Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Burlesque, Teaching and Why I have decided to wade in

Firstly, two blogs in one week! I know, it's a rare and unusual occurrence!

I have been performing burlesque for almost seven years, and in that time I can't think of an issue that has been discussed more frequently, and caused more difference of opinion than the question of who should (and perhaps more importantly, who shouldn't) teach burlesque. The teaching question is a bit of a biggie because the teachers of today create the performers of tomorrow and new performers are, in many ways, the lifeblood of our artform. When newcomers are taught well they bring a flood of new ideas, enthusiasm and freshness to the burlesque palette; when they are taught poorly we end up with a glut of identikit, uninspired performers who then feel disillusioned and pushed out by the burlesque scene when they don't find bookings easily.  Or worse, cheeky promoters put on shows entirely peopled by unpaid, inexperienced newcomers who cannot find work elsewhere and audiences come away feeling this is the the be all and end all of what the genre can offer, closing off potential audience members to the rest of the industry. So, teaching really is a bit of a biggie indeed.

If you look at the different viewpoints in our burlesque community there are many differing views on who should teach. Many agree you should be an experienced performer, some feel you should be a formally trained teacher, some people think dance training is beneficial. Some contingents have argued that only performers who work internationally and consistently in headline spots should teach while others feel that if you have taken and completed a burlesque class yourself you are now qualified to pass on what you know. Alongside this, many gyms and dance classes now offer burlesque lessons taught by fitness instructors who have never performed, taken a class or even seen a burlesque performance (and that film doesn't count!). However, some would counter that these classes are not aimed at aspiring performers, more for those seeking fitness and fun.

In this blog I want to talk about teaching aspiring performers, as I feel that hen party classes, burlesque themed fitness classes and lessons that are clearly marketed as just-for-fun do not necessarily have the same impact on our industry that the training of our successors clearly does, and therefore, the credentials of those who teach them are (arguably) less of an issue.

In the past, when the teaching debate has arisen, occasionally the idea of accreditation of teachers or qualifications in burlesque has come up. You can see why it might; in other performance disciplines such as playing a music instrument, dance and drama learners take exams and once they reach a certain level they can take teaching exams. If they pass, they can teach. So why not burlesque? I think it would be difficult to do a similar thing in burlesque for one big reason. The skills you need to play a violin or dance ballet en pointe are standardised in a way that burlesque is not. Some burlesque performers dance, some don't and even those who do won't all be dancing using standardised steps or techniques. Some performers make narrative acts, others plan to create a moment or simply an aesthetic statement. Some burlesquers aim to entertain with a musical performance, others to entrance with a sensual striptease, still more to amuse through comedy or visual gags. And that's just the tip of the iceberg! With performers each bringing their own skill sets from hula hooping to mime to trained animals to pain and endurance shows, how could we ever standardise burlesque down to its fundamentals?

I think one of the reasons that burlesquers, by necessity, must each do their own thing (as Gypsy told us 'You Gotta Get A Gimmick'!) is because of burlesque's short form nature. You need a tap dancer, followed by a stripping axe thrower, followed by someone who plays the trumpet in their act to stop what I have heard one respected promoter refer to as 'the dreaded fan-dance-to-bumps-and-grinds pile up'. All aspiring performers cannot learn the same skills, routines and approaches because that would make the shows samey and boring, and this would eventually lose all of us our audience.

So there are no fundamentals that can be taught for burlesque? Well, I thought so when I first examined this question, but I, like many others was thinking in terms of dance. Burlesque has no fundamental steps or moves. It may have standards we have all seen and know; the Dita-esque over the back shoulder stocking removal, the feather fans used behind the head to make a clam shell shape, the walk-walk-walk and pose, walk-walk and pose. But these are not the fundamentals of burlesque the theatrical genre, we are back in the hen party class if that's what we teach as the bare bones of burlesque. While there is no harm in performers using any of these well known burlesque tropes at any time, they don't make burlesque what it is. If they were missing from an act, it would still be a good burlesque act, if it was good (so to speak).

