New York burlesque performer Dangrrr Doll shares her thoughts on burlesque festivals and how to make them enjoyable and worthwhile for performers…

Over the course of the past year or two, I’ve been pretty critical of myself and my art and have been doing everything I can to improve (painful rewatchings of filmed rehearsals, gluing what feels like billions of dollars worth of rhinestones, pretending to try to stretch…) For the most part, I think I really have done a pretty good job in producing progressively better costumes, ideas, and choreography. Between that and a desire to see the burlesque world outside of NYC, I was motivated to apply to Basically Every Festival Ever in 2013.

I didn’t apply to everything, and I didn’t get into everything I applied to (it would be really weird if I did, right?) However, I did wind up getting into – and attending – A LOT. I just came home from my 9th festival since January, and I still have two more to go – Alternatease and NYBF.

Because I’m not going to be spending much time at Alternatease beyond the show I’m in, and it probably won’t change my feelings much, and I also performed at NYBF last year, I thought that now seemed like a good time to let you know what I think makes a good festival – for PERFORMERS.

I don’t think I need to speak on what makes a festival great for your audience (great performances, alcohol, seating), but since burlesque festivals are often a volunteer and expense-ridden situation for the performers involved, it’s important to create an atmosphere that will make those performers happy, so that they speak well of their experience and repeat their visit.

As I’m not going to burlesque festivals expecting to be paid, I have a different set of expectations and needs, in this order:

– Opportunity to network.

– Opportunity to experience good burlesque from burlesque performers outside of my everyday life (in other words, I want to witness what burlesque is like in different parts of the country).

– Fun and comfort.

– Level of expense.

I judge burlesque festivals based on these four things. If I have spent money to be there – which is impossible not to do if you are an out-of-towner visiting a festival (exempting headliners) – then I need these things in order to feel that I have had a satisfactory and worthwhile experience. Especially since I am now involved in helping to create a festival myself, I think it’s important to consider these things, and the desires/needs of the performers in your event.

That said, I have created a list of things which, in my opinion, I think burlesque festivals can do to appeal to performers. These are all based on things I really liked at festivals I have attended, as well as some things I really did not like at others. Here they are!

1) HAVE AFTERPARTIES.

This is so important. No out of towner wants to be the rude person who talks during the show – and sometimes when there are expensive tickets, we can’t even afford to GO to all the shows – so afterparties are where you do the most networking. Everyone has seen you perform, everyone is relaxed and feeling social; they are absolutely crucial to an out of towner’s experience. Equally, don’t make your afterparty another show. Most festival shows are already 2 to 3 hours long; it’s okay to have a break from performances in your weekend, and having it be more burlesque nullifies the ability to network (again – you can’t talk during a show). Don’t charge admission to your afterparty. Try to find a venue for the party that is either close to your host hotel or your venue.

Dangrrr Doll (right) with Darlinda Just Darlinda, Dixie Ramone and Albert Cadabra at the New York Burlesque Festival.  ©Don Spiro
Dangrrr Doll (right) with Darlinda Just Darlinda, Dixie Ramone and Albert Cadabra at the New York Burlesque Festival. ©Don Spiro

2) CHOOSE YOUR VENUE WISELY.

If you are doing your festival in the summer, make sure there’s air conditioning in the dressing room. Heating if it’s in the winter. Make sure the venue respects you and the money/crowd you are bringing in. Don’t force your performers to change in a dusty backroom without enough clean tables/surfaces on which to set their expensive costumes. Provide enough mirror space for the 15+ people you will have backstage. Make sure your stage is a STAGE, and that performers can get to the stage from the dressing room without walking through the audience. If your stage is made from panels, and you have NO OTHER VENUE ALTERNATIVE, make sure that the cracks between the panels are securely covered and that there are no holes for stilettos to slip through. Make sure that the venue has space for all the tickets you want/need to sell to make your money, PLUS space for your performers – which brings me to…

3) LET YOUR PERFORMERS SEE THE SHOWS FOR FREE (or at least at a discount).

It is almost pointless to go out to a festival without seeing the shows. Like networking, watching the burlesque is IMPERATIVE for an out-of-towner. Let your performers go to the shows that they are helping you put on by offering them free admission, or at least giving them discounted prices for the weekend (the whole weekend – not just one show out of many). Remember, they are paying to travel and stay there, missing out on paid work at home, AND they are offering you free work. Saying that you are offering performers “free admission to the show they are performing in” is nonsense and slightly insulting (noone would ever say that at any other show, would they?) The performers ARE the show – you have no festival without them volunteering their time and boobs (and/or cocks).

If you don’t think your venue is large enough to fit all of your performers plus the regular sales you would make, that’s GREAT! It means you are a great show and you need a bigger venue. Find one. This makes a HUGE difference in how performers view their experience with you and is the number one complaint I hear (and have). On another hand, if you think you won’t make any money if you don’t get your performers to buy tickets, you should maybe consider if your scene is too small to have its own festival. I have been at festival shows that were 90% populated by performers from the other nights who had to pay full price for their tickets, and it felt very exploitative.

A spread for the performers at The New Orleans Burlesque Festival.  ©Kitty Bang Bang
A spread for the performers at The New Orleans Burlesque Festival. ©Kitty Bang Bang

4) HELP SET UP LOCAL HOSTS/RIDESHARES FOR OUT OF TOWNERS.

