A man walks into a bar and is greeted by two circus acts, two drag queens, two burlesque dancers and the devil…
It sounds like the start to a dad joke, but before coronavirus began closing down cities, this was becoming a common sight in Sheffield’s underground queer spaces.
Named after Discordia, the Roman goddess of chaotic creation, House of Discord is Sheffield’s freshest queer performing arts collective. In December last year, the group sold out their debut show at Bal Fashions, a cosy speakeasy that has since become their resident space. The group form part of a network of gender-bending performers spanning multiple arts collectives based in the city, including Spectre Burlesque, Steel City Sirens and Andro & Eve.
But don’t buy a ticket expecting a traditional burlesque show. There are no tightly-curled vintage down-dos or Vaudevillian comedy sketches here. Instead, in different ways these groups represent a rebellious counterculture blossoming in Sheffield, breaking the rules of drag and burlesque to voice their views on issues of sex, gender and body politics.
“When I moved to Sheffield, I thought I was going to find my space in the city, but I didn’t fit into any of the boxes – nor did I want to,” says Beth Lannigan, the 21-year-old trained acrobat and ‘boss gal’ behind Discord.
“I thought if I can’t join something, then I may as well create it.”
At the time of Discord’s formation, inner-city strip club Spearmint Rhino was also being threatened with closure after a 2019 Sheffield County Council report said dancers had “sexually touched” customers and each other, breaching the club’s code of conduct and 74 license conditions. After struggling to find their own place in the city, Beth sympathised with the protesting dancers who argued that taking away the club’s licence would deprive them of their livelihoods, as well as a safe space to work.
“If you take these spaces away from people, then it puts them in a dangerous position. What other options do they have?” says Beth.
Their vision for a gender-bending burlesque troupe, driven by the principles of vulgarity, queer sexuality and all-out chaos sought to problematise the idea of burlesque as an ‘acceptable’ art form when contrasted with commercial stripping or pole dancing, skills commonly dismissed and demonised on both sides of the feminist debate.
Burlesque has always used the seductive art of striptease to disturb the typical power dynamic between onlooker and subject, the observer and the observed. But for Beth, it was also a way to show an audience the absurd nuances of that power.
“[Stripping] is not the same as burlesque but everybody is in the same position. It’s not just about taking your clothes off on stage. It’s a giant ‘fuck you’; it’s, ‘I’m going to stand here, and I’m proud of myself, and I’m going to take a glove off, and you’re going to cheer uncontrollably.”
Discord’s debut show, Night of Discord, was a mess, which is exactly what Beth intended. “I lost my voice the next day because I was screaming ‘YAS BITCH!’ all night,” says Beth.
It was a showcase of all things camp and chaotic, featuring everything from a drag Mrs Claus, lip syncing with her tits out, to an acrobat who dazzled the audience with an electric hula hoop light show; a logistical feat, considering Bal Fashions is as an intimate venue with a capacity of only 150.
“We didn’t have a green room or a backstage. Everyone just ran on and off the stage, diving into the audience when we finished. Half-way through the show, the performers and everybody in the audience knew each other. Everyone was on the same side.”
One of Discord’s stand-out acts goes simply by the name Red. The person below the head-to-toe red body paint is 21-year-old drag artist and burlesque performer Maddy Tweedale and Red is her devilish alter-ego. Red identifies as a ‘bio queen’, which is the name commonly given to a biologically female performance artist who performs in female drag.
A seasoned act, Red has performed and hosted 14 shows and is one of the few artists to have been involved with Discord, Sirens and Spectre. But Maddy maintains that she feels little distinction between the drag and burlesque elements of her persona, suggesting that how she is viewed is dependent on the context of the performance.
“It’s weird because my burlesque and my drag is the same thing. It’s one big monster.
“I found that people tend to hire me more now for my drag persona and if I want to get my baps out, it’s a bonus.”
The spontaneity and brash wit of Maddy’s persona – elements of live performance rooted in a distinctly drag tradition – means she has earned a reputation as a talented host. “The thing is about Red is that she doesn’t like rehearsing,” says Maddy, “If you go to see a Red performance, she is making it up on the spot.
“I once hosted a birthday party for Spectre by complete coincidence. Their compare dropped out last minute and I happened to be in the bar, so I said I’d do it. Luckily, I was wearing matching underwear.”
Nevertheless, Red claims to have encountered drag queens who have dismissed her act altogether because she is a woman doing drag.
“I still don’t know what I’m doing. My wigs are horrendous, my make-up needs work.
“There are some rooms where my stuff is gritty and appreciated and people love it, and then there are some rooms were people go, ‘What the fuck is this antichrist bullshit?’
“But you still can’t tell me that the stuff I do isn’t drag.”