Back in 2018, photographer Seth Caplan began to photograph friends and acquaintances who are queer nightlife creators. What emerged was a celebration of New York’s queer nightlife in all of its messy glory. For this series, we’ll be featuring each subject from this project in their own words, along with a portrait of them at home.
Who: Alexander Paris
What: Multidisciplinary performance artist, playwright, curator, co-producer of Sylvester
What was your first experience like at a gay or queer nightlife space?
The first time I was at a gay bar was when I was 17 and went to Spectrum, the old Spectrum in Brooklyn. It was the only place that wouldn’t card me. I was visiting New York from my hometown, Bisbee, Arizona, for the summer. I was in an experimental theater program at the Performing Garage in SoHo. I did an Indiegogo and got a grant to come. I remember going into Spectrum and there weren’t that many people there yet. The music was full of glitchy sounds and throbbing bass. The lighting was blue and there were mirrors and a really gross bathroom. Tyler Ashley was there who I’d just seen doing a performance piece. They showed up with a couple of friends and started dancing on the bar. I didn’t drink or do drugs and was obviously jailbait, so I was kind of bored watching everybody. I really love deep conversation and that isn’t necessarily had when you’re on a dance floor.
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How did you end up moving to New York?
I knew I wanted to go back after that summer. New York was literally everything I ever wanted. I applied to a couple of New York schools and didn’t get into either of them but I got a full ride at Arizona State. I was told that the kind of experimental theater I loved (Robert Wilson, Rezah Abdoh, Adrienne Kennedy) they didn’t really do at Arizona for undergrad, so I decided to try and go back to New York where I could do the theater I wanted. I was in touch with my friend Dusty, a designer and socialite who I met on my first trip to the city. He offered for me to stay at his apartment with him and his boyfriend Shane Shane in Brooklyn while I looked for a place. I applied for another grant and told myself if I got it, I’d go back to New York. I blasted through the money in two months and didn’t know where I would move next. I was staying in a loft bed in the kitchen that was also the living room and the dining room. The third roommate, who I never met, left to live with a sugar daddy, so I got his room and lived there for six years until moving into my current apartment.
How did you get involved with New York queer nightlife?
I was doing a lot of nightlife adjacent things when I got here. If you’re young and queer, you’re probably connected to that somehow. I would go to Spectrum and warehouse parties. I lived with people who were in the nightlife scene, and I’m also a social butterfly. I would go somewhere alone and meet people and end up hanging out with them all night. To me it’s easier to go out alone, especially if I don’t know anyone. I like having agency and autonomy and if I bring someone else with me, I’ll just worry about them all night. I would go to anything that someone invited me to.
“ There’s a darker edge to nightlife that I’m always aware of. Sometimes people go out to turn something off or to forget things.”
I was also going to a lot of theater and performances. I think I was a little nervous about nightlife. Sometimes it would make me sad. There’s a darker edge to nightlife that I’m always aware of. Sometimes people go out to turn something off or to forget things. For a while, I enjoyed all of the theater because it was a time where I could be thoughtful about the work I was seeing. Eventually, the theater scene felt like it was vapid and full of white nonsense. Even with glimmers of hope like Aleshea Harris and Nazareth Hassan. I started going more to comedy and drag. I like comedy because there is a lot of room to play. People are open about their life experiences in comedy and that’s often their material. With drag, I thought most of it was bad at first, I rarely saw girls who knew any of their words or would perform outside of the Top 40, but then I expanded my scope and got really into it.
I started going to the drag show Oops at The Rosemont. It’s a small space and we would just shout everything at the queens. It was amazing energy. All of the queens brought something different. Chiquitita was so funny on the mic- very self-aware, great at volleying back and forth with the audience. Her mugs were works of art. Magenta had this boundless energy that I’d never seen in a performer before. West Dakota was a really thoughtful, esoteric, and statuesque model. I went to HOLE PICS too, a show run by the drag artist MTHR TRSA at The Vault, A basement space that closed early during the pandemic. I originally met TRSA at a Bubble_T party. She was in drag and I was in my mom’s nightgown. I put her in some of my theater work and we became fast friends. I started going out a lot more after my mom passed. I loved going to Papi Juice the most. Now, I work at C’mon Everybody doing the door on Friday’s. Nightlife is a place where I can run into someone from any world, the art world, dance people, theater people, drag people, comedy people.
What did you love about being in all of these different spaces?
The beat. The lights. Running into friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time and catching up. The feeling I’d get when my song comes on. Sexual validation. Most of the time I’m thinking about everything that I’m looking at, and the way people are interacting and responding to an environment that is made up in that moment. It’s vastly interesting. You’re entering another world. Inhibitions are released. In the real world, people are much more cautious and careful, and in a party setting, it opens up.
