Interview with GenderFantasy’s Kaj-Anne Pepper

Performance photo from the Sass Patrol preview. Photo by Dan Ostergren

Kaj-Anne Pepper has been a performer, dancer, drag star and multi-modal artist in Portland for several years. We have come to expect great things and Pepper’s upcoming full length show, GenderFantasy, is highly anticipated. It opens this Thursday for a 4 day run at the Headwaters Studio (55 NE Farragut) and amidst the madness Pepper took a moment to talk with qPDX about his process, the show, and those involved in collaborative art.

Also, I believe the Kickstarter for this project has been extended so you still have a couple days to contribute to this amazing project here:

qPDX: What started you on the GenderFantasy process? When did you decide to create that show? 

Kaj-Anne Pepper: I have been using the term Genderfantasy to describe some of my performance art since I was 18. It really began to pop when I started performing with the Sissyboys. Genderfantasy is an evolving exploration of the constructs of gender and identity that repeat in my work and in the world around me.

I began this iteration of Genderfantasy last year when I was applying for a RACC project grant. It was originally called Gender/Body/Glamour and had a whole different set of circumstances in it. I think Genderfantasy is a better name, it’s catchy, and it describes a major theme the work jumps off from.

q: Who did you think of to begin collaborating with? How has that collaboration developed?

KP: Genderfantasy is definitely my baby, but it is still a collaborative effort. My collaborator Raijah Antoinette, designs and works very closely with me conceptualizing characters and looks for the cast. She and I have been collaborating on work together for over a year and this is the most in depth we have go to play. She is inventive, precise, dedicated and very invested in the work we create together.

I choreographed Genderfantasy, but the movement and dance is truly inspired by the efforts and explorations made by my dancers Lillian Rossetti, Keyon Gaskin and Michael Reed in rehearsal. Our rehearsal process took us a lot of strange and wonderful places. We have rehearsed outside in a river, in bars, on the bus and at Performance Works Northwest. I found the rehearsal process to be the most exciting and rewarding part of this project thus far. That might change after the show closes…but we’ll see.

Originally in the beginning, I had two other main collaborators. Due to very amicable and understandable circumstances they both had to back out of the project early on. This led me to fill their roles with Q-pop Diva CJ and The Dolls. My collaboration with another queer performance artist felt like the right turn and was very fruitful.

Artwork, especially performance doesn’t manifest exactly as you plan in your head. Luckily, with the RACC grant I had the support and ability to have other bodies and spirits and space to rehearse and play with ideas for longer periods of time than I’m used to. Genderfantasy has stayed true to it’s original intent as a celebration of queerness and exploration of power, identity and glamour. It definitely took some detours around how that would be expressed because of some changes I had to make to the cast, but I am happy with our flexibility in finding new ways to shape this performance.

GenderFantasy has been a process. And you’ve had a few working/preview performances as well as documenting your process on a blog. How has that informed the shape of your piece? Is the documentation and marketing part of the art?

The Genderfantasy blog is a proving to be a treasure worth more than it’s weight in weave!  I am looking forward to looking back on it in 3 months, 6 months a year! I wish I had updated more of my rehearsal notes, and pictures…but I get quite nervous about giving away the secrets too early. I guess now that the show is opening I can let it all spill out! Documenting my progress via a blog is a great way to get the word out about what I’m doing, it gives people more purchase and investment in the project and is a great way to keep grounded while things start to heat up and get excited.

Makeup and hair at a GenderFantasy rehearsal. Photo by Wayne Bund.

Our three satellite performances at Bent, Not Enough! and our fundraiser preview Sass Patrol were the milestones in this marathon. Each mini-performance gave me perspective on the movement, the sound the look…everything. It was like a little Genderfantasy mini-series on TV and DEC 1-4th is the big made for TV movie after all these little vignettes which have helped shape the performance.

Fliptography also seems to be integral to GF. What role does the flipbook that audience members receive play? Their contributions will be part of the installation, correct? What does it symbolize in terms of the larger implications of the piece?

Fliptography is a fun and exciting way to create a mini-performance on video, which then gets captured and made into a flipbook you get to take home with you.

Each flipbook is a little capsule in time a record of when you could be anything you wanted for 7 seconds. You are performing yourself for yourself. You will see in the show how that is played out by four dynamic dancers who are all costumed and presented very similarly. I think this is a very apt start off point for Genderfantasy and its comments on the construction of identity. At the core of our sense of self sits a fantasy…are you a boy or a girl? This fantasy is given to us even before we are born. There is a time as children those lines are blurred. There is a time when those lines become necessary to participate in normative culture. Queens, kings, drag stars and queers of the night have initiated themselves into a magical world of make believe which dismantles the gender binary. When we dismantle a fantasy that sits at the core of how we walk in the world, we learn to walk differently. Seeing ourselves in a mirror creates this feedback loop of self-awareness. Video is like a mirror, but a magic mirror. We all start creating ourselves with a mirror. Our first audience is ourselves. I think by inviting everyone in the room to perform for the camera and giving a piece of them back to themselves we are letting everyone know they are more than just an audience member. They are a participant in the creation of this glamour. They are in fact co-creators of the experience by feeding the camera their performance.

How does the installation work with and inform the performance and vice versa?

While each audience member gets a flipbook, I get the video record of your movement and expression. Everyone is helping me with my research on movement and performativity! The installation is a fun and exciting way to participate in the atmosphere of Genderfantasy. Also, our studio visits to the Fliptography studio help me construct ideas and concept for movement, make-up and even sound for the show.

Even your Kickstarter seems intimately a part of the art. At the $25 level you get your own mini-choregraphy! Tell me about that and the whole Kickstarter process.

Kickstarter is a great platform to show the world you’re ready to be supported, to be believed in and to be seen. Asking for support for my artwork is a powerful yet vulnerable position to be in.

As for the video commissions…I don’t feel done with the explorations I’ve made in rehearsal for Genderfantasy and wanted to strategize a way to continue that process. It worked!

Anything else you would like qPDX readers to know about you, Gender Fantasy or the whole GF crew and process?

During rehearsal it became apparent to me that I was being carried by a force greater than me. Genderfantasy is dedicated to the lineage of queer and trans performing artists who have passed on from this life and who’s lives have shaped and made possible for my exploration into these liminal states of gender, power, sexuality, movement and representation. This is dedicated to our ancestors and our descendants. It is a spell, a glamour to celebrate the intersection of authenticity and entertainment.

You can check out a preview of the show from their Kickstarter video below.

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