Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Burlesque, Creativity and 100 things to do with a Paperclip

Dear all,

Today is the day I will begin teaching my own burlesque class (clue obligatory plug) Drama Queens Burlesque and so I present to you the final blog I had planned for my series written for newcomer burlesque performers, to get my brain in gear for teaching. The blog got finished a little later than I planned but I figured I would still post it up. In this blog I will be looking at creativity and inspiration in burlesque. In particular I will be looking at how we can generate more ideas as burlesque creatives.

A few years ago I went back to college full time to study an art and design foundation course and during that time the tutors drummed into us how important it was never to just launch straight away into your first idea. I found that really hard. You get an idea that looks like it might work, you don't want to procrastinate, you want to get started, and who knows when that next thunderbolt of inspiration might strike. So I found I would often do exactly what the tutors advised against. I would pick the first idea that seemed workable and run with it. I found the 'sketchbooking' phase of creativity scary and uncertain.

In a lot of ways, creating new ideas is scary and uncertain. If you think of inspiration as something that comes to you, fickle and capricious, it's a daunting thought. We all want to have a good idea. A workable idea. Something original, something that excites and provides a strong foundation for the piece we will create. It can get very disheartening if a useful idea won't come, or if we only have ideas that don't seem strong enough to work with. By hoping and waiting for the bolt of burlesque inspiration, the neatly formed idea, we can end up making creativity more uncontrollable than it needs to be.

When I was doing my teacher training, one of my tutors showed the class a wonderful animated video about creativity and learning styles. If you're interested in education, creativity or animation I've embedded it below for you to enjoy!

In the video there was an exercise that I now use for all my creative endeavours. It removes the need to have a idea come to you and it removes the need for all your ideas to be good ones. And it is so simple, all you need is a pen and a piece of paper. This exercise is '100 uses for a paperclip' and what you do is you sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and think of 100 uses for a paperclip. There are no other rules. If you ask 'Can the paperclip be made of cheese' the answer is yes, it can. If you ask 'Can the paperclip be 20 foot tall' the answer is yes, it can. If you ask 'Can the paperclip be just a metaphor for some particularly complex human emotion' the answer is yes, yes, it can. There are no restrictions except for what you can imagine and there are no wrong answers.

In the video we watched they talked about how the concept of 'wrong answers' kills creativity. At school, as children, we are all taught that there is one correct answer to any problem or question and usually only one correct way to work it out, and most of us get used to thinking in this way. However, in creative pursuits such as burlesque, there are infinite ways to answer a question or respond to a stimulus. In the paperclip exercise, no right or wrong answers frees you to just include anything, no matter how unlikely, or silly, or unfeasible and because you know you have to generate 100 ideas, no one idea has to be perfect; they're just ideas, there'll be another one along in a minute!

In burlesque, where creativity and originality are key to every aspect, from starting concept, to costuming, to gags, jokes and reveals, I have found variations on the theme of this exercise can help you get through the barrier of having to have that 'lightbulb' idea first time. For me, I always get stuck with having to have a 'good' idea. If I have a good enough idea, it will make the whole performance good (in my mind, at least), so I put pressure on myself that all my ideas have to be clever, original and workable. By using this exercise this pressure is removed because you throw good ideas, boring ideas, workable ideas, totally impractical ideas and plain weird ideas all into the pot. You don't worry about whether they are all usable, because they don't all have to be. It's only later on, when you begin selecting from what you've created, that you need to start thinking about the logistics

So, the next time you begin to create a burlesque act, try turning your stimulus point into a paperclip exercise. It will help you work past the obvious and cliche and help you stimulate ideas that are out of your comfort zone. If you want to create an animal based act you could try '100 animals to perform as a burlesque act about'. Or, if you know you want to do an act about pirates you could figure out '50 music tracks to perform a pirate act to'. You could even use it for choreography or gags; how about '20 ways to remove a stocking' or '30 jokes involving a pair of juggling balls'?

When I started my little project, creating some blogs sharing my thoughts with burlesque beginners I even made the list '18 Burlesque Blog Topics' (it was 18 because that's how many lines were on the page). Some of the ideas were rubbish, some I liked reasonably well and the rest became this series of blogs.

I find I work best by sitting down and thinking first before I begin to devise my performances. If you work well this way too you might find the paperclip exercise works well for you.

Until next time

Sunday, 27 January 2013

10 Costuming Tips for Burlesque Beginners

Dear all,

I'm back again with another blog sharing the pearls of my questionable wisdom with newcomer performers in preparation for teaching my own burlesque course Drama Queens Burlesque

In this blog I am going to look at costuming. When I first started performing burlesque I could just about thread a needle.  Once I tried to make a skirt from a pattern; it was an unmitigated disaster and I spent half the time having to look up what sewing terms like 'baste' meant. Now, seven years on, I'm still not good at making garments from scratch, but in the course of creating costumes for my burlesque performances I have picked up a few tricks and skills that makes customising pre-made items easier. 

So, wading straight in, here are my ten burlesque costume tips that even non-sewers can use.

1. Wear shoes you can dance in.

It's been said by many performers greater and more experienced than I am, but it still bears repeating: wear a pair of shoes in which you can comfortably perform your act. We've all tried on the beautiful pair of shoes that would look fantastic with the costume items you have gathered, but which make us move like Bambi after one too many cocktails. When your nerves kick in, and you're on a stage that may have an unexpected surface (glossy, uneven, covered in glitter from the last turn) you'll wish you wore something more sensible and you'll end up having to hold back on your performance or risk taking a spill.

