Q&A with Stars of Holiday Drag Musical ‘Claws Out’ at City Theatre

Photo courtesy of City Theatre
Photo Courtesy of City Theatre

For the holidays, City Theatre had to pivot on it’s heel from a live stage production to a pre-recorded show broadcast online. Fortunately, when it came to Claws Out they had plenty of heels to choose from, including stilettos and sensible pumps.

A holiday drag musical, Claws Out tells the story of two divas battling for the heart of Nick, the elves, and even the reindeer.

After attempting to give the north a new look, Mrs. Rachel Claus (Shua Potter) finds herself face-to-face with a contract clause allowing her to be replaced by newcomer Roberta (Monteze Freeland). With her crown in jeopardy, the stage is set for an epic showdown — and the North Pole has never been so icy. From the team that brought you SANTA’S TED TALK last year comes a world premiere holiday drag musical adapted and filmed for the digital screen. 

Buy your ticket and watch anytime from the comfort of your home or join the cast & crew for virtual live events on
Saturdays December  12 and 19 at 7:30pm and Tuesday December 8 (Pay-What-You-W

Monteze Freeland (top) and Shua Potter (bottom)

ant), where co-creators and performers, Monteze Freeland and Shua Potter, will host holiday events including crafts, games, and holiday treats (personally delivered to your home by the elves of City Theatre) before the digital stream of Claws Out: A Holiday Drag Musical.

Name: Shua Potter
Pronouns: he/him
Role in this Production: Mrs. Rachel Claus

Name: Monteze Freeland
Pronouns: He/ Him/ His
Role in this Production: Co-writer. Co-director, Producer & Roberta

How do you describe your identity?
Shua: I identify as an artist who’s purpose is to create laughter and joy.
Monteze: I am a Black queer man. I enjoy copious amounts of alone time. I’m an introverted extrovert. I’m an arts activist.

Claws Out is described as a full-length drag musical. Tell us more about the conception of this project.
Shua: Last year Monteze and I wrote a one act musical play called “Santa’s Ted Talk,” starring me as a young, beautiful, Jewish Mrs. Claus named Rachel. We had so much fun creating that piece and that character, we decided to write a full-length play. I got Doug Levine involved to write a little music, and he convinced us to turn it into a full-scale musical, and here we are!
Monteze: This project was born out of creating a stage vehicle for Rachel Claus following last year’s cabaret “Santa’s Ted Talk”. Marc Masterson, Artistic Director of City Theatre, suggested we give Rachel a foil, someone to play with and off of. Originally it was going to be a piano player but I ditched the idea of a one person show as I was inspired by clips of Diahaan Carroll and Joan Collins in Dynasty. From there I thought, “What would happen if a new Mrs. Claus arrived ready to fight for the title?” And that’s how Claws Out was born… I think. It’s been a long year but I believe that’s how it happened.

Are you both drag artists outside of this production?
Shua: I have been for eight years!  I go by the name Schwa de Vivre. Check me out at thatdragqueen.com
Monteze: Not at all. I used to perform for my friends at my home in college. And the occasional appearance of Wendy Williams or Patti LaBelle on Halloween. But I’ve never performed in drag in a club or such. I’m just an actor playing a role. But if I did drag I’d probably approach it the same way. What do I want? What’s in my way? And how do I get it? And I’ll throw in a high kick or two. I applaud all who take this route to entertain because it ain’t easy and it can be painful at times too.

Tell us about your characters, Rachel and Roberta.
Shua: Rachel is a fabulous Jewish princess from Queens, NY. She loves glitz and glamour, booze and weed, and all the sex toys she can get her hands on. She also loves her husband Nick more than anything, and all the perks that go along with being Mrs. Santa Claus.
Monteze: Roberta is a principal from Winston- Salem, North Carolina. She is a staunch traditionalist yet has a sleigh full of secrets. She’s a proud big woman but loves a Zumba class. She enjoys an occasional Zima and sitting at the top of every community board room, surely minding someone else’s business.

Is this a show for people familiar with drag culture or is it accessible to people looking for a fun holiday romp but have no clue about drag?
Shua: This show is for everyone! It’s fun, campy, and clever. That being said, if you’re familiar with drag culture and gay pop culture you might laugh a little more. We’ve included quite a few references and “inside jokes” for that crew!
Monteze: I don’t think one would have to be familiar with drag culture to enjoy this show. Except knowing that drag culture, to me, doesn’t have limits. It’s broad and raunchy and sweet and crunchy at times. The essence of drag shouldn’t be new for most and we have created a story that flows underneath the shade, verbal jabs and diva poses.

