Arts & Culture

Queer Performers Keep the Show Going in Charlotte

COVID-19 has been challenging for everyone, but those in the performing arts have been hit hard especially. Here's how a few, local queer artists remain strong.

For the first time since he was 14, Juwan Alston won’t spend the holidays with the “Nutcracker.”

The Charlotte Ballet canceled the annual tradition this year, making the classic Christmas show another casualty of the pandemic.

“The holidays are my favorite time of the year,” Alston, a first company artist with the Charlotte Ballet said. “For that to be canceled was sad because I know that’s a part of me that’s being taken away.”

Alston is just one queer performer in Charlotte whose livelihood was upended with the pandemic.

He’s not alone.

Photo courtesy of Juwan Alston - Photography by Todd Rosenberrg

The Human Rights Campaign, a national organization focusing on expanding rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities, released a study this year that found queer people are “more likely to work jobs in highly affected industries, often with more exposure and/or higher economic sensitivity to the COVID-19 crisis.”

The pandemic has forced the artistic communities to ask difficult questions and to adapt at extraordinary speeds. How does a stand-up comedian tell jokes without an audience? How does a choreographer teach dance over Zoom? How does an actor audition while under lockdown? And, moreover, how do artists survive without their financial lifeline and creative outlet?

It hasn’t been easy.

“For the first time in my life being in the performing arts, I had to file unemployment, which is mind-blowing,” said Tod A. Kubo, a Charlotte director and choreographer.

Kubo, who has choreographed shows like “Madagascar” at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and “Rock of Ages” at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, said his pre-pandemic life followed a similar rhythm. He would work on a show for about a month then move on to the next city or next theater for the next production.

No longer. Not for now, at least.

Now, Kubo, who’s also starting work as an adjunct dance instructor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is learning Spanish on Duolingo and taking the time to paint more, a creative outlet he typically didn’t have much time for.

Photo courtesy of Shaine Lane - Photography by Bobby Kerns Productions

Kubo’s advice to the artistic community was bold.

“Artists need to embrace the vigilance,” he said. “They need to start working virtually yesterday.”

While some artists like Alston and Kubo transitioned to teaching dance via Zoom – as different and difficult as it is to teach such a physical medium online – not every artform transfers as easily.

Comedy, for one, just isn’t the same according to comedian Shaine Laine. Virtual stand-up comedy doesn’t play well with video lags suffocating punch lines, muted microphones silencing laughter and a limited stage for less physical comedy.

“Sure, you can get 10 or so bucks for that, but that’s not going to pay the bills,” Laine said of the few virtual comedy gigs he’s attended. “Bless (the comedy clubs) for having them, but they can’t bring people into the bar to tip and buy drinks.”

Laine provided commentary to the Charlotte Pride Parade, which also went virtual this year because of the pandemic. That was great, he said. But those jobs don’t come every day.

So Laine, who sold his car before lockdown in preparation for his move to New York City to pursue a larger comedy career, returned to his day job at Starbucks in order to pay the bills.

It’s not all humdrum for the comedian, though. He used the downtime to learn to play piano and plans to expand his comedy repertoire to include the instrument in a “Weird Al Yankovic” parody style of comedy.

“It’s opened up a lot of aspects about myself that I didn’t know were there,” Laine said.

That sentiment – using artistic downtime to hone other skills – is something many queer artists in Charlotte seem to share.

Photo courtesy of Tod A. Kubo

Alston, the ballet dancer, switched from part-time to full-time student status at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He now has more time to devote to his studies in macroeconomics in pursuit of his finance degree.

While queer performers like Alston, Kubo and Laine know the stages will reopen eventually, they all noted there are things Charlotteans can do now to support artists. Follow independent performers or organizations on social media. Attend any livestream events and donate what you can. Volunteer your time.

After all, the show must go on.

Thinking about his first Christmas in a decade without the “Nutcracker,” Alston paused for a moment and then he offered a simple, powerful truth of performers everywhere.

“We pour so much into our art, so much into the organization, into the stage.”

The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority wants to clarify that we use the term "queer" as an inclusive, gender-neutral way to address non-heterosexual, non-cisgender identities. We wanted to use a word that includes all identities; not just lesbian, gay or bi-sexual. It is a word we use with respect and love.