Friday, November 18, 2011

Regarding Neo-Burlesque, Hobbyists, Professionals, and the Illuminati

At BurlyCon 2011, I had the pleasure of attending Kate Valentine's (aka "Miss Astrid") "Neo-Burlesque State of the Union Address."  It was refreshing to be present to a bold and positive statement of observation of an artform I love, and to take part in the passionate yet incredibly civil conversation that followed.  I'm a big fan of asking yourself, "Why?" and seeking out solutions to what may be ailing you.

Valentine's address has been published at 21st Century Burlesque, and it has sparked off an incredible conversation in the burlesque community-at-large.  One of the biggest points of contention seems to be a distinction Valentine draws between "hobbyist" and "professional" burlesque performers.
There are two different arms of the current neo-burlesque world. One is the hobbyists, what I call Stitch n’ Bitch burlesque performers. They are huge fans of the genre and they got involved because they wanted to explore their sexuality, their body issues, or their love of retro clothing. They wanted to find a community of like-minded, fun, supportive party people. Then there are the career professionals. They may come from a background in theatre or dance. Most of them pursue burlesque as their full-time career or in addition to their other artistic work.
Please read the entire thing, and take the time to read through the comments.

I have a few observations on the "hobbyist" vs. "professional" dichotomy:

A hobbyist does it for themselves (i.e., their own gratification) a professional does it for others (i.e., an audience.) Example: A hobbyist may have a basement full of beautifully detailed miniatures hemming in an N-guage model train track. A professional works for Weta and Peter Jackson. Both may be equally passionate, equally skilled, and equally knowledgable about their craft. Only, one does it because it makes him or her happy, and the other does it to make other people happy.

You see this in performance as well: A tribute band that is happy just to get together and jam out in the garage vs. a band that gigs.

A hobby can easily become a career, if the opportunities are there.

I think Valentine makes a good point, even if the semantics are a bit tricky. There is a difference between someone who is just happy to entertain themselves versus someone with the drive to entertain others. Unfortunately, the difference seems to be highly subjective.

With live performance, we need an audience for the art to actualize. The model train enthusiast doesn't have to leave his basement to have a good time. Eventually the garage band will have to venture out of the garage. And so there is a fine line between "professional artist" and "hobbyist." Just ask the IRS.

In the comments, Valentine clarifies what she meant by these terms:
When I personally think of a professional performer I do not really think of someone who only does burlesque. So few people make a living solely on burlesque. (and only one person in the world makes a really good living at it!) So I suppose I think of people for whom burlesque is one arm of their performance career who are also musicians, or actors, or dancers, or whatever. I would *never * define what makes someone a professional artist based on financials. Livings must be made however they do. I would base it on: will you be on stage in 15 years? Do you possess skills which make you desirable to work with and a pleasure to watch on stage? If the word burlesque did not exist would you still be on stage somewhere somehow? At the end, the terms Pro and Hobbyist (or whatever term you don’t despise) are largely self-defined. I do not think Pro=Good and Hobbyist=Bad. I see these as groups with different priorities and expectations.
So why should you, the average theatre person care about this discusion?

First, The hobbyist/professional dichotomy exists in live theatre.  We've all seen and/or been a part of shows that were largely "hobbyist", "professional" or some combination of the two.  Second, what Valentine says about quality is absolutely true of the legit stage, and it's one of many dead horses I beat on a regular basis here:
What you must understand is that if you do a bad show it is wrecking it for everyone, including the people you probably idolize.
An audience is a precious, precious thing.  They have a gazillion entertainment options, most of which don't involve emoting and shitty production values.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this is how you lead a discussion about the state of an artform.  Not by gathering the illuminati together in a room with a whiteboard to spitball the same shit they've been saying in private conversations for years.  You lead a discussion about the state of an artform by making an observation, postulating a cause, and suggesting a solution.  You lead by stating your case, and standing behind your words.  Kate Valentine is my hero.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Last Time I'm Going to Beat this Dead Horse*

Of the thirty-four Ovations awarded last night, only ONE went to a dues-paying company.

And that was a design award.

* Yeah, sure.  I make no promises.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

An Ocean of Starfish

Photo © Dennis Mojado.  Made available under a Creative Commons license. 

