Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Value of Exclusivity

A Guest Post by Lili VonSchtupp

A couple of months ago there was a conversation in the burlesque community about producers who were demanding exclusivity of their performers. Lili VonSchtupp, the Foul-Mouthed Buxom Godmother of Los Angeles Burlesque wrote the following article, and I am reprinting it here with her permission.
As performers we sometimes forget that without producers there are no shows. Lili is a successful producer of the longest running weekly burlesque show in town. When she speaks, it pays to listen:
Dear performers,
The value of exclusivity runs both ways.
As producers, we have every right to ask for exclusivity. It benefits a producer/show to have you only appear with them. This doesn't make us greedy, or mean we’re trying to keep you from working and making money, this makes us a good business people who want to run a consistent show and keep it going for years. We have seats to sell in order to pay you. The more seats we sell, the more money we have to pay performers and the more we get rewarded for the hard work we do to keep a show going in this economy.
Please understand why exclusivity matters. If someone can see you at 3 or 4 other shows a week, sometimes for less than what I charge for a cover, you have little added value to me as a performer. Why would someone pay $15 to see you at my show when they can see you for free elsewhere doing the exact same thing? Your value as a performer for a show is directly related to your overexposure. More does not equal better. When 10 shows in town all have the same cast, what makes any of them different or special? We have to sell people a reason to see this show.
Very few performers are a huge draw because they are oversaturated. I put all the performers’ names on flyers as a courtesy, rarely as a selling point. How many performers really have enough fans that come to EVERY show to see them, who can help support all the shows the performer is in? But if I have a show of performers not seen elsewhere, that is a huge selling point.
With a huge oversaturation of performers and shows during a recession, what did we think would happen? The bottom fell out. Everyone wants more stage time, everyone wants to be paid more, but there is less audience willing and able to pay. This is all about the math. Think about it: 100 seats times $5, is $500. 10 girls in a show at $50 each, is $500. Um, the producer makes no money for putting on the show. Plus they lose money for printing, production time, marketing, and everything else we do. Sometimes crap money is all a show can pay, exclusivity or not. And if you don't like the terms, don't take the gig.
A misconception in the arts is that value and pay are directly related, but they are not.
Things that make you worth more and thus sometimes paid more:
  1. Scarcity
  2. Level of expertise
  3. Cost of production (Large props and expendable props)
  4. Ticket price and venue capacity
I have well over 250 weekly shows at Monday Night Tease! under my belt, and I require certain exclusivity to some acts, requesting you not perform the same act 2 weeks before or after at another show in LA. I'm responsible for paying you so I do get to set guidelines. If you don't like them, please work elsewhere. I don't take it personally. And neither should you. That is how a free market works.
As a performer, exclusivity benefits you as you grow and build a following over time. You get better and your fans become more rabid. But remember most performers don't ever reach that place. (Sorry to be a rain cloud.) You have to balance the need to be on stage with the desire to sell yourself as a headliner for higher paying events, if they are even available in your town. You have to work hard and do crap gigs for little money to build your skills and build your reputation. We all do. That is called work, and I think some people forget that part. Now, would you rather perform in eight shows a week or just one show a week, and make the close to or the same money? That's how an exclusive contract can help you as you get better.

“But Lili,” you say, “they want exclusivity and don't want to pay more.” Yes, sometimes they do. And the best thing about a free market is...? You can say no. That producer/show will survive or fail because people want to work there or they don't. If enough people don't, it will fail and a new show will pop up in its place. Businesses fail every day. Businesses start every day. Or you can go exclusive at a lower rate, build better shows with your producer and all benefit later as ticket prices can be raised and pay can be increased. YOU need to decide what is right for you.
Burlesque is a part time job for almost everyone I know. You make minimum wage at best, considering call times and total length of the show, or if you do the crazy math, you make $50 for 4 minute act. But it isn't a 40 hour a week paying gig for most people. For every Dita and Dirty Martini, there are (conservatively) 10,000 performers wanting that job!
You all know Dita right? Well, she started in a strip club and did lap dances. Fifteen or more years later she's making good money headlining her own show and doing private events. But it seems most of her money comes from her burlesque adjacent work: modeling, endorsements, a clothing line. She doesn't perform in 10 shows a week anymore. She built a brand: DITA. You should be working toward building yours.
No one said we all get to be stars. Most of us will never make a living as a performer. Maybe you need to reset your expectations for the career you chose. Most of the artists I know are part time, no matter how good they are. There simply isn't a large burlesque circuit of $1000 a week gigs, either for working nightly or for a one-time exclusive fee.
Whenever I get upset about burlesque and the drama, my friend Mike reminds me, "No one got into burlesque to have a boss." And I laugh and remember that yes, it is a just a job; albeit the best job I've ever had, even when I have to be the big bad boss.
Thanks for reading,
Lili VonSchtupp is the producer of Monday Night Tease at Three Clubs in Hollywood, and the Head Mistress of Lili's School for Wayward Girls where she teaches intermediate and advanced classes for burlesque performers.

