Drag Lab is the studio of Manchester’s most famous collective of Drag Queens, Family Gorgeous who you may have seen on the Channel 4 show Drag SOS, Lorraine Kelly, Attitude Magazine and all over Manchester. The collective is made of Cheddar Gorgeous, Liquorice Black, Lill, Miss Blair and Anna Phylactic and they all met at a club night with a love for dance and drag.
Read, listen or watch my chat with Cheddar Gorgeous about everything Drag Lab.
They have had their home at Islington Mill for 5 years now and throughout that time have given workshops and accessibility to the people of Manchester into the world of drag. Michael Atkins AKA Cheddar Gorgeous put it best, “The mill is a funny place because it has a life, I have a relationship with the mill, it has a person like quality to it. When you are here by yourself you never feel alone, just through the feeling of activity, whether that be a spiritual trace or whether it’s merely the ability to see the traces of human activity that have occurred here over the years.”
We talked to Michael about their story, their work and what part Drag Lab has to play in the fabric of Islington Mill. Let us start at the beginning of our conversation where I really wanted to learn more about their community and the hardships of the last year.
Over the last year what does your community really need now?
“Recognition for the need of stability and the need for consistent financial support for people who are pushed to the edge. Ironically, if you look at the role of art in our society, despite the fact that entertainment can be really wonderful, what has heightened is the awareness of how vulnerable we really are and how the ways we are expected to work, like having more than one job, are not going to be catered for in a time of crisis. So those people who are encouraged to work on the fringes and the gig economy are hugely pushed and end up being easy to shift under the carpet.
So in my community where a lot of their art is part time and need other jobs to pay rent find themselves with very little or no support. Even I wasn’t eligible to any support because in the past I had two jobs, those fringes that can be supported need to be, rather than favouring the mainstream. You really can cater for both.”
Has your work with bigger projects like Drag SOS affected your work output or even how you view your work?
“No, because until you become a property in that world you are still part of it. I got paid very little for the work I did on TV and still earn very little money for what I do, I think a lot of artists may give an illusion of somehow earning a lot of money but the truth is that they do not. We all operate with this illusion that someone is better off than us, for some it is true of course, they are stable and secure. I work within the culture sector and it's clear that structure is priority over the arts, so you have an expectation of projects being artist led and what that ultimately means is that artists can be paid less. This is endemic within the arts and culture sector, that’s our biggest challenge, there is a true inequity. Both dimensions of this are incredibly important but only one is really recognised.”
Over the years Cheddar Gorgeous has done so much work within the culture sector of Manchester within the arts, charities and further on. One of our favourites was the work done with Manchester Art Gallery looking at the Mary Greg Collection and talking about the future of Platt Hall amongst work with Contact Theatre, Homoelectric, Salford University and a variety of club nights. But has any of that work really impacted with work of Michael and Cheddar?
“I like to think it works the other way around really, but maybe that’s my own deluded view of my own impact on the world, I’m changing it, it’s not changing me!
What I love about that work is the unexpected nature of it. People expect to see drag in a very specific place and what I like to do is things that people don’t expect. I think that has taught me a lot about what is at the core of drag, it’s very easy for me to reduce what I do on stage when actually there is far more going on. The kind of performance work I do is more about the relationships I build with people and that’s not all about the relationships on stage and the other things you do when you are a spectacle.”
Today what I really want to talk about Drag Lab and how Family Gorgeous then became Drag Lab, what’s the story, how did it transform?
“It’s funny because people have latched onto Drag Lab as a brand, but in some respects it’s just what we call our studio. It is a group space that we occupy with our wardrobe and everything, but we have lots of other people from the community come in, Blair will come in and work on wigs and we all do stuff. Basically it is a shared space where we can all make things happen and I think so much of drag is about your community, it’s not about being famous for most of us, it’s about getting things together for a big club night or a group gig and just about having a shared space that allows that work to extend into the production.
We also occasionally do workshops and things like that about the power of drag, but really it’s what we call where we do our work. It’s hard to think of us as more than that, we aren’t a school and we don’t have continuous classes but we are a place for people to meet up in Manchester and I think that what the best kind of hubs do, right? It’s about having a place where people can bump into each other and really commune.”
How long have you or you the collective been at Islington Mill?
“Well we have had a space for about 5 years now. As part of the launch pad project we were asked to take over a space and see what we could turn it into and make it develop. We went through lots of different phases but really we have now fallen into the pattern of our shared studio space. I can’t believe we’ve been here that long!”
The mill has always been a space for creation and collaboration, at the end of last year a group including Family Gorgeous got together to create Calendar Queers, a calendar celebrating the most amazing queer artists in Manchester. So what else has happened in the mill?
