I caught the tail end of a thread a few weeks back in which local producers were in a heated discussion which raised questions I’ve seen echoed time and time again throughout the national burlesque community. The commentary was divided into two camps: the newer performers/ producers, and the “veterans”. One school of thought was, and I am paraphrasing, that burlesque production is an art form open to everyone and self-expression should not be stifled; the other side of the coin is that burlesque production is a business, and your crappy show is turning people off from burlesque in general, and you should pay your dues before you try to contribute. As can be expected, the thread moved away from intelligent debate and more into name-calling and heated words. After reading it all, I found myself contemplating the debate in the weeks that followed.
How about “You do you, and I’ll do me”?
Do we ever hear folks complaining that there are just too many movies being made, or too many live music shows in town, or too many theatrical productions? No. Never. The difference here is all of these art forms have been mainstream for a very long time. Unless you are lucky enough to live in a town where burlesque is mainstream, and everyone knows that there are a ton of different styles of burlesque productions to choose from, and some shows are better than others, then there is an argument to be made that your burlesque show affects my burlesque show. I have actually heard potential fans leave a show saying, “I saw burlesque for the first time. It sucked.” I usually follow up with questions like, “What were you expecting?” to try and determine a show in the area that is more in line with the style they were looking for. Hopefully, they’ll listen to recommendations and give burlesque another shot. If they don’t, that’s a loss for all of us. So yes, your show does affect the community at large.
Won’t capitalism work that out?
Sure. Eventually, the bad shows will die out due to lack of audience or lack of performers willing to work with them and great shows will always thrive and grow. However, what unnecessary damage is being done to burlesque as an art form in the mind of the general public in the meantime?
So what you’re saying is I don’t have a right to do shows then? Only your show is valuable?
No, that’s not what I am saying at all. There is no room in burlesque for elitists. Burlesque is all about satire, so it is pointless to take yourself too seriously. Sometimes you have to take a step back and realize when you are only a star in your own mind. Being “green” or “veteran” is all a matter of perspective. No matter who you are, someone somewhere has been doing it longer. I have seen newbies absolutely kill it, and I have seen mediocre shows produced by veterans, go on far too long just treading water.
However, it is not elitist to want some quality control. The minute you open yourself up to the public, and charge a ticket price to an unsuspecting audience, you are advertising that you are a professional. As such, you have a responsibility not only to your audience, but to your local burlesque community as well.
What responsibilities do I have?
1. Do Your Research. Get honest with yourself about why you are producing.
If you are one of many in your area, examine what you bring to the table that no one else does. Is there a gap you are noticing in your community? Have you been to many, many shows in your town and found that there is a certain demographic or genre being left out? Have you seen the best your town has to offer and know you could do better? Are you being rewarded for your great work with ever increasing audiences, and tons of performers who are dying to be part of your production?
On the flip side- Did you start producing just to have a place to perform, or a place to headline? Did you like the idea of “throwing a party with your friends, for your friends?” Did you want to feel some sense of importance within the community, and validation as a “valued player”? Do you book anyone who answers your call for performers? Do you throw your hands up and say ‘whatever- it’ll be fine’ instead of combing through the details of your own production? Do you spend more time thinking about the experience backstage than the experience of your audience? Is your first reaction to criticism to surround yourself in a safety bubble made of folks who will blow smoke up your ass and tell you how wonderful you are?
If anything in that second paragraph had the sting of uncomfortable truth, and you wondered if you fell into that category- then you do. If this is the case, you should not be producing. It’s harsh, and I tried to think of another way to word it, but I can’t. I feel strongly about this. There are many ways you can be a valuable member of your burlesque community without putting on burlesque shows that are a disservice to your community.
2. Advertise your show accurately.
Not every show in town can be the “event not to be missed”, “the most amazing show”, or “something for everyone”, or any other of the generic descriptions we see all of the time.
Get specific. Is your show neo? Classic? Comedic? Is your show striving to challenge the standards of beauty in society? Is your show community based and welcoming to performers of all experience levels, or is it featuring seasoned performers, from both local and national scenes? Then say it! The images you use in your promotions should be real images of performers in the cast (I have seen blanket stock photos used of Chippendale’s type dancers or the like, when the actual boylesque production featured no one who looked remotely like the flyer) and the words should be sincere & accurate.
There is nothing wrong with having an “open mic” type bar show that welcomes performers of all levels. In our local drag community, I often go to the amateur nights as opposed to the pro nights because I find them more fun and unpredictable. Which begs the question, why do I see “open mic” night at comedy clubs, and “amateur night” at drag shows, but no such distinction made in the advertising of local burlesque shows?
And please, please, please- if it is a student showcase- advertise it as such!
3. Seek out critique.
I distinctly remember a show I did several years ago, where every technical aspect of the show that could go wrong- did. It wasn’t the fault of the performers; it was the part of the production team, of which I was in charge. At the end of that show, one of our regulars, an audience member who attends all of the shows in town, said “Good show!”. Without meaning to, he broke my heart. I realized that no matter how bad of a show it was, there was a culture of nicety surrounding burlesque and he felt the need to say those words, when clearly it was anything but a good show. I didn’t want rainbows and unicorns- I wanted honest feedback. Since there is no such thing as burlesque critics in our town (or almost anywhere), I set out to create a team of folks, who for one reason or another, I knew would give me honest feedback. I would then comp a few tickets to each show to rotating members of my critique team in exchange for their honest feedback. As a producer, I care greatly about what I present to the audience, both for their sake, and for the sake of the growth and popularity of burlesque itself. If your show can’t hold up to an honest critique, you shouldn’t be creating one.