So I looked at my own experience as a recently qualified drama teacher. I started thinking about what makes live theatrical performance good in general and I found there were three areas that really stuck out as important and that could be taught - because I had been teaching them to my own students. And when I thought about it, they started to feel like the fundamentals of not just good performance, but also of good burlesque performance. If any of them were missing, your burlesque act would be missing something. So here are my three fundamentals of good burlesque:

Characterisation (or persona) - Many burlesque performers work with a specific character (Edward Scissor Hands, Kurt Cobain, Elizabeth Bennett) or with a character type (nurse, panda, anthropomorphised cake) but those that don't use discrete characters for different acts still come on stage as somebody other than their day to day selves (unless their day to day self is really, really full on!), they must have an onstage persona. For burlesque performance to be strong learners have to be able to create a character, learn how to express that character in how they move, the expressions they use, the music they select, the costume and props they select etc, and they also have to practice sustaining this and not slipping out of character and showing us a flash of their day to day self.

Narrative or Concept - Not all performers work in a narrative style but you still need a strong idea or concept of what you're going to do. It should be well thought out, personal, original. Or if the concept itself is a standard or well worn idea, learners must find a way to make it new again, to make it their own, to put their own personal spin on it. If the concept (or narrative starting point) is 'Housewife' there are a thousand directions you could take that narrative in and learner burlesquers can be encouraged to explore past the first idea. In drama teaching, I would never allow my students to use their first narrative or concept idea without first encouraging them to explore some alternatives because the first idea often comes from your comfort zone or the familiar. It's only by exploring what else you could do with a concept that you can figure out if your first idea was the best one, and the only way to produce something original.

Relationship with the audience - Bizarrely enough, I think this is something that is sometimes forgotten in burlesque teaching. Burlesque is an interesting form because there is not usually a fourth wall, and if there is, that is usually a conscious decision by the performer (and creates a whole different relationship between performer and audience). In drama teaching, when I was working on plays with my learners, sometimes I had to remind them to stop mugging to the audience at, for example, a particularly funny moment. But then when we ran a variety unit it was a different story because that fourth wall dissolves, the audience are there in the room with you and there's no getting away from it. Burlesque performers, in general are working to, for and in response to the audience. Or at least they should be. I have seen many, otherwise strong newcomer performers perform their routine as though they are performing to a video camera or an empty room, but the greatest, most popular burlesque performers know how to make their audience feel involved and included, they know how to work the room and draw people in, and I believe that can be taught as a performance skill.

So these are my big three burlesque fundamentals, common to all good burlesque. Sure, there are other things that are important like being good at whatever skill sets you are bringing to your acts (dance, singing, comedy, hula hooping) but in a group class, unless you want all your learners to come out the same those are not really areas you can focus on so closely.

I have done some research and, in my area at least, I have not found anyone teaching burlesque in this way (apologies if you are out there and I have just not found you), teaching holistic performance and creativity skills, specifically geared to burlesque performers, that they can then take away and use in their future performing lives. So I have decided that I will throw my hat into the ring and give it a go. As I discussed above, there will be some people who think I don't have the ideal credentials to teach, and there will be others who think I am in the right position to do so. I'm not claiming to be the best performer out there, and I'm not claiming to have all the answers, I can't teach learners to dance, or throw knives or rollerskate in their acts, but I can help them unlock their individual creativity and skills in the areas I have just discussed. I am approaching this with integrity and a genuine desire to see learners become creative, individual performers with the tools they need to create personal burlesque acts for as long as they wish to perform.

Teach a woman a burlesque routine and she'll burlesque today, teach her how to create her own burlesque routines and she'll burlesque forever.

With that said, if you are a new or aspiring burlesque performer who would like to take my class please visit my burlesque lessons website, Drama Queens Burlesque.

Til next time

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Big Dork meets the Little Wolf.

Dear all,
It may be two weeks after the fact, but it's taken me a little while to process the experience and find the time to write about it, Saturday 10th November saw me debut my first attempt at a clown performance at the wild and wonderful art happening that was Nottingham's Little Wolf Parade, a totally bizarre and enthralling adventure into live art, curated by the gorgeous and talented Rachel Parry.

