Friday, March 9, 2018

Walking away

I haven't opened up Blogger for a while, mostly because I've been afraid of doing so. Lately, I've felt kind of unconnected with the community, and kind of at a loss for how to express that. It's not that I'm not grateful for being given so many opportunities to perform and be a de facto leader and role model in the Boston scene, but there's another force tugging at me from somewhere else, and I thought it might be worth exploring here.

As I look around and observe different interactions both backstage at venues, on social media, and in casual conversations between fans and performers, I'm gradually getting more and more uncomfortable. I've written before about how burlesque is a vulnerable artform, one where we have to lean on each other to feel safe in spaces where venue owners, fans, producers, and newcomers can be dangerous.

I'm feeling like there's a lot of toxicity between performers lately. Some of it is justified, some of it is perceived. Almost all of it has been directed at other performers, and with that comes a microscopic evaluation of each of us, constantly asking us "who's side" we're on.

All of it has merit, and everyone's feelings are real. That's not up for debate.

What I'm reticent about is the constant polarization of each burlesque performer based on every comment they post online, what producer they work with, who they're still friends with, and more than anything else, what they DON'T say when others expect them to.

It seems like the most vocal performers and leaders in each scene are focused on whose careers deserve to be ruined. Who needs to be raked across the coals. Which person should be cast out of the community and for what reasons. While I will always support producers and performers avoiding people who are dangerous or have proven remorseless about their problematic behavior, I've noticed that burlesque performers are by and large focused less on calling out said problematic behavior and more on decrying performers who make them uncomfortable.

I've had numerous conversations about people I associate with and who I hire, and I've felt pretty solidly about my guiding principles when it comes to problematic behavior. Is this person a danger to others? If so, they won't be in my show. If they've been historically problematic and unrepentant when confronted? They won't be in my show. If they're generally disrespectful and find it hard to follow rules and guidelines, I likely won't hire them more than once.

These self-made guidelines have served me well over the years. I've had to apply them when considering whom to hire, what producers I'm willing to work for, and even how to manage my own troupe.

My main issues are not with people who don't operate on the same pretenses that I do. My issues stem from when people claim they stand for certain things and then are selective about when they apply them. Is this a person I've heard about and have never worked with and has been publicly accused of unacceptable behavior? Written off immediately. Is it someone I've worked with and like and has given me lots of gigs? Wait, slow down. You can't talk about them like that, it'll damage their career. YOU'RE the monster, this person CAN'T be guilty of anything.

To me, true friendship doesn't involve shielding people you care about from the consequences of their actions. I'm often the FIRST one to talk to my friends when there's bad rumors going around. I encourage people who are being publicly accused of poor behavior to apologize for their role in what they've caused, not necessarily because they were being intentionally malicious, but because so much of our behavior is ingrained to the point of obliviousness. Granted, there are predatory people in our scene who intentionally commit acts that hurt others, and have no intention of apologizing and making amends for what they did. THOSE are the people who should be cut out, with the behaviors in question put up on display as an example of what actions we cannot and will not tolerate.

But for everything less, people should publicly own their behaviors, and apologize for them when they've hurt others. They should acknowledge that conflict rarely exists because one person says that it does. They shouldn't silently assemble and hide behind a phalanx of loyal supporters to run shaming campaigns against the people who would call out their behavior. If this happens to me, I hope to hell or high water that I don't let my ego convince me I'm faultless just because I've made art here in town.

Lately, gigs have been feeling like wink-and-nod social clubs where people make plays to get you on some performer's moral street team. Frankly, I'm not interested in that and I never have been. I'm way more interested in encouraging good behavior and calling out poor behavior, and encouraging my friends to know the difference. I've never been interested in ending someone else's performance career, especially since unrepentant repeat-offenders will eventually do that on their own.

I've been giving away my acts and costumes because of how good I feel spending less time in gossipy, toxic environments--which predominantly in my life are burlesque spaces. Granted, there are producers out there who I truly admire and run very professional productions, and what I fear the most is that this general malaise has sapped my energy for even performing alongside them, and it makes me feel somewhat guilty for enjoying the time I've taken.

