Living on the Fringe: Queer performers in the spotlight at performance-arts festival

Living on the Fringe: Queer performers in the spotlight at performance-arts festival

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Fringe Arts Philadelphia is yet again giving performers of all kinds a time and a place to express themselves to the fullest with the return of its annual Fringe Festival. The 17-day celebration of the arts, running at venues across the city Sept. 17-24, features more than 1,000 curated and independently produced shows.

On The Rocks is closing out the horror trilogy it rolled out at the previous two Fringe Festivals with “The Groom’s a Fag; The Bride’s a Cunt; The Best Man’s a Whore; and the Maiden of Honor (Just) Hung Herself in the Closet,” Sept. 7-24 at The Beard Cave at St. Mary’s Church, 3916 Locust Walk. 

Playwright-producer Haygen-Brice Walker said the collaborative shows he created with director-producer Elaina Di Monaco are a product of his lifelong obsession with horror movies.

“I got ‘Scream’ for a birthday present when I was 6 years old and I’ve been obsessed with horror movies ever since,” Walker said.

Walker added that audiences don’t have to have seen the previous two shows to enjoy this year’s final installment — but those who have are going to experience a different tone than in previous years.

“This year it’s a lot more about sex than it has been in the other years,” he said. “It’s about sex and sexuality and orientation, much more than the other two have been. Each year we take a different genre of horror and we deconstruct it. The first year we did slasher movies. Last year we did possession movies and this year we’re doing haunting and ghost stories. The characters are unrelated [to the characters from the other shows], so it’s more like the shows are thematically linked. So, it’s definitely different. We’re doing a lot of movement and dance this year, which we haven’t explored before. My boyfriend is choreographing it, which has been interesting. It’s turning out good.”

Walker said that trying to pull off the thrills and chills of a horror story in a live setting is more challenging than on screen.

“We’re producing it in the basement of a church in West Philly, so we don’t have traditional theatrical elements. We don’t have a lot of lighting or sound. I think when you are doing it on screen it’s easier to get those jump scares. What we’re doing is much more scrappy but there is an element of seeing live people experiencing something that will end up making it as scary as seeing a movie on screen.”

Drag performer and songstress Cookie Diorio is returning to Fringe this year to raise funds and awareness for local nonprofits with her show “Fire In My Bones: A Gospel Jubilee” and a new giving project “Art of the Heel.”

Diorio is the alter ego of Cory O’Niell Walker, who said that Cookie’s show this year, and the nonprofits it will support, is going to be focused on addressing the social climate in the country.

“I was inspired to begin the ‘Art of Heel’ project on what I was feeling after November 2016,” he said. “I really just wanted to do whatever I could do to help. What I do is I sing and I am a drag performer, so I wanted to lend my voice to the conversation and bring people together and start conversations. I wanted to support organizations that I thought were important and vital in our community, and are being threatened. However, I would like to find a way to present the point of views and information in a way that is entertaining, fun and both serious and light-hearted at the same time.”

Walker said that Cookie’s shows feature styles of music that people don’t normally associate with a drag performance. 

“I am an opera singer,” he said. “However, I like to sing whatever inspires me. If it’s opera, blues, pop, jazz or gospel, if I can sing it and it moves me, then I want to sing it. I do a range of musical genres for the shows. I’ll do pop and musical theater and some opera as well. Certainly I’ll do some gospel. I do think that sets me apart as a drag performer; here in the United States anyway, you don’t see many drag performers singing classical music or anything outside of pop and musical theater so much. The format [for the Fringe performances] is different than what I normally do but you will get all of the characteristic of a Cookie Diorio show that one comes to expect; all of the great music and personal anecdotes.”

Walker added that he intends to keep raising funds and awareness for local nonprofits after the Fringe Festival ends.

“I am hoping that it will continue beyond the Fringe Festival and Philadelphia,” he said. “I have planned already for November a benefit for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.”

Cookie Diorio performs 7:30 p.m. Sept. 8 at William Way LGBT Community Center and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 16 and 23 at First Unitarian Church, 2125 Chestnut St.

Another drag-oriented show at this year’s Fringe Festival is for children as well as adults.

ReNew Theatre Company’s “Aunty Ben” playfully explores gender issues, acceptance and diversity as it follows the story of 9-year-old Tracy and her relationship with her favorite uncle, who happens to be a drag queen.

ReNew founder Chad Parsons said he was inspired to bring the show to Philly for its U.S. premiere after seeing it in the U.K.

“It spoke to me because I have a lot of friends who are drag queens and a lot of friends who have told me personal stories about what it was like coming out to their families and being a drag queen and having awesome nieces and nephews,” he said. “Sometimes, unfortunately, there’s not a lot of places for the queer community in the family structure. So that’s what we’re trying to facilitate, to let them know that there is a place for queer community in the family structure.”

While the show is aimed at a younger audience, older viewers can also benefit from its message.

“We did a read-through with a small focus group of kids and their families,” Parsons said. “One of the things that we found is a lot of the kids are super-accepting. It’s the parents that the show is geared toward. I think their parents will enjoy it as well. Age-wise, it goes from 8-99.”

ReNew Theatre Company presents “Aunty Ben” Sept. 15-18 at William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St.

For more information about this year’s Fringe Festival or for tickets, visit www.fringearts.com.


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