queer Cabaret in Pandemic Times

This is how queer cabaret artists like to gather: to pile ourselves into the crush upon crush of bodies and cute outfits in a party or show space. We like the touchy flirtation and grabby gossiping, the sweaty kisses, and bathroom fumbles, and, as performers, to whip the crowd into frothy, shouty and spitty explosions of cheering and applause, to gently (or not gently) coerce the dirty cash tips.

The cabaret’s full-frontal, full-contact applause is what I have always experienced as queer love. I don’t, for obvious reasons, have access to it right now. Queers have regularly been blamed for being vectors of contagion, either through the viruses we carry or the mere contagiousness of our fabulous lives – we carry and pass on a kind of freedom that many, ultimately, find irresistible. Queers have to be careful during a pandemic, in order to protect ourselves from the virus as well as from the usual scapegoating.

And so, this spring, queers took to our houses, to the internet, to our makeshift stages and dancefloors. The two formats towards which we gravitated were the classic forms: the cabaret (variety show) and the house party. I am a cabaret performer myself and for the past couple of decades I have been studying queer cabaret, mostly in Montreal, Toronto, New York City and Mexico City. And I throw an excellent house party. My experience made me both interested in and deeply skeptical of this online cabaret phenomena. And I was, also, dismissive.

After the first month of self-isolation, the live single-location Facebook and Instagram shows (featuring a girl and her guitar, or in the case of the Indigo Girls, two girls and their guitars) seemed to slow down a bit, but the higher-concept, multi-location variety show – the cabaret – picked up momentum. I half-heartedly logged into a few of these “Zoom cabarets” – having received invitations from friends and friends of friends – muttering this will never work, this will never catch on. I can see now, this was my isolation-fueled techno-ennui, amnesia, pessimism, and nihilism speaking. And I was, at least in part, wrong.

Over the course of the past seven months I have “gone to” many online queer performance party nights and I am amazed by the fabulously innovative ways queers have been using various online platforms—mostly Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitch, YouTube—for the survival cultural economy that is queer cabaret. I’ve also developed a nasty case of GLOZOFOMO (Global Zoom Fear of Missing Out), an anxiety disorder triggered by nightlife and other gatherings taking to the internet, which makes me feel like I have no excuse not to attend everything, everywhere.

I think about the COVID cabaret phenomenon as a new chapter in the long story about how queer performers have made it work in whatever venues we could get our hands on—bars, bookstores, galleries, church basements, warehouse squats, banquet halls, legion halls, community centres, conference rooms, sex toy shops, rooftops and theatres large and very small, and living rooms. Every one of these venues pose challenges to the queer cabaret. Sometimes the stage is too small; often there is no stage at all; or the chairs are screwed to the floor so folks can’t mingle, flirt, cruise and gossip; often there are no chairs at all; sometimes the bartenders are racist, homophobic, transphobic and misogynist; often there are no bartenders at all and you have to set up and work your own bar (DANGER: 5-ounce pours); sometimes the space is moldy, too bright, too dark, or too expensive; often it is wheelchair inaccessible. Queers are used to the challenges of making our shows and parties happen in really any space, any venue.

And so, with the onset of the COVID pandemic protocols, this is what queers have done—we’ve turned platforms into venues, and we are making it work. Online platforms meant for video conferencing, social networking or tandem game play are now being repurposed into cabaret and party venues, as each week show and party organizers are re-purposing these online (and offline) spaces in awesomely inventive ways, from using the raised hand function in Zoom webinars to create a “Jumbotron” video spotlight for partiers dancing in their homes, to rigging up stage sets in living rooms, bathrooms, hallways, balconies, and gazebos to create a live performance atmosphere in the online cabaret. I call this way of using offline cabaret methods to perform queer nightlife in online spaces, “transmedial drag.”

But there is one thing so far that queer nightlife scenes online cannot replicate: the sound of many hands clapping, the Queer Instant Reaction Applause (QIRA).

