Gin House Burlesque: Stripping with a Swing
21st Century Burlesque Magazine thoroughly enjoyed Gin House Burlesque at The King’s Head – a spectacular, hidden jewel box in East London, commandeered by sparkling showgirls and a swarm of stylish revellers. Ivy Wilde discusses the superbly executed concept with co-creators Betsy Rose, Missy Fatale and Jolie Papillon.
When did the idea for GHB first come to you?
Betsy Rose: We all individually have a passion for the bygone era and we felt as though the burlesque scene was lacking a good old fashioned vintage styled show. Missy had previously produced shows under the Gin House name, but two years ago we came together to create an entirely new concept and felt it was the perfect choice to rebrand Gin House Burlesque by combining Missy’s swing dance background with the theatre and dance background Jolie and I come from. It seemed like the perfect marriage in order to create a 1930s inspired show…and so Gin House Burlesque had a rebirth.
Had you been looking to produce shows as an individual for a while or is it something that you decided to do as a threesome from the start?
BR: We have all performed together for many years and we can all bring something different to the table whilst still complimenting one another. So it felt like a very natural progression to come together as a threesome. Personally, producing shows as an individual had not been on my radar, but in an industry where working as a soloist and going it alone is so dominant it has been such a refreshing change to work as a team.
Jolie Papillon: I nurtured the desire of creating my own show since I was a couple of years into the burlesque world. From a very young age I was trained in professional dance and music ending up with a musical theatre degree and have worked many years as dancer and singer in many different situations. I was hired as choreographer for cabaret shows and as assistant choreographer for the Italian premiere of Duke Ellington’s Beggar’s Holiday. It just felt natural to put together all my experience and all I learnt into my own show.
After a few years working with Betsy and Missy I thought would be great to join forces as we have a shared love for the olden days. I could envision that uniting our strengths would give birth to a very special show that’s not been seen since the golden era.
Missy Fatale: I had previously produced shows in London since 2010, at The Park Lane Hotel, Volupte, Proud Cabaret, and The Last Days of Decadence. The Swinging Burlesque Boudoir and Gin House Burlesque (in its earlier incarnation) were revues that featured a mix of vaudeville (often Lindy Hop & 1920s Charleston) as well as the usual burlesque and circus.
It says on your website you’re inspired by the prohibition era and 1930s art deco but could you tell me a little more about the inspiration for the concept of the show and how that has developed over time?
BR: We adore the glamour and beauty of the 1930s but we also wanted to combine this with the darker side of that era and in particular the smokey state of London town. The idea is that the outside world does not exist once you have entered the gin-house and we intend to whisk each audience member into a darker, more debaucherous time. Imagine a world where gents dress to the nines with a gin in one hand and a scantily clad lady in the other, whilst they laze in a den of opium. Our aim is not to just to provide a show, but an entire experience. We can promise gin, scantily clad ladies and burlesque in abundance… just not so much opium!
JP: Since the very start of our partnership we were very specific to what our show needed to deliver. I believe when you have a clear determination and vision in mind, you can’t fail to take the right direction! We visualised what it would have been like to be in a 1930s party with both the glamorous and dark side of the Prohibition Era, where people would wildly celebrate forgetting about life outside the gin house.
MF: We were interested in producing something that did not exist in London, something interactive and evoking the dabauchery and raw energy of the era. We want the experience to be fully immersive, and for the audience to be a part of an experience, that is temporal and then disappears forever – a special moment in time. Although we adore a traditional style revue, London has plenty of those – thus we wanted to create something less ‘passive’, and to push the orthodox approaches to the format. Personally I was hugely inspired by Punch Drunk’s The Drowned Man Set, which I thought could be really special when combined with the magic of cabaret.
What are the aims of the show?
BR: As classic burlesque artists we felt like ‘vintage’ inspired shows, which 5-10 years ago were so very popular, had taken a back seat. London is such an exciting hub of a whole variety of different burlesque styles and shows so we really wanted to bring the vintage element back and showcase just how wonderful classic burlesque can be. Throwing in the immersive theatre element we felt gave it a fresh edge to other cabaret shows in London right now. We have built a show which combines burlesque, live music and circus whilst including the audience throughout.
JP: We wanted to amaze our audience and offer a whole new experience rather than presenting a standard cabaret show, by letting them wander through the venue and find themselves in various situations and see unexpected performances. We want our audience to feel part of the party and celebrate with us a gone but not forgotten era that’s enabled a future generation to enjoy its beautiful music, style and love for the arts as well as a good drink!
MF: Due to my strong background in both the international swing and burlesque scenes, something truly ‘vintage’ (and something that is cohesive, in terms of being both aesthetically and historically correct!) is very important to the show, almost paramount. Although I am a classic burlesque performer I love to experiment with aspects of modern culture, performance art and fetish – however when it comes to GHB we are very strict in terms of its era!
How do you work together as a team? Do you each have your own individual responsibilities and strengths or do you all muck in together in all areas of organisation?
BR: We have tried and tested both avenues and now we all tend to do a bit of everything. We explored the format of delegating tasks but we feel it works best when we all have a say together. It’s one great big burly threesome when it comes to business at Gin House HQ!
JP: As individuals we have our own strengths when it comes to choreography, dealing with public relations or business, but we are constantly learning from each other’s abilities, so most times we all blend into one.
MF: We absolutely work as a team. However we all have different responsibilities in order to work more efficiently – especially as we all have strong solo careers, and in some case other businesses too! I think the key when working in a team is to be flexible. We have each taught the others new skills, approaches to working, and cultivated new ideas as a result.