This performance was a little scary to me for more than one reason. Firstly, I don't really have a lot of experience performing in front of an 'art' crowd. I really wasn't sure what their expectations would be and, especially compared to the other performers and artists there, my stuff is rather tame and a bit 'nice'. Still, as one of the artists kindly remarked, I would be something of a palate cleanser if I did something cosy after all that mind-expanding stuff!
In the end my sister (who was my date, company and general wine-bringer for the night) and I did not get to see everything that was going on (I had to keep an eye on the stage to make sure I didn't miss my turn) as the event was over several floors, but we did have a fantastic time and were kept thoroughly entertained and amazed all night.

The main reason the performance scared me though is that it was a debut, not only of a new act, but of my attempt to try out a new style of performance, in may ways similar to the type of burlesque I like to create, but in other ways new and different. My new act, called 'Talking to Boys with Griselda Finkle-Pheffer' is about a dumpy teenager, a real big dork, who daydreams about romance from the safety of her bedroom. It has been scary trying to step out of my burlesque comfort zone, in which I have had chance to get used to a formula. For this piece, working in (my own approximation of) clown some of the rules were different, or I found there wasn't a rule that I had in place yet so I just had to make it up as I went along (in the devising process that is, I'm not nearly brave enough to make stuff up as I go on stage... yet).

One thing that I found particularly challenging when creating this act was working with voiceovers (including hearing my own voice on recording) and the logistics of making sure the audience could clearly understand what was being said and not losing the narrative. I also learned a lot about timing. In burlesque timing has never been a large problem for me, but with this act I found there was a lot of tweaking times on the track, experimenting with how long it would take to perform certain sections, moments or even particular gestures. I found that often, soundtrack elements that sounded short when you were editing them were a long time in stage time when rehearsing. Conversely, spoken word elements that seemed at a reasonable pace when I recorded them had to have pauses added when I began to work with the soundtrack on its feet.

I don't know how other people make clown work, I don't even really know if what I have made would be considered clown by purists. For me I suppose it's somewhere between clown and burlesque because in a lot of ways it is similar to what I have been doing with burlesque. The way I constructed the piece was to flesh out the basic narrative including ideas for gags or visual candy bar moments, then record and edit the audio. Once I had a basic audio track I began to run the piece (huge credit to my other half for playing director and pointing out all the bits that looked shonky) then I went back and edited the track again for timing issues and rehearsed some more. Finally I added in a few extra jokes or neat moments that had come to me as I went along. I made the ending last, as I was unsure how I was going to end it. I knew I wanted to end with a little pathos but I wasn't sure how to do it in style, when I finally figured that part out the act was ready to go!

One of the other things that was a little bit of a change of gear for me was the visual aesthetic of the piece. In my burlesque performances I am a huge fan of drag queen-like stage makeup, wigs and elaborate costumes. I haven't performed on stage with my own hair showing in years and I've never performed with it in its natural, straight form. It felt a little odd and vulnerable-making to be there in so (comparatively) natural makeup and with my own hair showing, although this was something I felt more in the run up to going on stage. Once I was up and into character that feeling of self-consciousness and awkwardness about how I looked fed into the character nicely.

The audience seemed friendly and positive and a couple of people said some very kind things about my performance. I know that the first time is always something of a test run, and I feel really keen to bring Griselda out for a burlesque audience so see how she fares there before I decide entirely how I feel. It felt a little odd to be a doing such a family friendly act, but that was outweighed by the feeling that I had more scope to tell a story in my own way, without having to find a way to shoehorn in a striptease section.

I'm not sure I'll be turning my back on creating more burlesque acts any time soon, but I have felt that working on this performance has helped me break through the creative block I discussed in an earlier blog (for now at least) and perhaps, whether I create more stuff in this vein or move back towards burlesque in the future, the experience I have had creating this act will help me to think of more personal and interesting ways of telling stories through performance.