A lot of performers would advocate proper dance shoes as they are stable and fit for purpose, but everybody is different and you might find you move best in stripper heels or in a particularly well fitting pair of street shoes, and don't forget, you can always customise them with beads, rhinestones or trims to make them as pretty as that other pair that kept threatening to slip off your feet.

2. Consider Striptease-ease.

If you are doing a striptease based act, you'll want to think about how you remove your costume items and how you can make it easier for yourself. Back in my early days of performing I tended to keep the original fastenings on all of my costumes and it wasn't a huge problem, but as I started wanting to perform particular movements or remove items in certain ways it became necessary to start fiddling with fastenings and considering ease of striptease. A move such as taking off a bra one-handed is a skill that only the very dexterous (and well practised teenage boys!) can easily achieve with the average hook and eye fasteners, but by sewing in a couple of large, strong poppers in their place you can easily pop the bra open with a quick flick of the fingers. Similarly, removing a dress with a zip down the back can leave a lass looking a bit like an escapologist but by adding a long ribbon or chain you can unzip with ease.

By changing or customising fastenings or closures you can ensure that you never (well, hardly ever) get stuck in your costume, and that you can remove items in the style that works best for your particular act.

3. Be aware of the stretch.

For sewers, this will be a case of stating the obvious; for me, it was not. When you are sewing trims onto a stretchy item (especially pants) you will need to have the item stretched out when you do the sewing. See, I told you it was obvious, but it was something I had to learn the hard way! If you sew trims onto a pair of knickers (or any stretchy items) ideally you should use a mannequin in your size to ensure that they will still fit you when the trims are on. However, not everybody has a mannequin just lying around the homestead, I only just got one last year and that was only because I found one at the car boot going for a couple of quid! If you can't justify investing in a mannequin there are a couple of low cost ways you can get the stretch into your undies when you sew. If you're crafty and motivated there are several online tutorials that show you how to make a cheap, homemade mannequin. If you haven't the time or inclination to make your own mannequin you can use the back of a chair to stretch your panties over. It may not give you quite as even a stretch but I have trimmed many a pair of undies that way and it still works fine!

4. Use trims that are kind to non-sewers.

If you haven't really sewed before, some types of trim are kinder than others when it comes to customising pre-made items. Trims with a textured appearance such as marabou, broderie anglaise, frilly lace and feather boas will hide a mutitude of sewing sins such as large, uneven or meandering stitches or visible knots. Trims such as smooth shiny ribbon are a bit more tricky as they will show up your sewing imperfections more clearly.
It is also easier to work with trims that don't fray or unravel. When you first begin customising costumes, fabrics or trims that fray can be a real pain to work with, (again, shiny ribbon, I'm looking at you!) so you may want to avoid them, but if you have fallen in love with a particular fray-prone fabric pick yourself up a bottle of fray-block (I think the branded version is called Fray Away) and it will make your life much easier.

5. Research far and wide.

When researching costume ideas, don't think you only need to look at other burlesque performers for inspiration. That's just the start of it! You can get costume ideas from literally anywhere: films, music videos, TV, paintings, comics, cartoons, street clothes, high fashion, drag, stage plays and musicals. You may find gems, not just in terms of how your costumes should look, but perhaps also how you could make certain items or how they might work.
For my Jackalope costume I took inspiration for my wig design from a shoot from America's Next Top Model, which starred my favourite contestant, Allison. Above is her image and me in my wig.
6. Don't be put off from Primark

From time to time, there is talk in the burlesque community about whether it is acceptable for newcomer performers to perform in Primark underwear items as part of their costume (for anyone reading from outside the UK, Primark is a low price, value clothing chain). Certain people get a little snitty about performers in good old Primarni and it has become something of a shorthand for shoddy, lazy costuming. However, the problem, in my book, is not Primark, but the lack of effort some newcomers (me included, when I began) put into costuming. In an earlier blog I mentioned the importance of customising your costume underwear and I think this is equally important if you undies are from Primark as if they are from Agent Provocateur. So don't be scared off from buying base pieces from Primark or other budget shops, as long as you pimp them out and make them fabulous. You'd be surprised how many performers use budget priced bras and knickers and then customise the bejeezus out of them!

7. Appliques are your friends.

For years as a newer performer I marvelled and envied over more experienced performers' costumes and the beautiful detailed embellishments they had on them. I puzzled to myself, how had they made these beautiful, beaded, glittering patterns on their bras, corset and pants. I just couldn't envisage how to replicate these techniques, and then one day it clicked into place. Appliques! Often when you're looking at a beautiful piece of lace, beading or sequin work you're actually looking at an applique which has been added as one piece to a costume. The image above is one cup of the bra for my Emotional Strip costume and all the sequin and bead business is a one piece applique. Appliques are brilliant because you can add some really striking embellishment to a costume without needing to have much in the way of sewing skills. In fact, you don't really need to be able to sew at all because even if you can't make a stitch you could hot glue an applique on, assuming that the base material for the garment will take the glue.

You can buy appliques from haberdashers, online stores and Ebay or you could make your own. When I made my Jackalope costume I bought some pretty embroidered bridal lace and used this to make appliques to sew onto my corset. All I did was cut out the bits of embroidery I wanted, painted the edges with my trusty Fray Block (see point 4) and sewed them on. For those of you who are nifty with a needle and thread you could even have a go at making sequined or beaded appliques from scratch to save some pennies, that way you can try out beading ideas but if you make a mistake you haven't damaged your bra or corset.

8. Resist the rhinestone obsession.

Behold! A photo of what happens if you get silly about rhinestones. I bought these shoes back in 2006, sprayed them silver and then began covering them with hot fix rhinestones for a fan dance costume. It was a project I would never finish.

