Interview: Miss Violet O’Hara Cover Photo: JM Giordano
As a fellow emcee, my mind has been swirling with questions since watching you expertly host and perform during the 2011 The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend. Many of those questions were answered while attending your two classes, “Ladies & Gentleman: The Art of Emceeing Part 1 and Part 2” during BurlyCon last fall, but I’m truly thrilled to have this opportunity to interview you to learn even more about your history, current projects and words of professional wisdom.
Kate Valentine’s infamous career began in 1996 with the first neo burlesque troupe, The Velvet Hammer Burlesque and expanded with your creation of The Va Va Voom Room in 1997, but you’re also an accomplished actress, comedienne and director outside of burlesque. Please share with us your theatrical background leading up to that time period and your current endeavors. Which roles bring you the most pleasure and allow the most creative expression?
I come from a theatrical family, so I was always involved in performance in some way. I was a very shy child, but I felt very liberated on stage living within imaginary worlds. Immediately pre-burlesque, I was involved with studying and performing Shakespeare at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, Ca. and dancing with a modern dance company in the Horton style. Currently, I am making a theatre piece about honeybee depopulation syndrome loosely based on Euripides’ Trojan Women which will be presented in NYC in November. And, you know, comedy.
One of your current projects is serving as the Director of Sex Crimes Cabaret, which “navigates amazing but true sexual legislation, taboos and history in a scintillating, multi-media cabaret” and focuses on “laws against consensual sex through history and the inevitable human reaction”. This concept is fascinating to me and is yet another reminder of how awesome theater in New York is! Could you elaborate on the concept of multi-media cabaret and your experience bringing this history to the public? Are there any particular laws or legislation that really struck a nerve with you personally or that you’ve seen trying to be resurrected in the current political climate?
Sex Crimes Cabaret is the brainchild of L. Gabrielle Penabaz. I helped her as her director in late 2009. Previous to working with her I was ignorant about sexual legislation and how it can impact and oppress us today. Sex legislation is often ‘lifestyle legislation’, like illegalizing sodomy to prevent homosexuality. Like so many, I have been scandalized that it has taken so long to legalize gay marriage. However, I understand gay people who do not embrace the marriage construct and wish to keep their traditions “queer” and outside of mainstream culture. Personally, I hope that the ridiculously biased law that homosexuals cannot donate blood (ostensibly because they might be carrying the AIDS virus!!) be overturned.
During the 2009 Burlesque Hall of Fame Reunion Showcase, you surprised the audience by marrying Michelle L’Amour and Franky Vivid on stage immediately following her performance. Do you have any favorite stories you’d like to share of other nuptials, proposals or odd requests you’ve been asked to perform while hosting?
It was a huge honor to be asked to marry Franky and Michelle, and something that I took very seriously believe it or not! Other people have threatened to have Miss Astrid officiate, but so far they are the only couple I have married. I wish more people would ask me — I love a wedding!
According to the San Jose Mercury News, Miss Astrid hosts “with enough attitude to sink the Bismarke”. Have you ever slipped into character offstage to direct your famous sarcasm and razor sharp wit at an incompetent customer service rep or other everyday annoyance?
I am mostly unlike Miss Astrid, but yes, I have been known to snap back. I don’t suffer fools well, that’s for sure.
Many emcees dread the omnipresent heckler. What has your experience taught you about the motivations of an unruly audience member and what are your favorite tactics to maintain or regain control?
A heckler is either someone with terrible manners or someone who wants attention. I think a heckler is often an emcee’s best friend. They provide you with fresh material and they can help you gain the allegiance of an audience by forming a common enemy. The key is knowing who to respond to and who to ignore.
Last fall at Burlycon you gave a refreshingly direct State of the Union Address which opened up an intense discussion regarding the past, present and future of our community. Would you like to elaborate on any of your comments? Have you been surprised by the direction of the debates that have followed and have you seen any positive changes in the community because of them?
Well, I feel a lot of different ways about the speech and the response. As a seasoned performer, I felt compelled to speak frankly at BurlyCon so I do not regret that. I was very concerned with trying to be constructive, so I was surprised when people thought that it was “mean”. I have no desire to be mean, but maybe people heard Miss Astrid’s voice and not mine when they read my essay. I was encouraged by the constructive dialogue and disheartened by people who resorted to childish name calling. To what extent this has affected the community currently I’m not really sure, since I have been out of the loop with my babymaking! I was hoping people would discuss the pageant issue more. Instead, people really got focused on the semantics of professional vs. hobbyist. Honestly, I think that missed the point, which is that anything that’s worth doing is worth doing well.
During this address you stated that “An emcee is not the icing on the cake of the show, it’s the eggs. If you cannot afford an emcee or more than three performers then, quite simply, you cannot afford to present a show.” These words convey the integral role of an emcee when presenting a quality show to the public, but some consider it to be a superfluous job or a necessary evil. How can we cultivate more respect, understanding and inclusion within the community?
Just to clarify, it is not totally impossible to make an emcee-less show. I hear that The Beggar’s Carnivale in St. Louis is great & they have come up with a creative way to propel the narrative without an emcee. But really the proof is in the shows: watch a show with a good emcee or with a live band and then tell me why it would be better the other way. I don’t believe the reason for a lack of emcee is that people think it’s a ”superfluous job” or a “necessary evil”. I think it is lack of money or laziness.