In her April 1st Facebook Live comedy special, Toronto-based stand-up comic, beloved cabaret host and performer Elvira Kurt pauses in the middle of her hour-long set, and takes a sip of beer. She surprises herself with this instinctive live comedy cue: “That was an applause break I just took. I just took a drink during an applause break. I should do that more often. I’ll let you guys clap.” About a dozen (of the over 200 people ‘watching’) indicate clapping in some way in the live chat, all with a delay of 3 to 30 seconds, indeed, well after the applause break is over and Kurt has moved on.

Similarly, in the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s “Pride Inside” cabaret, livestreamed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s online streaming service, Gem, Toronto-based cabaret superstar Ryan G. Hinds laments of broadcast cabaret, “It’s the strangest thing in the world, holding for applause, but it just ain’t coming cuz you’re home alone in your bedroom in Etobicoke in your leopard print pyjamas, your tropical housecoat and your trademark red glitter lips, just because.” 

Here, I think about the importance of applause for queer performance especially. Applause, hooting, hollering, heckling with over-the-top appreciation and admiration is how we support the fledgling amateurs and the superstars among us, as we rely on the cabaret form to tell our stories, to bitch about the world and make the tragic comic, to entertain each other and keep track of each other. Performance artists are attention-seekers (but not necessarily extroverts). As Montreal-based cabaret royalty, techie, promoter, organizer and anti-capitalist financier podcaster Laura Boo says of the shift to online (applause-less) performance: “There’s a reason I’m not a painter.” Applause is necessary. It makes us feel seen and, arguably, safe — loved. Applause is the audio equivalent of the sweaty crush upon crush, a bodily affirmation you can hear. Applause is such a good vibration, such a sweet sensation. So, in addition to the other things that the COVID pandemic has made us long for, we also find ourselves holding (and holding and holding) for applause.

The online cabaret scene is doubtless changing how we think about audience, enthusiasm and attention, but this phenomenon is continuous with the rise of online performance videos and the transformation of audience viewing culture on YouTube, TikTok, Twitch and other short video platforms. Is it possible that what we have previously understood as applause – a collective performance of the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings – is changing as we watch unheard, unseen (unobserved), forever muted, with our cameras off? Putting queer culture online has always been a risky business, what with all the commercial trolls and bully bots and face-recognizing, deporting Internet governments. But with the rise of video-off, muted and multi-tasking audience culture, performers need to be conscious of yet another risk: that the majority of their audiences are not paying attention at all! [Horrified face emoji].

Is a dribble of chat the new tepid applause? Are we eventually going to stop applauding altogether?

In the early-days of COVID cabaret, almost no one was camera-off (did we even know we could get away with that then?) and the etiquette was for everyone to un-mute at the end of each performance and clap and cheer and do all the things queer cabaret audiences are supposed to do, even though you can only hear one audio stream at a time on Zoom, so a “round of applause” is really more of a glitch of applause. But it was the thought that counted, wasn’t it?  For example, during the truly great Passoverboard! Coronabaret, organized and hosted on April 18 by Montréal cabaret mavens Jordan Arseneault (aka Peaches LePox) and Laura Boo (Douche LeDouche), the dozen or so artists experimented with what they could get away with in this new venue, and audience members familiar with the Montreal cabaret scene of seeing and being seen, sat loyally on our couches with make-up on and drinks in hand (and on hand), faithfully facing these newly platformed performances, happily together again, kind of, at least. In the weeks and months following Passoverboard!, the isolation measures continued, and audience cultures shifted alongside employee cultures. As the always gorgeously quippy Arseneault observes, “Zoom Cabaret is a mid-point between DIY porn and office work, and this is our oeuvre.”

Arseneault raises an excellent point. What happens when we use the same platform venue for our workday and our nightlife? I propose that at around the same time we realized that it was pandemic possible but really not awesome to drink an entire 26oz bottle of vodka in one sitting multiple nights in a row (who needs bartenders?! I do), we also realized that the same multi-tasking coping mechanisms used in workday Zoom – videos off, mics off, cooking, exercising, in pyjamas, and so on – had become normalized and seamlessly carried over to our nightlife on the same platform. Zoom house rules.