I've come to realize that I need that time to really figure out what it is I'm getting out of being in burlesque shows, as well as what it feels like producing fewer of my own. I'd like to still teach my class and do the amateur showcase, but even that feels like it needs a facelift ("Dale's All-Male Yardsale" is a name I still kind of dislike). I'm proud that I got to help create a group that performs at a high level, and that we have the kind of clout that people appreciate when using us to promote shows.

It's also important to help give opportunities to newer performers, who often get overlooked. I've been suggesting some of the alums of my class as replacements for gigs I'm offered, and it's a good practice for helping remind me that we're supposed to be here to lift each other up.

Thanks for reading, and for following me for the past several years. I'll leave the door open for possibly returning, but for now I'll continue to take some time to really get into married life, my new career, and working on circus skills, music, comedy, and building and maintaining friendships, all of which during busy burlesque months, I end up neglecting. It's been fun, and thank you all for being a part of it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Sexual Assault and Toxic Masculinity

In just browsing Facebook in the last week, I've been reminded of the magnitude of the problem that sexual assault is in our culture. It's not that I didn't know it existed, but the huge, pervasive reminder that people I love and care about are showing me as I scrolled through my feed reaffirms to me that it's a real thing that really happens to real people. And I needed to see that.

I've mentioned before that one of the things that makes burlesque a tight-knit community is the fact that we're doing a vulnerable form of art. We take ownership in doing a type of performance with our bodies that can be perceived in a dangerous and possessive way to others. Because of that, there's a level of trust that is required among performers and the people we work with. Backstage, you absolutely need to trust the people you're collaborating with in order to not feel unsafe. Because of that, we're all held to high standards, and that trust can be so easily taken advantage of.

In the last week alone, I've been made aware of two separate acts of sexual assault that were perpetrated by male members of the burlesque community. While neither of them are my story to tell, I did want to acknowledge that this is the kind of thing that happens all too often, and very close to home. This is why it is crucially important for me to believe the people who tell me about these violations of personal boundaries, and why I need to factor that information into my decisions about who I work with and hire for my own productions.

What's terrifying to me is that men in our culture are in so many ways raised to feel entitled to sex. Not only does our media corroborate this by showing movies, television shows, comics and video games with male protagonists being "awarded" the beautiful woman for saving the day, but we're thrust into conversations about masculinity that are predicated on men taking what they want from women who are unwilling, non-consenting, or uninterested.

These tropes are sneaky, and they often work themselves into burlesque acts. As a straight male who does burlesque, I confess that it's very easy to use striptease as the theatrical leverage that makes a female character on stage do a thing. In creating a scene where a male protagonist will remove clothing or make a comically lewd joke in order to change how another character (or audience member, as the case may be) views him, we're subtly reinforcing a harmful perspective that being sexually aggressive can net you positive results.

I wanted to acknowledge that my own perspective on this is just one side of the issue. Women, fem, non-binary, and people with different sexual orientations all have varying narratives on how our culture treats the issue of sexual assault, and it's equally important that we're all involved in this dialogue.

One person I know posted something to Facebook that brought me backwards in time to my own involvement in perpetrating toxic masculine culture. I asked him if I could share his post, and I copied it in its entirety below;

All of this "me too" is really moving me. However, I don't see a lot of men admitting to their part of it, so I'm breaking my "don't actually write anything real on the internet" rule. Here goes:
In my boozy single days, I can remember occasions in which I was too aggressive or persistent and made women uncomfortable. I knew I wasn't a threat to anyone's safety, so I never even considered that my approach could be perceived as threatening in any way. Looking back, I was completely wrong about this. I regret not recognizing the power inherent in my maleness. I should have behaved in a less selfish, more compassionate way. I am deeply sorry for this. I am still learning and trying to get better.
Fellas - there's not a bunch of faceless mystery men that are making women feel unsafe. It's us. Let's do better.