'Til next time

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Creative Block

I’m not sure what happened. I used to be a little power house of creativity when it came to burlesque. I didn’t create the best, the most glamorous or the most innovative acts, and I didn’t make them as quickly as some of the other performers out there but I was always bubbling away with useable ideas and ways to execute them.

Then everything changed. Almost a year ago, my life changed drastically. I had been working a job that had turned into a dead-end drudge, and so I left to embark on a new adventure – training to teach drama for Further Education (that’s teens 16+ and adult education). So, I decided that for a year, while I went back into full time education, I would put performing firmly on the back burner and not work on act creation either. This turned out to be a sensible decision. My teacher training year was exhausting, with a heavy workload and I don’t know where I’d have found the time to squeeze in any performance commitments. As for creating acts, my mind was on essays, research projects and lesson planning. Very occasionally I’d have a tiny proto-idea which I’d jot down in a note book or my diary, but there it would stay. They never got much further than that; my mind just wasn’t in that place.

My teaching style (please note any potential employers who may be reading this: not my teaching style.)

So a year passed and I was only peripherally involved in the world of burlesque. But I was still there in the background. On the internet. Facebook, to be more specific. I went on Facebook every single day. Twice a day absolute minimum. Usually more like ten times a day. On days when I was lesson planning or working on assignments at home I kept it open in the background the whole time, checking it between bursts of work. Hell, it’s open in the background right now as I write this. I told myself I kept online in case I got booking enquiries; it would be rude to keep people dangling. I told myself it was to keep up with the friends I had made via performing. I told myself that having some sort of an internet presence was necessary for when I returned to performing properly, otherwise people would forget that I had ever existed. What I actually did on Facebook was saw status after status about my fellow performers’ creative endeavours. This person’s new costume piece, this person talking about a creative breakthrough with an act idea, this one had just had a great time at this show, that one can’t wait for that show. What I actually ended up doing on Facebook was just seeing everyone else getting on with it. Getting on with the business of creating and performing. And even though I was getting on with something myself, my teacher training, I still felt a little sad and left out that I wasn’t getting on with it (in terms of burlesque) too.

So everyone else was getting on with it. But by this point, I was getting on with my teaching practice. Teaching drama to 16 to 24 year olds was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on; I really felt like I’d found my spiritual home. I had awesome, inspiring colleagues and the students were by turns, hilarious, clever, strange, wonderfully talented and completely welcoming. At first, I didn’t even miss not creating myself. It was so enjoyable facilitating creativity in others, being the person to give suggestions and critique and seeing the beautiful, strange flowers these new vines produced. On more than one occasion I had seen something they had produced and said to my friends at work, ‘I wish I’d thought of that’. And it was a good feeling, these kids had the talent, they just needed showing how to unlock it. It was a joy. And I was learning new things too. I was unsure of myself at the start, but I think I left my teaching placement confident that I could be a Good Teacher.

But at some point, teaching stopped being so hard. It was still a pleasure and a joy, but I had learned some of the basic skills and I was finding there was a little of myself left over at the end of the week, in a way there hadn’t been at first. And that little bit of myself started wanting to create again, but it didn’t really know where to begin. Before I had gone into teacher training I had sort of lost my way with performance. For the longest time as a performer, my strong suit had always been silly, manic, comedic burlesque with a minimum of sex appeal and glamour. Then, I had a big idea. I decided to produce a serious, theatrical, highly costumed act around a strange creature that had fascinated me for a long time. My act ‘The Last Jackalope’ was born. I had been so nervous about this act, it was very personal and revealed my vulnerable side in a way that felt a bit risky, but in general, it seemed to be fairly well received. After working on another comedic act (a quick project that ended up working quite well) I decided to revisit my idea of strange, quirky but decidedly non-comedic characters. This is where things started to go wrong. I planned to create two more acts which could be viewed as companion pieces for the Jackalope. One was based on the legend of Baba Yaga, and the other on the idea of sea sirens. I finished the Baba Yaga act but although I was quite pleased with the costume, the actual body of the act never quite worked. It involved a huge amount of loose feathers and it was messy, inconvenient to perform and never had the striking visual effect I had hoped it would. Not to mention, the dark, bewitching, strong willed character was something I didn’t feel I could portray convincingly enough. I shelved the act, with the hope of coming back to it to rework but I never really found a way to make it come to life in the way the Jackalope had. As for the other act, I made a costume for it. You can even see an image of it from an amazing shoot I did with Candee Photography, but the creation of the meat of the act stalled. It began to feel like it should be a dancerly act, full of flowing waves of sensuous movement. And a sensuous dancer I ain’t. Again, I shelved it. I hoped I would come back to it again with fresh eyes and ideas, but I never have.

