Three beloved alumni from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara and Shangela Laquifa Wadley — roll into small town America ready to put on a special, one-night only engagement at a local venue. Only this time, they are just the entry point into the story in HBO’s new unstructured reality series, “We’re Here.”
Created by Johnnie Ingram and Steve Warren, “We’re Here” spends six episodes following these big personalities from Missouri to Idaho to change the lives of some very special individuals.
“There’s something about drag that is an olive branch to these communities,” Ingram says. “A lot of these towns tuck away these conversations, and it’s not something you’re allowed to talk about, so it just sits. And so bringing a big, glamorous drag show to town gets people talking.”
In each town, the queens take on a drag daughter (or two), transforming the person in look, sure, but also in spirit as they prep for a performance in front of the town. Those drag daughters range from a queer couple looking for a more inclusive and comfortable wedding than the one they actually had, to a young man grappling with how to identify as both a Christian and a gay man. They also include people who don’t identify as LGBTQIA but want to be seen as allies, including a religious mother who said hateful things when her daughter first came out but now wants to apologize to her, a father who has struggled with his mental health and is looking for ways to bond with his daughter and teach her about strength, and a young man who admits to hateful actions in his past but is now trying to be a better man.
“We were trying to find people who are going through something and how can they benefit from not only telling their story on a stage but also embracing counterculture through it? In essence, they learn something about the drag community. It’s a little bit experimental,” says Warren.
Adds Ingram: “We’re also really mindful that we’re only there for a short period of time. So we selected the people that we believe will have a transformative experience and then after we leave will be able to handle what it’s like.”
And it is those drag daughters, as well as the towns around them, whose stories get deep dives within the episodes.
“They want the town to feel an acceptance and a love that they didn’t have for themselves that they’re trying to impart for others,” says Warren. “These towns are often struggling with their own identities: There’s a conservative majority, versus a younger group of individuals that have grown up there and are struggling to get their voices heard.”
Ingram and Warren’s original idea for the show was to visit towns of “5,000 or 10,000 people [that] were far removed from big cities” but featured socioeconomic and racial diversity, Warren explains. They worked with a casting team who scoured the internet for interesting stories of people in towns of these sizes to look for those who would make strong candidates to be the drag daughters, and then they paired each queen with a temporary drag daughter based on shared experiences — even if that meant conflicting opinions of an experience.
Those initial pieces were done in pre-production, off-camera, but everything from finding the drag performance venues to advertising the shows and meeting with family and friends of the drag daughters became part of the storytelling process for the show.
“We had no idea what would happen,” Ingram says of showing up in any given town. “We lined up and said, ‘Let’s follow the story.’ There are certain things that have to happen [to put on the show] but other than that it’s guided by a lot of creative people and these relationships.”
One thing the production team of “We’re Here” was adamant about was not hiding the show they would be putting on from any of the locals. The name of the show, Ingram points out, is meant to embrace that those who identify as LGBTQIA are not “just living in a big city; we’re everywhere.”
“It’s such a dominant theme, showing why do people stay,” he continues. “It’s the name of the show. People stay in these small towns out of necessity, oftentimes, or out of love. But then you find someone like Hunter in the first episode or Tanner in the third who have gone to bigger cities and for whatever reasons they wind up coming back. We’re giving people an outlet in these small towns.”
But, being so open and honest in some of these places doesn’t come without some very tense moments.
“We tried to make a safe environment for everyone involved,” Ingram says. But it was “basically like bringing a pride parade to town.”
When looking for a venue for the drag performances, he notes that “about 90% of the time we ended up in the only space that would take us. A lot of them are worried about how the will be perceived by the townspeople when we leave.”
In some cases, Bob, Eureka and Shangela were shooed off properties with threats of the cops being called. But in others, they ended up finding unidentified safe spaces for the LGBTQIA community in that small town. And on every show night, the venue was packed with friends and family members of the performers, as well as strangers who wanted to show their support.
“In the beginning we didn’t know if anyone was going to come, but we had to turn away people. It was amazing,” says Warren. “What we really found surprising, and I think it was a lot of the magic and elevation of ‘Drag Race’ and its fans, [was] the local queer communities and allies in town are much bigger than we would assume, living in our bubble. They’ve all had to tuck it away for so long that bringing us to town is a chance to release some of that, and they’re all just so excited to have that opportunity.”
“We’re Here” premieres April 23 at 9 p.m. on HBO.