Of course, as I read this, I went back through my own timeline and tried to figure out how I might also have been that guy. I don't pretend that I'm without blame, or that I don't have similar flashbacks to memories of being too aggressive or persistent with someone because I thought that was what you did to win someone's interest. I thought back to memories of my high school football locker room, which I assure you is not just a cliche, but a real place where other men brag about their sexual conquests. I remember being silent in situations where I watched other men making women uncomfortable and unsafe, and being too frightened of whatever silly, insignificant thing to say anything. I also recall listening to female and fem people in my life, and a younger me offering to help solve their problem with violence instead of listening and acknowledging, and understanding that one form of toxic masculinity doesn't require the deployment of another.

In terms of the steps I need to take now, I will strive to be compassionate and sincere in how I treat other people. I will watch my speech to ensure that I don't speak about subjects that normalize sexual assault in any form. I will also make sure I'm listening and not speaking when other people are sharing their experiences and believe others when they share their own narratives. I will speak up when I am watching men saying or doing things that are making women feel unsafe. I have, and will continue to not work with people who I have learned are dangerous, or who do not espouse these beliefs.

In relation to the men who have committed sexual assault in the burlesque community, it's important that we don't continue to provide them opportunities to perform. Even though asking someone to leave your production is 100% of the time going to be an unpleasant conversation, my policy is that if someone tells you they feel unsafe, I can assure you that that conversation will absolutely take place.

I am not perfect, and I acknowledge that I have a long way to go. I am learning and trying to get better, with the acknowledgement that I play a role in how we handle sexual assault in our culture. I can only hope that doing the right thing and being respectful stops being the paradigm and starts becoming the minimum accepted standard for how we treat each other.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Wanting to be a part of everything

Since a couple years ago I've had a pretty steady amount of offers to be in many different kinds of burlesque and variety shows. This is normally an awesome thing, as it means I have to hustle less to get myself booked. I appreciate and am grateful that enough show producers can find a place for me in their plan for an entertaining evening.

I had a moment recently where I found myself hesitating while writing a response email. A response in which I was declining a gig.


I had a really hard time writing this one email, and was worried about how what I was saying might come off. Typical anxiety notwithstanding (this producer will hate me/never book me again, I'll miss out on a chance to do something fun, if I don't do this it'll look bad, etc), this is an activity I find more stressful than all of the preparation that comes with an acceptance. Though I've written these types of responses before, I think the reason why I'm having so much trouble this year is for two main reasons;

1 - Due to recent life circumstances, I have the capacity to take on fewer commitments than ever before.

2 - Having done festivals and shows in a wide mess of new places, I now know EXACTLY what I'm saying "no" to.

Saying no to things that are too much for you to handle is a healthy practice. With that said, I've -NEVER- been good at it. Despite Lucifer Christmas's recent blog post assuring me that "there will always be another gig," I know that in my own little mind, there will be some degree of omnipresent regret for saying no. It's awful, and I don't know how to make that go away and shut up with the noises.

As I watch my friends head off to other cities (and countries) to go to festivals, I do feel a little bit of FOMO. I always make a short list in my head every year of all the festivals I want to do, and make a casual attempt to remember when and where they are each year.

Further compounding this is the mathematical fact that I only have a finite amount of years left to try to follow up on some of these dreams before I retire from burlesque or die.

A few more shots to the head like this, and that day may be right around the corner.
Photo by Rob Starobin, NYC Nerdlesque Festival.

On the other hand, I am writing the majority of this after having just finished a 2 hour nap in the middle of a relaxing getaway in New Hampshire. Between a demanding 9-5 weekday job, regular circus and strength training, and an average of 10-15 various gigs per month, I forgot how completely satisfying an afternoon nap can feel.

Granted, this last week was a grind--six shows, three of which involved acrobatic and physically painful stage combat (thank you for that, Holy Shitsnacks, An Archer Burlesque). The show turned out amazingly, and the cast was completely on their A-game. And speaking of which, look at this amazing cast intro video;

Video by Adriano Moraes, all cast credits contained within.

Some people have the ability to grind it out and make this whole burlesque thing their living, but I know that I don't have the energy to do that. Frankly, I'm looking forward to being able to rest up a bit and take the biggest swing I can at the next thing I'm able to go 110% on. To me, that seems like the best way to get back in, and I know that I'll be less stressed (and tired) if I'm able to choose what that next thing is.

