Xitlali Celesté Credit: Provided

LOGAN SQUARE — A local drag artist is celebrating the place where storytelling and drag intersect with a new workshop — and they need community support to make it happen. 

Xitlali Celesté — a Chicago-based theater artist, teaching artist and drag performer known as Cindy Néro — is launching Drag Me to Life, a drag storytelling incubator and workshop series, this month. The eight-week digital workshop will give 10 queer/trans artists of color the opportunity to experiment with drag in a safe and accessible space.

Celesté hopes the program will empower participants to own their stories with confidence and autonomy and create a vision of the world they want to build. 

“Storytelling is more than just sharing an anecdote that has a beginning, middle and an end,” they said. “I think storytelling is a way for us to really hold on to our narratives and our identities, which is something that sometimes we run away from or we minimize or push down for survival or the sake of assimilating or fitting in.”

The idea for Drag Me to Life came to Celesté while working with arts education organization Voice of Purpose. They were brainstorming ideas for a digital arts workshop and thought back to when they started drag, they said.

“Mentorship was based on how often you went out, which there’s nothing wrong with, but at the time I wasn’t in the best mental health place and wasn’t going out as actively as I wanted to make these connections,” they said. 

Becoming Cindy Néro helped Celesté find their voice, identity and put them on a healing journey, they said. The workshop is an effort to pay it forward by mentoring and sharing community with people who have never done drag but want to develop their craft and flesh out their characters and the world they want to build through this art form.

“There are ways to tell your story in a way that doesn’t center your trauma and oppression and instead centers joy, resiliency and being a survivor, while at the same time instilling these values of the world we’re trying to build and how can your drag persona be a conduit for that,” Celesté said.

Celesté is launching their workshop at a time of great contradictions in the world of drag. Popular TV shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “We’re Here” have made drag more mainstream and commercially viable than ever, which Celesté said provides more financial opportunities for queer and trans people.

But at the same time, with that visibility comes a wave of challenges. Right-wing attacks on drag performers, trans people and queer people in general are on the rise.

A consequence of what Celesté calls “the ‘Drag Race’ machine” is an increase in gatekeeping of drag scenes and less space for newcomers to try things.

“Because of ‘Drag Race’ and the commercialization of drag, people expect perfection and polish right off the bat with the costumes and the wigs and the makeup,” Celesté says. “There really isn’t a place to experiment or to fail.”

With Drag Me to Life, Celesté hopes to reclaim drag as a conduit for spirituality and healing and as a political praxis. For them, that starts with building community and sharing knowledge.

“Drag started very much as a tool of resistance against the government, against police, against capitalism,” Celesté said. “With this program, at least on the political side, it’s really going back to community knowledge and mentorship.

“We cannot be something without the help of one another in our own community, so how can we bring back that sense of sharing what I know because it’s going to serve other people, not just gatekeeping it because we’re already in a saturated field?”

The first half of the workshop series will be rooted in exploring identity and voice, with prompts and activities designed to get performers used to sharing a story in front of a small group of people.

Celesté’s workshops will provide makeup kits to participants who cannot afford their own. Photo: Jesus Boscan on Unsplash

There are activities that weave drag and storytelling informally and organically, like a makeup day, where Celesté and the participants will be in a Zoom room doing their makeup together, but also sharing stories.

Each performer will conceptualize a performance, which includes a story they’ll share and a lip sync connected to the story, with everything culminating in a digital showcase streamed April 22 and the opportunity for a paid live performance with a partner organization.

As a hobby, drag can get very expensive very quickly, and it was important to Celesté to ensure this opportunity was accessible to budding performers who may not have the time or money to get started, they said.

As part of the program, they’re offering a Drag Essentials Kit for five participants, including a makeup kit, a styled wig and their choice of a binder or hip pads. They launched a GoFundMe this fall to cover the costs of the kits, along with tech support for the digital showcase stream and stipends for performers for participating in the end-of-workshop showcase.

A host of community and cultural partners have joined with Celesté to provide logistical support, funding or other resources for Drag Me to Life, including playwright Ricardo Gamboa, Free Street Theater, Comfort Station, Palenque LSNA and Gage Park Latinx Council.

Celesté said with these community partners and the GoFundMe, which is ongoing, they expect to sustain Drag Me to Life as a yearly offering and build a network of performers.

In the long term, Celesté wants to produce more shows and performance opportunities for newer drag performers, as well as more performances outside of nightlife spaces, to allow the art form and the act of sharing queer spaces to be more accessible to audiences younger than 21 and people living in sobriety. 

Last October, as part of a community el Día de los Muertos gathering, Celesté as Cindy Néro curated Viva la Vida, a drag show in partnership with Palenque LSNA and Comfort Station.

“People were like, ‘I didn’t know I could experience drag, I thought I had to take a $50 Uber just to experience drag in Northalsted, but now you’re showing me we can experience drag in our own communities,’” they said. “We just need to make those spaces happen.”

The application process for Drag Me to Life includes an intake meeting with Celesté to get to know the performer. Even if they’re not accepted for this round, that connection will be made. Those interested can reach out to Celesté here.

“I want to reiterate to them, hey, we’re in community now, so anything you need, I will try to do my best to help you out,” Celesté said.

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