Bristol's Badass Burlesque Show
We’ve all had that moment where suddenly something clicks, and several separate pieces seem to unexpectedly fall together in your brain, and you realise that, you bet your by-golly-wow, a new act has been born!
I think it is especially when acts are born in such a spontaneous way, that it can be difficult for a performer to consider changing them at all, past the most basic updating/upgrading of costuming and/or props. It’s easy to understand why. We put so much of ourselves into our routines that it can be a long, slow process, that can sometimes meet mental and emotional resistance, when it comes to considering changing it in any way.
But we do change them, and we do this because we, as performers and as people, evolve. It is drummed into us not to take an act to stage that isn’t 100% ready. Whether you agree with this sentiment or not, 100% can change over time, and an act you once thought was complete, no longer is.
It can be daunting when you’re first starting out. I remember having an act that I never felt quite comfortable with – it felt like it took some sort of sledge hammer to get past the self-imposed block that I had towards messing with it in any way. But I updated the costume/props slightly, and re-edited the music – suddenly it had a whole new lease of life and I started to feel great whilst performing it.
It often seems that the longer you perform, the more at ease you become with making changes and being quite ruthless with yourself. Your eye improves, you are more able to constructively critique your own work and cast an eye over videos with a view to how you can really make it better. I write this now, having moved onto, what I feel, is another step again – putting together and debuting a routine, that I already knew I would likely change in the near future – Manticore. Why did I go ahead with it? I had already planned on debuting the act before I had a bout of illness earlier this year, and already had shows lined up for it which I really didn’t want to let down. Also, this was the first act I have ever put together where the music came last. All my previous routines, the music has been a fairly key idea in the early stages of the process, but with this routine, I knew what I wanted to say, and the sort of music I wanted to say it to – but didn’t have the exact piece to mind. In the end, I was really, really happy with the music I went for, and although this had been the most immediate thing I thought I might update in the future, at the moment I am happy with it. There are aspects of the costume I hadn’t been quite happy with and knew I might change or update, and now having seen live act pictures, I am able to really see where my vision fell down and could be picked up now that my creativity is no longer stifled by illness.
There are so many reasons a performer chooses to evolve an act, whether or not they were happy with it to begin with. I’ve talked to some lovely ladies in the burlesque world, and they have been kind enough to tell me about their act evolutions:
Ally Katte – Tijuana Mama: Upping Your Game.
A stalwart of the Bristol scene, and known as the Siren of Stokes Croft, Ally Katte has a very distinctive style which is most especially showcased in her wonderful Tijuana Mama act – which you can see performed here at the London Burlesque Festival in 2010.
Ally tells us a bit about her burlesque learning curve – “Tijuana Mama, it’s a spicy Mexican themed routine and it was my first fully formed routine. My debut routine was pretty rubbish so I canned it straight away and worked on TJ Mama instead!”
“The costume was my main change. After taking it to stage approximately 3 times in it’s initial phase it was clear it needed a jump start. The top ‘layer’ has stayed the same, very simple with no sparkles or glitter. The original bra was okaaaaayish, the green fringe I used was far too ‘sage’ green rather than a vibrant Mexican flag green. And green is by far the most tricky colour to source when it comes to trim and appliques! The knickers were a cotton girl-boxer style. I know…WHAT WAS I THINKING?! So it’s now a fringed and sequined thong which just looks so much better.”
When it comes to the performance of the act itself, and any changes to be had there, Ally explains that she takes her cues from the audience in order to step up her game. “The choreography has evolved, as I’ve clocked up more and more stage time I’ve listened to the reactions of the crowd and felt the rhythm of the music. While there’s been no drastic changes it has become smoother and more fluid.”
Looking to the future of the routine Ally comments “I’m considering giving it another revamp later this year, but while It’s a really simple costume I am happy with it. We always seem under so much pressure to have more crystals, more blah more blaaaaah. But sometimes simple can be so much more powerful.”
“Acts need to grow. They need to transform and change. If a performer isn’t constantly changing and transforming I feel they are being complacent. You must push yourself to be better.”
Tuesday Laveau – Loup Garou: An Act Evolving as the Performer Does.
