“The Empathy Smackdown of Drag and Burlesque” is bringing a heady mix of stark drama, rage and nerdiness to stages both physical and digital… behold the dark power of Noctua! [Cover photo: Harry Pocius]
Thotyssey: Hello Noctua, thanks for chatting! So, RuPaul’s Drag Race may have it’s problems with drag inclusivity, but it’s still great that Shea Couleé is the newest All-Star, right?
Noctua: LMAO! So here’s the thing… I don’t watch Drag Race. Something about it always put me off (likely the issues that we’re all only just becoming more vocal about) and I was never able to get into it… and at this point, have no intention to.
Fair enough! Well, how is your Crazy Quarantine Summer treating you so far?
It’s been quite the rollercoaster! I’m a hermit, so I’ve actually been enjoying being able to just be home with my cat all the time. But financially it’s been rocky. It started off with me not having any muggle job prospects in sight, and now I’m working a part-time job teaching writing workshops while also doing other freelance projects. Literally about to dive back into an interview I’ve been transcribing for an article!
You’re a writer also?
In my muggle life, I write for a publishing magazine and am currently working on a chapter for an anthology about, and by, nonbinary people of color.
I’ve also just started performing again. Before the pandemic, shows were really the only way I could supplement my income and make rent. I was booked all through March and half of April and when all of those shows had to cancel because of quarantine… it really hurt my bank account. I’m just starting to pick up virtual gigs.
Totally sucks about the rocky road, but congrats for finding your way across it! What do you think NYC nightlife might look like when all of this is said and done?
Honestly, that’s hard to say. We have no way of knowing when “said and done” will be. [Many of] the bars we used to perform at night have shut down for good, and I know of so many performers who are moving out of NYC.
I think right now we just have to take things day by day, week by week, and continue to focus on how to make the best of nightlife as a virtual activity. We have to continue thrive as performers in whatever way we can. Then, when the fog has truly lifted, take those skills and add them to our live art. I think if there’s anything we can truly look forward to, it’s how much more self sustaining some performers have become during quarantine. People who have moved to making their own costumes, when before they were purchasing them from others. People who have started styling their own wigs. A lot of it is about the funds. We don’t have the gigs to give us the money to buy other’s products, so we’re making them ourselves.
There’s also going to be a lot more performances with video components. Outdoor performances will have become the norm. The same way corporations have revealed that there IS a different way to do a 9-5, nightlife has adapted to the quarantine in ways that might just stick.
Nightlife is nothing if not resiliently adaptable!
So okay, let’s jump back to your origin story: where are you from, and how did you begin as a creative person?
I was raised in Queens and have lived in Brooklyn for the last few years. I’m predominantly a dancer, and that’s just a part of my DNA. My family loves music, singing, dancing. There’s a family joke that we’ll make any excuse to throw a party! And we love performing for each other. So I kind of grew up in a family where someone was always putting on a show. My great-grandparents used to own a bar in Brooklyn, my grandma played the drums and made costumes, my mom and aunt were in various choirs and dance recitals. And all of that just trickled right down to me and then my siblings.
I was always in a school play / musical or dance recital. By high school I was in musical theatre camp and (between student teaching and subbing), taking over nine dance classes a week. In fact, teaching little kids tap and hip hop was my first job as a teen!
And all of that history is reflected in my art. My drag and burlesque incorporates a lot of dance. Sometimes it’s me just having a blast gogo-style, and sometimes it’s choreographed pieces. I love dancing, and if there’s anything I’ve missed these past few months, it’s dancing for a live audience. Virtual energy just can’t match that.
How did you discover nightlife and become Noctua?
I knew about drag and burlesque, and had been to shows before. The college I went to actually threw an annual drag competition, and I danced for and choreographed for a competing drag king. A year after my graduation, in 2017, we did a duet of ours at a show… and the next month I was gogo-ing for the show! Gogoing turned to draglesque, and suddenly I was performing often! As for “Noctua,” it was the name I used for sex work and I kept it for nightlife. It’s Latin for night owl.