“Nightlife is a place where I can run into someone from any world, the art world, dance people, theater people, drag people, comedy people.”
A big part of why I love Bubble_T and Papi Juice as parties is because they’re often at Elsewhere and I love being in big spaces like that where I can get lost in the venue. There’s a community there. For me, it’s more of my chance to see everybody in a short amount of time. I don’t have to worry about committing to anybody’s night too much because everybody has their own journey. At Elsewhere, when you separate from a friend, you might not see them again. You have to work really hard to find them. And then in finding them, you find everybody else on the way. Nightlife is the only space where I can have deep conversations with people I wouldn’t see otherwise. It’s a world of opportunity.
How did you start doing drag?
I first started performing at HOLE PICS. I had all these ideas and MTHR TRSA was into me trying them out. I wanted to do all these screaming things like a PJ Harvey number called Snake where she has an orgasm that sounds like a scream, or when Yoko Ono did a screaming piece at MoMA. I wanted to find a way to fuse the comedy, drag, and theater in my work. I think there are a lot more similarities between them than people are aware of. An early performance of mine was at a show at Rebecca’s, which is a bar in Bushwick. I wore a giant sweater and a very short Laurie Anderson wig. It was dark enough that no one could see how bad my makeup was. I riffed on the mic. and had like 10 songs on a playlist and I did all of them on shuffle, if anyone got bored, we just skipped forward. That was early 2020 and then everything shut down. I was just starting to be in a good place again after a hard year of grieving my parents. Right before the pandemic, I had come to the conclusion with my therapist that I should go out as much as possible because I feel good when I’m out. To be shut in really messed with me. I was pet-sitting in Chelsea for like six months at my boss’s apartment, and that’s when the digital shows were happening. I performed in a few shows and made a little money. I showed up in a look for a show on an interactive site called Bramble with Sherry Vine, which was a full-circle moment, because I met her in Bisbee when I was 17 before moving to New York. I didn’t even perform in that one. I found out we could show up in a look and get paid to run around as our little internet avatars with our cameras on. I was in my boss’s Kenzo taffeta dress and TRSA’s wig. I didn’t have much of my own stuff yet. Proper drag outfits are a fairly recent thing for me.
“I wanted to do all these screaming things, like when Yoko Ono did a screaming piece at MoMA.”
Were there any overlaps or intersections for you between the Black Lives Matter groundswell during summer 2020 and your nightlife communities?
Nightlife is a way to combine a lot of art forms. And protests are all-encompassing. I was running into lots of folks from Papi Juice at protests. There were overlaps in every direction. I would see everybody, especially at queer-lead actions like Brooklyn Liberation, which was a big rally and protest organized by queer nightlife folks for Black trans lives. We marched through the streets and stopped a few times for little pop-up balls with a beat. An MC, and children serrrrving. Rio Sofia created a fundraiser with GLITs to get them a million dollars for trans housing and the community collectively raised it in a week! I was there at the end of the march, on the lawn in Fort Greene Park when Ceyenne Doroshow found out and nearly fainted. So many people that I love were in my periphery, cheering. The loudest, gayest screams of joy imaginable. That day was one of the best days of my life. It was the first time that I’d seen most of my friends and community since the pandemic had begun. Protesting became nightlife for a bit. I was going to Abolition Park downtown when the Occupy movement was happening and seeing so many people that in nightlife there, you had to show up for people. It was dangerous and you had to make sure everyone was okay. It was about holding space for safety and making sure that people are comfortable and heard.
What were things like for you when New York started opening up again?
Every drag show was the best drag show I’d ever seen. The crowds were the largest they’d ever been. Tips were insane. Energy towards drag really shifted. Everyone seemed so engaged and connected. Intermission is my favorite part of a drag show because it lasts for God knows how long and you get to see everybody in the meantime. I had this theory before the pandemic that there was going to be some kind of cultural awakening where all of the scenes would connect. I think it’s happening now, and that the pandemic made it easier for it to happen. I’ll be in a show stressed out about making sure it’s going okay, that I know my words, that my nails are on. Despite the anxiety, the amount of love that I have received from people watching the shows is the most. It’s the nicest people have ever been to me.
For Pride, I did a show in a church for HOLE PICS. I had a big, pink taffeta dress made by Spinderella. It was my first custom outfit. The cast was amazing. I did “God” by Prince, which is mostly him giving a sermon and screaming. (I seem to love screaming.) It went really well. It’s hard to remember everything from this summer because every time I went out it was so momentous and there were so many events and parties and actions resurfacing.
