Força is a Toronto-based burlesque artist, PhD candidate, and curator of the upcoming free Zoom panel “Spectacular Striptease: Living Legends of Burlesque”, featuring Judith Stein, Kaena, and Shawna the Black Venus.
We talked with Força about how she found burlesque, her fascinating and timely course of study, and the panel coming up on Saturday, April 10th—5pm-7pm.
How did you get into burlesque?
In a way, I really do feel as though I was always meant to pursue burlesque! I have always been drawn to images of showgirls, fantastical costuming, and wild, unapologetic performers throughout history, especially those who could blend sensuality, a powerful stage presence, and humor. What could be more burlesque than that?!
Before I started working in this medium, I was a theatre creator and a recent graduate of York University’s Devised Theatre Program here in Toronto, and was already creating several short one-woman shows to some success. My training was all about creating original performances from the ground up, and so I draw from that experience a lot in my burlesque practice. I had always wanted to try burlesque, but for a long time didn’t have the means to pursue it.
I finally got involved when I went to a local show curated by someone I knew through the local music scene. I recognised one of the burlesque performers, El Toro, from a Toronto Fringe production I had seen years before, and so I approached them and expressed my interest in getting involved. They directed me to Sinful Sundays–our city’s local weekly show prior to the pandemic. There, I met someone who invited me to come out to some drop-in burlesque classes they were taking. I’ve been hooked ever since!
What are you studying now at University of Toronto?
My current dissertation focus is on the theme of “exoticism”, or the staging of ethnic and racial “Otherness” in contemporary burlesque performance. I am a white performer, but when I started burlesque, I felt a lot of pressure to play into conventions others associated with my looks due to my “exotic” appearance. That was the initial inspiration behind my PhD research. Through exposure to feminist and post-colonial studies and the experience I built up as a working performer, my understanding of these concepts has significantly changed throughout the course of my studies.
My goals now as a researcher focus on finding ways to orient my work around supporting performers who are further marginalized by these factors. I try to do this both by centering their work in my research, but also through any support I can give to them through my institutional access. I also aim to use research methods that hold me accountable to the artists I write about. I work a lot on continually trying to interrogate my own biases and experiences throughout my research process.
What inspired you to put together this panel?
Initially, my plan had actually been to bring one Legend to the University of Toronto for a Q&A and performance. I have been a Toronto-based burlesque performer for the last seven years. In that time, there had been few opportunities to meet our Legends locally and hear their stories. I thought it was really important for our scene to hear about the history of the art form they are participating in from the folks who paved the way for them and to do so in a way that was as accessible for those who do not have the means to travel, pay for costly event tickets, or who have often been excluded from many existing events due to their disabilities.
My push to produce this event as soon as I could was also motivated by the recent passings of so many well-known and loved Legends including Camille 2000, Coby Yee, Fannie Annie, and now even one of our confirmed panelists, Marinka. It felt important to share their stories, presence, and to support these community elders while it was still possible to do so. I knew that through the support I had through the departments I’m affiliated with (the Centre for Drama Theatre and Performance Studies and the Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies) I had the means to make that dream a reality.
When the social distancing measures took hold, it became clear that flying out an elder for an in-person public engagement would no longer be a possibility, and even if it was, it would not be safe for that performer due to the risks related to COVID-19. However, this freed up funding in a way that also presented an exciting opportunity to expand from one performer to a panel of several Legends. This would allow us to feature a diverse panel of Legends located anywhere in the world who each had unique backgrounds, experiences, and relationships to their careers as burlesque artists.
Many revisionist histories of 20th-century burlesque erase the presence of Performers of Colour, Trans performers, and the vibrant touring circuit which existed throughout North America, including here in Canada, as many events do not realize how US-centric their focus can be. Curating a panel this way allows the Legends to disprove a lot of those retellings. I’m also excited to mention that I have been able to secure funding for ASL interpretation for the event, which will make the panel much more accessible to folks with different levels of ability.
Assuming you’ll be focusing somewhat on the burlesque scene in Canada, are there areas where you’ve seen a positive change in recent years? Or areas you feel need to see change?
I will definitely be asking the Legends about their time working in Canada, but the questions in the event will definitely expand beyond that as well! My hope is to create an environment where the Legends will feel comfortable following their instincts and not feel held to speak on any one topic. Part of what I’m learning through conducting interviews for my dissertation research is that some of the most incredible insights come from allowing interviewees autonomy to take questions wherever they see fit!
In terms of the scene here, I don’t think I am in any way an authority on the state of burlesque in lands colonially referred to as “Canada”, and I think no one performer (especially a white performer with some access to so many privileges such as myself) should attempt to claim the status of “expert” in this way.
However, there are a few exciting changes in the scene here that I think are very important to draw attention to. Mainly, it’s been really wonderful to see increased attention to creating more equitable and ethically conscious work environments for burlesque performance. This has been happening everywhere from the creative choices on-stage, to burlesque education, to act curation for showcases, all the way to backstage etiquette and marketing. We are cultivating a scene that I don’t think would have been possible when I began burlesque.
We still have a long way to go, but it’s been really wonderful to see growth in these areas. One place where I hope to see more development is in terms of domestic performance opportunities for Canadians. There is presently a ceiling in terms of how much one can grow their career as an artist working here alone. My hope is that, after the pandemic, we will be able to create more large-scale shows and opportunities that won’t make pursuing shows in the US and Europe such a necessity for those looking to “level up”.
What do you hope people will take away from this event?
My hope is that people who attend feel a closer personal connection to the Legends on the panel, and that it changes their perception of what 20th century burlesque was like. Judith, Kaena, and Shawna are so incredible women and they each have so many delightful stories to share. I want Canadians to feel better connected to the lineage they are a part of. We live in a society that is quick to disparage and forget about its elders and the wisdom they offer. My hope is that this event, in some small way, encourages others to think differently about those who paved the way for them. It would also be wonderful if attendees are inspired to find their own opportunities to support our Legends. I certainly had that response after getting to meet many of the Legends at festivals and BHOF, and I hope that can continue to expand that chain of support. Truly, getting to know these incredible women over the last few months leading up to the event has been the highlight of this year. I want more folks to be able to connect in that way, even if it’s only for a brief moment.
Marinka, the “Queen of the Amazons”, who sadly passed away recently, was originally scheduled to be a panelist. Are you planning anything to honor her?
Marinka’s loss was truly devastating to the entire international community. She brought so much charisma, passion, and knowledge to every space she was in. I will forever cherish the time I got to spend chatting with her on the phone in preparation for the event. It felt like the loss of not only an incredibly valued and respected community member, but a dear friend.
After a year filled with so much global and personal loss and death, I felt it was of incredible importance that we honour and mark her absence in the room. I will never be able to do justice to her incredible spirit, but I am hoping to open the event with a Tribute to her memory.
Right now, I’m thinking that will include a reading from her recently published autobiography, which you can purchase here: Marinka From Havana to Burlesque. However, I am also looking into adding an audio-visual component, so that our attendees can get a better glimpse of what she was like. We will also be encouraging donations to “Burly Cares” (Burly Cares), an organization dedicated to supporting our burlesque Legends, who are taking care of Marinka’s final expenses.
Don’t miss the free“Spectacular Striptease: Living Legends of Burlesque” panel! Saturday, April 10 at 5pm. To register, CLICK HERE!