Monday, April 27, 2015

Overbooking vs. A Full Schedule

One of the dilemmas I'm constantly facing as a performer is balancing my time. Anybody who knows me can tell you how terrible I am at organizing my calendar and keeping tabs on my responsibilities. I'm overly grateful to be given enough opportunities to keep returning to the stage to perform, but each time I get an offer, I'm always plagued with this ominous feeling of "wait...what am I forgetting about?"

I don't usually expect nor do I get sympathy for this as often as I hear "go buy a calendar." I suspect that ironing out the kinks surrounding how I interact with the iPhone's calendar app isn't the only part of the problem, but rather that people who are less mindful have a hard time recalling everything they've agreed to be a part of. People who are naturally organized have this ability, and I am not one of these people.

The true complication of it isn't that I don't remember all the bookings I accepted--I can write those down, plug dates into my calendar, and casually discuss details about those performances in conversations with other performers involved in those projects. The problem comes when I book myself on top of things in my personal life that aren't business-y engagements. Like lunch with a friend, or a date with Chip.

And I don't always get to "two-birds-one-Stones" those engagements.

In one hand, I'll have an awesome opportunity to perform and accomplish something significant for myself, and in the other hand I might have the welfare of a personal relationship.

In this way, the art of burlesque--a hobby and community which brings me so much joy and fulfillment--sometimes becomes a painful dilemma. On a few such occasions, I've committed to a business deal where I'm exchanging a service for an agreed rate, and weighed that against having to cancel dinner plans with Chip for the third time this month. In these instances, neither choice feels entirely like the right one.

Further compounded by turning down taco pizza...has that ever been the correct choice?

I'm not really sure how to become more mindful in these circumstances. Either one carries with it the penalty of appearing unreliable. I know that as a producer, I'm far less likely to book someone who has a history of being flaky. I know I wouldn't invest a lot of time and effort into being friends with someone who routinely blows me off.

Often enough, a burlesque friend will say to me "you know, we really need to hang out more when we're not performing." This statement is kind of doubly confusing to me, because I sort of look at performing as a chance to hang out with people I love the company of. Even when I do get to hang out with burlesque friends offstage, the conversations routinely circle back to performing, performance concepts and ideas, and what substance will be poured over which of us during the next burlesque performance we'll both be in. The two circles merge pretty easily in my experience.

But in dwelling on that, I was able to identify another fault of mine that is currently in the triage phase.

I agreed to go on a relaxing vacation with my non-burlesque-involved girlfriend Chip in June, and we had a conversation about what day we were planning on leaving and coming back. She suggested there might be an overlap between that week and a show I had tentatively planned on being in, and without thinking about it or asking what would work better for both of our schedules, I said "I'll just meet up with you at the vacation spot the next day after doing the show."

It became a conflict in that moment because I have been booking a lot of shows, and they're more frequently starting to take me out of Boston. Being booked for the next several weekends in the coming months is something that has the potential to put a lot of strain on my relationship, especially since I'm dating someone who is not a burlesque performer.

In that conversation, my knee-jerk reaction was to make the show day work, and the attention from that weekend's crowd of burlesque fans and fellow performers trumped the attention I'd be getting and giving from someone I care a lot about, and I didn't even give it a moment's thought.

"Hey, weren't you supposed to be on stage 10 minutes ago?"

Some background here: where possible, Chip dutifully attends every show I'm in without hesitation. So it's not like she isn't otherwise above-and-beyond supportive of my art. In that regard, I would have been encroaching on plans she had made and inserting another "hey, look at me" moment into my calendar.

I realized then what the performance lifestyle taught me about myself. As performers, we all love the attention we get. Personally, I try to remain humble about stage stuff and make sure I'm keeping my performer's ego in check, but deep down, I really do love being recognized for my contributions to the discipline of burlesque. I love being recognized, and I love being told I did something well, or created something memorable. I try not to show it, but I get schoolboy-level giddy when I see the performance photos and comments buzzing all over Facebook about last night's amazing show. I feel like performing is a kind of free therapy that I'm stealing, and it's an absolutely self-centered motivation that makes me keep returning to it.

So naturally, I do want to get back on stage as often as possible. It's easy to get sucked into the performance world entirely, and it's a rush knowing that people are eating up what you're serving. But I have to remind myself that validation has many forms, and that it's important not to neglect every other source of it when one creative or professional outlet is doing well. Certainly, the temptation exists on Monday morning to half-ass my efforts at work because "Oh man, that show was so amazing and none of my clients would ever make me feel as personally fulfilled as my audience did AND HEY LOOK IT'S LUNCH TIME KTHXBAI."

"You know what? Just forward my emails to the trash folder and set my phone to 'detonate.'"

So really, I suppose I need to explore what makes me fulfilled in all its forms and find a balance in scheduling that translates into a well-rounded, meaningful life. Sounds easy enough.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The worst burlesque act I've ever done

While I always try to be positive about what I write, I thought it would be interesting to single out the worst burlesque act I ever did as a way to reflect. I wanted to write down everything I learned, and to remind myself about some basic fundamentals of act-writing all of which I completely overlooked that one embarrassing time. Then, I figure I can glance it over while I'm in the creative process the next time I'm wrestling with writer's block, and re-learn how to not suck. Seriously, it was a bad frigging act.

