I am a member of the New York City burlesque community. I started performing nearly four years ago, jumping into the ‘behind the scenes’ aspects of shows shortly following my debut and graduation from the New York School of Burlesque. After years of working as an associate producer with Jonny Porkpie and participating in the NYSB Driver’s Seat Program under the guidance of Jonny and Calamity Chang, I decided it was time to start producing on my own. In December 2014, Rabbit Hole Productions was born.
For me burlesque is activism. It’s the proclamation of autonomy and doing what you want, when you want, and how you want to do it. Burlesque is expression and empowerment through choice. But like any subculture, burlesque communities are sometimes prone to sexist characteristics of society at large: discrimination, objectification, harassment, etc. My exasperation with these elements that I find contradictory to the core values of burlesque, coupled with my love of creating and producing, is what inspired me to start producing my own monthly show. Every producer runs their shows differently, and doing things differently certainly isn’t a matter of right or wrong. Some don’t see a place for activism in burlesque entertainment, but I do, and Rabbit Hole Productions is the embodiment of the adage ‘be the change you wish to see’. Rabbit Hole Productions aims to put on high quality and socially aware burlesque shows through a lens of body positivity, sex positivity, and feminism. Here’s how I do that:
Monthly Rabbit Hole Productions shows are themed, and social justice ideology is punched into those themes. Sometimes that ideology is subtle with the values of Rabbit Hole Productions sprinkled throughout the show, like in Get Sprung: A Burlesque Tribute to the Arrival of Spring or Nightmare Before Christmas in July. Other times that ideology is present right in the show’s title. The inaugural show Hollaback Girls! was a burlesque fundraiser for the anti-street harassment campaign Hollaback! January’s Let’s Talk About Sex was full of sex positivity and education, with performers presenting acts showcasing everything from contraceptive rights to fetishism. In June I teamed up with Beelzebabe to produce You Don’t Own Me: Burlesque Unchained, a show about female autonomy focused on things women face daily like impossible beauty standards, slut-shaming and more. Most recently I produced Honey, I Stole Your Act, a show in which burlesque performers in couples swapped numbers with their partners. Originally it was just a fun show idea with no specific social issues embedded in the theme, but after the show one of the performers who typically performs very feminine acts expressed that she found the challenge in learning her partner’s more masculine number provided her the opportunity to examine her own sexuality in a different way. I thought that was the best compliment the show could have received!
Regardless of how overt my feminist agenda is in Rabbit Hole Productions shows, I’ve learned (and will continue to learn) to use language and book shows in very specific ways. All bodies have a story to tell. There are performers of all shapes, sizes, and colours, and all of them should have a place on the stage. Intersectionality is a key component in any type of activism, and in recognising that, I strive to showcase a variety of body types, ethnicities and experiences in every production. Also, all Rabbit Hole shows are hosted by women or stripping men. I’ve grown increasingly troubled with the perpetuation of the harem trope on stage and in promotional materials in my community: men in suits hosting naked lady shows or half-naked women acting as accessories for fully-clothed men. It’s not my cup of tea, so I don’t do it. I like shows in which everyone on stage undresses, and when they do so in my productions, all genders are required to wear pasties to cover their nipples. I feel that if one gender has to do it, then all should!
Additionally, I was given opportunities when I first started by producers who made space for new artists, both to pick-up and to perform. I try to book new performers too and I prefer to use the term ‘pick-up artist’ instead of ‘stage kitten’. As someone who regularly did pick-up for shows until recently (and loved every second of it), I speak from experience when I say that it is indeed an art. Organisation, time management and attention to detail are all requirements for a talented pick-up artist. I find the term ‘stage kitten’ infantilising (especially considering the male version is ‘stage panther’) and ‘pick-up artist’ gives credit where credit is due for the work that goes into it. Plus, in this context, ‘pick-up artist’ gives a new definition to a phrase typically reserved for men celebrated for their talents in picking up women. I think it’s important that producers continue to provide opportunities for new performers. Just like legends are our burlesque history, brand new performers are our burlesque future, so I want to make sure they have a place on stage, too.
Rabbit Hole is by no means the only production infusing social justice themes into burlesque, and that makes me really happy. December will mark Rabbit Hole Productions’ one year anniversary, and we will celebrate the same way we started: with a benefit show to raise money for an organisation that helps women. Burlesque gives me a platform to promote awareness of issues I’m passionate about. It is my hope that in creating change in burlesque, that in producing with a mission statement of not only high quality shows but social awareness, we can better our community and beyond. Social change has never come by way of silence, so I intend to be loud in the most fun and naked way possible!
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.