This was originally intended to be a live production at City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side. COVID-19 changed that, but apparently the ghost of Mr. Rogers saved the day. Tell us about the transition from live stage production to filmed performance.
Shua: To be honest, we didn’t have to change much! The script still needed tweaking as we went into rehearsal, so we simply tweaked it for film purposes. In the second act there are announcer characters (also played by Monteze and myself), and we were able to flesh out those characters more thanks to film.
Monteze: We had to make the difficult call to scrap any idea of performing our show in front of an audience sometime in August. City Theatre had been dabbling in film during our Drive- In Arts Festival and the idea began to form around what Claws Out would look like as a movie. Most of the changes to come actually made the show easier. Film allows us to get into the story in a way that stage doesn’t. There are also many magical moments that are easier to create on film than stage. Only a few sections of the script were changed to fit the film medium but majority of the story stayed intact.

Who is your personal favorite among legendary holiday characters? Why?
Shua: Mommie Dearest, because she gives Christmas gifts to everyone except Christina, and I hate Christina.
Monteze: Hmm.. I don’t know if the character is legendary but Angela Lansbury in the made for tv movie musical Mrs. Santa Claus was my favorite holiday movie as a kid. I always wanted to play Santa AND Mrs. Claus — one down, one more to go.

Why did you create an original story rather than reimagining a favorite? 
Shua: So much more fun to create an original story – the sky is the limit!
Monteze: I don’t know if there are many holiday stories that speak to me enough to reimagine them. I guess we could have written a drag Scrooge. “A Christmas Carol- Off” . While our story is original, it leans on many iconic camp and queer moments in pop culture past and present. Lines and tableaus from familiar dramatic and comedic moments we’ve come to love are sprinkled throughout the script.

Cast these roles with drag artists

Shua:

Mrs. Parker, A Christmas Story – Tammy Brown
Julia Biggs, The Preacher’s Wife – Shea Coulee
Clarence, It’s a Wonderful Life – Ben dela Creme
Susan, Miracle on 34th Street – Sharon Needles
Yukon Cornelius, Rudolph – Sasha Velour
3 & 4, A Charlie Brown Christmas – Shangela and Alexis Mateo

Monteze:
Mrs. Parker, A Christmas Story – Divine
Julia Biggs, The Preacher’s Wife- Monteze Freeland
Clarence, It’s a Wonderful Life- I’ve never seen it but RuPaul
Susan, Miracle on 34th Street- Is this the little girl? – Schwa de Vivre
Yukon Cornelius, Rudolph- Shangela
3 & 4, A Charlie Brown Christmas-  Had to google this one- Schwa and Monteze!

MF: Clearly, I don’t know many drag queens by name. I should get better about that.

The production will be available online during December, but you also have some live streaming events scheduled highlighting the work of local LGBTQ organizations. How did you select those partners and what can we expect?
Shua: That’s a question for Monteze – I’m not involved in that process at all.
Monteze: I am always thinking of ways we can serve the community. So, in a meeting I brought up the idea of partnering with LGBTQ organizations in some way and Clare Drobot, City Theatre’s Associate Artistic Director, took that idea and ran with it which culminated in us partnering with three organizations; True T Pittsburgh, Proud Haven and PGH Equality Center. They were selected due to their continuous service to the community.

During the live events we’re going to play games, sing, and spread holiday cheer! The partners, on their respective nights, will have time to speak to our virtual audience about their organization and how it’s serving the community this holiday season and beyond. Audiences will also have an opportunity to learn about these vital organizations which will hopefully encourage them to donate throughout the night.

What sort of COVID-19 precautions did you take during the filming and have planned for the upcoming live events?Shua: We filmed on a SAG/AFTRA contract, so we worked within those Covid regulations, plus extensive regulations that City Theatre put into place. Testing, masks in rehearsal, social distancing, no food, etc. The only annoying thing was trying to run scenes and sing in a mask – it’s hard to breathe! Luckily Monteze and I were mask free while filming – it felt so freeing!
Monteze: During the rehearsal process we were tested weekly, sometimes twice, but we still rehearsed in masks, face shields and six feet apart. And let me tell you, dancing and singing in a mask is not the life for ME! But, it made me appreciate the opportunity and blessings it was to create in a room again so I got over the heavy breathing and sweating and focused on our goal.  We had a much smaller team than we would normally have in the room. We only sang at the end of the day, everyone left the room, as to not have aerosols lingering in the air.

