Friday, November 27, 2015

Performing for Largely Hetero Audiences

First of all, Happy Thanksgiving to all!

I wanted to write a bit about my experience with performing for crowds comprised mostly of straight men, as I've had a lot of unique and strong feels about it. Mostly excitement, but sometimes terror. I'd like to take you through that emotional process and where it all originates.

Women's burlesque performance is generally more well received for new audiences, due in large part to the socially-reinforced way women's sexuality is available for public consumption. Women are expected to be looked at and appreciated, regardless of the gender makeup of the audience. Both men and women will watch in adoration at female striptease, as it is acceptable to do so. I'm here to write about what happens when a male burlesque performer presents to a crowd of new, straight-ish people, because the reactions are often much, much different than the reactions that naturalized, familiar burlesque audiences display.

Such as leaning-accented casual indifference.

I was a bit on edge for a recent gig with Brandy Wine and Polly Surely of Rogue Burlesque, as it was the type of setting where burlesque didn't quite seem to fit the programming. As I alluded to in a previous post, this was a high-energy party where DJ's from around the country were gathering to drink and dance. We went down into the basement, which was its own party-hearty room, complete with dim lighting, beer spilled on the floor, poor sight lines, and every formality spared. I'd say it was an audience with an 80/20 man-to-woman ratio.

Needless to say, very few folks in the crowd were acquainted with burlesque. After our host for the night started explaining burlesque etiquette, you could absolutely hear the sarcastic chuckling. While I knew they were probably picturing a club-esque strip show, I doubted they were ready to factor me into their expectations. As I mentioned way back in the second paragraph, the onlookers were pretty amenable to seeing Brandy and Polly perform. When I stepped onto the floor though, there was an audible groan from many of the males in the room. I would estimate that about 1/3 of them immediately turned around and walked out.

In that moment, I saw a clear picture of what scares straight men about male burlesque. When I teach my class for new male burlesquers, I like to gradually introduce clothing reveals and let people opt out of ones they aren't (yet) comfortable with. To their credit, the guys in the class are usually willing to jump right in and do all of them, which is fantastic. I'm guessing that the mental re-configuring that happens when a group of men who have never met before begin to accept that they're about to be nearly naked in front of one other, they move past the head-space that my audience at this gig was stuck in. In essence, they were frightened.

Usually, the screaming is internal.

Since performers tend to draw energy from the audience they go on for, I can tell you that when this happens, it's often demoralizing. To that end, it manifests itself in a few different ways: In struggling to cope with the fact that they might have to watch another man strip, these men will usually show signs of physical discomfort--heads down, arms folded, groaning and audible commentary. James and the Giant Pasty of Boylesque T.O. (based in Canada) told me that at one show, a group of men in a bar lashed out and called him a faggot, which is the ultimate show of insecurity through aggression.

There was a point early on in my performance career where a reaction like this would have ruined me. Thankfully, I've had enough practice with the "show must go on" frame of mind that I'm usually able to compensate for situations like this. As a general rule, I focus my broader moves on the people who are having a great time, and I focus my specific audience work on the individuals who look the most uncomfortable.

Or in a pinch, anyone who is currently shrieking in terror. 

During my act, one man in the front of the audience buried his face in one hand in disbelief, as if one errant gaze upon my glittery pecs would turn him to stone (see what I did there?). I walked up to that one guy in the crowd, put my face about half a foot from his, waited for him to notice, and then gave a wave and a curtsy. He laughed just a little bit, and it got such a rise out of the crowd around him. I find that if you go for the hardest nut to crack, your success in getting the audience to join in the fun will have a ripple effect, and can often noticeably change the mood of the room.

Following from that, I'd like to talk to you about what happens after a performance like this. Due in large part to fragile masculinity (#masculinitysofragile if you're so inclined), straight men tend to conflate male burlesque performance with homosexuality or flirting. While it's not always a negative thing that some men will give feedback after watching a male burlesque performance, it can absolutely be derived from a place of awkwardness or insecurity. Picture any of these after a performance;

"I'm not gay, but....that was a good show/you were funny/I've thought about kissing a man/etc."
"Do you get a lot of gays/women/men hitting on you after you perform?"
"I saw more of you than I wanted to see, but you were pretty cool to watch."
"You were good, but you should work out more." (Lucky, thanks for sharing that last one)

"Look bro, I'm not gay or nuthin', but, uh....good
 job, there....dawg. Did I mention that I
 reeeeealy like the ladies?"

Some of you reading this will recognize these experiences as your own. But while icky on the surface, they can be a good starting point for having a strong, valuable discussion with a new fan about burlesque, body norms, and expectations around performers from the same/opposite sex.

I've learned that for every 20 dudes in an audience I perform for, one or two will come chat with me afterwards and will be completely awesome to talk with. After this gig, there were 3 guys that came to talk to Polly, Brandy, and myself, and wanted to reiterate that they had the best time at the show. While they were each initially confused about how to react, all of them individually had the wherewithal to figure out what they appreciated about the performance, what questions they wanted to ask, and the enthusiasm about discovering us and our scene afterwards. It was awesome.

For me, having just a couple people telling me what a great time they had makes it 1000% worth it. Bringing new people to future shows helps bring burlesque more and more into the mainstream, which benefits us all. I also love when other men feel inspired enough from burlesque to want to try performing themselves, as it's a major disruption to the power structures that influence masculine negativity (and bolsters our solidarity with our female counterparts).

