When the Michigan State University Department of Theatre’s productions for the Fall 2020 semester were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a call went out to all faculty and students for ideas focused on themes of diversity, equity, and inclusion. First-year MFA Design Candidate Zech Saenz, who specializes in costume design, pitched a project addressing the pandemic through the lens of drag queens and comedy. The result is a three-episode web series, called Grads in Drag, which is now available for streaming on-demand.
“I wanted to create something lighthearted and comedic in response to all of the hell that was 2020, and I thought wrapping it in a bubble of drag was the perfect way to invoke inclusion and diversity,” Saenz said. “I had so much fun doing this project. I was very adamant that I didn’t want to be bogged down in an assignment I didn’t care about and I am so appreciative that the Department of Theatre faculty and staff were receptive to the idea of me doing a drag project. The help and support I received from the costume shop and media labs made it all possible.”
I wanted to create something lighthearted and comedic in response to all of the hell that was 2020, and I thought wrapping it in a bubble of drag was the perfect way to invoke inclusion and diversity.
The original concept called for a collaboration with many participants and locations, but safety restrictions led Saenz to scale back and take a different approach, filming episodes only in his apartment and in the empty Auditorium building on campus late at night. Before filming could start, however, Saenz needed a character and some costumes. With some thought and time spent in the Department of Theatre’s fabric storage, the character, Dinah Plate, was born.
“This is not my first experience with drag, but Dinah Plate is new,” Saenz said. “As a designer, I gravitate to the silhouettes of the 1950s dresses, so I sketched a lot of those. Then, I was digging through the department’s fabric storage and found the checkered fabric, which reminded me of a 50’s diner. Diner became ‘Dinah’ and the last name “Plate” is both a play on ‘dinner plate’ and a reference to the pandemic, politics, and how we all have a lot on our metaphoric plates right now.”
With the costumes starting to take shape, Saenz started to work on the character and topics for each episode.
“I wanted to find subject matters that were relatable. Something easy that people can reflect on and take away from watching, but also be entertained,” Saenz said. “Baking was trending in the early days of the pandemic. So, I thought Dinah might do a recipe demonstration and that’s where the banana bread episode came from.”
While baking, Dinah uses dry humor to make witty asides about current events because, says Saenz, “We have to make fun of it. If we just let it all sink in, it gets depressing. It gets depressing so fast.”
I wanted to find subject matters that were relatable. Something easy that people can reflect on and take away from watching, but also be entertained.
Unlike most roles in theatre, drag queen personas are often an extension of who the actor is as a person, says Saenz. “Dinah is me, but me in drag as a campy queen with a vintage flair. She’s also very motherly, someone who tells it like it is, but also someone the audience can trust.”
Combined with the next two episodes, the series takes on the feel of a variety hour. The second episode is an interview with local printmaker Lillian Young about her Can U See Her Project. Saenz wanted to use the platform of Grads in Drag to amplify Young’s original prints that depict Black Women Civil Rights Leaders who have been ignored by mainstream media. The third episode is a comedic sketch filmed in the Auditorium building where Saenz introduces another original drag persona, “Miss Rona,” whose ballgown of masks was patterned and built entirely by himself.
Though the project was smaller than originally envisioned, in the spirit of live theatre, it remained a collaborative effort. Saenz had help behind the camera from his roommate and fellow graduate student, Kasee Arnett, and student video editor Nala Davis. MFA Design student Mona Jahani and costume shop supervisor Angela Wendelberger helped build Dinah’s dress. Each episode also includes an opening sequence created by theatre media student Qiqi Zhou, but the music underscoring it all was created by Saenz himself using the skills he learned the prior semester in a sound design course.
When asked whether he would continue the project beyond this semester, Saenz said, “I’ve been asked that a lot and I’m going to say yes. I would love to debut some Drag Kings and create a drag ensemble. There will always be more recipes to be shared and other artists or people making an impact in our community whose work I can amplify.”
All three episodes of Grads in Drag can be viewed by visiting the Grads in Drag web page on the Department of Theatre website.