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Pansy: Berlin’s queen of drag takes on the Theater des Westens

Ahead of her event series TingelTangel at Theater des Westens, drag icon Pansy talks visibility, community and activism.

Photo: Anthony Icuagu

To Pansy, drag is a matter of life and death. For more than a decade, she has reigned over Berlin’s drag community, curating and promoting not only some of the biggest and best drag events, but also the most creative and playful.

Now, she has been appointed a programme director for the new performance series TingelTangel at Charlottenburg’s prestigious Theater des Westens. We sat down with the renowned queen and performance artist to learn more about how she took drag on a journey from Berlin’s underground to one of the most famous theatres in the city.

How did you end up working with Theater des Westens?

I had kind of decided to take a break from producing my own events for a while. Since the pandemic everything’s changed – anyone in this sector will tell you that. I needed a break, or I was going to burn out really badly.

Photo: Daniel Paikov

And then my longtime friend and collaborator Stefan Lehmkuhl was contacted by the music recording company BMG to start this project and he reached out to me to work on it with him. It just dropped into my lap, and it was such an amazing opportunity. It’s the combination of everything that I’ve been working towards on my own for the last 10 years.

Drag is not just lip-syncing in high heels. It’s sculpture, it’s performance, it’s community-building and it’s family.

Take us back to the start. How did you get involved in event production and programming?

I moved to Berlin 11 years ago when I had just graduated from art school in San Francisco. I moved here to be an artist, but I quickly became very jaded and frustrated. Like many immigrants, I had to rely on the skills and the culture I brought with me to survive and make a living.

For me, that was drag. This was before RuPaul’s Drag Race was universally beloved or before drag artists would post makeup tutorials on YouTube; it was pre-drag Renaissance, so to speak. Drag then was still very underground, looked down upon and kept a secret.

When I moved to Berlin, I really just wanted a drag show where I could go and feel comfortable and safe. There was drag in Berlin for sure – and this is just from my own experience – but it didn’t feel like a community to me. The drag that I knew was about family and a network of people that take care of each other and create a safety net. So I started a show that very quickly got bigger than I anticipated.

Photo: Daniel Paikov

I’ve been able to travel all over Europe, Asia and Australia, doing shows and performing really wild stuff. It’s taken off in a really special way. I feel very fortunate that drag, which was such a gift to me, has been able to help create a community and has gone so far beyond myself. There are so many incredible performers doing different things in drag now, which is really exciting to watch and be a part of.

My motto as Pansy is: drag saves lives.

As an event curator, what do you find most challenging about your work? How do you overcome those obstacles?

Capitalism! Working within the confines of a structure that does not want to create joy and that praises profit over people is really frustrating. In an ideal situation we could just make this fun art, but sadly, that’s simply not the reality. Berlin is going through its angry teenager phase, or maybe it’s at the end of that phase, because it’s being forced to grow up.

Unfortunately, that also means things are becoming more expensive and less accessible because we live under a capitalist system. I find that really disheartening, but I do my best to find a balance between doing business and giving queer people as much money as I can for their art and their work.

Photo: Daniel Paikov

You’ve created some really fun events in Berlin, like Gay Skate, An Actual Drag Race, Pansy’s Pantry. How do you go about creating iconic events like these?

I never know what will work and what won’t. It’s like throwing a string of spaghetti against the wall and seeing if it will stick. The best ideas are the ones that when I think about them, I immediately start laughing and say, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of in my entire life.’ If it makes me laugh, I want to do it. Actual Drag Race just started with the idea of running down Warschauer Brücke in high heels. I just loved the idea of stopping traffic and having all of these white Germans who are so obsessed with things being quiet and orderly being confronted with this crazy thing and being like ‘What the fuck is this?’.

With Yo! Sissy [A queer international music festival that took place annually from 2015 to 2017], I went into that project incredibly naive about what it meant to produce something on that scale. And to be honest I’m almost glad, because otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. We lost a tonne of money, many brain cells and probably a portion of our sanity, but we created something so incredibly magical. The ultimate goal in all of this is simply creating a space of joy for many different people.