There's a lot of questions spinning around in the blender here for me. What kind of fulfillment do I get from packing my schedule full of things that scare me? Why do I have such ennui about declining things that my Meyers-Briggs test results tell me I should hate? Why do I find satisfaction doing something that makes my father uncomfortable?

Maybe it's because of that time I threatened to cut off another man's muttonchops.
Photo by Roger Gordy, Old School Game Show

What is it exactly that I'm afraid to give up? I guess the best answer I can come up with is....that I enjoy being other people. Is that escapism?

As burlesque performers, we all want to entertain--that much is universally true. I look at entertaining others as a side benefit, since I feel like there's a bigger thrill to be had by exploring the lives of people and characters with other perspectives. Each time I get to perform on stage is an opportunity to move, speak, look, act, and briefly live like someone else. I even treat my professional life that way; I get a truly embarrassing kick out of being the regular human coworker at the water cooler that also likes sports.


Maybe a part of that is the rush that I experience from fooling people around me into thinking I'm "good enough" to keep a job, have social skills, or fulfilling emotional relationships. Maybe it's the counterweight that the edginess of burlesque offers to an otherwise perfectly normal life. Maybe I'm just scared of having to experience and sort through the feelings and experiences that come with each day on my own.

Whoa man. That went right into the abyss.


Anyway, I think there's an intangible value in feeling like you're in demand. If people want you to do things, it would be selfish to deny them what they want, right? But I'm feeling lately like taking some time to be a regular life person should be a way for me to get re-centered, re-prioritize everything in my life, and remind myself why I love performing. Regaining some perspective might help me get back there.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Mindless Praise vs. Effective Critique

As many performers I know can attest to, it's very easy to get praise for your work from fans, peers, and other performers. It's almost impossible, however, to find good, constructive critique that pushes you to be better.

After watching myself in the role of Barry Dylan from the burlesque adaptation of the television show "Archer," I felt thoroughly pleased with myself and the performance I gave. I mention this specifically because I rarely feel this way about my performances. Even though I felt satisfied with how it went, I still wouldn't have minded if someone had made some suggestions on what could have used more polish.

"I said GOOD feedback, you dullard!"

The best performers I know place a high value on effective critique, and I've come to find that there isn't all that much of it in burlesque. In general, I've found that it's very easy to surround yourself with people who have nothing but adoration for you, and I absolutely believe that there's nothing worse than that if you're trying to grow as an artist. It's hard to fight that instinct.

As far as the duo act I did in that same show, I felt a lot differently. In that act, Danny Drake (as Archer) and I did a duo-acrobatics striptease that resembled a high-energy fight scene, a confrontation where we illustrated the futility of these two characters' persistent quarrel throughout the show. I discussed with Danny a lot of personal critiques I came up with about how the performance went, and would have loved to have heard more from other performers about what worked and what didn't while we were still in the rehearsal phases. In my opinion, the act looked a bit contrived and juvenile on video, despite me being smashed in the head at one point with a glass bottle.

Yes. It did really happen.

It got me thinking quite a lot about the reasons our performances sometimes don't look polished in the ways we want them to. Why do we create our performance pieces in isolation while avoiding checking in with people we trust along the way?

I was reading Mary Cyn's blog about how to take and give effective critique, and it inspired me to want to finish this post that I've kept shelved for a long time. One of the big reasons that I wanted to hold off on finishing this topic is that I knew I hated some parts of burlesque performance because of how the community at large handles effective critique, but wasn't sure how to get it into writing. Mary helped me to figure that out with her own take.

The title of this entry, phrased as "Mindless Praise vs. Effective Critique," doesn't quite encapsulate the entirety of the issue. If I'm honest, I would tell you that me giving crappy critique and shaded criticisms also factors into my motivation for writing this, though that seems like too many words for a blog title, expressly for the point of washing my hands of things my younger self once did. One of the reasons I like to teach other guys how to do burlesque is because it gives me the opportunity to help develop and course-correct in a forum where constant feedback is the expectation, and to further reinforce those lessons in writing after their first performance. Plus, I get to deliver feedback in a way that I would have wanted to receive it.

"I dunno man. Your words seem a little harsh."

