As the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend 2014 prepared to launch, I caught up with Burlesque TOP 50 ranking stage manager extraordinaire David Bishop, who has stage managed the New York Burlesque Festival since 2004, the BHoF Weekend since 2007, and has blessed shows and festivals in almost twenty US states. We discussed his work and preparations for yet another busy Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender…
21st Century Burlesque Magazine Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend 2014 Coverage is sponsored by Fancy Feather.
Can you briefly outline your history of working with BHoF and how you came to be the BHoF stage manager?
I had been stage managing the New York Burlesque Festival for a few years and had heard many times about how great Miss Exotic World was and that I just had to go! I first volunteered in 2007 and kept coming back year after year! Paula [the Swedish Housewife] ran all of MEW almost single-handedly for many years with aid from her Seattle based backstage team of Blake Driver, Maque and Norma Davis, among others. Blake, Maque and Norma moved on to other projects and I did my best to fill their shoes.
When does your work begin for the following year once each Weekender is over? What is a general timeline of your preparations and work with the rest of the team?
Work pretty much begins in July! Emails start going back and forth about best practices for the next pageant, etc., and continue throughout the year. After the contestants and performers are chosen then all the fun starts! Spreadsheets are filled out, music is compiled, performers are contacted, etc.
Can you describe some of the unique or particular challenges of each of the different shows at BHoF, from the opening night to the Friday Reunion, to the Pageant and the All Star finale?
The Pageant is the longest show – four hours long! – and has the most performers. As it is a competition the stakes are much higher for the performers and therefore the pressure is intense. The Sunday show by contrast is almost all title holders bringing a favourite or new act, so the pressure is much less. Saturday is very, very challenging. Sunday is usually fun (if not a bit nerve-wracking because it’s still BHoF so it’s still a big deal). Thursday is much shorter than Saturday so that makes it more manageable, but many of the performers have never been on the big BHoF stage before so it is still very intense.
Friday’s show is always the most unique and heartfelt. Some performers haven’t been onstage in twenty years! Others have just recently started performing again after a long hiatus or retirement. Friday’s show is completely unique – it is the only all legends show in any festival anywhere. These women may be older but they still have it! Friday always worries me because safety is more of an issue, but the joy and enthusiasm and exuberance is contagious.
All the shows have their own challenges and differences, but they are all part of the big BHoF Weekender – the biggest burlesque event all year anywhere!
Do certain things become more predictable and easy to manage now that you work in the same venue each year? Does this current arrangement make your job easier?
The onstage and tech crew at the Orleans is wonderful! It is a joy to work with them year after year (and for the Viva Las Vegas pageant which is also in the Showroom and I also stage manage). There are challenges and politics at every venue, but at least we generally know what to expect at the Orleans.
In terms of tech rehearsal, how long does each performer get and what are the key things to nail in those precious minutes?
Each performer for Saturday’s pageant gets five minutes. They must wear the shoes they will wear during their performance and walk the stage. They hear what their music sounds like on the stage and space their act. The stage is HUGE. We try to help them be comfortable with their entrance and set their final pose. If they have any lighting requests they can make those too. If there is a safety concern – aerial or a large, dangerous or complicated prop – they may get a few more moments for safety’s sake only.
The other techs are very similar with the same points to hit as above. Test your shoes. Hear your music. Space your act. Talk about lights. Pick a beginning and an ending pose.
I imagine one of the biggest pressures is running time and keeping things on track. How do you manage this issue?
Each show has a timed out schedule. Everything is on the schedule.
8:00 Start – Host intro.
8:02 1st performer.
8:07 2nd performer.
8:12 3rd performer.
Etc., etc., etc.
The trick is to stay on schedule. The host does not usually take a full minute, but sometimes strike and set up can take over one minute. Every act is different. We do the best we can!
Do you still get pre-show nerves at BHoF? Are you at a point where you can work on auto-pilot a lot of the time, or is it important to stay alert and reactive? Are you able to absorb any of the excitement and atmosphere as you work?
I don’t get nervous – I get hyper focused and very strict. There is no auto-pilot. Anything can happen or change at any time so we all have to be ready and paying attention. I don’t think I absorb the excitement or atmosphere; I’m too focused on keeping the show running on time and in the correct order and making sure no one gets injured. And on Saturday especially I try to check in with all the performers to make sure they follow my ‘There’s no crying in burlesque’ rule. Tension runs very high and everyone is stressed but I hope to help everyone be positive and happy even if something goes wrong.
