A Producers Take: Producing Burlesque Shows

**It has been pointed out that I should clearly mention that I am a SEATTLE based performer and producer (though I travel as a performer both nationally and internationally) and my opinions on producing have mostly come from my experience in Seattle. This piece is meant to start a conversation, not to be an end all to producing. There are many ways to see a community and to create a piece of art. Happy teasing, ya’ll!

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Producing shows is a point of pride for me, and because of my successes and failures over the past 3 years of producing burlesque shows I thought that it would be useful to some to write about some of my opinions about producing a good, entertaining and successful show.

I know that all over the world, especially in cities congested with burlesque performers a backswing is happening. I personally feel that while burlesque is getting more recognition in popular media with classes, movies and shows, the hard working, solid burlesque performer often finds themselves suffering a bit more than they should to be a respected fancy lady and to make their art.

I feel like I should provide a little bit of back-story so that you can decide whether you want to read on or not. I am a Seattle based performer and producer. I began burlesque 6 years ago (2005) after finding out about shows while I was pin-up modeling and studying jazz. At first I volunteered in shows, being a stage kitten, from there became a stage manager, then a burlesque performer. I have been in 2 troupes, and 3 years ago I left the troupe life to find out what I could become as a solo performer. In my adventures of being a solo performer I’ve performed in many corporate gigs and festivals, internationally, nationally and locally, as well as competing in the Burlesque Hall of Fame’s Best Debut competition in 2010. During my career I’ve also produced over 100 shows (some of them better than others, of course), with a small number of those being single show productions-many with producing maven Hottie McNaughty (check out her benefit burlesque productions!), a week-long tour down the West Coast (Sin On Heels) that had a cast of Seattle’s and San Francisco’s acclaimed performers, and finally becoming the producer of Burlesque Behind the Pink Door for almost the last 2 years. Burlesque Behind the Pink Door is a weekly, Saturday night cabaret with a rotating cast of well-versed, polished, experienced performers. In my care I’ve instituted a producing protocol, and require an audition, either in person (if local) and requiring 2 videos and a resume/website for out of state. It’s a show that has been a Seattle institution for over 7 years, and some very, very talented women have produced this show, a show that I hope to only improve as the years go on and I put my mark on it.

I’ll go on to say that I take my producing duties very seriously-I know that I have chance to create a show that will keep the history of burlesque alive. I think it’s our responsibility as good performers to propagate good, solid burlesque and to reward professional, polished (you can be polished and new!) performers by only booking them in shows. I expect my performers that I hire to be honest, communicative, on time and professional both onstage and off. That way-everyone gets what they want-my audience gets a great show, I get a good relationship with my performers and my venue, and I can help promote the history of burlesque. My reputation for being a hard working performer and producer is very important to me. I live and breathe burlesque. I find it enthralling, challenging and fun. By being professional and doing everything in my power to be as good as I can be-I hope to have a long, fun career making costumes, performing, teaching and producing shows.

I really do think that producing shows, especially- burlesque is an art to be honed over many years. I am a better producer today that I was 3 years ago. And I intend to continue to grow. I make mistakes, and do everything in my power to correct it quickly, at times eating costs and swallowing my pride. Anyone can produce a show, and in fact I encourage anyone with the desire to produce to try it, but I hope that they might read my piece first before considering to do so. When you produce a burlesque show, know that what you create represents burlesque as a whole to all of those new people that may come to your show. You are helping them to either fall in love with it-or find it boring and uninspiring.

When you create a show, you are bringing another show into your community. Does your community need another show? Or do those shows in your community need to be lifted up and promoted in order to make burlesque a more stable commodity in the entertainment world? More is not necessarily better. Sometimes more dilutes the potency of the sparkly product.

If you are producing a show for the sole reason of being the star or creating more work for yourself-please reconsider. Re-evaluate what you’re doing on stage or how you’re behaving in the community that is making you un-hirable. Very seldom is it jealousy that is hindering your participation in other shows-which is great-it means that you can change something and increase the odds of your being hired. Even go as far as asking producers why you haven’t been hired, or even asking them to consider you for a gig is how you help the quality of your product, which is YOU. But remember- producers have a vision for their show, and sometimes you simply don’t fit it. So don’t argue if they tell you that they’re not going to hire you. Just move on. I personally experience more and more as I grow into a “veteran” performer (whatever that may mean) and new producers don’t want to shell out for my product. Also, I know that because I’ve mostly retired my neo acts that those shows won’t be contacting me as much any more. Some producers seem to simply not dig me. Sometimes it can sting, but I try to check my ego. I do check-ins with my teachers and peers, and just work on improving and working harder than I did yesterday.