Continuing with that theme, numerous resources including schools, workshops, videos, books and blogs are available for blossoming and seasoned performers looking to strengthen and diversify their skills for the stage. Do you have any suggestions for emcees looking for additional training, inspiration and support specific to our unique role?
Actually, I don’t. There are plenty of ladies who’d like to learn to fan dance and so lots of classes for that. Less so for emceeing. People are welcome to be in touch with me, I am happy to share what I know!
In your classes you’ve said that while hosting you are “the guy in the cement truck smoothing out the street” and that you approach each show “as a piece of music and I am the drumbeat or the conductor”. You also taught that a good emcee means being an entertaining custodian in service to the audience, the show and the performers. Can you share some insight on how you achieve this balance and refrain from monopolizing the stage?
I think probably thinking of the job as being in service to the audience and the performers is a good place to start. It’s not a one person show, but a variety show. I would suggest coming up with a game plan specific to each show in advance. If you have time management issues and find yourself running long, maybe you should plan on only speaking as long as the act that preceded you — so no more than 5 minutes.
Singing karaoke is one of the tactics you’ve used to entertain an audience during an unexpected delay between acts. What are your favorite tunes to croon along to and what is the most memorable reason you needed to sing them?
“Is That All There Is” by Peggy Lee is Miss Astrid’s signature song. It was sung at the end of every Va Va Voom Room show, though usually live — with Brooks “Babyface” Hartell or with the Shadenfreude Drai.
In 2010, I unexpectedly put my karaoke backup tracks to use at the NYBF. I was asked to do an impromptu moment of silence to commemorate the rash of gay suicides, which prompted the It Gets Better campaign. I suggested that instead of a moment of silence we have “a moment of noise” and lead the crowd in a rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” — a song I had never sung and probably will never sing again. I t was a great spontaneous moment and a bunch up people got swept up enough in the moment to jump on stage for a sing along.
Motherhood has recently become one of your primary roles. (Welcome to the club!) Do you feel that you have found your groove as a Mother? Do you have any amusing or terrifying parenting tales that you would like to share?
I am one of a relatively small number of showgirls that has always wanted to be a mother, so for me the whole experience is a dream come true. People told me it was going to be hard, but so far I feel nothing but immense gratitude.
Michael Sanchez, mastermind behind the new burlesque documentary Save Our Souls, talks Spike Lee, Hurricane Katrina, Banana Republic, Orphan Annie, love and redemption.
Q: After ten years in the film industry in different capacities, Save Our Souls is your first feature film. What was it about this story that made you ready to invest six years, a ton of cash, and all of your energy into this project? How did you know this was “the one”?
Save Our Souls began as a simple taping of a singular event. In fact it was Slow Burn Burlesque’s ‘South of Heaven’ at the Howling Wolf in New Orleans, where it all began. My producing partners, Richard and Philip Barnes decided to tape a show to pair with some other footage we had shot of a Roller Derby Team back in Los Angeles. Well, that one night led to more shooting, more interviews and what began to emerge was a group of people, driven by the life force of their city (New Orleans), collectively experiencing their lives through their art.
The project started to blossom and went one step further behind the scenes to unveil what it really takes to pursue the art of Burlesque. Once I began to understand the humanity, the honesty and the talent I was witnessing, the art form took on a different meaning to me. No longer was I watching strip tease, or cabaret, I was beholden to the redemption process; the struggle of life, with love and loss intertwined, and from that emerged the film we have today – Save Our Souls.
Q: The film’s website states that you began filming in the days and months immediately following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. At 108 *billion* dollars, it is the costliest “natural” disaster in US History; making post-Katrina New Orleans very different from pre-Katrina New Orleans. Before you set out to make Save Our Souls had you ever been to the city? What were your pre-Katrina experiences with NOLA?
To be clear, Save Our Souls didn’t begin filming in the months after the hurricane, however, we did recount those days from the performers’ perspective, and in most cases, ultimately showed it to be the primary impetus for them to move to the city. Being my first time to the city, I was fascinated to learn that a large percentage of the dancers were spurred by the catastrophe, to make the decision to move to New Orleans. In fact, most of the troupe took the hurricane as a direct cue, which is another theme we explore in the film.
Burlesque became their contribution to a city struggling to get back on its feet. In the film, Moxie Sazerac describes this effect as an empowerment aimed squarely at the audience, so they leave the show fulfilled, reinforced with the idea that the city they live in is on the mend, bad ass, and for even just that moment, that evening, a little bit better. Even today, it could be argued that the city is still on all fours, and just as vulnerable as the image implies. I believe it is this vulnerability that brought the troupe together; after all, burlesque itself brings elements of strength through vulnerability, which makes the New Orleans setting ring even truer.
Q: When you arrived after the storm, was your intent to make a film about the aftermath of the storm, the city, or burlesque? How did you choose the Slow Burn Burlesque troupe as your subjects?
Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, is a film production Mecca. Film being my business, I happened to be on assignment there for quite some time. In my days off, by chance, I happened to run into a Slow Burn performance, and the seed was planted. Immediately following the show I began to plot how I could capture what I saw on stage. Everything from the burly southernisms of the great Ben Wisdom, to the over the top creativity of Lady Lucerne, Roulette Rose, Nona Narcisse, Bella Blue, Ginger Licious, Kitty Twist, Ruby Rage, Roxie LeRouge, Sebastian Tchoupitoulas Rey and Moxie Sazerac.
