The city of New Orleans is one big theatre. And always, always, there’s an audience ready to watch.
Many of New Orleans’ performances take place in unusual spaces — in the streets, for example, as jazz funerals and Carnival parades do. Sometimes, they occur on actual stages, like the kind you find at festivals and concert halls.
In a place with so much theatre, it’s not surprising that a good portion of it is made by LGBTQ artists. Call it a cliche, a coincidence; call it whatever you like: there’s no arguing that some of the best theatre has been created by folks from our community.
For years, New Orleans has been home to some amazing LGBTQ performers — legendary entertainers like Ricky Graham and “New Orleans’ only female female impersonator,” Becky Allen. Ru Paul’s Drag Race winner Bianca Del Rio was born and raised here, and “loose chanteuse” Varla Jean Merman still rests her head in New Orleans when she’s not traveling the globe.
In the years since Hurricane Katrina, artists like these have been joined by scores of energetic, creative people who have migrated to New Orleans to rebuild the city and improve it. They’ve brought new blood, new perspectives, and some very exciting new art.
If you’re planning a trip to New Orleans, let some of these amazing folks entertain you. Here are three to watch out for:
Three New Orleans Queer Theatre Stars
Vincent Defonte, aka Vinsantos
If you’re from the Bay Area, you might’ve seen Vinsantos before — he was born and raised in San Francisco, and he cut his teeth in the city’s performance scene. But seven years ago, he and his husband decided to shake things up and move on, and New Orleans was their top destination.
Since then, Vinsantos has made a huge, lipstick-smudged mark on the Crescent City. He’s perhaps best known for leading the New Orleans Drag Workshop, which he describes as “an eight-week program that teaches you the ins and outs of becoming a solid and memorable drag performer.”
Under the guise of Harlequeen Productions, he’s also bringing in some fabulous LGBTQ and LGBT-adjacent artists, including personal friends like David J. from Bahuaus/Love and Rockets and the notorious Jackie Beat. As if that weren’t enough, Vinsantos is also a visual artist, creating haunting, beautiful dolls for Tresor Art Gallery.
For first-time visitors to the city, Vinsantos has some sage advice:
“I would recommend stepping outside of your comfort zone,” he says. “Go see a production by Bella Blue or Skin Horse Theater. Go see a band at a dive bar. If you are at all human, and love to laugh, make a point of seeing Dina Martina at Cafe Istanbul. Find out what’s happening in New Orleans underground theater scene. Explore what’s happening at our local galleries and museums. Be proactive.”
His best advice for being proactive? “Check out the calendars of the various venues around town and take a chance on something new,” he says. “Get out of the bar and go see something, and then go back to the bar to celebrate being a part of New Orleans’ diverse and vibrant arts community.”
Vinsantos performs at a number of venues in New Orleans, but his home base is the AllWays Lounge.
Ryan Landry & The Gold Dust Orphans
If you’ve been to Provincetown in the summer, you’ve probably heard of Ryan Landry and his company, The Gold Dust Orphans. They’ve been producing jaw-dropping works of theatre on the Cape — and in Boston, too — for years.
Known for a camp sensibility that seems half John Waters, half Charles Ludlam, the fun of Ryan’s shows begins the moment you hear titles like Snow White and the Seven Bottoms, Mary Poppers, Silent Night of the Lambs, and the recent New York hit, Midred Fierce. Ryan describes his aesthetic as one that “titillates with the foreplay of farce, and then, while you’re laughing, it blows your mind.”
After visiting New Orleans for more than two decades, Ryan and his husband, Scott (aka “Penny Champagne” to Provincetown regulars), finally bought a house in the city, and they’ve already begun laying plans for a series of productions. First up? A piece based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Stephen King’s Misery, titled Le Misery. Expect to see Ryan performing alongside frequent collaborator Varla Jean Merman in that one.
Goat in the Road is a thoroughly millennial theatre company — and I mean that in the best possible way. While its productions aren’t necessarily focused on LGBT issues, many of its company members proudly identify as queer, and that perspective infuses their work.
Consider, for example, the company’s recent production of Uncle Vanya: Quarter Life Crisis. Goat in the Road took Chekhov’s snapshot of early 20th century Russia and transported it to Louisiana in 2009, setting it in a house occupied by a handful of 20-somethings struggling to find themselves. The relationships of the original became even more complicated as friends slept with friends, lovers separated, and new unions formed. The kernel of Chekhov’s play not only survived, it thrived in its new context.
Even when Goat in the Road deals with more abstract material, there’s often a queerness to the work. The company excels at physical theatre and then, when performers are left with just their bodies to move the story along, amazing, curious things can happen.
For the past year, the company has been developing a new piece about post-traumatic stress disorder. Expect it to be just as exciting, dynamic, and polished as Goat in the Road’s other work.
Lagniappe: Other Theatre Options
There are many, many more LGBTQ artists and companies working in New Orleans — some performing regularly, some irregularly. Among those to look for when you’re scanning the listings are Evan Spigelman and Skin Horse Theatre, as well as a project called Last Call, which tells the story of New Orleans’ lesbian bar scene.
For more information and news on the city’s LGBT community, sign up for New Orleans’ LGBT e-newsletter here.