Much of that growth, though, can be attributed to event producer Troy Caplan.
Caplan, otherwise known as androgynous drag king TroyBoy Parks, has been producing shows in Guelph and the surrounding area for the last 10 years with TroyBoy Entertainment.
“Without Troy Parks, we wouldn’t have half the drag in Ontario that we do now,” said Sapphyre Poison, who has been performing drag in Guelph since 2015 with TroyBoy Entertainment.
“He was the only person who really thought there was potential in travelling to small cities outside of Toronto. He’s worked really hard to make the scene in Guelph flourish the way that it has, and it’s a pretty remarkable feat for one person.”
Growing up in Guelph, Caplan said the queer scene wasn’t exactly “thriving,” and his first connection with drag was in Kitchener, sneaking into Club Renaissance, the city’s only LGBTQ nightclub at the time, and a regular venue for drag performances. He wound up volunteering to help out with the shows backstage.
Though unpaid, he looked at it as a bargain, because he’d get to be at the show. The drag queens often weren’t paid either, or were paid a minuscule amount, because the budget for the shows was non-existent.
“That’s why we would walk up and give them our money,” he said, referring to the tip culture that exists within drag performances: If you come, it’s common courtesy to tip throughout the performance.
Moving back to Guelph at 25 after some time away, he was approached by some people to run a monthly drag show.
“At the time, I had just finished college, I was going to be a big successful businessman,” he laughed. But, he thought it wouldn’t hurt to run some drag shows in his spare time.
“Literally my very first show, we had seven people in the audience,” he said.
In fact, during the first two years of running TroyBoy Entertainment, he had spent $7,000 on shows, all in the name of bringing drag to Guelph and keeping drag queens fairly employed.
The lack of pay was something Poison experienced when she first started out in Hamilton in 2014.
“Before I started working for Troy, I was getting paid like, $5 to $10 a show,” she said.
“He changed the way queens represent themselves too, because he was the one who was paying people decent wages for the first time, outside of the Church Street strip,” Poison said, referencing the street in Toronto known for its LGBTQ+-centric community. “That completely changed how drag functions in Ontario.”
Before the pandemic, Caplan was bringing in 450 people to the Guelph Concert Theatre. Though the shows are a bit more intimate these days, his entertainment company is still thriving, in 34 communities across the province.
During the pandemic, the drag scene in Guelph started to change. Two more production companies popped up: Doll Haus Events and Crystal Quartz Events.
Both produce shows regularly in Guelph and surrounding areas. This might seem like stiff competition, but all three agreed: there is room enough for all of them.
“For the longest time, it was just our team,” Poison said. “Since just before the pandemic, other people started doing shows. It’s really cool to see it grow; we have a lot more acceptance.”
Doll Haus Events was started by John Galbraith in 2020, although they didn’t start operating regularly until August of 2021.
“My husband is a drag performer, and I wanted to create more opportunities for him and other artists,” he said. For instance, he said they do a bi-monthly event “where new artists can come out and get an opportunity to perform.”
They typically have between six to eight shows each month in Guelph and surrounding areas, though they focus on Guelph, and have worked with more than 40 drag artists since launching.
“We do our best to bring in artists from Canada’s Drag Race, or Call Me Mother,” he said. “But our shows are always at least 50 per cent local openers.”
Galbraith said they prioritize creating safe spaces for both the audience and performers.
“More often than not, what I hear is that (the audience feels) like they’re a part of the Doll Haus family, and they feel safe at our shows. And that’s such an important thing in queer spaces, to feel safe,” he said.
Crystal Quartz said the same.
“People are able to feel like they can be themselves when there are drag queens around. They’re up there so vulnerable and being their true selves, that it gives people the opportunity to feel like they can be themselves. It’s empowering.”
Quartz started her event company around the same time, after losing her job doing hair and makeup due to the pandemic.
Veteran Guelph drag queen and now TikTok influencer, Quartz has been performing drag since she was 18, often at Club Renaissance.
In Guelph she would perform at places like The Wooly, Holiday Inn, Atmosphere, the late Van Gogh’s Ear.
“Those were kind of the starting points back then, and then Troy started doing shows at eBar, and that’s when everything kind of blew up,” she said.
“Between me and Troy, we just opened up the doors for a lot of people to feel accepted and wanted. Now people are so used to drag being something down here – a few of the places I’ve been to, it’s their first drag show in other cities. But now it’s almost expected to see a drag show here every weekend.”
Now Crystal Quartz Events is in 20 venues around Ontario, with a consistently packed audience and around five shows each week. Though she started by bringing other drag queens to perform at her shows, now she’s focusing on a one-woman-show so she can travel more easily.
Among the ways the scene has transformed since she started, she said acceptance is more common these days, and that she’s comfortable going into McDonald’s at 9 a.m. in full drag.
But it wasn’t always safe to do that.
In the 70s and 80s, Caplan said drag queens would sew razor blades under their hair pieces, because attacks were common, and the attackers would often go for the hair first.
“It used to be unsafe to walk downtown by yourself if you were in drag. But everything’s so much more accepting now,” Poison said.
Although, Caplan added that it can be difficult to find “safe, all-inclusive” queer spots, which is part of the reason he utilizes spaces you wouldn’t typically expect to see drag performances, like Shoeless Joe’s, because they’re corporate, and have detailed procedures in place. In other words, they’re safe.
Quartz, who does drag brunch at Kelsey’s, said she also likes using spaces like this to promote inclusivity outside of queer spaces.
“I don’t want people to only be able to see drag shows in a gay bar,” she said.
Galbraith added he hopes that’s where things are headed, too. He said hopefully, over time, more venues will become open to drag ”because it brings in a lot of people, a lot of business.”
“I’m sure it’s gonna get much more recognized too, for what’s going on here.”