It's so easy to get sucked in. When I first got into burlesque I kept hearing about how embellishment with rhinetones, more specifically, Swarowski crystals, was the be all and end all of costume customisation. I totally bought into it, as did many of my peers. You'd be hard pressed to find a burlesque performer (especially one who started in the mid 2000s) who does not own, somewhere in their fortress of glitter, a hot fix rhinestoning tool and several (hundred) bags of hot fix, flat back crystals. But beware! Rhinestoning is fiddly, time consuming work and while it looks impressive, you have to ask yourself, is it the best use of your time? Would those shoes have looked any the worse for being painted and glittered, having appliques sewn on or being trimmed with ribbon and beads? Would I have actually got them finished?

I'm not slating rhinestones or crystals, nobody can deny that they look fabulous, but many beginner performers (myself included) think they will make an inexperienced or downmarket performance look expensive and in reality, that is not always the case. I'm not saying don't use rhinestones, but remember why you are doing this and, where possible, spend your time on making a great over all costume and, most importantly, on rehearsing. A little rhinestone detailing can still have a strong effect, perhaps stronger than having whole items entirely encrusted and audiences are generally more interested in your overall act than on how many rhinestones you have on your shoes.

9. Get to know the places to buy good (and inexpensive) trims.

Burlesque performers get their costume trims from a wide variety of different places and you will benefit from getting to know where you can pick up customisation kit in your local area. Online haberdashers and bead shops, as well as Ebay are a treasure trove and you have the convenience of shopping from the comfort of your living room, but in the real world, try your local markets, sewing shops and haberdasheries, charity and vintage shops and car boot sales. At Christmas, raid DIY and homeware stores for beaded chains, glittery ornaments and feathered birds and in early January you can pick up some fantastic bargains when they go out of season.
As well as made-for-purpose trims such as ribbons, lace and sequins you can also cannibalise jewellery, clothes and hair accessories as well as soft furnishing items. Taking apart a cheap necklace can provide you with beads or gems to embellish a bra, pulling flowers or feathers off hair bands and bobbles could perk up your pasties and lace removed from an old top could be added to your new costume. For this reason, keep your eye on clothing, jewellery and accessory shops and swoop in when they have a sale on.

10. Take a class.

You can do a lot as a non-sewer when it comes to burlesque costuming, but if you start wanting to create projects that require more than just a little practice you might want to take a class, and you'd be spoiled for choice!
Local colleges and groups often run dressmaking or sewing classes and these skills are transferable but you can also find burlesque specific sewing classes both ran by local institutions and by burlesque performers themselves. By learning with experienced seamstresses (especially those who specialise in burlesque costuming) you can work through your ideas and get guidance to help avoid mistakes.

I hope that my costuming titbits will be of interest to some of you out there, and will help beginner burlesquers out there as they venture into costuming their acts.

Until next time,

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

9 Ways to Connect with your Audience in Burlesque

I'm back again!

After the unprecedented interest in my last blog Ten Things I wish I'd known as a Beginner Burlesque Performer I firstly wanted to say thanks to everyone who read, re-posted, linked and commented. I had no idea so many people would find it interesting!
So, on the crest of that wave I'm back with the next blog in this series, written with my burlesque teaching hat on, in the weeks leading up to teaching my first burlesque class. Drama Queens Burlesque - plug, plug! In this blog I will be looking at nine tips to help newcomer burlesque performers form and develop a relationship with their audience.

Costumes, music, concepts, choreography, gags and reveals, promotion and connections can all amount to very little if your audience feel bored or disinterested when watching you, or if they find you dislikeable, annoying or aloof onstage. Some performers just have it. The big IT. There are certain performers whom audiences just adore. They've got the skills, the talent, the ideas, the costumes, but it's more than just that. The audience falls in love with them.

A lot of what relates a performer to an audience is elusive and unknowable; call it charisma, charm, stage presence, X-factor or vibe. For a lucky few performers this can be instinctive or innate, but there are also aspects of building a connection with audiences that can be learned and practised by the rest of us mere mortals. Relating to an audience is complex, in the sense that it is easy to learn but difficult to master. Some performers will take years honing the skills of reading, pleasing and reflecting on their audiences and will slowly cultivate skills in this area, others will step onto the stage the very first time and have the crowd eating out of their hands.

So, with this in mind, I share with you nine tipettes for how to cultivate a relationship with your audience. I can't guarantee they will make the audience fall in love with you, but they will certainly put you on the right track to getting on friendly terms with your viewing public.

1. Respect your audience on stage and off

A good performer always treats his or her audience with respect. You should arrive on stage well rehearsed, ready to perform and committed to the moment. Any fuss, negativity or issues from backstage or your real life should be left off stage, or if this is impossible, channelled into your performance. You should never take to the stage too drunk to perform well (many performers even choose not to drink at all until they have finished their turn) or with a half arsed or can't be bothered attitude. Remember, these people parted with good money to be entertained and you signed up to be the one to do it.

Off stage it's just good manners to be friendly. Some performers like to mingle after a show and others feel tired after performing and prefer to slip out discreetly but either way if an audience member compliments you on your performance, asks to take a picture with you or asks you a question about how you began performing, be gracious and indulge them. I'm sure that for most people reading this I am stating the obvious here, but I have witnessed the occasional performer acting like a diva in front of fans and it really spoils it for everyone.