Now that that’s out of the way- let’s say you still want to produce a show. Most excellent! Please remember that now, as a producer of a show that you are responsible for much more than if you were just a solo performer. And this is great, but it can be incredibly stressful. You now get to have a vision for more than just your solo act-you get to create the tableau that the audience will experience. The audience sees things in a few ways 1) The individual acts (including quality of performer) 2) how all of the performers fit in the show together 3) whether the show ran smoothly 4) whether your show created an environment different from other shows similar to yours.

I think that in order for you to create a good show (to an outside audience-I’m not talking all of our sparkly co-horts) that you should hire talented, professional people before you even consider for a second hiring your friends.

(**I know that many of you might ask: How can a newbie break in to the business, and I’d suggest that I’ve seen a ton of talented and polished newbies, and newbies that work their butts off to get to a polished point. They get mentors, take classes, and volunteer for shows and learn. And they audition.)

I do realize that this is very much a DIY community, but if we want to continue to have venues open up their spaces and sometimes wallets to us, we need to strive to put on a great show. If everyone happens to be your friend and they are great-awesome. But avoid having your friends nudge their way onto your roster simply because you can’t say “no”.

If you are considering being in your own show-don’t make yourself the “star” of the show. Book people at your level, and better yet- better than you. It will push you to be a better performer and producer. Create your set lists to best highlight the acts and talents of your casts (collaborate with your experienced MC to do this), to take the audience on a journey they won’t forget. Mind act colors, performer personalities, duplications in props/songs/themes while you create the best set-list possible. It’s awesome to close a show-I know I love it-but if it’s not the best for the show, it’s not the best for the show. When you produce-the show must come first. Your ego about star status should take a major backseat.

Be very aware of the quality of performers and their performances. This is simply knowing how to best present your product to the audience. We are a community, true, but we need to mind those audience members who aren’t in the community but came to enjoy a show. The community might tout a certain performer for their involvement in the community who isn’t necessarily the strongest performer, but it doesn’t mean that you need to have them close, or even perform if they’re not the best for your show. Maybe instead-have them give a speech or a small presentation about their endeavors or specialty. Being a producer doesn’t mean that you buckle under peer pressure, to make everyone happy. It means that you have a vision and you do your best to honor it.

I should mention that this is not how I feel about honoring our “Legends” of burlesque. Legend shows and performances are VERY important. These women are our legacy, and they hold the stories of our past in their delicate hands. Make sure that when honoring a legend that you truly put a place in your show for them, promote their involvement and treat them extraordinarily well for gracing us with their presence. Make sure that the host understands the honor in introducing them. Get their proper introductions, say what they’d like you to say about them. Not all shows have legends though, nor should they if it doesn’t fit with your production. Festivals are excellent promoters of Legend involvement-and a great example of an exemplary legend show is the Burlesque Hall of Fame (and for good reason!).

If you are creating a show that consists of new performers, don’t be afraid to say so in your marketing! Truth in marketing our shows can only help our community. I must say I’m sad to see flyers touting “the best in burlesque”, only to look up their videos and websites to see that they are brand new or “green”. A lot of people love going to newbie shows! Say it’s a newbie show! Too many people say “The Best”. What does the best mean anymore? Please think about how you promote your show and your own work. It does mean something. It’s not just fancy and whim.

(**I’d love to write a thing here about everyone calling themselves “The Queen of…” something, and the like. If you’ve been given a crown by a recognized burlesque organization-use that title! Don’t just give yourself a queenly name just to pump up your ego. Give the queen’s their due. Don’t take away that hard work.)

Making your mark in the community as a producer or a performer is using quality over quantity. You don’t need 15 so-so performers in your show. Five solid (or even 4) performers are all you’ll ever need. More is not necessarily better. Same with how many shows you produce. Produce 1 great show a quarter, and not 4 mediocre shows. Choose how you make your mark.

