New York’s Dr. Lucky talks drag, Dixie Evans, NYU and creating experiential burlesque.
Q: You are one of the rare performers who has a day job that involves a world that is not burlesque, yet you get to be “out” about burlesque, so much so that your website even combines the two. In the daylight hours, you can be found teaching English at NYU and your evening hours can find you performing in or producing shows. Have you run into any complications being out as a burlesque performer? How do your colleagues and students respond when they find out?
A: I teach Burlesque at New York University in the Drama Department, so colleagues and students know I am a performer. In fact, it’s a plus to some degree, as I’m able to speak about burlesque both on an intellectual and a creative level. Because one of my primary areas of academic interest is burlesque, my intellectual life is intertwined with my creative work. I was performing a parody of Gypsy Rose Lee’s famed act, “A Stripteaser’s Education” called “The Educator’s Strip Tease” and after my act I was teetering around in a thong, high heels and a boa, and I saw the former chair of the Drama Department was there, watching the show. She offered me a job.
Q: Since 2005, you have taught a “History of American Burlesque” course at NYU. What have been some common misconceptions or interesting revelations your NYU students have had during the course? What are three things you wish every new neo-burlesque performer knew about burlesque?
A: Teaching a live art form always brings its fair share of advantages and challenges. Burlesque is constantly changing. Tastes are completely individualistic. Having conversations about burlesque conceptually is a constant struggle to contextualize, to understand the social mores of the time, so that we can understand what that particular performance was pushing against. Because if there is any constant in burlesque it is that it is social parody, an upheaval of accepted social norms as well as a social commentary about the times. The students are often surprised that burlesque has had such a huge influence on theater as they know it, and yet is rarely spoken about in their other classes. The main misconception that Drama students have is that because they are trained actors, that those skills will transfer seamlessly into a burlesque act. I don’t always assign a performance as a final, but when I do, students are surprised by how simultaneously liberating and challenging it is. New burlesque performers need to know about burlesque’s long and illustrious history. Everything starts there. I don’t have three things I wish every new burlesque performer knew. I have ten here.
Q: You were recently crowned Miss Coney Island Queen of Drag 2013. On the Marc Steiner show, you described burlesque as a form of drag. You also have many lectures that examine gender ideals, roles, female/female impersonation, and drag. Do you consider yourself a drag performer? Would you care to elaborate on the idea of burlesque as drag? Isn’t portraying yourself as a gender that you are not biologically essential to calling yourself drag?
A: I’ve been identifying as a female drag queen since college. Drag to me is not necessarily reducible to biology. Drag is a hyperstylized presentation of an exaggerated gender ideal. Drag queens aren’t really trying to look like women per se. In many ways, I like to think that drag can performatively enact the inherent fluidity of gender that already exists in humans. We are forced to check a box — male or female – but I don’t think gender has to be reducible to biology, and biology is not reducible to sexuality. I absolutely think that much burlesque is a form of drag. I’ve written about hyper femininity as a form of drag. I am now thinking about hyper femininity as drag not just in a postmodern context: in fact, many of the stars of the Golden Age of Burlesque were impersonating celebrities: Dixie Evans was the Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque, April March was known as the First Lady of Burlesque due to her resemblance to then first lady Jackie Kennedy. Before the sexual revolution and women’s movements began, burlesque performers were female impersonators of sorts. Burlesque, like drag, presents an exaggerated image of a fantastic ideal. And if there’s any doubt that a woman can’t be a drag queen, well then just look at who is the Reigning Miss Coney Island Queen of Drag!
Q: Last year you produced a Surrealist burlesque show that was described as “stripping meets Socrates”. It was so successful that the show returns to Coney Island this month. The show doesn’t follow the traditionally accepted format of a burlesque show (burlesque or variety act, MC, burlesque or variety act), but rather takes on a more traditional theater approach. Could you please describe your thought process behind the show, and your approach to the production and direction?
A: Surrealist Burlesque aims to present shows that are epic, multi-disciplinary, collaborations that challenge audiences to experience entertainment with their bodies and their minds. Last year’s Surrealist Burlesque show was based on Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, a seminal text from the ‘60s that lamented reality was being replaced by media representations; to address this concept, which seems to have even increased relevance today, we created an “intimate theater experience” that led spectators in small groups through interactions with performers. It was highly structured in terms of the way spectators were led through the space, but each experience was unique. The show on the sideshow stage was hosted by a television that was a given a wine bath – a Coney Island Burlesque tradition – at the end of the show. Other Surrealist Burlesque shows have included “Animal Funhouse”, based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and “20,000 Legs Under the Sea,” based on Salvador Dali’s Dream of Venus exhibit at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. For these shows, I have used multiple spaces at the Coney Island USA building, including the Museum, the Freak Bar, and, of course, the Sideshow stage, so that spectators’ experience is decontextualized from a “show” and recontextualized as experiential. In that sense, everything becomes the “show”, even those things that are not staged.