Q: Stage manager for Slow Burn Burlesque, Sebastian Rey, talks about how much he believes New Orleans to be underrated nationally in the burlesque community, and seen as behind cities like New York, L.A., and Chicago in burlesque entertainment and entertainers. Would you agree? Is there something that struck you about New Orleans burlesque (Slow Burn in particular) that you haven’t found in the rest of the country?
Sebastian’s comments in the film are macro to a larger dynamic of New Orleans kind of always being a shittier option to the larger cities. I’ve seen shows in New York and L.A., and there is something unique to the New Orleans Burlesque community. I think Sebastian’s comments lend themselves to the idea that it’s a city prone to struggle. It’s a transient place where everyone’s either coming or going for one reason or the other. Because of the crime, the weather, and a host of other Banana-Republic – type elements, it takes a real commitment to live there.
It’s like Donkey-Island meets the Garden of Eden. Beautiful and Crazy. This in itself is a struggle amongst ideals. Everything there is just harder. People there have to be stronger. Throw in the booze, the food, the music and the heat, and you’ve got a undeniable struggle that makes its way into everything – including Burlesque.
Does that make it behind other cities like NY, LA and Chicago? I think there is a lack of recognition there, but maybe this film takes us one step closer to realizing Sebastian’s dream. He’d like that.
Q: Oddly enough, for a film with a burlesque troupe as the entire cast, Save Our Souls didn’t strike me as a burlesque documentary at all, rather the story of a group of artists and their need to create art, as an outlet and means for sanity. Did you have any previous experience with the modern burlesque revival, or burlesque in general before this project? Did you set out to create a burlesque film, and how did it evolve for you?
The film masquerade’s as a Burlesque Documentary, when in truth, it is a story about struggling artists and their journeys. I spent much of my life playing in rock and roll bands, finding limited success from time to time, always determined to ‘make it’. I can relate to the struggle. Something about Slow Burn brought that back for me. Even in the two short years I spent with them, I watched their shows improve dramatically. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, and I can’t help but wonder where they’ll all be in 10 years. Where we’ll all be in 10 years!
(I’m watching Annie right now in the background. Tomorrow, tomorrow… It’s making it hard to type.)
When we began this project we thought about doing a historical segment on Burlesque in New Orleans, using Trad Jazz, and making it way more of a “for broadcast” type of piece, but I only know what I know, and when it comes to Burlesque and Trad Jazz, I know very little other than what I’ve seen.
What I do know is what it takes to be able to call yourself a performer. I know the sacrifice, the struggle, the broken relationships, the relocating, the financial hardship, the day to day that makes a performer good at what they do. So as a filmmaker, I had to stick with what I know. Imagine if I started pretending like I had an authoritarian grasp on the Burlesque scene at any level. It would have been laughable at best. Save Our Souls showcases a troupe of burlesque artists in a way that’s true and real, and I know that’s the only way the audience will be able to relate. You can say what you want about the film, but you can’t call it fake. And that trumps all.
Q: Slow Burn is made up of mostly transplants that arrived in Katrina after the storm; with a few native Orleanians mixed in. Both “types” of residents are very candid with their feelings about their love/hate relationship with New Orleans. Were you surprised by this?
When it comes to Katrina, transplants and natives alike are very clear as to their status in terms of where they were when the storm hit. If you were to claim you were in New Orleans, or somehow affected by it, when the storm hit, when in fact you weren’t? You may as well work for BP, cause they’ll be coming for you.
To live in New Orleans is a badge of honor. The longer you stay the bigger the badge. Don’t be making the locals ask you ‘Where you get that badge from?’
Q: For a film made in post-Katrina New Orleans, I was surprised by the lack of devastation in the film, or Katrina specific stories. As someone with generations of family in the city, I know New Orleans well and visited as soon as I could after the storm (five months). The film is void of things like FEMA trailers, descriptions of the smell of rotten flesh, and nothing in the way of interviews about the storm itself. Was this a conscious move? What was the thought process behind that direction?
The intro of the film is essentially the extent to which I wanted to explore Katrina. The photos were taken by Jian Bastille in the days following the storm and are set to the music of Debauche, a Ukranian folk song, Tsvite Teren, which means ‘Blackthorn Flower’. In fact that is what is ‘growing’ through the opening titles is a blackthorn flower. One of the boats in the Katrina photos was named Blackthorn, just in case anyone was paying attention.
The intention was to set the tone and move on. Think of it like a timeline. This is where the storm happened, and this happened afterward. SOS is what happened afterward. Let’s see what happens next.
It was a very conscious decision not to include Katrina stories. We had them (footage and interviews) ranging from rows of rotting refrigerators, to miraculously recovered heirlooms, even more current disasters like the BP oil spill. My feeling was that this was all well documented, and beyond the scope of what I liked to call ‘our little rock and roll film’. How can I, as a filmmaker, start to peel back the effects of Katrina without going into the flood zones and interviewing some of the more hard hit communities. It’s a totally different movie, destined to introduce themes of racial inequality, national indifference and local fanaticism and government corruption. It could have never lived up to what exactly is and has always been going on in New Orleans, and I would still be working on it. Just ask Spike Lee.