How does your gender identity inform your stage performances?
It… doesn’t? LOL! I do both masculine and feminine drag and burlesque as Noctua. But explaining my gender is complicated sometimes…
I’m trans nonbinary—gender fluid, if we want to be super specific. I never know how I’m going to wake up feeling, and sometimes the presentation I feel most comfortable with changes in the middle of the day. I try really hard to remind myself that there’s no “right” way to be nonbinary, but I still struggle with feeling like I’m not doing it right. Growing up as a Black woman of size, it took me an incredibly long and painful time to love my body as it was. So when I realized I wasn’t cis and had to come out a second closet, I felt this pressure to try to adhere to the queer standard of androgyny and felt pressure to want a different body. But I don’t. I went through a lot in life to get people to see that my shape and skin and hair are allowed to exist.
Being nonbinary doesn’t change that, and I try really hard not to let it scare me out of creating certain performances. I should be allowed to do high femme performances and still be respected as a nonbinary person. But I know I’m not. It sucks, but it’s true. A couple of years ago a performer at another bar misgendered me. When I corrected her she said, very aggressively, “well, you have a pussy don’t you!?” I was floored, and didn’t know how to respond.
I don’t see my body as a “woman’s” body. I know everyone else fucking does, but that’s their problem. For me, my body is simply a body, and the clothes I put on it that day may dictate if I’m feeling more masculine, femme, or androgynous that day. But my body itself is just a body. And it frustrates me that people won’t just allow me to be nonbinary in the way that fits me, whether that’s in real life or on stage.
How would you describe a Noctua performance today?
I used to think I had a signature, but maybe I don’t. Or maybe I have multiple, I don’t know! My performances are pretty dark… and heavy. I wasn’t deemed the “Empathy Smackdown” for nothing! I have this tendency to make people cry during performances. At first it was really alarming; I wasn’t trying to make people cry! I was just creating pieces that were necessary for me. Most of my pieces are just me self-therapizing onstage, and I used to think that was selfish of me. Here I am calling myself an entertainer, and I’m performing numbers for myself.
But then someone told me that’s what makes my art special. I may think it’s selfish or that I’m just in my head, but in creating it for myself it becomes its most authentic form. And that authenticity is what people are reacting to.
Not all of my numbers are weepy pieces, though. Some of them are about unbridled rage! And then there is, of course, the nerdlesque. My cosplays are my favorites! From creating the mix, to the costumes and props, to the choreography. I love finding a character I can bring to life on stage, and then just goofing off.
And all of these performance styles are still me. I am incredibly sad and angry quite often. I have a chronic thyroid disease–dysthymia–with episodes of MDD, and anxiety, and PTSD. My emotional numbers aren’t me pretending to experience anything. They’re things I’m used to feeling that I’m just allowing everyone to witness when I’m on stage.
But I’m also a giant nerd, and incredibly goofy! And I’d say my humor is really morbid, but it is what it is. I’ve worked hard to adapt to the structures of my shitty brain, and have learned how to turn it into a party (when I have the energy to do so). Then I hop in a cosplay, and bring that party on stage.
Burlesquers have a rare experience that drag performers often don’t have… they often perform in mixed gender / orientation spaces, or even straight spaces. Do you see differences in how certain “types” of audiences respond to your performances ?
Yes, for both drag and burlesque… but for different reasons. With drag, it’s often a race-based thing. Black performers are often put in a box. People–and this goes for audience, producers and cast members–expect Black performers to adhere to certain stereotypes, and when a Black performer “fails” to do so, it confuses people. I’ve straight up had producers ask me to do numbers that don’t align at all with my performance style and I’m just like, “did you even bother to at least look at my IG to see what I do?” I’ve dipped out of bookings for producers asking me not to do something goth for their show and to do something more “urban.” Don’t book Black performers and then tell them they have to adhere to your standard of Black. No.
