COVID quarantine has put New York queer hospitality on hold, but some bars are not coming back after lockdown. One of the saddest casualties has been Hell’s Kitchen’s Therapy, home to many of the city’s most beloved drag shows, a winning staff and a tightly knit queer nightlife family. Cincinnati-born stage performer and producer Ryan Overberg has been running the show there for the past few years. Here, we finally reflect on what we lost with Therapy and how this happened, as well as some hopeful prospects for the future.
Thotyssey: By Ryan! So… are you making the best of this bizarre quarantine situation we’re all in?
Ryan Overberg: The quick answer is yes! The quarantine, of course, is awful… but I am trying to take “the sun will come out tomorrow” approach and really focus on things for the future. I fleshed out many concepts that have been in the back of my brain. I made a little “Overberg Book of Ideas,” and it’s cute to see it all in print.
If anyone can make any of those ideas happen, it’s you! As a manager of a long-celebrated queer venue, what are your thoughts regarding these bars that are doing outdoor drinks-and-dining table service while trying to adhere to New York’s strict social distance guidelines? Is this more trouble then it’s worth, or is it making the best of a bad situation?
Honestly, I think everyone is just making it work. I applaud these businesses for adapting and being creative. Some of these patios are such a fun addition to the street landscape. Are things perfect? Not always, but being here throughout the entire process has been a real experience. The rules and regulations kept changing with no enforcement. Of course all of NYC–not just the gays, as many outlets tried to alienate and portray–made mistakes. But in general, we have learned and made progress. Look at the numbers. Cases are way way down. I still don’t understand the forced rules of a microwaved Hot Pocket at each table to stop the spread of COVID, but perhaps the experts have more knowledge. And I do wish there was some sort of rent forgiveness or small business protection being enforced that would relieve so much pressure from these bars!
I think many of us were so surprised that your bar Therapy did not evolve into an outdoor food space live many other gay bars in the area, especially considering it was such a popular spot and already had a full service kitchen. I know you were the manager and not an owner, but do you have any insight into why Therapy is no more?
I don’t know everything. But from my understanding, the Therapy situation was the result of a perfect storm. As you know, last year we had that [neighboring] building practically fall on [our bar], which made us close for a few weeks before Pride. We reopened, and things were great.
The issue started then because of the same guy that owned both Therapy and the fallen building. COVID happened, and I believe he was like “nope, this is the rent, no forgiveness or flexibility.” Moving forward seemed impossible with only having a small patio serving drinks and food. We survived [the loss of revenue from Pride month because of] the packed shows and dance nights.
I guess [Therapy’s] owners figured it would be better to walk away now, considering [the landlord] wouldn’t bend in any way. It’s a shame, because of Therapy’s positive impact on the community… but some people only see the green. It’s an unfortunate reality.
It’s such a huge loss. A lovely bar staff worked there, and some of the best drag shows in the city were there–like Paige Turner’s “Slurp” (Sundays) and “The Help” (Wednesdays) with Pixie Aventura and Kizha Carr.
The talent there was truly unmatched. The professionalism and creativity of queens like Paige Turner, Pixie Aventura and Kizha Carr is something to learn from an admire. If someone made a Drag Queen University, they would be the professors.
That was when things really started to get cooking. After the success of “You Tried It” (Tuesdays) with Jan, I just started to trust my gut more. Give people the familiar, with a twist. Brita was already a powerhouse performer in NYC, but I kind of felt like she was untapped at Therapy. I wanted a trio show because I’ve always loved trio girl groups; I like idea of a moving triangle. “Thirsty Thursday” is the traditional approach, but I didn’t want that. You don’t need to be thirsty, we will SOAK you in sweat, sex and booze. Who better to do that than the liquid queens!? (That was in my initial pitch, lol.)
Lagoona and Rosé were both on my “to hire” list, so this was a perfect fit. The three of them already had a great history, but when they got on stage together it really was magic. With hard work and focus, they really stepped up the game and many people followed.
