Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?!

The news story Brandy Wine shared recently on social media about a Hopewell teacher who had a burlesque performance video surface left me with quite a few thoughts. The gist of it is that a Hopeville, Virginia teacher (and burlesque performer, which is now apparent) had a performance video that got around to several people in the community. Many parents of students in her classes are now calling for this teacher's resignation.

The first thing that came to mind when considering this story is that this is the type of story that would immediately make any burlesque performer defensive. And why not? Whenever someone who practices an oft-misrepresented discipline and sees someone take offense to what they're doing, the easiest and most natural reaction is "Hey, what's wrong with I do?"

" want all the complaints, or just the top five?"

While the temptation certainly exists for me to jump to the performer's defense, I instead took a minute to empathize with the parents of the children at that school. Note that I didn't say I agreed with them. Should she be forced to resign? No, not at all. From a legal standpoint, she probably won't have to. So that may not even be an issue worth discussing.

My empathy for the parents is the same thing I feel towards most people who are new to burlesque. I see in those parents people like my aunt, who is aware that I do some kind of striptease, but doesn't quite approve of what she thinks it is I'm doing, and is too afraid to ask about. I feel for them in the same way I feel for my partner's mother, who doesn't know quite how she feels about her daughter dating someone who is "in the sex trade." I'm armed with the same understanding that I have whenever other men tell me "I could never do that" when referring to my burlesque performances.

Sometimes, even I have trouble justifying what I'm doing.

And is burlesque performance appropriate for kids? Absolutely not. The reason why most burlesque shows take place at venues that are either 18+ or 21+ is because striptease is something that is not child-friendly. So in many ways, I understand the hair-trigger outrage.

If the performer in question had nothing to do with the YouTube distribution of that performance video, then my heart goes out to her. When someone publishes something (especially without permission), it has the potential to be damaging. The fact that students and members of the Hopewell community were able to link this person to her burlesque persona would only have been an expedited consequence if she had released the video herself. And YouTube doesn't do a whole lot to keep people who are under 18 from seeing things that they shouldn't see.

So if she didn't authorize the release of that video, then it's truly unfortunate what's happened, and I don't believe she deserves any of the backlash she's getting. If she did? Then I believe that with social media being the way it is, she had to have some idea that it would come back to her--and to have prepared for any fallout in advance from the parents of her students, who we can only expect to be less-then-understanding. Does that make her avenue of expression wrong or immoral? Of course not. But since when is challenging perceptions and pushing envelopes ever met with complete acceptance and understanding?

It's far more likely to be met with hostility.

I have accepted the consequences for being a part of the burlesque world in tandem with the life I live above-ground. My own risk is fairly minimal, as I'm not a public servant or authority figure. But if I was, and this situation was my own, I'd dig my heels in. I'd use it as an opportunity to educate, and I would certainly apologize for the fact that students of mine had seen this video. I would make sure the URL was removed and/or made private, and I would offer to meet up with parents individually to discuss concerns and answer questions. I wouldn't minimize their objections, nor would I admit wrongdoing.

After all, every burlesque performer is an educator by default, and we are each challenged with what the public thinks of us every day. Why is this any different?

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Decision to Crowdfund A Burlesque Show

Everyone has to decide their own standards. You have to decide what your art is worth, who you're willing and unwilling to work with, and what subject matter you won't touch. I'm generally pretty fluid about what I'll allow and do, but there's something in particular that I've seen a lot of in the last year in the burlesque community in particular, and I feel very strongly about my stance on it.

I will never ask people to crowdfund my burlesque.

I know this is going to be a divisive point, so I'm going to be dramatic and start a new paragraph. The cornerstone of my argument is that I don't feel that my audience or society in general owes me anything to see what I'll create next. Self-promotion is one thing, and fans can certainly chose to follow you if they are a fan of yours. I don't object to that, as it's voluntary and doesn't cost anything. You can certainly argue that contributing to an artist's GoFundMe or Kickstarter is voluntary, but the principles differ; Once you take their money, you have a responsibility to give them a good art/performance/product, and I firmly believe that people should only pay once to have to do that.

Of course, many people disagree with me.

