BURLESQUE-INOMICS: THE FINANCES OF BURLESQUE, by Penny Starr Jr.
Being in a tight economy can really take a hit on a budget showgirl or boy. Below are some money saving tips and some harsh economic truths.
If you have a dozen acts but you’ve only been performing a year, that means one of two things: 1) you have the money and time to spend on fully-realised act every month, or 2) you don’t, so more than one act is not a great costume, is not fully rehearsed, etc. With any act, the more times you perform it allows for more money to be counted towards that act. For example, my ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ costume cost in parts and labour $1200. This doesn’t count renting a rehearsal studio to rehearse, make-up, pastie glue, all the auxiliary costs of an act. When I perform, I like to take half of my fee and assign it to ‘paying for’ my costs. (For example: I’ve been performing that act since 2003, I no longer have to rent a studio for more than an hour as the choreography is complete, I only have to make repairs to the costume and not build any more pieces, etc.) Eventually, the act should pay off. If you have a new act all the time, you are using resources that might be better served by adding more rhinestones to an existing costume, or more rehearsal time for an existing act, thus making one great act versus two mediocre acts.
Try to split the cost of a rehearsal space with at least one other performer (if not two). I consider the time it takes to put my costume back on dead time – time I am not rehearsing. If you split with someone, they can be rehearsing while you are getting dressed and visa-versa. (Also, try to get all the music on one ipod/playlist/cd so you don’t waste time switching over.) If you are sharing the space with BFF’s, then I suggest meeting fifteen minutes early to get gossip out of the way. Remember, you are paying for studio time to rehearse, not to find out ‘do you know what she did?’
MIX AND MATCH
I keep all my undergarments in bins according to colour (not with their outer costumes). When I conceive a new act, I go to my bins first to see if I have a set of underbits that fit the colour scheme of a new act. I add additional embellishments (for example, adding copper coloured fringe to my green panties) by tailor tacking them (a light stitch I rip out later), using hidden snaps or snap tape, or even small safety pins (providing I am not taking that garment off to reveal the pins). All my panel skirts have panels that velcro so I can change the colour or fullness. Lastly, I construct all my pasties with interchangeable tassels so I can change their look and not need a new pair for each new act.
Using cheap embellishments (like the $1 a spool ribbon at the craft store, or 99c plastic Christmas decorations) might save you money now, but they are not archival, in that they may not survive the extreme wear and tear a burlesque costume must suffer. If you need to replace a cheap embellishment after every third performance, you may not be saving money or time – and don’t forget, your time is money (how much do you pay yourself to make a costume? $10 an hour? $5? None?). Also, if the costume is well made you can e-bay if you decide to retire that act.
CLEAN AND LONG-LASTING
Clean your costumes every six to ten performances. Dry clean any outer garments (be sure to go to a dry cleaner that specialises in couture cleaning so you know that your pearls, sequins, rhinestones, etc will not melt or fall off in the process). Hand wash your underbits in Ivory dish detergent or cheap mild shampoo in cold water. Do not scrub. (If you have a stubborn spot – like a wine stain – use a toothbrush to scrub just that area, and switch to white wine.) Do not ring out; just a quick swish in soapy water, rinse in cold water, lay flat to dry. This will prevent any stains from darkening over time. (Did you know that champagne stains will eventually caramelise?)
In addition to costumes, make-up, wigs and rehearsal space, you’ll need to maintain an internet presence, business cards or fliers, and having new photos. I recommend a proper website (not just Facebook). It needn’t be more than a well designed placeholder that has your best video, a few photos, contact info and buttons telling people to find you on Facebook, Twitter, etc.) Some designers can work with you to find an easy web design program that allows you to make updates on your own, thus saving you from having to pay the designer (or be at the whim of their schedule).
As to photography, see if the photographer offers a buddy deal. This way you can act as each other’s stylist (making sure your face is powdered and your fringe is straight). Once you have your pictures, feel free to be a little stingy with them. Our public loves new photos, so don’t release them all at once but put up one new photo a month.
Lastly, order business cards or fliers in small amounts if you are constantly changing your image; order a large amount if you have a photo you simply love, as ordering things in larger quantities is cheaper.
SPLIT OFF THE DOOR
If you are taking a split off the door, that means you are working for whatever admissions come through the door, split between the cast and crew. Keep in mind that there can often be other costs that are taken off the top, like publicity (fliers, posters, etc.), DJ, security, room rental. Also be aware of the capacity of the club and the cost of admission, and how many people are in the cast. If the club only holds eighty people, each paying $10, but the DJ gets $100 and security gets $100, and the producer wants to reimburse the $50 for the fliers, and there are twelve performers in the show, that means you all get about $45 if you sell out. And the show may not sell out. If it’s a distant location (you take two trains, or drive 25 miles), add in the cost of not just the train tickets or the gas and parking but your time getting there, and it may be more profitable to stay home.