We decided to stick to the troupe. It was an extension from the original show we had planned. Our concept was to explore each performer, their story, and then on to an ensemble finish. We also wanted to make something timeless and not linked to current events. Something someone could find years from now which still would be relevant to any kind of artist, or person facing the adversity of his or her surroundings.
Q: With so much time between 2005, when Katrina was fresh in the nation’s mind, and Save Our Souls release date- Summer 2012- do you think Hurricane Katrina has been forgotten in most American’s minds? Is it still relevant, or have New Orleans and the rest of the country moved on?
To New Orlenians, Katrina could have happened yesterday, and only once the next one hits will it be relegated to maybe having happened the week before. To America, Katrina is the skinny girl who got bounced of American Idol last week. I’m not sure anyone west of Texas could tell you the year she hit. Never mind Andrew.
When you compare Louisiana’s southern hospitality, and the city’s undeniable welcoming charm to a seemingly indifferent nation whose interests in the region are limited to NFL scandals, Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras. It’s a real slap in the face to a community who asks for nothing they aren’t prepared to give themselves.
Q: Besides the hilarity of Slow Burn front man Ben Wisdom’s preacher alter-ego and thick religious background, combined with an artists’ need to fill their spirit with the act of creating, and the soul of the city of New Orleans, was there anything I missed behind the genius title Save Our Souls?
The title has another side. It was designed to conjure the idea of a cry for help, and hopefully by the end of the film, the realization that they are helping themselves just fine (Another local theme). I really like the idea of using Sebastian’s argument of equating the Art of Burlesque to the profession of stripping. I didn’t directly dismantle this faux argument, instead I placed it near the top of the film, and kept a place for the unbeliever, the naysayer to condemn the troupe, and have pity on them throughout the duration. The film of course keeps moving and once we come to know the performers as human beings, my wish is for the audience to see the folly of their uninformed judgments and assumptions, and maybe ask themselves if their souls are the ones that need saving.
Q: The dynamic camera angles, raw silent film effects and techniques as transitions, and energetic and original soundtrack of the film are phenomenal and make it a joy rather than the chore of some documentaries (even burlesque ones). Was this a product of the collaboration between you and Slow Burn Burlesque in an effort to translate the energy of a live show into a film, or is this a signature style of yours we can expect to see more of in the future?
I shot Save Our Souls, with the undying commitment of Zack Holmes who really helped me realize the complete vision of the film. We were working with DSLR cameras, so taking photographs became a natural extension of shooting video. Many of the transitions are in fact elapsed time photography segments that add a peculiar feel to the film when artistically blurred. As though we were hovering above a miniature model of New Orleans itself, choosing where to explore from scene to scene, this omniscient approach served us well.
A lot of the editing style was introduced to me by Scott Roon, an editor in Los Angeles, who really got involved in the project by cutting together the live performances in more of a music video style. Once I saw the work he was doing, I decided that the whole film should have these quick cuts, and torn up scenes. It just matches the content so well, like it was “scraped together, and will only be this way for a moment so get a good look.”
I was also very fortunate for the contributions of Robert Davis, who along with the music of The Yelling, also provided the overall sound mix for the film. We actually created a Soundtrack based on his music that is currently available where all fine records are sold. Filed under Save Our Souls Soundtrack – Volume One.
I find documentaries a little dry, so we definitely went with the idea of something more akin to a 78 min music video. Throw in the Rock and Roll Soundtrack courtesy of The Yelling, and the crazy Russian Mafia Band – Debauche, and now you’ve got something worth watching. You either love it or hate it. Sound familiar?
Q: Speaking of signature styles and the future, you are currently working on a scripted film project. What are you at liberty to share with us about your new film endeavor?
We have a few things lined up at the moment. We’ve begun to develop a free Burlesque-centric app for the mobile and tablet platforms, which will be full featured and enable performers from every city to interact with their audience and other performers in new and exciting ways, so we’re looking forward to that launch.
The official release of Save Our Souls is fast approaching, and I’m packing my bags for the Madrid Film Festival, where Save Our Souls has been nominated for Best Short Documentary. With the recent inclusion in the Cyprus Film Festival in Greece, we’re really looking forward to bringing the stories of this fabled city to a European audience.
Currently, I’m sifting through my emails and realizing I will be back in New Orleans in July for the Slow Burn Burlesque Shake Our Souls Burlesque Contest. I also just received a call about another project in New Orleans, which begins around the same time. This may keep me there until the end of the year plus we’ve got our own film in development, which now looks like it may be set in Louisiana. (Think Angel Heart meets Powaqqatsi meets Weekend at Bernie’s on mescaline.)
Looks like I’m all hers for a little while longer. I wonder if she remembers me?
When I first wrote this article, I created a list similar to the one I had used in “How to Annoy Producers.” However, that didn’t quite work; based on the responses I got from performers when I asked them what etiquette mistakes producers make. It became more of a “business practices” forum than an etiquette forum, but hey, fair enough. Etiquette is all about respect, consideration, and awareness of other people’s comfort and business etiquette demands the name. So let’s go there.
