Self Selection & Burlesque

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry (Photo: Babs Daniels)

Self Selection & Burlesque

By: Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

I have done a couple of interviews about my work on a couple different shows, and it always comes down to the same questions.

“Why do you enjoy the burlesque world?”  “Why do you think it has a benefit for you as a disabled performer?”

These are the questions asked of me as a burlesque historian and a legally blind performer.

The answer is in self selecting casting. In theater, I was always cast as either a little girl, or an evil person. Only once did I get to play a young woman in love. Only once did I get to do that. The first role I ever played was Caliban – the monster in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In retrospect many people have suggested that perhaps this was inappropriate casting for a young girl with a cataracted eye.

At an Oxford University summer program, I played Cassius in Julius Caesar. I was cast to embody the evil manipulator, and part of the way my director had me play that manipulation out on stage was to have Cassius pretend to be a blind man. In character, the motivation worked, however I now recognize that in playing Cassius in this way I was reinforcing stereotypes about disabled people.

Disability can be challenging to incorporate into traditional narratives, especially in live theater, and I wanted to simply portray a character without having to adapt said character to potential perceptions about my own physicality. I’ve portrayed witches, and old women, and I have played the tortured and angry Betty Parris, who during the Salem Witch Trials contributed toward the deaths of many innocent women – but until burlesque, I never felt like I was playing a person I wanted to play. Nobody would cast me as an impassioned youthful romantic lead like Juliet. Nobody would cast me as Marian the Librarian. Creating my own opportunities became my best chance at embodying characteristics not normally associated with disabled individuals.

Frequently there is no director for a burlesque show – and when there is, they are asking for proposals on what performers would like to do in their shows. So through that process we choose what characters we embody. I no longer have to portray the evil character because someone told me to, but rather, I get to choose. When Whedonesque Burlesque called, I was able to self select a character whom I wanted to play – and it wasn’t a vampire. I suggested three options, and the one my producer decided that we should pursue, was that of Kaylee – the spunky, yet skilled mechanic from Joss Whedon’s Firefly. I wanted to play Kaylee because I felt like she and I had more in common than many of the other characters. I wanted to demonstrate her sweetness, and her love for her ship. Most importantly, I wanted to have fun – and in regular theater, I rarely got to play fun roles.

Photo: Charlotte Peters

There’s a lot of power in being able to say who you want to play, and there’s a lot of power in being able to say who you want to be. The empowerment comes from being able to stake a claim in our own lives – something which especially for women has been a challenge since the self-determination became an option in Western society.

Which is why this isn’t just an advantage for those of us with disabilities, but for everyone.  Many  people can benefit from being able to self select who they play on stage. Performers in theater have roles they would love to play, but would never be given the chance because of what they look like. Perhaps you’re considered too heavy, or too old. Perhaps you think you have the right spirit, but your director doesn’t agree. Self selecting roles is both a way to validate yourself, and a way to show the world that you are something others do not necessarily see.

The downside to self-selection is when those selections are inappropriate. When people put on a race that is not their own, or a disability which they do not live with, or for that matter a mental illness which they do not possess – then it becomes problematic. People feel that because they can choose to become anyone at all, they can do so without judgment.  However, because self-selection requires us to look within, we also must look without. Commonly, blackface is verboten, putting on another race is considered inappropriate and wrong.  Using another culture is called cultural appropriation. Why is it then, that performers do not see the same taboo in playing disabilities and illnesses which they do not live with? A partial answer is that for many, it is likely that disability does not appear as a culture in our society. But it is one for many. Deaf culture is very much alive and active in the United States. There are conferences for the visually impaired once a year, and countless organizations for the blind. Wheelchair conventions and even a reality TV show about women who use wheelchairs exist. Disability comes with a set of differences, sometimes a shared sense of humor, and often a sense of solidarity. While it isn’t a culture with specific geographical ties, it is a diverse social group from physical handicap, to invisible illness, to mental health.  Consider that your actions in costume do reflect individuals for whom the costume is reality.

It’s also a matter of wording. There are a lot of shows now that use the word “sideshow” or “freakshow”. One of the problems with this is the history of that genre. Sideshows were once a place where disabled individuals could find work – where they were able to make money exploiting their often extreme or unconventional differences. The gaze of the sideshow audience was able bodied individuals looking at the Other, not about performing the Other for able bodied people. It’s problematic when able bodied people take over the sideshow space, because it becomes about able bodied people labeling themselves as “freaks” in an attempt to create the same shock value once used to exploit the disabled. But the thing is, most of the characters in contemporary freakshows are snake handlers, blockheads, and other shock value related acts. These performers weren’t born with their sideshow character – they trained to become a freak. In doing so, they appropriated a disabled space.

I suppose my issue isn’t with the idea of reclaiming the sideshow space for disabled performers – because for me, I’m not interested in being objectified because I am different. I never want to be stared at because I am disabled – so why on earth would able bodied people want to take on the space of the sideshow? Why can’t that space be left for those who wish to reclaim it? Call it something else. Keep doing your snake handling, your nail eating and your fire breathing – just don’t link it to the historical incidence of financially abusing those who can do nothing but. The reason I say this is that with an able bodied freakshow, it becomes more challenging to create the space wherein disabled performers can reclaim a space of sideshow performance. Whether or not you believe it is a space to be reclaimed, that space needs to be one left to those for whom reclamation would be important, not for those whose reclaiming really becomes like stealing.

In modern film and theater able bodied actors have played disabled characters with great success, but where does that leave the disabled performers? It would certainly be nice if when they produced “The Miracle Worker” on Broadway, they’d used the visually impaired actress as their main Helen Keller, with the perfectly sighted actress being the understudy. It would be lovely, if instead of Artie on Glee being able to walk, they had used a teenaged actor who uses a wheelchair in real life. I don’t think that able bodied people shouldn’t play these characters when they have time to study for them, but in burlesque we have a problem. Your audience doesn’t get to spent hours with you, watching the development of your character. They have five minutes. In those five minutes they see what you give them, and sometimes that’s not enough to develop your character. We have to be thoughtful about how much we can get across in a single act. Sure, people have won Oscars based on their performances playing disabled people – but they spent months in character, they spent hours training with real people. And I suspect they asked a lot of questions. The point is, putting on a disability is like taking away the ability to explore that space as a performer from someone who actually has it. So often these performances in burlesque are about creating shock. For me, it’s about demonstrating beauty in a place where most people do not see it. For me it’s about showing that disability can be sexy – without being fetish. I want to be able to do an act as a disabled burlesque performer without it being “edgy” but that will never be the case so long as able bodied burlesque performers are stepping into that space and creating shock wherever they go.

Self selection is a wonderful thing, but with it comes a great responsibility to care for one another. It is this precise self selection which makes burlesque a viable and important art form, but if we abuse self selection, where does that leave us?

For more of Elsa’s work, see her blog: Feminist Sonar.

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