Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Group Dynamic

One of the things I noticed that Boston does differently with burlesque than most other cities is the way it presents its performers. With the exception of two other groups at NYC Boylesque Fest, Sirlesque was represented as a group as opposed to its individual participants. This is an issue that comes up time and again, with a few schools of thought on what is more effective as a marketing device, and who stands to gain the most.

While I believe this was to my own benefit (and the benefit of Sirlesque), I can't help but wonder how effectively a group's individuals retain their own performer identities in these scenarios. While in NYC with Sirlesque, it was simply easier to identify myself as "one of the Sirs" or "a Sirlesque member" because my individual performer identity wasn't on the radar of people outside of my four-hour performance radius.

It doesn't bother me at all, considering Boston is pretty unique in that way. Most of the burlesque and circus performers here are unionized in a sense, and are typically booked within their group's respective productions (e.g. all of Sirlesque's members perform in Masculinitease and Geek Peek, all of the Slaughterhouse Sweethearts perform in A Dark Knight and Revenge of the Robot Battle Nuns).

And sometimes, everyone you've ever performed with happens to be in the same show.

Other groups in Boston are the Lipstick Criminals, Sparkletown Productions, The Bloodstains, All the Rest Burlesque, The Boston Babydolls, and of course, our sister troop Rogue Burlesque. Sure, there are individual performers going at it their way, but most of the performers within the city limits are a part of one or more of these individual groups. In Boston, there are rarely exceptions to this.

So in the interests of how to burlesque better going forward, should I pursue more individual bookings, or do I focus more on the Sirlesque brand and building more quality productions?

Some folks will try to drag you away from your group to be in other things. Trust me.

While each group has enough pull to draw its own crowd by simply being listed on a flyer, there are consequences to involving other troops and individual performers from outside the group. If I'm listed as a guest performer, does that mean my fans will come to a show that they might not have been to otherwise? If Sirlesque is given credit and billing on someone else's show, does that mean that all six of us should assume we have a degree of creative say on the content that gets produced?

If I were to really roll up my sleeves and get into it, I'd tell you that groups can quickly become petri dishes of unkempt drama. Once you get on stage enough times and begin to see the  kind of attention you can get fairly regularly, you tend to think more highly of yourself. Where this gets problematic is when the sliding scale moves away from gratitude and more towards entitlement. You might recognize this as the "I should have at least 3 straight strips in our upcoming show" type, or the "I'm going to cast myself in every role" kind of attitude, with a rapid estrangement from "guys, I still can't believe that people pay to come see me take my clothes off in public."

Inevitably, egos will clash. It may not resemble a spectacle like Oasis or The Who getting into an on-stage fistfight, but it can easily devolve into passive-aggressive bullshit behind the scenes. Casting snubs, over-heading someone else on an issue, performers refusing to work specifically with other performers, people blowing off rehearsals or commitments, dissent on act plot points, over-sensitivity to criticism, being overly critical towards others, and gossiping are all things I've played host to both inside and outside of my group. Because of my own tendency to be self-sacrificing and introspective as a person, I've often had to moderate these issues. I've had some success and learned a few things about drama management. But then, I've also failed miserably.

...which often results in the sexiest argument you can imagine being a part of.

In different cities and countries (and NYC especially), it seems like individual performers are the most successful in cultivating their own recurring business. With over 500 individual contractors who are burlesque performers in that area (thanks to Anja Keister for providing that stat), there seems to be plenty of work to bounce around to. Since Sirlesque is an LLC, the finances have to be regarded as a group endeavor, with those of us who book more than the others ultimately contributing more to the fund that keeps the group going. With that said, Sirlesque is a brand name and a powerful enough one that people come out in droves to see a show with our name on it--we're pretty fortunate in that regard, and are financial self-sustaining through two major shows every year. A question I often ask myself is "If I were to produce a show with just my name on it, would it still get that kind of attention?"

Would the kind of drama that might be involved in that undertaking be worth the effort?