Funny Stuff

Photo of Groucho via Decaying Hollywood Mansions.

A couple of geniuses, whose opinions I greatly value, both recently posted about comedy, comedians, and comedy clubs.  The geniuses in question are Red Snapper and Scot Nery.

First up is Red:
I sat with an acquaintance of a friend at the show, not someone I knew at all. I chit-chatted before the show with this fellow from flyover country who had never been to a comedy club before. I thought he knew what to expect, but obviously he didn't. You see, he got up during the second-to-last comic's set and shouted at the comic, then threw his water bottle toward the stage before storming out of the club. He didn't like being picked on, especially when it came to jokes of a sexual nature, and he apparently had no idea how comics work.

Two things about comedy shows:
... but you'll actually have to visit her blog to read those two things in her post, entitled  "Am I Right, Ladies?"

Scot published "4 Ways Comedy Gets Poorer," in which he states:
Comedians need to stop complaining that they can’t make a living. I am a professional comedy performer and I’ve seen comedy be devalued over the past 12 years that I’ve been full-time. Because it’s been slow, I’ve been able to see it happening and have had time to get over a lot of my initial anger or fear. I see the depreciation of funny-business as just one example of the evolution of commercial art. Here’s a list of a few things that help to take the monetary value out of comedy. I’ll try to not spout too much nostalgia.

... and definitely go read his list.

Mr. Snapper and Mr. Buddy after our first performance at The Comedy Store.
My comedy partner and I have been testing the comedy club waters with our brand of neovaudevillian shtick, with varying results.  The other performers and staff seem to really enjoy us, but outside of the audience we bring to these bringer shows, the people in the dark seem to be at a bit of a loss when we take the stage. It has been an interesting experience so far, a learning experience.  We don't do jokes about Fifty Shades of Grey or our relationship problems or smoking pot.  Not to say what we do is better than anyone else, it's just very different.

People like different, it seems, enough that we get booked and asked back.  I am fascinated by the audience-performer relationship.  How in seven minutes can my partner and I break down what the audience is used to seeing, get them completely on board with what we're doing, and make them laugh?  How can we clean the slate at the top of the act so that they are able to jump in and join us for our set?

The solution seems to be twofold:  1. Don't think we know it all (i.e. be self-reflective and willing to change) 2. Observe what others are doing and learn from it.

Part of number 1 is to push ourselves to try harder, to connect with the audience, to avoid lazy choices.

Number 2 means booking more shows and going to more shows.  Identifying the "market leaders," if you will, and figuring out how they are doing it.  Not that you can just do whatever Louis C.K. does and expect success -- there's only one of him, and that would be ripping off the shark anyway.  I'm talking about stripping it down and studying the technique, the mechanics behind such things as audience control, joke building, etc.  It's much more boring than just repeating someone else's jokes. 

The older I get, the more I realize that boring is good.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Disclaimer (Reminder)

No one knows anything.

Well, okay.  Malcolm Gladwell knows a thing or two:

The passage to which I wish to attract your attention:
Third thing that Howard did, and perhaps the most important, is Howard confronted the notion of the Platonic dish. What do I mean by that? For the longest time in the food industry, there was a sense that there was one way, a perfect way, to make a dish. You go to Chez Panisse, they give you the red-tail sashimi with roasted pumpkin seeds in a something something reduction. They don't give you five options on the reduction, right? They don't say, do you want the extra-chunky reduction, or do you want the -- no! You just get the reduction. Why? Because the chef at Chez Panisse has a Platonic notion about red-tail sashimi. This is the way it ought to be. And she serves it that way time and time again, and if you quarrel with her, she will say, "You know what? You're wrong! This is the best way it ought to be in this restaurant."


