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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Hotels are the thing that really gets to me. While the idea of having your host hotel be a luxurious gem appeals to our love of feeling fancy, all our money usually goes into the fancy things we are bringing to stage and getting there. And if your hotel has exorbitantly priced food with small portions and no options in short walking-in-heels distance, you’re cooking up some hangry stripper stew. Having a volunteer (the lifeblood of festivals) who’s duty it is to make a list of eateries and stores nearby is so helpful, and if they’re local, really easy.
And sometimes when a festival is over, it just plops dead. If someone just spent major bucks to perform in your festival to expand their national reach, how about a little post-promotion. Just listing your winners a week later with no fanfare doesn’t really cut it. These are the kinds of things where we ‘get paid in exposure’, so how about actually exposing us? I honestly feel a little embarrassed when I find out someone won something at a festival I didn’t even know they were in (I lose track sometimes during festival season!). And even if it’s a non-competitive festival, you can pick a few performers a week to highlight via your website and social media. It’s like being reviewed by the press- your reviewer isn’t going to detail every act, but some highlights, creative sentences, and photos go a long way. Some festivals are great at this, others, not so much.
But it’s a sad fact of the matter that this pay-to-play really keeps you relevant. I took 2013 off the festival circuit, and I feel it really decreased the amount of interest others had in having me in their city. Which is funny because I took 2013 off the circuit to be able to travel to paying gigs. Catch 22- I made those touring connections at festivals.
Sounds like you’d love the Dirty Devil’s Peepshow at Theatre Bizarre… Hope to see your application sometime in the future. xoxo
These are some good considerations, and it’s good in general that these things get enumerated because that doesn’t often happen in discussions. After reading it, I feel that it kind of misses the elephant in the room. And that elephant is the same elephant that has been there for every festival, every show, every movie production, every wedding, every device produced, in fact, everything ever. And that is: constraints.
What are the constraints for a festival? Just to start with: more potential performers than you have room for; limited capital that the producers can front; venue and scene peculiarities specific to the local area; limited staff to put it on, and who often have day jobs and families and such… most of these constraints are cost-related, and that’s just the beginning. Then you have to factor the other biggest constraint of the whole thing: ticket sales. As much as we’d love it to be otherwise, we’re not going to get a paying audience of thousands no matter who is headlining or how many people are performing. Putting on a gigantic huge show with the mindset of “if we build it, they will come” just doesn’t work in the burlesque world. Unless the measure of “great show” includes the producer taking a huge hit financially. Nope, when we put on a show, we know there will be certain people who come no matter what; and then the general public and the fence-sitters. And it’s those people whom we have to convince to buy tickets, at a price they think is good for what they are getting.
I completely agree with the expectations and needs (networking, performing/watching, expense). As for the ten points– I’ll touch on those. And for the sake of example—let’s say that I’m the Producer of the festival, with a capital P. You, whomever is reading this, pretend you’re me, the Producer, for this.
#1: the afterparty. Great idea! What is being asked here? A place that is close to the venue or hotel, which limits options. And don’t charge admission. Thus, the afterparty can’t pay for itself, even in part… so the cost for the venue, DJ, whatever else… that is going to have to come out of the show. So as Producer, this boils down to: people want me to pay for something that they are benefitting from.
#2: choosing venue: most definitely. But there are huge constraints here. Maybe the place with the awesome dressing room has horrible lighting and sound. Maybe the only place with enough seats and a low-enough rental cost only has the kitchen available as a dressing room, and the only mirror is in the bathroom. And I, as Producer, have to front the money for the venue, as well as absorb the cost if we don’t sell enough seats. So as Producer, this boils down to: I’ll try to accommodate all those things, I really will, but in the end I have to choose the optimal combination of all of these things; and undoubtedly performers will be unhappy about some aspect of it and hold it against me because it could have been better. Sorry about the broom closet, by the way.
#3: Performers seeing the show for reduced/free: I totally agree, but as Producer, I have to factor the cost of this into things too. Ten performers in theater seats means ten theater seats that didn’t get sold at a higher margin. Which is fine, but again, it has to be carefully worked out so that the show doesn’t tank. “Go find a bigger venue”? Easier said than done (see point #2 above). As Producer, I do think performers deserve to see the show, but as Producer, quite honestly I *can’t* take on the burden of worrying about how much it’s costing each and every person to take time off work to come. Nobody’s forcing anybody to come; they come because they want to. I don’t go to Viva Las Vegas and ask for a break on the ticket price because my airline tickets were expensive. The JT/Jay-Z tour can’t worry about the parking lot charging $50 per car. This is really no different.
On this note—I’ll completely agree about festivals that are 90% home crowd feeling weird. Sounds just like a big hometown show to me, in which case, why call it a festival? (IMO: the word “festival” has become about as vaguely descriptive as the word “artisanal”.)
#4: local hosts and rideshares: totally awesome idea; but my Festival makes zero money from doing this. It’s a goodwill gesture and favor to you, and it will take at least a fair amount of planning. If I can find someone to do that, cool, but we’re operating on a pretty thin staff so I’ll tell you right now that this is going to be one of the first things to go. I totally know performers are broke, but as in #3, I really can’t take on the burden of worrying about that and nobody is forcing them to come. But I do see why hosts and rideshares are good. However, as Producer, I think: why should I have to do this? Why don’t performers get on Facebook and start posting to find someone?
As for “making sure everyone has a ride from the airport”: awesome idea. So now the people suggesting it can walk away, and *I* have to worry about the logistics of actually doing it? Par for the course in the burlesque world.
