Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Shittest Burlesque I've Seen. A response.

You will, undoubtedly, have by now read the post on ThisIsCabaret.com entitled "The shittest burlesque I've seen", written by the pseudonymous Alita O'Ginn.

It made me sad.

The central issue of the piece seems to be how tired Alita has become having to watch burlesque performers that don't reach her standards. How annoying it is to have to endure anything but the very best. It must be simply awful for her.

"Do it well or don't do it at all", she says. And here's the problem.

Yes, of course, there are many awful burlesque performers. There are also many awful comedians, newsagents, shoe designers, R&B stars and, well, everything. And yes, some of the awful burlesque performers have been doing it long enough to know better, and just seem not to be able to develop. It's the same in every art form, and it's a shame, but it's the way of things.

Most of the less good burlesque performers, though, are also the less experienced. And that's where Miss O'Ginn's opinions become something a little nastier. To say "Do it well or don't do it at all" to a newbie is to ignore the most basic and important quality of being an artist. To mature. To develop. To let one's art reflect one's growth as a person. That's key. That's being an artist.

Nobody started out fully-formed - certainly not me. It took me at least a decade to even begin to find the things that make me, me. I guarantee that whoever your favourite cabaret, burlesque or comedy performer is, they started out nothing like the person you see and love today. They started out, in all probability, shit. Or at the very least unoriginal, unsure, tentative and scared. Then, as their confidence increased, as their knowledge of stagecraft deepened, as they started to have more faith in themselves as an artist - as someone who can create - they slowly inched towards all the things you like about them.

But this process is hard. It's often painful. It takes bravery and confidence. And if there was someone rolling their eyes and saying "Do it well or don't do it at all", then that fragile confidence might well be punctured, and your favourite performer might run away back to their bedsit and never get to the glorious side of their chrysalis journey.

Miss O'Ginn seems to think that burlesque must either be sexy or funny, but surely it can so much more. It can be clever, thought-provoking, political, surreal - all the things that theatre can be - because that's what it is - a theatre form. Now don't get me wrong - I don't think those that fail to learn, or fail to take those tricky steps into originality, should be indulged forever. I take my shit very seriously, and I expect people I share a bill with to have the same levels of psychotic commitment, but people who aren't there yet have to be given a certain amount of room to try. Their artistry should be encouraged, not their failings punished.

And you know what? I've seen this happen before. A long time ago, when my circuit wasn't cabaret clubs, but was street theatre. There was a time when the established performers felt a little threatened by the influx of new performers. In response, some rules were discussed that would favour the old guard - make it easier for them to get better show times, stuff like that. The rationale was that because the younger performers didn't have such good shows, they shouldn't get the lucrative lunchtime slots. It was ugly, transparent and nasty. And you know what happened? The young performers went elsewhere and spread the word that the Covent Garden performers were cliquey, unwelcoming bullies. And they were right. The scene stagnated and the level of quality of the shows dropped. It harmed everyone.

I love the cabaret and burlesque circuit. I love that the people who make it up are open, non-judgemental and genuinely loving. When I work a stand-up club it's a very real shock that the acts don't all hug and kiss each other and hang out watching and enjoying each others work. Cabaret is different. It's a family, and like any family there are the parents, the respected elder sisters and brothers and the young sprogs and foster care kids we take in. The family that I love - and that perhaps you have feelings for too - happened because of an open door policy. You want to come and play? Cool - come play. Maybe you'll be shit and realise that it's not for you and leave, or maybe you'll become something amazing, beautiful and important, and maybe it'll take a decade to figure out which of those two things you are. We will encourage you, give you ideas, tell you what's not working and let you buy us a cocktail.

That's why the article made me sad. Not angry, not frustrated. Sad. Sad that a website devoted to celebrating burlesque and cabaret has got its highest hit count out of a piece effectively telling three-quarters of that circuit to give it up. But mainly sad because this kind of grumpy gate-keeping has no place in the cabaret family that I know. The cabaret family that I'm a part of doesn't have a gatekeeper. We want the family to grow, so we put out the welcome mat and we leave our door unlocked.



19 comments:

Ginger La Rouge said...

Great post, Mat. When I was starting out, I read an article in which an established performer answered the question 'What advice would you give to new performers?' Her response was 'If you're not planning to make a career of it, don't bother'. I was disheartened at the time, although I now realise she was probably just frustrated at all the new (and mostly shit) performers making it more difficult for her to get gigs and driving the market rate fee down, and changing the public perception of what burlesque is for the worse. Now I've been at it almost 5 years, and I try to find a balance of encouraging new performers, while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of quality. It's a difficult line to tread.

Jayne Hardy said...

Well said that man! J

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful encouraging and inspiring post, Thank you.

Pixie Truffle said...

You've just turned me straight. This sums up exactly how I feel in a way that I have pre-ambled, rambled and equivocated. Absolutely superb response and thank you so much.

Heidi Waddington said...

Fabulously put. I really hope everyone who read the original article also reads this one. Thank you x

Amanda Mae Voodoo said...

HERE HERE! What a lovely response Mat.
Why try and put a restriction on an artform. It doesn't work - it's the nature of the beast. It evolves, it changes and alters and something else turns up entirely, equally brilliant and maybe even more challenging.
And even top of their game performers have off days. Are they going to be told to give up and go home too?

Amanda Mae Voodoo said...

