#ArtTransforms March 30, 2021

Essentially the Participant Experience

By Tyler J. Sloane

“I would like future descendants to know that they can be whoever they want to be.” – Ellie

“I would want to tell them things are much more complex than we attribute labels to. We tend to think in binary a lot…Give room for exploration.” – Leila

It’s All the Essentials! is part two of a broader queer performance program ‘It’s All Queer Pride.’ It’s All Queer Pride consist of two streams. The first stream, surrounding the basics of queer nightlife performance and solo act development is titled It’s All A Drag! The second stream, It’s All the Essentials, elevates the queer performance practice into pre-recorded performances with a focus on career development. Each program brings artistic mentorship and speciality from twelve to fourteen active performers and artists in the Toronto community, and gives them the space to share their specialized skills. Previous guest-facilitators include Aurora Matrix, Bom Bae, Calypso Cosmic, Halal Bae, Kage Wolfe, Lune DuBois, Newfoundlad, and Olive Grey with full program mentorship by Qaptain.

Recently Leila and Ellie spoke with Ty – aka Tygr Willy, SKETCH’s Performance Arts Associate, for a conversation about their arts practice and creative journey as it relates to their recent showcase: It’s All the Essentials Cycle 3 – Showcase.

Picture (L to R, T to B): Aurora Matrix, Tygr Willy, Cherrie Era, Rose Parks, Tinie Tittie Ellie, Anita Otter, and guest auditor; Newfoundlad

TY: Thank you so much folks for joining me for this interview about the program: ‘It’s All Queer Pride’. I wonder if you folks can introduce yourself by providing your name, as well as your stage name, your pronoun in or out of stage persona, where we can find you on social media, and then any information that you just want to share about yourself.

ELLIOTT: I’m Elliot. I use he/him pronouns. You can find me on Ellie’s Road, @ELLIESROAD, and my stage name is Tinie Tittie Ellie.

LEILA: Hi, I’ll just go with my stage name today because that’s what we’re interviewing for.

TY: That’s great.

LEILA: Perfect. My name is Leila Balakos, and I go by She/Her. You can find me on Instagram @queenleilabalakos. I am a spoken word conceptual political Queen, and a belly dancer as well.

TY: Incredible. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to the ‘It’s All Queer Pride’ program?

ELLIE: So, I saw posts, like, a while ago but I was living with my parents and like, I don’t know… I was very depressed and wasn’t really interested in it at that moment, and then I moved back to Toronto. Then I saw you post I think on Instagram story (@tygrwilly_), Ty, and I think I messaged you and I was like “I want to do this.” From there I was like yeah I will work it in my schedule, because I wasn’t working at the time. Then I started working and balancing that, so yeah.

LEILA: I met you, Ty my mama, at an event, a Queer Cab at Buddies in Bad Times. Drag was not even on my mind, I never thought it would be something that I would be interested in. But then I saw these amazing performances that night and we had that conversation. You talked to me about this program that you were doing, and you told me it was very casual. Even if I don’t know where I’m at in my Drag and my Arts in anything I can just come in and figure that out with you. That encouraged me. It broke down the expectations of what being a genderfluid performer is like.

You know, especially with my background I never thought about actually doing it until I attended your program in the first cycle in 2019. From there I performed a few other performances and it was so life changing, honestly. I was scouted again for this program (It’s All the Essentials – Cycle 3) during the pandemic. And I didn’t think I would be able to do it, but then we talked about it… because of all the restrictions and because of the lack of privacy. I didn’t think we were able to do it until you made sure that it would be a safe space for me to participate in whichever capacity that I can. And we were able to, you know rock that performance all together. So, that’s how I got into it.

TY: What was your most significant learning moment, whether from either the streams individually or from the streams overall? As you share that learning moment, can you tell us a bit about you as an artist and how your own practice has been changing and growing through the program?

ELLIE: Yeah, um, I feel like my most significant moment of learning, or what I learned the most about this program was like, how much I actually genuinely care about artistic work and drag. Attending each hour for three hours, two times a week. I can say when I did come I like – gave it my all – I paid attention. I saw that this is something I want to do for a while. Um, and what was the second question, sorry?

TY: So, we’re talking about you as an artist and your own practice as it’s been changing and growing.

Picture (L to R, T to B): Aurora Matrix, Tygr Willy, Rose Parks, Newfoundland, Anita Otter, Tinie Tittie Ellie

ELLIE: I would say I care more about my makeup, because before when I performed beforehand, I would do simple makeup and nothing too wild, but now doing performances like the first one I did to Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien by Edith Piaf. I want to make sure I convey how I feel and the importance of this song through my makeup. Even having that makeup class that we had, I learned so much, even today like I look really great and it’s because I learned from Olive Grey (@olivegreymua). Yes. I learned a lot.

