BEHIND THE G-STRING puts the talents and perspectives of burlesque producers, promotors, designers, and everyone else who contributes behind the scenes, into the spotlight. Is there someone we should feature? Is it you? Drop us a line at email@example.com!
What shows or extravaganzas are you best known for?
I’m probably most widely known for producing the Burlesque Hall of Fame’s Movers, Shakers, and Innovators showcase, which I’ve done since 2014, and as an emcee at BHoF six or seven times in the past decade or so (frequently alongside my good friend Blanche DeBris).
Other than that, I’m known for writing and producing scripted theatrical shows — with titles like “Dead Sexy,” “Mob Jews,” and “Acid Trip Love Triangle,” which integrate striptease into a scripted narrative much in the same way a musical integrates songs. (Legit theater is in my blood — all three of my parents were actors.)
Oh, and I was one of the producers of this past year’s Virtual Burlesque Hall of Fame event (VHoF).
How was that? That was pretty early in the pandemic…
Sad but wonderful, wonderful but sad. Typical 2020 story: first BHoF’s Annual Weekender was bumped from May to August, then later when it became clear that in-person wouldn’t be possible, it went virtual. The core VHoF production team had already been collaborating at a distance for years, planning the live Weekender from different parts of the world—Joyce Tang in California, Desiré D’Amour in Arizona, Dustin Wax at the museum in Las Vegas, Kitty Irreverent in Texas, me in New York, Arabella Allure in Canada somewhere… sorry, Arabella, I never remember exactly where you are—but we still had to learn a whole new way of doing things.
There were five big showcases and four mini showcases over the course of August, as well as social events and lots of other great content. One showcase was all livestream, one was produced by Bazuka Joe and Midnite Martini, and one was produced by Jeez Loueez.
I can’t tell you whether it ended up being more work than the weekender, but it sure seemed like it at the time. And I certainly missed the joy of being in the same physical space as people you hadn’t seen in a year or three, or wandering the casino at 3am. At the same time, it was really wonderful to see the inspiration that comes with restriction. To see the amazing things people did in their houses, or yards, or on the street — wherever they could find.
It wasn’t a replacement, but what was, in 2020? VHoF was great. It was a very positive thing.
What were some other positive outcomes?
A lot of people said it was more accessible — they had never been able to come to Vegas for one reason or another, so were excited to be able to participate in a BHoF event. I love the idea that going virtual brought in performers who wouldn’t necessarily have been a part of it otherwise.
The Legend Walks, when you get to see a stage full of the stars of burlesque of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, are always a highlight of the weekender — Arabella created virtual version of those, and even expanded them; she was able to include every living legend that has appeared in the past.
The Zoom events were a chance to get to know new people in a less overwhelming setting. (For example, Samson Knight and I discovered we have very similar taste in hats.) A couple people mentioned it helped with social anxiety — they felt calmer and more comfortable talking to new people virtually, which they thought would translate to in-person when that became possible again.
How did you get into producing?
I produced plays and events in college, but really got into it when I moved back to NYC and started doing off-off Broadway theater and web design. One of those things I really enjoyed. The other, not so much. One of my earlier productions was at the New York International Fringe Festival, my friend Dov Weinstein’s Tiny Ninja Theater Presents Macbeth, an abridged version of the Shakespearean classic starring the tiny plastic ninjas from vending machines. He went on to do Tiny Ninja versions Romeo & Juliet, then Hamlet, which premiered at PS122.
Then you transitioned from “traditional” Ninja theater into burlesque?
I remember going to The Slipper Room and Galapagos (back when it was in Williamsburg) and just being blown away by the passion, the personality, the performers putting themselves out there, putting themselves, as people, on stage, in the most intimate (and I don’t just mean naked) ways.
That’s one of the most interesting things about burlesque, how performer-produced it is.
Performer-producers have always been a staple of neo burlesque, and I think it’s better for it. They have a unique perspective into how to treat people, because they know how they’d prefer to be treated. As a producer, you want a performer to feel taken care of, partly so when they book you in their show they treat you the same way. They do your show one night, you do their show the next.
A few years back, Calamity Chang and I did a mentorship series called “Driver’s Seat” with the NY School of Burlesque, to assist performers with their first production, help them navigate the new terrain, hopefully guide them around some of the potential bumps in the road. Calamity and I have very different perspectives, approaches, and skills, which I think (hope) was more helpful than confusing. Many of the performers who took part in that series continue to produce to this day!
What is your first step in producing a show?
Finding a venue. Without a venue, there’s no place for the audience to sit.
What’s your ideal venue?
I love ‘em all—from a dive bar with a stage made of four paint cans with a board across them, to a 900 seat showroom, to a cabaret space, to a swanky speakeasy, to a black box, to a Broadway house. I’m lucky to live in a city that has all of these.