If you’re lucky enough to have a weekly show (I consider myself very blessed)-you need to take into consideration what the venue is wanting of your show and what the audience requires. If it’s a different show every week-does that mean the cast, or acts? If you have the same performers (ie: a troupe or collective)-does this mean that the acts change every week? Or maybe you do a run of a show for a selected number of weeks? (see: Sinner Saint Burlesque, Seattle WA).

My personal preference is for a different show with different performers every week/month. It’s more challenging in some ways, but no matter when your audience decides to show up again, they’ll be seeing a different awesome show. And they will want to bring their friends again, and they again will see another different show. You hold a show like that together with the quality of performances, your host, and the look and feel of your show and venue. That way the audience feels comfortable seeing something new. It’s not a crapshoot, they know that they are going to get a great show no matter who they see.

No matter how you achieve the look and feel of your show-PAY YOUR PERFORMERS AND STAFF. I also personally have the opinion of not booking performers that play for free. It diminishes the power of talent to get a fair wage. It creates a situation where venues want the cheaper or free performer, sacrificing quality instead of making an investment in proper entertainment. If you’re a performer who’s performing for free, I suggest you stop it-unless you don’t care if someone (ie: a venue or producer) takes you seriously. Set a fair wage (comparable to the rate of pay in your area or for your accolades) and stick to it. Undercutting is a problem in many artistic ventures. If you are a $400 performer (what you usually get and ask for) that takes a $100 gig-you are undervaluing yourself and taking a $100 gig away from a $100 performer. Don’t be part of the problem, be a part of the solution. Again, if you’re not getting booked for the price you think you deserve, go back to the drawing board, re-assess, fine-tune. I personally don’t hire people that I know perform for free just so that they can perform. That being said I don’t punish people for performing for benefits-just make sure you choose your benefits well, and don’t be taken advantage of just so you can set your glittery feet on stage.

Our community needs all types of shows, $5 dollar shows to $25, $50 and up for a ticket, $80 pay, $200 pay and more. There needs to be a place to start and to aspire to get to, if you want to grow and make more, do more. By honoring your pay rate we can inspire venues to be willing to pay for awesome talent. By more truth in advertising an audience will take a chance on a $20 show knowing it will be solid, instead of only hitting a $5 and being seldom impressed because they were expecting more. Work with others, ask your mentors and peers to help you set prices that feel good and fair to you. If you want to produce a show but don’t want to pay performers or pay them their rate then DON’T produce shows. Paying performers also guarantees the expectation of professional behavior-and your job is easier when everyone is taking care of their act. Paying performers ensures that they can continue to create better and better acts, alleviating some of the stress of “how am I going to pay for this fabric for a new costume with my $20 gig money?” I want to see better and better acts from those around me, so paying them is a part of it.

If you have a budget- stick to it. If a performer won’t perform for what you can offer, don’t be angry about it. I know that I have a very strict budget given to me by the owners at my venue, and that it pays about average to slightly higher for most gigs (sans corporate) in Seattle. I wish that it would pay more, and I do ask it to- quarterly. I have performers that used to perform there that will no longer because their asking price is higher-and I respect that. I know that until the mean of pay raises in Seattle (which would be due to a few important factors), I can only offer certain monies. Money is a sticky situation, indeed- so I try to be as transparent about it as possible. You’ll find it hard to get into discussions with performers about money. It seems that how some set their rate is arbitrary, and some won’t want to share their methods. Others just use the highest they’ve ever been paid as their rate, and these are all fine methods- I do wish we all would talk about money a bit more. But that’s another writing piece. J

While we’re talking about money here though-let’s talk CONTRACTS. Some shows, you’ll never need one. Email can be a fine way to talk about money too, in small one-time productions. But when you are traveling, dealing with corporate gigs, being flown anywhere, having to deal with international travel, people you don’t know, or maybe you just have a funny feeling-get it in writing. If a performer sends you a contract, read it and if you agree, honor it. It’s that simple. A performer needs to feel safe and taken care of. A producer also is entitled to protect the integrity of his or her show with contracts as well. I love it when an out of town gig or a corporate gig sends me a contract. It means they see and value me as a business and they want to do business.

