Thursday, December 22, 2016

Mindless Praise vs. Effective Critique

As many performers I know can attest to, it's very easy to get praise for your work from fans, peers, and other performers. It's almost impossible, however, to find good, constructive critique that pushes you to be better.

After watching myself in the role of Barry Dylan from the burlesque adaptation of the television show "Archer," I felt thoroughly pleased with myself and the performance I gave. I mention this specifically because I rarely feel this way about my performances. Even though I felt satisfied with how it went, I still wouldn't have minded if someone had made some suggestions on what could have used more polish.

"I said GOOD feedback, you dullard!"

The best performers I know place a high value on effective critique, and I've come to find that there isn't all that much of it in burlesque. In general, I've found that it's very easy to surround yourself with people who have nothing but adoration for you, and I absolutely believe that there's nothing worse than that if you're trying to grow as an artist. It's hard to fight that instinct.

As far as the duo act I did in that same show, I felt a lot differently. In that act, Danny Drake (as Archer) and I did a duo-acrobatics striptease that resembled a high-energy fight scene, a confrontation where we illustrated the futility of these two characters' persistent quarrel throughout the show. I discussed with Danny a lot of personal critiques I came up with about how the performance went, and would have loved to have heard more from other performers about what worked and what didn't while we were still in the rehearsal phases. In my opinion, the act looked a bit contrived and juvenile on video, despite me being smashed in the head at one point with a glass bottle.

Yes. It did really happen.

It got me thinking quite a lot about the reasons our performances sometimes don't look polished in the ways we want them to. Why do we create our performance pieces in isolation while avoiding checking in with people we trust along the way?

I was reading Mary Cyn's blog about how to take and give effective critique, and it inspired me to want to finish this post that I've kept shelved for a long time. One of the big reasons that I wanted to hold off on finishing this topic is that I knew I hated some parts of burlesque performance because of how the community at large handles effective critique, but wasn't sure how to get it into writing. Mary helped me to figure that out with her own take.

The title of this entry, phrased as "Mindless Praise vs. Effective Critique," doesn't quite encapsulate the entirety of the issue. If I'm honest, I would tell you that me giving crappy critique and shaded criticisms also factors into my motivation for writing this, though that seems like too many words for a blog title, expressly for the point of washing my hands of things my younger self once did. One of the reasons I like to teach other guys how to do burlesque is because it gives me the opportunity to help develop and course-correct in a forum where constant feedback is the expectation, and to further reinforce those lessons in writing after their first performance. Plus, I get to deliver feedback in a way that I would have wanted to receive it.

"I dunno man. Your words seem a little harsh."

As artists, we have a tendency to believe that the first thing we think of (and indeed EVERY thing we think of) is the best idea anyone's ever had. I've certainly come up with some crap ideas (see; The Worst Burlesque Act I've Ever Done), and some were more obviously crap than others--but the finer point is that it took some hard coaching to get me to the point where I accepted that the aforementioned act was a garbage fire, and I don't know that I would have accepted that conclusion on my own.

The ways we experience rejection in burlesque isn't the same way rejection is doled out in other walks of life. It's fairly straightforward when a hiring manager tells you "you didn't get the job," or when a love interest tells you that she's "not all that into you," but I've found that most of the discord between response and critique in burlesque focuses largely on whether or not you're attractive on stage, and not necessarily on whether or not you executed great choreography or told a truly compelling story. Our audiences and fellow performers frequently tend to focus on whether or not we're "hot" up there, which, if you're a stickler for the technical stuff, can seem extra superficial. So rejection can look like straight up silence, unless you do something aggressively inappropriate.

But we all occasionally tell each other that our performances are "sexy" and "mega-hot," and most of the time that's totally okay to do.

"Please tell me I'm beautiful."

As performers, I think we owe it to ourselves to help each other out with specifics. What I like to do is to pick two or three things that I can say to someone when they leave stage that I loved about their performance;

  • "Hey, I love that your fan dance was just two giant mustaches, it was super clever!" 
  • "That cartwheel into a split right when the theremin solo started was so well-timed!"
  • "Tearing your sleeves off to reveal two tinier, angrier sleeves was choice!"

Alternatively, there are some bits of feedback that are more critical. These are useful to give out (with permission, of course), if the person is looking for a bit more honesty about what didn't work well for you. Bear in mind that while I personally love hearing more corrective comments after a number, most people tend to feel that this works directly against their performance high, which can be a tad soul-shattering. So always make sure it's welcome to say things like these, paraphrased from actual critiques I've given;

  • "Your expression in the beginning was distressed and shameful, like you were a hostage--but I don't know if that was the consistent with the tone of the piece. Was that intentional?"
  • "Your costuming struck me as being racially insensitive. I might avoid using headdresses and kimonos when you do this piece in the future."
  • "I don't think using actual liquids and real knives in your piece was a good idea for safety reasons."
  • "There were one or two dance moves that seemed inconsistent with the mood and music, could you tell me about that part of the choreography?"

Reflexively, this is the kind of stuff I find most helpful. While we ultimately want to be the best performers we can be, the only way to improve is to hear specifically what didn't work, and to parlay those suggestions into conversations about what we can do better.

"This air BJ really worked for me!"

Which brings me to the last part. Often, I find that a shared instinct we have as artists is to explain away criticism. If I know that someone says they are receptive, I'll log my observation with them without ending in a question. Frequently with newer performers, I find that it prompts a (usually lengthy) explanation of why what I mentioned has to stay the same.

I'm not saying that there can't be a reason why something I disagree with should remain in a performance piece--but if it's something that you had to clarify at length to an experienced performer, it probably isn't something that's all that clear to your audience.

So in essence; watch and listen, ask permission to discuss, give thoughtful and meaningful critiques, encourage vigorously, and be receptive when others offer you feedback in return.


Friday, September 23, 2016

"Masculine" Burlesque and Self-Deprecating Humor

I was scrolling through my performer Facebook like I usually do, when I came across a thread posted by fellow performer Dangrrr Doll that caught my attention. Since I love reading about contentious topics and the oft debated "why we do this" ideologies of burlesque performance, I was inspired to write on it myself.