NEWSFLASH!  Seth Godin wrote something brilliant:
In a world of endless choice, it's mathematically obvious that something's going to get picked, but you, you the creator, the marketer, the one with something at stake--you're not at all concerned about something. You're concerned about you and your product.
The "Long Tail" only benefits the aggregator.  It has always been thus, and always thus shall be.  When I first started reading web 2.0 stuff, new marketing philosophy, and all that jazz I really came a cropper over two things, both highly touted by the vastly overrated Chris Anderson:  His entire "Free" fantasy and "The Long Tail."  The latter in particular seemed 1) not particularly new or revelatory and 2) of absolutely no use to the individual content creator.

YouTube embodies the "Long Tail."  There are hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of videos that have been seen by a handful of people.  It's fortunate that such a marketplace exists, but you are literally competing with bad webcam videos of people lip-syncing to crappy songs.  Good luck

When we first started shooting "trailers" for our plays at the old theatre company, it seemed incredibly novel.  For Pin-Up Girls, we tried to extend the theatrical experience into the videos by scripting and shooting prequel vignettes (here, here, and here).  A great idea!  Not one of those videos has cracked a thousand views, three years after being uploaded.  I blame Keyboard Cat.

To their credit, Bitter Lemons has featured such video trailers (including this creepy and evocative video for The Woodsman, produced by the old theatre company.)  I hope they keep doing it.  Bitter Lemons embodies the advice Seth Godin leaves off with:
If you're a starfish, then, don't sign up with the long tail guys. Build your own universe, your own permission asset. Find a tribe, lead it, connect with it, become the short head, the one and only, the one that we'd miss if you were gone.
There is little doubt in my mind that Bitter Lemons is the online hub for the Greater Los Angeles theatre tribe (if such a thing could be said to exist).  Yes, they are also an aggregator, but such a tightly focused aggregator, you don't feel like you get lost in the "Long Tail."

Bitter Lemons facilitates dialogue,  provokes thought, and periodically goes through existential moments where they actively evaluate what they are doing.  All of this is healthy, and it's something that I wish more theatre companies would do.

Bitter Lemons is the kid on the beach, tossing starfish back into the ocean, and it does make a difference.  I am proud to be a tiny, virtually insignificant part of what they do, and of the tribe they are factually leading.

Friday, November 04, 2011

A few weeks ago my wife and I flew to Seattle for Burlycon, the "community-oriented professional growth and educational convention for Burlesque performers, fans, and aficionados."  This was my first time to a major, international burlesque event, and I was absolutely blown away.  I’m really impressed by the organization of the event.  It’s  HUGE, yet it feels very laissez-faire.  That has got to be a tough balancing act, and Miss Indigo Blue and company manage it splendidly – and in heels.

I really dig the community spirit in Seattle.  The selfless dedication to burlesque – in short, the number of volunteers!  I’m not sure such a show would work in Los Angeles.  We are awesome and all, but somewhat disconnected.  That’s Los Angeles.  The sprawl is in our bones.  (Also, I like how I just referred to this convention as a “show”.)

I attended classes and panels covering subjects from obscenity law to touring to how to twirl ass tassels.  Here are just a few things I learned:
  • Your marketing should be so good that you could conceivably sell it.  This came up in the touring panel, and they meant "sell your marketing materials" quite literally.  But it got me to thinking about a larger point: Would someone pay for one of your postcards?  Would they line up after the show to have a performer autograph a poster?  (I've seen the latter happen after Peepshow Menagerie shows!)  I've been in shows where people "stole" posters off the telephone poles almost immediately after they were put up.  I've been in plays where stacks of drab postcards gathered dust in a corner.  Which scenerio would you rather have?
  • If you can't entertain in a press release, how the hell do you expect to entertain on stage?  Jonny Porkpie, the Burlesque Mayor of New York blessed us with this tidbit of awesomeness in his Press Release and Branding class.  He's right.  We're entertainers, not your run-of-the-mill company announcing the arrival of the new widget.
  • If your venue isn't excited to have you, find another venue.  Seriously.  Baby Doe, the producer behind Tiki Oasis is a genius, and this was just one of many genius things she conveyed in her producer's class.  You want to be on the same page with your venue.  Better yet, you want them eager to have you and easy to work with!
  • "Perfection is the most useless goal any artist can have."  And that is a direct quote from Miss Astrid, emcee extraordinaire.  You've heard the saying, "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," right?  I believe the point Miss Astrid is making is "don't let the perfect be the enemy of fucking doing something."  Miss Astrid is very audience oriented, and if you know me, I took an instant liking to her.  As an entertainer, we are there to provide the audience with an experience.  The audience owes us nothing; they already bought their ticket.
Scott Ewalt provided an incredible survey of the history of male burlesque.  That hour and a half alone was worth the entire trip!