“Protesting became nightlife for a bit. I was going to Abolition Park downtown when the Occupy movement was happening and seeing so many people that in nightlife there, you had to show up for people.”
How did you start your new drag show, Sylvester?
Sylvester is a show that I throw with Julie J and Voxigma Lo. I did theater with Julie J. We met acting in a short play by Nazareth Hassan where the script was an orchestration of different kinds of laughter. Then, I had Julie in a reading of my own play called “Suzanne.” In the play, I wrote myself as a character called Gris, which is French for gray, because I’m Black and white. Julie played that character. And when Gris performs in drag, they perform as Paris Hilton Als, a joke on my own name, and a mix of Paris Hilton and Hilton Als, who is a Black critic and novelist. Julie was doing heavily choreographed pieces to Donna Summer at the time, with lip-syncing and video elements, and I told her, you really need to be doing drag. It was rare that I’d seen someone operate with so much technical precision and meaningful, conceptual intention in a lip-sync. Julie started practicing her face during quarantine, too, and approached me about doing a show together when spaces began to open up in the spring of 2021. It would be drag, but more experimental. I wasn’t sure if I could live up to the drag-ness at first, since I see myself as more of a performance artist. We wanted to find a third person and thought about Voxigma Lo, Untitled Queen’s drag daughter. She was another Black, gay, multidisciplinary performer who did drag, writing, and produced her own work. Then, at the drag competition Are You The Next Diva? that Janelle No.5 hosts, Julie competed and Vox was there. Watching the show, I knew Vox was the one. She and I went on a long walk to Taco Bell afterwards sharing references and inspiration, and I told her the idea for our new show. She was like, Untitled Queen sent me a string of texts last night about you and Julie, and that I should work with you because there’s a Black drag Renaissance approaching. It was a complete sign! That’s how it all started.
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Can you talk about the concept for the show?
I thought about Sylvester, the musical artist, because they’re someone who I really admire. He had so many obscure references to older Black culture in his work, and went beyond gender into an aspirational, higher form of self. I also wanted to do a show that was related to throwbacks. So much of the music I’ve wanted to perform is from the 70s and 80s which is Sylvester’s time. There was a space called Purgatory in Bushwick that I’d been in touch with. They reached out to me about doing something together, and we went to check it out. It’s right by the cemetery in Ridgewood, and used to be a headstone manufacturer. That’s why it’s called Purgatory. The first floor is really dark. There’s a room that’s lit by a red bulb. The stairwell to the second floor is all red too. The performance area upstairs is pink, turquoise, and checkerboard. It reminded me of my old apartment in Windsor Terrace, it felt like home. We’ve done two shows there so far and one at C’mon Everybody. The format is borrowed from HOLE PICS, and I asked TRSA if I could use it. She said she took the format from Pinwheel Pinwheel, and if Andy Warhol didn’t steal yadda idea from yadda yadda, who knows what the American art world would be like today. It’s a very fun way to arrange a show, so we kept it and explored ways to make it new and our own. Typically, drag shows have a host who introduces a song and drag artist, the next performer comes back to introduce the following one, and so on, it takes forever. Our format has everything on one mix. All of the songs happen consecutively without pause, and everyone has a song and an interlude–a shorter song, skit, video, or anything. Once, I did an interlude that was just silence. Everything happens quickly and you don’t know who’s performing next or where they’re coming from in the space. It ends up being emotionally and psychically stimulating in an unconventional way.
We’ve had about 70 or 80 people at each one so far. In the moments where I’m less stressed and I actually take in the show, I feel like this is what I’ve always wanted to see in drag. It feels good, We have all Black performers. Vox, Julie, and I all have an experimental drag vibe, and we each have different approaches to our own drag and performance. I cried at the last one, it was so moving.
What are your hopes and goals for yourself and New York’s queer nightlife?
I’d like to potentially go to college for playwriting. Part of me wonders what will happen if I continue in the trajectory of following my spirit and what I want in the moment. With the pandemic, and thinking about what really matters, it made me realize that drag is a possible thing for me. My ideal world is one where I’m doing all of the things that I love, but they’re married. Drag, stand up, theater, film, music and performance art; basically I want all of the humanities to have an orgy. I hope queer nightlife in NYC gets to a level of success where there’s a greater integration of the types of people that experience it. I want to see more spaces that are sustainable and inclusive. I want the walls of drag expression to open up more, beyond a prototypical Drag Race fantasy. In any kind of art, I want the boundaries to be pushed. I want the underground performance world to come up to the surface, or at least peak its head out. I want the whole of queer culture to feel boundless, a sense that we can do anything together.♦