The City team took every possible precaution to keep the room safe and COVID free. It was a feat but we all respected the rules and one another’s personal boundaries.

The arts community worldwide has suffered brutally under the pandemic, but still you persevere with creating, distracting, interpreting and helping us cope. Where do you find inspiration, and motivation to continue your work? 
Shua: Being an artist the thing that keeps me moving, it’s what I do for fun, AND it’s how I pay my bills. Performing / creating is my life-blood. I’m grateful I know that, and I know how to push myself to keep doing it. The main thing I try to remember when I get up is “what jou will i put out into the world today.”
Monteze: I find the inspiration to continue from the pain of seemingly losing everything at the top of the pandemic. All jobs were wiped from my calendar in a matter of days and it was devastating for someone like me who is a workaholic. But from that pain, I wrote. I had to make myself laugh and in turn I hope others will laugh out loud as well. And for a brief moment, everything is right in the world. I do not take it for granted that we were given the privilege to continue as artists during this time and I think that is why the entire team jumped into an unfamiliar world and created magic.

How is the drag community specifically avigating COVID-19?
Shua: For me it’s been taking everything online, and recognizing that’s where I’ll be for the long haul. I’d love to tour once Covid is done, but that might not be until 2022 to be honest. So for now I’m stretching and learning how to make my impact and share my art solely online. I know some queens are doing in-person shows that are socially distanced with masks and stuff and to them I say “WERK BITCH.” I’m too nervous to do that sort of thing, as a queen or as an attendee.
Monteze: imagine with an art form that relies heavily on public participation, this pandemic has been difficult to manage, But also, the creativity aspect. I hope drag queens are still at home beating their face and sitting in their splits ready to come back better than ever. I know they will!

What’s coming up for you as a performer in 2021?
Shua: I actually have one more show in 2020 – “Liza, with a Tree!” A drag variety show of epic proportions starring me as Liza Minnelli and a bunch of other characters and celebrities. It’s on Friday December 11th @ 8pm on Zoom. Tickets on my website thatdragqueen.com. 2021 will see a bunch more streamed events, and I intend to take my writing to the next level. Doug Levine and I are already working on a new musical, I’m writing a pilot, and I have some other fun projects bubbling.
Monteze: In 2021 the only performing I plan to do is in my and Reese Redwood’s feature film House of Stones. And a couple other film projects. I’ve wanted to take a little break from stage acting for a while now. The pandemic made that a reality in a good way. So,Roberta feels like a nice act 1 finale yet transition into the film world.

Tell us about the first LGBTQ person that you met and what impact they had on your life? 
Shua: I have a terrible memory and couldn’t tell you. But as a kid I was in choirs and plays and musicals outside of school, so I met my fair share of LGBTQ people there, not knowing what LGBTQ was. What I learned from the theatre community however, was to be kind, be generous, have fun, don’t take things too seriously, and laugh A LOT.
Monteze: Oh my! I can’t recall the first LGBTQ person I met. I had my suspicions about a few but ultimately it was none of my young business. But one person who had a huge impact on my life who I didn’t meet, yet, is Rosie O’Donnell. She shaped my artistry as a kid with her connection to Broadway and classic camp or gay icons and moments. I hope I can meet her one day to say thank you. The closest I got was working with her musical director John McDaniel who musically directed Little Shop of Horrors I performed in at the Pittsburgh Public… but I was too shy to bring it up in rehearsals.

What is your love song to LGBTQIA+ youth? 
Shua: It’ll always be BORN THIS WAY by Lady Gaga for me!

Monteze: Winner in You by Patti LaBelle

Where can readers find you on social media? 

Shua:

instagram.com/thatdragqueenschwa
facebook.com/thatdragqueenschwa
tiktok.com/@thatdragqueen

Monteze: Please don’t haha I really want to delete Facebook but its a marketing tool now and it used to feel so personal. So I try to keep my other social media pages only for close friends. But my friends are encouraging me to create professional places online for folks to find me. So look out for the website in a month or so. I appreciate support and the networking and connection but it’s hard as a private person to continue the upkeep of such.

Thank you, both.

Buy your ticket and watch anytime from the comfort of your home or join the cast & crew for virtual live events on
Saturdays December  12 and 19 at 7:30pm and Tuesday December 8 (Pay-What-You-Want)

Laura and I watched this show this past Saturday and it was a lovely holiday treat. I paid the $15 earlier in the day then we cast the video to tv and watched in our jammies. With cats. Like you do. It really is a nice sweet and entertaining holiday new-classic.

Enjoy!

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