I know it’s probably hard to get local housing for EVERYONE, but do the best you can. Hotel costs suck. Also, setting out of towners up with local hosts helps a lot with networking and really improves their ability to have fun around a city they don’t know. Also, also, remember that performers are BROKE. Try to facilitate rideshares for performers to get from your host hotel to the venue and back if they are not within walking or easy public transportation distance. And especially…

4A) OFFER OUT OF TOWNERS A RIDE TO/FROM THE AIRPORT.

I know this may seem small, but it’s a very common complaint. After all, they just spent $250 on a plane ticket. Don’t make them spend another $100 round trip on cabs. If you’re a public transportation city and no one local owns cars, or there’s an easy/free shuttle straight to the hotel from the airport, then it’s probably fine not to do this, but if your airport is miles away from the city and there’s no good way to leave it without a car, make sure everyone can have a ride.

5) DON’T MAKE TEACHERS TEACH FOR FREE. OFFER SOME TYPE OF PERFORMER VENDING, OR DISCOUNTED VENDING SPOTS.

Enough said. It helps offset costs for the performers at little to no cost to you.

6) CURATE YOUR LINEUP.

I get that it’s obnoxious to rewatch 40+ videos to create your setlist, but it’s even more important for long festival shows than it is for normal shorter ones. Make notes on costume colours and types and act mood/music/theme when you watch videos so you have an easier time creating your setlist. Don’t put fan dances back to back. Don’t put two pink shimmy numbers back to back. Don’t put numbers with the same song in the same show, ever.

Similarly, consider staggering your headliners over the course of the show instead of saving them all for the end. It brings more life to the body of your show, and just as having a ‘headliner block’ might make the headliners feel more special, it can also make the rest of the performers seem less special, which certainly isn’t true or else they wouldn’t have got in.

Dangrrr Doll at the New York Burlesque Festival 2013.  ©Don Spiro
Dangrrr Doll at the New York Burlesque Festival 2013. ©Don Spiro

7) QUALITY OVER QUANTITY.

I have been to burlesque festivals with small casts and two shows, and burlesque festivals with hundreds of performers spread out over four to six shows. The thing I have to say about this is: Long shows are extremely tiring. They’re tiring for the audiences and they’re tiring for the performers (I always feel a little apologetic for headliners who are last to go after a four hour show block).

Listen, if you can create a four hour show that is top notch from start to finish, I commend you and I will watch the heck out of it – and I have, at several festivals! But I would rather watch a show with ‘only’ ten mind blowing performances than a 25-number show where I’m only drawn in by a portion of the acts. All performers, no matter the skill level, are critical of festival shows, and they WILL go home and tell their peers what they thought. If you have an awesome but smaller show, they’ll all go home and talk about how good it was, and the next year your application pool will have even more talent to pull from in order to create a longer but equally exciting night – if you want. You don’t ‘need’ to have twenty performers for a festival show. On a similar note…

8) COMPLIMENTARY FOOD AND/OR DRINKS ROCKS.

Even just some celery sticks and hummus backstage makes a difference. Remember that when your performers are starting tech at 4 or 5 and staying until potentially midnight, often without a chance to leave in between, they don’t have the time or ability to get dinner. Equally, boxed wine is cheap and WAY better than nothing. At the very least, barring all of this – THERE ABSOLUTELY HAS TO BE WATER.

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9) FILM ALL THE PERFORMANCES.

Speaking as a New Yorker, most of our shows, even the most prestigious, happen in tiny dive bars on little stages with crappy nightclub lighting, or in black box theatres. It is REALLY hard to get video at all, let alone good video in this environment. Because of this, most of my favourite videos of my acts come from burlesque festivals, and I am really sad when I can’t get that footage. If you can offer the video cheap or free, even better, but at least offer it. Bonus if you offer packages, so I can choose to pay less just to get a raw unedited file and fix it up myself if I want.

And finally…

10) CONSIDER THE CONSEQUENCES OF HAVING GLASS WALKERS IN YOUR SHOW.

Glass walking is one of those things that always looks impressive, but can be very dangerous for other performers in your show if he/she doesn’t really know what he/she is doing. I know a lot of sideshow performers and I’ve seen a ton of glass walking, good and bad. This is a big deal to me. A glass walker CAN NOT leave their tarp without cleaning off their feet first. Remnants of the glass will leave their feet, get on your stage, and cut up another performer’s soles. Glass jumping and dancing done improperly can also send glass shards flying onto the rest of your stage, where they will go unnoticed until they hurt someone. I have seen MULTIPLE FESTIVALS in which a glass walker’s routine has messed up the stage and another performer’s safety. Sometimes it’s an accident, but a professional glass walker won’t let someone else handle their glass cleanup, and I have absolutely never seen a glass walker walk away without checking and cleaning the stage his/herself until I saw it at a festival this year. It’s poor form and bad practice. If you really, really want glass walking in your show, make sure you know the safety implications and that you specifically talk it over with the performer prior to day of show.

Originally published on August 6th, 2013 on Dangrrr Doll’s blog, Nerdy and Naked.

Born from a background in theater and costuming as well as a near-obsession with fantasy novels and video games, Dangrrr Doll has been a performance artist and burlesque dancer since 2006. Known as the Twisted Beauty of New York City, Dangrrr brings classic beauty combined with pop culture savvy and a dose of heavy metal to the stage. Dangrrr has toured up and down the East Coast, is a regular performer with D20 Burlesque and Gotham Burlesque, and can frequently be seen at such well known NYC venues as Webster Hall and the Slipper Room. She has been featured in Time Out New York, Burlesque Beat, Collegehumor.com, and the New York Times, and is also the 2012 Golden Pastie Award winner of “Cutest Geek in Burlesque”.