Two figures, decked out in graduation caps and gowns, race down a city sidewalk illuminated by glowing streetlights. As they run, one drops their cap. The two stop very briefly before the second cap is flung backwards to the sidewalk, and they resume their running. We cut to a close shot of the first cap. “THANK YOU, HIRE ME.” it reads in glittery gold stuck-on letters. In the background the second cap falls to the sidewalk with a thud.
After all, caps and gowns aren’t really proper attire for a drag competition, which is where these two very recent grads–known in drag as Polly Glamory (Dominique Watkins) and Stevie Stars (Amber Thomas)–have decided to play hooky from their commencement ceremony. That’s the set up for Rachel Relman’s new fictional pilot, Kings and Queens. It’s instantly surprising, funny, and captivating: the perfect introduction to a drag series like none you’ve seen before.
Drag as an art form is having a moment, and it seems as though new drag-related media is emerging daily. Between the Drag Race franchise, themed competition shows such as Dragula, documentaries like Netflix’s Dancing Queen, who can really keep up?
And yet, even amidst this renaissance of drag, writer and director Rachel Relman manages to do something different. Her pilot, Kings and Queens, shines through as a delightfully fresh take on the way we consume drag, shedding a light on aspects of the art form not typically represented on our screens.
What makes Relman’s pilot so unique? For one, it’s fiction.
While drag queens might be all over our TVs and computer screens, they most often appear in reality shows and documentary film. In its fictional nature, Relman’s pilot allow drag artists avenues in acting not commonly available to them. Not only does most TV overlook drag performers’ acting abilities in favor of emphasizing their dance skills, make-up techniques and even interpersonal relationships, but even when drag artists do get the opportunity to act on such shows it’s almost always in campy, over-the-top comedic bits.
But Kings and Queens isn’t written to be campy. In fact, despite her stand-up-comedy background, Relman’s writing style veers into dramedy, allowing for incredibly heartfelt–but still deeply funny–performances. Rather than confine drag performances to a certain loveable, but silly genre, Relman’s pilot proves that drag queens can be serious actors both in and out of drag.
Relman’s fictionalized dramedy style also opens the doors to the kinds of voices and stories that are typically represented in drag-related media. For example, reality shows and documentaries tend to focus on already established performers. Conversely, Kings and Queens focuses on what life is like for two very young, up-and-coming drag performers… One of whom also happens to be a drag king.
Seeing a drag king on screen at all is already of radical change of pace, and Relman pushes that further by placing him at the very center of the story’s romantic arc. While most drag shows are focused on gay male sexuality, Relman flips the script by asserting lesbian and non-binary narratives as integral to queer communities and drag culture.
And precisely part of what Kings and Queens does so beautifully is demonstrate just how many hands go into building a local drag scene. It’s never just a handful queens on stage, as shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race might have you believe. Producers, stage managers, designers, DJs, bartenders, club owners and fans all play extremely vital roles in creating such a community. And Relman elegantly writes them all into her show. So, while reality shows sequester performers on a manufactured set, Kings and Queens places its characters directly in the very real and vibrant queer community of Chicago’s Boystown.
Ultimately, this is what Kings and Queens is all about. Relman’s pilot might be fiction, but at its core is the urgent search for authenticity. To show kings and queens not just as glitzy, glamourous characters, but as real people. To display the true, lived-in stories of a queer community as it exists today. What makes the pilot so rich is the deep love for that community evident in every shot and scene. With stunning cinematography, emotional performances, bitingly witting lines and an amazingly diverse cast of characters, Kings and Queens is a striking and compelling love letter to Chicago’s queer community.
BYT: Can you describe the pilot in your own words?
RR: It’s about two friends named Polly Glamory and Stevie Stars who ditch their boring college graduation to go compete in the last round of a drag competition as a duo. It’s a story of them testing their friendships with each other and everyone around them as they try to become the best drag performers in the most competitive drag scene in the country. On a deeper level it’s about friendship, but also what it means to be a young queer artist in a city like Chicago. Even more specifically than that, it’s about what it’s like to be an up and coming drag performer in a city where you can make a living being a drag performer.
BYT: Had you directed before?
RR: No this was my first time directing anything!
BYT: Well it was great! And the cinematography was really lovely.
RR: Oh thank you! I have to give a shout out to my DP (Director of Photography), Paige Hochstatter. She’s incredible. This was my first time working with a DP. It’s the first film I’ve ever made. A lot of people tell me how beautiful it looks and that was really all her.
