I recently received the following question from a performer based in the Midlands, UK:
“How do you make the jump from middle of the bill to top of the bill, it seems like an impossible glass ceiling?! I know myself and a few performers in the same position have pondered this a lot, be great to hear the opinion of someone who’s actually done it.”
It struck me as an interesting, albeit tricky, topic to address. As I’m always one to seize a challenge, I’ve put together the following thoughts.
Whilst I may not be able to offer an indisputable ‘Burlesque for Dummies’ guide, but I can certainly provide subjective reflections…
What makes a good burlesque?
In order to identify how to reach that ever elusive headliner slot, it seems sensible to first identify exactly what it is that the headline act has that the others don’t.
The obvious first reaction is to say they have an ‘x-factor’… but that’s too intangible for me.
I started thinking about the performers who I both know personally and adore on stage. First, it was clear to me that even the best performers have some acts that are stronger than others. So with this in mind, it is clear that these performers don’t have a fail-proof formula for creating a good act, nor do they have a hidden, innate ‘talent’ that predisposes them to creating amazing acts.
This said, I believe the best performers do possess a selection of skills and/or strengths that when combined, make a solid foundation from which to create strong, artistic burlesque entertainment. But what is it about the content of their performances (even if it is only one signature act) that makes them a crowd-pleaser? Why do people want to watch these performers more than others?
I can only speak from my own perspective: I enjoy acts that transport me away from myself. Fundamentals aside, this affect is acheived when the atmosphere created by an an act is clear, simple, honest, heart-felt and warm. During such an act, what I see on stage fills my mind with emotive responses that are strong enough to override thoughts of ‘you’re moving too fast’ or ‘those shoes are scruffy’. This reaction appears to be provoked in me when a performer reflects a muse rich with personal significance.
“What was any art but a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining elusive element which is life itself – life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.”
Willa Cather (1873-1947)
The acts that enchant me are the ones in which the performer prioritises expressions of perceived selfhood and or life-experiences over and above conforming to the ‘rules’ of the burlesque artform.
I’m touching upon a raw nerve within the field of burlesque here and, whilst I may address the innate problems of defining ‘what is burlesque’ someday, the confines of this article is not the place. However, it’s worth emphasising that I believe every individual performer ought to learn about both contemporary worldwide burlesque and it’s nuanced history. When one understands how burlesque has developed over the course of time, one can make an informed decision as to where one wishes to position oneself within this curious artform’s fluid identity. Nowadays, burlesque (in its broadest, worldwide sense) encompasses elements of pantomime, satire, parody, and yet also dance, performance art, striptease and bump-n-grind movement.
Historically the people who performed burlesque may have been lower class, or those-who-weren’t-good-enough-for-the-stage, but times have changed and now the opinion that burleque is ‘classy/expensive stripping’ is commonplace. Whether one believes in keeping the history of burlesque alive, or whether one intends to intelligently play around with the contemporary connotations that the word evokes, the point is that one need not limit one’s creative endeavours by a prescribed ruleset for what does/does not qualify as burlesque. My favourite burlesque artists all push and pull burlesque’s fluid boundary to make what they want to do fit – and I believe this is an approach that more people should adopt.
How to Reach Headline Performance Standard
Perhaps you’ve already found a concept for an act that resonates with you personally – be that a character from a book, a song that you want to express visually, or whatever. Ultimately, it’s up to you to use your own skillset to create an act that’s of high-enough quality to support your artistic vision (or perhaps artistic vision is a skill in itself?!). It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but I believe someone needs to burst the burlesque bubble; sometimes a performer simply does not possess sufficient artistic skills to execute a top quality act. Just like other arts (music, photography, writing etc.) sometimes an artist is simply not good enough. Of course, you can improve your chances by swatting up on your chosen field (reading histories and biographies, watching shows, watching and learning about related artistic fields).
In the section that follows below I outline simple performance areas that, if addressed, can immediately add strength to any act and, hopefully, push the performer a little closer to becoming headliner quality…
One of the biggest weak spots I see in acts is weak characterisation. I often see performers take to the stage and perform as him/her self. Now, whilst ‘being natural’ is fundamental to a degree, ‘being natural’ is a character that must be transposed to the stage in and of itself. Think about the person/character you want to convey to the audience. If you’re hoping to be natural, think a level deeper than this – what part of yourself do you intend to reveal on stage? Are you being sexy? Are you showing the audience how much you love cake?
Outline a precise message for your character and then ensure this message remains consistent throughout the act. It’s not enough to hinge your act on a narrative; i.e. good girl tastes a cookie and then goes bad. One really should make the character first and their circumstances second, thus in the example above, the emphasis shouldn’t be on the qualities of the cookie, but on the reasons why the character eats the cookie in the first place: Is the bad girl present in the good girl from the very start and merely unlocked or underlined by the cookie’s transformative powers? Is the bad girl a character that possesses the good girl – perhaps this possession is ignited when a poisoned cookie is left behind by a jealous co-worker?
Ensure that you keep your characterisation and character development clear throughout the act. It’s commonplace to see a performer focus on garment removal to such a degree that he/she neglects to consider anything beyond revealing the flesh that was previously concealed by the clothing. It’s vital that one also thinks about the disposal of the removed item. Whirling a bra around your head like a helicopter is good for demonstrating a riotous, rebellious character, but ought not to be inserted merely as an attempt to make the audience go wild. In addition, placing a piece of clothing on a chair or table must be carefully executed. One shouldn’t simply ditch the clothing in order to move on to the next section of the act – that clothing is a part of your act right up until the moment you let it go (and even then, discarded costume can occasionally retain a presence on stage after it has been taken off).