It's no coincidence that Dangrrr, a terrifically accomplished burlesque performer who I occasionally get to share the stage with, habitually critiques the way we present our concepts on stage. I've even featured her on this blog before, so with that in mind, here's the original post;

In the class I teach here in Boston (now in its fourth installment), this is the core concept I build from--masculine movement, masculine character building, masculine stripper moves, masculine kazoo concertos, masculine giraffe husbandry, etc. It's really the only thing I can speak to as an expert, since it's at the heart of every piece I write and perform. And based on the varying levels of comfort of the men I know in burlesque, it's not always a focal point of everyone's act construction, though for my own students, I like it when they take my lead and make it their own.

When I first sat down to talk with Stratton McCrady and Robin of the "Acting Out" project, Robin was surprised to learn that I was a straight male performer doing burlesque. Even though operating on the pretenses that most burlesque performers are queer to some degree (or that any men who perform burlesque MUST be gay) isn't an unsafe bet, it does beg the following question:

"What does a straight man performing burlesque look like?"

I dunno, this?
Photo by Roger Gordy

While straight men aren't a rare commodity in most walks of life, we are somewhat unrepresented in burlesque. I've found that most straight men don't have any idea how to move like a man might, to say nothing of how to break into the burlesque scene in the first place. As I've alluded to before, I learned most of my first striptease movements from Rogue Burlesque founders Dixie Douya and Bustee Keaton, and those movements weren't exactly....masculine.

After a year or two of figuring out what I wanted to change, I decided to spend some time and effort learning how to walk, crawl, posture, and pose myself as a masculine character. And for several years now, I've spent a lot of time watching myself in the mirror and making changes as needed.

But taking it back a little, I've found that men who jump onto a stage to perform instinctively gravitate toward one tendency; self-deprecating parody. It's almost like there's an expectation for a man to get on stage and put himself down to make himself feel accepted by the audience. It's weird, but I understand it. I used to do it a lot.

Like, an uncomfortable amount.
Photo by Stratton McCrady, Acting Out!

If I've learned one thing about teaching men striptease, it's that men don't have a default "sexy" set of movements. If I ask a new guy in my class to walk around and move like a suave, ladies-man type for the purposes of an exercise, he will almost always include a section where he's pantomiming an aggressive rejection (possibly involving getting a drink thrown on him). Selling confidence, success, and attractiveness in movement is terrifying for many men, and I suspect, a huge reason why they might want to take my class in the first place.

I'll give you an example. Sway Bradbury mentioned that "embarrassment/shame is all about maintaining your masculinity in moments of vulnerability; i.e. your pants fall down and you feel shame, portraying your nudity as something you feel negatively towards and understand should be hidden. Whereas in high femme burlesque, what I consider classic burlesque, nudity is something you revel in. That vulnerability isn't embarrassing, it's empowering."

That's real. If a guy is on stage and acting out a scene where his shirt and pants are suddenly missing, he's embarrassed, he's shy, and his first move is to cover it up. That same scene acted out by a woman? She's suddenly the one in control. She's sexy, intense, and using that as her weapon.

I want to say that this has to do with the power dynamic of burlesque and how it contrasts with the power dynamic of a gendered society. Should straight men naturally feel like they need to approach burlesque cautiously, and justify their presence in the space with a few jokes made at their own expense? Maybe that's just the price of entry. But I think there's something else hiding there.

I think it has more to do with the fact that men are raised without the burden of having their sexuality constantly available for consumption, a benefit that women don't have the option of. At every turn, women are expected to be sexy and have a way to market themselves constantly with every choice they make in their waking lives. A lot of women I talk to about burlesque performance use the stage as a way to claim ownership of their sexuality--especially since there's so much unjustified entitlement to it in the outside world, perpetrated by media, industry, and random men on the sidewalk. Since men never have to experience this, they don't know what to do in a situation where the expectation turns to them.

Photo by Ben A Johnson

The result of this is that straight men on stage have to get naturalized to the concept of being objectified. Even after all these years of performing striptease, whenever I get an aggressive compliment from a stranger about my sexiness on stage, my gut tells me to feel flattered. What I don't feel is guarded, defensive, or threatened. I don't think I'll ever understand what it means to be truly objectified, and that vulnerability is something I could never learn or teach.

Straight men aspiring to perform with sexual and vulnerable burlesque on stage require a bigger understanding of this, myself included. It's that knee-jerk answer that I get from every guy that I talk to about potentially jumping on stage to perform burlesque: It's the "I'm not in good enough shape" response which signals that most of us fellas aren't even remotely conscious of what the concept of sexual desirability is for a male-facing audience--which would explain why gay male performers have a better understanding of the concept. We straight guys instinctively assume that we just have to be hot and show up, and only then can we perceive the ironic vulnerability of what it means to be objectified.

Or, barring that, we could make intentional fools of ourselves to garner favor from the audience. Comparatively, that certainly does seem like a less scary option.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Ember Flynne: "The Business of Stage Names"

I have another guest writer on Throwing Stones this week, who is a supremely talented fire spinner, aerial acrobat, and business person whom I've worked with quite a lot. Although I've touched on the importance of stage names a while back, I didn't really flesh out the issues of safety and accessibility that are part and parcel with this practice.

So I invited Ember Flynne to share those with me.

Ember Flynne - Fire Goddess

My name is Ember—well, not really, but we’ll get to that in a second—and I’m a traveling circus performer based in Boston.

Some years ago, I found out that my entire family was cyberstalking me.

“Google, you know, the search engine,” my mother explained, “I just type in your name and…”

“Mom I know what it is.  But WHY are you Googling me?”

“Just to see what you’re up to,” she said, matter-of-factly.

My parents and I have never been that close, but this was a new low.  Google is for checking that your blind date isn’t an axe murderer, not sating your curiosity about what your twenty-something daughter is doing in her spare time.  It felt weirdly invasive.  Why not just pick up the phone and—gasp—call me?

“Oh don’t get all bent out of shape,” my mom said when I told her as much, “Everybody does it.  Richard Googles his kids all the time.  Your grandmother Googles you; it’s completely normal.”

I’ve always been aware that information about my life could be broadcast to the entire planet without my permission (excepting, perhaps, China), but I still find it unnatural that anyone I know would feel compelled to search for it.  That my sprawling Midwestern family also thinks it’s appropriate to dissect their discoveries with random friends and co-workers is boggling.  It’s one thing to be searchable.  It’s another to know that my actual grandma looks me up out of sheer boredom, forms opinions that she never intends to contextualize in person, and spreads them to everyone she knows. That my objections are continually framed as MY problem is just the icing on an exceedingly un-fun cake.

