Networks of Pansy Performers and Female Impersonators in 1920s-1930s New York City


Kalle Westerling


Theatre and Performance

Project Title:

Networks of Pansy Performers and Female Impersonators in 1920s-1930s New York City


Kalle Westerling is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theatre and Performance and an Instructional Technology Fellow at Queens College, CUNY. He also coordinates the Digital Humanities Research Institute at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His dissertation, “The Roots and Routes of Boylesque: Queering Male Striptease and Burlesque in New York City from 1930s Golden Age Burlesque to the New York Boylesque Festival in the 2010s,” focuses on the history and aesthetics of male-identified bodies in 20th-century burlesque and 21st-century boylesque.


For the Connect New York Fellowship, I visualize networks between “pansy performers” in New York City’s burlesque and vaudeville theatres as well as the city’s nightclubs in the 1920s and 1930s. I am also mapping the theatres and other venues where such performers regularly appeared. I am using Gephi for the visualization of the social networks, and Carto to map the theatres and nightlife venues.


While (social) network analysis is often applied to contemporary phenomena, it can, of course, also be applied to historical relationships. It has been done in many other disciplines, especially those based on literature and written text. However, digital research methods are still not common in the field of Performance Studies. Thus, bringing a project such as the one described here to fruition would hopefully be of great significance to the field. The project will also have a direct impact on the city in its concern with the history of its nightlife. Nightlife performance is a topic which has not been studied enough, mostly because of a lack of documentation. However, I believe that digital research methods can help us see beyond this lack and surmise conclusions based on general structures drawn from a larger body of data points—in this case found in the primary and secondary sources mentioned above.

Every night of the week, you can see drag and burlesque performances in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. How does one know where those shows happen? Which of those performances will remain as part of the city’s historical record? These are some of the questions that interest me in my research project, where I focus on how queer spaces are necessary for resistance to gender and sexual norms, but how they also seem essential for thriving networks of performers. As a historian with an eye to marginalized, particularly queer, popular performance cultures in urban landscapes, I have been paying attention to those histories, listening to sources ranging from historical records to interviews with contemporary artists, to make sure that their histories are written, and that the gaps are described and visualized, wherever they appear.

As I embarked on my Connect New York project this summer, I wanted to use a methodology that is quite new to me: collecting and organizing historical appearances of burlesque and vaudeville performers and using Gephi to visualize the social networks forming around performance genres. I wanted to visualize the networks between the city’s performers and the theatres and the nightclubs where they worked. I thought that while network visualization and network analysis are methods often applied to contemporary phenomena, they can also help us in recovering and visualizing historical relationships.

The project evolved, with more inquiry, towards examining the intersections of queerness and burlesque in its late-19th and 20th century history, and through visualizing social and geographical networks between female impersonators and other gender-bending performers working in the city’s burlesque and vaudeville venues. I started out by listing all the names of performers who occurred in some of the primary sources and secondary sources of the project; these would constitute what

are referred to as “nodes” in social network visualization/theorization: that is, the connectors in the network. In my project, connectors are not only performers, however, but can also be buildings and addresses of importance, cruising spots. From these lists, I have started to create lists of addresses, geotagging the data, and mapping it in Carto.

I believe that my project contributes to our knowledge about NYC in at least three different ways. First, it reveals to us a subcultural performance world that has appeared in other settings. However, visualizing the connections between the “nodes” in this subcultural world has never been done before. The project also illustrates how urban spaces create cultural intersections, where the potential to share ideas, aesthetics, performance traditions emerges. This is, of course, especially important for marginal popular cultures that may not have had access, historically and contemporarily, to general “public” spaces and commons. Third, the project’s visualizations illustrate how this particular subculture, and perhaps other subcultures too expand (and perhaps must expand) beyond one city. Many of the threads in the project so far link the performers to other major American cities as well as parts of Florida.

About the author: Stefano Morello

Stefano Morello is a doctoral candidate in English with a certificate in American Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY and a Teaching Fellow at Queens College, CUNY. His academic interests include American Studies, pop culture, poetics, and digital humanities. His dissertation, “Let’s Make a Scene! East Bay Punk and Subcultural Worlding,” explores the heterotopic space of the East Bay punk scene, its modes of resistance and (dis-)association, and the clashes between its politics and aesthetics. He serves as co-chair of the Graduate Forum of the Italian Association for American Studies (AISNA) and is a founding editor of its journal, JAm It! (Journal of American Studies in Italy). As a digital humanist, Stefano focuses on archival practices with a knack for archival pedagogy and public-facing initiatives. He created the East Bay Punk Digital Archive, an open access archive of East Bay punk-zines, and worked as a curator and consultant for Lawrence Livermore’s archive at Cornell University. He was a Wellcome Trust Transdisciplinary Fellow in 2019-2020.