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“’What do you mean you’re a drag queen? You can’t be a drag queen. You’re a woman!’” performer Morrigana Regina recounts, imitating an incredulous audience member whose words have stuck with her. “Anyone can be a drag queen. Drag is about being larger than life.”
Regina, who has a bachelor’s degree in theater from California State University, Fresno, found her way to drag in 2016 by way of burlesque. She developed a fierce persona named after the Celtic goddess of war who fights for equality and body acceptance. “I created my drag character out of all the things I always wanted to be,” she says. “Then I realized I already am all of those things.”
As an instructor and mentor for the second iteration of The Andy Warhol Museum’s School of Drag, a five-week summer course that offers teens the chance to explore the art of gender-based performance, Regina helped facilitate similar discoveries among the participants. In addition to working with the teens to craft stage personas, she and co-facilitator Akasha L Van-Cartier taught costuming, stage presence, and choreography, all along the way helping the young people connect to drag’s historic and cultural roots. The twist this year, due to the pandemic, was helping them forge these connections from their own homes via Zoom.
Over five weeks, high school senior Branch crafted a stage persona that reflects their identity as a non-binary person who loves the steampunk aesthetic (think Victorian era with an industrial edge). For their final performance, Branch donned dramatic black ostrich feather epaulets to turn cartwheels and drop into splits as the Worriers’ pop-punk musical anthem to gender nonbinary pronouns, They/Them/Theirs, pulsed from the speakers in The Warhol theater. “Drag is a way to present what I am interested in without being judged by my peers,” Branch said during a virtual public panel discussion exploring the impact of the program.
“All teens are deeply engaged in figuring out who they are,” says Shannon Thompson, inclusion programs coordinator at the museum. “Any sort of artistic practice is a vehicle to discover how you see yourself. If you are playing a character, that begs the questions: Who am I and how am I distinguished from this character, or how am I like this character?”
The course grew out of The Warhol’s LGBTQ+ Youth Prom and was inspired by a similar program at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson. For Thompson, these experiences fit squarely into the museum’s mission. “The Warhol isn’t a monument to a famous dead guy,” she says. “It’s a place that reflects the fact that the artist built a vibrant LGBTQ+ culture around himself, and we can harness that energy and give youth a sense of ownership in the space.”
“All teens are deeply engaged in figuring out who they are. Any sort of artistic practice is a vehicle to discover how you see yourself.” – Shannon Thompson, inclusion programs coordinator at the WARHOL
Last year, a rotating crew of guest teachers taught the inaugural class of nine School of Drag students. The teens who made it to the final performance were greeted by a cheering, sold-out crowd. This year, five students filmed performances for an online viewing party. Even without the energy of an in-person audience, the excitement was palpable.
The teens adapted easily to the online format. It helped that Regina and Van-Cartier are both experienced educators. Van-Cartier first donned drag 21 years ago in order to raise money for various causes. Now he’s part of Drag Queen Story Hour, a library program that hosts performers reading children’s books.
Because it translated well virtually, this year’s course focused a lot on makeup—an important part of the art form. “As a drag queen, I explore art and telling a story,” says performer E! The Dragnificent, who discovered drag in fifth grade, completed last year’s program as a first-year high school student, and was a guest teacher this year. “I tell that story on my face.
“As a trans female, I represent my femininity every day,” says E! “When I’m doing drag with the big wigs and makeup, my femininity is on a whole other level.”
Van-Cartier and Regina also wanted to help students understand drag’s history and rightful place in LGBTQ+ activism. Instead of coming up with a lesson plan, they started by asking the teens what they already knew. They were shocked by the students’ knowledge. “These are some of the most intelligent people I have met in a long time,” Van-Cartier says. “This generation is not to be slapped off!”
Both were also impressed by how open the teens were to a diversity of drag styles and their dedication to greater acceptance for all members of the LGBTQ+ community. Branch reflects, “Maybe my individual performance doesn’t mean anything, but the fact that I help cultivate a culture of acceptance and creativity is enough for me.”
School of Drag is made possible with support from American Eagle Outfitters Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and Jim Spencer and Michael Lin.
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