And the reason we thought that -- in other words, people in the cooking world were looking for cooking universals. They were looking for one way to treat all of us. And it's good reason for them to be obsessed with the idea of universals, because all of science, through the 19th century and much of the 20th, was obsessed with universals. Psychologists, medical scientists, economists were all interested in finding out the rules that govern the way all of us behave. But that changed, right? What is the great revolution in science of the last 10, 15 years? It is the movement from the search for universals to the understanding of variability. Now in medical science, we don't want to know how necessarily -- just how cancer works, we want to know how your cancer is different from my cancer. I guess my cancer different from your cancer. Genetics has opened the door to the study of human variability. What Howard Moskowitz was doing was saying, this same revolution needs to happen in the world of tomato sauce. And for that, we owe him a great vote of thanks.
As Hugh MacLeod once put it:

A few days ago I made a heady pronouncement on this blog:
If you dip into the Dramatists back catalog, you may sell more tickets.  But are you really challenging anyone, yourself most of all? Or are you rather playing it safe and painting by numbers?
A bit impetuous, considering the director of IAMA's first up, Shiner, directed a stirring and fresh production of The Elephant Man with the Mechanicals Theatre Group, a production I loved.

I'm really not a purist; I literally have skin in the game*.  I know there are those who think the theatre I make isn't theatre at all.  (Just as I know there are those who bristle at spelling "theater" with an "-re" instead of an "-er.")  But as my friend Scot Nery says, "It's all entertainment."  I get a little cranky sometimes, and like to pontificate on HOW THINGS SHOULD BE.  In the end, the only thing that matters is whether or not the people in the dark had a good time.  If what I consider to be "paint by numbers" theatre gets the job done, so be it.  Some people like Nunsense and some people really dig pretentious, art-for-art's-sake performance art.  They're all right.  It's better, perhaps, to try to understand the variety of forms live entertainment takes than to measure everything by some Platonic rubric -- particularly for a reviewer of live entertainment.

In closing, an exchange from that great masterpiece of cinematic storytelling, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves:

Salaam, little one.

Did God paint you?

Did God paint me? For certain.


Because... Allah loves wondrous variety.

Who am I to argue with The Great One?

*see also The Mr. Snapper & Mr. Buddy Rumpus Revue in: "Ten-Gallon Giggles."

Thursday, August 23, 2012


From a press release issued by The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center:
Due to a last-minute revocation of performance rights, the much acclaimed, ‘Ovation Recommended’ production of Ira Levin’s classic comedy-thriller Deathtrap will be unable to return to the Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center in September as previously announced. [...]
Due to the original engagement’s runaway success, the Center planned to remount the production, but the Estate of Ira Levin that controls the performance rights abruptly revoked them, citing a brief moment of onstage nudity.
Note:  Rights were revoked by the Estate of Ira Levin, not the playwright who actually wrote about two characters in a "full-blown affair," as the press release puts it.

God forbid modern theatre artists breathe new life into an old chestnut.  And by "God" I mean whoever currently holds Ira Levin's intellectual property rights (apparently the only intellectual thing they possess.)

Full press release follows:





Due to a last-minute revocation of performance rights, the much acclaimed, ‘Ovation Recommended’ production of Ira Levin’s classic comedy-thriller Deathtrap will be unable to return to the Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center in September as previously announced. Net proceeds would have benefitted the entire array of the Center’s free and low-cost programs and services.

Directed by eight-time Ovation Award-winner Ken Sawyer, the Center’s production of Deathtrap enjoyed a ten week sold-out run in the spring of this year. Due to the original engagement’s runaway success, the Center planned to remount the production, but the Estate of Ira Levin that controls the performance rights abruptly revoked them, citing a brief moment of onstage nudity.

Following an impassioned appeal by the Center, rights were once again granted, but this time with very strict guidelines prohibiting any onstage behavior that portrayed the two lead male characters having a physical relationship—this despite the fact that in the play the characters are involved in a full-blown affair.

Deathtrap’s famously complex script provides genuine, edge-of-your-seat thrills, and is known for the jolts and surprises that occur along the way. The Center has decided that re-mounting the show with the imposed restrictions would force the play’s central relationship back into the closet, thus compelling the Center to compromise both its mission and its integrity. It would also result in a very different and less effective production than the one audiences had been lining up to see. Therefore the Center has been forced to cancel.