As artists, we have a tendency to believe that the first thing we think of (and indeed EVERY thing we think of) is the best idea anyone's ever had. I've certainly come up with some crap ideas (see; The Worst Burlesque Act I've Ever Done), and some were more obviously crap than others--but the finer point is that it took some hard coaching to get me to the point where I accepted that the aforementioned act was a garbage fire, and I don't know that I would have accepted that conclusion on my own.

The ways we experience rejection in burlesque isn't the same way rejection is doled out in other walks of life. It's fairly straightforward when a hiring manager tells you "you didn't get the job," or when a love interest tells you that she's "not all that into you," but I've found that most of the discord between response and critique in burlesque focuses largely on whether or not you're attractive on stage, and not necessarily on whether or not you executed great choreography or told a truly compelling story. Our audiences and fellow performers frequently tend to focus on whether or not we're "hot" up there, which, if you're a stickler for the technical stuff, can seem extra superficial. So rejection can look like straight up silence, unless you do something aggressively inappropriate.

But we all occasionally tell each other that our performances are "sexy" and "mega-hot," and most of the time that's totally okay to do.

"Please tell me I'm beautiful."

As performers, I think we owe it to ourselves to help each other out with specifics. What I like to do is to pick two or three things that I can say to someone when they leave stage that I loved about their performance;

  • "Hey, I love that your fan dance was just two giant mustaches, it was super clever!" 
  • "That cartwheel into a split right when the theremin solo started was so well-timed!"
  • "Tearing your sleeves off to reveal two tinier, angrier sleeves was choice!"

Alternatively, there are some bits of feedback that are more critical. These are useful to give out (with permission, of course), if the person is looking for a bit more honesty about what didn't work well for you. Bear in mind that while I personally love hearing more corrective comments after a number, most people tend to feel that this works directly against their performance high, which can be a tad soul-shattering. So always make sure it's welcome to say things like these, paraphrased from actual critiques I've given;

  • "Your expression in the beginning was distressed and shameful, like you were a hostage--but I don't know if that was the consistent with the tone of the piece. Was that intentional?"
  • "Your costuming struck me as being racially insensitive. I might avoid using headdresses and kimonos when you do this piece in the future."
  • "I don't think using actual liquids and real knives in your piece was a good idea for safety reasons."
  • "There were one or two dance moves that seemed inconsistent with the mood and music, could you tell me about that part of the choreography?"

Reflexively, this is the kind of stuff I find most helpful. While we ultimately want to be the best performers we can be, the only way to improve is to hear specifically what didn't work, and to parlay those suggestions into conversations about what we can do better.

"This air BJ really worked for me!"

Which brings me to the last part. Often, I find that a shared instinct we have as artists is to explain away criticism. If I know that someone says they are receptive, I'll log my observation with them without ending in a question. Frequently with newer performers, I find that it prompts a (usually lengthy) explanation of why what I mentioned has to stay the same.

I'm not saying that there can't be a reason why something I disagree with should remain in a performance piece--but if it's something that you had to clarify at length to an experienced performer, it probably isn't something that's all that clear to your audience.

So in essence; watch and listen, ask permission to discuss, give thoughtful and meaningful critiques, encourage vigorously, and be receptive when others offer you feedback in return.


Friday, September 23, 2016

"Masculine" Burlesque and Self-Deprecating Humor

I was scrolling through my performer Facebook like I usually do, when I came across a thread posted by fellow performer Dangrrr Doll that caught my attention. Since I love reading about contentious topics and the oft debated "why we do this" ideologies of burlesque performance, I was inspired to write on it myself.

It's no coincidence that Dangrrr, a terrifically accomplished burlesque performer who I occasionally get to share the stage with, habitually critiques the way we present our concepts on stage. I've even featured her on this blog before, so with that in mind, here's the original post;

In the class I teach here in Boston (now in its fourth installment), this is the core concept I build from--masculine movement, masculine character building, masculine stripper moves, masculine kazoo concertos, masculine giraffe husbandry, etc. It's really the only thing I can speak to as an expert, since it's at the heart of every piece I write and perform. And based on the varying levels of comfort of the men I know in burlesque, it's not always a focal point of everyone's act construction, though for my own students, I like it when they take my lead and make it their own.