LEILA: I think a big part of what we learned is the discipline and the commitment that we have to do to our art. You know, because despite everything – the obstacles; whether financial, whether COVID related, whether it’s, you know, shame and culture. It comes back to queerphobia. We still were able to manage to do it. And it’s such a rebellion on its own and I feel like these are valuable. The most valuable skill I learned, especially in the second round, is that discipline could look like investing in your work. Whether it’s time, whether it’s money, whether it’s capacity, you can. And looking for resources, looking for your community, looking for family I’ve learned that I do have a family that I can rely on within SKETCH and within your program Ty. So that was something very, very beneficial. In terms of my own practice, I got more clarity on what my drag is and who I’m about. I learned what Leila’s art looks like. From makeup to costuming to what performance form you want to do, whether it’s spoken word or it’s burlesque. Whether it’s, you know, shaking your booty all the time, it’s very interesting those different forms that we kind of shaped throughout this journey. I stepped up my dance skills and makeup skills. I did make up for maybe the second time on my own in terms of Drag. And it was successful, I think! So yeah, I learned those things.

TY: Yeah, I can definitely see that for both of you having seen you as performers before the program, and then seeing you folks just flourish through the program – it’s been really great and both of your makeup games have definitely stepped up let alone your performance games!

I want to talk a little bit about who inspires you. So, who are your artistic inspirations and muses? The folks that helped inform your art practice or are helping form who Tinie Tittie Ellie & Leila Balakos are?

LEILA: So I can talk a little bit more about Leila’s origins, and what the name means. Because that is a big part of my inspiration. When I was thinking about it, I was thinking about what is the most culturally appropriate for the kind of Drag that Leila is. You know, the kind of human being that ‘Leila’ is.

Leila’s name is actually from – is a traditional Arab – Arabic literature in the Seventh Century, there was a very big love story between Leila and Kays. I just wanted to give ode to that person and that story. We were the original Romeo and Juliet. if anything they copied us. (Chuckles) It was to give odes to a lot of Arabic literature.

As for inspirations to the form of art that I do. I draw a lot of inspiration from people like Kent Monkman, who is an Indigenous (Cree) Drag (and Visual) artist. What inspires me about their work is that, you know, as fun as Drag can be, I always love to visit the roots of Drag which are political in nature, rebellious in nature, and anti-oppressive in nature. So that’s one inspiration that I have for my art.

Tinie Tittie Ellie’s Inspiration FYFYA WOTO (@jojoabot)

ELLIE: I have two. The first one is an Instagram artist named FYFYA WOTO (@jojoabot): They are very clown-like. Very, just like out there, and they are a Black artist, and so I really relate to that and like their makeup is just amazing and they go everywhere with it. I really appreciate that.

Another person who inspires me is Gay Jesus (@theirholiness). One of the first Drag shows I’ve ever seen was Gay Jesus.  I remember, I’m not even over exaggerating, I started tearing up because I was like I’ve never seen Drag done so beautifully. They were in a wedding dress, and they ripped it off! Underneath there was like a burlesque outfit. It was just such an amazing thing to watch.

Um, and I was back then I think I was like 20 or 19. I’m 23 now and I was like; I could never do this like – I can never be as great as this performer. Then I messaged Gay Jesus and said, like years later – I want to perform, who can I perform under? They actually introduced me to House of Kings (@houseofkingstoronto) that Zackey Lime (@zackeylime) and AlexandHer Brandy (@axbrandy) run. And that’s how I started performing but, my initial inspiration was watching Gay Jesus.

TY: Amen!

LEILA: I just remember Ellie’s performance, you were in the Colour Me Now too.

Colour Me Now 2019 Cast (L to R): Tygr Willy, ClemMantine, Leila Balakos, Phil Atioh, Tinie Tittie Ellie, Bom Bae, Oh Henry!, Sebastian, Mango Lassi (Bottom Center) Dirty Chai Photo: Jahmal Nugent

ELLIE: Yeah!

LEILA: We were in the same performance I totally forgot about.

ELLIE: Yeah I know it’s been a while!

LEILA: And to add someone, from that performance. You are an inspiration Ty. I saw that costume that you had. That had the names of a lot of missing Indigenous people, if I remember correctly and then I just remembered like this is the kind of Drag that I wanted to do. So I’ll add you to the list.

TY: Thank you. Thank you. And just for interview posterity, Colour Me Now (@colourmenowto) is a 2SQTBIPOC Drag King and Gender Performer show produced by Phil Atioh (@phil_atioh) who’s my Drag sibling, Dirty Chai (@dirtyy.chaiii) whose located in Winnipeg, and myself.

How has space provided, whether virtually or physically, at SKETCH or in ‘It’s All Queer Pride’ helped you in your art practice?

