Thursday, 24 April 2014

My Personal Burlesque Crisis

Dear All,
On Sunday I did something I had been thinking about for a while; I changed my Facebook name to my real name. For me, this was the final stage of a process of stepping back from burlesque and I did it because every time I saw my stage name on the screen it reminded me that I had not really admitted to myself that my time in burlesque was over.

As discussed on several other UK burlesque blogs, it seems as though many performers minted, as I was, in the mid 2000s are questioning burlesque, its development and where they fit in.

For me a combination of personal factors, alongside the changes afoot in the scene had left me feeling confused and unsure of my place for some time. This was not a rushed decision; I made my last performance in Summer 2013 but I had not been performing regularly or creating new acts for somewhat longer.

In terms of logistical factors, I fell off the wagon in terms of creating acts and actively chasing performances during my teacher training year due to the heavy workload of studying. The biggest practical issue for me, however, has been money. We all know that burlesque is an expensive pursuit, with costumes, shoes, wigs, makeup, travel, props and skills training all taking a toll on even the sparkliest pocket. Due to personal stuff I won't bore you with here, my monthly bills went through the roof, leaving little left to work with.

Not having much budget to speak of meant that I could only costume very slowly as I could only afford supplies bit by bit and this slowed down the whole production of the act. With all this time between the initial idea and the act's debut I began to pick, over-think and knock my own confidence. I had at least three acts that I began work on and never finished due to losing the faith. Perhaps if I had got them out quicker I would have had a chance to really find out for sure if they would work or not, before I got too much in my own head.

I think, had I been feeling more optimistic about the burlesque scene and my own place in it, I might have been able to make time and find ways to raise the extra cash needed to keep producing performance but, in all honesty, by this point I was already feeling a change in the air that made me question my future in burlesque.

So what happened? In her blog post, Is there a crisis in burlesque? Glo Gray talks about the change in focus from DIY and an experimental, creative approach to a more high-production-value, aesthetically centred 'professionalisation' of the form. More and more expensive costumes, dancerly skills and beautiful faces and bodies appear to be the key for performers and the promoters who book them. As much as I love a good costume (and don't get me started on wigs!) I don't feel like I fit within the realm of glamorous divas with their matching luggage, rhinestoned c-strings and flawless makeup.

I have always been a burlesque odd-bod with a slightly off-beat approach to creating performance but the stakes seem higher now. I feel like there was a time in the UK circuit where a DIY attitude was the norm, and taking a few risks (and sometimes failing) was part of the creative process. Now, performances are polished, perfect and any risks happen far behind the scenes. In one way, this is a positive. High-end burlesque shows give bang for the audience's buck, help dispel myths of burlesque as sleazy or disempowering and offer more chance of the performers they book being able to sustain a living. Perhaps, however, there are a few babies that have been thrown out with the bath water. One of the things that ignited my passion for burlesque from the get-go was the 'for us, by us' mentality of (mainly) women making the things they wanted to see on stage. In mainstream media it is such a rare treat to see something that I feel could have been made for me but in burlesque, at that time, so many performers were producing acts that were special and personal, dealing with their own private obsessions, joys and quirks.

Now, bills tend to lean more to glamour, and those who are different can sometimes look like tokens. I fell foul of this in one of my later shows when an audience member complained that as a fat performer I had been made the 'butt of the joke' by taking a comedy turn in my Emotional Strip while the other, slimmer performers worked gorgeous dancerly acts. I found this particular criticism hard to right within myself. If I wanted to perform glamorous acts but found myself excluded due to my size that would be problematic, but I perform silly stuff by choice and did so even before I was fat. But, if the only representation of a fat woman on that bill is me, and I play the clown, what message am I sending out about the role of fat women in burlesque (or in life in general)? Neither fat burlesque performers, nor comic burlesque performers are so prolific in the UK that I can completely ignore this issue, but on the other hand, one of the reasons I began performing burlesque was that I liked the idea of women laughing together about women's bodies. Not laughing at my body because it's fat (or thin or whatever) but laughing at the female form in general, unseating the idea that a women's naked body is always meant to be attractive or sexual.