This year Surrealist Burlesque is staging a Dada Ball, which is a slight return to the traditional burlesque format, just with more non sequiturs, more surrealism, and a blurring between the categories of spectator and performer. I want this show to be a grand one, and to help make that happen we need some help. The manifestos from the Dada movement are a huge inspiration, and will make their way into the show. Spectators are being asked to dress in black tie attire, and there are a couple of staged “Happenings” that are being planned as we speak. This is very exciting to me as it asks spectators to really experience entertainment corporally and cerebrally. All of this is rather unexpected at a traditional burlesque show, but I want to push against people’s expectations, to use these profound historical texts and philosophical concepts to call attention to what is going on in our modern world. It’s not historical reenactment, it’s postmodern pastiche.
Q: Speaking of summer projects, you are on the board of Dixie Evans Week and I know the project is super close to heart. Can you tell us a little more about the celebration? How did it come to be, why is it necessary, and how can folks get involved?
A: Dixie Evans Week is a celebration and fundraiser for Dixie Evans, founder of the Miss Exotic World Competition, and the women who really put the Miss Exotic World Museum on the map. It is the rally cry of many performers and producers who love Dixie and want to help her out at this stage in her life. She suffered a stroke earlier this year, and we want to see her getting the best care that the world has to offer. Many new performers have idols from the neo-burlesque movement, which is a natural progression for a continuing art form. But we want folks to remember that most of those neo burlesque performers site Dixie as one of their inspirations. So in a sense, Dixie is an inspiration, whether you know it or not. We want Dixie to be remembered and celebrated for the important role she has played in preserving burlesque history and ephemera at a time when that collecting was not considered necessarily “collectible.” She has dedicated her life to burlesque preservation, and we hope that this celebration will help preserve her legacy in the years to come. It’s also a fundraiser to help Dixie with her medical expenses. There are many ways people can help. There will be shows all over the world during Dixie Week (August 26-September 1), so if there’s one in your neighborhood, please go. If you teach burlesque, you can donate the proceeds of a class. Performers can donate proceeds from a raffle or do an auction, as Dita Von Teese is doing now with her signed photographs on Ebay. To learn more about how you can get involved, go to www.dixieevansweek.com. Or you can give directly to the YouCaring campaign. 100% of the proceeds are going to Dixie’s medical expenses.
Q: You are currently collaborating with Dixie herself on a book length manuscript about Dixie’s life. How’s the project coming? Are you looking to have it published as a biography in book form or will it be produced as a film or play? What is your favorite memory of Dixie to date?
A: I met Dixie for an interview in 2008 for the Burlesque Hall of Fame Oral History Project, a project I began which seeks to document and preserve the stories of burlesque legends past and present. Though I had sat in on many incredible interviews before, I was not prepared for what transpired that day: I laughed, I cried, and my jaw literally dropped, a number of times, in sheer awe. The sweet, elderly woman before me was utterly transformed: she broke into Marilyn Monroe drag, imitating the star as she did for many decades, with a drawl and sex appeal that were palpable. By the end of those 21 minutes, I was sitting on the edge of my seat. It was then that I decided that I wanted to help Dixie get her story to the world.
I began recording Dixie’s later that year, and have returned numerous times to record her stories and to spend time with her. From working with her, I have learned a lot, and not just about burlesque history and her life story. Dixie is a masterful storyteller as well as an incredibly humane human being. This project has become not only about Dixie, but about the process of doing this project with her. For as I work with Dixie, I am witness not only to her stories but to the life she lives. She leaves tips for the postal worker who is burdened with delivering large amounts of mail from fans. One day we both misrecognize one of these gifts, and I pull from a cardboard box the urn that will hold her ashes when she passes away. This is the most bittersweet memory I have of working with Dixie – it is in no way my “favorite” memory as it is filled with such finality and loss. But when I’m asked about memories with Dixie, it comes back to me in all its tactile realness. Dixie is so alive, so present, so energetic, so interesting and interested in the world, and that urn represented all that she is not. But that moment reminds me that human life is precious, and that my time with her is an utter gift, and it is that gift that I want to give back to the world. After transcribing hundreds of hours of interviews, I am now rewriting the entire project, weaving stories of Dixie in the present with her stories of the past. I want the book to have a mass appeal so that Dixie’s incredible story can be heard by a broad audience. Then we can talk to Hollywood about the movie version!