For more than a decade, Raymond Cleveland has broken out the fright wigs and fake blood to celebrate his favorite holiday, Halloween.
Cleveland's onstage persona, Coco Sho-Nell, has teamed with dozens of drag and variety performers over the years to develop Whores of Horror into a truly disturbing live show. In 2018, however, Cleveland is partnering with Red Tape Theatre to bring theatrical flare to a night of debauched Halloween variety acts.
"'Whores of Horror' started as a campy production; then I had the idea to take things dark. I wasn't seeing anything dark and twisted in Chicago," Cleveland explained.
From there, "Whores of Horror: Slasher" and "Whores of Horror: The Monster Inside"celebrating Jekyll & Hyde-style transformations, among otherswere born. This year, Cleveland and the Red Tape team will be pulling out all the stops to create a Haunted House in their performance space.
"I consider myself a theater queen, both as Coco and as Raymond, which is why I thought working with Casey [Chapman] & Red Tape was such a good pairing," Cleveland said. Coco Sho-Nell is equal parts brash character development and storytelling. No matter what drag show she headlines, Coco Sho-Nell is always thought provoking and unexpected, and if her wig, dress, or shoes are getting in the way of her story, she'll fling them off, and continue, unhindered.
"I love when I can see performers connecting with their pieces. it's one thing to lip-sync, but are you connecting on another level?" Cleveland asked. "Have the gall to do something new and trying something different. You should always be competing with yourself, not with others."
In pairing with Red Tape, both Cleveland and Red Tape Theatre marketing director Casey Chapman are hoping to recapture a Chicago drag renaissance that died out in the early 2000s. Local luminaries such as Miss Ruff N' Stuff and Lucy Foozie would host boundary-pushing variety shows that didn't always fit the mold.
"We need people who can create their own identity," Cleveland explained. "When I started off, I got to develop my persona, I didn't have to aim for a type, or look polished. You don't have to stick to certain standards, you you don't have to be the fishiest one, just be who you are." With that, the performer roster for Whores of Horror is full of queer, trans and other gender non-conforming performers, such as C'est Kevvie, Vivian Dejour, Jean Wildest, Luc Ami, Alexis Hex, Anita Jon, Sultry Susan, Helena Handbasket and Duke LeSling.
Windy City Times asked Chapman just how Whores of Horror fit in with the Red Tape Theatre, alongside shows, like The Shipment and the theater's upcoming production of In the Blood. One benefit Chapman mentioned was that this and Coco Sho-Nell's initial drag production, Coco's Carnivale, have provided is bringing a much needed queer focus to Red Tape.
Chapman joined the staff as a marketing director two years ago, for the company's 14th season, artistic director Max Truax changed Red Tape's mission to join the free theater movement; no ticket price is charged for admission to any show.
"You can't put a price on a piece of art," Chapman said. "Everyone should have access. Many believe that theater is for rich, white, older audiences, so it became our company goal to invite everyone. The one thing our audiences have in common is they all pay zero dollars."
Another benefit to staging these productions in a free theater playhouse is that it opens up drag to enthusiasts who are under 21, Cleveland added. "The thing about working in bars all the time, is you lose some freedom to do what you want," Cleveland said. "I wanted to reach an audience that didn't necessarily have to be 21 to get in the door."
"We're bringing a dark tale, with a variety of different artistic perspectives to life," said Cleveland.
"For free!" added Chapman.
No matter who you are, so long as you can handle a little squeamishness, Raymond Cleveland and Red Tape invite you to have a good time, experience something you've never seen before, celebrate your differences, and maybe get a little bloody.
Red Tape Theatre's Coco Sho-Nell Presents: Whores of Horror runs Saturday, Oct. 27, for one night only at The Ready Performance Space, 4546 N. Western Ave. To reserve tickets and for more information, visit RedTapeTheatre.org .