Interview: Doc Wasabassco – 10 Years in Burlesque (Part One)
The Philosophy of a Doctor: Wasabassco Celebrates 10 Years in New York City
For me it started three years ago when Doc Wasabassco flew me out to New York City to participate in their 7th anniversary weekend. What I didn’t know is that a bond would form that would inform my decision to relocate across the country with my husband just three years later, just in time to celebrate a huge milestone in a burlesque producer’s history – a 10th anniversary.
Ten years is a big deal as a producer, and in this current era of burlesque I only know a few that have met the milestone. It takes so much to be a producer – it’s emotionally and often financially exhausting – so what does it mean to be a producer that makes their living from producing shows? A producer that puts out as little as two and sometimes up to five shows in a week?
Ten years ago an artist was making his way as an illustrator, drawing pinup girls and designing baby toys for Baby Gap, when a strange opportunity rang. Three times.
“My friend Andy called me drunk to inform me that I had a gallery show for my pinup art and hung up. Then he called to tell me that to promote the gallery show we were doing a burlesque show (which we were NOT qualified to do, but he was sure we were because he was drunk), and on the third call he let me know that he had secured The World Famous Pontani sisters as headliners. I had no idea who they were, but the next day we met up and went for a walk.”
And the rest is a bit of New York burlesque history.
Sometimes when the stars align to place you on your path you’re given the perfect opportunity to create a little magic. Doc and Andy set out and did their research, watching as many shows as they could and scouted talent, and through their friendship with Scarlet Sinclair they were able to book the performers they enjoyed with her vouching for them. “We were these guys that came out of nowhere; we were straight guys and that just wasn’t a part of the burlesque scene back then.”
Their first show was three hours long. “The average show in NYC at the time was about forty minutes long, so people thought we were a big deal and we had money, because they couldn’t conceive how you could do a show that long without a lot of money. The answer to that is: you just have to be naive and stupid to throw a show that big. We did pay everyone – and well – and at the end of the night we walked away with about $9. Which we spent on our bar tab.”
Before the intermission had ended they already had their next show booked. “We had sold out and the owners wanted us to do it again. It was huge, and that was the start of Wasabassco throwing a series of large burlesque events.” Doc still has no real idea how the gallery show (which was put on the next day) really went. “We showed up – hungover – hung the art, stayed for twenty minutes to eat the finger sandwiches and then went home.”
I asked Doc what the scene was like ten years ago to try to see where we’ve come from. “Club kids and queer performers, tiny venues, Dirty Martini, Tigger! – at this time this scene was a community. I can’t say I’m a big fan now of the word ‘community’; back then it was 20-30 performers, all tight-knit. It may have seemed like a clique at the time, but the nice thing was once you were established and vouched for, everyone worked with everyone; there weren’t enough people to do it any other way. Now it’s different – the large numbers just don’t support that anymore. That’s just the evolution of it. There were four shows really back then, and now there are countless shows in New York.”
In the three years that I’ve come to know the outspoken Doc Wasabassco, I’ve watched his character grow tremendously. As a performer coming out of a mostly female scene in Seattle, I remember the times when I worked under a male producer and also the reactions of women in my Seattle community towards male producers. We know the man in a suit with naked women trope. We know the ‘pimp’ trope. We know the ‘look at my women’ trope – and I can’t say that I have seen many men navigate this female dominated art form without blunder and without polarising communities.
“It’s interesting for me because it has evolved – how I see myself, how others see me, and also how I look at other male MCs and producers,” Doc told me. “When I showed up there was a lot of resentment, and at the time I didn’t think that was fair, but ten years later I absolutely get it. There were no straight guys and I was pretty shy – Andy did all the talking – but I tried to make sure that I was being respectful – so much so that the performers in the dressing room would laugh at me. I didn’t want to be the creepy guy. Five years later there was an influx of new males in the burlesque scene who saw it as a dating pool, and in general the community was dating each other. For years I was dating Gigi LaFemme and we produced shows together, and currently I am dating Nasty Canasta, but otherwise I wasn’t available. But the point is, there were always accusations and rumours about me and all the other male producers – casting couch rumours, that sort of thing – which always felt like a huge insult to the women in this community.”
In late night conversations during my stays at Doc and Nasty’s pad in Brooklyn, it became clear that Doc was trying to shift the focus from him as MC and face of the company, and he often expressed hopes of being able to step back and have the female hosts and producers take the lead. Wasabassco currently has three associate producers: Nasty Canasta (for the last eight years), Stormy Leather and me, and we all flex our producer muscles in three very distinct shows. Gigi LaFemme is set to rejoin us in Nashville as Wasabassco spreads its wings across the country.
“I like the show better with women; I never wanted to do that American Apparel thing – the female figurehead with the scumbag guy behind the scenes. I’m aware of that trope as well, but I think that burlesque as an art form is mostly created by women and mostly should be artistically directed by women. But that’s not to say we don’t have some of the best male performers in the world, and I’m very proud of them and lucky to have them with us.”
The one show that Doc continues to host in comfort is his show at the Way Station, the bar his dear friend Andy owns and Doc helped to build. “A couple of years ago I started to look around at the men in burlesque and began to see the type I can’t stand. Jo Boobs wrote a great article about it and I thought, yep, she’s right! I’m not comfortable with this anymore. It wasn’t how I started; I ended up being the front and the face of the organisation and then I thought, no – that’s a very valid opinion and there needs to be a lot less ‘me’ being seen. It just seemed distasteful.”
We move on to talking about producing – in particular what our learning curve has been like and what we see as the major mistakes of producers today. Doc and I connected initially online through our ideas about what makes a successful show, and although very occasionally we have different thoughts about a direction, we can agree on most things.
“My metaphor is the table,” Doc begins. “Your job as a producer is the show, which is what goes on the table. You can’t put anything on the table unless you have four legs. And the four legs are: the performers, the audience, the venue and yourself. If you don’t take care of all four of those things you’re not going to have a good show. When I look at the mistakes of other producers they are often missing one element – for instance, being resentful of the venue that they are at. Your mission for the venue is to give them a show that sells drinks; they are there to run a business and you need to assist them in selling drinks.”
Moving on to the performers and audience, I liken what he’s saying to when you invite a guest over to your house. “You make sure that performers feel safe, have a clean space to get dressed, are free from creepy people and have water – you know, the basic stuff. Audiences need in particular to SEE the show; if they don’t get a seat they should at the very least have good sight lines and friendly staff.” As for the producing leg: “I’ve seen producers go out of pocket to put on the show that they want to see, and at the end of the day that’s a hobby – nothing wrong with that, but it’s not producing.”
He continues: “The hard part of producing a show is the business end of it. It’s fun to choose who’s going to be in the show, but that’s just booking a show – and just because a venue wants a show in their venue doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for you to put a show on in their venue. I see this mistake a lot. We’ve all made that mistake – Wasabassco has certainly made that mistake. We see a boudoir space that’s painted all pretty, but there’s no stage, no lighting, and the backstage is a closet with the mops. Or it’s a giant venue with a big stage but the sound engineers are burnt out, management doesn’t seem to care if the performers are safe, and the audience is a nightmare.”
You can join Doc, Sydni and the entire Wasabassco cast at their 10th Anniversary Extravaganza on November 8th at the Bell House, New York. Click here for details.