Avant garde drag chanteuse Sasha Velour had already made a name for herself in New York by the time she was cast on RuPaul's Drag Race
, but most Texans first laid eyes on her during the opening episode of
season 9. Since her coronation as that season's winner, she's garnered a worldwide audience that's captivated by her unique style and innovative staging.
For her latest venture, Velour has pulled out all the stops. Her one-queen show Smoke and Mirrors
has an ensemble cast thanks to live projection mapping that places video clones alongside her onstage, as well as a bevy of other elements that promise to shock and amaze. Despite battling psychological turmoil and a significant health scare
, Velour still pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, and the show premiered with sold-out engagements in Australia, New York and London.
We caught up with Velour on the phone to chat about Smoke and Mirrors
prior to next week's performance in San Antonio, which kicks off the queen's 23-city North American tour.
Your new show was born from an unmitigated disaster of a performance, in which your trademark technological accompaniment bit the big one and you had to scramble to try to make it work. How did that evolve into Smoke and Mirrors?
.) Yeah, that’s absolutely right. I improvised a solution to all of my plans for the number falling apart, and I think I created something that was better than what I had planned. Ultimately it’s that old cliché about live theater — sometimes the excitement of watching someone scramble and pull it together in the face of disaster is better than just a flawless performance.
I tried to channel that idea into a piece of art, basically, and that got me thinking about the kind of popular performances that were on vaudeville stages in the early 20th century, especially magic shows, which is something aside from drag that I always gravitated to and loved. A big trope in those is the idea of teasing the audience with the possibility that something is really going wrong as a way to heighten real emotions — real stakes. It’s like it’s almost self aware of the fact that it’s a show, and then it creates the possibility that the show would go wrong.
I liked the idea of having a drag show that had those elements in it, because that’s one of the things that people love about live drag — this friction of rehearsed and unrehearsed, of improvised and planned, and I worked that into the show. Ultimately, it became less about really tricking people or trying to give a genuine illusion that things were going wrong, or maybe I wouldn’t survive, and then pulling out of it magically, because I think it’s too manipulative of the audience. It’s not very modern. So instead I started playing with the idea of messing up, but letting them see that it is planned and then in a way sharing the very real process that is happening outside of the stage as well through that performative mistake. Less about trying to trick the audience and confuse them about reality and more about showing the give and take of what is real.
The artifice of it becomes something new.
Exactly. That’s drag. It becomes its own thing that’s more interesting than something naturalistic. In a real disaster, I never lose my cool. But in Smoke and Mirrors
you see me lose my cool, because I want to share the realities of who I am and you can’t get to that within the real moment, necessarily. There has to be a little exaggeration, sometimes, to almost get at the truth — to unleash the deeper truth. So I go into engineered hysterics — I often do during my drag lip-synchs — and that is hopefully illustrating something to people that is universal and human and emotional and honest, even though it is of course staged.
Smoke and Mirrors seems to be beyond what would normally be called a “passion project” — you’ve really cracked yourself open for this performance. How do you find the balance between the showmanship and then also just that pure rawness that you also show onstage?
I’m always trying to do that, so I hope that I can achieve that balance. I think that’s a kind of touchstone of great drag is that it has a raw honesty — like an earnestness to it mixed with an over-the-top ambition and perfection and polish that is inspiring and bestows royalty upon people who don’t normally receive it. I guess that’s camp in a way — that intense earnestness combined with over the top ornamentation — but it’s something that I always want to channel in my performances.
I don’t want to just be a supermodel or a pop star, and I just happen to be in drag. I want to be stay true to the essence of the art form and that combination seems important to me. That also touches on the reason why there is staged mishap in Smoke and Mirrors
. I wanted to build a universe where those kind of asides to the audience — those kind of earnest confessions or like, “Oops, this is a disaster!” or “Oh my god, I’m so tired” — which can’t normally be a part of theater, I wanted to build a universe in which those made sense, so that it could be that combination of polished and at the same time deeply earnest.
I’m still trying to figure out the exact proportions, and makeup and I’ll try things differently different nights. Some nights are more earnest, some nights are more spectacular and theatrical, but to me that is the essence of drag.
