Switch N’ Play puts a high premium on joy, so it isn’t surprising that A Night At Switch N’ Play—the slice-of-performance-life documentary about the group, making its New York premiere at NewFest this Saturday—is such a joyful watch. The film, from director Cody Stickels and producer Chelsea Moore, provides a window into the beloved drag and burlesque collective at work. Over the course of a single evening at Branded Saloon, the Prospect Heights bar Switch N’ Play calls home, we are invited to watch seven queer performers flourishing, almost in real time. And it’s a treat.
Switch N’ Play, which was founded in 2006, describes itself as “queer in every sense of the word,” a performance collective that “spans the gender spectrum in life, and on stage.” It’s a captivating group of Brooklyn artists, whose approach to drag and burlesque is loving, knowledgeable, and bold. It’s diverse, not only in terms of performer identity, but also performance style. It’s a little scrappy, and hugely body-positive, body-inclusive, body-celebratory. And wild. Sometimes someone gnaws on a string of pearls mid-lip-sync, or masturbates a Twinkie at the end of a strip tease, and everyone rolls with it. Oftentimes, if not most times, a mostly-unclothed burlesque performer will do a headstand in a (consenting) audience member’s lap, and everyone lives for it. Switch N’ Play and its returning audiences have always seemed a keen, accepting group of people; in that tiny backroom at Branded Saloon, you can sense a pure appreciation for—and a downright giddiness about—the many things that gender-based performance can be.
A Night At Switch N’ Play offers, through the talking heads and mini-backstories that punctuate the main filmed evening, some powerful behind-the-scenes moments. We hear collective members speak about their personas, their approaches, and what they hope audiences take away from their work (in a nice addition, the filmmakers have also assigned a stylized object to each performer, a symbol of their individual contribution to the evening’s proceedings).
Burlesque performer Zoe Ziegfeld, of the aforementioned headstands, talks about employing burlesque as a way to “speak about what it means to be a gender, what it means to be a body.” Miss Malice, the group’s “Femmecee,” discusses being “attached to a lineage of working-class high-femmes…at mid-century,” whose specific employment of onstage femininity inspired hers (“not a parody…[but] extreme reverence”). Vigor Mortis, one of the group’s resident drag kings, talks about exploring masculinity onstage with wide-ranging motivations: “Sometimes, it can be a complete mockery,” he says. “Sometimes, it can be me, trying to test out how far I want to go.” The camera pans over his dressing-room vanity as he speaks, and we spy a copy of Stone Butch Blues.
Still, even with these offstage opportunites for performers to share themselves candidly, A Night At Switch N’ Play mostly takes place in the room where it happens—where the collective comes together, where the goal is a common one, where the performers are “committed to fostering drag and queer community in Brooklyn.” People “come to shows not to just get their minds off of stuff, but to feel connected,” as burlesque performer Divina GranSparkle summarizes towards the end of the film. She’s lying on her belly on a pool table as she speaks, but we hear most of her words in voiceover, laid over shots of a captivated crowd. “They want to be in a queer environment…they want to feel like their existence is legitimate…they want to feel held.”
The almost-in-real-time filmic approach demonstrates an appreciation, on the part of the doc makers, for this particular brand of live-show vitality. Switch N’ Play runs on energy exchange, pacing, audience reaction, and performer grit, those experiential things that happen once and can’t wholly be recreated. A Night At Switch N’ Play gets that. To best tell the story of this collective, a documentary need only provide a little context, lightly package the exuberance—that celebration of queer bodies and art and community—and step back. Let Switch N’ Play do its thing.