The World of Narrative Burlesque
I’ve always been drawn to sneaky art, a surprise that erodes everyday life into something more.
Narrative Burlesque: A Narrative
When I first started performing burlesque, I can’t lie, I was in it for the costumes. I liked the fan-fare of the feathers and the ritual of placing the wig, putting on makeup like war paint. It made me feel invincible to take the stage, to demand attention, not just as a woman, but a woman in control. Every pop of an eye hook, or slow pull of ribbon demands an answer. Didn’t get the response you wanted? It’s up to you to pose a new question. Through this method, my love of burlesque grew into something more than performance. I wanted to catch that feeling and keep it through all artistic endeavors.
After several years of struggling to find my place as a playwright in the Seattle theater scene, I realized that I wanted to feel just as bullet-proof and unfettered in my writing as I did on stage. Melding my two loves together, I began to add burlesque pieces, like musical numbers, into heightened moments in the script. A practice not necessarily new, but new and exciting to me. When a character must make a decision about the trajectory of their life, instead of monologuing, or having a lengthy dialogue with a trusted friend, the music plays, they connect with the audience, and yes, they take off their clothes. Because: Telling an effective story is about honesty. What’s more honest than nudity? The power of the choice to take off your clothes, slowly, deliberately, in front of an entire audience is unmatched by any sentence I could ever write.
The gift I give to the artist is total agency in their most vulnerable moments on stage. Sometimes this is a gift that they didn’t want or ask for, but too bad, they’re getting it anyway.
When an artist creates a burlesque piece, they are set free from expectations and constraints that an actor in a play may have. The performer engages directly with the audience, a practice that is taboo in traditional plays, allowing for the artist to share secrets while simultaneously keeping a few tricks up their sleeve. In burlesque, the performer chooses just how much they want the audience to see in the very moment of the performance.
The use of burlesque in my writing is freeing. A standard play has ties to every fine theatrical work ever written from Hamlet to Sarah Ruhl, just as a classic burlesque piece can evoke a memory of traditional tease Gypsy Rose Lee or Neo-burlesque performer Dita Von Teese. That’s a heavy burden to bear every time you sit down to write, or step out on stage. While respecting that history, I didn’t want to get bogged down into the mire of comparison. Since my writing is the bastard child of both art forms, it feels like I can get away with anything. I take the best of both, smoosh them together, and leave the rest behind. So yes, I will write a play about gentrification that takes place in a dump. And yeah, I’ll write a show where men get eaten for telling women to smile.
It’ll make you feel things and be damn sexy at the same time.
The Anatomy of a Burlesque Performer
Much of what I do would not be possible without trusted and talented performers. The success of the show does not hinge on the writing, but rather the performer’s willingness to play.
A burlesque performer is a special breed of artist. They do it all. From creation of concept to sound design and costuming (yes, I see you gluing thousands of tiny rhinestones to a cut and pasted Goodwill dress). Several artists even self-produce their work, running the box office, accounting, and managing other performers. They come up with an idea. They make it happen
Many burlesque performers are drawn to the art because they can create their own characters, they don’t have to fit into a casting mold of insultingly generic character descriptions: the ingénue, the best friend, the secretary. They can be whatever they want to be without trying to conform to someone else’s idea of beauty. A perfect blend of highly motivated self-starter and unapologetically creative individual, a burlesque performer is game for most anything. Which is why they make amazing collaborators. If you want something done with efficiency, sparkle, and flair ask a burlesque performer.
I have a bounty of respect for that work ethic. Which is why when writing the actual burlesque pieces around the dialogue I only write guidelines for the performer. Usually I have around three song suggestions that catch the feeling of the piece. I provide information on where the performer begins emotionally and what they need to have discovered about themselves by the end. And then I put my trust in the artist to create a piece that sensitively and effectively moves the story along. The work doesn’t end when the actors receive the scripts. I am in the rehearsal room from day one, making rewrites and fielding feedback. These are brilliant artists; it would be foolish to not listen to their suggestions. The writing is always a work in progress, it’s there to support the performer, not the other way around. With a fantastic team of creative individuals, I seek to tell a story that is absurdly honest, strangely beautiful, with a gentle, but firm reflection on society.
But is it Art?
Please remember: Things are always more than they seem at first glance. Burlesque is so much more than taking your clothes off. But it also is taking your clothes off. The magic moments are in the tension and connection between individuals, a silk glove between teeth being slowly pulled to reveal a naked hand. It’s right there between what you choose to show and continue to hide.
Nothing is new.
So don’t get highfalutin about it.
Beg, borrow, and steal your way to the truth of the matter.
Because if you’re going to write a manifesto for the new world, why not make it a little bit risqué?