There are certain unique aspects of your drag that you accentuate — you often perform bald or exaggerate the size of your ears in an almost cosplay-esque manner, and of course the way you style your eyebrows with the faux unibrow. How did you develop these ideas when you were first bringing Sasha to life?
All of those style attributes — I guess beauty decisions — came from illustrating Sasha Velour on paper. Before I had resources to purchase makeup or make costumes, I would imagine my world in drag on paper with a pen, and I learned the things that I found beautiful or captivating by drawing. I drew my character both really large and in detail and also really small, where you can only do like a simple stroke to indicate the shape of an eyebrow or an ear.
I always think about that now because often I’m performing far away from people. We didn’t used to have that problem. But it’s good to think about what you look like — it’s kind of classic comic book rules. You have to think about what your character looks like when they’re drawn really small, and some of those exaggerations or stylized decisions are that. I’m not just a person onstage: I’m an idea. And that idea has to be really clear.
In addition to how psychologically taxing it was to put together Smoke and Mirrors, it also took a physical toll. What helped you to push through and keep moving forward to get to this bonanza of a final product?
I guess crazed passion would be the only answer I can come up with. I really love what I do, and it definitely would not be doable otherwise. Even with the blessings and rewards that I’ve received, the encouragement that I’ve gotten to do drag, it still would not be doable if I didn’t love it with my whole heart. It is just too hard and too impractical to make sense of otherwise.
That’s why I like I love drag artists, because no one would do this if we weren’t driven by a message. A need. Something we each communicate with people. And that’s also how I feel about Smoke and Mirrors
. I can always push through the world around me, my physical body, because I have this passion for drag and for performing and for queering gender for myself and with my community.
But that’s a risk, too, because sometimes you can neglect the world around you — your body, your needs. I’m still figuring out the balance of pushing forward with your passions and your dreams and taking time to nourish yourself so you can sustain that work for real. It’s true for creating art and it’s true for being an activist, and trying to make changes for our community and for the way that people experience reality every day on the streets. It’s like, yes, we do have to keep pushing, but you also have to check in with yourselves as real people and figure out what you need to be able to survive and keep fighting. Because nothing is more important than that.
I think there has to be openness around dealing with sickness and stuff while also creating. A lot of times people hiding those things does a disservice to everyone, because these are universal things that people face and have to negotiate.
While you provided the creative impetus for Smoke and Mirrors, its realization came about via collaboration. What was the development process like from a technological standpoint?
The development of the show started completely in my head and on paper with notes that I could show people. It would give an impression of the show, but they were still completely confused as to what was actually going to happen in it.
In order to both unpack for myself how to actually make it happen and to try to show other people what I was talking about, I created a mockup of the backing video that plays during the show and sometimes provides an environment, sometimes a setting, sometimes other performers onstage that I’m interacting with. I made a mockup of that, basically as a rough flipbook animation with Photoshop. I built a set on Photoshop, and I would move the figures around and take screenshots, then put it into iMovie with the songs and then what I could export was the length of one of the acts with all of the music and a rough sketch of the elements that I visualized appearing in the projection. Sometimes that would be a curtain opening, or a drawing of me, or a burst of smoke or something like that. Then I sat down with my partner Johnny [Velour] and held up a little doll in front of the computer screen to be like, “This is where I’m standing during this point,” and then we watched the video together. Thankfully at that point he was like, “Ok I see this. This looks doable — this makes sense.”
Then there’s just a shit ton of lists. It is like lists upon lists upon lists for weeks. There’s so many little intricate elements. You can look at it as fun or you can look at it as a crazed nightmare. We had to gather all the props that I might want to appear in the show. It’s like, “A ribbon dance would be fun to have here.” Well suddenly you have to find an Olympic twirling ribbon somewhere before the film shoot. Keeping track of all those things is the real task.
I was able to split that up between me, my partner Johnny, Diego [Montoya] making costumes and then our friend Gina Garan who helped us hire a film crew to actually film it. This was a real big change in Smoke and Mirrors,
because every time prior to this when I’ve wanted to create a video I’ve put up a white sheet in my living room, pulled out my cell phone camera on a tripod and filmed it and edited it myself, or passed it to one of my friends who would edit the video for me.
