Oct 25, 2011

Advice for New Performers

My first kittening gig at Duane Park. Taken by Jo Weldon, Headmistress of the School of Burlesque in NYC.
The picture you see above is taken at my first stage kittening gig ever in NYC. I had just finished taking a month long course at Jo Weldon's School of Burlesque during, what I call, "The Winter of My Liberation". It was a cold, cold winter and I had broken up with someone whose name I can't even remember now (lol), so I decided to finally take action and pursue my irrepressible burlesque curiosity. Why not? I thought to myself as I perused the school's web site. Nobody can mind your bizniz when you're single and you don't have to explain nothin' to nobody! So I clicked on the submit button and started a whole new career I never thought could be mine.

A few new performers have emailed me from my Facebook account and from this blog asking for advice on how to get started on their budding burlesque career. This is definitely something I could have used more when I was starting out. If I went back in time and gave newbie me advice, I would offer the following:

1. Kittening is invaluable. That is where you are introduced to the community, to producers, seasoned performers, and other good people to know. It is also where I learned how other people produce a show from how to put things together, how to negotiate with the venue, things that you need, all the various details that make a show run smoothly. I kittened for over a year before transitioning out of kittening as a performer. Stage kittening is not a lucrative, stand around look pretty, and get drunk gig. Stage kittens get more stage time on stage than performers, they are also the direct link to the stage for performers, and they are the ones who will retrieve all the precious costume pieces back successfully. One trick I used to have when kittening longer, complicated shows is to ask each performer how many costume pieces they will discard on stage and match those numbers up. Often you are retrieving thongs and panties from dark corners so having a number to tally up for each performer really helped. I've never had a kitten lose a piece of costume until recently and it's a performer's worst heartbreak - losing an important costume piece that sometimes is impossible to recreate.

Lefty Lucy, co-producer of Drive-Thru Burlesque, founding member of StoryBook Burlesque, AND Miss Coney Island 2011, also had this to say about the value of kittening:
Stage kittening is awesome! Some people have attitude about it, but it's a wonderful way to get paid to go see a show you would have seen anyway, plus you get to hang out with the performers backstage, and your name will be in the promo material so that other performers start to hear about you more.

2. Go see the shows you want to be in. One of my biggest pet peeves is getting booking inquiries from people who have never been to any of my shows. All four of my shows vary tremendously in style and what kind of acts I can and can not book. This may be surprising to many people, but I work very hard at my relationships with the venues I work with and I book to their preference. For instance, I will never book a bloody neo-act at Hotel Chantelle's Friday night show but I will book that kind of act for Nurse Bettie on Thursdays and at Beatles Burlesque. So when someone emails me and asks to be booked at Nurse Bettie for their act that has a gigantic costume, I won't even reply because if they had taken the time to come to Nurse Bettie, they would know there is no room whatsoever for a big costume on stage or off stage.

Honi Harlow, producer and host of the Wednesday night show at Nurse Bettie and "Harlow's Hideaway" at Ella Lounge said:

It definitely helps when looking for new performers if I have meet you, and you have seen the show, the space, the vibe ect. 

Jo Weldon, who is many of our "first encounter" (haha), suggests:
The best way to learn about burlesque and network in the burlesque world is to just go to shows and say hello to people. Many of my students have made friends in classes and at showcases and have gone on to produce shows or create troupes with those friends.
Be willing to intern on shows in other ways than as a performer. Kitten, go-go dance, help with merch and the door. You'll learn a lot really fast.

Depending on how much free time and money one has in the "fun fund", going to see shows is the best way to introduce yourself to the producers. For me personally meeting someone in person will cement their names and personality in my mind more so than a Facebook "poke", know what I mean? When I first started I made a list of shows I would like to perform in and just went down the list one by one. You have to remember also that many producers (not all, some like to book the same regular performers again and again) like to book new people. New performers often bring their friends to their debut which means a bigger house which means more financial gain for everyone in the show.

Sizzle Dizzle, co-producer of Drive Thru Burlesque, agrees by saying:
Go see shows! We love seeing burly-q peeps out in the audience- the sense of community is so refreshing. Introduce yourself to the producer(s) and let them know you're interested in performing. We love new blood!