“The mill is a funny place because it has a life, I have a relationship with the mill, it has a person like quality to it. When you are here by yourself you never feel alone, just through the feeling of activity, whether that be a spiritual trace or whether it’s merely the ability to see the traces of human activity that have occurred here over the years.
My relationship with the mill has changed and the mill itself has changed. A few years back a lot of the people who lived here left because of fire regulations and that really changed the mill. With the B’n’B where it is and the fact we have permanent residents in there is reinvigorating the feeling that the mill is alive and the idea that there is always someone here or at least a presence. What’s nice about returning to that shared space is that it is where unexpected connections occur and when things like the calendar just happen, know what I mean?
Those unexpected meetings are really how connections are formed and that’s where the best creative activity comes from, really that’s how our drag family formed. There really are so many parallels between the way that groups of artists form in spaces like this, there’s a randomness to it that makes it powerful.
As for projects coming up we don’t really know right now, the mill is in a state of hibernation at the moment and so are we. With a lot of artists not going in to the studios at much and restrictions, the mill is waking up. However there is loads of stuff happening around us with the renovations and the opening up of lots of new spaces and residencies, which is going to open up our world and what we can do with drag, but also draw a whole new group of people who don’t know that the mill exists, which is really exciting.”
I personally think that some of your looks are incredible, unicorns, aliens, trees, but then some fantastically made fashion staples too, like your blue and red gingham suit, but what are some of your favourite looks?
“Liquorice just looked at me and said ‘everything I’ve made!’, which is true. But I have to say what I enjoy the most is having a fantastic look, I really loved my Queen Elizabeth look, I love being big and extravagant. However the thing I love most about wearing a big outfit is taking it off, so what I love the most is being naked and being as naked as possible and getting away with it whilst still being in drag. It’s a thrill for me to remove as much as possible and still be seen as in drag, I may just have a pouch or just be wearing jewellery and I really enjoy that because it’s a subversion of our expectation of the art form. So yeah, I like the idea of being able to get rid of everything and still get away with it!
Moving forward how can drag be more influential in politics?
“I mean it’s doing it isn’t it! The real risk we have is falling into the trap of the mainstream system and losing your edge, if you look now there is a real trend for drag queens to be used in branding and advertising, which is great that queens can earn that way, but to be solely managed by that system which oppressed drag for so long is dangerous and you would probably need to challenge it. It’s all about finding a balance to survive in a system whilst also challenging the system at the same time and that’s going to be a hard line for drag to walk particularly when being co opted as a beauty standard and I think that’s a real risk. So that is one thing we have to be mindful of in our community which we might not be as much as we should.
The joy of drag is because of its diversity, you have the stuff out there that sells and is mainstream and there is the stuff underneath. We have to get out of that mindset that any of that is new. When Lily Savage was on the telly - and I love Lily - she was the mainstream drag that conformed to people's ideas of it and whist that was happening you had Leigh Bowery out there too. We have to bear in mind that there is a diversity and an under current to what people want to look at on the surface and then what’s really going on underneath in a community. That is what underground art is really about.”
What can we now expect from Drag Lab with the possibility of life coming back to normal?
“Recovery and getting involved. I feel at the moment exhausted and I think we are all exhausted, even though we haven’t been doing anything. So really I don’t know, but I have a hope that the doors open and we can commune again and start building relationships again through our art. I think it’s going to be wild, it will be frantic and frenzied and we will pull out all the stops!”
As we always do, we ask for 3 recommendations for people we should know!
“What do we like to eat Liquorice? Ooh I tried Donner Summer for the first time the other day, it’s vegan fried chicken!
Out of drag who shall we put forward, is Juno Birch too famous? Everyone knows Juno. I think Yoghurt, they are a possibly just our friends rather than them having a presence in the city. So, there are Recycle and Gurt who form a duo called Yoghurt and there are amazing, some of the most brilliant cabaret out there at the moment at places like Freight Island.”
Now we tried to find anything on both these queens but I can’t anywhere, so I apologise if I have misspelt anything!!
“You know who else, Creatures of Catharsis, Bo Graces thing, that’s a fabulous burst of queer energy. I think you can still find their halloween show.
And a place, I just really love the river. You can come to Manchester and not even know about it. There is a stretch between Castlefield and Media City that is the eeriest place, go and spend some time round there.”
If you don’t know about all members of Drag Lab then make sure to go out and learn about them all. Contact Theatre are doing great work with queer artists at the moment that Cheddar is involved with, so give them all your support.
We hope to hear lots more from all of them very soon!