I can understand the need reach out to financial supporters. If artists didn't do that, we wouldn't have had The Renaissance. When I say that I wouldn't ask for anything I produce to be crowdfunded, you might interpret that as "his opinion of his own work isn't strong." You would be right, to an extent. As far as burlesque goes, I see it as a low-cost, low-risk art form. Much like my journalism degree, I don't feel that expanding on my burlesque performance via an influx of dubiously-sourced cash is something that will yield any appreciable outcome. Besides, I feel that the gritty, approachable, sometimes rude demeanor that typifies many of my favorite burlesque performances is so far removed from high-budget spectacle that a budget boost would only serve to alienate my audience.

Still, I wanted to know where the other side sits. I spoke with Jade Sylvan, who is one of the producers of "Spider Cult: The Musical," slated to launch in 2016. This show is a spin-off of one of the shows I enjoyed being a part of for three years, "Revenge of the Robot Battle Nuns." They recently did a Kickstarter to get funding for Spider Cult, so Jade's perspective is local to the issue.

Photo credit: Caleb Cole

Dale Stones: "Okay. How do you feel about crowd funding in general?"

Jade Sylvan: "It used to gross me out when I was younger, but honestly I wouldn't have been able to do many of the projects I've done over the last five years without it. I had to get over my ego of thinking I was "too good" for crowdfunding and put the project first."

DS: "What changed your mind? Anything specific?"

JS: "Literally, not having the money to bring what I loved into creation. For instance, with Spider Cult, we knew we wanted to bring it up to the next level production-wise from what people in our community are used to doing. To do that, we needed money that we literally didn't have, because shows performed at a certain level will only generate income to sustain that level, even if they're very successful. You need a boost to grow. Businesses have bank loans. We have crowdfunding."

DS: "So how do you justify what projects should ask for prefunding?"

JS: "It's sort of an intersection of (1.) how much I (and others) believe in the project, and (2.) necessity. If there is any other way other than crowdfunding, I will generally take that route to get something made. On the other side, if it's a project that is strictly a vanity project that I don't expect or see others having any interest in, I will not crowdfund for that. That's where the responsibility comes in. When you involve others, you are responsible to them to some degree."

DS: "Do you feel that the effort is sullied a bit by other artist or people who ask for money who maybe don't have the same discretion or standards you had? Like the potato salad fund guy?"

JS: "With Spider Cult it was part of the discussion from the beginning, when we realized how big we wanted this to be. Basically, we decided we could do it on a shoe string and have a shoe string show, or we could see if enough people cared about it to bring it up a level and get involved."

DS: "What's the goal, once you have the money? I mean, having funding is all well and good, but what's the expectation that people should have for what they purchased?"

JS: "In this case, it's a show that looks and feels like it had a budget. {wink emoticon} More than that, though, a big goal is to give the members of our community a chance to showcase their abilities at the production level I think they deserve."

DS: "Like, more marketing, vocal coaching, paying them more, what are the interim goals? If that's not classified information, of course."

JS: "All of the above. More budget to spend on training, costumes, special effects, original music, payment for actors, marketing etc"

DS: "Maybe even a bigger venue?"

JS: "Possibly in the future, but we wrote the play for Oberon."

DS: "Thank you!"

I believe that Spider Cult: The Musical has only the noblest of intentions. I loved being a part of the original production that this project has spun off of, and I enjoy supporting the arts as an attendee when I'm not the one performing. Community support is incredibly valuable, after all. For many people, acquiring the funding to put on a show is the most humbling part of the process, and is something that is made easier through anonymity, or at the very least, from behind the internet curtain.

But I also believe that a big part of being a burlesque artist is taking risks, especially financial ones. If a faceless crowd is assuming that initial risk for you, your performance-based risk-taking and creativity aren't going to be at their highest. You're safe, after all. If people pay for your venture (which is different than an investment, because that money is owed back) and have to settle for whatever you decide to provide them to tide them over before (or indeed, IF) the show is produced, you are inevitably going to interpret that as "free money" on some level, as the debt has already been settled in your mind. And since the audiences in the burlesque scene are often overwhelmingly supporting, the whole situation might appear lavish and superfluous.

Nothing lavish nor superfluous to see here.

That, in turn, creates another set of problems. In this list of "14 Potential Issues with Corwdfunding," item #11 on the list  cites what I think is the most important issue; Accountability. Crowdfunding simply doesn't allow visibility into how that money is spent. You could theoretically pocket every dollar once you hit your goal and churn something out with the same rate of spend as "The Blair Witch Project" and you've essentially defrauded your backers. I say "defrauded" because if you did create a low-cost show relative to what you asked for, then you didn't need to ask for the money in the first place.

