Fraud Syndrome and being a bit sh*t

Recently someone asked me for my opinion about why we get bullying in burlesque. The obvious (and age old) answer is jealousy (natural, understandable and something we have to acknowledge- see previous post, but the other key things are people just feeling really worried and crap about themselves and their ability as a performer, feeling inadequate, feeling like you have snuck on stage and someone will eventually realise and scream “You! Get off the stage!! You are not a proper performer!”

 Fraud syndrome, I call it (and yep, I have it).

I think burlesque is unique (except maybe for stand up comedy??) in that it allows people with no background in performing arts, no training and no skill to get on a stage in front of paying audiences and perhaps build a career out of this. And thank god for that cos if it didn’t  I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing 7 years later, for I was one of the “No training no skill no background” new performers.

What do I mean by skill? People often get very uptight when this is said, I assume cos it isn’t clear what is meant by skill. To be a skilled performer, you have to have a skill, and usually you will have trained for a long time to have that skill, circus school stage school performing arts qualification ballet school etc. You will be a dancer, a juggler, an aerialist, a singer and so forth. However, by saying “not a skilled performer” I don’t mean the performer is crap. Saying someone is not skilled is NOT AN INSULT!!. Nor am I saying you cant learn to be skilled at burlesque without having trained in a specific discipline. So you can be a good performer, an entertaining performer, without being skilled, trained etc.  I am not particularly skilled, though am more so than I was at first.
So many of us come into burlesque without any background in performing arts. It doesn’t mean we aren’t good or that we wont do well, but we will be aware of the gap between us and those that are trained and skilled.

I remember vividly the first time I performed in a theatre (theatre lounge but still), the Royal Court in Liverpool, back in 2008. It was for Retrotease which pre-dated the Martini Lounge. As I sat in the dressing rooms, looking at the actual lights round the mirrors and listening to the stage sound being played to us through speakers, I could not believe I was there. And in part, that has never gone away. Perhaps for those of us who don’t have the theatrical background, we will always feel a bit like we have snuck in the back door and shouldn’t really be allowed. Perhaps trained people feel that too, I don’t know.

Anyway, there is a point to this, here it comes: if we have fraud syndrome we can be very sensitive about receiving anything but positive feedback. I know that it took me 4 years to work up the courage to seek out brutal, honest feedback from an experienced person. If anyone had given me that before that point, I think it would have knocked my already-fragile confidence to the point I would have given up. Because I felt I shouldn’t really be there. 

So there is something to be said for the supportive nature of the “oh you were great” burlesque culture. It allows us to build our confidence in an area where usually we would not even get a look-in. 

But all the support is not necessarily good either. With constructive and honest criticism, we can grow. An act that 2 or 3 people have advised you upon to WILL be better than one you create by yourself. Without this kind of feedback, we risk not giving ourselves the opportunity to develop and improve as performers. 

 (not sure I agree totally with this Bambi pic but you get the gist)

Why is it so hard to be honest with ourselves about the times we are shit? We are all shit sometimes. No one, hardly anyone anyway, is consistently brilliant. Fraud syndrome is key, I think. I also think that because our routines are created by us, our inspirations, creations, our babies, part of who we are, it all becomes extremely personal, difficult to be objective about. It is too easy to create a couple of good acts and think that means we are good all the time. Some acts work, some dont. Some acts draw on your strengths, some dont, etc. 

If we got to a point where we weren’t afraid of constructive advice, but valued it and sought it out from the very beginning, we would be better all round, more honest and more realistic about our abilities, and we would feel more confident. No more fraud syndrome, no more defensiveness, nicer community. Maybe. 

But how can we get there? How to combat that fraud feeling, without making burlesque less accessible to people without the performance training? Its probably a whole culture change- and not just for burlesque- we live in the “some people get everything without working for it/being good at anything” culture, thank you reality TV… 

And we need to recognise the distinction between skilled, professional, amateur etc. Its confusing cos you may enjoy a small show in the back of a pub with new performers just as much as a big show with professionals. But its recognising that you can be entertaining without being skilled, and that there is a difference. Yes, we want to be entertained by burlesque shows, but once you get to professional level shows, you also expect to see people doing something you couldn’t, to see people who are clearly skilled. If you put that rip roaring fun newbie show from the local bar on an opera house stage, you would get complaints- from people who would probably enjoy it in the bar! 

So I keep saying to people, don’t be afraid to be shit. It doesn’t mean you will always be shit and you should sack it all in, just work on it! Its advice that, I admit, I struggle to follow myself. I get really despondent when I feel I haven’t performed well. 

And fight the fraud feeling. Never feel you don’t deserve to be there. Successful promoters aren’t stupid, although they do have their own preferences, they pick you cos they think they will at least break even with you on the bill, and the audience will enjoy your performance. And if you really think you got in on an epic show cos your mate runs it and chose to sacrifice the quality of their show and their own money and reputation just to give you a break *, well, start working harder on your act so next time they do you that favour, you can feel you belong there. 

*We all know that people sometimes get booked for reasons other than or supplementary to their ability, but only to a point- see above point about money and reputation.

This blog was originally written a year ago and posted elsewhere, if it seems familiar!