With what has pretty much become her signature act, and marks her out the as the trans Atlantic wild women of a performer that she is, Tuesday Laveau talked me through how this act has evolved and, in her words has “grown with me as I have grown as a performer”.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the Acadian legend of the werewolf out on the Bayou. Loup Garou began with the track Howlin For You by The Black Keys. It’s a track with a stomping beat that I reflected in my costume, black leather bodysuit, black boots and grey fur and latex Wolf Mask. I opened the act in a beautiful custom made red cloak that I swirled around me. But I always felt that I was mixing my metaphors. Was I Loup Garou or the Big Bad Wolf in Red Riding Hood?
“Since I first performed this act, I’ve researched more and more into wolves and wolf mythology. Almost every culture in the world has a story that combines man and wolf. What interests me the most is the Navajo concept of a skinwalker. A person who has lived outside of cultural norms or broken taboos and so becomes yee naaldlooshii (with it, he who goes on all fours.)”
Talking about changing an act that has so much meaning to her, she adds “With this knowledge [of the skinwalker], my act became darker. I wanted to move away from the fairytale aspect and move towards more of an expression of a story. The act is about transformation, about the way you look on the outside matching the way you feel on the inside as well as themes of restraint and release. The costume is now all leather, no cloak, the track has changed to a darker beat. The mask has stayed the same and holds a place of deep affection with me.”
Violet Vayne – The Awakening: A Version for All Occasions.
Southwest based Violet Vayne’s act The Awakening has, in many ways, stayed very much the same. A strong routine, she won the Cardiff heat of Black Country Burlesque’s Newcomer competition with her first ever solo performance. It has a backbone that firmly roots different versions of the act to the same idea, feeling, and energy, no matter which you are watching. Violet’s idea of making several versions of the same routine came about almost by accident, or fate, every single time!
The original version, featuring Lilac Wine by Nina Simone and Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen, has Violet mourning the loss of her lover, sadly looking at his photo before finding a new lease of life in burlesque. When Violet was booked for a Freddie Mercury themed event she decided to change her act to even better fit the show. “I changed the photo on the table to Freddie (looking dapper), interacted with the photo as though he was egging me on to do burlesque and put on a moustache at the end for the final reveal/pose.”
She was later asked to perform at an event where she felt the act needed to be changed to suit the occasion, and buoyed on by the simple changes made for the Freddie show, she felt confident in doing so. “I was asked to perform at a memorial charity show for my friend’s late husband (there were bands and dancers, etc). The Awakening was too much about death or losing someone so I changed the first song to some classical music and changed the character slightly so that she was writing in her etiquette book (it kept it elegant but not so sad).”
Realising she could turn this idea into several different possibilities, Violet agreed to put together a funk version of the act for a Seventies-themed show. “I was asked to do a funk routine for a small show and didn’t have very much time so I thought I could use ‘Etiquette’ and change the second song to a funky one. This meant I could create a routine on a budget and quickly.”
Although the various versions have found great success, Violet errs on the side of caution when talking about the future of this routine – “I would only do this again if I was absolutely sure it would work and also works on its own as a stand alone routine which I think they do. Yep, I would do it again if I had a good enough idea.”
Rainbow Sparkles – Ugly Duckling: Developing an Act with a Mentor.
Rainbow Sparkles, based in Northampton, has been performing since 2011 and has recently taken the scene by storm as wonderful compere character Mrs Marjorie Hawkins. A character based performer, she is keen to develop acts that are story based, especially in the case of the Ugly Duckling which she originally put together for a fairy tale themed show.
Rainbow told me how she began developing the act – “I love the Danny Kaye song “Ugly Duckling” and this was my starting point and as most of my acts are story based this fitted perfectly. Originally my act was a mix of the Ugly Duckling and the Birdy song. The act began with me walking on in duck mask, webbed feet and yellow boiler suit, as the story was performed I turned into the swan by removing the suit, mask and feet and revealing a golden corset, gold gloves, feather bustle and headdress. I then removed the corset and gloves and fan danced during and to the end of the Birdy song.”