2. Look up, look out, make eye contact

One thing that makes a world of difference in the 'eyes' (ouch!) of the audience is eye contact. It can be tricky when looking out into stage lighting to clearly see the faces of individual audience members, but you can still look up and out over the crowd. Where lighting permits, try to mix looking out into the audience with making brief eye contact with individual audience members. I have seen performers create very interesting and technically strong performances but they have performed with their faces turned down and their eyes lowered. This impedes your connection with the audience and can make them lose interest in what you are doing. Depending on the type of character you are performing as, you may want to tailor the type of looks you give out, but even if you are playing a very shy character you need to find a way to engage the audience with you eyes, perhaps by mixing looking away or down with looking up and out (think Princess Diana!).
[Picture of me making eye contact with the audience. Photographer Martyn Nomad Photography]

3. Work the room

Unlike many other theatrical forms, burlesque performances don't usually have a 'fourth wall'; the imaginary line that separates the world of the performance from the world of the audience. Instead burlesque performers react to and interact with their audience, performing for and to them, not just in front of them. Use this characteristic of burlesque to your advantage by working the whole room. Make everyone in the audience feel like you are performing to entertain them personally. Performers such as Missy Malone or Khandie Khisses are genius at this. They move seamlessly across the stage directing a shimmy to the people at the front left, then a bump to the folks at the middle back, followed by a cheeky wink to the lady in the specs on the fifth row. It takes practice, but communicating directly with different parts of the room (while never ignoring the rest of the audience) will make the audience feel connected to you and part of the show.
Be aware of how you use the stage and where possible do a walk through at new venues so you can see where your audience will be seated and plan how you will get the best out of your performance space, with no audience member feeling like they are in the 'cheap seats'.

4. Learn to read audience reactions

The audience as a group will constantly be giving you cues about what they enjoy and what makes them tick. The most skilled performers become adept at reading audience reactions but it is a skill that takes time to master. For newer performers you may find it easier to watch how audiences react to your peers than your own performances, what makes them laugh, when are they applauding the most, when they whoop or cheer and what are people's faces are saying when they are quiet. I remember the first time I performed a non-comedic fan dance to a burlesque audience. They were quiet all the way through and I thought that meant I had bored them, but the applause at the end suggested that they were just responding to the delicate mood of the piece.
In your own performances, you should listen out for the audience responses, as reading their faces may not always be possible under the stage lights. You may also find it useful to keep a reflective log of audience reactions to particular acts. I find I forget things if I leave it, but if I make a note of a joke, reveal, music selection or move that provokes a strong reaction from the crowd I can come back to it later and try to analyse why certain parts worked well and try to replicate successes, or figure out which points to emphasise and milk.

Also, as a burlesque performer you may find you receive a certain amount of post show compliments from audience members. These accolades are great and make us feel good but if someone says your act was 'really good' or 'really pretty' that doesn't tell you a huge amount. Be aware instead of audience members who tell you they specifically liked a certain aspect such as costuming, a particular gag, a physical or dance skill, that will help you to guage which parts of your performances are really flying.

5. Never break character to complain or explain

This one might sound ludicrous but I will never forget the day I saw a performer stop what she was doing mid-act and tell the audience she had made a mistake! She then continued the act in a fairly deflated manner and at the end of the act explained again that she had made a mistake and that it had not been her fault. If this had been a pre-planned joke as part of a comedy act it would have been fun, but as a spontaneous explanation and complaint it just felt awkward and I didn't know where to look.

If you make a mistake or a slip, try to recover gracefully if you can, keep smiling and make it into a joke if necessary but whatever you do don't break character and never explain why the mistake wasn't your fault. Even if it wasn't. In reality, if you make a mistake on the stage the odds are the audience will never even know; with even fairly large fluffs they won't realise. They have never seen your act in rehearsal, and as long as you keep up your character and performance you'll be able to smooth it over. If something more serious happens, like if you trip and fall (this happened to me and my wig went flying off. I always gripped my wigs more firmly after that day!) all you can do is keep smiling and laugh it off. If you handle your setback with good grace the audience willl respect you for it, if you try and explain what went wrong, complain or finish the rest of the act in a sulk they will just feel uncomfortable.
I would also take this point a little further and say that unless it was blindingly obvious (again, like falling over and losing your wig) don't tell audience members after the show that you bodged up, or ask them if they noticed. There's no need, the odds are they will never know you made a mistake.

6. Ensure the audience can see, hear and understand

It's worth bearing in mind that your audience are more likely to enjoy and relate to your performance if they know what's going on. If they are spending half the act going 'Eh? What was that?' they aren't going to be as invested in the moment as you might like. There are several factors that can add to audience confusion, and most of them can be easily avoided.

Firstly think about your music. Your music should tell the audience something about your character, the mood of the piece or the narrative. This mood should become clear to them quickly, unless you specifically want them to have some sort of gradual revelation about who your character or what your setting is. Choose music that sounds like the character or situation you wish to portray, rather than a song with lyrics that tell the audience the information. Think about it, unless the lyrics are very clear (or heavily repeated) or the song is universally well known, you may find the audience don't catch the words. Also, think about songs that have more than one recording, where the cover fundamentally changes the mood and character of the song. It's not the lyrics creating the mood, it's the arrangement, instrumentation, tempo, rhythm and vocal. If the song sounds right it doesn't matter so much about the words, although in many cases you may find a track where both words and music fit your ideas.