If I'm going to create a show, I want to assume the financial risk involved in that show's failure. Asking people to pay twice to see something is unfair, unless they're actually seeing it twice. If they contribute more than the cost of admission, they may even be paying three, four, or five times to see a show with no guaranteed standard of quality. I believe that decision should only be made one time, and it's when you're telling people what the price of the ticket is.

Although there isn't time to get into the issue of who should be producing a show and why, I feel that a series of shows should be able to snowball cash as a way of building up the coffers within a business. In Sirlesque, we budget based on what we can pay and save up money so that we can afford to put on bigger and better shows in the future, and that's also a way to insure ourselves in case we have a bad turnout and still need to pay people. On top of that, if people are going to see a show that you've put on repeatedly, you can use that to gauge whether or not a similarly-themed, larger-budget show would be palatable for your audience.

Sometimes, the tech required to look at your own butt on a screen is expensive.
A great example of a show that did this is the Slutcracker. Over 7 years ago, Sugar Dish put together a show that is now a mainstream Boston institution. She has a lot of pride when she talks about how the first run of the show used found costuming, and that now the Slutcracker sells out over a dozen shows a year. It's the classic bootstraps story, and it shows us that anything can be produced to greatness with enough patience and perseverance.

I believe that being transparent with every transaction surrounding burlesque performance is not only important, but crucial if burlesque is to succeed. Sure, if people are willing to give you advance money over and over again, you and those people may feel comfortable with what is essentially an enabling relationship. But such is the plight of the artist--getting rich doing art is nigh impossible. The audience needs to be entertained, and the full time artists needs to not starve.

So I suppose the only difference is the variance of each artist's guidelines.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Sirlesque: The Sexy Origin Story

Since I often refer to Sirlesque's beginnings and occasionally get asked about how my merry band formed, I thought I'd do a blog just about Sirlesque's origin story. It's also my own origin story, and my first real crack at performance since leaving college. I'll give you some background on who Dale Stones was before burlesque, as it's all very much a part of the picture.

Hint - I was a very different person with very different habits.

Father Stones frequently encouraged me to become a rock musician. He was a die-hard Beatles fan, and occasionally listened to odd, eclectic music like Billy Idol, Kate Bush, and The Birthday Massacre. Since I had an aptitude for music which I discovered around middle school-age, I picked up guitar and learned songs that played in my home by hearing and repetition. As many astute fans have pointed out, these kinds of songs frequent my burlesque repertoire.

For placeholding purposes, let's assume this is my dad.

My dad frequently encouraged me to start a rock band, spend time with other musicians, and to do anything I could to use my evident musical talents to perform. I had a few opportunities to play and sing in front of crowds (most uniquely in co-founding my university's Irish Student Union and mc'ing two Irish Heritage social nights. I played and sang Irish folk songs between sets for other performers, told Irish jokes and proverbs, and generally attempted to make the events fun for attendees). I didn't really know where or how to attack my performance compulsions aside from opportunistically, and frequently let my introversion get the best of me.

While I decided not to pursue music as a career, I did go to a school with an active theater guild, and ended up landing the lead guitar part in "Tommy" in my sophomore year, which ended up being awarded to me when the original guitarist quit the production with one week until show time. Despite the obvious time crunch of learning a 30-song musical score in 7 days, I still remember how exhilarating that whole show felt. I knew that if I got the chance, I'd do the next possible thing I could to replicate that feeling.

For place holding purposes, let's pretend I actually got to be Pete Townshend that one time.

A great friend of mine and an equally talented performer extended me a helping hand two years after college. He was about to move to a place in Watertown (a suburb of Boston) and was looking for roommates. I was first on his list of people to ask, and without considering other options, I immediately said yes. As Ricky Lime would come to find out, this haphazard approach to large life decisions would ultimately contribute to Sirlesque's formation.

Shortly after getting my first job in Boston as a waiter, I met Jenny Jewels. She was a fellow server, and often showed up at the terrace bar we both worked at after performing, usually wearing fun-colored wigs and outrageous outfits. She always encouraged her coworkers (me included) to come out and see her perform, and one Thursday, I made the firm decision to go.

