Jessickah Walsh speaks to Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival producers Heidi Bang Tidy and Lady Wildflower (with honorary showgirl Neil Kendall) about the challenges of producing pedigree burlesque shows in the UK…
In a recent independent study (me, sat listening in to people’s conversations on the train) it was found that Hebden Bridge is famed for two things: burlesque and lesbians. We can thank the national press for the former; picking up ‘Hebden-gate’, the scandal of a local council opposing burlesque on the grounds that it demeans women, and running with it like a enthused parent in a primary school sports day egg-and-spoon race.
‘Hebden-gate’ made international news, both within and outside of the burlesque community. In fact, when I was covering press at Ramsbottom Festival, I got chatting to an international music journalist about my background in burlesque. Much to my surprise, he asked me if I knew of ‘Hebden-gate’, telling me he found it shocking that ‘British prudes’ were still getting bothered by this sort of thing. Similarly, while working at Neil Kendall’s Halloween ball in Morecambe, the infamous Dirty Martini was genuinely concerned to hear ‘how those gals at Hebden are getting on? Did they win?’
Heidi Bang Tidy and Lady Wildflower have made burlesque a household term on the lips of Hebden Bridge again this year. Not content with having their voices silenced or allowing the art that they love so much to continue to be misrepresented and misunderstood, they stood up in front of the local media and eloquently described how demeaned (or not) they felt by the labels launched at them and the art form by so called ‘feminists’.
‘Our reputation precedes us now,’ Heidi explains. It is November, and she and Lady Wildflower are vehemently planning a top-notch line up to ensure that the 2014 festival is able to rise above the negative press of last year. ‘We have the challenge now to really prove ourselves as producers, not just because we have the eyes of the world upon us, but because we owe it to our steadfast fan base and supporters.’ And as with all political arguments, feuds and spats, it would appear that not everyone is cheering on from the wings. Not surprisingly, there are still some folk who shout loudly about what they think women should and shouldn’t do, veiling their opinions as feminism, who are waiting for this to fail. With this in mind, I ask Heidi and Lady Wildflower what their biggest challenge has been this year in terms of getting over the hurdle of ‘Hebden-gate’.
‘Just that,’ they tell me. ‘Everyone who wants to run press on us is aware of it, and it’s easy to focus on it because it’s newsworthy. How do you promote a festival that isn’t shrouded in scandal or controversy? It doesn’t seem enough to be able to sell tickets on the strength and calibre of your roster anymore.’ It seems that their struggles now come in the branding of themselves, or rather, re-branding themselves, as the top-notch Northern producers that they are, allowing the events of last year to pass under the (Hebden) bridge.
Heidi Bang Tidy is a trained performance artiste with a specialism in comedy, and Lady Wildflower is a trained dancer. Both of them are degree educated, well-read, rehearsed and practised in theatre, performance and art. Heidi’s initial sparks of burly creativity were kindled by Dita Von Teese’s book Burlesque and the Art of the Tease, and she explains that ‘like most burlesquers, I got into the industry by accident!’ Inspired by the glamour, creativity, and Dita, the embodiment of femininity, Heidi, like so many others of her generation, felt a sense of ‘home’ within the burlesque art form.
It is important to Heidi and Lady Wildflower that their events are held in a theatre environment, not only because of their own professional training but also their desire to ensure that burlesque is showcased on the platform they feel it deserves. ‘When a show is staged in a theatre, people expect a certain standard,’ Heidi explains. For them, theatre creates a space and experience which necessitates that new audiences behave differently to how they might behave in pubs and clubs.
There is never an act on the bill at one of Heidi and Lady Wildflower’s events which they have not seen perform live. ‘With the exception of newbies,’ Heidi adds. ‘We all have to start somewhere and for them it’s necessary to view a video’. With the hectic schedules of both Heidi and Lady Wildflower, I wonder how they find the time to get out and watch so many acts. ‘We make the time while performing,’ Lady Wildflower tells me. ‘Get ready quickly and get out there in the wings to watch your fellow performers.’ Heidi and Lady Wildflower nod vehemently in agreement that their most successful castings have been ‘dressing room castings’; that is to say, word of mouth, enjoying a performance and actually being wowed by the professionalism of a person they work with. Their advice to those who may wish to be considered for the 2015 bill? Find time to become respected among your peers as a supportive member of the community, because, for them, it is not enough to sell yourself on talent alone. ‘We hear about performers on the grapevine who have a great work ethic, are approachable and easy to work with. Then, when we see you perform in person or via video, we will have an idea of how you will fit into the dynamics of the team.’
The Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival 2014 is geared up to be sensational and is selling out quickly, with Kitten De Ville (Miss Exotic World 2002), Aurora Galore, Joe Black and Kiki De Ville amongst the plethora of talent on the bill, proving that Lady Wildflower and Heidi Bang Tidy are building a reputation which attracts high-calibre performers. Not content with one-trick ponies when looking to book acts, the likes of Velma Von Bon Bon, who dedicates her time and effort to expanding her skills base and blossoming her repertoire, are top of the list for Heidi: ‘We are massive fans of artists who invest in skills to keep their art alive.’ Proudly boasting Havana Hurricane on her 2014 line-up, Heidi tells me, ‘Havana is such an exciting performer for me; she has come such a long way to build a brand for herself as a bump ‘n’ grinder, investing herself into becoming who she is. We are really excited to have her on the bill this year. She is one to watch!’
Listening to the enthused duo, it feels like it is an exciting time for burlesque at the moment. I wonder if the flaming torch is missing a torch bearer. Sat with us is award-winning producer and photographer Neil (Nez) Kendall. He reminds me that burlesque has had more comebacks than Cher, and that while it never struggles to rise from its own ashes, he still feels there is a need now, more than ever, for originality and high-calibre performances. ‘Dixie Evans leaving us in 2014 has left a void in the industry. She stood for what burlesque really is: working girls, independent business women fighting their own corner against the odds.’ He explains that while it would be impossible to choose one performer whose style could encapsulate what burlesque is, he feels that there is an opening for a role model to prove to the masses that burlesque is a viable and credible art form.
In the face of much adversity, burlesquers keep going and there are no exceptions for the Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival. I ask what motivates a producer at such times. ‘You don’t do burlesque to make money,’ they laugh. ‘Anyone who thinks they can either perform or produce shows to make money is likely to be shocked.’ Heidi smiles. It is apparent that producing, much like performing, is a labour of love for the pair, providing a professional platform for their peers, and ensuring a supportive culture for the industry itself. ‘We value the importance of hosting workshops alongside our events, and providing opportunities for ‘newbies’ to learn and for more experienced artists to build on their skills base.’ Heidi explains that her audiences are a mix of experienced professionals, curious newcomers and long-standing fans. ‘I am often approached by newcomers who have been inspired by the shows, asking, “how do you get into burlesque?” Each one is met with the same response: have you ever performed? If they say no, then I advise them to get out there and perform, go to workshops, and watch as many shows as possible!’ It is safe to assume that Heidi would recommend the Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival as a great starting point.
So there you have it. Simple. To produce a pedigree burlesque show, all you need is working knowledge of professional theatre, high-calibre bookings accumulated from touring the circuit and dressing room castings, a willingness to pour your heart and soul into it without guaranteed financial reward, a reputation and steadfast fan base. Oh, and of course, a sprinkling of glitter.
For tickets and full line-up, visit www.
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.