Internationally-recognized transformational leader and creator Tracey Erin Smith didn’t set out to create a TV series. Initially, Drag Heals was supposed to be a documentary chronicling the process of drag artists bringing their sparkle and soul to the stage for a live show. However, the universe had other plans. Now, the beloved drag series will debut its third season this month.
Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with Tracey, who’s also the founder and creator of SOULO Theatre, about what Season 3 holds for audiences. We also dove into what spurred Tracey to create Drag Heals, the drag artists who inspire her, “Theatrical Alchemy” and more.
This interview is condensed for length and clarity.
Melody McCune: We at GGA love a good origin story. What’s the origin story for Drag Heals? What inspired you to create it?
Tracey Erin Smith: I taught a drag king workshop called “Dude for a Day” for several years in Toronto. It was popular among female-identified folx from all walks: bankers, teachers, singers, homemakers and lawyers.
With the help of a professional makeup and hair stylist, each participant created and presented as a male character. It was a blast, and the gals always left that workshop feeling braver, stronger, more confident, walking a little taller and more self-possessed. I asked myself, “What if we created a workshop like this for men? Are there men who want to bring their inner woman to the surface?”
In 2016, most straight men weren’t ready for that, but those who wanted to be drag queens were. My next thought was, “What if the drag artists combined their personal stories with their drag characters? What if they shared their sparkles AND their soul on stage?” As a performer, my specialty is creating one-woman shows. As a teacher and director, it’s helping others turn their personal stories into stage performances.
Next, we assembled drag experts who could help with all aspects of drag. We brought in makeup artists, costume designers, choreographers and singing coaches. Our first season wasn’t even supposed to be a TV series. We had the good fortune of TV director Charlie David and director of photography Nico Stagias wanting to document what we were up to. They wanted to make a documentary about the process and the final product, a live show of the participants’ solo pieces.
When we were planning the final live show, participants in the community told me no one would be willing to pay to see a drag show. Sure enough, we went on to sell out with standing room only and a standing ovation. This proved to me there was an audience for drag that included the personal stories of its performers.
About a year after the live show, I hadn’t heard from Charlie, so I assumed they couldn’t make anything out of the footage they’d shot. Then, out of the blue, I got an email from Charlie saying, “We didn’t make a documentary; there was too much great material. But congrats … you now have an entire season of a TV series!”
My jaw dropped. I had no idea what to expect when I sat to watch it. I took a deep breath, braced myself and hit PLAY. As the episodes unfolded, I was laughing and crying and laughing again. They did a brilliant job. I was thrilled, and when we put it out into the world, people loved it.
MM: Describe Season 3 of Drag Heals using three words.
TES: Deep. Surprising. Empowering.
MM: What can audiences expect when watching this season?
TES: It’s an emotional rollercoaster wrapped in pure entertainment and sprinkled with glitter and laughs. At the 11th hour, something shocking invariably happens that forces the cast to rely on each other to prepare their shows for the big night.
MM: Can you talk about “Theatrical Alchemy” and how you use it to help performers excavate raw material from their lives?
TES: The creative process in Drag Heals involves augmenting real, lived experiences through a process I call “Theatrical Alchemy.” Theatrical Alchemy is a method of taking the raw material from our lives and transforming it into something more theatrical, more entertaining, and sometimes larger than life, all while keeping the truth and essence of it intact.
Initially, “alchemy” was used when describing the process of turning base metals into gold. It’s a great metaphor to use when we’re excavating the pain and joy from our own lives and working with that deep, personal material to transform it into something that has a unique light in it, which pulls the audience’s eyes and hearts toward the person on stage. We want to listen to them. We want to cheer for them as they share their trials and triumphs.
This process births a more rounded drag performance by ensuring we have the fiber and fluff, the guts and glitter, to serve a delectable meal of tantalizing truths and diva-quality drag. You must expose part of yourself in a vulnerable way to truly connect to others. This can change and sometimes save lives. Maybe even your own.
MM: What makes Drag Heals stand out from its contemporaries?
TES: Two main things distinguish Drag Heals from its contemporaries. We are the only non-competition drag TV series of this kind. If you start with us on episode one, you are going all the way through to perform your one-person show on the season finale.
Our other significant difference is that we are comprised of participants and cast members from every gender expression (trans/cis/non-binary), all ages (19-64) and every drag expression: kings, queens, clowns, monarchs, etc. Our motto: No eliminations, only celebrations!
MM: What do you hope viewers take away from this series?
TES: I hope viewers experience for themselves that if you are willing to take the risks of vulnerability and of trusting yourself, the people you’re with and the muses, you will be rewarded. I hope people will think about what they might create from their own lives and what their unique expression of drag would look like.
MM: What has been the most fulfilling thing for you from making Drag Heals?
TES: The most fulfilling (and thrilling) thing for me is watching people of all ages, gender expressions and backgrounds come into the process, having no idea what their final show will be. Then, through courageous experimentation, trust, frustration, and allowing room for breakthroughs, we witness them create something truly them. It’s a beautiful gift for the audience and ultimately changes the performer forever.
MM: Do you have a favorite memory from working on Season 3?
TES: Many moments will stay with me from Season 3, but the one that popped into my head was when we were doing an exercise called “The Exaggerated Self.”
Cast member Rose Ingrid was on stage showing an exaggerated version of themself and how they are always doing so much for others. They reached a point in their improvisation where they became so honest and raw about how they were sick of being and doing everything for everyone else. They dropped the heavy sandbags they were holding and began a beautiful rant with the words, “I am not your hero.” It was riveting. The room went silent with awe and respect. I will never forget that moment. You can see it this season.
MM: Are there any drag artists who inspire you?
TES: I am incredibly inspired by every drag artist we’ve had on Drag Heals. Each of them had the courage to stand in front of the world and share their hearts, art and soul. That takes guts. I love Gottmik. He broke new ground by being the first openly trans male contestant on Drag Race and his looks are killer.
Landon Cider is an incredible drag king and one of the best makeup artists I have ever seen. I love Chelazon Leroux because she focuses on her Indigenous cultural identity and storytelling. Oh, and I adore Toronto’s own Cherri Burstyn, a gorgeous huge-hearted queen who is also a registered marriage officiant and performs weddings in drag.