Burlesque Etiquette with Jo Weldon: These Children That You Spit On

Jo Weldon (Photo: DallasPinUp.com)
Jo Weldon (Photo: DallasPinUp.com)

These Children That You Spit On: Established Performer to New Performer Etiquette

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!

In The Burlesque Handbook, there is an entire chapter on etiquette. Since the book is intended to be fundamental, most of the etiquette in the chapter is designed to help new performers, known affectionately as newbies. The goal of the chapter is not just to help them avoid offending established performers, but to understand how to get gigs and get called back for more. When I teach I try to frame my advice as useful to helping new performers get what they want, rather than as a way of teaching them to care what established performers think. For instance, when I talk about stage names, I don’t tell them that established performers will find it annoying if a new performer uses a stage name too similar to names that already exist. I tell them it will make their stage name hard to find when producers do an internet search for them, and that they’ll get confused with other performers, which could result in getting fewer gigs. It does behoove new performers to learn from experienced performers. The experienced performers are often the ones who got the revival started in the first place, the ones who gave it a reputation as a form of entertainment appealing to mixed audiences, who helped build it into contemporary culture. The perspectives and information gained by experience have unique value.

Most new performers and most experienced  performers treat each other with respect and generosity–not to mention that most of the legends these days are  loving and supportive, unlike the haters of my early strip joint years. However, I’ve seen a few instances of bad behavior that drove me to consider etiquette from the angle of experienced-to-newbie.

A few of the suggestions I offer new performers in The Burlesque Handbook:

1) Ask before taking pictures backstage. A person who doesn’t mind being seen naked onstage may not want to be photographed checking for a tampon string, especially if s/he hasn’t finished her/is makeup.
2) Do not perform a messy number (whipped cream, water, confetti, wax, etc.) without permission. Cleanup is boring for the audience, and if you can’t be interesting without endangering your fellow performers by making the stage slippery, you’re a crappy performer.
3) Don’t bring a plate of spaghetti backstage. It isn’t just the chance it might stain the costume, though that’s important; it’s the chance that the smell might remain in someone’s costume. If you think we clean those things frequently, you ARE new.
4) Don’t bring your friends backstage. Especially friends with benefits.
5) Don’t distribute flyers for shows at other venues without asking. And don’t just ask the producer, ask the venue.
6) Be wary of calling yourself anything unless you’re reasonably sure it’s true. You are probably NOT “The First Ballerina in Burlesque!” Wait a minute–I’m SURE you’re not.
7) Don’t add people to your email list without asking. Especially if you haven’t added yourself to theirs.
8) Don’t use another performer’s signature gimmick in your act. If you see someone using one of my gimmicks, smack ’em.
9) Don’t assume that anyone owes you stage time based on how hard you worked or how much money you spent. Or for any other reason.
10) Don’t contact a producer and say, “I’ve never seen your show, but I’d love to be in it.” You should be in their audience, at least on Youtube, before you get on their stage. That represents only about 5% of the chapter, which includes detailed explanations for why I make these recommendations.

However, I didn’t spend much time in the book talking about how established performers treat new performers.

When I first started working in strip joints in 1980, there were still what we now call “Legends of Burlesque” working in the clubs, usually as costumers or house mothers. And they HATED us.  They had worked in the 40s-70s and they’d had minks and limousines and choreographers and champagne and feather boas and had all been engaged to Frank Sinatra. We were whores in spandex who were destroying the art form with our full nudity and jukeboxes and lack of artistry. I certainly wasn’t inclined to think of them as mentors. Realistically, they didn’t have much to offer in terms of helping me make more money–their era, which in some cases was only ten years past, had a different format. If I had done what they did I wouldn’t have gotten the results they got. Also, I didn’t care to be trained to end up stuck in a strip club I detested. I did, however, adore them for their stories. And their incredible hair and nails. And I really wanted to get paid to prance around in a beaded gown and play with ostrich fans and boas, although it took me another 12 years to figure out how to make that happen.
Remembering how they alienated us, I’d like to share a few of my thoughts on how the established performers of 2013 might relate to the new blood. Even if you disagree, I hope it gives you food for thought.

1) Remember that things are supposed to change. If burlesque looked the same as it did fifteen years ago, that would be weird. And if you were doing the exact same thing you were doing fifteen years ago you’d be bored out of your skull.
2) Give them a reason to care what you think. If you think that they’re destroying the art form, why should they care? Are they having fun making new friends and earning money doing what they love and delighting audiences with their aesthetic? Are you considering paying to get into their shows? WHY should they care what you think?
3) Don’t be offended if they do burlesque repertory (ie, things that have been done before). They may come from an art form where that is what you do–you watch people do the thing, you learn the thing, you do the thing. Give them some time to get to know the community before you get all up on your hind legs about it.
4) Don’t give them a hard time for doing it differently than you do. Otherwise what can they do but do what you do?
5) Don’t mistake your insecurity about your future for concern about the art form. These kids WILL get your gigs. You will find people who value experience– let new performers find people who value the new. It’s a beautiful thing that there are audiences for both.
6) Don’t feel superior because they’re dying to dress up like a superhero or because they’re dying to dance with  feather fans and you feel you’ve seen it all before. They may attract people who’ve never seen that before. You may not be their intended audience. Just because they’re not blowing you away doesn’t mean they’re not blowing someone else away, and initiating new audiences who may end up paying to see your show. Do tell them if an act they’re doing isn’t likely to be unique enough to get them into a particular festival, IF THEY ASK YOUR ADVICE.
7) Don’t ask them to work for free just because they’re new. If you have an intern slot or an audition slot, that’s one thing, but if you’re asking them to do something that you would prefer to use an
experienced performer for, but you’re trying to avoid paying anyone so you can make more money than you’re entitled to, you’re exploiting their hunger to get onstage and it’s icky.
8) You can let them know if they are doing an act that is likely to spark conversation about copying another person’s act or if they are engaging in cultural appropriation. You don’t have to lecture them about it–just let them know they are going to end up having certain conversations if they continue. They may not appreciate it, but you’d let them know if they were about to trip over a rock, wouldn’t you?
9) If you think they suck, don’t hire them for your show or venue. And don’t tweet about them sucking or annoying you (you don’t have to name them for them to know who you mean). Maybe they’ve been paying to see you perform or get into your show for the past five years.
10) Remember that a newbie may have mad skills in an area in which you have none and may be a rockstar in another field than burlesque.

If you want to enjoy your community, be willing to find inspiration in your generation, the generations before you, and the generations after you. Respect works best as a two-way street. If you don’t respect the pioneers of your art form, you’re setting the standard for disrespect of pioneers and setting yourself up to become a has-been when the new breed after you accomplishes things and establishes themselves. If you don’t respect the new breed, you’re setting the standard for exclusivity and alienation and setting yourself up to become a has-been when the new breed after you accomplishes things and establishes themselves. Be secure in yourself, respect everybody’s ambition and accomplishments, and live and work in the present.

And finally–yes, somebody is always ruining burlesque. It’s been ruined a million times. Histories of burlesque usually detail its demise. Your perception that burlesque is being destroyed is accurate.
However, if your shows, which you structure and style as you like them to be, keep selling out, and you keep being flown around the world to perform, and you keep getting press, and your audiences remain loving and enthusiastic, the demolition of burlesque may be just what you need.

Want to see more of Jo’s etiquette columns? Check out: Stage Kitten Etiquette, Making Introductions: Emcee Etiquette,  Photos & Pasties, How to Annoy Producers, How to Annoy Performers,  I’m Just Saying, Headliner Etiquette – Part 1, Social Media Etiquette for Nearly Naked People 

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