Think carefully about signs, posters, labels and pictures before you use them. In my early days of burlesque I made lots of acts that involved reading signs and labels and the technique does not always work (although I admit I do still have a couple of written elements in acts knocking around). Use signs, labels and posters only when strictly necessary. If there's a way to show something to your audience, rather than telling them using a sign I would advise using the other method. The reason for this is that not all audience members will see it, if they do see it they might not all be able to read it, and even if they can, it might distract them from the action of the performance. If you are going to use a sign, label or poster make sure you use a clear, large font so it is easily readable, ensure that you show it to all quarters of the audience for a sufficient amount of time and most importantly, don't fall out of character, or think that you don't need to keep performing while you are presenting the sign or label.

A lot of the same rules apply for showing a picture. If the picture is not easily recognisable at a quick glance your audience probably won't know who they are looking at, a picture of Homer Simpson is probably going to be more instantly identifiable than David Cameron. If you are going to use an image, like with the signs, make it large and present is as a performer. If possible and relevant for the act, perhaps consider having the image propped up on an easel so the audience have a little more time to take it in.

7. One on one contact - Come on strong

Some performers like to get a little more personal with their audience. This can be anything from gesturing directly to a particular individual during your act right up to getting out into the crowd or bringing someone up on stage to join in your performance in some capacity. This can really help to mix it up performance wise, and if it pays off, that individual will always remember their up-close and personal moment at a show, not to mention, it usually gets a smile (sometimes in relief that they aren't the ones being picked on) from the rest of the audience.
One on one contact can be risky though, the person might be embarassed and not want to participate for one thing. If your contact is small, like a wink, a point or a gesture in their direction, it doesn't really matter if your quarry blushes and looks away, in fact, it may add to the humour of the moment. For anything that involves your audience member joining in, however, you have to be aware of the difference between the shy, giggling 'oh no, I couldn't!' and the folded arms and grim determination of someone who is not going to budge under any circumstances. You need to be aware of when to push your audience member to join in and when to back off and try somebody else. Either way though, coming on strong is important. As I mentioned above, burlesque doesn't usually have a particularly rigid fourth wall, but if you are going to go ahead and break right through it you need to be confident and sure of your character or persona. If the audience member you choose to pick on does something unexpected you have to be sure you can handle it, and you  should present yourself confidently, because if you look unsure about drawing someone in to the game, they'll be unsure about it too.

8. Be yourself

One of the most important parts of burlesque performance is carving your own unique persona or creating personal characters. Audiences don't want to see a clone of something they have already seen before, they want to see your take on it. By all means, be inspired by other performers and how they relate to and interact with their audiences but there's no point trying to out and out copy their techniques for performance style.
You'll find, as you go along that there are things you can 'get away with' in terms of connecting with the audience that perhaps other performers can't. In one of my acts I make a one fingered gesture to the crowd. I considered this long and hard. Would it be a push too far? Would it seem too unfriendly? Would it violate the relationship I was trying to build with the crowd? This gesture was in the context of my 'Emotional Strip' act, in which I play through the different human emotions. This is the final gag in my 'angry' section, performed to a section of Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. In the end I went with it because the act itself, and my persona in this character are both very, very silly. And I always feel I'm a fairly non-threatening figure; short, dumpy with big boobs and a rubbery expressive face. In my performance the gamble pays off because it's a short, sharp joke before the mood changes into something even sillier. Other performers, or even I myself might not be able to get away with this gesture in a different act. In the same way, I don't think I could ever pull off the staple of dragging a feather boa or fan over a bald man's head. It just wouldn't be sexy coming from me in my chosen stage persona.
By being yourself and playing to your strengths you can figure out the best ways to play with your audience and make them remember you. 

9. Express with your face

When I started out burlesque, as a member of a troupe, we would sometimes walk through an act in rehearsals with what we called 'bored stripper face'. I'm sure you've seen it, the dead eyes, distracted non-expression a performer wears when he or she is thinking of something else. In the 7th walk through of the day that face may well be expected, but I have seen more than a few performers on stage, in front of a paying audience performing a routine with a bored stripper face on. The body's there, the moves might even be graceful, but the performer might as well be asleep for all the expression you can read on the face.

When you're on stage you should look present and engaged. As I mentioned before,you should be looking up and out at your audience, at least for the majority of your time on stage. If you are performing a classic, cheesecake or showgirl style act you may want to make cute, pin-up style faces but you at least want to smile, smoulder or do something with your face. For character based or comedic performances facial expressions become even more important. Nobody wants to see a body performing hilarious physical comedy while the face look like it's contemplating the grocery list and how will you convince your audience you are evil, lonely, mischevious, letcherous or sneaky if your face looks like you're doing some particularly tricky mental arithemtic. Personally, I like to perform using exaggerated facial expressions. I like even the audience in the back row to know exactly what I'm emoting, but that isn't to everyone's taste. Either way though, if you look at any successful and popular burlesque performer out there they'll be doing something with their face, other than daydreaming about fluffy kittens. No bored stripper faces necessary. (NB. If you are playing a bored stripper in you act then, by all means, make a bored stripper face).
[Photo by James Thorpe]

For most of us (me especially) audience relationships are a tricky thing to create and maintain, while for some it just seems to come naturally. As a newer performer, by practicing these skills you can begin to really connect with your audience and make them enjoy and remember your performances.

Until next time,

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Ten Things I Wish I'd Known as a Beginner Burlesque Performer

Dear all,
I am now just over two weeks away from beginning the six week burlesque course I will be teaching, (plug, plug).  In the run up to the class I thought I'd write a couple of blog posts with my teacher hat on and share a few pearls of my (dubious) wisdom.

In my first blog in this series I thought I would look at ten things I wish I had known (or that some wise burlesque mama-bear had told me) when I started out as a shiny new performer. This list is a relatively personal one for me, and it is by no means exhaustive but I'd love it if experienced performers would use the comments to tell me about other things they wish they had know when they started out, and for newer performers to tell me about the things they wish they knew about now (assuming you know what they are!).