First of all, any producer who thinks they are getting away with hitting on performers (if they hit on you, that’s a whole other thing), avoiding payment to performers, or taking advantage of new performers’ ignorance is wrong. You are being talked about and slowly blacklisted, and whether you know about it yet or not, you will.
As you read the following, it’s fair to remember that there are all kinds of exceptions, especially among friends, and some people simply have different preferences and levels of annoyance. Just about every producer, no matter how seasoned, makes some of these mistakes sometimes. However, be mindful of personal feelings even in business situations. It’s just good business to be respectful and polite.
Okay. Now, to what makes performers feel disrespected:
The number one complaint was about dressing rooms. This may be partly because I’m in New York, where there is such a dearth of real estate. However, the fact remains, it is rude to surprise the performers by having them dress in a bathroom while the bar patrons go in and out of that same bathroom. If you think this never happens, you haven’t worked in New York! Performers complained about lack of space, lack of privacy, lack of mirrors, lack of light, extreme heat and cold, and dirty conditions. Wow! So producers, if you want to preserve your respect and build your reputation, make sure that the performers have a clean private well-lit mirrored space in which to prepare. If you don’t have those resources, simply make it clear to them when you book them for the show so they can prepare for the conditions–that is where you show your respect to them. And if a performer chooses not to work with such conditions, respect it and don’t think of them as a diva. Everyone has different reasons for performing, and some performers are less social than others; some simply have such delicate costumes they can’t use those dressing rooms. It’s not personal.
The second most frequent complaint, oddly, was about producers who “say they want to book you but never do.” Personally, I think that it’s simply difficult for a producer to in fact know who they might want to book over the course of time. Their show may change; the performers’ style may change. But producers, be fair. If you are positive you are never going to book someone, don’t enthuse about putting them in your next upcoming show which is already booked solid. Let the performer get on with their business relationships with other producers.
The third most frequent complaint was about pay. The circumstance of booking a show depends largely on the producer’s relationship to the performers. Is it a friendly neighborhood show? Is it a large production where the producer is fronting a lot of money with no guarantee of full return? Is it an established weekly show with a steady audience, or is it a new show that needs performers who can support by doing just a split of the door? The primary etiquette concern here is to be honest with the performers. Tell them what and when you are paying, and tell them when you book them; then pay them that amount in a timely fashion. Respond promptly to all emails about money, even if the answer is “I don’t know.”
Another frequent complaint was about producers booking without giving information. When you book a performer, give them as much information as possible: date, time, venue, venue address, ticket price, pay, call time. Will there be a stage? A kitten? A curtain? A DJ? What music format do they need? Who else is in the show?
And it’s an odd little thing, but all performers are very sensitive about stage time. It may not be polite to talk to one performer who you don’t intend to book about how excited you are to book another performer. I’m just sayin.
Further, there was a particular loathing for not being warned about photographers being in the dressing room. And for using a performer’s photo without permission, or to promote a show s/he’s not in.
Here are a few things I have found rude:
1. Telling me it’s good exposure. Dude, I’m already pretty exposed.
The etiquette solution? Pay me, or be the New York Times.
2. Trying to get me to help them book someone else when I’ve never been in one of their shows before and can’t really give them a reference.
The etiquette solution? Contact that person on your own and don’t drop my name.
3. Trying to get me to co-produce (work on booking, promotion, venue scouting, etc. without credit or pay.
The etiquette solution? Ask me if I want to help produce and offer me credit or pay.
4 Expecting me to do the same kind of pro bono work for them I would do for people I know well.
The etiquette solution? Wait till you know me better.
5 Not asking people what music they are using and what kind of number they are doing, ensuring duplication.
The etiquette solution? Ask people what they’re doing, for heaven’s sake. Are you kidding me, two people doing white fan dances to “Feelin Good” in the same show?
6 Posting “blind strikes” on social media. An example would be, “Certain people better not be booking the same performers I’m booking” or any other statement that clearly implies to whom they’re referring.
The etiquette solution? Grow some ovaries and get a face-to-face, and keep it discreet unless this person is a clear and present menace to the community.
7 Asking performers to perform in a benefit for them to do something that performer is paying to do themselves; or in a benefit that doesn’t really serve the cause as much as it serves attaching the producer’s name to that cause.
The etiquette solution? Involve an established charity that serves the cause. Or, pay the performers to perform in the benefit. You heard me. Yes, people get paid to perform in benefits, even if it’s just cab fare.
8 Asking me while I’m on my way out the door for the show if I can do two numbers and then being peeved when I can’t (I don’t mind getting together another number at the last minute when I can).
The etiquette solution? If I can’t do it, say thank you and move on. And if someone cancelled and I’m covering with an additional number, you have a little extra cash you can offer me, do you not?
9 Doing a six-hour show with no way for us to get drinks or snacks through the entire event.
The etiquette solution? Have water and some non-messy snacks available.
10 Insisting I wear a big fancy white costume and asking me to get dressed in a dark dirty room.
The etiquette solution? Warn me about the dressing room and ask me what I have that’s appropriate.
Overall, as you can see, we get cranky when we’re disrespected! We really want to just have fun, but we do work hard on our numbers and in order to keep going, we need support and good manners!
VaVaVette, Denver’s one- stop burlesque shop opens later this month! If you’re near Denver- Make sure you visit their Grand Opening June 22nd! VaVaVette is located on the south side of Wazee Union.