And there was also the “Sunday Services” brunch show starting Jan, Kizha and Jackie Cox! That was a big gamble, but proved a great success.
Yeah! To be honest, I’ve been wanting to make a brunch for years! A big inspiration came from when I was as manager at 44X. I worked with Ray Scott and Josh Johnson–aka Kamilla Kockman and Jarvis Derrell! I made this playlist called “Dreamgirls & Friends,” and we would dance around and laugh for hours.
Fast forward, I knew Therapy had wanted to do some sort of brunch over the years… so I presented an uplifting “queer church service” to the management team, and Sunday Services was created. Overnight it became a hit. Kizha, Jan, Jackie and Jarvis on stage together is something for the the books. Who knew? We had no script, but we created a loose guideline grid… and the stuff that happened on that stage every Sunday at 12 and 3 was nothing short of a miracle. I really do miss that day… it was family time.
Marti Gould Cummings also has a long running show there.
Yeah! Marti did “Stage Fright” with Bradford Proctor. Great show with amazing guests. Broadway stars would come in on a Monday just to chat, and Marti would get them to belt out a Tony award-winning performance. It was incredible. Those kind of New York moments are so memorable and impossible to copy.
Nowadays, Marti is a high profile queer activist running for public office! How great is it to have watched that development?
Marti’s step into the political scene is exactly what they should be doing. Of course, Marti will be entertaining people on stages for years, but I think that’s only one side of their story that might [become secondary]. Marti is an activist first, and that’s what we need. Their NYC life has led to this moment. I said this to them a few years ago in the office. Drag queens, or any performers, have different paths, and we can’t compare. Marti is a great drag queen, but ten years from now, they will be more known for their activism and work they got done in each office. Marti has the potential, talent, focus and drive to go all the way to congress, and that’s their path. We will all be proud to say “I remember and knew them when.”
So many Therapy girls went on to do Drag Race.
Yeah, Therapy was like a Drag Race factory. Those producers would just come and pluck up everyone. They would make reservations and we would be like, “well, who’s leaving in six months?” But yay for them! I’m so proud for their success and journey.
I feel bad for the cursed cast of this last season, which included Therapy girls Brita, Jan, Jackie, and “Redacted.” They haven’t fully gotten to enjoy or cash in on their new fame, thanks in large part to the international lockdown.
Let’s be honest, the cast of Season 12 got screwed! First with the Sherry Pie fiasco, and then COVID. They spend so much money knowing they will get it back in some way after the episodes air with bookings and viewings–they go on tour, and all the things. This year, these queens had to take the ten dollars they had left to make more outfits, and now put on full scale shows in their living rooms with mics and lighting. It’s Drag Race: Xtra Innings.
On top of all that, poor Brita in particular got a lot of that nasty fan feedback… mainly because of her pointed interaction with one of the other girls that I guess the fans liked. It was all so upsetting and frustrating!
Another perfect storm. With the new edits, the world saw a version of what was filmed. Brita has always been one of the most positive energies I’ve ever been around; she was booked 17 times a week was for that reason. You want her in your show, at your party or event. She uplifts the room and the crowd. If she was a stone cold bitch, that wouldn’t be the case. Brita went on a competition show that is a reality show more than anything. She went in kicking and competing. Sometimes she won and sometimes she failed, but in life she’s not a bad person. I wish people could see past that, because Brita has and will always be a great person to hire and be around.
I think people are now learning how great she is… I suspect we’ll see amazing things from her!
When did you actually begin at Therapy?
I was a cocktail server at Therapy 13 years ago, when Peppermint was doing “Cattle Call.” I then came back to be a manager and work on the entertainment program. This September would have been three years.
And before managing backstage, you served the children onstage.