So, shimmying straight in with the list:

1. Watch Other Performers

This one might sound obvious but you'd be amazed at how little burlesque I had seen when I first started! Between coming up with concepts, choreographing routines, creating costumes and trying to get booked I didn't watch nearly as much burlesque as I probably should have in those early days. It's useful, though, to watch as much burlesque as you can (live for preference, but if time and budget don't permit, then Youtube is your friend). By watching other performers you become familiar with the tropes, clich├ęs and standards of the genre, the different sub-styles (such as showgirl, comedic, gorelesque, etc), costuming tricks, how performers work an audience and all sorts of other vital nuggets. It stops your work becoming too generic because once you know the standards, you'll get a feel for where you can play with them, and it also gives you and insight into how many different way a basic idea can be interpreted. 
Watching other performers is invaluable, I didn't do it enough when I first started out and I feel it slowed my progress to becoming a more well-rounded performer.

2. Wear More Makeup 

When I first started out performing I would always look at photographs after a performance and think how plain I looked, especially alongside the other burlesquers. I came from a background of amateur dramatics so I knew that makeup was important for the stage, but it never really dawned on me how much slap you need to trowel on for your look to be striking in burlesque.

This picture is a shot of me performing at the Pitty Patt Club back when I was a newbie performer. As you can see, under the stage lights it looks like I am wearing makeup, but perhaps only about as much as someone might normally wear to a daytime engagement such as work or a lunch.  In the photo, it looks reasonable enough, but imagine what the people at the back of the room can see! Probably not much.

For the stage, especially for burlesque, as an exaggerated, over-the-top kind of art form you could probably benefit from wearing a little more so that the audience can read your facial cues clearly (and that you look good in photos!).

Now as a stage performer, I wear a LOT more makeup. In fact, I probably wear a lot more than many performers out there. Stage makeup has become something of a passion of mine! So I'm not suggesting you have to wear as much makeup as I do, and of course, you need to ensure that the makeup you wear is appropriate to your character, but the important thing is to highlight the areas that will help you express emotion and character.

Usually eyes and mouths are a no-brainer. If the audience can clearly see your eyes and mouth you can't go far wrong. As I got to know more about myself as a performer I came to realise that I express a lot with my eyebrows so I now always ensure that they are clearly visible when I am onstage.
You may also choose to contour or use other stage makeup tricks to help change your face to fit a certain character. In the picture to the right (me performing as young Baba Yaga at the Blue Room Burlesque, 2011) I chose to contour my cheeks as I have quite a flat face and I pictured this character having sharp cheekbones. Also, when wearing a wig I tend to shade a little at the temples to make the join between the head and the wig more natural looking. I have also found that when wearing wigs (especially ones in bright colours or big shapes), wearing a little more makeup can stop it looking like the wig is 'wearing you'.

3. End your act and edit your track.

This was something I learned very quickly but it is still a pet peeve for me now when I see it in new performers. If your music finishes when your act does, it looks complete and professional. If your performance finishes before the song does, it leaves the audience with questions such as, 'Did she get the timing wrong?' or  'Is there more to come?'. I have seen dozens upon dozens of newer performers conclude an act part way through a song, or sometimes even part way through a verse or chorus! It never looks great. This leaves you with two options, you either need to build an act that lasts the entire length of the song you are working to, or you need to edit it to fit your act
I am a big fan of using mixed tracks, so I pretty much always edit my music to fit what I'm doing. There are some very easy editing programmes out there, or you could pay someone to edit your music for you if you need something more complex. Even if you just want the music to fade out, it is much more professional to edit the fade into your track than to ask the DJ to do it blind on the night of the performance.

4. Always customise your costumes

In this picture of me, performing an early incarnation of my first ever solo act, Emerald's Cupcake (back in 2006) you can clearly see that customising my costume items had never occurred to me. Apart from my hat (it was meant to be a big cherry) and my pasties, both of which I made myself, everything was shop bought and not customised. It didn't even cross my mind that I needed to do it.

A large part of burlesque, however, is showmanship, and having an exciting costume is part of it. There's nothing worse that removing an outer costume layer only to hear a voice in the audience remark 'I've got that bra' (which happened to me, while performing this act!). Customising costume items need not be expensive and you don't have to be a whizz at sewing either, I know many performers who swear by a hot glue gun! And by using ribbon, sequins, beads, lace, crystals or even more unorthodox items (I have seen rubber gloves, cuddly toys and badges to name a few), or by dying items or cutting and re-making them you can make your costume items really express you character, and give the audience something exciting to look at. You can also think about changing clasps, closures and fastenings, as well as how garments come off, to help you create a smoother striptease.

Personally, I am pretty poor at dressmaking or creating an item from scratch but my customisation skills have come on in leaps and bounds since I started performing burlesque. For example, in this promo for my Jackalope act I started out with a plain bra, corset, bloomers and a plain white bridal underskirt and I customised them using tea dying, lace and ribbon, home made appliques, raw wool and tons and tons of strips of calico (on the skirt). I also changed the bra from a back to a front closure and changed the straps. It was time consuming, but the basic skills were easy enough to learn.

5. The audience want you to succeed.

I remember how nervous I was when I first started performing, especially when I first broke out from the troupe I started in and began working solo. I got really worried that people wouldn't like my performances and wouldn't like me. Then, a more experienced, wiser performer reminded me that burlesque audiences (in the main) come to have a great time, to be entertained and to have fun. They want your performance to be good and they're rooting for you. Burlesque audiences, for me, have been for the most part, the most generous, upbeat, welcoming audiences I have ever performed to, and any lone negative voices get lost in the crowd. Nerves are healthy but as long as you offer the audience your best, they will treat you kindly.