HERE HERE! What a lovely response Mat.
Why try and put a restriction on an artform. It doesn't work - it's the nature of the beast. It evolves, it changes and alters and something else turns up entirely, equally brilliant and maybe even more challenging.
And even top of their game performers have off days. Are they going to be told to give up and go home too?

pete saunders said...

Good points ...cabaret performers aren't subsidised , no sick pay no salary we live from gig to gig. If we are no good we dont get booked ...even if you don't personally like some ones act you can admire them for what they achieve with an audience. Don't need some one hiding behind anonymity to knock others trying to earn a living. In this business people learn as they work ,its quite darwinian ,if they dont you don't see them any more .Ultimately its the audience who we have to impress not people who have "seen too much" of some thing.

pete saunders said...

Good points ...cabaret performers aren't subsidised , no sick pay no salary we live from gig to gig. If we are no good we dont get booked ...even if you don't personally like some ones act you can admire them for what they achieve with an audience. Don't need some one hiding behind anonymity to knock others trying to earn a living. In this business people learn as they work ,its quite darwinian ,if they dont you don't see them any more .Ultimately its the audience who we have to impress not people who have "seen too much" of some thing.

emilyw said...

Hear Hear.

I meet so many people in all walks of life who don't want to try something because they worry that they will be shit at it. How many great performers, artists, writers and leaders wouldn't be here today if they had stopped after their first work turned out to be a bit shit?

"Thomas Edison tried over 9,000 designs before he created a working light bulb. A young reporter asked him how he felt after having failed 9,000 times. Edison replied, 'I didn't fail - I just learned 9,000 ways not to make a light bulb.'"

Ben Cooke said...

Yeah... I've changed my mind about that whole thing now, thanks to reading this.* Beautifully written. Nicely done.

*I want to make it clear that this does not mean that I am overly suggestible and/or easily led (goes off to reestablish punk credentials by, I dunno, kicking a puppy or something).

Chris Wood said...

Absolutely spot on. Magnificent response.

C Woolway said...

I wholeheartedly agree with this. I'm not a cabaret artist but I am a performer. I have VHS tapes of the first shows I was in and I wasn't great. I like to think I wasn't that bad, but I wasn't amazing. If you had told me then that I'd be taking leading roles and doing Shakespeare I would never have believed it! I also would never have believed it if given a small part now I'd make an effort to make it the highlight of the show, rather than turn around and think "maybe next time".

I also go to a lot of nerd conventions and dress up in homemade costumes. I look back at the costumes I made when I started back in 2007 and I cringe at the fact that I put my name and face to those costumes, they were so badly made. Same goes for the books I write - there are some I wrote at the beginning that I'll never allow to see the light of day again because they are nothing compared to what I write now.

I guess my point is that people are born good or bad at something. Whether they stay good or bad at it is a choice, a decision whether to put that effort in.

Dita didn't walk out into the world as a star one day, it took years of determination and refinement.

mama said...

thank you mat for your response to this...im a newbie..www.nannydora.com but ive decided to step away for the scene for the near future...i wanted to be part of a welcoming world and for the most part it was but behind it was always unacceptance of newcomers, people trying something different and having ambition. i found certain areas of the country cliquey. all i wanted to do was have fun entertaining others and using my performance training to good use instead i felt obliged to prove to others i had a right to be there...and as you so rightly say it made me sad. too sad to stay around.

Scott The Magician said...

Well said. Very well said.

Steve Kaos said...

Brilliantly and jolly well put squire, I agree entirely and wholeheartedly (is that one word?) Aside from being mis guided the review was frankly rude and there is no need for that, the 'family'of the circus & performing world is possibly the single most biggest thing that got me started (some time ago..) Good work Matt x

Zola Spud said...

Well said that man!

Tricity Vogue said...

Your thoughtfully-argued response to This Is Cabaret's article on shit burlesque raises a compelling counter-argument to Alita's, that must chime with any performer - it certainly does with me. I remember all too well the indifference or, worse, hostility, I encountered when I first took to the stage as Tricity Vogue, and I also remember the seasoned musician and the ex drag queen who took me aside and counselled me in why this had happened and what tactics I should use to get the audience's attention and approval. I also remember the grizzled old stand up comic who told me gently, "It's just stage time. You just need to rack up some more stage time and you'll be fine." (So they're not all bastards to newbies on the comedy circuit after all - at least, not in private.)

When I started out, I thought I knew it all, and it's taken almost a decade of doing cabaret to knock the hubris out of me. But I am also a writer as well as a performer, so I want to say to Alita O'Gin, in the same open-door spirit of acceptance and encouragement, that although I may agree with you that "Do it well or not at all" is a harsh command to give any performer, I still want to read her next piece for This Is Cabaret, because I found her honesty of opinion engaging, and I truly hope she will continue writing, just as I hope, like you, that burlesque performers with a passion for the scene they've found will continue performing.

This Is Cabaret's website is also a newbie, and I sincerely believe that those of us on the cabaret and burlesque scene should offer them the same support you so rightly encourage us to offer new performers while the site finds its feet, its voice, and its place in the cabaret and burlesque firmament. Even if we don't always like everything they do or say. And, despite being a contributor on the site, I don't always like everything they do or say myself - but I want them to keep growing, and stay a part of our cabaret world. Thank you, Mat, for making us all think about what we have, as a cabaret family. I appreciate the reminder to cherish it.

BigChief RandomChaos said...

Well said - the article disturbed me too a bit - I'm old enough now to have been through various performance scenes in my time and it's always a bad sign when established performers start trying to make rules as to what should or should not be seen