And that's pretty rad.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Get Those Dollars Out

Since I came into burlesque in the Boston, I'd noticed that there was a very distinct performance culture here. Boston burlesque performers tend to be more theatrical, tend to bring the strange into the mainstream, and are generally group-oriented in how they advertise. It wasn't until I started performing outside of Boston that I began to realize that we had a very interesting stance on tipping, which is hardly reflected elsewhere.

I had been performing about 3 1/2 years before I was a part of a show where the patrons were asked to tip the performers.

I was definitely a little confused when I'd first heard the host setting that expectation with the audience. I wasn't against it per se; I did have a rudimentary understanding that making any kind of money as a performer was and always would be a hustle. I had worked restaurant gigs since I was 16, so I full well understood how tipping worked. I just had never been party to a producer linking that to performance.

As an integrated part of burlesque performing, the concept makes perfect sense. If the performer really blows your socks off, you throw them a bit of extra money to show your appreciation. Ergo, your performance can have an influence on how well you do that night. That's capitalism, baby!

"I mean, I thought that's how we were supposed to fix the economy."

It reminded me of the one time I accompanied a friend of mine who was about to be married to a strip club. The biggest thing that stuck out to me about the way the strip club's economy worked was that every part of our visit was commodified. There was a cover charge when you entered, you were expected to have smaller bills to tip the dancers, buying drinks had its own set of permissions and rates, and individual women were soliciting separate engagements from the patrons.

In this setting, it seemed to me that the actions of the performers were directly tied to whether or not a patron was luring them over with money. Initially, this seems like a different thing from burlesque performance entirely--you're expected to have a set of specific choreography with movements that comprise a routine. In order to have the right punch, your act has to be rehearsed and well timed. If you're collecting dollar bills every couple of seconds, it's hard to imagine that you can execute a planned set of dance moves. It would have to be more improvisational.

I performed at a gig recently with Brandy Wine and Polly Surely of Rogue Burlesque, and it was a paid event where tipping was encouraged. Although the crowd was a room full of drunk DJ's who were mostly dudes (I'll talk about performing for hetero males who are only experiencing their first burlesque show in a later post), there was a strong element of loud-crowd dollar-chucking appreciation, which has a slightly different feel than the whole "pass the basket in church" sort of tipping I had been acclimated with in other burlesque shows. It felt kind of like that scene in Magic Mike where Matthew McConaughey rolls around in dollars wearing a cowboy hat and a thong. It was a gritty kind of party atmosphere--which I kind of loved, not gonna lie.

Don't pretend you haven't seen it.

Because I was doing a routine that I had done about 40 times before, I felt like I had the ability to change things up when needed and accommodate the dollar bills being thrown around near me. I knew that I could skip one of my flourishes with my hat and instead bend over all sexy-like while scooping dollars up and stuffing them into my waistband. You know, the kinds of things that the layman associates with striptease.

Like glitter!

I was chatting with my friend Honey Pie, who I had performed with at a show a year or two ago where tipping was encouraged. The show itself was more of a "buy a $20 ticket, drink a ton to help us hit our bar minimum" sort of theatrical experience which was hosted by a character contributing to the performance, and so it wouldn't have made a ton of sense for people to leave their seats, approach the stage, and fling dollars at the performers.

"I feel like there is a time and a place for it. I have done shows with tipping but it has always been more of a Go-Go set in a night club than a show done in a theater where most of the patrons are sitting down watching a show," Honey told me.

"And I think that's where I don't feel like tipping should happen in Burlesque shows. Most of these shows patrons are paying more money to sit down and take in the beauty of the theater and performers. I myself don't want someone throwing money in crumpled up balls at me or walking up to the stage handing me money while I am up there working my ass of on the hours of choreography I have practiced and the time I put into making that costume look good for you. Sit back, drink and take in the show! I also don't like to see it while I'm taking in the sights of a performance on stage. It's distracting and takes away from the performance art," she said.

Honey Pie

Honey made a great point about gogo dancing, which, as I've learned from doing shows outside of Boston (most prominently D20 Burlesque in NYC with Anja Keister and friends, plug plug!), is pretty much the standard in-between and intro activity for burlesque shows. A dancer can make a good amount of tips doing largely improvisational choreography as a component of a burlesque show's program. But I would hesitate to call go-go dancing a burlesque performance. 

Burlesque, like any other artform, needs support from the patrons to continue. Burlesque fans and show-goers should have extra opportunities to support the performers they enjoy (aside from ticket revenue), and I think that having a gogo set or two and having a basket at every show is a great way for performers to continue to fund their costume, travel, and meal costs.

It's the "stuffing dollars into my underwear" aesthetic that makes me feel a little heeby-jeebly about performing certain engagements. It's a different implication entirely, which stems from what the average person might picture in club-based striptease--I've seen audience members get tossed from burlesque shows because their actions were clearly influenced by strip-club culture. Taking it a bit further, tipping mechanics have a great impact on proper boundaries, which are an inseparable component of burlesque striptease. Generally, most burlesque performers don't want you stuffing money into their clothing pieces, and won't hesitate to let you know it.

Tipping performers is a great thing, although I don't particularly like having to work it into my performance piece. Deciding what kinds of tipping mechanics work best for you in your own performances is a good thing, and I'd encourage you to share your own best practices with me.