ELLIE: I think just learning how to like video edit, makeup… I would say, every course that we went through, every little program we went through, was significant because I grew more and learned more. And so from that I can say I constantly feel like I can make another performance and I want to do this again. I took a two year break from doing Drag because I have fibromyalgia, and I was in pain and all that stuff. Joining this program again made me see that it’s accessible, and you were so understanding about  my pain and messaged me and all that stuff and it was like… Drag can be disabled-friendly. And from that I like, I feel more confident in what I can do. Because before that I didn’t know if it could be disabled-friendly but I see now that it is.

TY: That’s amazing.

LEILA: For me, SKETCH provided such a safe space for us, both physically and digitally in a lot of situations. A lot of us come from homes and families and friends that do not necessarily understand the necessity of privacy for these situations and do not understand our art and our practice the way that we want them to do it. It’s not necessarily that our homes aren’t safe – it’s not saying that, but it is providing a kind of space where we all understand each other  – we all kind of share this awkward phase of like ‘we’re figuring this out together.’ I really appreciated that and it provided a lot of opportunity. It provided an opportunity for us to explore this (practice) outside of capitalism, kind of, ‘What is acceptable and what is commercialized and what is, you know, marketable.’ It provided a space for us to explore ourselves, without us having to fit into those categories. And I really appreciated that.

TY: That’s amazing. I’m so glad. And I know this especially for both of you being racialized artists, navigating varying levels of access and various levels of inaccessibility…. It’s such a barrier and we witness… I think we witness both queer performance and drag as such an able-bodied art form, when it’s for everyone.

We’re in the heart of a time where we’re really prioritizing what it means to bring care and support to folks who are marginalized and in that marginalized group: The folks who are new immigrants who have to navigate a different complexity with their identity within terms of; family and then folks who have disabilities who don’t always get access because…when we were in-person, right? Venues could have a varying level of different accesses. Let alone producers who may not be having that conversation yet, so I’m really glad you both were able to find space and opportunity to do all this because you both are brilliant artists!

ELLIE: Thank you for making it all so accessible like that. Yeah, that’s also on you. So thank you for that.

LEILA: Yeah, yeah, that was good. I’d also add income and financial accessibility. We were not asked to bring anything to the table, other than ourselves so I appreciate that too.

TY:  Yes. Amazing. Okay! Amazing. So this next question is around your work. So this is what you would hope that other folks engaged with… What do you want folks to notice or be curious about when they are digesting your work?

ELLIE: I think the biggest thing is that Black trans men can be femme. And I want people to be so much more open to that and not be afraid to try out different things, because I know that the queer community can be so… cis and white. Because of that, there can be such barriers and people being afraid to try new things or go out there. I want people to see me and see my work, and see that like someone who uses They/He pronouns and is traditionally more feminine, can also be a trans man and perform and enjoy different artistic styles.

TY: Amazing yes!  I want to see more… I definitely want to see more Black trans men doing the thing whatever the thing is for them. Leila?

LEILA: What a big question.

You know, a part of me is also still trying to figure out what I want people to focus on. At this stage in my Drag specifically, but one thing that really urges me to be artistically engaged is: There are a lot of stereotypes surrounding what it means to be Arab. And there’s a little, little access for Arabs to change that. Especially queer Arabs as well. When I first came to Canada, I struggled a lot with having people understand how creative my art is and generally understand me as a person. People usually saw unfamiliarity as something that is to be cautious about. A lot of situations that involve the human response, but I just want them to engage in things that make them better, new, and uncomfortable. Just give people, you know, attention and time and be empathetic with each other. That’s very valuable as well. I will keep thinking on that question because that’s a very important thing for artists to think about so thanks for bringing that up,

Leila Balakos – Colour Me Now 2019 – Photo: Jahmal Nugent

TY: Then, the two last questions are even bigger and more future-focused so prepare yourself! I’ve had a lot of teachings around ancestral work, and especially as an Indigenous person I’m constantly thinking, there are teachings that I receive about the seven generations. You are a bi-product of seven generations before you, and you will affect seven generations after you now. So my question is: When you become an ancestor, so long after your life on Earth, and you are an ancestor in the spiritual realm, however that is, what would you want your descendants to know?

ELLIE:  That’s a really good question. I’m a very spiritual person, I practice Tarot and I practice Astrology… I would like future descendants to know that they can be whoever they want to be.

Whether that’s exploring themselves spiritually. Exploring themselves with their sexuality, their gender identity. I want them to know that this world that we live in, that is so CIS and Hetero(normative), it doesn’t have to be that. You know, you can be whoever you want to be. I just want them to thrive. It doesn’t even matter job-wise, I just want them to thrive as people that can affect others, and see that their existence – just being themselves – is so important to this world.

LEILA: I feel like I’m giving advice to my future drag Baby, you’re setting me up to be a mother already!  What are these expectations, Ty?

So, what would I want to tell my descendants?

