Interview: Doc Wasabassco – 10 Years in Burlesque (Part Two)
Often our conversations around all of this turn to pay. I’ve been an advocate of raising the pay in Seattle, and now that I’m in New York I feel it’s the same issue in a different city. For a regularly occurring production, Wasabassco pays its performers above the average, and the average pay in New York right now seems to be about $50 an act, sometimes a lot less. I don’t work a lot in NYC because of this – not because I don’t want to work, because I do, but because the pay in relation to the ‘taking the train, lugging your stuff, getting to the venue, green room is a closet (or none at all)’ is a hard pill to swallow. I feel we deserve more for being naked, being creative, being entertaining, and doing it all with a smile.
I know that for Wasabassco, as well for other successful operations, getting to a better pay rate took a while, and it takes patience. “At our initial show we paid everyone what they said their rate was, and they didn’t know us from Adam so they gave us very high rates for the scene. After the first couple of shows we realised that it was very unsustainable. We made nothing. Initially we did a split of the door. Now we do guarantees, which have only happened in the last five years. When we started doing a weekly the pay was horrible – the kind of bad pay you hear about – so we decided to go with ‘honesty is the best policy’, asking performers to help us build the show into something for cut of the door. Eventually I knew that we needed to be consistent with the rate and everyone always got paid before we did, but it wasn’t until five years in that the guarantee was able to happen. If you have a good night, you put the excess in the bank so that if you have a bad night you can still pay your promise. You just have to build it up.” That being said, he concludes that this would be a very hard thing to do in the current scene of burlesque, at least in NYC. “Now there’s a going rate. There wasn’t always. I still don’t think I pay performers enough, but we’re not making that kind of money yet. NYC is a tricky town: ticket prices are low because there is always just so much to do on any given night in this city. I think that now, in this climate, new producers would do well to have seed money to start their endeavours. Run a good business to get people in the door. That’s how you end up paying people.”
The Wasabassco Family roster contains over sixty names, containing some of the most legendary performers in the NY scene and in the country. This is a list you build up. I know that when I was in Seattle it took nearly four years to get my list to contain the perfect storm, which is, according to Doc: “You have got to bring something great and different to the table, and maybe even more importantly you have to have impeccable backstage etiquette. We work in too close quarters for shenanigans. We’re a close knit family, so if you come to my organisation and you’re incredible, that’s wonderful – but if you’re a diva, we simply don’t need you.”
But I prod further – what’s a good way to make a good introduction? “You walk up to me at a show, introduce yourself and then say you’ll send an email. Then you walk away. Support the show you want to be in if you’re in the area. If you’re new, ask to be a part of a show in a supporting role, because often there are more seasoned performers whose spots you are hoping to take. I see too many performers graduating from schools thinking that they are established and entitled to gigs – they already have a tag line and a business card, but they haven’t done the work. When you send emails, send clear video, polite messages, and have some shows under your belt if you are contacting established producers. Approach shows like jobs – ask them if they have any openings instead of declaring that you want to be in their show.”
We both agree that no matter what, impressions are everything. Be polite to everyone you come into contact with in a show – you never know who you elbowed past to say hello to the producer you want to work with or a burlesque performer you admire. We both have too many agonising stories of a performer who pushed past our partner or insisted that they should get booked, forcing a card in our hands. Good producers will notice that – and make a note not to book you. Try not to take up too much time with any personality that you want to meet while they are at their job. “Try not to forget that until they leave the venue, they are at their job.”
But let’s talk about the rockstars, the performers he loves to book over and over again – what are they doing right?
“The first point is STARPOWER – you just want to see them all the time. The second thing is RANGE. I have a lot of performers that I love, but they only do one thing. I think of Wasabassco as an umbrella. We have a fancy show, a dirty show, a nerdy show, scripted shows; they all have a different ‘flavour’ while still feeling like a Wasabassco show, and we have performers that can fill slots in any of those shows – those are the people you are seeing the most. And the third is professionalism: you call them and they respond and you book them. They promote shows, sometimes even shows they can’t be at. They get back to you right away. They’re on time, they follow the guidelines, they’re reliable and they have a range – delightful onstage and off. They want to be a part of Wasabassco and behave as such in their promotions and dealing with the company. They invest in the future of the company when they can, showing up for photo shoots and projects – and so we want to invest in them.”
This brings me to a delicate question, one that always comes up when I’m teaching a class of new performers or watching an online discussion: how does a new performer navigate new producers and new projects? A split of the door is all they have? What advice does the Doctor have?
“I think it boils down to one word: RESPECT. You’re going to have to put in some time without compensation. Don’t believe all the rumours – does the producer seem creepy to YOU? Use your gut. Work shows that might not be awesome but have great people producing it. Above all else never forget that nudity has VALUE – don’t work for free. Take classes to get experience, and sometimes, just maybe, you make the show if your scene is super small and isn’t satisfactory to you.”
How about discerning whether an out of town producer is worth your salt? “Ask lots of questions – especially tech questions. A good producer will be clear with you and have answers for you. Know what you need to do your art, know what your compromise level is.” I want to add – never be afraid to ask for what you need, and be willing to walk away.
As I said, ten years lends a fair amount of experience and advice, and in the last three years I’ve already seen my friend Doc Wasabassco grow in leaps and bounds. It seems that ten years in the business has done him some good, and so it’s time to carouse! How does one celebrate ten years of managing a career in producing burlesque? You throw a giant party.
“There’s a limit to how long people want to stand still and watch a show with one MC and 78 women doing fan dances. So instead of a festival type format we started thinking in terms of fairs. We have our entire building, two big spaces for twelve hours of programming. We’ve divided the day into 45 minute moments of a variety of programming. People get to buy different types of passes so they can come and go as they please, see a scripted show, a variety show, different MCs for each segment, a variety of bands, food trucks, all featuring the performers that we love and that love to work with us. This is going to be a challenge, but I think we’re up to it. That’s our plan.”
What a fine plan it is! So many of our Wasabassco family and friends are joining us from all over the continent, and we hope you will too! November 8th. Bell House, New York City. Be there. Click here for details.