Kelly Schmader (who goes by Kelly Boner in her artistic practice) graduated from the Master of Arts Management program in 2019 and has now returned to the Columbia College Chicago community as a part-time faculty and staff member. She is also a member of the local Chicago drag community. She talked to us about shifts she has seen in the drag community during the pandemic, as well as her transition to working at Columbia.
Over the summer, you spoke on a panel about drag at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Tell us about that experience!
I was asked to speak and perform for a panel called “Kiki in the Commons” about drag as an art form—more specifically as a community art form—and the discussion centered around the question of how an institution like an art museum can engage with drag performers. Overall the experience was great. I was concerned it wouldn’t happen when we transferred to the digital format, but we ended up hosting it over Zoom and the conversation is still available to view online here. It also provided me the opportunity and inspiration to really put more focus into a drag performance than I ever had before, since I was making a performance video for the MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART! I mean, wow!
How have you seen the drag community adjust to social distancing requirements?
The adjustment to the pandemic for the drag community is an evolving beast. The initial surge was to move all drag performance online, so the conversation is mostly about digital drag these days. There was a steep learning curve for a lot of showrunners about which technologies are best for the drag format—ultimately Twitch became the ideal platform for digital drag. Twitch won out because of its music licensing policies, since sites like Youtube or Instagram might shut down a livestream due to copyright issues. Additionally, the performances now have a totally different quality. What I’ve always respected and admired about drag queens and kings is their ability to be a master of all trades—from hair to makeup to costume to performance. Now a lot of performers can add set design, lighting, video production, and editing to that list of skills since a digital drag number can be as involved a production as a music video. The biggest drawback, of course, is that over time it’s been harder to make money from digital drag than it would be to collect tips and a booking fee from a nightclub. So the struggle is still real when it comes to making ends meet.
You are also teaching a class at Columbia this semester called Chicago Performs The Art of Drag. How is it going?
I was in the middle of my first semester teaching (ever) when we went remote due to the pandemic. Talk about a wild ride for a first timer. Now that we’re well into the second semester, I feel I have gotten my feet more firmly under me and I feel grateful for the connection to Columbia undergraduate students. There is something unique about Columbia students on both the undergraduate and graduate sides. I enjoy getting to know the undergraduate perspective, while trying to provide the students as much drag material as they can consume. It’s amazing to have the opportunity to put this much thought into drag as an educational experience.
How has your shift from student to alumna to staff/faculty member been?
I really value my two years at Columbia as a student. Those years came at a time in my life where I needed the support and structure of graduate school. My cohort and the faculty in the program were instrumental for me making some big changes to my career that I wouldn’t have had the gumption to do without their support. Back when I got my bachelor’s, there was this idea that if you didn’t leave the school where you got your degree, you were a “failure to launch.” However, after getting my Master’s, I realized that if I loved the Columbia environment, it wasn’t a failure to want to stay in the Columbia community. So it became a bit of a waiting game for the right opportunities to open up, but luckily I was hired as adjunct faculty and then subsequently in the School of Graduate Studies. These two roles feed different parts of my brain and use different skill sets, so I’m happy to report that I’m feeling pretty gosh darn fulfilled professionally as an alumna of the Master of Arts Management program!
Where can people connect with you?
I don’t have any upcoming events at the moment, but I always advertise what else I have on the docket on my Instagram, @kellyboner. I also encourage folks to head over to my website, kellyboner.com, to check out my work and the latest developments in the bonerverse. And lastly, if you’re reading this and you’re at all interested in graduate study at Columbia, of course you can reach out to me at email@example.com.