Comedy Caper ‘Queens’ Celebrates Toronto’s Talented Drag Community

Comedy Caper ‘Queens’ Celebrates Toronto’s Talented Drag Community

Following its premiere during Pride Toronto‘s Virtual Pride Week, Canadian comedy caper Queens made its debut on CBC Gem today. In case you haven’t heard about the digital series yet, here’s what you need to know:

Each 6×10 minute episode follows the misadventures of a particular drag performer whose preparation for the “Miss Church Street” pageant is interrupted in a strange and unfortunate way. All of these mishaps lead the queens to realize the truth- they have all been sabotaged! But who among them is the saboteur? Or, rather, saboteuse?

Earlier this week, I chatted with Queens creator Justin Gray, showrunner Pat Mills, and stars Ivory Towers (Shoshanna) and Champagna (Elaina) about filming the series, reaching audiences outside of Toronto, and increasing queer representation on screen.

This series is so much fun but it also has a lot of heart. Was there something specific that inspired this story?

Justin: My own performing experiences inspired the story — none of which are actually based on real-life events — but the general kookiness of it all made me laugh. That lent itself to something that can be explored a bit more story-wise in a way that’s not really been done. It is so naturally campy and over the top, but the general environments you’re in are so banal that you constantly feel like you’re extracting yourself from real life and [ask] “Why am I doing this right now? Why is this a real thing?” then lean into the comedy a bit more.

Why do you think now is the perfect time to release this story into the world?

Pat: When we made it, we weren’t expecting a global pandemic and protests. The world is going through a very awkward growth period and it’s changing for the better, and people are craving a bit of levity. This show is ridiculous but it’s also really fun and campy, and I hope people respond to it.

Ivory Towers as Shoshanna on Queens

Ivory, I understand that you had an interesting casting process. Can you share a bit about that?

Ivory: I auditioned for two previous roles and didn’t get anything — thanks a lot, guys! — but Toronto is full of talented actors. When I saw [who was cast], I said, “Those were the people for those roles.” When someone couldn’t [play their role], I was called the day before and asked if I could fill in [the next day]. They sent the script over and it was one scene with Champagna. I read it — and coming from an acting background and also craving attention and approval — I [decided] that I really needed this scene to be memorable and for people to know who I am. As Shoshanna, I wanted to make someone laugh, be memorable, and show that this character might have more depth later on. So I’m happy with the role. Of all the characters I actually auditioned for, this is the one that was perfect for me. And then I worked with Champagna who is such an amazing actress and improviser, and she was the perfect person to play off of in the scene.

Champagna as Elaina on Queens

Drag queens haven’t always been seen as serious artists, especially from actors. Why do think that is finally changing and drag is being recognized as an art form?

Champagna (Elaina): Perceptions are changing a little bit mainly because people are getting over themselves. I know that’s what it required me to do. I’ll fully admit I was a pretentious actor for a long ass time. I really like doing drag so I had to get over that. The crux of drag is human connection, so once you start realizing that everyone’s a human being and you get over yourself a little bit, it does lend itself more to that. Perceptions have definitely changed because the more and more we see representation, the more unimaginative minds will be able to automatically go to that place and realize we can get authenticity from a drag performer, we can get magazine fashion from a drag performer, and it’s because they’ve seen us in a humanizing way.

Allysin Chaynes as Naomi

I’ve heard about some of the fun you had filming Queens. Can each of you share your favourite on-set memory?

Justin: Mine is the last day of shooting at Square One Mall [in the Morphe store] when we’re fighting the automated floor cleaners. We had to put someone out in the hallway to throw it off a little bit. There was constantly someone out there with a broom tapping at the machine as it was coming closer. It was basically a really bizarre, futuristic form of curling.

Champagna: It was my last day when we were on the soundstage shooting Elaina’s bedroom scene. It’s one thing to shoot something on location where it’s already a living character in a sense, like when we filmed at Crews and Tangos. Filming on a soundstage gives you that extra element of fantasy that adds to character work.

Ivory Towers: My favourite was having this memorable and amazing character that will live on forever (laughs). Also, working with Champagna and people that I never really get a chance to work with. Church Street Queens never really get to work with West End Queens. For years there’s been a divide, and when Allysin Chaynes [who plays Naomi in the show] started working on Church Street, it broke that barrier.

If Queens is picked up for a second season, do you have any ideas about where you’d like the story to go next?

Justin: We’re still in the early stages of a concept or even pitching a second season right now but we definitely have a couple of fun ideas. A lot of inspiration comes from pulling together a bunch of bizarre references from past television and film work and seeing if you can find a thread to make them connect. The first season of Queens was heavily based around Clue, Drop Dead Gorgeous, and Miss Congeniality. The second season idea that we’re running with right now is divinely inspired by Dirty Dancing and campy 80s horror movies. It’d be nice to have all of the characters back. In the first season, we had to introduce everyone and a storyline, and make sure it all comes together. A second season could be a longer format and flesh out the characters more.

Ivory: I went to school for theatre and stand up, so I love physical comedy and want some craziness from Shoshanna. You get a little taste of her [in Season 1], and I want to see how crazy she is, but maybe she has a little sweet side.

Pat: The thing that’s fun about writing a second season now that the characters are cast, and we know what all the different personalities bring to the characters, that will inform what we do next season. With improv or going off script, we know what worked and what didn’t, what character traits worked and where we can take them, it makes it a lot easier.

What excites you most about the release of this series?

Ivory: I’m so glad that Queens is happening to give people a different option than RuPaul’s Drag Race, as much as I love Drag Race. We are put in a box because of Drag Race. Queens is going to spotlight us in a totally different and fresh light, and I’m so excited to see what people take away from the show because we’re not just catchphrase queens or trick queens. There’s substance to us.

Champagna: I’m honestly excited to usurp the good CBC name for a second and get us into those small rural towns like in the middle of nowhere where I grew up.

Pat: I’m excited that people will get to see how much talent that was put into this show, from the costumes to the performers. [Viewers will be] watching drag queens be really amazing, and there’s no judgment or scores. They can enjoy the performances and the ridiculousness of it. Everything came together in a really special way, and I hope people respond to it.

Jada Shada Hudson as Paper

What impact do you hope that this series will have on Canadian film and television?

Justin: It would be nice to have featured characters that are queer, drag or not, but not necessarily just because they need to show someone who is gay. It’s because they can be a character in this world. They can be a human in this world, and not pinkwash the project for the clout of pride visibility. Hopefully in the future Canadian productions and productions worldwide take into account that featuring people who are queer doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re making a gay show. It means you’re making a show that lives in a real world and that can be celebrated without being used as a marketing tactic.

Ivory: Coming to Toronto as an actor and doing drag back when I had an agent, I really wanted to do drag in film and television. At a lot of the auditions, it would just be me, a gay person in drag, and everyone else was straight and the straight people would get the role. I want more visibility for just queer people and people of colour like [my co-star] Jada Hudson (Paper). We need more visibility not only with drag but people of colour in drag, and stop giving roles to straight white men just because it’s drag and they can hire makeup artists. It’s not that easy. It doesn’t make you a drag queen.

Pat: We grew up in this industry where the powers that be were afraid of things like film and television being too queer. There would be one gay character and they would be very mainstream gay. The thing that I love about Queens is it has a very diverse cast and everybody’s queer in a different kind of way. It’s directed, created, and produced by queer people. Kudos to CBC for allowing us to show what we can do and not be afraid of being different and having many different types of queer people on the show.

Images Courtesy of CBC

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