Every spring, celebrated producer Paula Sjunneson (of paulanowevent, formerly The Swedish Housewife Presents) brings some legendary magic to the Triple Door in Seattle. Her burlesque-cum-rock-opera, House of Thee Unholy, is “a Tolkienian acid trip” that paints a dripping, sexy portrait of the 1970s, all set to a soundtrack of Led Zeppelin, which is played live by an enormous band.
Paula has been producing in Seattle since the early ‘80s, starting with music, drag, and performance artists that she befriended while living in New York City. Her first burlesque show in Seattle took place in 1987. The show opened with a band called Mother Love Bone (which went on to become Pearl Jam) and was headlined by legendary boylesque sensation John Sex.
“I called it ‘An Evening of Love and Sex’,” she recalls.
Her early shows operated on a much smaller scale than the epic productions she’s known for today. “It was a lot of club-based cabaret,” she tells me, which is hardly surprising considering her background as a performer and producer at the Pyramid Club in New York. In the early 2000s, as the burlesque revival was taking off, Paula began producing burlesque shows that often included the old-school drag performers she had worked with in the ‘80s.
“What was exciting about burlesque in 2002 was that it was very much about women producing it,” she says. “Men were welcome to come and see the show, but it really wasn’t about them.”
Inspired by emcees and producers like Miss Astrid, Paula was very intentional in the way she contextualised her shows, often producing in gay venues and with overtly gay men hosting. “It was not straight man territory,” she adds. By framing her productions in a way that was explicitly unconcerned with hetero male gaze, the performances felt free to be as socially challenging and subversive as possible.
Over the course of her career, Paula laid a lot of groundwork for the burlesque community, both in Seattle and with the Burlesque Hall of Fame, where she helped transition the Weekender from the goat farm to Las Vegas. Paula spent two years hosting Seattle’s Pink Door Cabaret, the city’s longest running weekly show (“139 Saturday nights in a row!”). Over the years, she brought many world-class burlesque artists to Seattle, including Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, Erochica Bamboo, Immodesty Blaze, and The World Famous *BOB*, to name a few.
Paula enjoyed producing regularly until 2009, when she felt that increasing numbers of hetero men had become involved in the burlesque community, many of who had come over from the Rockabilly scene. “I have no interest in recreating 1950s dynamics,” says Paula, who noticed a shift towards disrespect and objectification as more straight guys became emcees and producers. The demographic changes made it increasingly difficult to maintain the for-women-by-women context that Paula had enjoyed and fostered in her previous work. “The female form is a gift,” she advises. “If a woman has the courage to share herself in that manner then meet that with respect.”
These days, Paula still brings her epic House of Thee Unholy to Seattle’s prestigious Triple Door stage each year. The cast boasts a high level of pedigree and polish, with diverse and extensive dance backgrounds represented. Since its inception in 2007, the talents and specialties of the performers have dramatically shaped the show.
“Each dancer brought their own ideas the table,” says Paula. Its current iteration contains five forms of dance: go-go, burlesque, butoh, ballet, and Odissi. This year’s cast includes Waxie Moon, Indigo Blue, Lily Verlaine, The One The Only Inga, and Paris Original, among other talented performers.
House of Thee Unholy raged its psychedelic gorgeousness on the Triple Door stage from March 11th to March 15th 2015. Click here for a review and photos of the 2014 production.
Paula Now and Then: Rocking the Pants Off Seattle Since 1987 written by Crystal Tassels.
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.