#5: Definitely. Teachers should be compensated. I don’t know of festivals that have had them teach for free. Although not as Producer, regular me wonders: can’t they just turn down the request?
#6: curating lineup: hell yes. Any show worth its salt should be doing this.
#7: quality over quantity: as Producer, I have to balance more than just audience fatigue here. Scaling costs, ticket sales, etc. all factor in. As Producer, I ask you: for a festival, if you’d rather watch a tight 10-act show than a 25-person show, are you going to be the person who will tell 15 performers that they didn’t get in because I was worried about “audience fatigue”? Nope, I have to. And who should I cut from the show? I don’t want to cut locals, because they’ll be mad at me and not want to buy tickets or bring friends. But I also don’t want to cut the away-people and have it be a “locals only” show. I can’t decide. Here, look at this list of 25 names, and tell me who to axe. But we’ll have a nice tight show!
And not only that, I’m then missing out on the ticket sales from at least 15 s.o.’s and friends. And when the number of performers dwindle, so do ticket sales, for the same reason. People buy tickets because their friends are in the show. I’ll end up either selling fewer tickets, or having to lower the ticket price. (We’ve all seen flyers that list every performer under the sun… and the whole point there is to convince those on the fence to buy a ticket because they will receive a good value for their money.) So I’m sorry you feel fatigued, but realistically, I gotta have more people. More geographic representation. More friends and family in seats. More food and drinks sold at the venue (which makes the venue like me and want me back), more people to buy merch from performers. The whole point of festivals is to have at least a medium-large amount of acts from all over the place. Other people can have their small tight show back at home.
#8: complimentary food and drinks rock: they totally do! I agree! I can’t really say that as Producer, this boils down to “someone wants me to pay for something”, because I can’t realistically *not* provide something. But unfortunately, the venue won’t let me bring in my own food… I have to use their catering. $70 for a carafe of coffee. $120 for a relish plate. And so on. How many nights do I need this for? As with everything else, this has to be balanced: I want to find the optimum combination of what I can give to meet needs, vs. what it costs. If I end up ordering too much and there’s a lot left over, then that’s waste that I am paying for.
#9: Film all the performances: yep. I agree. But I’d better find some friend, or friend-of-friend, who will do it for drinks and a free pass. Because to have it professionally shot, it’s going to cost me, the Producer, thousands. For a crew and equipment to work multiple nights including setup and then weeks of editing. I do get it that providing the footage to you “cheap or even free is better”. I suppose you want multiple camera angles too, right? You bet, I’ll ask the film crew if they’ll tack that on for free because we’re on a shoestring budget here. I’m already paying them $90/hour per person, plus hot meals (per their contract)… they should be happy with that because who doesn’t love shooting a burlesque festival? They get to see naked people!
#10: Hell yes. No glass walking. Can we extend this to no paint, no messy food, or the awful combination of sticky liquids + cups full of glitter? Because I’ve seen all of those. That list is long.
I hope this didn’t come across as overkill, but it probably did. My overall point here is: ***I, as the producer, am not putting this on strictly for the performers’ benefit.*** But it’s not just for my benefit either. It’s for everyone’s benefit. It’s circular. You get something out of it, I get something out of it, the audience gets something out of it, the venue gets something out of it, the community gets something out of it. We all contribute in some way; and we all have to give on some things we’d like to have. I’m the one who has to not only plan it, but front the cost. So if any one of those parties is really insistent about something, they’re welcome to call me up and offer to front the cost for it, and then we’ll talk.
I’ve been in the burlesque world long enough (going on 13 years) to see that peformers in general are kind of myopic about constraints. Festivals look easy on the surface: find a venue, put out a call to performers, pick who’s going to be in it, send a bunch of emails, order some food, find a stage manager, schedule a few workshops, sell a bunch of tickets, and YAY AWESOME SHOW! In reality… it doesn’t work like that. If anyone who is reading this has made it this far and is completely scared shitless about the idea of producing a festival… then you are the right kind of person to produce something like this. Not the person who REALLY REALLY WANTS TO.
If someone wants to put on a really successful multi-day burlesque event, they don’t need a “burlesque producer” more than they need anyone else… they need a project manager. (Which is what I do for a living… that’s why I passionately see things in the way I’ve laid out above.) (Also, I’m not offering up myself to put on any festivals… I’m enjoying civilian life!) But yes—events like this need someone to project-manage more than they need anything else. The actual shows that require “producing”? They’re just one medium-sized part of the whole shebang.
Preach! Esp the having room for performers to watch the show. (Burlesque Hall of Fame gets a pass because we are trying to raise money for that organization, but they also do host a bunch of other events so you feel you get your money’s worth).
Oh–and can those after parties be close to the venue (since most of us don’t have cars when we travel) and can they have a coat check room for our gig bags and/or be within walking distance to the theater so we can leave said gig bags at the theater and not have to babysit them at a bar for fear someone will steal them?
I think many festivals suffer from the “public” vs “private” issue. Fests like The Burlesque Hall of Fame and Tease-O-Rama in my mind are private–the audience are mainly performers and the events are geared towards performers. Fests like Windy City Burlesque Festival and Toronto Burlesque Festival are definitely public, as their audiences are predominantly non-perfomers.
I think a fest needs to decide who is it being produced for–other performers or the public, as there are different concerns on the structure of the show/event.
But, no, really, don’t ask your performers to buy tickets. Even if you give us standing room.