What I've found is that group-produced shows give performers a chance to show their expertise and performance ability, and eventually get them bookings on an individual basis. Looking back at my own history, this is something that used to only happen sporadically, but is now happening often enough that scheduling skills have become a necessity. While it's a great benefit to both my ego and my performance resume, I have to constantly remind myself that people book other people who they like working with, and not necessarily the best performer.
"I'm great, and you're a nerd! Ha ha! Seriously, can I be in your show?"
One of my best friends in the world recently told me he didn't want to do burlesque performance anymore, and the primary reason was because it's not something he still has fun doing. Sadly, the drama that comes from other people taking themselves too seriously, from engaging in relationships with other people in the same performance circle, and frequently butting heads with other performers who end up becoming creative rivals are all things that muddy the waters in the pool. Sometimes, the only way to take control of your life in any meaningful way is to decide where to draw the line and then disengage completely. While I'm sad to see him leave, I respect his decision.

I have to thank Ricky Lime for helping me to get myself on stage in a burlesque capacity five years ago. It led to all of this nonsense you see under the Dale Stones umbrella, and being minus one on the Sirlesque roster (especially being one of the most creative and talented performers I've ever met) is going to mean a tough road ahead. This all keeps me thinking about what the future of Sirlesque has in store.

So I think that at some point, we'll be having open auditions. I'd like to have a couple extra dancers and a full-time MC, so keep your ears to the ground about that. Of course, there are a couple other concerns I have about filling a group lineup with more staff(s), but I would be curious as to what you see the advantages and disadvantages are. Is it "The more the merrier" with group numbers, or is it just an additional risk of added drama and schedule synchronization? Is it best to have guest performers on a permanent basis and not give insider responsibilities to solo performers?

Leave me a comment and help me make that decision. Group wisdom, activate!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Embracing "Full-Time Artistry"

Due in large part to my having a month's worth of down time between jobs, I've been spending a lot of time I'd normally be spending in an office with other performers. Naturally, the topic of working as a full-time burlesquer has come up, usually when I've mentioned suddenly being available to rehearse during mid-day. I've noticed many of my fellow burlesque performers express the intent to move towards performing as their full-time occupation, and I'd be remiss if I didn't express some kind of curiosity as to how that decision comes to fruition. On top of that, I was also curious as to how that functions as an autonomous lifestyle--especially since there really isn't a "top tier" of burlesque performance.

Let me clarify what I mean. If you're a great singer, actor, writer, musician, shock jock, athlete, flea circus ringleader, lightning juggler, painter, or comedian, there's an industry and an infrastructure there to make sure you have the opportunity to get famous and rich using your particular skill set. Burlesque doesn't really have that. The highest tier in the business is pretty readily accessible if you know how to network. Add to that, making a solid career out of performance where your bread and butter gigs will never be in 45,000 seat arenas inevitably means that it's destined to be a long, financially mediocre struggle, though not without its merits. When one of my fellow performers makes the decision that he or she wants to make a career out of burlesque, I reckon there is a lot of thought that has to be involved in the decision, since most high-level gigs are rarely more than 3-digit paychecks.

I've asked some pointed questions of three of my favorite performers who are either contemplating making the transition to full-time, have recently done it and returned to part-time, or who have been doing it as their main gig with no end in sight, and they were each kind enough to give me some thoughtful commentary. I spoke with Fem Bones of the Slaughterhouse Sweethearts, Luminous Pariah of Mod Carousel, and Dangrrr Doll (of RAWR Burlesque), three performers I admire and respect.

...is this thing on?

First question; "Why? Also, how are you?"

Fem - "The frustration of not doing my best due to all my energy going into what I can only view as a gigantic time waster(day job). Whats the point of having a passion when you are too tired to chase it with all you got?"

Dangrrr - "I'm good! I went to college hoping I would become an editor at a publishing house or something, and then the recession hit. It made it impossible for me to use my degree. For a month I worked at a firm that designed museums, and all the employees wore t shirts and jeans but as the secretary, I had to wear a full suit every day, with my hair back in a bun. And if any of my hair was frizzy, I would get yelled at. I wasn't allowed to wear makeup. But during that job was when I started taking commissions, and I decided I could, and would quit for good!"

