“Where’s Dr. Lucky?”: A Phenomenological Analysis of the State of Burlesque

“I didn’t know you still perform,” a young performer said to me at BurlyCon in 2011.  I felt a twang of sadness, that feeling of regret that comes from finally beginning to experience the consequences of choices you have made.  The truth is, I decided to move away from hustling for gigs a few years ago.  Some would call this “semi retirement,” but I never put a label on it.  There was no fanfare, no announcements on Facebook (for that would inevitably come with another proclamation about “coming out of semi-retirement” every time I stepped on a stage.)  Instead, I made a deliberate choice to think about the future:  the future of burlesque and what it has and will become, as well as my own future, including other life-long ways to be a creative being and a performance practitioner.  Tigger! has told me that he wants to die on stage, and I applaud that resolve, dedication, and clarity of vision.  But that’s probably the last place I want to be when I die.

Close your eyes.  Imagine the most fantastic show you can possible dream.  Allow yourself the luxury to let your mind’s eye play through the film:  don’t stop when you think it’s getting to expensive, too elaborate, too extravagant or even technically impossible.  (Now open your eyes so you can continue reading this!)  Does that fantastic dream involve stripping at a stage-less dive bar in the Lower East Side with an office-turned-dressing room and patrons who may or may not care about your performance?  Or at a swanky dinner theatre where top dollar is being paid by patrons but, again, you have to change in an office-turned-dressing room while patrons judge you as they pick at their overpriced steak?  “Of course not,” you retort, “those are money gigs.  They pay the rent.  You are being rhetorical, Lucky, and a little presumptuous.  Not everyone has a PhD.  Some of us have to work.”  Of course.  But hear me out.

When are we ever going to get over letting “money gigs” rule our decisions for our artistic choices?  When is this generation of incredibly talented and beautiful artists going to stop thinking that the more Swarovski crystals they put on their dress, the better their “art”?  When are we going to stop obsessing over creating that act that will get us booked, or get us into BHOF, and instead create that which has never been seen before?  When are we going to stop obsessing over our bodies and our Facebook self promotion and start thinking about what we put our energy into?

Burlesque does not foster thinking about the long term.  Burlesque is all about immediate gratification, those 5 glittering minutes on stage, preparing for the next show, the next festival, the next “idea” you can’t wait to get started on.  It does not encourage planning for the future or financial security or investing or planning a family or any of the other things many of us got into a fringe expression of self to avoid in the first place.  No one I know wants to be a suit.  Of course.  But as I watch myself and my colleagues age and burlesque change, I have to ask myself:  What are we doing?

I love burlesque’s creativity, its gumption, its anything goes mind set.  I LOVE DIY.  Burlesque was once completely DIY, but this, too, is a dying part of the art as professional designers and prop makers become the norm, even for brand new performers, some of whom have their own gown designers before they’ve even stepped on stage.  This is all beyond ludicrous, but most importantly it misses the whole point of what, to me, makes burlesque interesting:  self invention, creativity, and doing everything – and I mean everything — yourself.  I love burlesque’s scrappy, “we can do this” mindset but I don’t like spaces with no or substandard dressing rooms or stages.  This may be a NYC problem, one that is inevitably related to the expense of real estate.  But throwing burlesque like spaghetti against a wall and seeing what “sticks,” even when a venue is completely an unacceptable space for live performance, does not enrich the art form.  Just because a venue wants you to do a show there does not mean you should.

I love the idea of burlesque but not necessarily what it may (or has) become.  It’s all rhinestones and boned corsets and feather fans that cost at least a month’s rent, while performers bend over backwards (literally) or suck off producers (sometimes literally) to get booked for a free gig in a shitty bar.  This is “making it.”  I don’t want one single part of that.  I still love performing, and I will continue to do so, as well as produce shows, teach burlesque, and think and write about it.  I am not throwing in the towel on burlesque as a whole; I’m just more selective these days.  For when I see self-possessed, strong women doubting themselves, wondering why they aren’t getting booked and deciding it’s because of their costumes or their bodies or because they are not good enough, it’s time to turn the magnifying glass around.  You are not the problem.  The problem is burlesque.

For those of us going on 15 or 20 plus years of performing in burlesque and nightclubs, I doubt any one of us ever thought this subculture would blow up into an international phenomenon.  We did it as a lark, we did it because it was an extension of what we did at home (playing dress up, being an exhibitionist, acting out, etc.), we did it because we were railing against the system.  (Remember the ad campaigns for The Gap in the 1990s?  Remember those commercials featuring stone-faced, still beautiful young people dressed exactly the same as one another, Gap’s not-so-subtle brainwashing us into conformity?  I think burlesque was responding to that.  “I was born in the ‘90s,” you whine.  Well, fuck you.  Go look it up.  And get back to me in 20 years when you are old, too.)  It is exciting to be a part of this movement which has become hugely popular, and incredible to see what people come up with when they are given the broad parameters of burlesque possibility.  And, of course, there are many people who have successfully turned their fun time into a full-time career.