The entire original cast was set to return. They are (in alphabetical order) Brian Foyster, Cynthia Gravinese, Burt Grinstead, Elizabeth Herron, Carl J. Johnson, and Stephen Mendillo. The design team included Joel Daavid (set), Luke Moyer (lighting), Paula Higgins (costumes), and Ken Sawyer (sound). Deathtrap was produced by Jon Imparato, artistic director of the Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center.

Patrons who had already purchased tickets for the extension will receive full refunds. The Center’s box office personnel is in the process of contacting all ticket buyers. The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center is located at The Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place (one block east of Highland, just north of Santa Monica Boulevard), in Hollywood.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Summer Classes with Red Snapper

Ladies: Looking for special skills to add to your acting resume? Casting about for techniques to help you break out of your shell, to tap into your inner sensuality as a performer? Curious about the world of burlesque, and anxious to dip your toes in the sexy, sexy water? You should meet my wife:

(My wife teaches dudes as well. You can always email her for more information if you want to learn some brolesque.)

You may register for classes here.

As a bonus treat, an article from Red that was published on Snippets from Snapper back in May:

Ma Familie

I've established that I have opinions about how my parents feel about my life choices. My mother once said that I was going to do what I wanted anyway so it was best just to stand back while I did it. To create resistance when I was so set on doing something would've been a bad idea. I didn't turn out so bad as a result of this parenting method. 'Genius honors student married for almost two decades who has a penchant for stripping' is better than 'psycho serial killer who wants to show parents not to get in the way.'

That said, it's nice to have a family that's not judgmental or barely tolerant of what I do. It's nice to have them as supporters in my career -- not enemies or gossips or people who change the subject when I talk about what I'm doing. They're more supportive of my burlesque dancing than they ever were of my acting. And yes, they know I take my clothes off.

Last time I visited my hometown, my older sister coordinated a nice dinner so Andrew and I could visit with her family and with my dad. (My dad now has a bumper sticker that says his daughter is stripper of the month at MNT ["Monday Night Tease" - ed.]. Next I'm getting him the t-shirt.) My dad would've attended my show, but he's an old man and his car is out of commission so he couldn't drive there and back. He told all of his friends about it. :) My oldest sister couldn't get away from the special needs of two young ones in her household to come to the show, but she's planning to see me perform next time. My mother remarried a man with failing health, so she's unlikely to get away and stay out late while I do what I do. We did have lunch and she often has encouraging things to say about pursuing my dreams. They've got my back.

But the ultimate in support was for family to see me doing my thing. They so rarely saw me act when I did theatre in their area, so it delights me that they PAID to see me do burlesque. My small sister has always been supportive of my performing and has ventured into the world of poi performing, so it was no surprise that she and her boyfriend bought a table by the stage. What was surprising was meeting my younger brother's fiancee for the first time at the show. (They were high school sweethearts and I'd never met her.) She was with my sister right by the stage. What was even more surprising was my oldest brother and his fiancee watching from the back of the room. My brother is an amazing guitarist and I hadn't seen him in many years. He was there to support me. Holy shit. (I may have surprised him when I gave him a hug after the show when I was just wearing pasties and undies, but I warned him that it's what I do.) My mother-in-law and her husband, her boss and his wife, Andrew's grandmother and youngest sister were all there. They bought a table as well. None of these people in my family are embarrassed by what I do.

It's important to surround yourself with people who have your back. It's even better when your family fits into that category. I'm looking forward to seeing all of them this fall.


We don't make a habit of publishing press releases here at Mad Theatrics.  After all, this is a lowly theatre blog.  We're not desperate for content so we don't have to publish every scrap that hits our inbox.  When we do publish a press release, there's usually a good reason behind it.
In this case, the good reason can be summed up in two words:  "new works."  IAMA Theatre Company's mission statement reads:
IAMA is an ensemble of theater artists seeking to connect and cultivate a new generation of audiences. By promoting new artists and developing new works that challenge and entertain, we hope to produce vibrant, voyeuristic theater that stimulates honest dialogue and sustains the future value of theater within our diverse Los Angeles community.
Two things jump out at me.  First, the aforementioned "new works."  Theatre is of-the-moment and can be a "just-in-time" artform.  Intimate theatre companies have incredible freedom to respond to this moment in time, this plot in space; to develop and produce new stage works that appeal directly to the audience of now.  If you dip into the Dramatists back catalog, you may sell more tickets.  But are you really challenging anyone, yourself most of all? Or are you rather playing it safe and painting by numbers?  A commitment to develop new works -- a commitment backed up by actually doing it -- takes courage and true ambition.
The second thing that jumps out at me, the choice of the word "voyeuristic."  That is a very visceral way to put it.  To me, it sounds like IAMA actually knows the difference between theatre as an artform and theatre as a showcase.  There is something very primal about theatre, something basic to our species: the need to share experiential knowledge, the drive to watch.
Reading over what IAMA has planned for the coming months, I'm looking forward to watching.