The ideal venue for my favorite type of show to produce is a theater with 99-199 seats. Definitely need seats, ideally comfortable seats. Scripted theatrical shows need a theatrical milieu, otherwise people aren’t paying theatrical attention. With that size, you fit enough people to make some money while not giving up a feeling of intimacy. If I were designing my own version of this, I’d probably lean towards an old school feel, with a proscenium arch, and a removable thrust. And a bar, of course!
What do you think is the ideal size venue for a burlesque show?
Every size! You just need to pick the right show. As a producer, you get a feel for the sizes and types of venues you best like to produce in, and what acts work best in those spaces. Some acts need an intimate space, some love a giant stage, some can expand and contract as needed. But (almost) any venue can work for burlesque, as long as you know what to book there.
One of my own acts for example, ‘Competitive Burlesque,’ is a classic number with Olympic style sports commentating….(’Here he is now, walking out onto the stripping field.’) Apparently, the best performance I ever did of that number was on the BHoF stage, which is gigantic. It’s probably four times as big as any other stage I’ve done the act on. But the huge stage really worked for it, because it heightened the grandiosity, which of course heightened the goofiness, which in turn heightened the parody. Now when I do the number on a smaller stage it never feels like it works as well as that one time— actually, that’s kind of frustrating. But I’ll keep trying!
That’s part of the glory of burlesque, the adaptability….the fact that there’s a show and acts for every type of venue. I’d say that’s one of the reasons why burlesque has grown from a niche subset of downtown theater to a niche artform of its very own.
What are some of the challenges in producing burlesque?
As ever, money is the biggest challenge. How do you pay performers what they’re worth? How do you persuade audiences to pay a higher ticket price? How do you get venues to think of entertainment as an expense? The good venues know a show adds value, and pay for it, the worst venues think they’re doing you a favor by letting you perform.
As someone who’s been around for a bit, do you think you are tougher on new performers? Or do you welcome new talent?
I love new talent, and I’m not just saying that because my partner runs the NY School of Burlesque. If an art form isn’t constantly bringing in new visions, new perspectives, new ideas, then it stagnates and dies out. Jo likes to tell her students “you are the future of burlesque,” and that feels very true to me. I can’t tell you how many people I started out with who aren’t around any more.
Not everyone nails it immediately, of course, but that’s not the point! The joy people bring to the stage in their first burlesque performance is downright inspiring. And if their performances could use work, you try not to be judgmental. Instead of saying ‘they suck’, you say ‘they could work on this or that’. You never say anything behind their back that you wouldn’t want them to overhear. And if they DO overhear it, you’ve taken care to say it in a way that is thoughtful and measured and kind.
But I’ve been doing this for over 15 years now — 17? 18? Who can keep track?—and I’m sorry to say this wasn’t always my approach. I went through what I’ll call the “terrible twos,” which is worth naming because I’ve watched a lot of other people succumb to it as well. Two years into your burlesque career, you’ve worked hard, you’ve established yourself, you’re getting booked, you’re coming up with new and different numbers. You’re feeling recognized, you’re feeling proud, maybe even a little bit arrogant. And then all these “new kids” come in, and they start getting your bookings, and even producing their own shows — how dare they! You’ve been doing this for two years! I’m more innovative than the old guard, I’m more experienced than the new guard.
Meanwhile, everyone else is thinking the exact same thing. Fast-forward five or ten years, 75% of the people you started with aren’t around any more, the people you were being snobby about are your closest friends, and people who started six months ago are booking you for shows. So you try to adopt a more nuanced and welcoming perspective.
Have you seen things change for better or worse in burlesque with recent social movements like #metoo and BLM?
#metoo and BLM shined a spotlight on unacceptable and injurious behaviors that had been ingrained in society. Hopefully, that’s the first step to unlearning and correcting those behaviors.
Do you think the behavior of performers or audiences will change in light of this?
Yes — burlesque has been moving slowly in a positive direction for years, I think, but these movements demonstrate that the work is far from finished.
Will it eliminate the hooting and hollering we all love so much? I don’t think so, because emcees can give the audience permission to express themselves in ways that would be inappropriate outside the venue. (Within reason, of course.) Hooting and hollering at someone on the sidewalk is awful, at a burlesque show it’s encouraged. It’s like a lot of kink; Without consent, it’s unacceptable. With consent, it’s fun.
Have you seen any areas of growth already? Or ways your behavior has changed?
There used to be a lot of objectification of stage kittens; a (usually) male-presenting host saying ‘look at her bend over’ when they picked up the clothes. It’s become clear that modeled an inappropriate form of behavior. The emcee is holding the mic; essentially the spokesperson for the show, the one the audience sees as being in control. It’s not a good look for that emissary to be objectifying.