I completely agree with most of what Kate Valentine wrote in her “State of the Union” address, except for her division between “professionals” and “amateurs.”  This seems to want to differentiate between talent levels, and it has become clear the more I travel that there are plenty of “amateurs” who do burlesque full time, and many amazing, talented performers who don’t do it full time.  This might be because they don’t sit on social media all day every day blowing smoke up their own asses.  Or they may have other careers – perhaps by necessity or perhaps by choice – and though they may be “professional” compared to the newbie turned “full time” Kitten Le New, technically they are a “hobbyist.”  [Note to self:  check to see if this name is real before posting!  I personally don’t know or have anything against Kitten Le New].

No one should have to apologize for having a meaningful career that limits them from constantly hustling or endlessly updating social media, the two necessarily requirements for all “professional” burlesque performers.  Because burlesque is inherently an amateur art form (which doesn’t mean there aren’t professional performers and that it doesn’t take great skill, practice, and talent to get there), it will always have a constant influx of new talent that both invigorates and waters down the quality.  (Please note:  This will not be your standard “newbie” bash, for everyone was a newbie once.  Besides, if you discourage new performers, the art will not grow.)

In most other art forms you have to learn it before you do it.  Burlesque has no such apprenticeship program –the “stage kitten” is a temporary position, not a true training ground.  New and old performers vie for the few performance spots there are, or produce their own shows so that they can get more stage time.  And then their time is divided, much like the performer who has a day job, whether rewarding or obligatory, and therefore by definition, there are no full-time, professional burlesque performers.  Full time performers are also producers, agents, designers, choreographers, teachers, etc.

I don’t want to spend my life hustling to get on stage for a few minutes.  I want to imagine another way, another way to be a creative and artistic human being, a way to celebrate the body and free expression and glamorous excess.  This has required spending some physical and mental energy on thinking about the future, what such an artistic production could look like, and how to possibly get there.  And this future-looking methodology contradicts the very ontology of burlesque.  Burlesque fosters a love of the short term attention span.  Burlesque is in and of the moment.

I remember getting an email booking inquiry in the early 2000s from a producer asking if I would do one act for 50 bucks.  At the time, I had been performing maybe for 5 years.  I turned him down, thinking 50 bucks wasn’t enough for me to get into drag.  Now, performers are clamoring for those $50 gigs.  We have not gotten a raise in over a decade.  In fact, pay has gone down.  And still there are those willing to take those gigs, or have to take those gigs because they don’t have “day jobs.”  (Though, if you see my argument above, all performers are, by definition, part time performers.)  I do not blame those performers who, at all costs, want to get on stage.  I blame the art form, an art form that has become over focused on appearance and self promotion.  (This, of course, could be said of actors or musicians or models, or practically any other art form that capitalizes on the body as its primary tool.  But what makes burlesque different is to see it change so radically in its life span.)

This relates to one of the philosophical and practical “problems” with burlesque:  it capitalizes on and depends on glamour and excess while in the real lives of its performers, most are struggling to survive.  They take the subway home from gigs because they can’t afford a cab while their giant bags are filled with beautiful gowns that cost 4 digits.  As Guy Debord would put it, it’s a society based on the spectacle.  But not all that glitters is gold.

In the end, I don’t know whether burlesque can support itself, or if it will self implode, collapsing into itself like a black hole.  So when I think about the future, I don’t necessarily think about burlesque fulfilling all my creative visions or filling my wallet with cash.  It’s too fickle, too much like a teenager, too willing to change its mind on a whim.  In the meantime, I enjoy the ride, and appreciate all the beautiful creatures and beautiful creations that abound.  I’ve gotten to travel, headline and host festivals, talk to students and reporters about my perspective and experience.  It indeed is a glorious fantasy world.  But its grounding in reality is not its forte, though, admittedly, I would never want it to be.  It will be interesting to see what the future holds.  Because some of us showgirls are looking to the future.

P.S.  Dr. Lucky is available for bookings, hosting, and lectures at doctorofburlesque@yahoo.com.  See more at www.doctorofburlesque.com.

3 responses to ““Where’s Dr. Lucky?”: A Phenomenological Analysis of the State of Burlesque

  1. Pingback: A Phenomenological Analyasis of the State of Burlesque, by Dr. Lucky. | 21st Century Burlesque Magazine·

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