The press release follows:
For Immediate Release—August 20, 2012

For the L.A.-based IAMA THEATRE COMPANY’s first season under the leadership of Artistic Director Becca Wolff and Managing Director Mira Greene, IAMA brings works by young playwrights Dan LeFranc, Louise Munson and Christian Durso to Los Angeles audiences for the first time.
World premieres of Durso’s SHINER – named to The Tracking Board’s YOUNG AND HUNGRY LIST 2012 – and Munson’s DO LIKE THE KIDS DO, mark the maturation of two fresh voices in American theater. LeFranc’s 60 MILES TO SILVERLAKE, winner of the 2010 New York Times award for Outstanding Play is an overdue homecoming for this SoCal native and his first L.A. production.
With this season, IAMA continues its quest to shift the nerve center of young American theatre to L.A.
The Season
SHINER by Christian Durso. Opens September 15 at the Working Stage Theatre A wry and nostalgic portrait of teenage love and loss in the 1990s. Inspired by the music of Nirvana, director Neil Patrick Stewart’s production is shot through with the spirit of Kurt Cobain. Featuring IAMA members Graham Sibley and Laila Ayad.
DO LIKE THE KIDS DO by Louise Munson. Opens November 9 at the Working Stage Theatre In the tradition of the American family drama comes DO LIKE THE KIDS DO. This profound and funny play tells the story of a brother and sister struggling to connect in the face of events neither can control. The production is helmed by veteran L.A. actor and director Keliher Walsh and features IAMA members Amy Rosoff and Dean Chekvala.
60 MILES TO SILVERLAKE by Dan LeFranc. Coming in early 2013. Opening date TBA Directed by Becca Wolff, this play about a father driving his son to soccer practice bends time and space, making this ordinary episode an extraordinary reflection of what it means to grow up. Cast TBA
IAMA was conceived in 2007 by a group of young actors eager to create a new theatre movement in L.A. The company members’ talents and commitment to the theatrical form have earned them a devoted local following: “In this industry town, where theater is often the byproduct of actors waiting to be plucked for film and TV, IAMA’s devotion to the stage is fully grounded in its counter-intuitiveness (MetromixLA)”.
IAMA is building on the success it enjoyed with the first six installments of Leslye Headland’s critically acclaimed SEVEN DEADLY PLAYS. Headland joined IAMA as Artist-in-Residence in 2007, and her first two collaborations with the company, BACHELORETTE and ASSISTANCE, received Off-Broadway productions at Second Stage and Playwrights Horizons respectively.
Artistic Director Becca Wolff says, “I joined IAMA for the same reason that audiences are drawn to them. It’s a dream to find a group that makes significant work with such joy.” Wolff earned her MFA in directing at Yale School of Drama and is co-founder of Tilted Field Productions. She brings a decade of experience at theaters including New York’s Public Theater, The O’Neill Playwrights Conference, and LA’s own Son of Semele Ensemble.
To Managing Director Mira Greene, IAMA represents “a perfect storm of passion and talent. It’s thrilling to join them at this point in their growth.” Greene received her BA in Theatre from Smith College and will graduate from California State University Long Beach in 2013 with a dual MBA/MFA in Theatre Management.
For more information on IAMA’s 2012-13 season, contact Artistic Director Mira Greene

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Real Drunk Housewives of the San Fernando Valley

Presented by Oh My Ribs! Entertainment at The Complex

Review by Andrew Moore

Former child star Rikki (Robyn Roth) and emcee Randy (Chris Caldwell Eckert) get "real."

At times surreal and never not funny, Kelly Holden-Bashar and Bill Haller's new musicalette, The Real Drunk Housewives of the San Fernando Valley, is a raucous and entertaining diversion, perfect for a "gals' night out."

