Staying Safe Advice to New Performers

Good Advice on Keeping Safe by Lilly Laudanum

Bluestocking Lounge

As a new performer, the world of burlesque and cabaret is an exciting one… It can open new doors to new pathways in life, it can open you up to new friends and experiences… You might be offered a lot of shows, which is good, as we bet you are keen to get on that stage and perform! But while not wanting to put anyone off by any means, we’ve compiled some advice that will hopefully keep you safe… 

First and foremost – you don’t have to do every show you are offered… 

This might sound ridiculous, especially from people saying do as many shows as you like, but please be choosy and think about the kind of shows you are offered. Make a list of shows you respect and have heard good things about and apply to them and ask other performers their advice on the best shows to…

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Is there a crisis in burlesque?

Today I found out about two more established UK performers who have given up burlesque. Both of these were talented, creative and quirky ladies who worked hard and brought a lot to the stage. And they aren’t the only ones; this year we have already lost more than one long-time performer, and there are rumblings from several others about not feeling it as much, any more; myself included.

Others have written thoughtful pieces on giving up and/or the reasons for feeling less than happy with burlesque, Millie Dollar, Tiger Tiger,  Ivy Wilde, Dr Lucky, and there were a few commonalities between these writings;

– It’s not what it used to be: people seem to miss the camaraderie and support of the days when burlesque was newer and more personal.

– The competitiveness, reduced fees and reduced opportunities of an over-saturated scene.

– Personal life vs performing life clashes or imbalances

– The privileging of bling, glitz and looks over creativity, DIY and experimental performance (although the two, of course, are not necessarily mutually exclusive!)

While these things may or may not be new problems for burlesque, what gets me wondering is why performers are choosing to step away rather than fight to change what they would like to see change? I can’t answer for anyone but myself, so here is what I currently feel about burlesque and why I am thinking about stepping back.

Burlesque, at the moment, just isn’t the burlesque I started performing for. While there are still people pushing the envelope, the humour, the oddball fun, the random creativity, the “do whatever the flip you want and see what happens”-ness of it has diminished, from my perspective. Of course, you can still do these things, but its not where the money or the prestige is. I am seeing increased admiration (from performers, promoters and audience) of stereotypical beauty, expensive sparkling costumes, and increased amounts of newcomers who aspire to that kind of performance. And while there is still ample room for quirky, character or story-based acts, it is rarer to see these acts at the top of a bill.

Now I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this, per se, but for me, that isn’t what burlesque should be exclusively or even mainly about. Burlesque should be diverse and subversive and grassroots as well as polished, expensive and celebrating a particular aesthetic. There should be similar amounts of people coming into burlesque who want to be comediennes, clowns, weirdos, experimental artists, story tellers, genderfuckers and boundary pushers, as want to be Swarovski-bedecked queens of burlesque, the next Dita Von Teeses.

So, fight for it, some people say. Make the burlesque you want to be. And I get this, its an admirable sentiment. But to be brutally honest, I don’t know whether that is a fight I want to have. I’m knackered.  And if the experimental side of burlesque is to survive and flourish, it will be led by performers far more talented and creative than me.

So is burlesque in crisis? Is it changing for the worse? I don’t know. Perhaps this is the just the way burlesque is growing, changing, developing. Things can’t stay the same forever. As we get more and more “professional” level shows, the stakes get higher, the pressure increases, and those who can’t make the grade, don’t. But it bothers me when brilliant performers say to me things like:

“I realised if I wanted to get anywhere in burlesque, really, I would have to start doing classic”

“Lots of people weren’t interested in what I did because I wasn’t as beautiful as the other girl I was with, and I was too weird.”

But then we look at the people who are particularly up-and-coming, and we see a fierce, bizarre dancer, a Dita-a-like sylph, a comedienne and circus performer, a showgirl of ample proportions, a bump n grinder, a gender-fucking show boy, so maybe things aren’t always how they seem. That variety is still there, in many ways. I know there are brilliant performers representing all sides of the burlesque coin, and while I yearn for the weird, the crazy, the hilarious and the queer to be as enticing to newcomers as the glamorous, there is still so much life left in the old girl Burlesque, yet.  It will be interesting to see where we go next.