D.I.Y. by Cora Vette- The Shimmy Belt
The Shimmy belt is a burlesque staple that has been used and abused by more burlesque performers that you can poke a stick at. They have been glued, pinned, sewn, stapled and put together in countless ways. This D.I.Y. article explains how to make a fully sewn shimmy belt that will not melt in your car on long trips across the country to perform with your fabulous friends in other titties…I mean cities…
First, you need a sewing machine. True, you could sew it by hand, but who really wants to do that? There are tons of stitches…sew many stitches…My sewing machine is the magical Pfaff 1222E that my mom got when I was born. It sews through damn near anything. But, I believe for this project, any ol’ machine will do.
You will want to get a sewing machine needle that is made for denim or a heavier fabric. The thinner ones will break trying to go through the bulky fringe and belting. Ask your local sewing store if you are unsure of which type of needle you need.
The big rule of fringe is, NEVER pull the stabilizing thread that connects the fringe at the bottom until AFTER you are completely finished. Trust me, I did it once. A renegade 6-inch piece of blue fringe got tangled under the needle and caused $300 worth of damage to my beloved Pfaff…lesson learned.
Ok, down to the real business. I use a base of 1 inch nylon webbing. It is strong and wears well. It doesn’t shrink or expand with sweat (not that we sweat of course)…
Choose a nice big zig zag stitch. You want to use a zig zag stitch because even though the belt and fringe don’t have much stretch to them, the zig zag will accommodate any stress the belt may have to take and prevent the thread from snapping.
Lay the bottom layer (if doing a multi-layer fringe belt like this one) near the bottom of the webbing as pictured and stitch. For the best attachment, I try to get most of the tightly sewn loop at the top of the fringe to overlap the webbing. For this project, I was making a three layer fringe belt, but you can do it with two or even one. Fringe can be expensive! Just adjust where you place the fringe on the belt to leave room for how many layers you are planning to use. Note: Always start with the bottom layer. It is much easier to sew additional layers of fringe on top, rather than to try to sew fringe under fringe…this is not fun and should not be attempted by anyone. Seriously, it is just icky. If you are only using one layer, sew it near the top.
There are many ways to finish and adorn the top of your shimmy belt. For this one, I used Wrights Extra Wide Double Fold Bias Tape. But, you could use any kind of trim, sequins or beading…really, anything you wish. To apply the bias tape, unroll the package and wrap it around the top making sure that the longer side is under the belt so when you sew the top, you are also catching the bottom in your stitch. The sewing is done!
Now, all that is left is to attach the fastener! I use heavy duty snaps because they are strong and easy to remove onstage. But, you can also use hooks or velcro or any other attachment.
Then, all that is left is to pull the bottom thread, and start shaking it!
Of course, If you don’t want to go through all the trouble of making one yourself, we have custom shimmy belts for sale online at VaVaVette.com. Until next time…Happy Shimmying!
xoxo Cora Vette
If you are in showbiz everything is negotiable. A successful negotiation is when all sides leave the table happy and eager to return to do business with one another again. Here are our top 5 tips for making sure your negotiations run smoothly.
1. Know Your Price in Advance
Performers: You are not putting a price tag on yourself; you are putting a price on your numbers. Thinking this way will help you to not take negotiations personally and allow you more versatility. Your signature numbers or those with large props or a lot of supplies should cost more than your smaller numbers that have less preparation required. Creating a new number should cost more than booking an existing one, and travel out of town should cost more than performing locally. Price out a range that you think is fair for each of your numbers, and each possible scenario, this way you have a starting point and aren’t going in blind. Going in blind leaves you at the mercy of the producer.
Producers: Know your budget for a show in advance. Know the costs of everything from the venue and security to the advertising. Come up with a firm number you have for talent. Then take that number and decide how to use it. How many performers do you want? Are headliners paid more? Once you have priced out each slot in the show you are ready to start contacting performers and negotiating.
2. Keep Your Contact Professional
Texting is a completely inefficient and unprofessional form of communication for a proper dialogue. Always conduct negotiations by phone or email. If you conduct by phone initially, follow up with a summary email of your conversation so everyone is on the same page.
Never mix a business call with a pleasure call. Many times we are working with our friends in this industry. Never start a conversation with dinner plans, gossip, or current events, and then try to transition into a business call. That is an old salesman trick to get people off of their game, because it is hard to be firm with a friend, and hard to switch gears from casual to business. Always open with the business conversation.
3. Collect Information First- Resist the Urge to Answer on the Fly
Collect all the information first. What numbers are being requested? Is there a theme to the show? What is call time? Is there a proper dressing room? What’s the venue?
As a producer, you can quote your budget for the numbers you are requesting, and as a performer you can name your price (see #1), but the minute you realize your numbers don’t match, back up. It is perfectly fine for either side to say, “I’ll have to think about it. Can you give me a day to get back to you?” If the answer is no, and one side or the other cannot wait a day, it’s probably a situation worth passing on, as anything worth doing is worth doing right. Do remember to respond by the deadline you set.
4. Always Negotiate with Long Term Gain/Relationship in Mind
Remember that the goal of a successful negotiation is that both sides leave happy and eager to work together again. Never burn a bridge over $20. It’s fine to stick to your guns, but always be respectful, and leave the door open for contact about the next opportunity. You may see eye to eye the next go around.
