‘cos that’s what drag should do!
Wren Dennehy (they/them) is a creative producer and queer performer from Co Kildare. We first met while we were both working on a show in Dublin last year. At the time, I had no idea that Wren is also Avoca Reaction - queer drag performer extraordinaire.
A few months after initially meeting, Wren got in touch to see if I would come and take part in the second ever instalment of their new ‘Queer Cabaret’ - it was to be themed as ‘Activism’. They knew about the work I’d been doing for LGBT+ parental rights and kindly asked me to come perform and speak about it.
So I went along to Drop Dead Twice, where I met Avoca in all their glory. I was taken aback by their energy, charisma and the sheer hustling that I witnessed. They ran around backstage making sure that all the performers were okay, giving last minute directions, figuring out the running order, sound issues, and then, without missing a beat, they hopped up on stage, not only to MC the night but give a kick-ass performance of one of my favourite musical theatre numbers, ‘Life Of The Party’. No lip syncing in sight. I was genuinely blown away.
Recently, I sat down with Wren to get to the heart of their queer cabaret.
What was your inspiration for the queer cabaret?
When I had my drag debut back in March 2018, my immediate goal was to try and get a slot in one of the mainstream venues. But I felt the audiences in some venues weren’t getting what I was going for. I try to make my drag as androgynous as possible- I identify as non-binary and feel that representation for genderqueer people is really important. I think to a mainstream audience, I look as if I’m not doing ‘proper’ drag, but actually there’s no right or wrong way to do it. My drag isn’t typical or traditional maybe, but it’s still valid.
I was really lucky to be asked by a fellow drag artist (and now a great friend), Enda Danite, to perform at a fundraiser for Bi+ Ireland - which is an amazing online and social resource for anyone who identifies as queer. I was introduced to the burlesque and cabaret scene. I felt so welcome and valid that night, I knew I’d found my tribe as a performer.
Meeting this group of people really opened my eyes to the rich and vibrant scene that exists in Dublin for alternative performers, queer or otherwise.
I wanted to build on the existing alternative queer scene. I was a big fan of GlitterHole, Spicebag and Undercurrent and wanted to add myself to the lineup. Even though each of our shows are quite different in tone and style, the underlying atmosphere of acceptance and queer pride is the thread that ties us all together. I’ve been blown away by how supportive the scene is, there’s no sense of competition- only camaraderie.
From the get go, I wanted the cabaret to be intersectional. I was aware of how male dominated the drag scene is. As someone who is non-binary and is doing non-binary drag, I am very conscious of that. I wanted to be sure that it was entirely diverse- in terms of gender identity, sexuality, race, social class, age. As such, the cabaret is open to everyone. There’s always a big mix of disciplines and performance styles as well with drag, burlesque, spoken word, stand up, live music.
One of the main goals I have for the cabaret, aside from entertaining, is building another queer space in the community- somewhere safe to meet and mix with other queer people or allies. I think it’s really disappointing that we still have so few queer spaces in Dublin, especially spaces that are pushing for inclusion and community and aren’t catering for specific and separate parts of the community. I want to transform the space in Drop Dead Twice into a queer hub every time I host a night there. I’d like to think it’s a palate cleanser from some of the nondescript, gay male centric spaces that already exist in the city.
What sort of audience comes to the cabaret? Who is it for?
It’s mostly a queer audience but I’m really happy that there’s always a strong contingent of allies or cis-het people in the crowd as well. That’s so important to me, we’re still oppressed and underestimated as queer people and we need straight allies to help us move forward and bring our narrative into the mainstream.
There was a lot of talk online around Pride about straight people not being ‘allowed’ to be a part of it- although I understand where those ideas come from and I can agree to an extent that we need to be protective of our culture and our community, but personally I’m coming from a place where if you’re gonna be inclusive, that has to be all-inclusive. If you’re opening up the doors for some people, you have to open them for everybody. If we start to exclude our allies, we risk moving backwards.
I love what you have said in the past about the community needing to heal from our trauma. Could you elaborate?
In a way, creating the cabaret has been my contribution to healing our community. Sort of my ‘Queer Charity’ if you will. Yes, on the surface it’s a fun night of entertainment and having a laugh, but at root, it’s a way of recovering from our collective trauma. There’s a catharsis for the performers and in a way, they get to have a sort of exorcism of their demons on stage. The audience are an equally important part of that. When we all have a shared experience and are enjoying artists of all shapes, sizes, sexes and backgrounds... well, when that happens, without us realising it, the walls we have built up around ourselves can come down.
What piece of advice would you give to the young queer performer who is trying to find their voice?
Look for and find your tribe. I’m realising more and more the importance of connection and community for artists, particularly queer artists. Since RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought drag into the mainstream, drag has exploded and in some ways it’s easier to do drag now than ever before. However that’s made drag much more of an isolated, insular process where you go away on your own and buy all your materials and learn how to use them online. Before the advent of Drag Race, drag families were how you learned how to do drag. You had to be inducted into the drag world by someone more senior than you who then brought you up and taught you the tricks of the trade. Back then, community was much more important and I think it’s really important to try and move back towards that.
Everyone has to start somewhere. I know my drag definitely isn’t perfect but I also know it’s developing and I’m enjoying that process. I’ve always loved collaborating with other artists and I have innumerable amounts of people I could thank for helping me develop as a performer. I would advise people not to go solo but to try and find a chosen family.
What does the future hold for Avoca?
I’m really excited about what’s next for the cabaret. Since it started, I’ve been producing, curating and hosting the show myself. I enjoyed having a self-contained show in the beginning but I really want the show to grow both in terms of scale and outreach. I’m teaming up with Coco Chanel No 5 (Conor Browne) going forward.
Conor and I have been friends for a few years now and I’ve always been in awe of his presence as a performer and as a person. Coco was one of the first drag performers I really bonded with and we are now drag siblings. She’s the best sister a queer could ask for.
Our drag is very different but our performance styles definitely overlap. We recently hosted a show together for Pride and had an absolute ball! We’re a dynamic duo and we have big plans for the future of the show. We’re relaunching the cabaret in September as ‘Coco and Avoca’s Queer Cabaret’ and our first night as a duo will be September 21 at Drop Dead Twice.