This time we used a green screen, we filmed everything to scale — which I’ve never done before — so we weren’t trying to cheat the background. There were so many things I wanted to try that I’ve always dreamed of doing with video. Messing with the reality and dimensionality of what the audience is looking at by having elements that look like they could be onstage actually being video elements. Things I wanted to play with that I’d never done before that require filming to scale. Everyone jokes with me that they still usually don’t quite understand what they’re filming even though we have the animation. I’d be like, “Ok now we’re filming this person running across, and it’ll be edited in,” and still half the team who’s there doesn’t understand what I have in mind until it gets edited and turned into a final video.
I’m sure it’s fun watching as different people each have their “Oh!” moment.
.) And they’ve had a they’ve had a hand in it, and they’ve been like, “OK, I will attach this ladder up here and you can climb it, but I don’t know how this is going to work.” Then when they see the final product and the ladder magically flies into the air and there’s a gust of wind they understand why they were holding that fan and anchoring the ladder for me. It’s a magical moment. I do love getting to surprise people with that.
It really speaks to trust in the artistic process.
Yeah! My confident speaking voice that convinces people I know what I’m talking about. (Laughs
Smoke and Mirrors also features all new jaw-dropping costumes from your longtime collaborator Diego Montoya. What are your favorite outfits in the show, and how did the design process unfold?
I love the costumes that Diego made. In one way or another there’s a completely different look for each performance, but I wanted no lag time between them so sometimes there’s a bit of stage magic to make the costume transform.
My favorite pieces in the show — there’s basically like a second skin, a bodysuit that he made me that I wear the entire first act with different things on top. We joked it is my ideal body. It’s corseted, nice like beautiful butt, it is all red and completely stones sparkling from the bottom of my chin all the way literally to my toe and my fingertips. Huge shoulder pads because I have to look like Joan Crawford. It looks so beautiful onstage sparkling under the lights. I love it so much. Oh, and I have really tall shoes on so I have really artificially elongated legs that look great.
In the second act there’s a gown where I told him I wanted to look be able to look exactly like a tree when the lights were a certain way and with projections of a couple added branches. We worked several different drafts. He basically had to sculpt it on my body as I stood there. I’m able to become this beautiful illustration of a tree in the final moments of the show and I think that’s the drag transformation I’ve actually been chasing my entire life — just becoming a tree, the most glamorous and feminine I have ever felt in my life.
You’re a dryad!
Exactly! I actually I invented a fake religion when I was in like 10th grade inspired by Russian tree spirits. I think I have always been obsessed with tree deities from all cultures.
For the process of creating the costumes, I usually like to send a sketch to Diego of what I’m imagining. We now have this beautiful process where he knows that I’m often comfortable with him really transforming the idea. Other times we almost create exactly what I drew. He’ll say, “This image, I love it exactly like this — I’m inspired to make it exactly like this.” I love that sometimes I see more of my design hand in the final product, sometimes I see more of his. But we have such a shared overlap and taste.
I think it’s virtually seamless for this show because everything was so based on my initial drawings — the silhouettes and the colors are exactly what I drew. But all of the beautiful fabric choices, the way things move and the way things sparkle in the light — which actually are things I don’t think about as much as I should because I’m so two dimensional and graphic designy –those are the things that Diego is really passionate about, so he was able to improve upon my ideas in incredible ways.
We have this cape that a character wears that’s in chartreuse — which is one of my favorite colors, but it is by far the hardest color to source. There’s like a very specific color chartreuse that everyone knows I like that is very hard to find, but we found it in this chiffon, and I didn’t really think about this but because of the fabric that he chose the cape like explodes and poofs, and it looks like smoke itself. That was a discovery that we didn’t expect, that that would happen when the cape moved when I spun in it. It was so exciting seeing that. It’s not just about how a costume looks in a still image, and that’s I think really what Diego’s amazing magic specialty is, is making it so alive in person and onstage and in motion.
$29.50-$125, 7:30 p.m. Monday, October 21, H-E-B- Performance Hall, Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, 100 Auditorium Circle, (210) 223-8624, tobincenter.org.
Get our top picks for the best events in San Antonio every Thursday morning. Sign up for our Events Newsletter.