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.

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