When I settled on a stage name, it was to escape a certain nebulous scrutiny that kept me from feeling free to experiment, fail, perform acts of a subversive or sexual nature, and build my reputation on my own terms.  There are lots of other reasons a performer might choose to use a stage name, but what’s important is that there are ALWAYS reasons, and it’s crucial to respect them.

A stage name is a second name used in performance settings, whether in person or in print, that may or may not be associated with a separate stage persona.  While some performers are pretty loose with their expectations, it never hurts to assume a strict separation between a performer’s stage life and the life attached to their legal name.  Treat them like they belong to two different people.

Confusing?  Sometimes, but rest assured, we don’t do this just to frustrate you.

For many performers, stage names are actually an important personal safety measure.  Anyone who appears in front of an audience commands a great deal of attention from a great many people. Combine that with the fact that it’s a performer’s job to look great and create a connection with their fans, and you have a situation that frequently results in unwanted advances from creepy people with nothing better to do. Usually they’re audience members or photographers, but sometimes they’re even clients or unfamiliar booking agents.

"Hey, gimme your name so I can harass you."

My legal name happens to be unique, so Google isn’t going to make it difficult if some stalker with half a brain wants to find out where I live.  Deflecting unwanted attention onto a pseudonym is a decent way to keep my personal information private from all but the most determined of creeps.
If a performer is working under a stage name, always assume that they are trying to keep themselves safe.  Using their legal name in connection with their stage name (especially online) could put them in danger by dismantling a layer of protection that they have worked hard to establish.

A similar concern is job security.  Not everyone can work the stage full-time, so many entertainers maintain other sources of income.  For some, it’s a way to stay afloat when they’re first starting out. For others, it’s a way to support themselves and their families during the off season, acquire health insurance, or maintain a safety net.  Still others have day jobs just because they like them.

Performers who are otherwise proud of what they do may not want to tell their co-workers that they’re a drag queen, or that they routinely light stuff on fire and swing it around.  Some bosses would be cool with that.  Others, not so much.

Even in a city as open-minded as Boston, certain industries remain warped bastions of conservatism. Sexualized performance of any kind is essentially grounds for dismissal from most childcare, teaching, and law enforcement positions, and anyone discovered dancing around in pasties on the Internet can hardly hope to be taken seriously as a doctor, lawyer, or scientist (though let it be said that I’ve seen all of the above on the Oberon stage).

"Yes, we are a full-time Batman and Commissioner, but also
part-time strippers. Keep that last part quiet."

Sometimes it’s not even an employer, but an employee or landlord that’s the problem.  It doesn’t matter.  In all cases, stage names offer a significant shield from casual Google searches and help to maintain a performer’s reputation in relation to others with influence over their lives.

There’s also sheer politeness to consider.  Some folks simply don’t prefer to see a parade of half-naked people prancing all over their Facebook feed, so prudent performers may set up separate names and social media accounts with which to participate in different social groups.  It’s a solution that makes it easy to keep in touch with a five-year-old niece AND maintain contacts in the burlesque or fetish scenes without fear of cross-over.

Finally, there’s a whole host of personal reasons that can affect a performer’s decision to go by another name.  Perhaps they feel that their legal name is inconsistent with their chosen gender or lifestyle, or they wish to use performance as an outlet for forms of expression that would not be acceptable in other parts of their life.

Stage names also help performers to build a brand based on whatever qualities they think are important to their art.

When I first started out, I performed a bit and attended industry events under my legal name.  I met a lot of people that way, but once I became Ember I completely shifted to that identity for work.

A few years later, after Ember Flynne had become somewhat more established (and more interesting on the Internet) I started to notice something disturbing.  People I’d met once or twice were walking up to me in performance settings and pointedly addressing me by my legal name, particularly if I was engaged in conversation.  They always spoke as loudly as possible and hugged for an inappropriately long time.

I struggled to understand what was going on.  It’s not that they didn’t know my stage name or couldn’t remember it—in fact, the majority of these people were far more familiar with Ember (albeit via Facebook) than they ever were with my legal name.  They followed Ember online, liked my photos, and commented as if we were the best of friends, when in reality we had barely crossed paths.*  My real friends all know to call me by Ember when I’m working, and while they’ll occasionally slip up, those occasions are incredibly few and far between.

And then one day, it hit me.  The randos were showing off.

To address me by my real name in front of a group of people was to assert that they knew something about me that those other people did not—that they knew the “real” me, which implies, by extension, a closer relationship and perhaps even a degree of influence.

I immediately called up my 3-in-1 manager / emergency contact / ex-lover and ranted about it.  Who the hell did these people think they were, walking around and showing off at my expense?  And what’s more, who did they think I was?  Should I be flattered or enraged?

Editor's note; I know which one I would gravitate towards.

“Dude,” I remember saying, “I’m legit not famous enough to have these problems.”

These days, I respond to exactly that scenario my adopting a look of bewilderment and saying, “um…who’s that?  I think you’re confusing me with someone else?”  Sure, it’s passive-aggressive, but I’ve found that the best way to keep people from using me to try to boost their own social status is to show them it will backfire.

I actually say the same thing to friends who slip up, but I do it with a smile.  After all, people aren’t perfect.

For the record, if you’re not sure what a performer is going by in a particular setting, you can just ask them.  “How should I introduce you?” is always a polite question, and encompasses not only a name but the performer’s preferred gender and any other details they see fit to give.

Stage names are a small thing, but they have big implications for performers’ well-being.  If you use one, we’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

*Let it be said that many fans and followers do form real, meaningful relationships with performers online.  That’s completely legit, and I’m not referring to those people.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Person About Town with Kenice Mobley!

Good morning!

I'm not writing a full-length post today, but I wanted to share with you a podcast that I was featured on recently with one of my favorite local comedians, Kenice Mobley.

In the Boston burlesque world, there's a lot of crossover with comedy, sideshow, and circus, which affords me the opportunity to meet lots of people who are amazing performers in other disciplines. Kenice asked me to be her interview subject for Person About Town, which is a fun, informal sit-down interview show where she conducts interviews with different people at their favorite Boston hangouts.

