Making a Radical Mess: An Interview With Jody Kuehner aka Cherdonna Shinatra
Cherdonna Shinatra is a drag queen who’s not a drag queen. Not in the way we’ve come to expect, anyway. She’s the alter-ego of Jody Kuehner, a Seattle-based dancer and choreographer, and a queer woman. That last bit makes Cherdonna—a simple, brilliant portmanteau of icons Cher and Madonna—a bit of an anomaly in the world of drag, as does her penchant for dipping her creative toes in the worlds of performance art, experimental theater, and contemporary dance.
Over the last several years Cherdonna has evolved from a cabaret performer with her former artistic partner, drag king Lou Henry Hoover (played by dancer Ricki Mason), to one of Seattle’s preeminent boundary pushing performance artists. She’s created evening length performances like Worth My Salt and more recently Kissing Like Babies; she regularly performs with drag artists like former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant BenDeLaCreme, Kitten LaRue, and the aforementioned Hoover; and she recently “crashed” a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at Washington Ensemble Theatre. And that’s simply scratching the surface.
Her solo piece, Clock That Mug or Dusted, rolls strains of all her artistic endeavors into one. Then through some paint. And maybe a birthday cake. Kuehner has described the work as a “conceptual and inspirational homage to feminist performance artists” and an artistic dare to “find what present day queer/drag feminism might be.” It’s a search left open-ended by the show’s improvisation-friendly structure and reflective of Kuehner’s own avoidance of easy categorization. We caught up with her recently to learn more about the piece’s origins, its challenges, and why she’s looking for a “might be” rather than an “is.”
FringeArts: What made you think up the title Clock that Mug or Dusted?
Jody Kuehner: The title came out of a drag saying that you’ve “clocked” something, meaning you’ve noticed something you like or dislike or generally want to bring attention to. This work is largely improvisational so the idea of noticing things as they come, “clocking” every moment is central. Giving “face” aka “mug,” means giving attention to. Dusted coming from the idea of putting on your face, “being dusted,” and also it’s used as a word to mean being under the influence or even death—“turning to dust.” All these layers are in the work.
FringeArts: How was creating Clock That Mug or Dusted an artistic leap or creative challenge to you?
Jody Kuehner: Using so many materials continues to be a creative challenge. Not knowing exactly how they will play in the space or what I will be inspired by, it changes with every show. The materials add a whole new cast member to the piece. I like the risk in that. It’s an unknown.
FringeArts: What has been the most satisfying thing about creating and performing this show?
Jody Kuehner: It’s maybe my most abstract work and it’s the work that is getting the most performances. I am so delighted it brings curiosity and intrigue to new audiences. It’s definitely a polarizing work. Also, because the materials change, as does the amount of improvisation in the work, it’s a forever evolving animal. It’s never the same and it’s structure has made it a work that could keep evolving and never reach any kind of limit.
FringeArts: What have you worked on most in fine-tuning Clock That Mug or Dusted?
Jody Kuehner: The thing I have to work on the most is being present. Responding in the moment to the audience and the elements. If I get too in my head or lose my sense of play, the work dies. It’s a continual practice in not showing but being.
FringeArts: In your description you write that the work draws “on vintage feminist ideals to find what present day queer/drag feminism might be.” Can you tell us a little about how the “might be” of the present—rather than the “is”—was what you felt important to explore?
Jody Kuehner: I think because we are in a time where everything has been done, where politically we have come far and also not come far at all, things are changing all the time. What was once very risky/dramatic/radical is not anymore. And also those things can still be that radical depending on where you live. So, this is a question I am exploring. I don’t think we can say queerness is this or drag is that, it’s changing every second. I wonder how I fit in? How does one be a queer feminist today? It “is” many things but it’s always changing so I don’t feel I can speak about it definitively. Especially around queerness and gender politics it might be something today and then we learn something and it changes tomorrow.
Clock That Mug or Dusted
140 N. Columbus Boulevard
Interviewed by Josh McIlvain, November 2017.