Luminous - "My goal was to become a theater actor, but I shortly after decided I wanted to be an environmental scientist. In a 'break" from school, I discovered burlesque and had to know more. I began attending shows obsessively; learning through watching, and of course meeting performers. Ultra took me under his wing and also sent me to Seattle's academy of Burlesque where I was "spotted" at my recital. After that, Waxie Moon gave me several large opportunities for artistic experimentation and exposure (pun intended). The more professional performers that I met, the more I began to wonder why I was slinging espresso at 6am when this tribe of people I so clearly belonged to was beckoning me to join the glittery side."

Luminous Pariah

Second question; "Did you have a short term or long term plan?"

Dangrrr - "Costuming wise: I want to stop taking commissions and I want to create an actual readywear high end lingerie line, with employees and all. In regards to burlesque. You just have to be willing to take that risk to potentially be very very poor or very very stressed for a while, as you get on your feet."

Luminous - "I made the leap of faith to give up my day job in 2011. I had a full business plan, that I had set in motion before letting go of my day-job."

Fem - "See what is possible when using the eight hours a day that would be wasted, and use it strictly for art purposes. See if having my natural sleep pattern(4am-12) would help my energy, and productivity levels. 20 years from now I expect to have evolved into a completely different creature."

Third question; "How's the lifestyle? Pros and cons?"

Dangrrr - "Well, I just have to be really careful about my expenditures. I can't afford as much in rent as other people maybe can, I have to limit my leisure spending. But I do pretty good actually, somehow I manage not to be starving even with crazy NYC expenses. I just keep really good track of my finances."

Fem - "I've been booking a few more gigs, but frankly, I don't find a TON of Boston burlesque work lately, and out of town is expensive. I'm still pushing, but the fact is producing is where I make the more income. With more time on my hands potentially equaling more events for me to produce..... That could POTENTIALLY actually work as a long term situation. I've also thought about teaching some classes..... But I'm juggling a lot right now as is."

Luminous - "The best part of self-employment was the pure autonomy. It was wonderful to move around the globe as I pleased. On the flip side; it was quite difficult to manage the number of micro duties and events that I needed to take part in to keep an income flow. Not being able to budget at all was very frustrating and at times terrifying."

Question for Luminous; "Why did you go back to non-performance for an income, and what would you tell other performers who are planning to go full-time?"

Luminous - "Performance is still my main focus, but I've relieved a lot of stress in my life by paying rent through a day-job. I find myself taking gigs because I'm interested in them, rather than because I need them to pay my bills. Less stress has actually freed my creativity a lot too. I think I'm actually being booked more now than I ever have been before - which is funny. I also love being able to recycle my income from performing directly back into costumes and production."

Question for Dangrrr; "What are the next big professional steps for you as a full time artist?"

Dangrrr - "I am honestly thinking of either going back to school, or getting another job, just because I need to stop taking commissions in order to get the line started- and I need startup capital, too."

Dangrrr Doll

Question for Fem; "You had mentioned to me at one point that your day job was 'a waste of time' but I am curious whether or not your non-performance work had any value to you prior to swearing it off for good. Did it?"

Fem - "It made me value the opportunity I have to make art versus a life without it, and community. It reminded me to respect others, and their unknown situations, even if my customers did not. It also gave me the bitterness, and spite to do what I can to never have to go back."

Fem Bones

My own thoughts;

Among all this, I like to think I know myself. I don't think I would ever want to take on performance as a full time engagement, specifically because I don't think my creative drive will ever overtake my desire to be financially consistent. I know that there were a few gigs that I've taken as a means of keeping money coming in that would not take again if I didn't have to--gigs that many of my full-time-performer friends depend on. I know that I don't have a supplementary way of earning consistent income, and I don't produce enough shows to give me a big enough regular paycheck.

I suppose my own loyalty is to having a good work-life balance. I figured that if I don't see any one obligation as too important, I might be able to keep myself well-rounded and attentive to the greatest needs I have as they arise. Yeah, that sounds profound. I'll go with that.

"In fact, I think I'll even get two friends to help me rub one out to
my own philosophizing."
But I salute my friends and fellow performers who do, because it's not easy. And I do think that in addition to the strong performance skills and required business acumen, there's a required level of self-awareness. I'd love to hear from you about your own pursuits into full-time artistry, feel free to comment or message--and thank you again for reading.