In the episode, we talked a lot about male burlesque; points of distinction, highlights, pet peeves, accidentally punching other performers in the face, costuming, that one time each of us were in a strip club, and why the tofu at Christopher's is the bomb.

I'd be happy if you took a few minutes to listen in!

Thursday, July 14, 2016


I always told myself I was never going to be one of those people. You know the type. The burlesquer with 15 selfies a day on Instagram, complete with hashtags so obscure that there's no hope in hell they'll ever catch on (#glitterinmycoffee).

"We need to have a selfie intervention with you," my brother said to me, as I wistfully contemplated the social-media-enabled serial selfie posting persona I'd since become.

"Why did you post that? It has nothing to do with anything," he said, referencing the photo below.

It has plenty to do with my big, stupid face.

I mean, he was right. I was just at a cool-looking rest stop somewhere in New Jersey, and I wanted to photograph myself with it so I could put another notch in my #traveldale hashtag. I wasn't performing, and it wasn't a particularly moving piece of artwork. But since when the hell did that matter?

In general, I'm pretty satisfied with how I use my performer Instagram account. Relentlessly photographing myself with other performers and in fun, new locations isn't a super-important part of my personal life, but it's something I get to do and it's a tool I can use as a performer. When you're on stage a lot, I've found that people kind of dig what you're doing and where it takes you. And of course barring any qualified raison-d'etre, you don't really need to justify posting photos of stuff. That's just kind of what our generation does.

Truthfully, if my IG and FB accounts disappeared tomorrow, it wouldn't shake me to my core (to say nothing of my blog). I'd probably just go merrily about my life, albeit with fewer people at my shows. Ever since Anja Keister showed me how to use Instagram and chastised me with "Where are more posts?" in my first lackluster week as a user, I've felt a subtle obligation to check in with the world via mediocre photography.

Pictured; Motivation.

After all, fans like when you do that. Other performers like when you do that. Random strangers with Russian lettering on their profiles that I can't read also like when you do that. As someone who performs burlesque, it's worth noting that 90% of the marketing I do for my shows and performances is through social media.

When I post a photo of myself in my stage getup, or show a hint at a routine I might be working on with a carefully-orchestrated costume shot, I know that someone out there is getting excited about what I've got planned. When I post a photo of Sirlesque goofing off backstage, I know that followers are getting to see us in our element, and in some small way, becoming a part of it. When I take photos with other performers I share the stage with, I get to introduce them to my little piece of the world back in Boston, and write a short, visual memoir of the amazing time I had.

I'm sure this was exciting to someone.

And like all performers, I feel like I am entitled to a little vanity, if only because it's expected. Another reason on top of that is that it makes clear business sense. If Lilith Beest and I hadn't been picked up by a high-traffic IG account (Monsters Holding Bitches, if you're curious), I doubt we would have sold out "They Live; We Strip - A John Carpenter Burlesque Tribute." The impact of being proactive with our marketing and social media could not be denied.

In retreating back to the personal, Corinne Southern, a burlesque producer and performer from Providence, Rhode Island, gave me the purest version of the IG selfie appeal.

"People like to feel like they are part of the backstage action. I think it makes your audience feel like they have a personal connection with you," she said.

Corinne Southern

Although backstage areas all sort of blend together into the unremarkable after a while, it's kind of important to realize that very few people actually get to have that access. When people are doing makeup or putting on costumes, the process is personal, and the area restricted to performers only.

As someone who very rapidly made that transition, I was fortunate to have never really experienced the exclusion, so I just assumed it wasn't a huge deal to share those photos. But lots of other performers tell me it is, for their fans.

Again, I don't see why this is a highlight for anyone.

Then there's the photos that show us we're vulnerable. I know that for a lot of people (not just performers), selfies are a way of ensuring that we like the photo that contains our likeness. When people are taking photos OF you, you don't really have much control over what the photographer chooses to display. It's for precisely that reason that I wasn't aware that I had criminal levels of duckface in all my performances until it was far too late.

At least with selfies, you can make your image truly your own.

Once I started really getting into the swing of things with DAMYS, the advertising became a bit more focused on me. Despite my protests, the people around me were telling me that my likeness was just as important to selling the concept as the name in the title. Seeing as how so many of us are somewhat unhappy with our self-image to an extent, you can see my own struggle with this fading away as the years went on;

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4 (upcoming!)

So in that way, I can see how self photography feels safe. And while I wouldn't use a selfie for promo, it's been a way to compare what I think I look like to how other people see me. That in itself has been a learning experience.

Although, please reel me in if I start to go overboard.

I will never apologize for how awesome this photo is, however.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Performance Travelling Overstimulates Me

I'm sitting in the BWI airport on the return leg of my trip to Washington DC, where I spent the weekend joining the Evil League of Ecdysiasts (a burlesque producer duo comprised of Gigi Holliday and Cherie Sweetbottom) for "Whedonism," their annual Joss Whedon tribute show. For the record, this weekend was a ton of fun and I wanted to share that with you. If you're a Whedon nerd and find yourself in Washington DC about this time next year, I would highly recommend you clear your schedule.

I also had a lot of downtime to think about things this weekend, on account of this being my first air-travel trip to another city to perform. I was simultaneously excited and flattered to have the chance to do it, and Whedonism was quite the experience. Cherie had asked me to bring up my "Spike" and "Captain America" acts, which are two of my personal favorites, and then brought me out to see Hot Todd Lincoln host his monthly show the next evening at the Bier Baron (a hotel/bar venue I had never been to despite many DC trips previously). All in all, I got to have an exciting weekend and meet a new community of great performers I wouldn't have had the chance to meet otherwise, and to get to know a performance scene I'd only heard great things about.

They let me do Spike! With Miranda Lookinglass as Cordelia.

For those of you who know my dad, you'll know that he's not the biggest fan of what I do 'on the weekends.' But since he's a huge fan of Buffy and an even bigger fan of Billy Idol, (and it happened to be Father's Day) I called him up to tell him about how much fun the whole show was, and that I loved him and might show up to family dinner in costume. That's how excited I was about this whole trip.

So what were the things I thought the most about in transit? I'm glad you asked.

In many places, male burlesque performers are a rarity.