5. Consider other avenues of payment
Maybe you’re not meeting eye to eye on hard money amounts, so what about throwing other things into the mix? A trade works when both parties benefit equally. Maybe the producer is also a fabulous costumer and you need a new shimmy belt. Maybe the producer can set up a workshop for you at their dance studio or hook you up with another space in town. All of these have value and should be considered. Avoid accepting trades that don’t actually benefit you. Remember 99% of the time, “It will be great publicity” is a lie. All you publicize is that you work for free.
A self-made woman, ‘Texas’ Guinan created a mythology around herself, much like Mae West or The Great Ziegfeld. It’s hard to tell how much of her autobiographical storytelling is based in truth; as Tex said herself, “Exaggerate the world!” What is definitely true is that Texas Guinan was a character, a cowgirl, a silent film actress, a syndicated newspaper columnist, ‘Queen of the Nightclubs’ during Prohibition, and a natural-born hustler.
Tex was born in Waco, Texas in 1884, and given the name Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan. Raised with the social grace of the Victorians, she still turned out to be a tomboy and a troublemaker at her Catholic school. Tex was a full-blooded Irish and a force to be reckoned with; it seems that she most always did exactly as she pleased, and what pleased her most was adventure. She told tales of joining the circus as a young girl and, being an excellent trick rider, they may have been true. Her skills as a horsewoman certainly served her well in tinsel town.
After spending some time as a socialite in Denver and two years married in Chicago, Guinan took off for New York City to make a career for herself. Her big personality and quick wit made her a vaudeville star in no time. Then, during WWI, she toured France, entertaining the troops, after which she relocated to Los Angeles to make a name for herself in the movies. Eschewing the traditional female dichotomy of roles (damsel in distress or femme fatale) she brought her own boisterous character onto the big screen, and made two-reel westerns where she was a heroine and rootin’-tootin’ cowgirl, but also a romantic.
After years of a successful film career, and less successful production company, Tex tired of the cinema life and returned to the lights of Broadway. With Prohibition now monitoring the city’s night life, it didn’t take Tex long to find a new niche. What began as merely outings for her and her showbiz friends, evolved into a hostessing position, and before long, she had a partnership with a bootlegger in her own nightclub. In fact, she played a big part in the development of the modern nightclub. With a $6 cover charge and $1.50 drinks (in the 1920, mind you), it’s no wonder Tex coined her infamous phrase, “Hello Suckers!” Although Tex herself was never a drinker, she could spot a good business opportunity, and put Prohibition to work lining her pockets. A brassy blonde with a big heart and a big mouth, the customers warmed up to her easily, and she was quick to learn every patron’s name. She said, “A nightclub hostess – if she is successful – should make people forget they have homes. This proves the old theory that an indiscretion a day will keep depression away.” Tex’s easy banter even turned police raids into just another dog and pony show. The frequent raids and closing of clubs also spurred her to produce a Broadway show, Padlocks of 1927.
But she couldn’t’ keep the cops at bay forever – in 1928 she was jailed as part of the biggest nightclub raid in New York history, and was charged with being a public nuisance. However, a couple of the arresting officers had been frequenting the club, on the taxpayers’ dime (doing undercover work, of course) and the charges against Tex were dropped. Soon after, she filmed Queen of the Nightclubs, cementing her status as a Prohibition legend. She later stated, “I have been credited with much and charged with plenty…Whenever they have a new law they try it out on me.”
Although she passed away in 1933, just one month before the repeal of Prohibition, she was known to say, “They will have to padlock my coffin if they expect to keep me in it.”
Lillith Grey has been lighting up the stage for over five years as a burlesque and fetish performer, musician, and emcee, and can frequently be found performing in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. She holds a master’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in education, and is currently completing her Ph.D. in psychology. She has worked as a psychotherapist, educator, and social justice advocate, and currently teaches at a local university while working on her research. She travels extensively, teaching classes and workshops on a variety of subjects including relationships, communication, trauma, body image, sexuality and gender, and diversity issues. Lillith is also active in the Leather community, serving on the NLA-International Writing Awards committee and as a co-chair for the Women’s International LeatherFest. Visit her at www.LillithGrey.com for more information.
Have a question for our new advice columnist? Please title your email “Lillith- _subject___” and send to editor [at] pincurlmag [dot] com
A few weeks ago, a lot of my burlesque friends shared an article on
Facebook called “The Shittiest Burlesque I’ve Ever Seen” by AlitaO’Ginn.
While most of my friends were saying “I agree,” or “She hit the nail on
the head,” I myself was thinking, “Oh crap, I hope I’m not one of those
I’ve been doing burlesque for a little over a year now, and I feel I’ve
come a long way. But most of the girls I dance with have experience in
everything from ballet to pole dancing. I’ve taken several burlesque
classes and workshops, but most of what I do is self-taught. I don’t have
any formal dance training under my belt, and while I’m not trying to be
better than the girls in my troupe, I also don’t want to be the weakest
I wish I had time (and money) to take all the burlesque classes in the
world. So I guess my question is, are the best burlesque dancers formally
trained in ballet, modern dance, etc.? How can I gain more confidence as a
dancer? Also, what are your thoughts on this article?
