Burlesque Etiquette with Jo Weldon
We couldn’t think of anyone’s advice we’d rather take than Miss Jo “Boobs” Weldon, Founder of the New York School of Burlesque and author of The Burlesque Handbook, which is why we’re thrilled to have her as our Burlesque Etiquette contributor! Have a question you’d like Jo to answer? Please title your email “Etiquette- _your issue___” and send to editor [at] PinCurlMag [dot] com and we will send them right over to her!
I’m Just Letting You Know…
People with a bit of experience often ask me how to tell people with less experience that they are using someone else’s stage name, repeating a common theme, or have some kind of figurative spinach in their teeth.
I posted a question asking performers what and how they’d like to be told that they were making professional mistakes or that they could use improvement in an area that was affecting the way their performances were perceived. Overwhelmingly, all of them preferred having the bad news to continuing to work in ignorant bliss. All also agreed that phrasing the comment or criticism in form of “you may want to know this” rather than “I can’t believe you don’t know that” made the unfortunate information easier to hear and absorb. In addition, all of them wanted to know as soon as possible.
I’ve noticed an unfortunate tendency among a few experienced performers and producers to say, “They should know,” or “They should do their research.” I understand this to an extent, but as an instructor, I see people coming in with ideas that aren’t necessarily wrong, but perhaps more likely incompatible with the burlesque culture in which those producers and performers operate.
For instance, all the eye-rolling over the choice of “Feelin’ Good” or over a white feather fan dance or a Bob Fosse-styled jazz dance with minimal striptease are a bit self-serving. While it’s true that many highly experienced performers are well sick of “Night Train,” they are unlikely to be paying to come see the new performers’ shows. The new performers’ audiences may never have seen such a thing. So while it’s fair to let new performers know that this may be considered overdone, I prefer to think of such aesthetic decisions, and express to new performers, as “burlesque standards.” In other words, such acts are important fundamentals, and certainly worthy of repertory, but not innovative. I see no reason to dampen the enthusiasm of new performers and audiences with jadedness and snobbery. I’ll take a well-executed burlesque standard to a poorly-conceived innovative act any day; but some people feel just the opposite. My concern, as far as etiquette is regarded, is simply to let new performers know that such perceptions and conversations are likely to occur if they submit burlesque standards to established producers and festivals.
Of course, it’s a little harder to explain to someone that pouring sugar or glitter over yourself while playing “Pour Some Sugar on Me” has also been performed by an uncountable number of strippers over the past 25 years, but that’s when research DOES come in handy. And in that case, the suggested etiquette from our panel was to say something along the lines of, “I love that, but you should know that Pepper AuPoivre does something similar, and you may want to do some research on him and other people who use the same song before you get too invested.” If someone takes this input poorly, they’ll be the ones to suffer; offering such gentle advice is an act of kindness and respect to both the newcomer and the more established performer.
If someone starts using a stage name that could get them confused with an established performer, I always let them know. I tell them, “If a producer wants to book you and Googles your stage name, they might come across this other person first, and they might get your gig!” this takes care of the use of “Kitty’ as well. I also let them know that if their stage name is difficult to spell or pronounce, it can make them harder to find for bookings. I always frame it as a matter of professional advantage, rather than as a matter of them infringing on the rights of the other performer. In such a case, etiquette is partly about thinking about what the person you’re addressing hopes to achieve!
Many performers expressed appreciation for having been told that their hair or makeup was sloppy or otherwise disappointing for a burlesque stage. One would think it would be obvious that a ten-dollar wig may not be up to a an expensive costume, or that party makeup doesn’t show up onstage, or that ratty shoes bring down the look of a hot go-go outfit, but nothing is obvious when you’re new. One performer after another told me that they were grateful for help with wig styling, eyelash and eyeliner application tips, and guidelines on where to go for reasonably priced sexy shoes. All of them told me that the advice had been offered not in the spirit of aesthetic correction, but as professional advice: “Producers really love to see a well-put-together costume, and your wooden bead necklace is distracting from your gorgeous outfit.”
Many producers and performers have also been experiencing a performer who’s new to their burlesque community billing themselves as “The Very First [Adjective] Performer’ when they have been doing an [Adjective] act or show for ten years. In fact, it’s really common for people new to this scene saying things like, “Someone ought to…” when in fact at least one, and possibly many, people do. If they’ve seen all showgirls, they might think, “Someone ought to do a rock n roll show” or if they’ve seen all nerd burlesque shows they might think “Someone ought to do an old-school burlesque show.” I often hear newer performers and producers saying, “Someone ought to do a show with a live band and a comedian as MC” when in fact this happens every week in New York. At this point the experienced performer really can tell them that they need to do their research. However, etiquette requires that this be couched in the form of professional coaching rather than be expressed with disdain for their laziness, presumption, and lack of originality. “When I have an idea, I always google it,” I say.
And one more etiquette tip for the new performer—you aren’t always innocent. If you wonder if a performer who does a certain kind of move in their burlesque number minds if you do the same, the only person to ask is that performer. Rest assured that they will want to say no, but they won’t want to be heard saying no. You have to decide whether you can do a number that look distinctly different enough that they will never be asked if your number inspired them or if you taught them how to do it. Whether or not they were the first o ever do it may not be the point. If it looks too similar, and you saw them do it before you decided to do it, consider that you really shouldn’t do it. In such a case, imitation is not the highest form of flattery; it’s the most insulting form of flattery. As a teacher, people often use my moves, because I teach them in class; as a performer, if I do something onstage that I don’t teach in class, or that I never saw anyone do onstage in burlesque before I did it (and it’s easier for me because when I started there were very few performers, though even so I’ve made mistakes regarding appropriating other people’s material or thinking I was the first to do something), then I do very much mind if someone else sees me do it and decides to do it. And I certainly prefer that a colleague of mine gently inform them, rather than having to inform them myself.
Remember, etiquette isn’t just about sharing your knowledge or information. It’s about considering the outcome of the conversation and the intention behind your remarks. If your intention is to show off what you know or diminish the newcomers’ enthusiasm, you won’t be well-received. If your intention is to help them avoid professional conflict or failure, then you’re on the right track. “I’m doing it for the community” is a bit grandiose, but it’s believable that you want to help your professional and personal associates protect their established shows and ideas; it’s not terrible to be self-serving, but it’s a bit ridiculous to think that the future of burlesque depends on your saying something when someone wants to do a Star Trek tribute show and you know someone already does one. When you talk to someone about something you think they should do or not do, think about the desired outcome of the conversation before you speak! When you say, “I’m just letting you know,” ask yourself if that’s what you’re really doing, and even if your motivations aren’t that pure, do your best to make it sound as if they are. Most newbies to burlesque will listen if they’re not treated like idiots—remember, they may be highly accomplished performers in theater, dance, or another discipline, and they deserve to be addressed with respect.
More From Jo: How to Annoy Performers