Anyone who has ever tried to throw a queer party in a convention centre banquet room could have predicted that this would happen. It’s hard to stay hard in a room that, the night before, was used for a fundraiser for the local Catholic diocese, and the next morning would be transformed into the WeWork Global Summit. It occurred to me as I saw this trend developing, that a cabaret with almost everyone’s cameras off is just a faculty meeting with costumes.  

What choices does an audience have? The livestreaming option takes the microphone and camera out of the equation, and relies entirely on the chat for audience love. Indeed, the tagline for Twitch is “We’ve saved you a seat in the chat.” For many cabaret performers, uploading pre-recorded videos, even for a live/livestreamed show, is a more appealing option than performing live from their living rooms (or even better than performing live in front of an audience, which can be very nerve-wracking. Not all queens love a crowd!). As Montreal and La Paz-based drag artist and online cabaret mixtrix, Noé Ventura (a.k.a. Califia KFC) reminded me, in Latin America, drag artists have been making YouTube videos for years, with artists “chasing the YouTube dream,” and drag audiences accessing their favourite artists primarily through the pre-recorded and streamed video. From the analytic vector of applause, this means that at the moment of performance, the cabaret artist (like a movie star, or, like the professor teaching an asynchronous course with pre-recorded videos) is performing for the camera alone, and has to wait for audience love via the chat of the livestream event — hours, days or weeks after “completing” the performance. (Note to self: enable chat function on pre-recorded lecture videos?)

The key to great online Queer Instant Reaction Applause (QIRA, do you think this will catch on?) has little to do with the platform venue and more to do with who shows up and what they bring. The shows, including La Cabaret de Fantasía (Montreal and La Paz), Kingflix & Chill (San Juan, PR) and Going the Full Beaver (Toronto), in which the audience members know each other and are riffing on, performing for, and upstaging each other in the chat applause are the shows that feel the most alive.

Cabaret has predominantly been a local affair, knows any performer who has tried to take their show on the road. Who hasn’t brought your hit set that earns you a Standing O with your hometown crowd to stages in a stranger city, only to be treated like a bathroom break by those cold-hearted NYC audiences (for example, story from a friend)? Applause is as much about audience peer pressure as it is about anything else. So… in a livestream cabaret that extends beyond its local scene, when the audience doesn’t know and love the performers intimately shall we say, and when audience members don’t know each other, who are the peers from whom to experience the pressure to get off your ass, to raise your glass, and cheer like your chances of getting laid depended on it? The stakes of audience participation have gone down, and with these stakes, so sink the sense of pleasure and responsibility of being part of an applauding crowd.

Of course, cabaret isn’t the only thing that is harder to watch without a live audience. Have you seen a WNBA game lately? While the NBA has a piped-in audience of virtual fans – that the players and at-home audience can see and hear! – who can be booted off the feed for “inactivity,” the WNBA doesn’t have the budget for applause. I learned this recently when I checked myself into an empty hotel in downtown Toronto to finish writing my book. My sports-loving partner (let’s call them Jr) came to visit one night and, while I was certainly a draw, it was the TSN and ESPN subscription they were really after. First, we watched the Raptors game, and for the first time ever I was interested in televised basketball – the virtual fans had me thinking about cabaret. The 17-foot wall behind the coaches in each COVID stadium has space for each team to select and screen 320 boisterous family members and fans, all hosted by Microsoft Teams.

When we channel surfed to a WNBA game we were shocked-not-shocked to see these athletes playing in a gym that looks like it could be our YMCA around the corner, with not a virtual fan in sight [insert feminist 101 argument about systemic misogyny in sports]. Let’s think about this together: while most people are familiar with watching a basketball game on a screen, from their living room or basement, cabaret is no such beast. Even though basketball stars are back on the courts, together again, cabaret (and other) artists are still reaching their fanbase from their homes, not sharing a stage or a dance floor. All of the delightfully scuzzy venues in which we used to gather are still closed and, tragically, many are going out of business altogether. All of cabaret’s improvisational rubbings together, which are the lifeblood of queer expressive culture, are, in the time of pandemic, mediated through technologies of virtual togetherness.