When I first sat down to talk with Stratton McCrady and Robin of the "Acting Out" project, Robin was surprised to learn that I was a straight male performer doing burlesque. Even though operating on the pretenses that most burlesque performers are queer to some degree (or that any men who perform burlesque MUST be gay) isn't an unsafe bet, it does beg the following question:

"What does a straight man performing burlesque look like?"

I dunno, this?
Photo by Roger Gordy

While straight men aren't a rare commodity in most walks of life, we are somewhat unrepresented in burlesque. I've found that most straight men don't have any idea how to move like a man might, to say nothing of how to break into the burlesque scene in the first place. As I've alluded to before, I learned most of my first striptease movements from Rogue Burlesque founders Dixie Douya and Bustee Keaton, and those movements weren't exactly....masculine.

After a year or two of figuring out what I wanted to change, I decided to spend some time and effort learning how to walk, crawl, posture, and pose myself as a masculine character. And for several years now, I've spent a lot of time watching myself in the mirror and making changes as needed.

But taking it back a little, I've found that men who jump onto a stage to perform instinctively gravitate toward one tendency; self-deprecating parody. It's almost like there's an expectation for a man to get on stage and put himself down to make himself feel accepted by the audience. It's weird, but I understand it. I used to do it a lot.

Like, an uncomfortable amount.
Photo by Stratton McCrady, Acting Out!

If I've learned one thing about teaching men striptease, it's that men don't have a default "sexy" set of movements. If I ask a new guy in my class to walk around and move like a suave, ladies-man type for the purposes of an exercise, he will almost always include a section where he's pantomiming an aggressive rejection (possibly involving getting a drink thrown on him). Selling confidence, success, and attractiveness in movement is terrifying for many men, and I suspect, a huge reason why they might want to take my class in the first place.

I'll give you an example. Sway Bradbury mentioned that "embarrassment/shame is all about maintaining your masculinity in moments of vulnerability; i.e. your pants fall down and you feel shame, portraying your nudity as something you feel negatively towards and understand should be hidden. Whereas in high femme burlesque, what I consider classic burlesque, nudity is something you revel in. That vulnerability isn't embarrassing, it's empowering."

That's real. If a guy is on stage and acting out a scene where his shirt and pants are suddenly missing, he's embarrassed, he's shy, and his first move is to cover it up. That same scene acted out by a woman? She's suddenly the one in control. She's sexy, intense, and using that as her weapon.

I want to say that this has to do with the power dynamic of burlesque and how it contrasts with the power dynamic of a gendered society. Should straight men naturally feel like they need to approach burlesque cautiously, and justify their presence in the space with a few jokes made at their own expense? Maybe that's just the price of entry. But I think there's something else hiding there.

I think it has more to do with the fact that men are raised without the burden of having their sexuality constantly available for consumption, a benefit that women don't have the option of. At every turn, women are expected to be sexy and have a way to market themselves constantly with every choice they make in their waking lives. A lot of women I talk to about burlesque performance use the stage as a way to claim ownership of their sexuality--especially since there's so much unjustified entitlement to it in the outside world, perpetrated by media, industry, and random men on the sidewalk. Since men never have to experience this, they don't know what to do in a situation where the expectation turns to them.

Photo by Ben A Johnson

The result of this is that straight men on stage have to get naturalized to the concept of being objectified. Even after all these years of performing striptease, whenever I get an aggressive compliment from a stranger about my sexiness on stage, my gut tells me to feel flattered. What I don't feel is guarded, defensive, or threatened. I don't think I'll ever understand what it means to be truly objectified, and that vulnerability is something I could never learn or teach.

Straight men aspiring to perform with sexual and vulnerable burlesque on stage require a bigger understanding of this, myself included. It's that knee-jerk answer that I get from every guy that I talk to about potentially jumping on stage to perform burlesque: It's the "I'm not in good enough shape" response which signals that most of us fellas aren't even remotely conscious of what the concept of sexual desirability is for a male-facing audience--which would explain why gay male performers have a better understanding of the concept. We straight guys instinctively assume that we just have to be hot and show up, and only then can we perceive the ironic vulnerability of what it means to be objectified.

