*Photo credit: Mettie Ostrowski
They’re here, they’re queer, and they have fangs. Sure, we could be talking about vampires, given that media like Buffy, Interview with the Vampire, and First Kill are pretty queer. But we’re referring to another group of sharp toothed queers, the members of Switch n’ Play, as they prepare for their annual show VAMP!.
Since 2006, the Brooklyn drag collective has been bending gender and sexuality to their will. Founded by Chaz Del Diablo, Maximum Satisfaction, Trey Baise, and Mr. Peter Bigs, the current roster includes Miss Malice, Nyx Nocturne, Vigor Mortis, The Illustrious Pearl, K. James, Divina GranSparkle, and Zoe Ziegfield who use drag and burlesque as part of their performances.
“[Switch n’ Play] was founded by four drag kings in Brooklyn who just really wanted to create space for, at the time, drag kings specifically, but also gender performance more broadly. It was really community focused,” said Miss Malice, the group’s resident historian and host for their shows. “These early shows were at a queer owned coffee shop, that no longer exists, and they would transform the coffee shop into a makeshift speakeasy during after hours with solo cups and just some liquor from the store around the corner. It was a pre-[RuPaul’s] Drag Race community drag moment that was very much about being social with your friends, doing group acts, sharing the stage. And I think that spirit is very much alive in the group today.”
Switch n’ Play reinforces the power within their artistry, within their queerness, and within community. Each person brings their own persona to the collective and the stage, but at the root of it all is the freedom to express themselves however they see fit.
“I want to say I would describe my drag as the ultimate nightmare fantasy, being hot and seductive and scary and uncomfortable and challenging. There are some people who see things like that and say, ‘you see me as the villain, and I want to prove you wrong.’ And I have kind of gone in the direction of, you see me as the villain, and I’m going to prove you right,” said Nyx Nocturne. “I will terrify you, I will challenge you, I will discuss you, and I will have the best time doing it. And so much of that comes from being a fat, Black, queer person and having so much of my value being put on me by these expectations that I can never fulfill in mainstream culture and saying, ‘f*ck it. I don’t need to be that.’”
While performing is their bread and butter, Switch n’ Play isn’t designed solely for performance sake. It’s a community that’s keeping the history of drag as an art form alive, but it’s also a method of affirmation and healing for the performers within the collective.
“The ideas of palatability are something that, as a collective, we all have at one point or another stared directly in the face and decided to go another way. I think a lot of us are very deeply rooted in this idea of, your desires do not define how I see myself, and thank goodness for that. It’s a wonderful thing to be in a collective where that is supported so strongly,” said Vigor Mortis. “And it is so important for us and honestly, life-saving. I came out as transgender and nonbinary two weeks after performing with Switch n’ Play for the first time because I was able to put on a gender identity that I wasn’t sure that I identified with yet. Now, I get to play with my own identity and with other identities that I don’t necessarily subscribe to, but I am interested in portraying. It’s so joyful.”
Since those coffee shop days, Switch n’ Play has gone on to win “Best Burlesque Show” at the Brooklyn Nightlife Awards, as well as be the center of the documentary A Night at Switch n’ Play. Additionally, the collective had been producing shows at NYC’s Branded Saloon twice a month and at the National Sawdust in Williamsburg until the pandemic hit. Having performed at the Brooklyn Museum, Bushwig, and RuPaul’s Drag Race season 9 winner Sasha Velour’s NightGowns, the collective is making their way to the esteemed stages of Lincoln Center with their show VAMP!.
*Video Credit: Cody Stickels and Chelsea Moore
VAMP! is a celebration of all things queer, decadent, and bloodthirsty. What started out as a celebration for Miss Malice’s birthday, gave birth to a macabre tradition that’s a staple performance from the collective. Now in its sixth iteration, VAMP! features various members of Switch n’ Play and special guests to explore the mythology of vampires through a collection of performances.
Vampirism is pretty queer. We don’t make the rules, but Switch n’ Play is enforcing (and breaking them) with their innovative show. Switch n’ Play represent what queerness is all about, community, self-expression, protest, and revolution. Their ghoulish high-glam looks and performances in VAMP! not only pays homage to the roots of drag, but expands upon it as well. They’re bringing that same reverence and innovation to Lincoln Center.
Drag and burlesque probably aren’t the initial thoughts that pop up when you think of the illustrious performing arts center. However, that’s all changing under the guidance of Lincoln Center’s Chief Artistic Officer Shanta Thake.
“I think we’re trying to disrupt a larger narrative of what people assume who Lincoln Center is for and really be very intentional about the communities that we invite into our stages, into our audiences, and into conversation with each other,” said Thake. “And I think overall is that we really believe in inclusive excellence. And so that means we want people working in every genre at the top of their craft, and we want to be able to share that with the world. And so being able to really showcase that, we do think that Switch n’ Play belong on the same calendar as an opera that’s happening at the Metropolitan Opera.”
Hired in 2021, Thake’s role requires her to spearhead the artistic strategy behind the center’s presenting arm, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. One of 11 organizations within the arts complex, including the Metropolitan Opera, Juilliard School for Music, and the New York Philharmonic, these organizations aren’t the ones you think of supporting drag collectives like Switch n’ Play.
But like the drag collective, spaces evolve over time, making room for what audiences want, which is to feel moved, to be entertained, and to have themselves reflected back at them from the stage. Conversations on access to certain art forms will inevitably continue, but expanding what we consider art takes greater exposure to different art forms inside and outside the communities we reside.
“With Switch n’ Play, at first glance, you can just see that there’s a multitude of body types, there’s a multitude of ethnic backgrounds, and self-professed and affirmed identity across gender expression,” said Siobahn Sung, A line producer and curator on Thake’s team who brought VAMP! to life at Lincoln Center. “Into those stories, you learn [that] there are stories of immigration there, there are stories of Americana, there are stories of presenting sexual empowerment on your own terms. So really, just beyond this show too, there’s this huge permissiveness and welcome for a person to come in and say, ‘this is my identity at the intersection of all these things.’”
While Switch n’ Play is accustomed to performing in LGBTQ+ affirming venues, there should be no reason why they can’t take center stage at one of the world’s leading performing arts centers. This Brooklyn drag collective is ready to switch things up, play with gender and sexuality, and make sure that everything is as queer as can be. ♦
VAMP! debuts at Lincoln Center on February 24 and February 25, 2023. For more information, click here.