6. Choose your music carefully (or Everybody has a copy of Striptease Classics)

When I first started performing I felt that there were particular expectations about what sort of music I should be performing to. In my mind I thought Rockabilly, 50s rock n roll, Swing, Big Band and at a push a Charleston would be acceptable, with perhaps metal or rock music if you were creating acts for a neo-burlesque or alternative themed event. This can be rather limiting and it can lead to lots of performers doing routines to the same few songs. The 'Take it off - Striptease Classics' album is one that most burlesquers have in their collection and I would say that a large amount of us have used a track from it at one point or another.
While there's nothing wrong with using a standard, especially if you really make it your own, you shouldn't feel restricted to only use this sort of music. You can use music from any genre you like, from any era and from any source; just pick something that inspires you and that you won't get sick of. And you don't have to stop there, you can perform to dialogue, sound recordings, silence - anything! Don't believe me? If you've never seen it before, check out this video of Nasty Canasta performing her Car Alarm Fan Dance.

7. Go at your own pace

One of the things that threw me when I was new, and that still throws me now if I let it, is watching what other performers are getting up to and making comparisons. It's easy to get downhearted when it feels like other performers are putting out an exciting new act every week, or that everyone is picking up great gigs except you. It's important though to remember that everyone feels like they are lagging behind sometimes, even that person you really look up to. Online especially, a lot of performers will promote themselves by talking about their gigs, their new projects and their achievements but remember this is only half the story. You aren't seeing all their hard work, their frustrations and disappointments and the times when real life gets in the way. Just try to keep going at your own pace and things will come together. If you get too caught up with keeping up with what everyone else is doing you'll take all the fun out of creating and performing burlesque.

8. Don't get distracted by drama

Occasionally in burlesque, like in any other walk of life, things can get a little bitchy. With so many creative folks all crammed together in small dressing rooms and close knit local scenes it is inevitable that occasional dramas and spats will erupt. Its very easy to get drawn into drama and burlesque politics and it is pretty much always a waste of time. Focus on your own performances, avoid the backstage bitching and skip the cryptic Facebook statuses slagging fellow performers off. And most importantly, ignore anyone who threatens to ruin your reputation, stop you getting bookings or stunt your chances as a performer. These people rarely have as much reach as they think they do, and if your performances are good and your manner backstage is friendly, these things will speak for themselves.
(PS. Apologies. I know GIFs can be rather annoying but I just couldn't resist this one!).

9. Follow your passion

If you look at the most successful performers in burlesque they all have strong, distinctive on-stage identities and performance styles and this is important even for newer performers. In my early days of performance I fussed about whether something 'fit' what I thought was 'burlesque' style, whether that be sounds, visuals or movement. The problem with this is that it makes for a lot of fairly generic burlesque. Burlesque gets really exciting when performers begin to shape the genre to fit them, when they follow their skills and passions and create something personal. When I first started experimenting with the genre and how I could make it my own a little more I did receive a voice of dissent from an audience member who stated 'That's not burlesque, Dita von Teese wouldn't do that' and I felt a little deflated, but then I had dozens of people tell me how much they enjoyed my take on the form. People will enjoy your take on burlesque too, so learn the rules and conventions of the genre and then learn how to break them, or at least give them a little bend here and there!

10. Take a bow!

It might sound daft, but when I first started performing I would think nothing of leaving the stage as soon as my music finished and my final pose was over. When I watch early videos of myself back I can see how odd that looks. After your performance has finished, take a moment to enjoy your audience. Look out over the crowd and take a bow, curtsy or wave, or do something in character if you like. Either way, acknowledge your applause and enjoy it. It will make your performance look more complete and finished, the audience will feel acknowledged and it gives you a moment to drink in the rewards of your hard work. 

So these are ten things I wish I had known when I was a new performer. I hope you've found them interesting. Now I'd love to hear what you wish you had known when you were new (or now, if you're new now). Please add your own thoughts to the comments section below.

Until the next time,

Monday, 7 January 2013

Competition Time

Dear all,
it's competition time! I'm offering a free place on my January burlesque course (held in Nottingham) if you enter my competition.

Enter on Facebook
Copy and paste this text into your Facebook status:

I want to win a free place on Drama Queens Burlesque's January course in Nottingham. Visit Drama Queens Burlesque at

and tag Emerald Ace in your post.

Enter on Twitter
Copy and paste this text into a Tweet. (Or Retweet Emerald Ace's version of this text on Twitter)

I want to win a free place on Drama Queens Burlesque's January course in Nottingham. #burlesque #nottingham #lessons

Entries are open until 7pm Friday 11th January 2013. At this point all entries from Facebook and Twitter will be put into a hat and the winner will be drawn out and announced at the weekend.

Terms and Conditions:
You must be able to attend the course in Nottingham (which runs for 6 weeks, starting Wednesday 30th January).
You are welcome to repost / retweet as many times as you like, but each person will only be counted as one entry in the competition.
No cash alternative is offered.
Entrants must be over 18 as the class is for over 18s only. 

For more information on Drama Queens Burlesque take a wander over to

Good luck all ye who enter here!
Until next time,
Emerald xxx

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Goodbye to 2012

It's getting to that part of the year where many of us like to take stock and consider the events of the year. I had sort of been avoiding doing this, but I think the time has come, so, without further ado, here's my personal review of 2012.