I was a bit terrified of what I might discover, so I invited the man who would become Ricky Lime to come with me. Neither of us had performed or even seen burlesque before, but I needed someone to come with me to help keep my shy little self on the level. While I continued to be nervously observant, he fit right in and was eager to participate in the role of an active burlesque patron. After the show, he wanted to meet all the performers. He wanted to get involved in a show. So they let him--he debuted as an extra in Rogue Burlesque's show "The Quest for the Golden Pasties." He was a litigator in a courtroom scene, and Dixie Douya suffocated him between her breasts. I was in the crowd, and I was impressed at what a good show the whole thing was. I was proud of him.

Terribly, terribly proud. Way to run a stage, buddy.

After the show, Ricky asked the ladies if he could be in their next theatrical production. He was eager and ready to take any role they had. Instead, the resounding response was that he should start his own burlesque troop and have it be just dudes. It could even be a brother troop! Naturally, he burst from the back of the Oberon, came up to me immediately and said;

"Hey dude. Do you want to start an all-male burlesque troop?"

As was and always had been customary, I gave it the typical amount of thought and pragmatism.

"Sure! When do we start?" I responded immediately.

Now, we never had to endure a formal tryout process, as we were the forerunners of our niche in the community. Everyone makes rookie mistakes, and ours were on full display in front of crowds who had never seen male burlesque before--it's probably why we flew under the radar for a couple years. We certainly didn't have that experiential edge granted by dutifully assisting and volunteering before we took the stage ourselves--though we all brought a variety of performance experience to the medium from a variety of places.

But we got to enjoy a quick month of preparations involving a two-hour-long burlesque fundamentals class taught by the Rogues, which resulted in Ricky, myself, and fellow co-founder Dexter Dix attaining some degree of stage-readiness. We set up a photo shoot with "Stuff" magazine, and got a full-page write-up complete with a glorious photo of all three of us in our matching boyshorts. At the end of March, we had our debut as a part of the Rogue's "Winter Sextacular" and each did our first solo act on stage.

There was no turning back.

...unless the choreography told us to, that is.

Although we had done a professional photo shoot in a studio prior to this, the resulting photos remained the property of Stuff Magazine, and we weren't allowed to use them for our own professional promotion. Not having any alternative at this point, we all set up a self-run group photo shoot in a borrowed hotel room and spent a lot of time learning about posing, camera-appropriate faces, and the nuances of the iPhone's camera countdown timer. While the photos were serviceable on a base level, Ricky did have to Photoshop out the occasional awkwardly-placed electrical outlet.

You'll notice this photo is suspiciously devoid of wall outlets, among other things.

There's one in this photo that didn't get the treatment. Man, these photos....

Our name was an unexpected happenstance. Polly Surely's husband had mentioned to Ricky Lime at a party that we should have a pun-based name, and thought that "Sir" was a good spin to put on the word "Burlesque." Further than that, individual members could call themselves "Sirs." The idea was so good that we incorporated it into every aspect of our business, from our email addresses (I'm, in case you wanted to send me electronic mail), to our welcoming of new members (knighting them as "Sirs"), and even our meeting-appropriate pronouns.

For the longest time, the only work we had was given to us by Rogue Burlesque, who continued to help us workshop our dancing and presentation. We even based our production process and business practices off of theirs. I'll never forget two notable quotes from about the 3-year mark of us performing in Boston, the first being from Fem Bones of the Slaughterhouse Sweethearts.

Fem had been brought in to Rogue's "Film Strip" show to do an act where all of the ladies dressed as popcorn kernels, a chance meeting that I had talked about on the blog before. After working with her for a few shows, she told me; "For years you guys were Boston's best-kept secret, like toys that only the Rogues got to play with."

Lilly Bordeaux told me while preparing for a show at Club Cafe that we "used to be the adorable little brothers that were always around, but at some point, [we] suddenly"

These were quotes that stuck in my mind about how Sirlesque has leveled up over the years. I firmly believe that Fem was referring to us as an undiscovered group because until that point, we weren't quite show-ready. I'm certainly a far cry from who I used to be, even from only 2 years ago, and the confidence and body changes that resulted from that self-reflection and the hours of performing experience were principally what changed me and my guys from "dorky" to "smoldering." I'm happy with my progress and the progress of my group--and I like that we keep learning and improving.

I can't wait to see what's next.