Even things that seemed okay a few years ago now feel off; in “The Bawdy House,” a Marx Brothers-inspired show we did in 2008, Tigger! was the lascivious Harpo-like character, chasing people around the stage. When the show was revived for MarxFest in 2014, it had already started to feel a little off. Even though he’s impish, and was chasing people of all genders, and it’s an homage to those old movies…it began to feel uncomfortable, awkward, not funny anymore. A lot of the Groucho and Chico-type jokes were the same. We’d want to rethink a lot of it if we revived the show now.
The reason it becomes not funny is not because of ‘political correctness,’ it’s that it’s become clear that simply putting harmful behavior on stage is not parody; it reinforces rather than undermines.
(As an aside, I hate the term ‘politically correct’ because it’s only used in the negative. It’s a straw man for those trying to justify their own reprehensibility; the last time “political correctness” was anything like an actual movement was in the early 90s. I think you have a pretty good chance decoding what people are actually saying if you take “PC” to mean “Perceptive and Compassionate”; so when someone says “I’m not PC,” what they usually mean is ‘I’m not empathetic, I don’t care what you think or feel, my personal desires are more important than the impact they have on other people.’ It’s basically a bullying tactic — ‘I’m being oppressed by not being allowed to be oppressive to you.’)
I guess I’ve come to realize that if you’re only doing something for shock or for a laugh, and you’re not infusing your humor with a certain kind of compassion, then you’re not really being a responsible human being. One of the harmful myths of comedy is if you’re making people laugh, you can say anything. But who are you making laugh, and who are you making squirm, and what kind of person do you want to be?
Other than the aforementioned Horny Harpo incident, any other great production mishaps?
Ha! The “Horny Harpo” incident — crap, did you just make it funny again?
So many mishaps! Even in just the show we’re talking about. There was the time the sound op broke the CD for Act 2 getting it out of its case and I had to drive from Manhattan to Brooklyn in full Groucho regalia. Or the later production, when we had live music — guess we learned our lesson! — and I (the Groucho-type character again) was singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” except with the lyrics edited to describe Peekaboo Pointe’s actual tattoos as she took off clothes to reveal them. The song started at her feet and worked its way up. We’d gotten as far as her midriff (“…on her right ribs, peonies are gently swaying in the breeze…”) when I went completely blank. Couldn’t remember the words to save my life. Terry Waldo, the pianist, rolled it back and we started over. I went blank in the same place. Then it was a free-for-all. Terry brought the score over from the piano and shoved it in my face. Peekaboo was pointing to her tattoos to try to remind me, then finally threw up her hands and asked “should I just take off my clothes?” which got a big laugh. I finally made it through, thanks in no small part to the two of them. When things go wrong in burlesque, at least somebody ends up naked. (Imagine that last sentence in a Groucho voice.)
Mishaps are often my favorite part. My mom used to produce a playreading series in upstate New York. Before every reading, she’d half-facetiously tell the cast, ‘Don’t fuck up.’ I don’t say that — I tell the cast “things never go wrong; they just go right in ways we weren’t expecting.” And the audience loves it, seeing performers get through a total disaster. It reminds everyone that it’s live theater.
What’s your proudest moment as a producer?
Other than the mishaps? Watching the Movers, Shakers, and Innovators Showcase at BHoF come together is always amazing… as is getting tech rehearsal done an hour early! (Thanks David Bishop, Anita Brasierre, and the Orleans crew!) In 2015, I produced over 100 shows, including new scripted show every month—very gratifying, completely exhausting! Mob Jews was that year, that was super fun. Picture the Schlep Sisters in Prohibition-Era New York, opening a burlesque speakeasy in an abandoned pickle factory, while fending off their rivals The Tortelli Triplets (The Maine Attraction and a very pregnant Angie Pontani). Throw in Anita Cookie, Fancy Feast, Mr. Gorgeous, and Patrick Davis, and you’ve got delightful, sexy mayhem. I’d do that show again in a heartbeat.
If you could choose one element of producing to hand off, what would it be?
Marketing and promotion. I enjoy parts of it — writing blurbs and press releases, designing posters—but I don’t love being the person responsible for getting people in the door.
What is your favorite part of producing?
The afterparty! You’re never quite as relaxed as right after a show. Before that, I’m happiest when I feel that everyone has had a good experience, the performers, the crew, the venue staff, the audience — you want everyone to feel taken care of. That’s one of my goals, and I hope that’s one of my strengths; trying to make sure everyone is happy to be there.
What do you have in the pipeline?
The team is already hard at work on VHoF 2.0… VHoF²… VHoF 2021! It’s going to be a worldwide-round-the-clock-nonstop-48-hour-extravaganza. This year, we’ll be attempting to replicate one important part of the live weekender (returning 2022)—the lack of sleep! I can’t tell you much more, except that we have a bunch of exciting plans for it.