Knowledge shared, lessons learned, new friends made, sense of community greatly enhanced -- needless

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Marketing the Desirable

It has been almost a month since he posted it, but Jon Keevy's blog entry about marketing keeps bubbling to the surface of my thoughts.  It may be his opening:
Theatre is great. Most anyway. Actually only some. But 90% of everything is crap and people don’t avoid cinemas because 90% of the films suck.
I have a theory on this (surprise, surprise) but I'm not going to rehash that here.  (Read it if you're interested.)

Keevy makes some excellent points that bear thinking about.
Look, I don’t have a degree in marketing or sales or anything other than theatre. But I can see that if you are not giving people reasons to see theatre then they won’t. I go watch shows because I work in theatre, I have a professional interest. So if you see me at your show it’s not because you did anything right. You can only measure that by counting strangers.
I wonder sometimes just how insular the world of theatre is.  "Friends and family" is my usual shorthand for what I see as the broadest cross-section of the theatre-going audience.  At least at the chicken scratch level of Equity waiver. 

Yet in the burlesque world, total strangers make up the majority of any given house.  There are hardcore fans to be sure, and performers will attend each other's shows out of professional interest, as Keevy says.  But somehow this very rough sort of theatre has little problem packing people in.  Perhaps it's the half-naked women?  Well, okay.  But there are far more bikini bars and strip clubs in Los Angeles than there are burlesque shows.  So what gives?

Keevy's point is that successful shows tell people what is being offered, and then deliver that thing.  You can't argue with the simplicity of that assessment, but there is one thing missing from the equation:  Offering something desirable.

Live entertainment depends upon the attendance and active involvement of other people and we must consider what will appeal to them.  "First rule in roadside beet sales: the most attractive beets on top."

"Those are the money beets."

Keevy knows this, of course.  I know he knows this because he's making theatre that people want to see.  For some people, it's second nature.  It's like there's some sort of "entertainer gene" that drives them; a "somnambulistic certainty" such as what filmmaker Fritz Lang said drove him. "Instinct" is another word for it.

First, make desirable theatre.  Second, make people aware of what you're doing.  Third, deliver.

Rinse, repeat.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Another Kind of Green Theatre

Since it's an ephemeral art, it's too easy to make "disposable" theatre; theatre that wastes resources and winds up in the landfill at the end of the day.  If you've ever ended a strike by cramming the final pieces of a set into an overflowing dumpster, you know what I'm talking about.  Also if you've ever had to pay the electric bill. 

Sometimes we repurpose and recycle for economic reasons, not because we are trying to cut back on waste.  Maybe we don't want to use that same bar unit that has been in every play we've produced since we slapped the damn thing together.  We have to use it because it's the piece we have.  Green out of neccesity.

There's another kind of "green" if you will, a kind of conservation that it would behoove us to pay attention to.  The expense of this wastefullness isn't obvious, not at first.  But I guarantee you'll feel it over time:
For many organizations, power and growth come from the idea of having lots of customers and even more potential customers. Lots of eggs, lots of baskets. [...]

For a few organizations, the opposite is true. One basket, cared for and watched carefully. When no one else can focus on and serve that customer as well as you (because you have no choice, it's your only basket) you have a huge obligation but you also have a platform to do great work.
Is your organization wasting audience?  Wasting relationships with other companies, venues, or artists?  Seth Godin makes the pitch that individualized attention opens the door to great work.  Wasting an audience or a business contact or a fellow artist will bite you in the ass.  Eventually you will run out of eggs, and be left holding the basket.  Do great work instead.