Or, barring that, we could make intentional fools of ourselves to garner favor from the audience. Comparatively, that certainly does seem like a less scary option.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Ember Flynne: "The Business of Stage Names"

I have another guest writer on Throwing Stones this week, who is a supremely talented fire spinner, aerial acrobat, and business person whom I've worked with quite a lot. Although I've touched on the importance of stage names a while back, I didn't really flesh out the issues of safety and accessibility that are part and parcel with this practice.

So I invited Ember Flynne to share those with me.

Ember Flynne - Fire Goddess

My name is Ember—well, not really, but we’ll get to that in a second—and I’m a traveling circus performer based in Boston.

Some years ago, I found out that my entire family was cyberstalking me.

“Google, you know, the search engine,” my mother explained, “I just type in your name and…”

“Mom I know what it is.  But WHY are you Googling me?”

“Just to see what you’re up to,” she said, matter-of-factly.

My parents and I have never been that close, but this was a new low.  Google is for checking that your blind date isn’t an axe murderer, not sating your curiosity about what your twenty-something daughter is doing in her spare time.  It felt weirdly invasive.  Why not just pick up the phone and—gasp—call me?

“Oh don’t get all bent out of shape,” my mom said when I told her as much, “Everybody does it.  Richard Googles his kids all the time.  Your grandmother Googles you; it’s completely normal.”

I’ve always been aware that information about my life could be broadcast to the entire planet without my permission (excepting, perhaps, China), but I still find it unnatural that anyone I know would feel compelled to search for it.  That my sprawling Midwestern family also thinks it’s appropriate to dissect their discoveries with random friends and co-workers is boggling.  It’s one thing to be searchable.  It’s another to know that my actual grandma looks me up out of sheer boredom, forms opinions that she never intends to contextualize in person, and spreads them to everyone she knows. That my objections are continually framed as MY problem is just the icing on an exceedingly un-fun cake.

When I settled on a stage name, it was to escape a certain nebulous scrutiny that kept me from feeling free to experiment, fail, perform acts of a subversive or sexual nature, and build my reputation on my own terms.  There are lots of other reasons a performer might choose to use a stage name, but what’s important is that there are ALWAYS reasons, and it’s crucial to respect them.

A stage name is a second name used in performance settings, whether in person or in print, that may or may not be associated with a separate stage persona.  While some performers are pretty loose with their expectations, it never hurts to assume a strict separation between a performer’s stage life and the life attached to their legal name.  Treat them like they belong to two different people.

Confusing?  Sometimes, but rest assured, we don’t do this just to frustrate you.

For many performers, stage names are actually an important personal safety measure.  Anyone who appears in front of an audience commands a great deal of attention from a great many people. Combine that with the fact that it’s a performer’s job to look great and create a connection with their fans, and you have a situation that frequently results in unwanted advances from creepy people with nothing better to do. Usually they’re audience members or photographers, but sometimes they’re even clients or unfamiliar booking agents.

"Hey, gimme your name so I can harass you."

My legal name happens to be unique, so Google isn’t going to make it difficult if some stalker with half a brain wants to find out where I live.  Deflecting unwanted attention onto a pseudonym is a decent way to keep my personal information private from all but the most determined of creeps.
If a performer is working under a stage name, always assume that they are trying to keep themselves safe.  Using their legal name in connection with their stage name (especially online) could put them in danger by dismantling a layer of protection that they have worked hard to establish.

A similar concern is job security.  Not everyone can work the stage full-time, so many entertainers maintain other sources of income.  For some, it’s a way to stay afloat when they’re first starting out. For others, it’s a way to support themselves and their families during the off season, acquire health insurance, or maintain a safety net.  Still others have day jobs just because they like them.

Performers who are otherwise proud of what they do may not want to tell their co-workers that they’re a drag queen, or that they routinely light stuff on fire and swing it around.  Some bosses would be cool with that.  Others, not so much.

Even in a city as open-minded as Boston, certain industries remain warped bastions of conservatism. Sexualized performance of any kind is essentially grounds for dismissal from most childcare, teaching, and law enforcement positions, and anyone discovered dancing around in pasties on the Internet can hardly hope to be taken seriously as a doctor, lawyer, or scientist (though let it be said that I’ve seen all of the above on the Oberon stage).

