After years of trying to blend in, first in the Kootenays and then in Victoria, Kristen Koban was accustomed to wearing her hair long and her clothes “girly.”
“Only over the last three or four years have I really started to figure out my sexuality and how I want to present myself,” she says.
Koban has found role models in Vancouver’s monthly drag-king variety show, Man Up, led by performers such as Ponyboy and Cazzwell van Dyke who unabashedly challenge the status quo with increasingly blurred lines of gender performance.
Those blurred lines are drawing an ever more diverse and responsive crowd, says co-founder Paige Frewer (aka Ponyboy). Since Man Up’s move from the now-closed lesbian bar Lick to The Cobalt in 2011, its popularity has exploded; the show will celebrate its sixth anniversary on March 29.
“After Lick’s closure, there was a real need for women’s space,” Frewer says. But, she stresses, the lesbian bar’s loss is not the only reason for Man Up’s ongoing success.
“People are being inspired and validated by seeing themselves represented and spotlighted onstage,” she says. “Sometimes the term ‘drag king’ doesn’t even properly capture what we do because it’s sort of beyond masculine performance.”
Man Up’s audience wants to see a show “where you’re not going to see one type of drag act, but you’re going to see a full spectrum of gender represented onstage,” she says, “and you’re not going to see one body type; you’re going to see different shapes and sizes and different age groups.”
Nadine Boulay and Ryn Broz, who perform together as The Brokeback Brothers, agree. “It’s not about a perfect impersonation of this male figure,” Boulay says. “It’s more about playing with the idea of 'What is a man? What is a woman?' What is masculine, what is feminine?”
Man Up offers a variety of role models, both onstage and off. One of the regulars launched a buddy system last year to help keep patrons and performers safe with, among other things, bus tickets, safer sex products and bottled water.
“It was really important to me to have some diversity, to have different kinds of people onstage. What we try and do is create an environment where anyone is welcome and can come in and feel safe, and they can be a goofball and have fun with us,” Frewer says. “That’s what comes through in performances.”
Devoted spectator Heidi J Loos says that, in addition to the calibre of the acts, the opportunities for dialogue with the performers themselves is what keeps bringing her back.
“Everyone’s really open to having that conversation; it gets people talking and gets people inspired,” she says. “It really breaks down the binary of gender, which I think is really incredible and really important.”
Through its Amateur Hour spinoff, a second monthly event born in 2012 of a need for even more stage time for The Cobalt’s burgeoning drag/burlesque scene, Man Up also provides an open stage and mentorship for would-be performers and drag kings — another chance to build community.
“Man Up has, in some way, encouraged me to be myself. I kind of look up to the kings, both as performers and as humans,” Koban says. She recently cut her long hair short for the first time in her life and says she owes the action in part to the confidence she sees at The Cobalt, both onstage and off.
“I realize clothing and hair don’t make a person, but it’s a huge step in being more comfortable in my skin,” she says. “So I guess from the audience to the drag kings, Man Up has helped me become a person I’m proud of.”