'Foam' my sea siren character, by Candee Photography.

Both of those acts felt as though they were made for somebody else, somebody not very much like me at all. The Jackalope was serious and sad, but it really felt as though it belonged to me. Dumpy, lonely, awkward me. Looking back, the other two acts feel like they might have been made for someone I thought I wanted to be. I feel like the ideas were fairly good, they might have worked, I would have enjoyed them with the right performer at the helm. But they weren’t for me. Not really.

In this year, I have come to realise what I really want to be doing, in terms of performance. I want to make people laugh. I don’t want to try to be something I’m not. I’m not sensual, seductive, alluring, vampish or exotic. If I could find a way to get back to making people laugh, that would be amazing. If I could find some of the tenderness I used as part of the Jackalope to counterpoint that humour, that would be good too. But mainly, I should be making people laugh. Leave the glamour to those who do it well. Being funny is more rewarding for me.

So, with a better idea of what I want to achieve, I started thinking about form. One of the things I had been finding harder and harder with comedic burlesque was how to fit the striptease element in, or, if I wasn’t going to include striptease, what should happen in the act in its place. Striptease was starting to feel a little arbitrary for me; I didn’t feel that a pastie reveal counted as a big finish. This isn’t a criticism of what other performers are doing. We all have our own obsessions, passions and things we get excited about and mine aren’t going to be the same as yours. But I had stopped feeling excited about striptease. I had been watching performance from various genres, burlesque included, both for my teaching practice and for pleasure and I think I identified a common factor for all the performance that really spoke to me. I think of it as ‘Surprise and Delight’. Something you weren’t expecting that makes you go ‘Oooh!’ That ‘Oooh!’ might be if someone does something really skilful, or sexy, or funny, or weird, or talented. But what really spoke to me was that feeling of something unexpected happening that makes you go ‘Oooh!’. For me, that explained the striptease problem. ….

In June, despite having a plan in place, I found myself unemployed. As boredom and desperation started to set in I hoped that I would now have the time and lack of distractions to get creative again. I started a log book for burlesque related musings, I went to a practical workshop to improve my skills and I started trying to actively mind map ideas, even using the techniques I use with my learners in the classroom to try and generate something workable. Perhaps I am putting too much pressure on myself, because so far I have come up with a big fat nothing! Oddly enough though, creativity seems to work in mysterious ways. Although I have made nothing on the performance front I have started drawing again, and learned a ton of new songs on the ukulele, and got about half way through writing a short story, and almost finished writing my first song on the organ. I don’t know what this means. I’m not sure why performance, the thing that consumed so much of me for so long will not come, when apparently everything else is willing to drop by. Perhaps I am putting too much pressure on myself. Perhaps it will never come back. I worry that that might be the case. I loved performing burlesque so much, but now I feel so ambivalent about it because I can’t make it happen. Perhaps I have to learn to let it just come naturally again.

- Edit – Since I wrote this back in early July, I am now working in a call centre with little hope of getting a teaching job any time soon. Due to some difficult stuff in my personal life performing and creativity have slipped even further onto the back burner. But I’m still hanging in there. I never posted this at the time because I felt afraid to, like people might judge me or think that I’m just useless, but the last few weeks have made me realise that if you don’t reach out to people you just end up isolated. So I’d love to open up a conversation about what people do when they lose their creative muse, or when they feel pulled in a different creative direction but they aren’t sure what that direction is, or when they block themselves from creating. If anyone would like to comment on their experiences about creative blocks I’d love to hear what you have to say, either here on my blog, or on Facebook or wherever.