You’ve been promoting events in Berlin for more than a decade. Have you experienced any changes in the event landscape in this time?

Everything is way more expensive. And with it, everything becomes less accessible and more about an image than an experience. We’re also losing a lot of spaces, and there are less spaces in which we’re able to express ourselves.

There are the clubs that have been here forever and are still going strong: Berghain, Tresor, Renate, About Blank, SO36, KitKat – the core group. But the smaller ones that come and go aren’t being replaced with new things. We’re not able to welcome in the next generation of Berlin nightlife, simply because of the way the real estate market works in the city and the way that development is happening.

Photo: Felix Jenkins

When you started organising drag events, did you ever think your journey could take you to such a prestigious and historic venue like Theater des Westens?

I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have performed in many prestigious and historical spaces already, but I never expected drag to take me into the boardrooms of a company like BMG and have my ideas be met with acceptance and excitement. That’s really wild to me. It’s not just being tolerated or used as some kind of decoration. Theatre itself has always been a queer space, but Theater des Westens in particular has a really radical queer history.

We’ve named our project TingelTangel after a real cabaret show that was held there in the 1920s and 1930s, which included performers like Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich, and was very political and crass and campy. So our project feels like we’re supposed to be there. Every time I step into the space, I get a really warm and special feeling. Theater des Westens itself is insanely gorgeous and we’re really excited to be bringing fresh air into this 200-year old building.

Do you think your appointment at Theater des Westens says anything about the changing perceptions towards drag as an art form?

Berlin is going through its angry teenager phase

My motto as Pansy is: drag saves lives. I believe drag can take you anywhere and deserves to be anywhere. Drag is both high and lowbrow and deserves to be showcased in as many different contexts as possible: museums and galleries, nightclubs, the streets, in theatres and on the biggest stages of the world. Historically, it was shoved into the darkest corners of the seediest bars and the worst parts of town. There’s always been a violent cycle of backlash when subcultures become more visible, but personally, I am going to continue doing what I do. If they kill me, they kill me.

It’s really exciting to be part of this revolution, and in a way that’s not related to [Ru Paul’s] Drag Race, which opened the majority of the world up to drag but unfortunately also created a very limited view of what drag is. Like any culture, community or art form, drag has so many different sides. Drag is not just lip-syncing in high heels and a wig. It’s sculpture, it’s painting, it’s performance, it’s dance, it’s community-building and it’s family.

When it comes to curating the events for Theater des Westens, do you have a particular approach? Which factors are playing a part in your decision-making?

It’s like I get to pick a playlist of all of my favourite artists. Then of course there’s the reality of actually booking them. When you’re working on this scale, you’re dealing with schedules and money and agents and all kinds of stuff. There’s the dream and then the reality, but so far, the reality is matching up to the dream. We’re planning to have a few concerts over the summer, then a string of regular daily concerts all through fall and again in the spring. It’s going to be a really exciting next few months!

Pansy at SO36. Photo: Daniel Paikov.

As you mentioned earlier, you’re launching a performance series called TingelTangel. Could you tell us more?

The name harks back to Weimar-era theatre. I think a lot of people romanticise this time, totally ignoring the realities and social implications of what was happening. We don’t want to do that. We want to use this as a way of honouring the history of the theatre but also working towards a more progressive and inclusive future, including both radical established artists and up-and-coming luminaries. We want it to be a really beautiful representation of diversity in Berlin and what we stand for. All of us on the main team are queer people, so it’s about what we represent in terms of our identities, our politics and our beliefs.

Maybe this is a difficult question, but what does success look like to you?

It’s actually not a difficult question for me because I think about it all the time – just from a different standpoint. I get super anxious because I want my work to be perfect. So I often ask myself, what does failure look like? If I fuck up, what does that actually look like? Is that losing money? Is that embarrassing myself publicly? Is that getting cancelled?

Some of the projects that I’m most proud of were financial disasters and weren’t the best attended things in the world. None of that failure is actually ever real because it’s always a step towards something better. When I’m able to push through all of the noise of the internal and external voices and actually get something done – that is success. I’m not interested in world domination or becoming famous. I just want to create my little niche in the world in which I’m proud of the things that I do.