Would you like to mention some of the people you work closely with who help you perform your role successfully?
I get soooooooooo much help! I am very, very fortunate to have so many dedicated talented and professional people help out with the Weekender. And they are almost all volunteers! Dustin and Joyce work crazy long hours putting the whole Weekender together – I just have to run 4 shows!
Lola and Mattie Martinet are in charge of AV and Videography and help oversee all Tech. They are miracle workers. Each show has its own producer who sets the show and hands it to me to run – this year they are Jonny Porkpie, Sweetpea, Kitty Irreverent and Naughty Pierre. I have my two ASM’s Nikki Knickers and Anita Brasierre who help keep me sane through all the madness (one for Thursday and Sunday, one for Friday and Saturday). Red Herring is the volunteer coordinator for the entire Weekender; she gets me folks for the tech rehearsals, and backstage runners, and the pick-up artists (stage kittens) and more! There are two Backstage Liaisons (one for Thursday and Sunday, one for Friday and Saturday), Cherry Cheesecake and Juicy D Light; they are who the performers go to with questions about wristbands and safety pins and water and snacks and zipping up and I forgot my hairspray etc., etc. There are also two Backstage Coordinators whose main task is to wrangle the four stage kittens for each show and help out where needed.
There are two sound techs, Momotaro and Frankie the Knife, who make the music happen, and there is a craft services/hospitality crew run by Nicolette Daly that keeps us all fed and watered. BHoF hired its own Lighting Designer – brand new for this year- to supplement the Orleans lighting tech. And, of course, the rest of crew at the Orleans; it’s their Showroom – we just take it over for four days and nights! That includes the tech and stage crew, the ushers and bartenders, the box office folks and the folks in the office. It truly takes a village. And that is not even half the people working behind the scenes to make the Weekender happen; those are just the folks that make the shows happen!
Have there been any particularly challenging incidents over the years at BHoF which you feel developed you as a stage manager? I imagine there have been some amusing and moving memories too…
Every year is different. I love all my performers equally and they are all angels. Like any show, large or heavy props add a wrinkle, as do large groups of performers or extremely-specific-verging-on-
Do you have an opinion on the perceived discouragement of acts with large props at BHoF and the animated discussion that resulted? Do you feel it works against innovation and creativity, or do you think it’s reasonable to ask people to carefully consider whether their act needs a large prop when it comes to performing your job?
I have no comment on that specific discussion. I believe BHoF will (and must) always value innovation and creativity. That being said, my very personal opinion as a stage manager and an audience member is: if you have a large prop, USE IT! A lot! For several minutes! But seriously, every act should only use the props it needs. Having a big prop just to have a big prop isn’t the point. The point is to make a unique, wonderful, amazing, spectacular act; if that act incorporates a huge heavy prop, put it on wheels that lock and unlock easily and all will be right in the world. I believe there is a rule for the Pageant that set and strike (breakdown)/clean up of any act cannot exceed a certain time frame. This rule exists not only to keep the show running (it’s already four hours at its very best) but to be fair to the other contestants. Please bring on the big props and complicated acts and have 20+ people onstage at the same time – I love it! I love the innovation and the creativity and the ingenuity; just be very aware of set up and breakdown times.
What does the overall experience of the Weekender tend to be like for you? How much leisure and social time do you manage to fit in?
I get leisure and social time on Sunday night (assuming I can still stand up). I basically go into the Showroom on Thursday and don’t come out until Sunday except to shower (and if I’m lucky, eat; depending on what is happening I often eat in the showroom, when I remember or have the time to eat), sleep and change clothes. If all goes well I may get one drink after each show, but it’s all very, very exhausting so I try to get as much rest as possible. All the better to be a happy and pleasant Bishop, not a grumpy and sleepy, sullen one.
I consume lots of sugar in the form of donuts and sweets (often from Tiffany Carter), chocolate and soda to keep me going. Oh yeah, and healthy eating and all that too, because good nutrition is really important! If I get to the pool or hot tub before Monday – it’s a win!
BHoF is like a big family reunion! It is very special to see the legends and so many of my loved ones in the burlesque community all in the same place. Seeing everyone – even if it’s just a quick hug or hello – makes it all worth it.
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.