3. Have proper backstage behavior.  I've been lucky to have worked with performers and aspiring performers alike who have not been divas or nuisance backstage. I have heard stories however and have witness things going awry backstage. There has been plenty of times when someone is just a little too crazy, chatty, or off their rockers before and during a show - that kind of hectic energy is NOT appreciated or constructive to everyone's headspace at a show. It is NOT cute. Not cool. And NOT fabulous. I understand the excitement of working behind-the-scenes and meeting legends like World Famous Bob, Angie Pontani, Murray Hill or any of the performers one have admired from afar and now they are right in front of you. But you have to remember that this is a show and everyone is trying to bring their A-game, run through their acts, and get themselves organized. Producers usually have all of that to keep track of on top of all the other details of running the show. So offer your availability to help if they need anything, be alert and helpful, and stay out of people's way. Don't monopolize people's time backstage with endless chatter about your day, your love life, what you had for lunch - unless someone is starting the conversation and wants to chit chat with you.

A lot of backstage behavior is common sense. Observe and learn. Another interesting point that Jo mentioned that I didn't think of before is how to present yourself in front of seasoned performers. Jo adds:
Remember that they love that you love burlesque, but if you come across as too ambitious they may be uncomfortable. It may seem to you like they have burlesque on a silver platter, but everybody has to work hard to get gigs, so respect that they don't have it as easy as it may appear.
The bubbling enthusiasm of a new performer who wants to discuss her acts and ideas can sometimes be misconstrued. It's important to frame yourself in a constructive manner. Here's an example:
Bad: "OMG, I have this act where I'm wearing (fill in the blank) and I do (fill in the blank), then in the end I (fill in the blank). Isn't it awesome? I have never seen ANYONE do anything like my idea. I really think I will go far in burlesque!"
Better Way of Phrasing: "I am working on a new act that involves me doing (fill in the blank) - what do you think?"
Jo offers the following suggestion:
Get to know several experienced performers and ask them what they love to see new performers do. What they hate to see new performers do sometimes has something to do with personal issues, so frame it positively — ask them what they'd like to see and consider whether those are things that help you do what you want to do with burlesque.
In Jo's "The Burlesque Handbook" she dedicates a chapter on backstage etiquette. This is an absolute must-read. You can read some of the highlights from this chapter at her website at http://www.schoolofburlesque.com/theburlesquehandbook/excerpt.shtml 

Kittening for one of Jo's shows in Coney Island. I was a BAD maid who kept stealing other people's costumes!

4. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. My last piece of advice is to stop comparing yourself to other performers. This is applicable in all aspects of life, not just in burlesque. It's human to compare oneself to others and gauge how successful or not successful you are. But the danger is when you become angry and jealousy rears its ugly head. I've seen this happen several times in burlesque friendships. There is constructive comparison where you see something amazing and you go, "I wonder how I can elevate my act so that it's on the same level of BAM as so-and-so's act" - and I don't mean copying someone's choreography or costuming ideas. Ask yourself what makes that particular act so amazing: is it the performer's commitment to the persona? Is it the music choice? Often it is just experience and who they are that makes their act amazing. Constructive comparison also includes, "What are they doing differently that I'm not?" Perhaps that performer spends more time networking or use her nights off taking sewing or dance classes to help her create better costumes or enhance her stage presence. It could be anything. There's just no way to know scientifically or objectively. Our business is based on personal preferences stemmed from individual personal histories that have been influenced by a gazillion things. Going down the path of negative comparison and asking "Why did so-and-so get this and not me?" only breeds paranoia.

In my most defeated hour (I was this close in quitting burlesque completely in the beginning after experiencing a few rejections), I caught myself doing the "destructive comparison" - the "why her and not me" - which didn't lead to anything pro-active or made myself feel better about anything. So I sat down and took a hard, honest look and realized that I wasn't developing acts I was completely committed to. They just weren't "me".