Eight things burlesque couldn’t exist without

Eight things, without which burlesque as we know it would not exist:

1.Facebook

Without the Book of Faces, how could we find gigs and tell everyone about our lives? (possible answer: go back to MySpace…)

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2.Money

Without money, how could we buy pretty things to throw on the floor and get stolen by drunk audience members?

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3. Music

Without music, how could we do all the ridiculous things we do on a stage, and still look cool?

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4.Audience

Without an audience, who would clap and cheer even when we get stuck in our clothes and can’t get out?

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5.Rude Body Parts

Without rude body parts, we would really be pushed for material. How would we end our acts?

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6.Fabric

Without fabric to wave about, look exciting or take off, what would we actually do in our acts? Burlesque strippers need clothes.

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7.Sex

Without sex, would people really have kept watching burlesque for over a hundred years? Hmmmm let me think….Image

8.A Sense of Humour

Without a sense of humour, would any of us still be doing this?

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Reviews & Feedback- What are they good for?

Burlesque is a very supportive world. We praise and encourage each other, we cheer each other on. Constructive feedback is rare and any reviews tend to be either descriptive or uncritically glowing.

It is quite an unusual situation, as most other creative scenes are known for their brutal feedback and often unflinching review process. So what are the positives and negatives of reviews and feedback? Does it matter that we don’t really have these things?

Feedback
In some ways, the lack of critical feedback makes it harder for us to see our performances clearly- if everyone constantly tells you that you are AMAZING, then you will probably think you are, even if you are not. Alternatively, you get the situation where if people don’t tell you you were good, but just don’t say anything, you interpret that as “you were crap”, and get paranoid and frustrated because it is so uncertain (if you are me!).Feedback, delivered in the right way, allows us to develop and improve as performers, and have a more realistic idea of our abilities as performers. But not all feedback is equal; what makes it good?

Experience Feedback from someone who has seen a lot, made a lot of their own mistakes, can be valuable. An experienced person is better placed to advise, than someone who is not. Peer review, even if your peers are not particularly experienced, can be useful too, but is likely to be more based on opinion.

Constructive All criticism should come with an explanation and a solution. It is not enough to say “that doesn’t work”, it needs to be followed up with “and this is why” and some suggestions of how to solve the problem. And its not about being told what to do- a good act doctor will work with you to find the best ways to do things. After all, it’s your act!

The shit sandwich; all feedback should a mixture of what works and what doesn’t, because you learn from successes as well as failures.

Impartial Feedback should be without agenda! Choose carefully who you ask for feedback, because even a performer friend might not be able to be impartial, if they are in competition with you for shows. A teacher, an impartial performer or someone you trust implicitly is best.

Reviews
Reviews are a similar kettle of fish- if done constructively and well, they can be useful; if written from inexperience or with an agenda, perhaps less so.

Up to press (with one or two notable exceptions), reviewing in burlesque has mainly followed the same pattern- it is either purely descriptive, overly negative, or too nice, which is of limited use. How can we use reviews to our advantage as performers?

A good review will be impartial (to the extent that this is possible; reviewers are people with motives and predispositions, like everyone else). It will not simply describe a show, it will look at it critically, mentioning good points, bad points and points for improvement. It should give you an idea of what to expect from a performer or show. It will do more than describe a show or act; it will analyse. But what use can we, the performers, make of reviews? Here are a couple of tips.

Take it with a pinch of salt

A review is just someone’s opinion. If they say you are AMAZEBALLS, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are. If they say you are TOTAL SHIT, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should sack it all in. Learn to spot the constructive points and use them, but beware of absolute statements about your crapness or brilliance. Just because this reviewer loves you, doesn’t mean the next one will and just because this reviewer hated your act, doesn’t mean the next guy will. 