Part parody, part fever dream, Drunk Housewives plops us down in the studio audience for the end of season reunion show.  The archetypes are all here, and they are cranked up to "eleven."  Rather than playing us highlight clips, the actresses act out the flashbacks.  Who knew?  Reality TV is a perfect fit for this very theatrical, very presentational treatment.  The songs erupt naturally from the madness.

The music is eclectic, full of lyrical jokes.  "The Bleep Song" trades on the ubiquitous bleeping-out of profanity on these types of shows.  Very funny stuff.  "We're Alive (As Long As We're on Bravo)" is a wry anthem for our age.  The songs would be enough, but we're treated to honest-to-God triple threats in this show, dancing their asses off.  Really, it's a little alarming to reflect on how much talent is committed to such a thin premise.  The show flies because so much care has been put into it, from the songs to the cast.

The ensemble is charmingly twisted and their reality TV creatures are frighteningly credible.  The cast attacks the material with great gusto, perfect comic timing, and musical theatre polish.  Robyn Roth (Rikki) is the stand-out here, turning in a too-accurate portrayal of a former child star turned hopeless alcoholic.  Playing drunk is hard enough; Roth maintains a consistent level of stage-drunkenness that adds to and doesn't distract from her performance.

L to R: Sarah French, Leah Mangum, Chris Caldwell Eckert, Robyn Roth, Jen Rhonheimer, and Ana Cristina

My only complaint: the sound mix.  When the cast sings in unison, nothing is lost, but solos are sometimes overpowered by the music.  Either mic the actors or keep a finger on the master volume, adjusting as needed.  The lyrics are funny -- make sure we can hear all of them.

This show isn't for everyone.  Chris Caldwell Eckert as "Randy," the emcee for the evening, nails it at the top of the show when he says, "Ladies and gay men!"  I imagine this is the perfect way to polish off an evening with your besties.  But even this cynical critic who avoids reality TV like the cultural plague it is laughed his ass off throughout.  So who knows?  If you like to laugh, check it out.

The Real Drunk Housewives of the San Fernando get real on Saturday, August 18th at 10 pm, and Saturday, August 25th at 8 pm and 10 pm. Tickets are $25.  Runtime is just shy of an hour. The Complex is located at 6468 Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. Street parking is available, but it's Theatre Row in Hollywood: You will have to do laps to find a spot. Get there a little early.

Visit Oh My Ribs! for more information, including a link to purchase tickets.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

One Mint Julep

On June 22nd, I found myself at Polesque L.A., an evening of competitive pole dancing.  It was a blast!  If you're turning up your nose at the thought, you clearly haven't seen really good pole dancing, and you have no idea what you're missing.

This was my favorite act of the night, and easily some of the best theatre I've seen this year:

Crystal Belcher of Houston lights up the room with her take on "One Mint Julep."

The pole is a phallic symbol.  Crystal takes this idea and runs with it, personifying the pole as a man she encounters, romances, and eventually marries.  Her story is very clearly told from beginning (missing her bus) to end (throwing the bouquet and heading off to honeymoon land.)  Her performance is fully committed, and engages the audience.

And it's full of joie:
It means embodying a fullness of spirit; being fully plugged in to the moment-by-moment; being present and active.  It means effervescing -- including and especially in tragic roles!  It means chasing down the invisible in a tenacious effort to make it visible. 
Video replays of live events rarely hold up on their own, but Belcher's performance is so joie-filled it reaches out across the 1's and 0's that compose this digital echo and delights.  Outstanding work.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

19 Years

photo by Jason Kamimura Photography
My wife and I are a week away from our 19th wedding anniversary.  She reminded me of this guest post I wrote for her burlesque blog, Snippets from Snapper:
“Doesn’t it bother you that people are watching your wife take her clothes off?”

I slowly stir my Jack and coke, a wry grin creeping across my face. I’ve been married to the same wonderful, talented woman for almost 19 years -- over half my life. No answer could possibly encapsulate all the pride I take in her accomplishments, all the happiness she brings me, and the depth of my devotion to her. She is my best friend, my lover, and my muse.
Go to her blog to read the rest.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Live Nude Theatre

Bas-relief of a scene from a Roman Satyr Play.
(CC BY 2.0) ForsterFoto, licensed under Attribution License.