"Yes, we are a full-time Batman and Commissioner, but also
part-time strippers. Keep that last part quiet."

Sometimes it’s not even an employer, but an employee or landlord that’s the problem.  It doesn’t matter.  In all cases, stage names offer a significant shield from casual Google searches and help to maintain a performer’s reputation in relation to others with influence over their lives.

There’s also sheer politeness to consider.  Some folks simply don’t prefer to see a parade of half-naked people prancing all over their Facebook feed, so prudent performers may set up separate names and social media accounts with which to participate in different social groups.  It’s a solution that makes it easy to keep in touch with a five-year-old niece AND maintain contacts in the burlesque or fetish scenes without fear of cross-over.

Finally, there’s a whole host of personal reasons that can affect a performer’s decision to go by another name.  Perhaps they feel that their legal name is inconsistent with their chosen gender or lifestyle, or they wish to use performance as an outlet for forms of expression that would not be acceptable in other parts of their life.

Stage names also help performers to build a brand based on whatever qualities they think are important to their art.

When I first started out, I performed a bit and attended industry events under my legal name.  I met a lot of people that way, but once I became Ember I completely shifted to that identity for work.

A few years later, after Ember Flynne had become somewhat more established (and more interesting on the Internet) I started to notice something disturbing.  People I’d met once or twice were walking up to me in performance settings and pointedly addressing me by my legal name, particularly if I was engaged in conversation.  They always spoke as loudly as possible and hugged for an inappropriately long time.

I struggled to understand what was going on.  It’s not that they didn’t know my stage name or couldn’t remember it—in fact, the majority of these people were far more familiar with Ember (albeit via Facebook) than they ever were with my legal name.  They followed Ember online, liked my photos, and commented as if we were the best of friends, when in reality we had barely crossed paths.*  My real friends all know to call me by Ember when I’m working, and while they’ll occasionally slip up, those occasions are incredibly few and far between.

And then one day, it hit me.  The randos were showing off.

To address me by my real name in front of a group of people was to assert that they knew something about me that those other people did not—that they knew the “real” me, which implies, by extension, a closer relationship and perhaps even a degree of influence.

I immediately called up my 3-in-1 manager / emergency contact / ex-lover and ranted about it.  Who the hell did these people think they were, walking around and showing off at my expense?  And what’s more, who did they think I was?  Should I be flattered or enraged?

Editor's note; I know which one I would gravitate towards.

“Dude,” I remember saying, “I’m legit not famous enough to have these problems.”

These days, I respond to exactly that scenario my adopting a look of bewilderment and saying, “um…who’s that?  I think you’re confusing me with someone else?”  Sure, it’s passive-aggressive, but I’ve found that the best way to keep people from using me to try to boost their own social status is to show them it will backfire.

I actually say the same thing to friends who slip up, but I do it with a smile.  After all, people aren’t perfect.

For the record, if you’re not sure what a performer is going by in a particular setting, you can just ask them.  “How should I introduce you?” is always a polite question, and encompasses not only a name but the performer’s preferred gender and any other details they see fit to give.

Stage names are a small thing, but they have big implications for performers’ well-being.  If you use one, we’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

*Let it be said that many fans and followers do form real, meaningful relationships with performers online.  That’s completely legit, and I’m not referring to those people.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Person About Town with Kenice Mobley!

Good morning!

I'm not writing a full-length post today, but I wanted to share with you a podcast that I was featured on recently with one of my favorite local comedians, Kenice Mobley.

In the Boston burlesque world, there's a lot of crossover with comedy, sideshow, and circus, which affords me the opportunity to meet lots of people who are amazing performers in other disciplines. Kenice asked me to be her interview subject for Person About Town, which is a fun, informal sit-down interview show where she conducts interviews with different people at their favorite Boston hangouts.

In the episode, we talked a lot about male burlesque; points of distinction, highlights, pet peeves, accidentally punching other performers in the face, costuming, that one time each of us were in a strip club, and why the tofu at Christopher's is the bomb.

I'd be happy if you took a few minutes to listen in!