I wasn't sure what to expect form the male performers in the nation's capital, but I kept having this idea that there were a lot of them. Having been to DC several times prior to visit my brother when he was living there, I knew that there was a vibrant gay scene, and burlesque performance tends to go hand in hand. With that said, the only male-presenting burlesque performers I met were relatively new; Baron Atomy and Danny Cavalier were two that I had met in person, the former whom I watched do a brand new concept-fresh-to-stage ice cream man strip followed immediately by a fire performance. I'd never seen a fire performance done indoors, and wasn't expecting that--but local laws and the venue both seemed cool with it (see what I did there?).

I got a similar feeling when I first performed with Lady Luck Burlesque in Portsmouth, NH. Sometimes, you are the only guy in the room, and the crowd and other performers will be looking to you to show them what a guy doing burlesque looks like. I decided that I do kinda like being an ambassador in that regard. I'd better not get caught slippin'.

...or else you'll have to sit on the ground near a bus station. With a newspaper. Or something.

Travelling is tiring/requires planning.

Two things that I'm diametrically averse to are planning things (more on this later), and being exhausted. I don't know why this always happens, but travelling makes me just want to nap. Thanks to Cherie Sweetbottom who suggested an afternoon nap time on Saturday, as this is exactly what I wanted. Work beckons and all that, but sleep is great too.

I knew I had to try and maximize my activity while I was out of town to both take advantage of my journey and to combat the costs of travel, and that required some advance planning. I'm notoriously shitty at managing my schedule, but was able to offer some available wisdom for aspiring male performers in the area. 

The point of travelling to do burlesque gigs elsewhere is truly self-defined.

I was asked by Chip Rox why I felt compelled to go to another city to do the same acts I do on Boston's stages. Was I not satisfied with being relatively in-demand in my home town?

I had to really think about this. Is it fulfilling to travel to new places and give them their first experience of what you're all about? Absolutely. Is it fun to see other performers and what ideas they have for the stage? Most definitely. Is it fun to broaden your performance network, make new friends, and connect dots between prevailing reputations and performers in the flesh? Hell yes.

But what I think is most satisfying for me is getting to be a key piece of someone else's vision. It's the most flattering thing for me to know that someone else needs what I'm about to bring, and to be humbly in service to a production that calls to you from across the expanse.

That might have been the most delightfully tacky way to say it, but I don't think I can do better. You're welcome?

I was fortunate to not have had to travel in this manner specifically. Pictured; The Expanse.

You're really limited in how you promote yourself when you travel.

I felt like being in DC was a unique experience, in that I couldn't really market myself or the show I was in too effectively, since I didn't know anybody in town. The two people I was previously familiar with prior to this were both in the show alongside me. So in that regard, I had to let go.

Producer me was silently panicking about it, since I know filling seats is in everyone's best interest. But in the end it turned out okay, everyone got paid, nobody died, and I think even some people had fun. And that's pretty neat.

When I was in Provincetown, I saw two performers I had met previously who were getting their hustle on outside the venue. While it makes more sense in a tourist destination like Provincetown to hand out flyers to fill your own seats, it's not always a viable tactic in every town you go to. 


Getting to travel to do shows rings the ego bell, and I gotta keep that in check.

As a rule of thumb, you should always be grateful for opportunities that come your way, and I'm perpetually surprised and flattered that people like the work I do and want to see it again and again. Since I started visiting other cities, I've found myself repeatedly self-assessing the person I was and still am becoming. Prior to this trip, I had several moments when I was faced with the choice of whether or not to go and do a gig out of town, and without thinking, checked my schedule to see if I could, and then said I would as soon as I knew I could. I've been finding myself saying more and more frequently things like "they need me, so I have to go," which on the surface feels like a selfless choice to help a producer out with his or her vision. It took some raw moments of honesty with myself to realize that this is something my ego sees as a way to win some new source of reputation and recognition, and that I need to make sure I'm giving the 'why' enough thought before I jump right in and commit.

One of the consequences of not doing that is that it teases out some negative aspects of my personality, and I have to be super aware of those little demons as I recognize them; self-importance, overconfidence, feeling needy for attention, boastfulness, deafness to the needs of others, and those who are important to me.

Ultimately, I have to keep reminding myself that burlesque is really just a fun hobby, and that we all love the attention we get from being on stage. We're not feeding and clothing the poor, and most of us are not making enough to call it a good living. It's a good exercise in awareness for me, and I gotta be better about doing it.

Yummy Hearts and I were not on our way to a clothing drive, nor a soup kitchen.

Some afterthoughts;

Although I wrote the majority of this after having left DC, I've since revisited and edited this after a weekend with Liberty Rose and crew in Philadelphia. All of it still rings pretty true, with the added note that I'd never performed at a con before (look up #toomanygames2016 or #broadstreetburlesque if you're curious), and that I hadn't found a better home for my Link character from Legend of Zelda. Seriously, there was so much love in that room for all of the Smash Brothers characters, and I felt it so intensely. A group of dudes all came up to me and asked if we could all take a group shirtless photo, and it was a level of brazen boldness I'd not yet seen from fans. I've just never experienced that kind of character fanaticism before, and it was amazing and humbling at the same time.

I also realized that a big part of travel is getting to experience a place, but not in quite the same way you would as a standard tourist. Burlesque performers generally have a similar taste in bars, restaurants, and activities, and I really enjoyed rolling deep as fuck with fierce performers like Liberty Rose, Dangrrr Doll, Margot Starlux, Hattie Harlowe, Morrighan Oh Tulle, and others to the nearest taqueria bar to eat soy tacos and play Ghostbusters pinball. And thanks for taking me to Wawa. I still don't quite understand, but at least I have the experience to dwell on.

Getting a first time Wawa experience courtesy of Liberty Rose. It was gentle and sweet.

Some musings on bus travel;

Bus travel pros; you can sleep, you personally don't have to deal with traffic.
Bus travel cons; Unpredictable schedule, wifi does not work as promised, guy in front of me who jacked his seat back all the way.
Bus travel chaotic neutral; Every rest stop had a Popeye's or a Burger King, which both excited and nearly destroyed me.