And on this point, Vivienne Vermouth, burlesque performer and producer of Broads & Panties in my hometown Dallas, Texas and also a crazy talented makeup artist, advices:

Find the niche of burlesque that speaks to you (classic, neo, horror, etc) and really ponder, write out, and create stories to tell on stage. If you put your heart and soul into a routine, it shows, and your passion will get you booked. It also helps to go to area shows, be a supporting patron, and chat up the producers. Offer to help on a show, learn the ropes and you'll soon be in like flynt!

It may also help to take other classes to help you expand and figure things out. Jo also advices performers to take dance and theater classes as well as burlesque classes to help one grow and be inspired via other mediums.

Juliet Jeske, a chameleon hostess who used to produce Wham, Bam, Slam and a baker extraordinaire, says:
I always recommend interested performers should take classes at the NY School of Burlesque, because with a few exceptions, the quality of the performers who have taken classes is much better.  I also recommend Jo Weldon's Burlesque handbook as she gives excellent technical advice and performance etiquette.  Usually but not always, a trained performer is a better performer.  


5. Following Up & Promoting. So now what? You've gone and introduced yourself to the producers you want to work with, you've debuted a few time, but the bookings are still hard to come by. Here's another tip I've learned from my day career. After meeting the producer don't be afraid to send a follow-up email (just like after a job interview) and offer your availability as a kitten, gogo, or door girl, and if you have video clips of your acts, send that along with a description of what your act is. This makes the booking part of the job much easier when there are pictures and video clips to look at. I never book anyone who I have never seen perform AND doesn't have video clips to show me. Video clips can tell me a lot about a performer's ability, control, and presence on stage. Unless they are a veteran of the performance world, then obviously I won't need to see a clip. This is why I created the "sacrificial lamb" position in all my shows. It's an unpaid slot for newer performers who I haven't seen live. A way for me to get to know their style, what they are like backstage, and their acts. I appeciate all the invitation to see new performers' shows but between 2 weekly shows and 2 monthly shows on top of other people's shows that I perform in, I simply do not have the time. 

Then if you are booked for a show - PROMOTE, PROMOTE, PROMOTE! I can not say this enough and how much it makes someone stand out in my mind when they use their social media platforms smartly and push the show. As a producer this means extra to me and it shows you are computer savvy and know a thing or two about creating a buzz and fan base for yourself. (Updated: The owner of Nurse Bettie have actually just given the directive not to book performers who do not promote their booking from hence forth.) So you see, you can't just expect to show up and not promote your own show. Even Dita von Teese is super active in Twittering her tours, her brand lines, perfume, sweaters, lingerie. And Mila Jovovich too! She's constantly twittering about the film she is working on and other projects. So unless you think you are bigger than Dita or Milla, promote the event you are booked in. Start collecting emails of fans who talk to you. Send your email blasts and updates to NON-PERFORMERS. You need to target civilians who attend the show and NOT performers. I get performer updates all the time and why? I have no idea. I know who they are, and I know what they do. I don't need to know where they are performing in the month. Civilians are your fans!

Lastly, I keep in mind this little mantra all my life: Everyone has a path they are destined to be on. Don't be distracted by what's happening on other people's paths. Stay focused and work hard on yours and good things will happen.

I have also learned from my decade long designer day career that when clients don't pick my design direction it isn't personal. Some clients want a conservative blue/beige palette with a giant logo. 90% of the time it has nothing to do with the actual design aesthetic. Like the world of acting, people are cast based on their face, body types, voice, race - many things that you can't change or control which is probably why many actors are crazy and paranoid. There is almost no objectivity so you have to really watch yourself. In burlesque it is the same. Some people get booked for certain gigs because the promoters want a certain look, or frankly, they just like them better. I get booked for some gigs and not others. I don't take it personally. I'm preaching the uneasy truth, but one must try not to internalize these things. One person doesn't like you, another will. Like me, Rice University rejected me for undergrad but Cornell University accepted me. And that led me to be in NYC for the rest of my adult life. Showbiz is probably not for you if you continually feel hurt and defeated. If it's driving you crazy not knowing, you can always politely and genuinely ask the producer for constructive criticism on how to make an act more suitable for the show you want to be in.

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