Set designer Tinker Bell takes us behind the scenes at the Helsinki Burlesque Festival…
My name is Tinker Bell and I am, in about equal amounts, a burlesque performer and a set designer from Helsinki, Finland. Theatre was my first love, but as we all know, burlesque has that peculiar tendency to take over all aspects of life, so for the past five-or-so years it´s been more burlesque and less theatre, and as it is, even when I now set a stage, it´s often for a burlesque show. And not just any show, but our Northern European pride and joy, the Helsinki Burlesque Festival. I have been the resident set designer of the festival since 2010, and here are some bits and pieces, thoughts and ponderations about burlesque, set design and the combinations thereof, which I started writing during this year´s festival, HBF 2013.
I´ve been here from the start, one of the very first batch of Finnish burlesque performers and one of the founding members and original cast of The Itty-Bitty Tease Cabaret, the most widely-known and travelled Finnish burlesque troupe. I´ve also been performing at the festival nearly every year – that amounts to quite hectic times in the three or four weeks before the festival, not to mention the insane festival week itself. But that´s how we roll – it´s the part of the producer, the set designer and the entertainer to make a smooth and delightful show for the audience; they needn´t see the hassle. However, a peculiar aspect of this profession is the fact that if everything runs as smooth as you want it to, most people will probably not even notice you were there, working. They probably won´t even consider where that fun-looking set came from, or who made it (can´t you order these things from the internet, these days?) And that´s by no means a burlesque speciality; theatre people, even if by default they should be a little more educated about it, often just have no idea either. The set just magically appears! First it´s there, then it´s gone! Miracle!
However, I´m letting you in on a secret – here´s how (some) miracles are made…
When you´re working on a set design, the planning and plotting stage, when it´s all just moonbeams and cobwebs in your head so far, all dreams and what-ifs, that´s maybe the best part. And this starts at least half a year before the festival, if not earlier. A great deal of the work happens just so – it´s all in the mind, you´re not actively processing it, but letting the subconscious mind work its wonders instead. Of course, it´s different for everyone, and some like to work with miniature models or numerous sketches, etc. Me, I only make the models for theatre sets that demand the actual altering of the stage, heavy constructions, and so forth.
Setting the stage for a burlesque show is slightly different. The set needs to be slightly more of a backdrop, so as not to take too much of the viewer´s attention, yet it still has to be in sync with the theme and provide the performers with a head start, so to speak. A big empty stage is quite a lot to work on when you´re standing up there all alone; with a set, the performer is already somewhere, not just floating in an empty room. So in a way, the set provides a red thread that both the performers and the audience can follow all through the show.
The Helsinki Burlesque Festival always has a theme. As many artists tend to choose their routine on basis of the theme, in the best case the overall visuals can be quite overwhelmingly nice. The artist lifts up the set and the set lifts up the artist; everything co-operates in a perfect flow all of a sudden. It´s in moments like these that I really feel content and proud – they always feel like tiny little gifts somehow, unexpected and sudden. Even though I know it´s the product of months of careful planning, it still feels like magic. It´s an exquisite art, this, that we deliver to the audience.
In 2010, for example, we worked within the theme ‘The Time Machine’, and here you can see how it starts [above] – quite unceremoniously unglamorous really! Just lil’ me in a cold and slightly damp garage. And to see the set all lit up, when its time is due – it´s a kind of magic alright.
The following year, the theme was ‘One Thousand And One Nights’, and I had lots of paper lanterns and flowing silk curtains on the stage to create the illusion of a half-mystical, half-imagined oasis in the middle of a desert; a Fata Morgana. As you can see, again the performers turned this to their advantage, and with the help of the always so helpful lighting technicians at the venue, we got quite a bit of magic happening on that stage. I wish I could show you some pictures of the fifty-something metres of silk that I was hand-dyeing in our tiny bathroom at home, but again, to show the effort is not necessarily the point, neither in the ecdysiastic arts nor in set design. I like to think that we´re using the word ‘glamour’ in its original sense: we make things (ourselves on stage, or the stage itself) seem something else, something out of this world. Magic.
The theme for the festival of 2013 was ‘Burlescopolis’, inspired by the black-and-white cinema of old, the surreal and the absurd, in the spirit of the movie classic Metropolis (as directed by Fritz Lang in 1927). I am and always have been very much inspired by the theatre technics and mechanics of old, and so took great pleasure in the making of this two-dimensional little skyline of my city, with distorted perspective à la Georges Méliès. I like the little illusions and the absurd. My personal favourite (of which, as far as I know, there is no photographical evidence) and soft spot in this set was the factory chimney that every now and then, seemingly on a whim (but controlled by our lovely DJs), let out a puff of smoke – delightful!
But how does it happen? Well, this is how we work: Bettie (Blackheart, the president and producer of, and master mind behind Helsinki Burlesque) decides on a theme, shares it with me when it´s ripe enough, and I say, ‘Okay, sounds like fun!’ and then let it simmer and settle somewhere in the back of my mind. Last year, this happened sometime in the spring. Then we´ll meet up during the summer and autumn, and discuss, plan, and have all these crazy wild ideas that no sane person ever would consider (such as, ‘Hey, how about we make this huge sparkling rainbow so the performers entering the stage can walk under that?’ and then we end up sewing, by hand of course, some 10,000 sequins for that rainbow, and I´m not really exaggerating – see pictures for proof. That´s 2012, with the theme ‘Over the Rainbow’. You can see it it in progress, as well as the finished ‘product’ with the gorgeous Cleo Viper spreading her butterfly wings under the glittering rainbow!)