As for burlesque, it’s a mix between racial and queer issues. I rarely do classical burlesque. Whether it’s draglesque, nerdlesque, break-shit-on-stage-lesque, screamlesque, whatever it is, it’s not classical. It’s not that I don’t enjoy classical burlesque–I do. It’s just not my performance style. I think that, combined with being a Black nonbinary person, throws certain audiences sometimes.
Like, it shouldn’t be, but there’s something radical about presenting high femme and stripping down for the audience to see you have all your body hair! And I’m sure to you that’s not something extraordinary. But straight people are fucking weird, especially when it comes to body hair on femme people. Like, it really ticks them off for some reason! So I’ve noticed, especially with numbers where I interact with the audience a lot, the confusion or lack of participation. But I experience that on a day-to-day basis in my muggle life. So by the time I get on stage and notice certain audience members (or even cast members, honestly) turning their noses up at my hairy burlesque it’s just like, “Oh well.” You already bought the ticket that helps pay me.
And to straight people coming to queer produced shows and having an attitude, go the fuck home. Like, don’t come to queer spaces imposing your cis-heteronormative toxicity onto people! If you don’t like queer bodies, don’t fucking come to queer shows!
One of the mixed spaces you often performed at was Bizarre Bushwick, for Lee Valone’s popular BEEF burlesque and drag variety how. Do you have fond memories of that time?
I miss BEEF a lot. It was the first show I performed in, and where I found my chosen family. Whether it was gogoing, performing, or just hanging out, I was there every month. My grandpa, mom, and aunt even came to the final show!
As for Bizarre and the crowd there… there were good nights, and nights we had to have dudebros kicked out. I remember co-hosting other shows there, and quite a few times had to make general reminders to the audience not to fucking touch the performers without their consent. Once I had to kick a guy out for putting his phone entirely too close to the dancers’ genitals while filming, and my co-host actually had to go through his phone and delete the videos.
There’s also the whole thing of venues capitalizing off of queer entertainers. Like, when people start to think of your venue as a queer space when you yourself don’t respect queer people, there’s an issue.
Indeed! White Elephant Burlesque–founded by Viktor Devonne–also had a home at Bizarre, and you’ve performed with that troupe a number of times. On Friday, July 31st, Viktor is presenting a digital WEBurlesque retrospective [note: contact Viktor to request a link to the show], showcasing archive performances of several people who’ve performed with White Elephant including yourself. Do you know which number of yours he is going to include?
Yes! It’s my “Sailor Pluto” number, which is one of my favorites to perform… especially for fellow nerdy audiences. The clip that’s going to be featured is my debut of the number at Magical Girl Burlesque’s Three Year Anniversary show.
You’ve also frequent done shows with fellow draglesquer Vylette Tendency, notably her monthly “Queer As In Fuck You” punk-themed revue at Otto’s Shrunken Head.
Co-hosting with Vy is a blast! It’s just two nutjobs, nutjobbing at each other. There’s a lot of height jokes (I’m almost a foot taller than them), and drunk and high jokes, and nonbinary jokes, and birthday jokes. Vy and I have the same birthday, and we like to slip it into conversations every chance we get. There’s also a lot of us forgetting what’s going on mid-show and snickering at each other backstage, but not really knowing what the other person is laughing about. In fact, I’m pretty sure we just laugh on mic and air-slap at each other more than we actually speak!
QAIFU is actually doing the last show on August 1st, and I’m going to be in it. It’s going to be virtual [Zoom link TBA], obviously, but it’s another show I’m going to miss dearly. There’s nothing like a room full of angry, punk queers bonding over being angry, punk, and queer!
Have great shows! Anything else?
Um? Continue to support Black art long after #BlackLivesMatter stops trending! Cats are the superior species! And Stay Sexy, and Don’t Get Murdered!
These are words we should all live by! Thanks, Noctua!
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Noctua’s upcoming appearances, and follow them on Facebook and Instagram.
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