The Hard Stuff

2012 has been a bit of a hard year, not just for me, but for a lot of people by the looks of it. Without lamenting too much, the looming presence of the year has been that my partner has been very ill and that has brought a lot of sadness, fear and stress into both our lives. Money has been terribly tight this year; not least of all because after I completed my teacher training I found myself unemployed and it took me a while to secure a job. I am currently working in a call centre, for now.  As my teaching practice progressed it became more and more clear to me that finding a teaching job was going to be hard, and so far it has been.

On the burlesque front I spent most of the early part of 2012 immersed in my teacher training and I performed only once or twice during this period. When I finally qualified I found I had gone off the boil somewhat, creatively (see my blog on creative block for more depth on this) and the issues going on at home made pursuing burlesque bookings somewhat of a low priority. All this means that I feel I have lost touch with burlesque and the people who make it great this year. I currently have a large question mark over what to do next. Whether to try and push though and begin working on new acts and reconnecting with shows and promoters to get work, or whether to focus on other creative and professional avenues. I'm still unsure. I miss burlesque, I miss performing and the creative process and I miss the people. I don't miss travelling so much, and often being tired from juggling performance with a day job!

In general though, I think 2012 has left me feeling a little sad, a little withdrawn and a little isolated. I've not wanted to reach out to people and tell them I'm struggling because it feels painful to do that so I've just been popping up occasionally on Facebook or what have you when I'm feeling a little more positive, but I haven't wanted to do the hard times publicly. In a way, I think I have ended up falling a little out of touch with some people I genuinely care about, because I couldn't make small talk with them as if everything was fine, but I didn't feel able to talk about the big stuff.

Ouch. Stream of consciousness moment. This has suddenly got incredibly personal and not very much to do with my 'burlesque life' blog. Still, I think at the new year people do tend to get reflective (read: maudlin) so I shall leave it in, but normal service will be resumed now with...

The Good Stuff

As well as the tough stuff that 2012 sent my way, there have been some fantastic adventures, achievements and general good times. Obviously the biggie was qualifying as a drama teacher for further education. I worked my behind off to get there and it was such an amazing experience. I think I have finally found where I'm supposed to fit career-wise and that's something I had never been able to say before. Working with my learners in teaching placement was also a huge joy, especially seeing them blossom in their own performances. I didn't think it was possible to feel so proud of a bunch of people you aren't related to. It has made me realise that teaching performance is something more rewarding than I could have imagined.

2012 was also a year of new creative inspirations. The single performance that made the biggest impact on me was the inestimable Gomito Theatre's Alchemystorium show (which I went with my students to see). I went in, not knowing what I was going to see, but I came out saying 'That. That's what I want to be doing'. Using clowning, puppetry, mime, home-made special effects, evocative lighting and sound and wordless narrative it felt like a logical extension from the type of burlesque performances I have been trying to make. It felt like the next step. I had been thinking quietly about clown for a while but this really lit a fire under me and helped inform how I want to shape future performance work.

With clowning in mind, in the summer I took a one day clown workshop with Mick Barnfather. I am aware that a couple of other bods in the world of burlesque have studied with him and after chatting with a couple of them, one thing seems clear. Clown is damn hard! I think I was pretty terrible in the workshop. I'm not really a spontaneous kind of a person, and I tend to over think and second-guess myself and these sort of traits don't seem to make a natural clown. That having been said, I'd love to go back and do a longer and more involved course (when time and money will permit) because I feel as though it would be something extremely valuable, if I could just get my head around it.

After summer was over and I found a job I began working on my own take on a clown piece (I'm not sure if purists would say it was true clown, but it was my attempt). Griselda Finkle-Pheffer was the result. I performed Griselda at Little Wolf Parade a performance and art event curated by local artist Rachel Parry. I was pretty happy with the performance for a first run, but ideally I'd like to trial the act out in front of a burlesque audience. In my more ambitious moments, I can see Griselda extending into a short, one-woman show, but perhaps I shouldn't run before I can walk!

Alongside these adventures, I did perform at a couple of burlesque shows this year. Back in April I shook my thing at the Missy Malone and Friends Burlesque Revue in Milford Haven. That show was fantastic, the audience were so welcoming and I got to enjoy a hotel sleepover with Scarlett Daggers and Sherry Trifle. In October I performed at the amazing Wet Spot in Leeds. Every time I do this show it reminds me why I love burlesque. The line-up was out of this world (Lili la Scala, Audacity Chutzpah, Laurie Hagen, Diva Hollywood, Velma von Bon Bon, Equador the Wizard, and of course, little old me) and I had a wonderful time. I felt a real sense of a community producing 'for us, by us' entertainment and that made me proud. Finally, my last show of the year was the Frou Frou club in Hebden Bridge. Highlights of that show included watching the most professional and exciting routine from a troupe of newcomers (learners from Lady Wildflower's classes), catching acts from the stunning Missy Malone and Roxy Reveals and laughing at Heidi Bang Tidy's anecdote about accidentally peeing on the 'safety thong', with a laugh of recognition because it happened to me once when I was rather merry (after all the work was done, of course).

So it has been a hard year, but there have been some joys too. 2013 is here now and there are new plans afoot. As I'm sure the whole universe knows by now, at the end of January I will be dipping my toe into burlesque teaching and running my first burlesque course, I also hope that 2013 might bring with it new opportunities to create acts and perform, but I'm not setting myself rigid goals about exactly what, where and how much. This year I have learned that if I try to force these things, it just becomes more difficult.

So, onwards and upwards into 2013.
'Til next time