One might think an arts festival in its third year would have a hard time surviving the shitstorm of 2020, but that would be a severe miscalculation in the case of Oaklash. The Bay Area's drag and queer performance festival found a new strut this year, not just making do with a shift to online streaming, but also embracing the platform and expanding the events' possibilities through the medium.
The three-day festival, which took place Sept. 4–6, featured more than 100 performers and reached more than 250,000 online viewers, even appearing on the front page of streaming site Twitch. But viewers isn't the only metric that matters to co-founders Mama Celeste and Beatrix LaHaine, who were thrilled that streaming this year's festivities made for increased accessibility. “Our programming aims to create safe and welcoming environments that not only accept but celebrate members of the queer community, especially queer and trans people of color,” Oaklash’s website explains.
Oaklash 2020's transformation into a blended showcase of digital and live performances allowed streams to reach viewers around the world, including people with disabilities, people under 21 and those who are sober—as well as anyone who might not want to visit a bar.
While bars, clubs and their employees have been hit hard by Covid-19 and the shelter-in-place, many drag performers have made an astonishingly successful shift to digital performances since mid-March.
"It's not just costuming and makeup anymore, it's editing, it's green screens, animations and a whole new type of visual storytelling," Celeste says. "I think it's a whole new renaissance for drag and I'm super excited about its potential."
In addition to three evening-long showcases, this year's fest included daytime programming. "Spill the Disibila-TEA," hosted by Alex Locust, was a panel discussion exploring disability justice in the queer community, featuring speakers who are all queer, disabled and Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC). Other panels included a conversation between three Black drag performers hosted by the Bay Area Queer Nightlife Coalition on Anti-Racism in Drag. "Little Radicals" was a kid-focused queer family extravaganza.
On the more experimental side, performers Lisa Frankenstein and Kochina Rude streamed overnight for 13 hours on Twitch, culminating in more than 10,000 people watching Frankenstein deliriously eating pancakes and eggs ordered from Lakeshore Cafe.
Beyond the pandemic affecting how people make and watch drag, the political landscape and Black Lives Matter protests have informed a lot of the acts created for Oaklash. "I think drag is always a reflection of what's going on in the world, and a lot of the performances this year reflected the serious ways people are talking about race and celebrating Blackness and protesting police brutality," Celeste says. "Drag also is a great way to bring levity to our oppression—I'm thinking specifically of Snaxx's number where she did an homage of some of the internet's most infamous Karens, all set to an Alanis Morisette song."
Even when it's not overt, drag is always political, Celeste says, because queer and trans peoples' very existence pushes against the status quo. That said, Oaklash aims to be directly political in its community-building. "We want queer people to thrive, we want trans and Black and Brown and Indigenous voices at the front of our community, we want artists to be able to survive in the Bay Area and not have to worry about losing their housing," Celeste says.
Mainstream attention to drag has exploded in the last 11 years since RuPaul's Drag Race began airing, but its host has notoriously voiced strong opinions and narrow views about what drag is and who should do it (see: cisgender men who can look like beautiful women).
Celeste says, "Bay Area drag has a rich history of being subversive, punk, boundary-pushing, in-your face and most importantly, I think, diverse. That means in terms of race and also gender, but also in terms of the limits of what drag means."
The festival closed with an evening of live performances streamed from Oasis in San Francisco and from Seventh West in Oakland. Celeste says that the grand finale show was a test to figure out how they could do a high production show but bring it onto a digital stage.
"We still have a lot to learn and a lot of technical hurdles to get over," Celeste says, "but I think there's a world of opportunity to do blended digital/live events and I fully intend on Oaklash leading that charge in years to come."
Watch Mama Celeste and Beatrix LaHaine’s Oaklash 2020 performance for Digital Drag here.