If you decide to produce a show with guarantees, a basic way to arrive at the budget of your show is 2/3 the capacity of the club times admission price minus the hard costs (advertising, DJ, security) divided by the number of performers. Better to tip out your performers if you sell more tickets than to make a guarantee that you can not afford. (This is only for a show by established producers; for your first producing venture you should estimate 1/3 the capacity, since you have no following or word-of-mouth.)
Burlesque is also the most expensive show to produce, as the average act is only 3-5 minutes long, versus 10-15 minutes per your average comedian or 30-45 minutes for your average band. By default you need more performers per ninety minutes of entertainment, as well as certain logistics like pick-up artists to retrieve the clothes, a dressing room or place to change, and a sound system to play the performers’ music.
Lastly, burlesque is still an unknown art form (i.e. unlike stand-up, the majority of people don’t have a clear-cut image of what they will see at a show) as well as being a sexualised form of entertainment, which may cut out a large part of any potential audience.
THE MEDIAN WAGE
Larger cities do not mean larger guarantees. Yes, you may say the population of Los Angeles is nine million, but nine million people are not coming to a burlesque show. In fact, there is a great deal more competition for the viewing public. At any given moment, my own show, Victory Variety Hour, could be up against a Mark Ryden opening, a car show, a Dodgers game, Patton Oswald at the Improv, Neil Gaiman signing at Meltdown Comics, Prince playing a months worth of shows at the Coliseum for $25 a ticket, AND every one one of my friends in some other show (theatre, band, stand-up). In smaller towns, a burlesque show could literally be the only game in town.
Also, advertising costs in larger cities are more expensive, businesses are less likely to sponsor a show unless they know there are large numbers or celebrities attached, and venues are more expensive to book.
You must have at least a DBA to write your performance costs off. These costs include, but are not limited to: costumes, materials and thread, rhinestones and glue, make-up, salon visits (hair, nails, facials, massage), rental of rehearsal space, dance and sewing classes, sewing machine repairs, shoes and jewellery. HOWEVER, this also means you must report your earnings and prove a profit after three years, otherwise your ‘career’ is considered a hobby by the government, and why should they give you a break for a pastime (no tax break for scrapbookers). Do consult a licensed CPA about the details of taking this route.
TOUR, OR SUBSIDISED VACATION
Being on tour means that the costs of being on tour (travel, accommodations, fees for performances) are guaranteed. If you are not recuperating the costs, either in performance fees, saving on a hotel by crashing with another performer or hustling merch, then you might be on a subsidised vacation. Not that there’s anything wrong with picking up a gig while you visit your aunt, but no one should hit the road without knowing that in advance, as many people will bill themselves as being on tour when the reality of that situation may be very different.
With most bands, they do not make their money on ticket sales but on merch. Just remember to make something for $20 or less and have one piece of merch that is $5 or less. This way, someone can always give you money if they want. And be sure to carry change at all times. You do not want to have to sell your merch for less money, or not sell it at all, because you couldn’t break a ten.
And just remember, in these trying times we have made a decision to make art regardless of the financial gain. And if we can survive this economic climate, we can survive anything.
After spending three years making the documentary, ‘The Velvet Hammer Burlesque’, it was no wonder that Penny decided to pick up the mantle held by her grandmother, Philadelphia burlesque dancer, Penny Starr. Or, as Penny Starr Jr. puts it, ”You can only live with the circus for so long before you want to join!”(She and Penny, Sr. have performed the first and only grandmother/granddaughterstriptease act.) One year later, in 2004, Penny Starr, Jr. became First Runner-Up at the annual Miss Exotic World (Burlesque Hall of Fame) burlesque pageant.
She has performed and/or instructed at a number of legendary venues, shows and festivals, including the Va Va Voom Room, Starshine Burlesque, Margaret Cho’s ‘The Sensuous Woman’, the Slipper Room NYC, Tease-o-Rama, BHoF, BurlyCon and the New York Burlesque Festival.
In addition to dancing and performing, Penny is the founder of the All-Star Burlesque Classes, and produces and directs the Princess Farhana line of belly dance and burlesque instructional DVDs. A centerfold and columnist, Penny has also consulted on such shows as Chuck (including a cameo as a bachelor party stripper), ‘Castle’, and has recently taught tassel twirling to the cast of ‘Water for Elephants’.