Use the comments to develop

If its a proper review it will have some comments you can use to your advantage. If the reviewer says your narrative was rushed, or your striptease was clumsy, or your jokes fell flat, consider it. The point of being an entertainer is to please the audience, so although you should take it with a pinch of salt as mentioned above, don’t dismiss comments out of hand. You may be convinced that they are wrong for not understanding your narrative or for disliking the way you take your gloves off, but maybe there is something you can learn from these comments. Be brave, and consider that this time you might not have hit the nail on the head. F*cking up isn’t the end of the world, and you can always do better next time.

Don’t take it too personally

It can be really harsh if you get negative criticism in a review, particularly if it only points out the bad stuff with no constructive comments. You may be tempted to go online and complain, you might want to challenge the review or send an angry email to the reviewer (remember in Friends when Monica stalked the guy who called her Mahi Mahi “awful awful”?). DON’T DO THIS! This person is entitled to their opinion and entitled to publish it. Getting dodgy reviews is part of show biz. Take a deep breath, see if you can extract anything useful from the comments to improve your performance, then move on. Just because Lydia Thompson allegedly beat up a chap who gave her a bad review, doesn’t mean you should. 

All this sounds brilliant! What is the problem? Why are we not all over feedback and proper reviews? I will tell you why: BECAUSE IT FRICKING HURTS!

Boy does it sting when someone criticises your work. Your act, your brand, you product; its your baby. Its your creation. It is not easy to have someone come in and tell you that it is not a brilliant as you hoped. But no one can get it totally right all of the time, and you can learn so much from buggering up. If you have a problem in life, you go to your wisest confident for advice, right? And the same in burlesque- 2 expert heads are always going to be better than one. Even if you reject the feedback ultimately, it can only make you more aware as a performer, to find out about other points of view.

In some ways, the supportive, uncritical nature of burlesque is fortunate. It allows the tentative and inexperienced performer to find their feet and develop without their confidence being knocked. I personally avoided proper feedback for years because of my own lack of confidence, but when I actually got it, it did me good. We need to learn not to fear feedback- YOU DONT HAVE TO BE FLAWLESS ALL THE TIME! MAKING MISTAKES DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE NOT A GOOD PERFORMER, IT JUST MEANS YOU MADE A MISTAKE.

So there is a lot to be gained from feedback and constructive review, as scary as it can seem.

But just to prove that reviews are not the be-all-and-end-all final word on your worth as a performer, here are some funny review comments I have encountered that show that reviewers can be less than credible…

“The lead singer had the most atrocious and unbelievable fake French accent” (the lead singer was genuinely French)

“The dancers were terrible and not professional” (they were trained ballerinas)

<pThe women had really bad make-up, really overdone" (its called stage make-up)

“witless and synthetic” (first review of Les Miserables the show)

 

The Promotion Problem: Should you fake it til you make it?

I was recently talking with a friend of mine about “faking it til you make it”- projecting the illusion of success until so many people believe you that it becomes the truth. This got me thinking about the ethics of promotion and marketing (if such things can ever go hand in hand!). What is promotion, and how can we put it to best use without going too far?

Whilst most of us would be uncomfortable with using lies to promote ourselves, or even with too much exaggeration; most of us could also probably stand to be a bit more forward when it comes to self-promotion. It would be great to be able to hire a real PR wizard, but the majority of us can’t afford this, and we have to do it ourselves. Its up to us how we represent ourselves, so where is the line between dressing up the truth in a sparkly dress and taking it out on the town, and putting sequins on bullshit?

Promotion is necessary-that is how we advertise our product and get work. So how do we get it right? How do we make sure our promo is not too dull, not too over the top? Wikipedia clarifies PR as follows…

“What good PR really does is find the great stories, information, perspective and achievements that are already there…s

So PR is pulling out the great things you do and are, and making sure everyone knows about it, rather than inventing something that is not there, leading others to believe something that is not quite true.

As I have said in many of the burlesque advice sessions I do, its definitely good to project an air of business and success on line. Seem busy, seem productive, seem in demand, by blowing your horn about what you are up to. And when writing blurb- don’t undersell yourself, promote your good points, be dazzlingly factual. Easier said than done, right? Most of us have horribly buggered up our blurb and promo stuff at some point- underplayed ourselves so no one would want to book us, or grossly overblown our own merit etc. When I think of some of the bloopers I have written in the past… cringe! But its a learning curve, and its bound to happen.