Another upshot of the professionalisation of burlesque has been to do with a change in performers' skill sets. In the last five years or so we have seen the rise of performers with special skills such as fire, aerial, whips, pole, knife throwing as so on. When I first got involved in burlesque there were some performers who incorporated extra skills such as contortion or playing the piano into their acts but they were often people who had come from circus or music (or what have you) and had transitioned into burlesque. They certainly weren't the norm. Now, performers who began in burlesque are seeking out training to add extra skills to their repertoire. As an audience member, I couldn't admire this more! It makes shows more exciting and you never know what you're going to see next. As a performer, it made me feel somewhat lacking. I couldn't afford to take myself off to classes in this or that skill and I found myself falling behind.

A final thing that I found hard about burlesque and harder as time went on is the social and networking aspect of burlesque. Some members of the community have called cliquey-ness on burlesque, but I never found it to be that particularly. I'm not a wildly social person. I'm friendly, but I can also feel shy and awkward in groups. Often I would find the backstage camaraderie, the shared car trips and the Facebook love-ins a little overwhelming. I never felt unwelcome and I was always treated with friendliness wherever I went but sometimes networking felt like more of a performance than being on stage. I think in the early days of the UK burlesque revival, networking was less of a factor. If you were pleasant and polite backstage, had good acts and stuck your hat in the ring for castings that was enough. Now though, with such a saturation of aspiring and established performers people have to have something more than that to make booking decisions on, and of course friendships and connections are a factor. If you could book one of the 30 people who are pleasant backstage and have good acts or the one person with a good act whom you love working with because you've become real-life pals, I know who I'd book. I met a lot of wonderful people though burlesque, but it takes a lot of time, more than is realistic in burlesque-life, for me to become close with people so the social side was always difficult.

Referring back to Glo's title, I'd like to think that burlesque is not so much in crisis as in catharsis. I think the more professional, glossy presentation of the genre will hopefully offer some longevity and stability to the performers working within it as it begins to be percieved as a 'legitimate' artform that more people will want to come and watch. I think that performers who are a little rougher around the edges, like myself, may be a casualty of this, and that's a pity, but I don't think that the quirky end of the spectrum has entirely had its day. Looking to the newer crop of performers over the last few years, I think the new odd-bod performers will be just as glamorous and polished as the 'classic' performers but with comedy bits and other skills that gals like me could only dream of to execute their madcap ideas.

I think the burlesque we'll be seeing in five years time will be expensive, professional, aspirational and skillful. I think the pretty girls with bored-stripper face, a big ego and not much more will be gone, but so will the kooky oddballs with the 'suck it and see' ideas. In their place I reckon we'll being seeing more performers with dance backgrounds and drama school graduates, who might see burly as an opportunity for creativity, autonomy and self-reliance. For those without a stage background, I predict a focus on specialisation and a signature skill. For some of us who were there in the first decade or so of the UK revival I think it's sad to see things moving on in a different direction without us, but I also think that for some of our peers this was the kind of burlesque they had always dreamed of making.

So where does that leave me in all this? I'm saying au revoir to burlesque, but I'll still be cheering from the sidelines and watching eagerly to see what comes next. I'm also still planning to teach burlesque from time to time, if the opportunity arises. I am quietly working on a new performance direction in clowning, but it's early days yet and I'm unsure what, if anything, will come of it. Burlesque gave me so much. I met so many wonderful people and inspiring performers. It opened the door to my love of performing and gave me my first proper creative outlet. It made me realise I could do things that I thought only 'special' people could and it made me realise I could make it on my own in the world in so many tiny ways, from managing my accounts, to sewing a costume, to finding the venue using only a map and my horrendous sense of direction. Hell, I only learned to drive because of burlesque! Perhaps in the future I'll feel ready to return to burlesque, but for now, I'm just getting used to the freedom that comes from seeing my own name when I open up my Facebook page: a blank canvas.

Wishing you all creative fulfillment in whatever you endeavor,