Full disclosure: I'm feeling a little conflicted as I sit down to write this piece. This past weekend, I went on a burlesque binge—four shows in three days—and the conflicts of interest began immediately.
A performer at one show, an old friend, sent me a drink. The producer of another show, someone who works at a local orgasm-related enterprise that I've been writing about for years, asked me to "write only positive things!" A performer at a third show said she loved my column, and a performer at yet another show grabbed me on the way out and said that she used to work with my dad in San Diego.
So, yeah, I'm feeling just a little conflicted.
Because the whole purpose of my burlesque binge—Sinner Saint Burlesque at Noc Noc, Stripped Screw Burlesque in Paradise Glossed: Airbrushing the American Dream at Rendezvous, the Atomic Bombshells in Nightfall in New Orleans at the Triple Door, and Cabaret & Burlesque Behind the Pink Door at the Pink Door—was to be critical. Because without some negative feedback, without criticism, the local burlesque bubble is destined to burst.
Remember drag? Drag queens were the darlings of the club and alternative-performance scenes in the 1990s. Back then, every bar had a drag show, every theater was doing a crossdressed production of something-or-other, and no fundraiser or arts event was complete without at least one drag performance. As the scene boomed, the half talents and the opportunists poured in. Soon there were too many shows and too many queens, and a lot of it was crap. The barrier to entry was simply too low: A guy just had to be willing to put on a dress. When audiences caught on—when they finally admitted to themselves that they were watching an awful lot of crap—the drag bubble burst and the audiences disappeared. The drag scene limps along to this day, a poorly made-up shadow of its former self.
While attending burlesque shows, I've detected some of the same weaknesses that led to the downfall of drag. There's the same inflated sense of cultural importance, the same hunger for attention and affirmation that is sometimes confused with talent, the too-low barrier to entry: A girl just has to be willing to take off a dress.
The burlesque revival is going strong—we're in year seven with all the books, documentaries, and classes—but it could all come to an abrupt end. Luckily for burlesque, however, the cure for what ails the art form is present in its DNA. For the last seven years, the local burlesque revival has been about empowering and affirming performers. The time has come to empower burlesque's audience.
It would certainly be in the spirit of traditional burlesque. During vaudeville and burlesque's heydey, audiences were tough. Producers pulled together programs, tossed new acts out onstage, and if an audience was bored or unimpressed, the performer knew it. There was no polite applause, no sense that the performer, by simply walking out onstage, was entitled to anything. Burlesque audiences directed and edited shows by booing, talking during numbers, and occasionally throwing things. And if the burlesque revival wants to live much longer, it should encourage its audiences to do the same.
Thursday night, Sinner Saint Burlesque at Noc Noc: The show began with the MC instructing the audience to cheer whenever one of the girls shimmied or removed an article of clothing. The only "correct answer" when a girl took something off, we were told, was "WOO!"
Being told that the evening's performers can't inspire spontaneous "WOO!"-ing is not a great way to start a burlesque show, but there was a lot of good stuff at Sinner Saint—some great dancing, some great stripping, and a couple of really solid numbers. The show, however, was way too long, with two intermissions and little eternities passing between each number. And there were three routines that an empowered audience would've booed off the stage: an inept, amateurish cancan number that "paid off" by flashing a huge pair of bedazzled granny panties (?); a Charlie Chaplin routine about (I shit you not) making a sandwich; and a short selection from Riverdance. All three numbers felt like padding—and a show that clocks in at nearly three hours does not need padding.
Friday night, Stripped Screw Burlesque at Rendezvous: There was no MC for Paradise Glossed—a welcome change after the meanderings of the MC at Sinner Saint—and this show, unlike most, had more on its mind than reviving burlesque. Stripped Screw is a "post-modern burlesque" troupe, which meant more contemporary music and actual ideas. The five performers stripped about greed, about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, about the devil, fame, pain, and the ways in which women are oppressed by unrealistic beauty ideals. It sounds grim here on the page, but Stripped Screw's show flew by—one hour, no intermission—and the action engaged your crotch and your brain.
One problem for traditional burlesquers is their predictability: Women trot out in dresses, they remove their satin gloves, their dresses, we see their tits, and NEXT! But Stripped Screw managed to play with our expectations and kept things flying along.
Saturday night, the Atomic Bombshells at the Triple Door: Cut the gymnastics number, write some jokes for the MC, and stop lecturing us about the history of burlesque. Don't tell us you're "the custodians of this art form," be the custodians of this art form. It's harder for the Atomic Bombshells to surprise us because they're all about preserving traditional burlesque—but it did happen in one number. An inexperienced hooker sat on a sofa while two more experienced hookers prepared to undress her, presumably for a client. Suddenly, the two older hookers broke into a spirited and accomplished Charleston. When the younger hooker joined them and the three began to tap-dance, well, you could feel the energy level in the room shoot through the roof. This was a surprising and delightful moment in a show that could use more surprises and delight. Many of the numbers were explicitly virtuous—the performers are good citizens for preserving these dances and the memories of the dancers who created them; we're good citizens for showing up to watch and applaud.
Playing it too virtuously gave the show a museum-piece feel that was sometimes deadly. The MC—who should talk less and/or be funny more—kept telling us that the show was edifying. And it was. We learned a bit about the history of burlesque, we learned the backstories of some once-famous burlesque stars, but we didn't see a show that came alive. It was beautiful but static, highly accomplished but it wasn't anything you couldn't see on a cruise ship. It lacked heat, danger, and eroticism.
Saturday night late show, Cabaret & Burlesque Behind the Pink Door at the Pink Door: This one was short and sweet—a little late-night fun, something to put your date in the mood, with more heat and sexiness than the other three shows. And it was the least predictable—with fire eating, contortionism, a drag king, and some actual singing.
All four troupes have to graple with the form's predictability—which is deadly when coupled with the scene's culture of affirmation and support. There's too much self-regard, too much self-love, too much basking in the audience's presumed affections—and not enough effort to win or keep them.
A word about the MCs: Traditional MCs were frustrated losers and schlumps who couldn't get with the girls—just like the frustrated losers in the audience, men who wouldn't be at a burlesque show if they could get the girls.
Sinner Saint Burlesque needs a new MC: She just milled around the stage doing stream-of-consciousness vamping—we only knew she was a comedian because she kept telling us that. The Atomic Bombshells' MC needed to bring more jokes, less history lesson. The weekend's best MC, Armitage Shanks at the Pink Door, struck just the right tone: He was a Victorian music-hall barker, a sinister and louche presence who put some sex in the air and got the acts on and off quickly. Unlike the weekend's other MCs, he didn't seem to think the show was all about the MC.
A word about the dancers: If your entire act consists of parading around in an outfit, and then removing that outfit, that outfit had better be spectacular and the removal of it had better be (a) seamless and (b) compelling. If too many numbers—I'm looking at you Sinner Saint Burlesque—feature girls in very similar outfits removing them in very similar styles, well, that gets tedious after a while. The first Hello, Dolly! dress should get cheers while it comes off, the second should get "Take it off" (read: "Hurry it up"), and the third should get booed off.
I have to acknowledge that I'm arguing with success here. All four shows I saw last weekend were packed. But every last drag show in Seattle was just as packed—until they weren't anymore. Lots of burlesque performers sat in the audience at each of the four shows. It's great that burlesque performers want to see each other's work, of course, and that the scene is so supportive. But a scene that's too supportive and uncritical can become incestuous and closed when performers stop doing it for the audiences and only do it for each other.
It's a sign of decadence—but the wrong kind. It's not the kind of decadence that thrills and arouses. It's the kind of decadence that precedes decay and collapse.