When host Selma Ghad opens her show Coven, she invites her audience to take an oath where they promise to fuck with the patriarchy. From there, the cozy Diving Bell Social Club becomes a witching circle—an entrance into the wondrous world of alternative drag.
Coven is a far cry from the traditional drag that populates mainstream media. Instead of glossy queens lip-syncing to top-40 hits, the show features burlesque performers, drag kings, and plenty of fake blood.
Over the past four years of producing and hosting Coven, Ghad has created a space to cultivate community and empower queer people who enjoy the unexpected. The latest edition of the show, which I attended on March 24, served as a tribute to Björk, an Icelandic avant-garde performer who’s become an absurdist icon. Performers welcomed the challenge, coming to the stage as a spiked brain-eating demon, singing live with the help of a rubber chicken, and performing burlesque dressed as an oyster (you’d have to see it to believe it). Every performance took the audience on a new journey, matching Björk’s thematic range throughout her career. But that’s what alternative drag should be—an adventure into the unexpected.
“[Alternative drag is] kind of like an extreme sport,” Ghad said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “You don’t know if the artist is going to do something absolutely insane, you’re not going to understand if it’s going to turn left or right or up or down. You have no idea—and that’s the part I find thrilling. It’s like a rollercoaster in the dark.”
Armed with a background in circus and street performance, Ghad and her (drag and personal) partner of 20 years, Uma Ghad, have used their platform to create space for alternative artists. Selma spoke about the lack of opportunities for alternative drag, citing the unique requirements for a performance of that calibre, not a lack of interest.
“You can’t go to a regular Friday show at a bar that’s not aware of what’s happening and vomit blood on stage,” Selma said. “It’s not okay for the audience; it’s disrespectful because they did not consent to it, and it’s not a good place for your art to be celebrated.”
Together, Selma and Diving Bell have fostered a space where alternative performers can really go wild. When performer Anaconda LaSabrosa makes it rain (with potato peels) or Uma Ghad’s freaky skin-peel prosthetics clutter the stage, Selma addresses the crowd in a semi-intermission while her fellow drag artist Moxxi Hollow mops up the evidence.
While Coven is a space for queer people to be silly and perform in front of a loving and supportive crowd, it also serves as a radical horizon of possibility. Within the transphobic repressions of our current political environment, it’s impossible to ignore the exponentially increasing legislation threatening the safety and existence of drag artists and trans people, not just in the States, but here in Montreal as well.
During the show, Uma spoke about how American drag bans are a stepping stone to banning trans people as a whole. Selma also reminded the audience that homophobic violence is still prevalent in Montreal, where people send Selma and Uma hate messages for hosting drag brunches where children are present. Under their powerful ignorance, these homophobes can’t understand that as professional artists, the queens create shows that are appropriate for their audience.
Selma uses Coven as a place to aggressively take up space as a queer person and empowers fellow queer people to do the same. While alternative drag—in all its horror-filled and unexpected glory—may not be for everyone, any ‘danger’ found within the art form serves the positive reciprocal exchange of energy between audience and performer. Selma goes to great lengths to offer trigger warnings and get consent from her audience and performers to harbour a safe environment.
“We’re dressed up like adult clowns,” Selma said. “Whoever you are, there’s a drag show for you. Look into the world and check out a show that fits your interests, because drag artists do so much.”
Check out future renditions of ‘Coven’ and other House of Ghad performances on Instagram or on the Ghad’s website.