I would want to tell them things are much more complex than we attribute labels to. We tend to think in binary a lot… We tend to think in binary and gender binary: This is right and this is wrong, this is Haram and this is Halal.  I just want people… the mark I want to leave is that there’s more to that. Give room for exploration.

When things are tough, and you don’t know how to navigate something, You have these extremes that are pulling you to either side. I would just say, take it one step at a time. Just going back to what I was talking about earlier about terms of privacy, you know, shame and culture. Cultural limitations that I have from it, that I have put on myself, and by others is tough for me. We still managed to figure it out.

You told me to just take it one step at a time, and see how I’m feeling. That is such a valuable lesson and a place to descendants of my culture, who are going to come here. People who are going to come here, not by choice, a lot of times. People who are coming here from Lebanon, from Syria, from all over… this wisdom, it will apply to them too.  You know, the system here is not ready for you and it’s not inclusive of you. So take it one step at a time. Figure it out as you go.

TY: Thank you for sharing that.

I think the first thing I want is to release my poetry book that I’m working on right now. I’m working on a poetry book called Some Flowers Grow from a Psychotic Mind. – Ellie

The last question, which is maybe not one step at a time. The last question, we’re gonna bring you back to being back on Earth, you’re not an ancestor, but we’re also not talking about you right now. We’re talking about you in like 2026. So in like five years from now. Where are you in your arts practice? Where are you as an artist? Where do you think, do you imagine? Do you have an idea of where you are?

Tinie Tittie Ellie

ELLIE:  I think the first thing I want is to release my poetry book that I’m working on right now. I’m working on a poetry book called Some Flowers Grow from a Psychotic Mind. It’s about someone who starts off very depressed and suffers from psychosis and then grows and thrives as a person, and it’s based on my life story. I really want to release that. I also just want to be performing, I hope when we’re in vaccine land and I’m back performing and doing, specifically, queer people of colour shows again. I want to be surprised by where I am. I plan, I’m a planner, I’m a Virgo moon, I love to plan. I also love to be surprised about my future artistic endeavours.

LEILA: For the future of Leila… I strongly believe that I cannot move forward if I don’t take a bunch of (Drag) babies with me, and a bunch of people with me. That’s something that I also learned from you Ty. I’m really advocating for you today.

I did learn a lot from you and one of those things was like you cannot be successful… well you can be successful on your own. It will be so much easier if you have this family around you, and people you want to inspire and uplift. Because, art is not about gloating. Art is not about ‘I want to make something so huge of myself’. I mean that is definitely something that is very tempting about art sometimes, but for me it’s also about taking people with me.

In five years, if I can do that and I can inspire other people, become successful and keep doing the work that I’m doing and keep growing as Leila. In terms of my personal kind-of artistic journey, I would love to take others on with me, within that journey. There aren’t a lot of resources for a lot of Arab Queens in Toronto.  There’s Halal Bae, who I will be having a conversation with later in the week about that. We do not have that kind of rigid community here for Arabs, so that is another thing that I want to also focus on. So stay tuned, I would say.

TY: I mean if I don’t see the two of you performing in the next five years, I’m going to drag your ass onto the stage! I totally see that for both of you and I can’t wait for that book Ellie. I can’t wait to be a grandma. (chuckles) Grandma.

Art is not about ‘I want to make something so huge of myself’. I mean that is definitely something that is very tempting about art sometimes, but for me it’s also about taking people with me. – Leila

I think what I love about the both of you is that I can only see other Black trans men and other queer and/or trans Arab artists, finding themselves in the both of you and finding inspiration, hope, and the confidence.

Picture (L to R, T to B): ‘It’s All A Drag – Cycle 3’ Showcase Poster (Feat: Tygr Willy, Aurora Matrix, Bom Bae, Rose Parks, The Noise Witch, and Cherrie Era), ‘It’s All the Essentials – Cycle 2’ Showcase Poster (Feat: Tygr Willy, Halal Bae, Babia Majora, Mars Alexander, Lallafral, Robin, Kuya Atay, and Rhinestone Chickadee), ‘It’s All the Essentials – Cycle 3’ Showcase Poster (Feat: The Noise Witch, Leila Balakos, Tinie Tittie Ellie, Cherrie Era, Rose Parks, Anita Otter, Gay Jesus, and Ocean Giovanni)

It’s All Queer Pride is in the midst of finding more funding with hopes for a 4th Cycle, and Tygr Haus continues to be nurtured by mentorship from Ty and fellow kittens in the house.

Leila Balakos. Leila Leila Leila, she’s going to keep saying her name until it no longer becomes foreign. Fall enamored with Leila “Without a Vagina” Balakos! Instagram @queenleilabalakos.

Tinie Tittie Ellie a genderfluid performer who used to have small tits and now doesn’t. They are here to tell you not to mess with them and they will smack a bish if they gotta. Instagram @elliesroad.