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Performer ‘plays with expression,’ flourishes on TV documentary stage

“Telling a story in drag is very different from telling a story out of drag,” says Callan Forrester, who stars as one of five artists featured in season four of the award-winning hybrid stage workshop/documentary series, Drag Heals.

As an actor and producer working in Toronto’s musical theatre scene, Forrester was already quite comfortable on the stage, but drag is relatively new to their performance repertoire. With just over a year of dabbling in drag as Ana Spiral (a self-confessed anxiety queen), Forrester was thrilled to join the cast of the acclaimed series.

“Over the four seasons, they have had people who have been doing drag for decades, and they have had people who have never done drag once in their lives,” says Forrester, who first auditioned for the show in May 2023. “I submitted a tape the day after I had been broken up with, my car was broken into, and my identity was stolen. It was one of the worst weeks of my life.” When the casting call came a few months later, the performer admits it was a huge surprise.

The program follows each artist as they work through a series of intensive workshops to craft a one-person stage show from deeply personal stories and transformative moments. In doing so, the drag artists work and interact with host Tracey Erin Smith as well as several guest coaches, including dancers/choreographers, other drag artists, costume designers, and writers. There are no eliminations; “The goal is to celebrate queer art and to give a platform to queer artists,” says Forrester.

The fourth season culminates in a showcase performance at the Paradise Theatre in Toronto, where the cast shared their one-person shows with a live audience.

For their performance, Forrester uses a lifelong comparison to Jo March, the boldly outspoken dreamer of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, as a lens through which to tell their story. “I focus on a lot of different things, but I also talk a lot about grief, and how grief shifts your perspective.”

In a press release issued by series producer Border2Border Entertainment, director Charlie David refers to the cast of drag artists as being “fearless in their honesty and vulnerability,” which he says makes every episode captivating. He suggests viewers can expect “inspiring resilience, and a celebration of self-discovery unlike anything we’ve showcased before.”

 

Drag artist and Gleaner journalist Callan Forrester performs as Ana Spiral during the taping of an episode for the documentary series Drag Heals PHOTO Lauren Beatty

 

Forrester says there are several aspects about the series that make it unique. “It has become a really cool space where you have drag queens, drag kings, drag things, and monarchs, clowns, and all sorts of drag creatures!” they exclaim. “I think often when people think of drag, they only think of queens, or men dressing as women; whereas I was raised as a girl, but I do hyper-femme drag. That causes people to raise eyebrows, sometimes,” they admit. “For me, it is a place to play with gender, and play with expression.”

The reality series is also one of very few that offers participants final approval in the editing room. Forrester says some programs in this genre exist in a moral or ethical grey zone where people have no creative say over how they are being portrayed. “It felt like an environment where we could take risks and be honest and open and vulnerable in a lot of ways, because we knew that at the end of the day, we got to say what went and what didn’t.”

The series has been nominated for two Canadian Screen Awards including Best Lifestyle Program or Series. Forrester notes their participation has been cheered by family and friends, but also by complete strangers who have reached out.

As a burgeoning drag artist, Forrester says they hope to move into the cabaret drag scene and plans to transform the 15-minute solo performance created during the series into a one-hour routine.

As for the potential for a documentary like Drag Heals to dispel some of the beliefs that are often unfairly projected onto drag artists, Forrester says the show is open to everyone. Whether you are part of the queer community, whether you are a fierce ally, or just curious, “Drag can be for you.”

The series is currently being streamed around the world and can be viewed on Apple TV and Amazon Prime platforms.

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