Finally, something I realized about being on the road was that I was going to miss all the good shows in my hometown while I was gone. While I was Spike on stage in DC for "Whedonism," my friends back in Boston were putting on another wildly successful "Once More with Pasties" Buffy burlesque show and I didn't get to see it. I also missed the "Burlesque Against Humanity" show put on by my friends at Rogue Burlesque, and I never like missing their events.

But while I was sad about missing those incredible shows, I also know that they're not the last shows I'll ever see, and that it's just as important to put time into being a fan as it is in furthering your own stage rep. Thank you all for sitting through my proverbial projector show about my glamorous vacation, and I wish safe travels to the rest of you.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

How to Interact with Performers - A Guide for Audiences

Prologue - Honestly, I thought I published this three weeks ago. Brandy Wine of Rogue Burlesque sent me a message suggesting I write about this topic, and I almost smugly responded that I had, before realized that, oh shit, I forgot to insert pictures and click 'publish.'

In summation, I am a complete space cadet.

And this is how I dress when I embrace that part of me.

Sirlesque's newly-acquired Sir Lucky Charming texted me asking if I was planning to put together a guide for patrons of burlesque about how to interact with performers, and until he asked, I hadn't given it much thought. It would make sense to build that out a little more, since I've written about how people react to performance, and the awkward and difficult situations it sometimes puts us in. So I thought I'd go for it, as it would be a nice change from the performance-focused writing I tend to publish.

Since then, I'd finished producing and hosting a show in tandem with my friend Lilith Beest called "They Live: We Strip" which was a John Carpenter themed burlesque show. The show went phenomenally well and we sold out the theater, though we did have a few hiccups that were tied directly to fans interacting inappropriately with performers. So I think this topic is timely enough.

Here's what happened.

Lilith and I had planned on doing an audience participation based costume contest at the midpoint of the show. We had introduced it, and asked if people were in costume (typically, people shout or make a cheer when you ask them questions). An audience member who was in costume, albeit not one that was even remotely on-theme, came up on to the stage and began a character monologue, and resisted most attempts at diffusing.

It finally ended when Lilith said "that's great, and we were going to say that you should tell us about it DURING INTERMISSION!"

What, these two characters couldn't retain control of their own show?

Disregarding the sad fact that this person was our only entrant, he did break a few key rules of how audience members should interact with performers, and it gave me a lot of insight on the topic.

For easier consumption, I'll post my main takeaways in the style of an easy-to-swallow listicle below.

1 - Do not disrupt the show.

Burlesque shows are loud and outrageous by nature, but this isn't by any means a grant of permission to walk onto the stage, talk to the emcees, touch or approach any of the performers, or heckle. There are situations where the audience members are invited to be involved, but that's usually curated and doesn't require your embellishments, no matter how much alcohol you've had. I've seen both new patrons and seasoned performers break these rules, and it only makes everyone uncomfortable.

2 - Keep interactions limited and polite both before/after the show.

As a performer and producer, I'm often a total mess before shows I'm working, and have easily 19 or 20 or 417 things that I need to do which are necessary to make the show happen. I also happen to be too polite to interrupt someone who has been talking to me for 15-20 minutes to tell them this and often have to be pulled away by another person who has something that needs to be addressed.

Before most shows, performers have to do makeup, tech runs, blocking, logistical planning, scripting, and taking stock of costumes and props, and don't have all that much time to talk.

After shows is usually the better time to talk to performers. For me, that's usually when the wave of adrenaline from the performance cancels out my extreme introversion and makes me excited to talk with complete strangers and fellow performers. But usually, if you don't know someone who you've watched perform, it's customary to say hello, introduce yourself, chat about the piece you did or some related topic, and then bid them a good evening.

It's always rude to interrupt people while they're talking (performer or not), but I've still had randos crash into conversations I'd been having with someone else, post up directly between me and the person I was talking to and just start saying words. Once, I had someone snap their fingers in front of my face to get my attention. As a former waiter, I have some serious trauma attached to that. Please don't ever do that.

...Regardless of whether or not I'm actually dressed as a waiter.

On that note, the next point is about boundary crossing.

3 - Do not, under any circumstances, harass or touch performers inappropriately.

I hear tons of stories from my fellow burlesque performers about show-goers who, for whatever reason, feel the need to make inappropriate comments or advances. Sometimes, fans get grabby.

One time, I was chatting with a small group of people after a show, and a group of drunk, middle-aged ladies started grinding their butts against me. I did not know these ladies, and I believe it was an overt ploy to get my attention. I ignored it, and one of them kept doing it with increasing levels of aggression until I was completely displaced from where I had originally been standing. Who does that?

Lots of people assume that since you're baring your body for them, they have carte blanche to treat you like an object. I don't know why this is, but it's not cool.

Everyone in this photo has explicit permission.

4 - Don't be mean directly or by proxy.

It gets mad awkward. For everyone.

The standout story that Lucky Charming told me was that after a performance he did, some bro-dude came up to him to tell him something to the effect of "I'm not gay, but you're a good performer," and then proceeded to tell him he "needed to work out" so he can be hotter on stage.

A lot of times, people feel  the need to tell performers about the other people in the show they didn't like or thought were ugly, not realizing that for the most part, we're all friends and hang out with each other.

If you feel the need to body shame or tell someone you hated their stuff, here's what you do. You go outside, whisper your feelings into an empty glass bottle, and then smash yourself over the head with it.

5 - If you'd like to take a photo or have some strange individual request, simply ask if it's okay to do.

This one time after I did an act at one show years ago, a pretty lady in a red dress came up to me, handed me a sharpie, and asked me if I could sign her breasts. So I did.

Another time, a gentleman approached me after a show and asked me if I would like to make out with him. I respectfully declined, and it was totally fine.

In both of these situations, someone asked for permission to do something, and both situations were totally fine and normal. See how easy?

It's much easier than what is pictured here.

In general, performers open themselves up and give the audience a kind of vulnerability. I've found that most people don't have the desire nor the fortitude to do burlesque, and many folks prefer to remain audience members as far as their willingness to participate. This has its own set of obligations and responsibilities, and as performers, we always appreciate mutual respect and curiosity.

I know I've missed one or two things that producers and performers would advise audience members, and I'd love to hear from you all about what rules are important to you. From the audience side, I'd also like to know what some of your interactions with performers were like, and the impressions it left you.

Have fun!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

How do I book more shows?

