Bristol's Badass Burlesque Show
Every performer, every compere, and probably most audience members, understands the importance of a good introduction.
Often when we talk about comperes we rehash the basics –
Warm up the audience and explain what is expected of them
Heckling and how to deal with it
Honing of extra skills in order to fill the time whilst the stage is be dressed/props set, etc – such as comedy, magic or singing.
Sometimes it is touched upon that the way an act is introduced can, on occasion, help or hinder that act and performer. But all too often the onus is put solely on the compere.
Introducing a Performer – a two way relationship
I’ve been a performer for several years, and during that time I have also compered, and I have produced shows – as such there are lots of acts that I have come across. Some need no introduction at all, their entirety is represented on the stage, and others need elaborate scene setting. I strongly feel, as a performer, that an act should be introduced as requested most especially if that introduction is a necessary set up for the act. But as a compere, I know how unrealistic this can often be. Sometimes you are not given the performer and act information until the night of the show, at which point memorising isn’t likely and reading off a card can seem unprofessional (and impossible in certain lighting).
There are acts where the right introduction is necessary in terms of set up, and so. If that is the case, I would recommend no more than a sentence of explanation (anymore and it will potentially chopped about or parts forgotten). The fact is, you’re not the only performer they are introducing, there is a lot going on. Consider making your introduction short and punchy, break it down to the basics if you need to rely on it to set up your act.
For example, my Go Ape! act (based on Planet of the Apes) can be lost on the audience if the introduction is missed, and so I’ve broken it down to be as simple as possible. All I need is for the compere to drop into the introduction that it is based on a Sci-fi classic. This will hopefully clue the audience in enough to get what’s going on when I’m up on stage. What I don’t want is any mention of the “ape” aspect as this is the first reveal.
The vast majority of times I have performed this routine, I have had amazing introductions – my favourite being from comedian Wil Hodgson who really played off the sci-fi angle and pepped up the evidently super nerdy audience. I got an amazing audience reaction to the routine, which I feel would not have been half as good had it not been introduced so well. I know this, because my worst introduction to this routine was at an event with a largely non-burlesque audience where my act was introduced as “here is Tiger Tiger with Go Ape!”. The audience had not been introduced to me as a performer, or to my act. As such the audience were incredibly confused – why was I dressed as an ape and where is the Tiger? What was going on? A few of them got the reference once I revealed my photo of Cornelius (main character from Planet of the Apes), but even so it was largely lost on them.
That kind of introduction and audience reaction can be incredibly hard for a performer. Because then the onus is wholly on the performer to convey their act. Some would argue that this is how it should be – the act should be complemented by the introduction not reliant on it. Personally, I believe there is a fine line – not being assisted by the introduction would mean either having to include some sort of intro seamlessly in the act (which is not always possible, otherwise we’d have already done it!); include some sort of representative prop in the act (where possible – for some acts this might ruin a reveal); or curtail our creativity and stick to acts that are wholly self-contained.
So yes, this is a two way relationship, that I honestly feel is best understood by comperes who do or have also performed, or who are well seasoned and have come to understand this from their experiences. The way you introduce the act can make or break the act itself and the audiences understanding and reaction to it.
Performers, please appreciate the restrictions of the compere. They may have a time restriction, they certainly have memory restrictions, and few are happy to read word for word a paragraph on a card even if there aren’t the usual restrictions of stage lighting. If you are noticing that an act is time and again being introduced with difficulty – bits are being left out, mixed up or said wrong – then consider it might be the introduction that needs revising. Work out the parts that are the most important, and give only this information to the compere. It is tempting to say “well if you can say X, Y and Z, that’s great, but if not, just say Z”. The risk is that the compere will introduce just Y and make no sense at all. Not because they are incompetent, but because they are one of the few people (along with stage managers/hands, and sound techs) who are working the WHOLE of that show. They are busy, they have lots of acts to introduce, and they are on stage that whole time – they have a lot of pressure on them – to keep the show flowing and be constantly and consistently entertaining. The vast majority of comperes want to do the best by you, but you have to help them make that possible. Be realistic, and hone it all down to the basics, give them the most exact information you can – they know what they’re doing and will give you an awesome intro!
Introducing burlesque – it’s all about respect
I leave this to last as it is arguably the more important point.
All shows begin, as we well know, with a brief outline of what the audience can expect to see at the show. This is where we warm up the audience and teach them what is expected of them – clapping, cheering, whooping, etc. It has long been standard to expect something along the lines of “the more you cheer the more they take off”.
This is something I really have a problem with.
Firstly, it’s not true.
Can you imagine a show where the audience don’t give you the reaction you want so you just leave that article on? Finish the show with one glove still on and your bra just unhooked at the back? I didn’t think so.
This style of introduction has often stirred up feminist arguments as well, because, more oft than not, comperes are male. So a man introducing a performer thusly (the majority of whom are female), feels wrong. It can also be a bit weird for potential cabaret acts of the show, who have no plans to undress whatsoever and so are being missed in this introduction.
As a compere though, and perhaps especially for male comperes (?), it can be difficult to know how to introduce burlesque to an audience, especially when you are so used to seeing the above at every show you go to. It takes time to consider how else it can be done. Some comperes, in my experience women, gloss over the cause and effect option of the introduction, but even so struggle to find the incentive for the audience to cheer us on – because there has to be an incentive? Maybe that’s a question for another day.
The worst introduction I have ever heard was for a show that I performed at a few years ago, where myself and the two other burlesque performers at a band night were introduced repeatedly and offensively in a lurid and husky tone as “Dirty Girls”, the compere’s grin twisted in lust, with actual lip licking occurring. Not surprising then that one or two members of the audience felt it was perfectly appropriate to come into the performance space and try to accost us “dirty girls” during our acts.
This example highlights something that needs addressing in the burlesque world. Although this is the extreme, it serves to show that even with the most honourable intentions, many introductions lack respect for the performers and their art – the fact that they are rather beautifully sharing their bodies with the audience. They are giving the audience a privilege that they have chosen to bestow, they are not there for the audiences pleasure. Now, I do agree (to some extent) with the many posts and articles out there regarding the performers duty to entertain the audience – but the key there is to entertain. If a performer chooses to entertain by performing a striptease, that should be respected. It should not be reduced to a mummery – a puppet show where our actions are dictated by the whim of the audience. On a deeper level, it takes away our identities as performers and reduces our art.
So then, on the flip side how do we tackle this? For this I give examples of two comperes I have had the pleasure of working with. Firstly, the introduction given by the quite wonderful Vivacity Bliss in which she very comedically explained to the audience that the “the more you cheer the more they take off” line is complete lie. Moreover the rather fabulous Rubyyy Jones, who at our Bristol Burlesque Festival, gave what can only be described as the most entertaining feminist rant ever created. With skill and hilarity, she took it that step further and explained why we shouldn’t expect more clothes to drop the more we cheer, that this is an art that we all work very hard at, and that in reality the audience is there to cheer us on and support our art. Introductions like this are so important in charging the perception audiences are given of what a burlesque show is. Changing it from that mummery to a glorious work of art that they have been welcomed to enjoy.
We need more of these introductions, we need to flush out the “cheer for more” attitude. We need this because not only was that introduction inspiring it was, quite simply, correct.