I've been thinking about stage nudity lately.
My most frequent experience has been Naked Girls Reading, a bi-monthly production of some of my burlesque friends. My wife is often one of the naked girls and so I've been the booth operator for a couple of shows, have been audience for others, and I have noticed some very curious things.
First, the show is built to drive in audience members. It's all there in the first word of the title: "NAKED." If it were "Clothed Girls Reading," I doubt there would be quite the same turn-out. Yes, the intent is to titillate before the audience even sits in the house and the house lights dim, but the titillation is short-lived once the show actually starts.
The make-up of the audience is evenly split, men and women. Everyone takes their seat, and you can feel a nervous energy in the room. Chris Beyond, one of the producers of the show comes to the front of the house for a little curtain-warming speech, explaining where the show originated (from the brilliant and sexy mind of Michelle L'amour in Chicago), asking the patrons to turn off cellphones, and informing them that photography of any kind is not allowed.
Each show has a theme ("Fan Service" was all about horror, sci-fi and comic books. "Sea Faire" was pirate-themed) and the set is dressed reflective of that theme. The readers enter, wearing robes over not much else. They sit in couches, chairs, etc. Each reader introduces what she is going to read, disrobes, and reads. Once disrobed, the reader stays nude until all the other readers have read, and they take a brief intermission.
A very simple show. It is literally naked girls, reading. Do you see how, after an hour and a half of the above, the titillation factor wears off? All the audience is left with after the initial "shock" of seeing a naked girl is ... the reading. And this is where the show lives or dies. If the selection is engaging and if the reader is engaged, the audience is engaged. If the selection is boring or goes on too long, or if the reader doesn't really care about what she's reading, the audience begins shifting in their seats, coughing, etc.
When everyone is engaged, something strange happens. The reader is reading something that matters to her. She is completely exposed with literally nothing to hide behind as she shares this important stream of information to a rapt audience. Theatre is about live communion between actor and performer -- it's one of the few things we have over television and film. Nudity in the case of Naked Girls Reading heightens that exchange.

That's my most frequent experience.  My most recent experience was quite a bit different.  Back in June I caught Matt Morillo's The Inventor, The Escort, The Photographer, Her Boyfriend, and His Girlfriend at the Lounge.  In the second act, the titular girlfriend (a delightful Jenni Halina) crashes a reconciliation between her cousin and her cousin's boyfriend -- with whom the girlfriend had a dalliance.  The climax of the act arrives as the girlfriend performs a modern dance piece, culminating in her complete disrobing.

It was hilarious and appropriate to the action of the play.  I was taken by the actress' ease and the audience's reaction.  After I published the review, I posed a question on Facebook and Twitter:
"Onstage nudity in stage plays.  Thoughts?"
To my delight, none other than Jenni Halina herself answered my question.  We had a very pleasant exchange on Twitter, and here's what I learned.  (Note:  Our exchange is slightly edited to compensate for the imposed brevity of 140 characters.)
In the review I noted that the nudity seemed entirely unexploitative.  Jenni agreed: "Yes, I feel that way now. I wouldn't have done it had I not understood that."

"I didnt want nudity," Jenni said, "tried to change it, they said no. The others [other actresses in the play] get down to underwear [and it] wouldn't be enough contrast to do the same."
Absolutely true.  I would add that the character is more of a free spirit than the other women in the play.  Jenni did an excellent job portrarying that freeness of spirit, but the visual knocked it out of the park.  I asked her if it was in the script or if it grew out of rehearsal.  "SCRIPTED," she said.  "He [the boyfriend character in the play, "John"] says she doesn't wear panties, she's uninhibited. She's trying to get the other woman to leave."  So yes, the playwright/director knew exactly what he was doing with this moment.

I asked her if being nude onstage in anyway changed her experience of the audience; was she more aware of them?  Less?  She responded, "Neither actually.  In any show, I block out the audience."  Fair enough.  But, she added in regards to her costar, "I felt more confident with my 'boyfriend,' it felt realistic."  Now that's interesting. "Everyone has a body. Everyone gets naked. Playing real life on stage -- to not do something because of the audience, it's fake no?"
I asked her if she was nervous about it.  "Not about the performance, more the reaction. And my cast is supportive, though we all laughed a lot the first time in rehearsal."  I imagine!
It's easy to write off stage nudity as a mere marketing ploy or some kind of stunt.  I think that's a mistake.  I think it can be a storytelling tool -- a potent tool, to be sure.  How much of that potency is due to society's view of the naked body and how much is due to the inherent symbolic power of nudity is one more thing I don't know the answer to.  At any rate, this is a subject I find fascinating, and I intend to explore it further.