In my second amateur class that I taught for Dale's All-Male Yardsale, one of the new performers asked me a great question that I hadn't considered speaking about before.

"How do we get out into the community and start booking ourselves?"

While I gave the question the best answer I had at the time, I felt like there was a lot more to talk about on the subject. Yes, being put on stage is a great first step and is a wonderful way to make an impression with people who produce shows who might be in the audience. After all, six of the performers at my first amateur showcase went on to book other engagements.

But the more I talked to other producers in the burlesque scene both locally and far-reaching, I kept coming across prevalent attitudes, beliefs, and conditionals that I'm confident most new performers don't know.

While discussing post-show networking with fellow Sir Danny Drake, he told me something that stuck with me; "If I meet you after the show, introduce myself, shake your hand, compliment your act, and your response is 'I've been drinking and I probably won't remember your name,' it's a safe bet that I immediately don't want to work with you."

A first impression is that important. you'd better make it a good one.

Another thing that performers of all experience levels tend to forget is that producers and fellow performers vouch for the ones they like. All too often, I hear about how one performer did/said/dumped glitter on/farted near someone who had some pull in the local burlesque scene, and now that person is universally banned from performing based on the power of rumor and the unwillingness of anyone to bring up the subject directly with the offending party.

Whether or not that's fair depends on the circumstances, but it unequivocally mandates that good behavior is important.

The other side of that is something I'm proud to have experience with. If you end up booking gigs with a variety of different shows and producers, people will begin recommending you to others. For the record, there's really nothing more flattering than being contacted by a new producer who only knows you by reputation. If you're recommended because enough people think of you as reliable, friendly, and a good contributor, you're bound to find yourself in new locations with crazy props and outfits on your saucy bits that you never before thought possible.

Like soccer balls!

And then you get the performers who have inexplicably awful attitudes. One of my producer friends and the official MC of Sirlesque, Allix Mortis, is constantly on the receiving end of emails from performers who feel the need to be extremely unprofessional in how they reach out.

"There's a give and take in any professional relationship - no one is entitled to be in any particular show and a producer at the end of the day is accountable - both financially and artistically - for their show," Allix told me.

Now I don't intend to disparage burlesque as an artform here, but if 70% of all available gigs in any given town are on a carpeted stage in the back of a dive bar, you don't get to be a diva about not being booked. Having a childish attitude won't impress anyone.

Some basics, if you're thinking about reaching out to a producer asking to get booked;

#1 - Be polite and professional with how you reach out. Again, first impressions count for a lot. I asked Allix about the kinds of opening inquiries and emails they get from different performers;

"What matters to me when someone approaches me about being cast in a show is that they're polite, give me a sense of who they are, and let me know that they know a bit about my show."

"I've received form responses (and you can always tell when someone is just copy/pasting to a bunch of producers), informal notes with lolspeak and emojis, and messages that also presume that I'll just accept the person. ("In your show I"m going to do...")"

"In my book the worst things you can do when writing someone about a casting are: be rude or give away that you don't know anything about their show."

"I've never been to or heard of your show, but I assume it's just like a Gilad workout video?"

#2 - You are in no way entitled to be a part of any show. You don't get in automatically because you asked, and you aren't allowed to throw a temper tantrum if you don't get your way. This goes for new performers, but should especially never happen with performers who have been performing for some time. Allix explained;

"If the producer doesn't have a spot for you, be gracious. Name calling or trash talk or 'you're missing out' (all things I've received, or, witnessed) are really uncalled for. Not everyone is right for every show - castings are also often done months or weeks in advance."

Allix Mortis

#3 - A producer doesn't owe it to you to create a show for you to be in, just because you happen to be in town.

This is an odd one to have to mention, but sometimes there's an expectation that the burlesque community in the city you're travelling to is going to reconfigure itself to fit your travel plans. I don't know if this comes from a sense of misguided celebrity, or because of unchecked entitlement, but some folks act this way every now and again.

#4 - Be gracious, even if there isn't a spot for you.

Allix mentioned this one earlier, but it's worth having its own bullet on the list. Producers book people they like and who have made a positive impression on them, and it's super important not to take it personally.


It might be really tempting for people who have been performing a while to want to show off their feathers, but accolades are only impressive if someone else is reading them about you (or proclaiming them passionately to the audience you're about to perform for!). As producers, we all talk about performers who have reached out to us--but we talk more about the performers we love and who we plan to reach out to again. It's way more fun.

I make it a point to thank everyone who performs for me, and to thank producers who book me into shows. When you get right down to it, it's a cosmic, crazy, and improbable thing that we get to do this kind of performance, and that people are willing to pay to see it. As a producer and as a performer, it's important not to take that for granted.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Diversity on the Boston Burlesque Stage

Over the summer, the Sirs and I held auditions for Sirlesque, and the process was pretty fun. We got to see some new faces (and bodies) performing some new acts we had never seen, and ended up selecting a new dancer (Sammy Temper) and an official MC (Allix Mortis).   It wasn't until a couple weeks after we had wrapped the process that I noticed something I hadn't really paid attention to before.

When looking at photos for all of us, it occurred to me that Sirlesque was kind of....homogeneous. We're a group that lacks a specific kind of diversity.

I guess I never realized how...white...we were.

And me especially. Jeez.

Some of you out there might want to react with "wait, isn't part-time sir Willie Dumey black?" And yes, that is true. But one of the things that I started realizing over time is that the entire burlesque scene in many areas isn't super welcoming to a wide variety of performers of color. It's one thing to be open to the idea of having a broad spectrum of performers who reflect the population where you live, but it's another thing to consider why people of color don't feel drawn to the burlesque stage the way white people do.   So I thought I'd ask a few non-white performers what they thought about that.

I spoke with a few performers I admire who also happen to be non-white; Jolie Lavie, Sake Toomey, and Willie Dumey.

Jolie Lavie

Dale Stones; "So, as someone who is/presents as a non-white performer in a majority white performance scene, how did you come to define your role in Boston burlesque?"

Jolie Lavie; "I see my brand going in the direction of Vaudeville brown beauty loves 1979 in 2016. I want to be seen sexy and strong like Pam Grier with the business savvy of Ms. Josephine Baker."

