It's an adage as old as time: The show must go on. For Miami's drag community — which is facing public health and safety-necessitated event cancellations — that means going digital.
As more and more cities and whole countries find themselves on lockdown faster than a bartender can file for unemployment, professionals who rely on work outside the home are being forced to get crafty. Independent entertainer and performer Josue Garcia is one such artist but refuses to be a victim.
Garcia has become a fixture of Miami's LGBTQ+ community under the stage name Karla Croqueta. As a regular participant as well as host for weekly and monthly events like the Counter Corner drag show at downtown Miami bar the Corner, Birdcage Brunch, and Karaoke Mondays at Hotel Gaythering, Croqueta has cemented herself as one of the most well-known and visible faces of the city's queer scene.
For all the power and sway she possesses, not even Croqueta was immune from the fallout of coronavirus concerns. As she tells it, Counter Corner was the first of her many events to be canceled.
“We were still planning on hosting Counter Corner up until hours before,” Croqueta says. “We were all speed ahead with the Titanic, but then we started getting a lot more notifications from the CDC and the Health Department as the days progressed.”
As warnings increased, Croqueta and co-organizer Sleeper decided this was no time for social gatherings.
“If we truly want to be about the community, we really need to shut down faster rather than having everyone congregating in a large group,” Croqueta says. “In the gay community, we have some of the most at-risk people. We need to keep queer people safe and healthy.”
After physical gatherings were ruled out, streamed online events became the next, most obvious option. This wasn't an entirely new plan: Croqueta and her partner Jonny on the Go had considered making the switch even before the COVID-19 shutdowns, but they didn't think they could turn it around in a few hours. It took one more push from performer Stephanie Cockroach to make the change a reality. They quickly crafted an impromptu lineup based on the originally planned public event and figured out a system to host the show on Instagram Live.
“Some people didn't feel comfortable performing at home, which is understandable,” Croqueta says. “The point of Counter Corner is to give people a safe space, so if you're home with your family that's bigoted, that's not a safe space for you to perform.”
While a few performers were forced to make those tough calls, other out-of-towners got excited to join the digital drag revolution. BeBe Deluxe of Jacksonville joined the bill, as did Mother Teresa of New York City.
“It was sickening,” Croqueta says. “We were putting everybody's Cash App and Venmo tags underneath where they were performing live so people were able to tip everyone, and everybody made at least their booking fee, which was great.”
The formula has since been repeated by other drag performers around the country. Biqtch Puddin' held a Twitch stream drag show Friday night, and San Francisco queens got together for their own performance over the weekend. Picture and audio quality varies from performer to performer, and Counter Corner's Digital Drag show was not without its own difficulties.
“Instagram is not the best platform,” Croqueta admits. For one, music copyright laws are strictly policed, so performers had to choose free-source songs from Soundcloud or other outlets. Her Karaoke Monday show went easier, as the Gaythering pays for a copyright-free karaoke cover service. Croqueta again hosted the event on IG Live, while prospective singers joined a virtual queue and took turns beaming into the stream's split-screen view. Croqueta let singers read the lyrics by turning her camera toward the TV in her living room.
“I want to give a huge shout-out to the Gaythering because they've scaled back our pay, but they're still paying us,” Croqueta says. “They're paying not just the entertainers, but all of their employees even though all of their facilities are closed.”
It's a real make-it-work moment — and the kinks still need some sorting through — but overall, the experience has been one of inspiring action and abundant creativity for Croqueta.
“This is the first time in the history of my entire drag career that I have access during a performance to 100 percent of my costumes and wigs,” Croqueta laughs. “I literally had every fucking costume change you could possibly imagine. It was just like me being a kid playing dress-up. Stephanie Cockroach was doing splits in her fucking living room, and everybody had a roommate on it, too: Mother Teresa's roommate was controlling lighting, changing the colors in the room. People got really innovative in a very short period of time; I thought it was fucking fabulous.”
There is at least one benefit to going digital under challenging circumstances: Counter Corner can happen as often as the performers like without physical boundaries. The next edition is being planned for Saturday, March 28, at 9 p.m. Viewers can tune into Croqueta's Instagram Live, streaming via her account @karlacroqueta. The plan is for karaoke to go down every Monday as usual, and an online edition for Birdcage Brunch is scheduled for Sunday, March 29.
“We're independent artists. We have to make shit work somehow,” she says. “It's great we get to make a little bit of money in tips, but it's nowhere near close to what we would make. It's really about keeping the community alive, keeping the spirits of everybody up, and making sure that in these dark times, people have something to look forward to while they're sitting at home. It sucks that it's taken a pandemic to shift support, but it's really great to see everyone helping each other out."