Renowned Drag Collective Switch n’ Play Is Happy to Be Back on Stage
These amazing drag and burlesque performers talk about what queer family means to them.
Published on 6/14/2022 at 11:20 AM
Switch n' Play | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
The Brooklyn-based nightlife collective Switch n’ Play established itself in 2006, representing an entire spectrum of queer identity and winning awards for its creative, genre-defying performances along the way.
Currently, the collective is made up of members Miss Malice, K.James, Divina GranSparkle, Nyx Nocturne, Vigor Mortis, The Illustrious Pearl, and Zoe Ziegfeld. I joined up with almost all of them a few days after their first live show together in over two years to chat how it felt to be performing again, what brought them to the group, and what queer family means to them.
Thrillist: You recently just performed your first show as Switch n’ Play since the pandemic started. What was that like, performing as a group after two-and-a-half years?
Zoe Ziegfeld: The nerves leading up to it were so intense—it just felt so high stakes. And once it was happening it was like, “Oh I understand this in my core—this is in my muscle memory. Everything about this feels perfect and natural and it satisfies me as much as it ever has.”
Divina GranSparkle: Obviously an emotional rollercoaster. Not just being on stage but a very important thing to me—I think for all of us—is backstage and our interaction there. That’s family time, you know? Just being in the same space with everybody, bustling about putting on eyelashes and strapping on shoes and just having it all fall into place like it had been yesterday. I cried a lot after the show. Good thing my face was shellacked. [Laughs]
The Illustrious Pearl: My favorite thing about our show is the feeling that you can’t fail. You just walk on stage and everyone already loves you and knows how to love you and will take every risk that you make on stage. There’s nothing to prove and backstage there’s no negativity. There’s no contempt, no snarkiness. It’s been love that we’ve been building with each other for seven, eight, nine years. We’re watching each other grow, supporting each other’s learning process and decisions.
K. James | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Have any of you been members since the beginning?
K.James: I joined in 2008. I knew the founding members because I ended up living with one of them and they used to hold rehearsals in our apartment and they used to do an open drag night, which was a space for whoever wanted to try out a new number. I ended up doing an open drag night in January 2008 and they were like, “Wait a minute, do you want to join?”
Miss Malice: I came in around 2008 because I was dating K.James and it was my first little home as a baby femme in New York and I started working the door and somehow ended up hosting the show! [Laughs] In some ways it was a natural extension of being the energy greeting people at the door to the person who was greeting people on stage.
Switch n’ Play was founded as a drag king collective, but really as a space for all kinds of gender performance. I feel so emotional when I think of this because I remember meeting each of you all. I remember working with Zoe back in the day, I remember meeting Pearl, I remember the first time Nyx joined us, and when Divina came and the first time Vigor joined—that sort of magical feeling of clicking when you find your family and all of us have been working together.
"You’re not just background noise. The audience is watching and adoring every second, and that’s rare for a lot of drag shows."
What drew everyone else in?
Nyx Nocturne: I’d been performing in strictly burlesque spaces for a long time and had just started playing with and exploring bridging that gap into drag. I did my first drag-lesque act at a time when there were only a handful of performers doing that because the rules were that you didn’t lip sync when you do burlesque.
I ended up getting booked as a guest performer with Switch n’ Play for one of their Pride shows and my world kind of blew open. It was just so capital Q queer in a way that was unimaginable to me—I loved it so much. Eventually I got an email asking to join, and it just felt like a really natural choice.
Pearl: The word I associate with Switch n’ Play is “affirming.” That’s the light word for it and the mega word is “celebratory.” The affirming nature of it gave me permission to start doing the type of drag I wanted to do. I don’t know if I would still be doing drag right now if I didn’t have Switch n’ Play.
I remember doing a PowerPoint drag for the first time with them and doing a Tori Amos song. I was lip syncing but it was about my parents and their trauma going through the great Chinese famine. What clicked for me was like, there aren’t many drag shows where people will sit and attentively watch and study your movements and facial expressions. You’re not just background noise. The audience is watching and adoring every second, and that’s rare for a lot of drag shows.
Divina: I got the email in November of 2015. I started performing in more traditional burlesque environments and I was doing a lot of go-go dancing, which I loved, but I feel like there was a limit to the persona I was putting on stage and Switch n’ Play was this beautiful, necessary slap in the face that made me realize there was room for all of me on stage: the good, the bad, the ugly, the deep-rooted stuff. And it changed my life. I also don’t know if I would be performing any more if I hadn’t become part of this family. I’m gonna cry.
Nyx: It would’ve taken me a lot longer to find myself on stage without Switch n’ Play. This was a space to, like what Divina was saying, play and explore all of myself on stage. It was a space where anything was possible and I could try something on stage to see how deeply it resonated for me, like to my core.
Zoe: The first time I heard about Switch n’ Play I’d been performing for a couple of years elsewhere. I moved back to the city and was having dinner with someone who was telling me about how she had done opera burlesque and I was like, “I wanna know what that is!” And she said it’s this amazing collective and they’re super open and ready for whatever weird things you’re doing, and just, very nice.
When I did my first show with them, it was so welcoming and, as Pearl said, affirming. Like I was in community with the people in the room rather than being consumed by them. Coming from a more traditional burlesque background, I had felt this obligation to my audience to be consumable in a very particular way. Not entirely straight necessarily but consumable to everybody. And then I did Switch n’ Play and it was like, “Oh I can just be who I am.” In that space, everyone was on board for whatever, whether it was for them or not.
Switch 'n Play | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
What’s on deck for the collective this year?
Zoe: Our next show all together will be the New York Live Arts house party at the end of June. The event centers around different nightlife collectives. We each do a set throughout the day and it’s really special because it hones in on the idea of queer family. And hopefully more shows at Littlefield.
Pearl: I feel like we all had this tiny fear that everyone forgot us though the pandemic. Well, people haven’t forgotten us. People really missed us. There are our diehard fans and then there was this whole new contingent of people who had never experienced a Switch n’ Play show. New people got to experience this affirming environment and get to watch beautiful, thoughtful drag and burlesque. I’m really excited for our future at Littlefield.
Nyx: Thinking about starting these shows again after having such a gap like this, it gave us all a renewed appreciation for what we were doing and who we were doing it for. It’s easy to get burned out and forget about the parts that are so beautiful and rewarding about what we do, and having that suddenly be not an option, and then getting it back again was so important. It was a beautiful reminder of why we’re doing this and why this group and the community that we perform for is so important.
John deBary is a drinks expert and writer. His first cocktail book, Drink What You Want, is available now, and his next book, Saved by the Bellini, is expected in early 2023. He is also the co-founder and president of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grant making, and impact investing. John is also the creator of Proteau, a line of non-alcoholic drinks.