Are you all always on the same page when it comes to producing and organising each show, or is it the differences in your outlook that make for a melting pot of ideas?
BR: The show has such a clear vision to the three of us that the choices mostly feel natural but sure we sometimes do have slightly different ideas. It’s quite a refreshing change to be able to bounce different ideas off one another as a group as we are usually so used to working things out as individuals.
JP: It feels great to have different point of view and not having to make a decision on your own. We always make sure we all agree over ideas we bring on the table and really consider each other’s opinion. It’s a great team work!
MF: A little of both – but this makes for growth of ideas and multifarious approaches – which is certainly a great asset. It can be really refreshing to work as a team, when we are all so used to being responsible for everything as soloists.
Was it difficult to find a venue that fit so well with your concept?
BR: We were very particular when considering venues. We were adamant we wanted something with a strong art deco style and plenty of character, but combining the interactive element brought us to the conclusion that perhaps a venue built for performance was not the right space for us. It was troublesome to find the perfect space but we weren’t prepared to compromise on our vision. Just when we thought we had hit a big 1930s brick wall Jolie secured a meeting at The King’s Head members bar and suddenly everything fell into perfect place. It was everything we imagined and had hoped for from a space.
JP: We initially struggled to find the perfect venue since the vision of the show was so specific. We were determined not to have to negotiate on a venue that wouldn’t have been appropriate. It would have made no sense to present an interactive vaudeville revue in a space without matching characteristics! The wait was rather long from the day we set the company, but was totally worth it!
I was approached by the manager of The King’s Head members club since he wanted me to choreograph and create a show that would have worked in such a unique space. When I went for a meeting and saw the venue it was absolutely clear that what they needed was Gin House Burlesque!
Could you explain a little about how you plan and rehearse for each show?
MF: We meet once or twice a week at The King’s Head (which also operates as GHB HQ!) to organise administration, new ideas and future prospects. We use Evernote as an online office system so we can each work from anywhere in the world (as is often the case) and use WhatsApp for general correspondence.
BR: We have been rehearsing at Pineapple dance studios for our brand new number as we have a guest choreographer, Ian Stroughair, helping out in an androgynous number inspired by silent movie icon, Charlie Chaplin.
JP: Personally I am a very creative person and I naturally come up with ideas for the show. We all present ideas to each other and we consider the various aspect before taking anything further. We meet every week and it’s refreshing and inspirational. We share an agenda with specific targets for each meeting or rehearsals so we can concretely proceed towards the show date. We also divide various tasks so that the work is equally shared, we check regularly what’s been ticked off the list and we end up helping each other most times.
Have there been any difficulties along the way?
BR: The venue was the first big hurdle, but next came finding a way to make an immersive show logistically work and having the performances fit in the space we had to work with. We have had to re-work choreography in group numbers and tailor entire acts to fit in spaces the size of a tuppence, but we have overcome it all and the show is a stronger product in spite of it all.
JP: One of the major difficulties that comes to mind is that the day before our opening revue we realised we had to close the ticket sales immediately since we sold out and couldn’t physically have any more people in the venue! We had to re adjust few sections of the show and it was stressful as we wanted to ensure everyone had a great experience and didn’t miss out on the performances. With some flexibility of mind we were able to solve the problem quickly and had an incredibly successful show. Some members of the audience were asking when the next one was going to be, even before leaving the building!
MF: With each show we are able to make the experience more and more immersive as we learn, and this, combined with the limitations of the space, were the main hurdles to overcome. Building a show with such a strong clear vision we have had to work hard to not settle for second best.
Have there been any particularly special/stand out moments in your shows you’d like to share?
BR: We are so proud of the show we have created and I’m just chuffed to be able to say that I have done so with two of my best friends. We have worked for hours and hours on end making it a true labour of love. We have sold out each show so far and I am so proud and grateful for that too. I remember in the debut show saying to the girls, “It’s working! It’s all working!” and bloody well working it is!
JP: The opening night was an absolute blast – finally it was all happening! From an idea to reality. The audience was wild from the very first appearance we made and everyone was having fun! I felt like it was our very own house and we just thrown in the biggest party of the year! I just couldn’t be happier and part of me wished I could just be watching it all!!
MF: Usually just before we go up for the finale company number we all stop to overlook the room and absorb everything we worked so hard to produce – it’s an incredible feeling. It has truly been a labour of love (especially with the debut being just after my wedding!) but we are so happy with how Gin House has grown and blossomed. The most amusing moment however would have to be when Betsy got locked outside in the fire escape (in zero degrees and wearing very little), just as we began the opening company number! Jolie and I carried on, as Betsy sauntered in a phrase later, with perfect poise, making it look like it was choreographed that way all along!
What do you see for the future of Gin House Burlesque?
JP: We shall continue with our residency at The King’s Head Members Club in East London. One of our strongest and most unique aspects is that our show would never be the same in other spaces since we are tailoring it to fit the venue we have, rather than just using a stage. Who knows – maybe soon we’ll have a Gin House Burlesque on tour and bring the 1930s class and glamour outside London Town!
MF: We are also in talks with an incredible new venue, which will see another version of the Gin House Burlesque revue. Our main aim is to continue to create high end vintage burlesque shows in unique settings, and to push the art form to new heights of decadence!
Gin House Burlesque invites you to The King’s Head on Saturday 4th June.