Finally, I think any bra removal needs a characterised framework to support it and make it appear like a natural occurrence in an act. A bra removal may be a crescendo to a full striptease, or it may have symbolic meaning within the context of your character’s tale. I honestly believe that the bra removal within any successful burlesque act (involving bra removal!) falls into either of those two categories. It’s vital that you don’t simply remove your bra in order to qualify your act as ‘burlesque’. This ultimately creates a gratuitous and vulgar exposure within an act that may well be stronger without it.
Remember that absolutely every inch of your flesh conveys meaning to your audience: It’s like day-to-day body language, but amplified. Use your eyes. Nothing communicates confidence more clearly than eyes that look to the audience, beaming elements of the performer’s soul. Conversely, looking down, looking at your costume, flitting between looking here-there-and-everywhere, or looking at your props all the time seems weak, damaging your character and charisma.
Cheesecake photography and burlesque do not share the same history, but seem to have been grouped together in our post-modern nostalgia for ‘retro’. For me personally, I sometimes feel that cheesecake expressions are used without thought; the performer assumes that including such a face will add an atmosphere of naivete and innocence. But for me, these expressions seem contrived. Furthermore, I read cheesecake expressions as conveying the performer’s familiarity with the history and visual of cheesecake photography, thus actually communicating the opposite of innocence; as much as we like to desribe cheesecake images as ‘sweet’, there’s still something intrinsically sexual about them. If you are using cheesecake facial expressions, do so with an awareness of the inherent irony they carry.
Don’t forget your posture, nor use of your hands. A fan dance can be let down by clumsy footwork or knees that knock together just as the potential of an atmospheric act can be seriously hindered when a performer leaves her/his hand loose at her/his side. On stage, move with all of your body. Rehearse infront of full length mirrors (patio doors at nighttime are great make-shift mirrors!) and, if you have the resources, video your rehearsals. Watching yourself move will help you to identify any parts of your body or any (non)movements that weaken your act.
Structuring Your Act
Many performers use supports to structure their acts, but if you can learn to create an act without them, you’ll find you naturally compensate for their omission with a stronger physical performace. Examples of such supports include:
Choosing a soundtrack for your act because it’s title or lyrics reflect your narrative/character. This often results in sloppy or lazy costuming/characterisation and limits the potential affects one can create audibly as the tone and atmosphere of the act’s soundtrack is prescribed by the available and suitable songs.
Communicating your character through excessive use of props. And beyond this, in my opinion, any prop that needs to be ‘read’ by the audience ought to be eliminated unless a fundamental characteristic of the prop is that it is read, e.g. subtitle cards used within context. Too many props make for an act that relies upon showing things to an audience to create a narrative or a purpose to the act when often the same narrative may be achieved through elements of performance (i.e. heat can be illustrated through body-language and breathing, which can often be more evocative than an irritated character thumping a broken fan).
When you’ve selected an appropriate number of props, ensure that the props support YOUR presence on stage, rather than resulting in you presenting your props to the audience. I often see performers open an act by setting the scene, using props to convey the situation a character has found her/himself in. Whilst this is a useful way to open an act, don’t ever forget to move on stage. An act which opens with a performer standing still, rifling through a bag or reading a newspaper is not strong. In such acts, it looks rather like the performer spends more time watching movies than watching live theatre. By this, I mean that these performers seem to forget how important it is to create her/his own movement – it strikes me that such performers re-create camera movments by walking in small semi-circles, holding a prop at arms-length infront of her/himself rather than engaging with the prop using stage-suitable movements.
Be careful if using alcohol as a shortcut to a character transformation. I use alcohol in my own ‘Hey, Bellboy’ act to emphasise my character’s anarchic, curious and nosey behaviour. But so often I see performers drink within their act, and surprisingly, it’s often at the very start, to communicate lost inhibitions. I rarely see anyone actually parody the state of being inebriated or provide a reason as to why the character is drinking alcohol in the first place. Usually a type of alcohol is chosen to compliment the character (i.e. rum for a seaman, vodka for a Russian, wine for a broken-heart, champagne for a showgirl), but that’s about the extent of the connection between the character and the act of drinking. Usually the motivation for the character drinking becomes clear AFTER the drink has been drunk (and even then the motivation apears to belong to the performer more than the character – i.e. the motivation is to justify a striptease).
To create a strong narrative act, one must first provide motivation for the character to drink (i.e. they are wine tasting) and if a striptease follows, the motivation for the striptease ought not to be simply ‘the character is drunk’. Think more about what kind of drunk your character is – are they a horny drunk? A violent drunk? A loud drunk? An unbalanced drunk? How does your striptease relate?
Be very savvy when you opt to perform a burlesque ‘classic’ – i.e. a balloon pop, fan dance, wings of isis act. Many performers add such an act to their repertoire in order to attract more bookings for performances to non-burlesque audiences. The danger in doing this is that the motivation for the act becomes monetary or professional exposure. As such, the content of the act itself suffers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advising against taking commissions, but I am saying only take the commission if you believe you can do it justice. The reason that many burlesque standard acts have a reputation for being boring and samey is because performers put them together in a ‘safe’ manner. Fan dances are regularly performed to tracks from ‘burlesque striptease’ compilation CDs, and balloon pops tend to have a swing-band accompaniment. If you’re going to do a burlesque standard, but your own spin on it – brand the act as your own. Indeed, when making a fan dance your own, you may find my up-coming article on making a fan dance your own a very useful starting point.
Every performance you give is an audition, regardless of the occupations of the audience members. Reputations are built upon audience members remembering you and your act, not upon web-presence or branding exercises.
Success is dependent upon what you do one stage: be powerful, be memorable, be YOU.
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(Image of Beatrix © 2008 Cherry Bomb Rock Photography)