By now, most of us have seen a certain article that recently resurfaced--one titled “The Shittiest Burlesque I’ve Ever Seen.” I want to believe that the former article gets shared, not to purposely box out new performers, but as a way to vent mutual frustrations. Though harsh, uncompassionate, and totally not condoned in its approach by me, it is an interesting audience member’s perspective. What can we do to be better for our audience?
There are many performers out there who would like to see burlesque taken more seriously in the entertainment industry. A more structured and serious environment could provide benefits we all desire like higher, more consistent pay for everyone, as well as offer up better venues and in general, promote the success of our industry. But rather than encourage performers, the article mentioned above simply denies them the right to grow into and out of the awkward moments. It goes against the spirit of our come one, come all mentality and doesn’t exactly make for a warm environment. Kumbaya aside, that doesn’t mean we can’t do better as a whole.
I don’t believe in limiting a burlesque stage to the top crop of well-established performers–we all need space to grow and there should be stages available to all levels of performers. I am not the performer I was 3 years ago, and I will bet neither are many of the headliners we see today.
There are different schools of performers involved with burlesque–those who do it for themselves, and those who do it to be entertainers. Both are valid and necessary in the world of burlesque and often performers may start in one and transition to another. Calling myself out, burlesque was once a journey of self-esteem for me. I was that performer doing a rhinestone encrusted dance for acceptance. I wanted something from them, without ever stopping to think that they paid to be sitting there. This was my message, after all. I didn’t really consider the audience’s needs, or what kind of effect my performance had on them.
When I began to see burlesque as part of the entertainment world, my viewpoint shifted. I began to give greater thought to what was entertaining and how I could deliver that fantasy they are paying me to see. I am not saying lose all sense of your individual artistic expression, however. This is a call to consider how your audience sees you and how your act can impact them. Giving thought to your audience shows an appreciation of their time, energy, and money. Instead of “I want to do X here in the music” what if we at times we asked “What does the audience see if I do X? Does it read well?”
It’s not that burlesque can’t be a great medium of self-discovery and learning. It should showcase individualism (and celebrate it), but it seems that performers can get wrapped up in themselves all too easily—whether it's delusions of grandeur or blatantly needing love and energy from an audience when they paid to get it from you. You are absolutely allowed to do burlesque for any reason at all, but consider that audiences are the ones who keep a show going. Share your energy with them, give them your love and it will become a reciprocal relationship. This what you are being paid to do.
You can tell the performers offering up a piece of themselves versus those who do not. They want you to look at them, they want to feel something (love, lust, disgust, enchantment). The best performances I have ever seen have filled me with an intense feeling of something.
Love the audience enough to push yourself to be better. Some performers hit the stage already owning, finding their stride right away and experience the results they desire. Others work through early performances find growth and success at a different rate. Both groups experience highs and lows--meeting and facing challenges with the simple question of “How can I grow as a performer?”
I love this art form, and I have come to understand that burlesque performance is not a linear based corporate ladder to success. So why not invest in making yourself stronger, forging the best path for you ahead? From strictly a producer's standpoint, it can be frustrating to see performers I’ve known for years get comfy and stop working on improvement. It’s harder to see performers, when they experience a setback—not getting booked into certain shows or festivals—give up. Instead of using this setback as an opportunity for motivation towards improving, the blame is placed externally. It’s really hard to talk to peers who take the “You just don’t understand my art” stance without allowing for any acceptance of constructive feedback. You can be as weird as you want–just be a really fucking good weirdo. Sometimes, a booking really comes down to an act fitting within the producers scope for their show. Not every “No” is personal and directly related to your talent as a performer. However, you have a choice: you can work on making improvements, or not.
Not everyone has major performing aspirations, but regardless what you want out of burlesque--you owe it to your audience to be the best fucking 5 minute strip show you can. Even if you don’t do this full time, burlesque is still a job. You wouldn’t show up to a new job, then decide you don’t want to finish new hire training. Some fields require you to take continuing education if you want to keep said profession–and yes you have to pay for that. So why do we think it’s OK to accept money for something and not do the absolute best we can when delivering our product? Why do we see an air of entitlement for bookings when we’ve stopped trying to up our game?
I get it, a lot of us are busy. We have other things going on in life–jobs, partners, kids, fur-kids. But there is always room to learn and improve—to work on adding new things to your arsenal of strip-tease. Understanding that you are there to entertain an audience, to me, is a way of understanding that these few minutes are not just about me, but about selling my fantasy/story to a room of strangers. Selling your art requires you to learn the important skill of self-awareness. The most successful and talented performers I’ve met have been not only humble, but aware of their imperfections and their strengths. And have overcome the huge obstacle of making both work in their favor.
The desire to give my audience the best I can keeps me focused and disciplined. It keeps me in front of mirrors working on poses, faces, and swift swishes of fabric every which way. It keeps me reaching out to others for help, review, and feedback. Beyond titles, beyond our peers, there are the people paying money to see us. Give them a reason to keep coming back.