On the day of your production- come into the venue clear headed, focused and ready to deal with anything that may arise. Don’t be drunk, and leave personal drama at home. Save it for after and then let the champagne corks fly if you like. Your job is to be as present as possible. As a producer, especially of a big one-off, you’ll be fielding questions from everyone around you, from your stage manager, stage crew, fans, performers, the venue itself, etc. If you have chosen to be in your own show, please still try to be as present as possible. Going off into your own world might be fine for the 5-10 minutes before you step on stage, but know how to click in and out of it. Making sure that your performers are taken care of and happy should be a bigger priority than you getting to sit quietly in a corner drinking a martini.

Making sure that you have a reliable and experienced stage crew is imperative to making your show a success on all levels. Pick wisely and tell each person what you expect from him or her. For example, for all of my stage managers on my roster I have a Google document that outlines their expectations from pre-show to post show. Every single person that you choose to work with reflects your vision as a producer and they are associated with you. For example, if you are the producer of the show with an inattentive and drunk stage manager, others will find out. This is a “who you work with” community. Just be smart about it.

Being in gratitude and genuinely thanking everyone that contributes to your show is the most important piece of after-care you can do. Our communities are so delicate and personal experiences become public experiences in this world. I always remember the kind and professional producers and speak volumes of them when asked about my experience. I try to keep my personal opinions of people out of any critiques I have about a show I didn’t have a lot of fun in, or when I was mis-handled. But I must say, I’m not the only one that tells my peers what producer to avoid if their behavior was atrocious.

I think what I’d most like to impart upon any reader that wants to produce and hasn’t before (or a producer who puts on shows with reckless abandon) is that it’s so very delicate. There are so many variables and permutations when being a producer/performer, and it can be exhausting. I am constantly thinking about the community as a whole and doing my best to put my ego aside in exchange for being fair, transparent and uplifting to a constantly changing and growing burlesque economy.

If you would like to have me teach an intensive on producing in your city or festival, please contact me at The.Golden.Glamazon@gmail.com A small run of Producing classes will be available in the late fall/winter seasons at Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque. In it I will talk about the technical aspects of producing a show, making set lists, dealing with money, venues, etc. Other than that, let’s start a conversation!

3 thoughts on “A Producers Take: Producing Burlesque Shows

  1. Thank you! This was a wonderful read and very insightful. As a fledgling producer this kind of perspective is invaluable. I’ve only been producing for 9 months and I have come so far but there is so much more to learn. The thought of an AoB producing class makes me very excited. I can’t wait to find out more information on it.

    Thank you again!

  2. While I agree with some of your points, for example,professionalism, dedication to honing your craft/skill set and production value/quality, I think this piece assumes the overall tone that there is only one definition or way to neo-burlesque. What is happening currently in burlesque is what happens when anything gains popularity-everyone is clamoring for a slice. You couldn’t stop the dilution of the artform if you tried. It’s part of the natural evolution of a movement. It reaches its apex, declines, rinse, repeat. Burlesque needs to clean up as a whole as it moves from hobby to industry. The business of burlesque currently is an amalgamation of shade and monopoly.

    The notion that the perpetuation of burlesque history past and present belongs to a certain formula is erroneous and representative of a certain single narrative being perpetuated. The advice you give of not producing because you want to work is problematic in an arena where cronyism and the lack of true professionalism is prevalent. Nevermind the fact that most performers of color are having to choose to produce to get booked or to be able to create a narrative that accurately represents their presence and legacy in the artform.

    Alternatively, I give this advice:

    1. If you want to perform/produce burlesque, research the artform in its entirety, not just the last 10 years or the parts that appeal to your sense of aesthetic. Understand the waters in which you tread and thoughtfully consider how to add to them. If you plan to change the definition/perception, be willing to own the backlash that is coming your way.

    2. Get your business straight. There is a plethora of small business and producing information out there. Use tried and true best practices. Be communicative, transparent and fair. There is always opportunity when money flows correctly. It is possible to marry the business of art with the flow of creativity. If it wasn’t there would never have been an entertainment industry.

    3. Make good art. If it is interesting and provocative, they will come. If it’s brilliant, they will stay

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