Wow, that’s a powerful article! Miss O’Ginnmakes a pretty strong statement about what kind of burlesque she enjoys watching – it’s clear she enjoys seeing highly talented, well-rehearsed, creative, and original performances, which is probably something all of us enjoy. It is definitely one way to approach burlesque, but not the only way. I feel saddened that her opinion was presented in a way that was demeaning and attacking, and I would venture to say you are not the only one who felt discouraged after reading it.
The article evoked quite a bit of reaction from all sides. Mat Ricardoargued on his blog that to expect perfection from an art form that requires growth and development undermines performers from the start and ignores their personal growth as an artist. Ben Walterspointed out that “mediocre” shows still thrive, suggesting audiences may be looking for something other than perfection. These articles and others provide a variety of perspectives on the matter, which I think is great. There’s not one right answer here, so participating in community dialogue can help tease out some of the nuances surrounding the article and help you come to your own answers.
In my experience both as a performer and audience member, burlesque is a powerful political statement about creative expression, willingness to share intimate space with others (shared humor and shared eroticism), and our ability to push boundaries. I don’t believe it’s only about the physical tease, as Miss O’Ginn argues it is. Regardless of how polished or perfect a performance is or isn’t, behind the “show” there is a person onstage sharing a piece of themselves in a really profound way. For me, the over-polished, flawless performance doesn’t touch me the way an authentic gift of self does, even if that gift lacks in technical expertise.For many people (perhaps most?) burlesque is art, not science. It’s an expression of spirit and vulnerability that empowers both the performer and the audience. I think that’s what audiences relate to, and I think that’s why they keep showing up, even to so-called “shitty” burlesque shows.
Miss O’Ginn commented that“watching someone work through their self-image issues onstage is uncomfortable and embarrassing.”Not only do I disagree with publicly judging other people’s personal growth processes (no one’s forcing her to watch it), I also flatly disagree with the statement itself. We are immersed in a culture that shames our bodies at every turn, and I hate that this article has added to that shame. Honestly, watching someone who is bold enough to challenge their own fearsand be relentlessly authentic is, to me, anything but uncomfortable and embarrassing. It may not be as captivating or breathtaking as highly skilled performers, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. Intentional vulnerability is powerful.
I think it’s also important to note that many audience members have favorite performers, people they know personally or interact with via social media, and they go to shows to support those performers. Burlesque audiences, generally speaking, are not merely consumers of entertainment – they love and feel connected to the performers, and they want to see those performers for who they are. The truth is, these “shitty” shows still draw enough of a crowd to support them, so I think it’s safe to say that Miss O’Ginn doesn’t speak for the majority of audience members.
To answer your question about your own performances, I think you should look at what how you want to connect with your audience and what the purpose of your work is. There is definitely a market for the type of shows Miss O’Ginnlikes, and there’s also a market for more personal kinds of shows as well. Neither of these are inherently wrong; think Broadway compared to community theater. Each is valuable in their own way, but if you go to community theater expecting to see Broadway, yeah, you’re gonna be disappointed. Miss O’Ginn seems to know what she expects, and it’s probably good that she avoids the shows that make her feel uncomfortable. But honestly, most people who go to community burlesque know what they’re getting, and they love it.
There is one rule, however, that transcends the “type” of burlesque you do. Many years ago I was in a cabaret show choir; we performed all over the Dallas area at festivals and fairs and theaters. The week before the opening of one of our shows, the director threw her notebook across the room and shouted “I’m canceling the show!” We were literally speechless as she accused us of being lazy and more focused on rhinestones and fishnets than the quality of the show. Then she said, “if we don’t have anything to show, we’re not doing a show” and stormed out of the room. I will never forget it, and I think it was the best thing she could have done for us. So that’s the rule: if you don’t have something to show, don’t get up on a stage. Don’t get up there for the sake of being up there. You’re sharing energy with your audience, which means you have to hold up your end of the bargain. Always give it everything you’ve got.
The last thing I want to address is the presence of privilege in burlesque, which you alluded to when you mentioned not having the time or money to get the kind of training you want. I am always saddened when I see or hear performers make snide remarks about the quality of costumes performers have or the way someone looks. Many dancers have to do their own hair and get creative with thrift store finds – Swarovski and studio space are not accessible to everyone. Does that mean that performers with less time and money are inherently less valuable than performers who have more? Absolutely not! Does that mean performers with fewer resources might have to work a little harder to pull off something spectacular? Probably so, but that doesn’t make it less valuable. In some ways it may generate even more authentic creativity.
So if you want to become that high-caliber, technically skilled and savvy performer who sells out shows and leaves audiences breathless, then I would say yes, you’ll need to devote your time, money, and energy toward that end, like you would in any profession. If you are happy expressing yourself among like-minded people in your community, collaborating with others, and sharing energy with an audience that sees you for who you are, then be who you are and do what you do – that’s beautiful and valuable too.
Confidence comes from within, and your personal work will shine through your performances. Check out Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” an outstanding book about tapping into your unique creative center. She writes, “As you learn to recognize, nurture, and protect your inner artist, you will be able to move beyond pain and creative constriction.” We all experience the pain of feeling not good enough, and that has a huge impact on how we share ourselves with others. Love yourself, accept yourself, and be yourself, and let your spirit shine through your performances. That’s true art.