BYT: I think the way it was shot, as well as the way it was written, really sets it apart from a lot of other shows you see about drag, which tend to be more campy.
RR: Yeah, I think that goes back to my style of writing. I obviously do love campy, but when I write more long form content like this it tends to border on dramedy. That’s just where I feel comfortable. I’m not really much of a campy person. I’m a little bit cynical. And I felt that if I, as an artist, was going to write something about drag, which is an inherently campy art form, I wanted it to be a little more realistic.
I also did want to set it apart from the other stuff that was coming out that featured drag performers in it. When I wrote the script in 2016, there was no modern fictional [media] about drag. It was really just Drag Race. Then some other stuff started to come out, but it was still very much along those lines of campy.
I also think that the difference with this particular piece is that it takes place in Chicago. Unless you live in the Midwest, you’re not really aware of how special Chicago drag is. Everything that’s coming out that’s drag related takes place in New York or LA, and I think that goes back to what makes this [pilot] so special. It was shot here; it’s about drag that exists here; it was filmed in our bars, where we have shows every week; and the people in it are, with the exception of Amber Thomas, drag performers.
BYT: Can you expand on the importance of Boystown (and Chicago more generally) to the pilot?
RR: I really wanted to showcase Chicago drag specifically. I think because Chicago really does have the best drag in the world, and I say that because the drag performers here are all incredibly talented artists. You know, aside from the actual drag–make-up and costumes and stuff–they’re performers, they’re singers, they’re actors, they’re comedians, they’re dancers. I was really inspired to write it from going and seeing shows at Berlin. I’m a stand up comedian as well, but I’m also a queer person. Drag really felt like my two loves of artistic ability and queer life coming together. There’s something about Chicago drag that’s so unique and so special, and I really wanted to show case that.
BYT: What are some of your favorite moments or scenes?
RR: I love the scene with [Matthew (Jamie Meun) and Becca (Emilie Modaff)]… My favorite line in the whole thing is the one where [Matthew] says “I’m going to die alone… I’m incredibly complicated and love to control people.”
BYT: Speaking of that scene, where Becca and Matthew talk about Becca’s love life, the pilot isn’t just about drag. Can you talk a little more about that scene and writing queer characters more generally?
RR: I really wanted to write some kind of a lesbian romance because that’s how I identify. So, if there was going to be a romance I wanted it to be between Becca and Lea. Becca is also non-binary, and I thought it was important to show a queer romance that’s not the conventional one that you see in queer content.
But also, since I had the pilot exist in Boystown I really wanted to touch on the fact that Boystown can be very exclusive, and there aren’t a lot of spaces for queer people who aren’t men in Chicago–like brick and mortar spaces, I mean. There’s parties that happen and organizations, but as far as bars or actual real spaces go, there really aren’t many.
BYT: What has the response been like?
RR: It’s been really incredible. I truthfully have not heard anything but great feedback from people. I should mention, it’s streaming on OTV, which stands for Open Television, which is this really amazing platform that only streams intersectional Chicago-made content. They really focus on queer people and women and people of color. And the response online has been fantastic. People seem to really like it, so I’m really proud of that.
BYT: What would you like people to take away from the pilot or this interview?
RR: A couple of things for the pilot. The line that Becca has where they say that the queer community exists outside of Boystown is really important because it does. In Chicago too. There are other places in the city where drag happens, and there are other queer people making queer art. So, I hope people are inspired to explore that. But also, if you are not a person that goes out to see drag, you should. You should be supporting your local drag performers.
And then from the interview: This was my first film that I ever made. And if you want to make something film something on your iPhone! There’s been whole movies that have been filmed on iPhones. You can fake anything you want. So, if there’s something that you want to make, put a little tiny team together, figure out how to do it for real cheap, and just go for it.
Kings and Queens will appear as part of Chicago’s Reeling Film Festival, so be sure to catch the screening on Saturday, September 21st at 3:30 PM. Relman, along with assistant director Gracie Meier and actor Abhijeet Rane, will also attend the screening. Tickets available online. As part of the festival, Relman will also be speaking on a panel about creating queer content in Chicago before the pilot screening.
For those of you not in Chicago, Kings and Queens is also streaming online at OTV.
Feature photo and other film stills by Paige Hochstatter and behind the scenes photos by Juli Del Prete, Poster by Tiffany Diamond.