Saturday, October 10, 2015

Pop & Pasties: The Placement of Pop Culture in Burlesque

I'd like to do something a little differently tonight. Usually, I write my own material, but I thought I'd be lazy and outsource my originality for this post. In all seriousness though, I'm always curious to know what other performers are thinking, and I had been bugging my good friend Lucky Charming to write something for me on the topic of pop culture in burlesque performance.

Lucky Charming

To preface the discussion, I'd like to talk about the kind of relationship me and Lucky have. I had met him shortly after he attended Alternatease in Boston a few years back. Sirlesque had invited him back to do a show with us, and although I didn't get the chance to see him at Alternatease, his reputation did precede him in my mind. When he did end up coming back to Boston, he absolutely blew me away with what he brought to the stage ("Party in the TSA," if you're curious). Since then, we've had him back to visit and he and I have become fast friends.

As a 4-time GLAM Awards nominee and the creator of "Cootie Catcher," a one-man show which he's brought to Fringe festivals both in the United States and Canada, he's got plenty of credibility and mileage as a performer. Plus, I really appreciate his viewpoints on many topics, and wanted to highlight this one in particular. So without further ado, Lucky;

Over to you, hotshot!

Merriam-Webster defines burlesque as “a literary or dramatic work that seeks to ridicule by means of grotesque exaggeration or comic imitation. : mockery usually by caricature.” In the 19th century, these parodies typically targeted the theatre, opera, and other popular pastimes for the upper class. However, in the era of burlesque that we find ourselves in now, the caricatures that we see are more likely to depict figures that are more broadly consumed by the masses.

I’ve only been a member of the burlesque community for three-and-a-half years, and in that time I’ve seen hundreds of routines that portray superheroes, super villains, video games, and cartoons, and delivered in a way that is more of a tribute than a travesty. I see this as merely an indication of how our society has evolved; patrons are more interested in paying for performances that bring them to their happy place than those that are going to challenge them and remind them how chaotic the state of the world is. And I can’t say I blame them. 

That said, I’m a firm believer that burlesque is meant to challenge, as well as titillate. In it’s time of origin, being naked was enough to spark the senses. Now, a simple strip is nothing special. Naked people are everywhere…movies, magazines, you name it. I firmly believe that burlesque in general needs more than just nudity. If you simply dress up as a popular character and strip to make people squeal, you’re doing a disservice to your audience, your character, and your talent.


...and stylishly, I might add. Photo credit; Christopher Gagliardi

By making any pop culture reference in your performance, you’re taking a risk in alienating your audience. Unless, of course, the entire show is a reference to a certain piece of pop culture. If someone purposefully attends a “Bob’s Burgers” tribute show, it’s reasonable to assume they’ve watched at least half of the existing episodes. But if you stick a “Bob’s Burgers” act into any old burlesque show, you can bet that a large percentage of the people aren’t going to get it. And they might be pissed. And the have every right to be. 

The audience wants to be in on your jokes. They want to laugh and cheer for you and with you. Don’t block them out by being too specific. To make such a move is naive at best, and arrogant at worst.

There are plenty of ways to pay tribute to the pieces of pop culture that bring you joy that don’t leave too many audience members behind. The first person to come to mind is Franki Markstone, whom I shared the stage with this summer in Orlando. She performed a delightful number inspired by “Harry Potter”. Aside from her use of the movie’s theme song (with segued, appropriately, into Heart’s “Magic Man”), a dress in the colors that fan’s would recognize as Gryffindor’s, and a strategically placed Golden Snitch, there was nothing super specifically Potter-ish about it. Most humans will recognize “Harry Potter” in this day and age, but on the off-chance they didn’t, it was still a beautiful, well-performed striptease that the whole family can enjoy.

Pictured; wholesome, family-friendly entertainment. Photo credit; Jenna Cumbo, Village Voice

This pleased me on so many levels. There was enough of a wink to the Potter fans to keep them happy, but enough dazzle that if you didn’t get it, it didn’t matter.

Oh, there be players that I have seen, and heard others praise and that highly**, who brought an act as a particular sci-fi character to a general burlesque show…a character I was very familiar with, I might add…and through referencing the most minute details of this character’s storyline, completely lost 90% of their audience within the first ten seconds. They cheered anyway, but I was infuriated on their behalf.

[**Shakespeare reference. Hamlet. Didn’t get it? Now you know how it feels to be alienated. Not so fun, huh?]

On the other hand, say you are performing in a show that pays tribute to a popular entity. It is safe to assume that the members of the audience are serious fanatics, and are anticipating a plentitude of inside jokes that only their fandom would get. In this case, by all means, go niche or go home.

But wait! Before you get down to business…do me a little favor. I’ve seen a lot of characters from film and television portrayed on the burlesque stage, and I notice that many of them have fallen into a formula: 
1. Dress up as the character
2. Pick a song that makes some joke about the character
3. Strip
4. End in a reveal that consists of some other joke about the character as depicted in a crotch piece.

Perhaps I only find this tedious because I, too, am a participant in this art form, but even if you have the most stunning costume imaginable for an act like this, it still has great capacity to feel…dare I say it? Lazy. Most pop culture acts I’ve seen are severely lacking in context. I love that this character is stripping, but I want to know why this character is stripping. I’m game to see Darth Vader naked, but like…why is he taking his clothes off in the first place? And even more importantly…why is he still breathing and functioning after he takes that breast plate off? Doesn’t that help keep him alive or something?

Please excuse me: I’m going to use myself as an example here, because I am fully aware of my own arrogance and not too proud to admit it.

After my first couple of years in burlesque, I decided to cut back on the nerdy shows. I appreciate them so much, and love being in the audience for them, but with the way my own career has progressed, they often cost me a pretty penny and I get minimal mileage out of them.

That said, when someone is producing a “Doctor Who” show and they ask you personally to play Captain Jack Harkness…you can’t really say no, and you definitely can’t fuck it up.

Jack Harkness, for those who aren’t familiar, has plenty of reasons to take his clothes off. He’s hot. He’s charming. He’ll unzip his pants for pretty much anyone, regardless of gender or species. He’s the slutty pansexual dreamboat that I’ve always wanted to see on the screen. But I didn’t want to build my act around that alone. Again: context. 

There is an episode called “Bad Wolf” where Jack gets teleported into a futuristic reboot of “Extreme Makeover”, and two droid stylists zap his clothes off with a defabricator ray. Jackpot. I had a character. I had a motivation. I had an arc. The pieces practically pulled themselves together, and I quickly had (what I believe to be) one of my strongest acts to date. I wish I had more opportunities to take it out, but I don’t want to shove obscure sci-fi references in anyone’s face without their clear consent. Do you understand what I’m saying?

The arc is something that I think gets dangerously neglected with popular characters in burlesque, often because we feel it is implied. But just as an audience needs to see a character change between the beginning and the end of a movie or play, they should see how your character develops in a burlesque routine, whether it’s a recognizable character or not. Otherwise, it’s just pretty. And while most of us do burlesque partially to publicly claim our own beauty, many of us also want our audiences to have boners for our brains. Let’s keep those brain-boners coming, kids!