I’ve been a professional performer for about 20 years; I traveled the country in the Broadway tours of Hairspray and Saturday Night Fever. I also did a bunch of regional theater. Recently, I was on cruise ships internationally for a few years. It was all an amazing experience, but I learned I wanted to start creating and directing more.
About four years ago, I stopped performing to start my path of opening my own space. I could take my years of service and performing to create something unique for a nightlife audience!
COVID added some wrinkles to that dream I’m sure, but the city will rise again and you’ll have your moment!
Absolutely! I think we need to take this time to really reevaluate everything. In a bigger picture, I believe that 20 years from now historians will point to COVID as the catalyst for us making a better world for ourselves. We have the time now to not get caught up in our own problems. We now see the world for what it is, and it’s not pretty. The BLM movement is reacting off injustices that have been around for decades, but we are now finally “seeing” it. We now see our country filled with racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and a terrible political system. Now is the time to change things… so that’s the big picture.
What does a queer venue need to be now, in order to be great?
When it comes to nightlife, we need to apply the same principles and make ourselves accountable. We need create safe spaces for all, not some. The appeal and protection can not only be to the chiseled 20-something cis white gay man. We need to make spaces, shows, parties and events for everyone. The movement in the trans community is huge, and we should continue to push respect, protections and acceptance. That’s big human moral stuff, but it makes a difference… and it’s where we should all be thinking.
When it comes to actual content in a bar… I think it you are doing a show, you should put the time, energy, and money into making something special. To quote Robin Williams in The Birdcage: “Look, this may be a drag show, but it still has to be a good drag show, if possible a great drag show.”
Oh, “Boozical Mondays!” Yeah, I was so excited for that show! Those queens are beasts of talent. That show would have been so fun. The plan was to have some combination of the host core always there, but always hire new talent and singers to really portray the material. It stinks because we had Pippin, Little Mermaid and Dreamgirls coming up. The talent in those weeks were huge!
And you actually performed onstage that first week, before lockdown happened! Did that maybe reignite the performance bug in you?
I loved being onstage, but the producer / director in me constantly was thinking “how’s the sound? Are the lights right? Is this funny? Should we do this?” So it was a little battle, but fun.
I bet! Sigh… well, Therapy will be missed.
I want to give a special shout out to the amazing staff and regulars of Therapy. You are all amazing, and I miss you! Also to the owner Tom Johnson for giving me the opportunity and teaching me more than he will ever know. By the way, everyone should be following Tom on Facebook. He has been posting stories of his NYC journey, and it’s a lesson in Queer History. It also shows the creativity and thought that he put into making some of the most iconic queer spaces in NYC.
What might be next for Mr. Overberg?
Oh lord! Well, hopefully everything! My life has always been a bit of an adventure, and it’s working… so I’m following that path. As I mentioned before, I made a little “Overberg Idea Book.” It’s basically my brain downloaded onto paper. I wrote two TV shows… both are getting attention and traction. I made about eight bar concepts / designs that you may see in a city near you. I made about 20 new traditional bar shows and parties.
Lastly (for now), I want to start blending the lines of a drag show, singer showcase, immersive experience, musical, concert, and party and just make a kick-ass event. So I put together two big shows that would have a higher production value, and hopefully be a killer show!
But as of today in this moment: unemployed and making it work. But, that’s only for now!
Happy birthday, by the way! I guess my last question should be: what’s your birthday wish?
World peace, obviously! But really, my wish would be that everyone is safe and kind to one another. Please vote! Get that monster out of there! All the movement and progress that we have made as a human race, don’t let up! Keep going and fighting! Life matters, but we need to help the ones struggling.
I was a lifeguard when I was younger, and I’m an excellent swimmer. It was my privilege because my mom tossed me in a pool when I was a baby. Anyway, my job was to jump in and help the ones to the ledge that were struggling. That sometimes meant holding my breath and going under them to bring to them safety. We as a society need to do the same. Push others above, and get them to the safety of the shore.
Thank you, Ryan!