Thanks to the popularity of RuPaul's Drag Race, most people have a single clear image of what they imagine a drag show to be. The term conjures images of queens with larger-than-life personalities in glamorous outfits, lip-syncing to a catchy pop song.
But a night with the Bad Kids Collective is different. Founded five years ago, the group breaks from the expected, standard drag performances by using a more theatrical and gender-integrated style, pushing the boundaries of the genre. Yes, there are traditional numbers and performers, but their acts are harder to define. A combination of artists, musicians and dancers use their acts to create shows that vary wildly in tone, content and presentation. Beyond that, they create performances that help carve a space out of the club scene for Salt Lake City's queer community to express themselves in a judgement-free zone.
It's this underlying message of acceptance and familial queer environment that draws in many of the performers, rather than the notion of doing drag itself. Kenneth Leon, who started with the collective after wanting to get into more performance art, says the group's unique approach to drag leads audiences to either love their shows or hate them.
"I've always kind of looked at it, like, a typical drag show is somebody that's doing something for themselves in a way," Leon says. "It's helping them become strong and helping them come out of something. We still do that, too, but we mix it with theater so it's like more of an experience, more for the audience and less for yourself."
Leon is one of the troupe members whose performance drifts away from the more traditional style of drag. His numbers tend to use music without lyrics; he tends to simulate a statue, he says, in numbers that are set in a kind of temple setting. "In a way, we're mixing the type of performance art that you would see in theater and in an art gallery, but a lot of it is really draggy too," he says.
Jared Higley, who fell in with the group after attending a tribute show to the Icelandic musician Bjork three years ago, says the performances are always fun, and often beautiful, chilling and uncomfortable. "It's always different," he says. "But the thing that always remains is a common respect for one another, and a love for what we do and a love for everyone that's there."
Chelsea Neider, who performs as Chelsea Siren, says it's this underlying community support that drew her into performing three years ago. Since then, she says she's grown more confident in her body and self, and wants to impart that to those who see her numbers.
"We live in a really religious state, and sometimes a lot of people don't have a safe place to go to and be able to express themselves," Neider says. "I think that people who aren't in the queer community that it's good for them to have that exposure and that open mindedness that they wouldn't always get."
Their shows have a distinct handcrafted feel, shying away from a sleek and stylized presentation and favoring one that helps channel the raw and intimate shows. The costumes and sets are made out-of-pocket by the performers and each piece is also choreographed and created by them. These efforts can take anywhere from a week to a month to prepare for, all fitting around the members' outside lives.
"I feel like I go to work and then I come home and do Bad Kids," Nieder says. "We make no money. We just do this because we want to."
Higley says this completely DIY approach gives the group's members a platform to discuss issues close to their own lives, politics and anything else they find relevant to themselves and their community. His own pieces, which tend to focus on dancing, weave his life experiences—past and present—with the general theme of the show.
"I feel I actually have a platform to say something, and that's kind of way more important and way more rare than people give it credit for," he says. "You don't have to say anything that's important or personal or political ... but you have that platform."
As the collective is ever-evolving, with members leaving and joining annually, the group is always looking for more additions. Neider says the easiest way to become involved is to attend one of their shows and talk to the performers.
"We've seen the generations as they go on, they kind of grow and progress. The Bad Kids isn't always necessary, but it's really cool to see new generations come in," she says. "Right now, the goal is to just set it up so we can just continuously have new generations of Bad Kids."
The next Bad Kids Collective show is Friday, Oct. 28, at Club Jam. For more information on performances and the group, visit Facebook.com/BadKidsSLC.