Sake Toomey; "It's an ever-evolving process, especially considering my persona has changed greatly since I started 4.5 years ago. I had originally planned on Sake Toomey being a sexy ninja warrior and I've basically turned into the opposite. I'm always careful to not turn into an all-encompassing Asian stereotype/caricature, although my chosen stage name is definitely a tongue-in-cheek nod to my racial background."

Willie Dumey; "I am a little on the crazy side, a little unpredictable. I want to go higher, if someone goes gross, I get grosser. Someone wants crazy, I go crazier."

DS; "In a more general sense, how do you see the Boston burlesque scene's relationship with the concept of diversity?"

WD; "I put that stuff out of my mind because this is my escape. I could be negative and have a chip on my shoulder, but life is too short. I could talk about discrimination, I've definitely had that happen, but I gotta keep it away from my performance."

ST; "If we're speaking about racial diversity only, I think the Boston burlesque community as a whole is aware of how white it is. Everyone is in tune with the racial tension happening in our country right now and any commentary on the subject is (generally) well thought out. I'm so glad to see that there are several newcomers to the scene who are POC. I know this isn't part of the question, but I think it will be good for audience members to see more POC representation in the community as well. This past Slutcracker season, both cast A and B Fritz and Clara were POC, and it really made an impression on the audience in a good way."

Sake Toomey

JL; "We need more Asian, Indian, Hispanic burlesque dancers in Boston too. Part of this process is to make sure I stay sensitive to our differences and similarities, while keeping things sexy, fun, entertaining and most of all not insulting to anyone. I am in talks with Meff Leone about doing a Black Exploitation burlesque, right now part of this process is my asking Black people how they would feel about this type of show."

DS; "How do you feel that that kind of show would be received?"

JL; "I am getting 'Yes' from Black friends but the reality our audience is mostly white. Hence why a story like Coffy may work well because she kills everybody. Dolemite pimps the ladies out, no matter the color and I don't think any audience would be okay with a Black man pimping a woman out on any platform...My stories featuring Black men will put them in leadership sans crime roles, we have enough profiling in this country."

DS; "This one's for Willie: Is race something you think about, especially as the only male person of color in Sirlesque (and in a larger sense) one of a select few in Boston?"

Willie Dumey; "It has been a major factor in my recent step away from this last show (Stupid Cupid). Since I am one of Boston's few black burlesque entertainers, shoddy, unprepared acts will not cut it. I felt I really needed to represent up on that stage,"

Willie Dumey
WD (continued); "I'm actually hyper conscious of being an angry person--I don't want anyone to be in fear of me. I'm an older guy surrounded by 20-something year-olds, which means I feel added pressure to maintain my body. I'm an older black guy. Sometimes I'm so into a character, I often can't see what it looks like to a white audience. Remember that Zulu warrior act I did where I did that elaborate dance for the white king and queen?"

DS; "Yeah, I remember hearing different reactions of the folks around me. Everything from 'such a powerful act' to 'I can't watch this, it's crazy offensive.'"

WD; "When I talked to Dexter (Dix) after and asked him about that reaction, I remember him telling me 'Dude, you're black, you should know this.' I put that stuff out of my mind because this is my escape."

A white audience might assume we talked Willie into doing this.

DS; "One of the nagging feelings I experienced when holding auditions was that I wanted to have a more diverse cast in Sirlesque, but can't really add in more POC if they aren't coming out to perform with our group. Why do you think that might be?"

ST; "I don't think that POC are a minority in the Boston burlesque community intentionally. That's why I love Alterna-Tease. It just brings newness to the scene and such a range of talents, bodies and backgrounds. I think, also, it's going to be a slow burn, and as more POC find out about the scene it will become more diverse. Because I do think it can be intimidating for some people to try and join a community when the majority of that community is not like you (racially or otherwise)."

DS; "Is there anything else you might feel like sharing about POC in the Boston burlesque scene?"

ST; "I just hope to see more and more POC making their way into the scene, because representation matters. And I think it's really important for our audience to be able to see someone who looks like them on stage. And, selfishly, I'd love to walk into a venue for a show and not be the only nonwhite person in the cast."

JL; "I must say in my light research I have found that there are many black performers who are wanting to be part of the Boston Burlesque world. Who knew? My upcoming show will be called 'Black Love.' I am still in research phase."

Jolie Lavie

Near the end, Willie mentioned something I hadn't even thought about before. The added pressure of being the only one to represent an entire demographic on the burlesque stage in a given area raises the stakes considerably for putting out a good, memorable performance. We all try to distinguish ourselves in a variety of ways, but for non-white performers, race and outward appearance is already a noticeably distinct branding attribute that audiences are more apt to remember (e.g. "remember Willie? He was the only non-white guy in the cast.") If people are more likely to remember the performer, they are certainly more likely to remember that person's act, whether good, bad, polished, mediocre, or phenomenal.

We humans have a subtle magnetism that draws those of us who are like-minded and similar-looking together. By that same token, if you're one of only a handful of racially diverse performers in a largely white scene, there is a hyper-awareness that can occur. In performance, those differences are highlighted even further, and through many generations of social conditioning, we experience entertainment differently based on the shapes and colors of the people on stage.

I read a piece recently about the complexities of mourning celebrities who have committed sexual abuse. After reading this, I'm more certain now than I've ever been that majority white audiences look at black performers differently, and we absolutely don't treat them the same as white performers. In the media, we hear about white celebrities who are innovators, geniuses and extraordinary performers in their fields who are passively excused for sexual abuse (David Bowie, Peyton Manning, Roman Polanski, Elvis Presley) but are protected in career and legacy while black performers and innovators are not (Bill CosbyR. Kelly). While sex abuse is not okay no matter what race the perpetrator is, we are far more likely to hold black entertainers and innovators in contempt and disparage their contributions to their fields of performance and their legacies.

Willie Dumey closed our conversation with something that gave me pause;

"I have to be friendlier and more up front because of what I am on the outside."

It's so easy to be in a room full of other burlesquers who all enjoy the stage, but I know that as a white performer, I am not wondering whether or not my temperament is under a magnifying glass. I wonder if that's not a possible explanation for my original question about people of color in the Boston burlesque scene.

Creating a welcoming and accepting performance scene is a job for everybody. While it isn't as simple as posting an "all are welcome" sign out front, it is important that we keep an open dialogue with our performers of every color, in an effort understand how to make Boston burlesque a truly representative space.