We´ll be visiting the venue, the Cultural Arena Gloria, during the autumn. Of course, the people there know us well by now, and fewer tech meetings are required, because we´ve been their guests for so many years and know the specs. Around December, we start ordering materials and making lists of what needs to be purchased, estimated deliveries of ordered materials, knowing which stuff we´ll need three weeks before D-Day, and which we´ll need the day before, and which materials can be taken straight to the venue to be used then and there.
I make the initial sketches, then the more precise and detailed ones, and finally we start building and painting the set, approximately one month before the festival. Bettie makes the most wonderful set design assistant, as does my incredibly patient husband, Mela Lugosi (of the Finnish boylesque troupe Hell Monty), who has the questionable privilege of, among other things, being my personal chauffeur and roadie when we need to get the set from place A to place B.
It is a great relief, for a set designer, to be able to work with a producer and/or a director not just once, but for several productions in a row. You don´t have to start all over again every single time, trying to find the common ground for your shared work. The more shows you´ve done together (be it theatre, cinema or burlesque), the easier it is just to head straight into the crazy brainstorm mode, and then, somehow, things just get done without too much fuss or stress. Oh, granted, there´s always some fuss and stress anyway, but there could be so much more. And with some thirteen years-and-counting of professional set design work under my belt, I no longer have the ‘what if´s’ and fears of not being ready in time. I always am. I just sleep a little less for a while then, and run around like a madwoman! And make these supergirl smoothies that keep me going – little life-savers.
This year, in addition to making this set as well as adding the finishing touches to my new solo routine, I´m also teaching both dance and dance fitness classes daily, AND coaching a group of my students to go-go dance on the festival on Saturday, so my schedule can provide me with some interesting times at its best!
So it´s the last week of February, and performers and photographers are arriving in Helsinki, the festival workshops start, and it´s only days until we all get on stage. I will be the first one to get on stage on Friday, though – I start my work at 9 am! With a team, most of them performers as well, doing this out of love for burlesque and the scene here and the festival at hand. Which is amazingly marvellous as it is. We´ll be there, rigging backdrops and screwing screws and barely finished before the performers start rolling in for their stage check and tech rehearsals. That´s when I usually climb up on the balcony and sit down for a while and just take it all in – how the set looks, if there´s anything to be adjusted, how the lights work in the set, everything. And when every little detail is twisted and tweaked into looking just so, then I have a content sigh and go home for a snack and a change of clothes…
This year I performed on Saturday, which meant that after the set was up and the tech rehearsals well along the way I actually had the rest of the evening ‘off’, getting to enjoy the show from the public instead of pulling a really long day and performing the same night. I´ve done that, too! Possible, but not recommended. Instead, I enjoyed the Friday night show, and on Saturday morning I taught a burlesque workshop before quickly heading home, grabbing the bags I´d packed the previous afternoon, and heading back to the venue for Saturday´s tech rehearsals. I don´t like to rush, and I enjoy being early at a venue, sensing the atmosphere change bit by bit with the performers arriving, unpacking and settling down; being able to chit chat with folks and friends; and the electricity in the air getting subtly stronger and stronger as the night rolls along. Besides, it was the premiere of my brand new ‘Cotton Candy’ routine, and as I didn´t know precisely how long it would take me to prepare for that one, I preferred to have a little extra time on my hands. And however much time you ever think you have, suddenly it´s always almost the time for your set, and somebody’s saying, ‘It´s ten minutes, ten minutes folks, can you make it?’ And then it´s your turn and it goes by so quickly you´re almost in a haze.
This was no different, of course. A brilliant set-up altogether, amazing people on stage; I wonder whether the audience had time to catch their breath at all! I know I almost didn´t. My go-go girls were sweet and cute as buttons and my ‘Cotton Candy’ was as fun to do as I´d hoped. I also caught at least bits and pieces from almost everyone else´s shows as well. The backstage at the festival is really well organised, with a lovely buffet to snack from and a monitor from which to watch what goes on down there on the stage if you don´t have time to grab that dressing robe and hurry to the artists´ loge on the balcony. It was quite full with performers at all times; most of us are a curious lot, and enjoy seeing others perform!
Well, this is how it eventually turned out to be! The routine as well as the set!
We were blessed with the company of many a talented photographer on both nights, and I´m picking a selected few to show you, from the point of view of the set designer. I especially love how the set and the routine in question co-operate in these:
(And as for what happened afterwards, well, after curtain call I enjoyed the party until the wee hours of the morning, then changed into (another kind of) working gear and started to strip the stage of all that magic. Went to bed at around 5 am and got up in the morning for a photo shoot with The Bitties and Kaylin Idora. But that´s another story altogether.)
If I could pick a picture from each performer, and each routine, with their different colours and themes, believe me, I would. But then, this would be a long essay indeed. Maybe you´ll just have to come and see it live next year! I like to think that what we have here is something unique and thriving, and the fact that we keep getting some astonishing international talent shimmying on our stages just might prove me right. There´s such an intense and close-knit community of burlesque folks in this neck of the woods and most of us do our ultimate best to keep the art alive and kicking in the best possible ways.
And of course, I already know what we´ll be doing next year, and have been planning and plotting! But what we have in store, that´s for us to know and you to find out, isn´t it…
Visit Tinker Bell´s website and official online portfolio.
Visit the Helsinki Burlesque Festival website.
For more beautiful festival photos, check out Kaylin Idora’s Helsinki Burlesque Festival diary.
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.