Centre stage in a small theatre in rural Nova Scotia, Jake Chisholm and Shaun McLean are bringing their drag show to a close. Flanked by fellow performers and draped in modest clergy robes, the cast belts their best Cyndi Lauper for a gleeful crowd. The triumphant melody of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” hangs in the theatre rafters just long enough for the audience to think the show might be over. But the end doesn’t come, as the performers rip off their robes to reveal a dazzle of glittering dresses, and charge into the crowd for a theatre-wide dance party. Everyone in the audience is on their feet.
This is Jake & Shaun’s Big Gay Affair, the thrilling, touring drag show the two Nova Scotians started in February 2016. The show has since warmed stages and hearts across the province, from New Glasgow to Truro, Wolfville, and beyond. The two-hour show weaves musical numbers between comedy sketches, dramatic skits and video clips. The duo tailor the show for each town, toying with east coast culture, Canadiana, and, of course, drag.
Chisholm and McLean are cultivating a space for confident and supported expression, a vital resource in rural Pictou County. While the show is an uplifting, educational experience, it’s also an open and safe space for queer people in Nova Scotia to explore their identities. “We’ve always wanted this space to feel very human,” Chisholm says.“We’re having little kids come that identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, so to have them come and be free, that’s their space to do what they want.”
For Chisholm and McLean, who both identify as gay, the show’s name is a declaration, an assertion of visibility and existence for the gay community in Pictou County. Liberals are in power in Nova Scotia, but Chisholm says it’s “more of a conservative province,” noting that the show has sparked controversy in rural communities. “They were quite concerned the gays were going to take over,” Chisholm quips. McLean adds that while Pictou County observes Pride, it’s “a board of directors and an organized thing.” Jake & Shaun’s Big Gay Affair is a more routine, accessible presence in the county. Chisholm notes that outside of Halifax, spaces for the LGBTQ+ community in the province are scarce. “Maybe when we go to these small communities, we become that safe gay bar for the evening,” he says.
Chisholm, 22, relocated to Pictou County from Hamilton, Ontario in 2013. But this is McLean’s home turf. Now 58, he’s lived here his whole life, coming out at 18. “I’ve been around a long time,” he says. Naturally, he noticed when Chisholm moved to town. He still remembers the first time he saw Chisholm at an antique store in New Glasgow: “I thought, ‘Oh my god, he’s so beautiful!'” McLean laughs.
Of all the catalysts that got Jake & Shaun’s Big Gay Affair off the ground, one is particularly Canadian. “I did drag for Halloween as Shania Twain, because she’s my ultimate idol,” Chisholm says. A centrepiece of the show sees Chisholm, in handmade Shania drag, slaying, “Man! I Feel Like A Woman." At the time, for him, it was still merely a costume. When he realized he wanted to do more with it, he turned to McLean, an established presence in the Pictou County arts scene. “I just sent him a message through Facebook saying, ‘I have this idea and I want to partner with you on it.’” McLean was game — he’d previously incorporated drag into his musical shows. Thus was born an explicit celebration of drag and the LGBTQ+ community in rural eastern Canada.
Last year’s attack at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub underscored the dire necessity for safe, representative spaces explicitly for LGBTQ+ people. Jake & Shaun’s Big Gay Affair is one of those spaces.
“For me, to get people talking about the topic, and to see it on the billboard, and on the posters, and all through social media, is really important,” says Chisholm. “It needed to happen.” And in that spirit, the show is more than just sequins and camp.
Their shows begin in a crucible of dazzling energy and pump-up music before a jolting halt, switching to a sobering video compilation of news clips dating back to the 1950s. “The older ones talk about that it’s wrong to be a homosexual and shock therapy, and the churches saying, ‘burn,’” Chisholm says. “We want to educate people. We have a lot of people that don’t realize the hardships that people have gone through up until now and what we’re still going through.”
“The next show, I’m going to get an opportunity to share a song I wrote in 1985 at the height of the AIDS epidemic,” adds McLean. “It’s a survivor’s song. I’m really grateful that I’m getting a chance to explain what the song means, and then perform it.”
Chisholm and McLean are also encouraging much-needed good cheer and solidarity, precious resources in Pictou County. McLean notes that the county’s industrial decline has taken its toll on the region’s spirits; a call centre closed in 2015, leaving 200 jobless, while a Michelin plant, which employed 500 people, shuttered the previous year. The downturn has left residents anxious for positivity, giving the show a decidedly utilitarian slant. “There’s all kinds of things to be worried about, so anything that elevates people and makes them forget for a little while is helpful,” he explains.
Above all, Jake & Shaun’s Big Gay Affair is a celebration of the nuances of identity and humanity, an exploration of the greys in between the black-and-white structures of traditionalist society. “We always communicate prior to the show: you come as what you want to be,” Chisholm declares earnestly. “The cast is always there to support them, and give them the motivation and confidence to feel empowered and to feel that they’re good enough, that they can be comfortable in their own skin.”
Jake & Shaun’s Big Gay Affair returns to Glasgow Square Theatre on June 24 for Pictou County Pride Week.
Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer living in Toronto.