There are three critical points I want to make about basketball and cabaret:

  • First, the thing is, cabaret artists have all performed in living rooms and basements before, but always with other people in them. That part is really key. So, it’s not the living room performance (we do that very well), or even the living room audience (also done well in queer scenes) that poses a problem for us. It’s the every-queer-in-their-own-living-rooms (often living rooms in basement apartments, obviously) that creates the feeling of forever holding for applause, for the on-top-of-each-other-ness of the all-in-this-together-ness of the big applause and shared roaring laughter, gasps or blushes of shock at a particularly filthy joke.
  • Second, queers are so smart. The organizers of London-based Queer House Party and Toronto-based Club Quarantine, both online queer dance parties with some cabaret performance elements, have cleverly adapted, and figured out how to subvert the sedative effect the camera-off Zoom trend by blending love (of dancing) and basketball: the Jumbotron. Using the webinar version of evil, but handy, Zoom, they spotlight queers around the world dancing in their own little quarantined bedrooms and living rooms. Cabaret has always served as a laboratory and the contemporary online cabaret, using transmedial drag methods, continues this experimentation on impromptu stages and squatted platforms.
  • My third point: who knows someone at evil Microsoft and how can we get our hands on a virtual fan board that will finally let the artists get what we need: Queer Instant Reaction Applause. Make it happen, science!   

In Conclusion – Finding Your COVID Audience

For months I’ve been looking for something that feels like real applause – applause realness, if you will. I’ve scoured YouTube and watched applause from the X-Factor, to the NBA, to (the trailer for) a tween drama called Standing Ovation, to Whoopi Goldberg’s surprize post-pneumonia return to The View (actually, this one is truly great. Content Warning: so much hugging it will make you cry). I also [enters confessional] just happened to find an old video of my own live performance featuring the best, most ridiculous, hilarious drunken buddies applause ever. In this era of (very serious virus-driven) global applause-fasting, this video fed me the external validation I’d been craving. Queens, let me tell you: if you’ve got one of these videos around, now is the time to just go there.

Over the past several months we have all had moments when something we see on a screen, in the no-contact zone, reminds us of our former, full-contact queer life. For me, this moment came in the first episode of HBO’s Legendary – a reality show that stages a ballroom competition, featuring eight voguing houses from around the U.S. The performances by the show’s featured artists truly are stunning and as I cheered and fake-fainted on my couch, I found that it was the performance by the show’s audiences that brought my house down. It felt so good to be in an audience again. Applause, it turns out, is not just about receiving your own validation check. It’s also being part of a bigger queer beast of a thing – screaming loudest for the gayest glam-est shit you’ve ever seen, giving life back to the scene that gives you life.

In queer nightlife scenes you get points for being extra, giving extra. Less so in everyday life, which is why offline and online queer performance venues are such lifelines. Even though Legendary’s audience members are hired background performers (in this case putting the extra in extras) bussed to a studio in Stamford CT for the filming of the show, I experienced weepy, goose-bumpy joy from the audience’s hot looks, high-drama whistles, jostling yells and house chants. If, like me, you’ve been holding for some high-voltage Queer Instant Reaction Applause (QIRA, I know it will catch on), for that heart-fueling, many-layered sticky-sweet sonic high, the proximity to this breathy, screamy screen-based experience might just hold you over through the second wave, till we applaud and are applauded, together again.

T.L. Cowan is a media studies professor at the University of Toronto as herself. She also performs irregularly as alter-ego Mrs. Trixie Cane, is mostly a single-issue tweeter as @AgingSupermodel, and has not updated the website where they live together since 2017.

Home stages and photos by Alex Tigchelaar. Featuring projection of Times Square (1980).

Author note: It takes a cabaret to write about cabaret. Please put your hands together for my COVID cabaret co-conspirators: Alex Tigchelaar, Islandia Guzmán, Itzayana Gutiérrez, Zab Hobart, Stephen Lawson & Aaron Pollard, Laura Boo & Jordan Arsenault (Passoverboard!), Noé Ventura (La Cabaret de Fantasía), Elvira Kurt, Ryan G. Hinds, Kingflix & Chill, and Allysin Chaynes (Going the Full Beaver) for being fabulous even online. And to Jas Rault (aka Jr), for the basketball intel and everything else. 

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