It was peer feedback that made her consider changing the routine – “I next performed it at Burlesque Idol where the host commented that the Birdy song made him want to commit suicide and one of the judges suggested mixing in a third song to the act. This gave me food for thought and so I found a electro trance version of Swan Lake that allowed me to build up a sense of comedy craziness to the act”
Still not completely satisfied with the changes, Rainbow turned to a mentor for help – “I still felt something was missing and so contacted the fabulous Audacity Chutzpah for a 1-1 session on developing the act. She suggested audience participation was the key and said to try to get the audience to do the birdy song actions at their tables as a one side of the room verses the other. When I did the act again with the improvements it worked much better, including me galloping around in circles with my fans, causing the desired effect of the audience laughing.”
But she reminds us, that some changes are an unplanned necessity – “The next change that happened with the act evolving was a wardrobe malfunction when I got stuck in my corset on two separate occasions, the boiler suit being quite difficult to remove and the feather bustle shedding. Miss Von Vamp suggested organza material would work as a bustle and would be easier to fit into the boiler suit, I made a gold bustle and it was a good addition to the costume. After performing the act at a show that Suzie Sequin was also performing in she suggested replacing the boiler suit with a dressing gown to make it easier to remove and to swap the corset with a bra. These ideas from both performers were valuable advice and now, nearly two years later I feel completely happy with the act.”
Rainbow makes some valuable comments on the need and use of peer feedback – “I’m coming up to my third year of performing Burlesque and thanks to the kind advice of fellow performers and my experience of performing I now feel in a much better position to know what my style is and the more I learn and improve the more I can continue developing the act and trying new ideas out so that promoters and the audience are getting me at my very best.”
Daria D’Beauvoix – Lady Bathory: Learning from Trial and Error.
Originally from Seattle, performance artist, alt model and devout horror lover, Daria, is now based in Liverpool and tells us a bit about the evolution of her Lady Bathory act, that she first performed in August 2011.
“When I first performed it my pasties fell off due to the weight of them, coupled with pouring glitter on myself pushing them off. I then attached them to a skin coloured bra as a last minute thing for a gig soon after. Eventually I had the pasties customised into a cage bra which kept the look of them being ‘bloody jewellery’ rather than a bra and fits the act perfectly. I think here, my change in the act was due to experiencing something live and realising through trial and error that there were issues with the act. This is why I think it’s really important to perform at scratch nights / burlesque societies.”
Daria explains that the act is still adapting over time – “I am still adapting it mainly because I have put on weight so I am currently making a new skirt. Also, I really want a large ruffle, and always have, but I had no idea how to construct one. I have been trialling and erroring this since June 2011. I can’t wait till I nail it and it’s perfect!”
Her self-improvement attitude also rings through other parts of her performance, as she comments on her makeup for the act. “ I am developing my makeup skills. I learned how to put basic makeup on when I started burlesque so my skills are constantly getting better and better. Despite the changes, I want my character to remain the same elegant yet psychotic, romantic and decadent, drag burlesque hungarian countess.”
Turning the practicalities of evolving acts, Daria made a really good point – that the main thing is for promoters to know what the act is that they are booking. “If they book an act thinking it is one thing and they get another, that may totally mess up their show. for example, if you add a little silk veil fan into an act without telling them and they have put a silk veil fan act straight after you it can look too sameish and the promoter won’t be impressed. Same with the music, the music for the show might have been arranged to flow really well. if you change your music to something drastically different, this could be quite obvious and disruptive.
“I think if you are going to change an act or costume it is always best to promote these changes in new promo pics (I’ve re-shot my Bathory act 3 times now to keep up to date) and a fresh new video. If I have made changes to an act I always tell my promoters, show the new images, and explain the changes. I have never had an issue where a promoter said they didn’t like the changes, so can’t comment on what I would do if they didn’t – though I’m sure I would work towards what they wanted for their show.”
Knowing When to Change an Act.
Knowing when to change an act is part of the evolution itself. If you start to realise that something isn’t as you think it should be or you feel it could be better in some way, then that’s the sign to change it. You know your act the best, so this first step needs to come from within you.
Once you have made that step it depends on how you like to do things, and what the changes might be as to how you deal with it. You may decide just to go by trial and error on developing it over time, or you may consult your peers for their opinions. However you do it, don’t be daunted by it – evolution is a natural part of life.