Here are some examples of different ways to present yourself on-line:

You meet your friends for lunch. They are performers in their own right who run a successful show in a nightclub. They ask you to perform in a couple of months time, over lunch. How do you sell this?

Post 1. The everyday post

“Went for lunch today with @Rosie Lips and @Dita Goodrack #burlyteaandcakes”

PR impact: Not huge, it lets people know you have been up to burly stuff but is pretty functional and descriptive

Post 2. The rose-coloured tint post

“Great lunch today with @Rosie and @Dita, interesting conversation and wonderful ladies, some exciting projects coming up soon! #excitingburlesquetimes”

PR impact: Good, keeps people interesting and makes you sound busy and exciting. Yes, this kind of post is also a bit annoying sometimes, but it does the PR job.

Post 3. The overblown post

“So honoured to have been invited to lunch with international showgirls @Rosie Lips and @Dita Goodrack, and to have been specially selected to perform at their no 1 show! #successfulshowgirlsuperstarsOMG”

PR Impact: Strong but use with caution, can backfire if overused/misused.

Obviously the line can be very fine, and its not always easy to decide if your promotional statement goes too far or not far enough! You sing a couple of songs at some small gigs, should you market yourself as a SINGER? You do a few TF shoots, are you now a SUCCESSFUL MODEL? And so forth.

Things to think about…

Who are your audience?

Who are you aiming your promo at? If you are pitching to the burlesque world, it might be worth considering that people will be able to spot hyperbole, to an extent, because they know you, they know the scene, the shows, the agents, the bookings, and each other. You can still make yourself sound good, of course, but outright fibs or huge exaggerations might be counter-productive. But if it is an outside audience that doesn’t know you from Adam or Eve, then perhaps be a bit more grandiose can work better.

What are you trying to achieve?

Have a plan. Have a brand and play to it. Think about of what you are trying to convince people, what you are trying to achieve. What is your marketing goal, how do you want to be seen? As suggested by Ivy Wilde, it is good to remember that things like social media are a tool and what you put on there, represents you as a professional product as well as a person. Are you drawing attention to your achievements? Are you bigging yourself up a bit, making yourself sound good? Do you want people to think you are doing well at what you do? Great, that’s PR. If your promotion would lead people to think you are way more accomplished, successful, famous or whatever than you are, or that you are doing things that you are not, then it might be worth a rethink. Because if you make the people who are paying expect more than you can give, it could backfire. You don’t want to disappoint your bookers or the viewing public.

BUT!!! And this is a big but (huh huh), it really is possible to convince people that you are what you say, especially if you are pretty, charismatic, and they are drunk/or don’t know a lot about whatever it is you are claiming to be queen of. I know it is controversial and we don’t like the idea that success in life doesn’t necessarily come from hard work, skill and talent, but you CAN become famous just for being famous, by pretending to be famous. Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee, Lydia Thompson, they were shameless publicity hounds who would not let a small thing like the truth stop them from marketing themselves as the queens of burlesque, and eventually they became the queens of burlesque. Obviously, they were all marvellous, but you get my gist. I am sure we can think of many celebs who got where they are through clever marketing alone. And to be fair, being a PR evil genius is a talent in itself! Shameless self-promotion is part of burlesque history.

I love how home-grown burlesque is, how hard we work to get where we are. We practice, we slog, we devote ourselves, we work our way up from the ground, and we hopefully see rewards. Perhaps it would be a shame to see all that left behind for a culture of slick marketing and a glossy schtick. Perhaps it would encourage art less if we all start valuing fame over art. Or maybe that is how burlesque will move on. I personally want to earn my way to success then get noticed, not blag my way to the top THEN get earn it, if you get what I mean. But I am aware that this is probably not always the most effective way to do things, in a cut-throat media-soaked world. After-all, a certain Mrs Marylin Manson marketing herself cleverly was a big reason why the modern revival got a kick-start in the first place!

Other viewpoints welcome, please comment!