2021 Priscilla: Queen of the (Virtual) Highlands

This article, published in the Spring 2021 edition of The Beacon, was written by StFXAUT Communications Officer Philip Girvan.

Described as “The Best Drag Show East of Montreal”, Priscilla: Queen of the Highlands staged its 16th consecutive annual performance at StFX on Saturday, February 20. Chris Frazer, Associate Professor with the StFX History Department, has been the driving force behind Priscilla from the beginning. By Fall 2020, Frazer was receiving inquiries from people seeking assurance that the show would go on. Despite all the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, not staging Priscilla never crossed Frazer’s mind.

Frazer hoped the show might be held in person, but it became clear that the second wave would make an in-person staging impossible. Fortunately, the queer community had the technical expertise to make the staging of a virtual Priscilla less daunting than originally imagined.

The virtual staging turned out to be advantageous in terms of reduced overhead. Costs associated with room rental, light and sound, operating the bar, and performers’ transportation and accommodation were non-existent this year. Financial support from the Gender and Sexual Diversity Student Advisor covered performers’ wages and the technical crew’s costs and helped keep the ticket price affordable for the online audience that watched from Edmonton, Calgary, St. John’s, Montreal, and other locations.

Frazer described a different quality to this year’s performances. From a technical point of view, this year’s staging had a high production value. Pre-recorded performances provided opportunities to edit. Content-wise, the entire spectrum of drag was represented, and a number of performers explicitly tackled anti-racism. Audience interaction was arguably richer. Performers were part of the viewing audience — attending in face and in costume. This led to lots of what Frazer described as collegial “chatter, chirping, and joking around” — giving the audience an idea of what it is like backstage during the live, in-person performance. A scavenger hunt was among this year’s other interactive components.

The online experience may well inform future performances. Frazer noted that Priscilla is the rare space in Antigonish that the queer community can call its own, and it is bigger than any one person. And this year made it abundantly clear that, despite any barriers, the show will go on.