The gist of it was that I had created this Russian soldier who I think was supposed to be guarding the border of Siberia. I had a full, long coat, and one of those fuzzy Russian hats, and really just had a ton of gimmicks that I carried out, all while set to some up-tempo techno song pulled straight out of the discount bin that someone else picked out for me. I think what happened was I just executed a long list of offensive stereotypes in costume, and while I had plenty of enthusiasm behind the individual movements within, the act overall made everyone pointlessly uncomfortable.

I'm on the right. That is indeed shame on my face.

The act ended up getting cut out of the last two nights of a four-night engagement, and looking back, I'm truly glad that happened. In the act, I pantomimed heavy drinking as a way to propel the story along, I played Russian Roulette in my underwear, and finished the act getting caught with my pants down (literally) as invading forces ruined my moment of vulnerability while alarms and gunshots went off in the background. Because I didn't really have any sort of previous inspiration for creating this monstrosity, I took any and every idea offered and cobbled all of them together into a performance which really didn't feel polished or rehearsed. And I think I was going for funny when none of it was.

That, and a litany of other mistakes.

1 - I relied heavily on props and gimmicks.
As an early burlesquer, I learned that creating an act required there to be a reason for getting naked. This is not necessarily a requirement, as removing the reason creates a different kind of act, known as a "straight strip." Since my only other solo act until that point had been me in a sandwich board collecting signatures, I was determined to do something comedic and theatrical, but all I kept thinking was "what other items can I introduce to fill in the time?" This was a huge pitfall, as it would have been a much better act if I had simply allowed myself to do a sexy, simple, striptease.

2 - I let other people decide key parts of the routine.
I needed help creating this act, and I reached out to anyone who would help me. While not normally a bad thing to ask for help, I was entirely uninspired--I would have been better off declining to perform than to put up something I didn't feel was my own. A fellow performer picked out my song, a woman I was dating chose the theme, and suggestions about my costume came from all over. Since other performers are inspired by different things, there's no way of telling whether or not someone else could have taken this kind of act in a better direction. I'm betting anybody else could have, as I didn't even have the confidence to sell it.

3 - I didn't workshop it effectively, and I didn't allow it to be critiqued.
I ran the act for a few people, and they mostly reported confusion. This was certainly a red flag, and they had told me to omit a handful of things which didn't make sense. I cut out the part where I took a shoe off and banged it on the ground angrily at nobody in particular, and a segment featuring me doing I-don't-remember-what to a set of nesting dolls. I'm actually glad I cut those bits out, because the rest of the stuff I didn't do (such as pick a better song, cut over-utilized dance moves, and remember that it was supposed to be a striptease), and it was kind of like cutting moldy pieces off of a fruit that really should have been thrown out.

Seriously, I would have made better use of my stage time if I had just repeatedly punched myself in the face for 4 1/2 minutes.

...or had someone else do it.

But I'm glad I did the act. If it weren't for me hearing the reluctant applause, the feedback from the producers, and the decision to ultimately cut the act from the rest of the run, I wouldn't have gone back to the drawing board with such determination. I decided later that week that I needed to make an honest decision--I needed to figure out if burlesque was something I really wanted to continue with.

At the end of it, I decided that I was going to keep performing--but under a few conditions. First of all, I wanted to create acts that were truly mine, scenes that I could be inspired by. Secondly, I wanted to cut out anything superfluous that didn't fit with the acts I wanted to create. Last, I wanted to make sure I rehearsed as much as I could reasonably rehearse, and in front of a variety of fellow performers for the critiques they could offer me.

Also, I decided that I never wanted to get on a stage impaired.

No matter how spectacular the bender turns out.

Looking back through my first year of performance in burlesque, I realized that I had been coasting. I was passively making the decision to get on stage, and although it still scared the hell out of me each time, I had discarded that feeling time and time again because I was too uncertain of myself to have the courage to embrace it.

At a show the Sirs and I had done with Rogue Burlesque three or four years back, the adrenaline I had was cancelling out the alcohol I'd been drinking. So I drank past the point I should have. I got on stage for the finale, an although I believe it went well overall, I went straight to blackout when the show was over. I don't remember anything past being on stage, and a group viewing of the film the week after the show was pretty embarrassing. My fellow performers were nervously telling me in a half-serious tone that I needed to not be drinking when performing, and I knew they were right. So I never did again.

I took myself through the creative process from the pen-and-paper stage all the way to the nervous jitters before the next show, all the while following through on my new method. I brought that new solo act to the stage, one which allowed me to pay strict attention to the fundamentals of striptease. I kept it painfully simple, focused on what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. That act was called "Dapper Dale," and as of today, it's the most requested act in my repertoire.

"Dapper Dale"
When I debuted that act, I met another performer in the crowd who I hadn't had the chance to meet before. Belle Guns told me that was the first male burlesque straight strip she'd ever seen, and that she absolutely loved how sexy and dignified it was. She and I are still friends, and I look up to her as a performer and as a fellow blogger--I credit her and The Rambling Onesie as the biggest influence for me creating my own burlesque blog. I think you should check it out.

The big takeaway from all this for me was that I needed to experience the failure of what I created in order to eventually realize what it was I wanted from burlesque performance. I wanted to figure out what worked and what didn't and why. I still see myself as being on that journey, and I feel like I'm only getting better at creating enjoyable content for the people that buy tickets and support this crazy dream.

I've also learned to feel great about hearing critiques. You definitely don't get better without people telling you what just ain't working, and I'm very thankful for that.

Belle Guns and I.