Sustainable Nerdlesque: a look back at Seattle’s “Summer of Nerdlesque”.
~ Written by Paul O’Connell (with additional contributions from Jessica Price)
“Nerds and boobs and Joss Whedon might be the cause of the sell out…but a damn good show is what will make my audience want to give burlesque a second try.” – Jo Jo Stiletto
Summer is coming to a close, and with it we reach the end of “The Summer of Nerdlesque” (as it was affectionately dubbed by producer Jo Jo Stiletto). Four prominent themed shows (Behind the Blue Door: A Dr. Who-Inspired Cabaret, Stark Naked: A Nerdlesque Tribute to Game Of Thrones, JOYstick! and Whedonesque Burlesque: Burlesque Inspired by the Works of Joss Whedon) played to sold out audiences throughout the summer. (Full disclosure-I was in both Whedonesque and Stark Naked). Of course this isn’t the first time burlesque has been devoted to geek culture or parody. Historically, burlesque has been a form of commentary on popular culture- but never before have there been so many shows in Seattle mining the seemingly endless supply of pop culture underdogs. And they’re doing it with impeccable attention to detail.
In addition to this summer’s main shows, many individual acts within variety formats have incorporated fan-based inspiration (Iva Handfull’s Napoleon Dynamite or Prince tributes, for example). Black Lodge Burlesque, a David Lynch themed show, hits Seattle October 12-13 courtesy of Portland producers Sign of The Beast and Go Go Rocket. Also from Portland, Critical Hit Burlesque will soon collaborate with Jo Jo Stiletto for Geeklesque Unites!
While burlesque has always given performers license to formulate ideas based on hidden obsessions, with nerdlesque it might just be something you never openly admitted was sexy before. (Jo Jo Stiletto breaks this down in her article over HERE). With this much buzz about the actual substance and the future of nerdlesque, one thing is clear: it’s brought new faces to shows and triggered many new ideas. In live performance, that’s never a bad thing. With this in mind, we talked to the producers of this summer’s crop of shows (Vixen Valentine of Behind the Blue Door, Wiggy Stardust and Madeline Rider of Stark Naked, Steve Stone of JOYstick!, Jo Jo Stiletto of Whedonesque) about their experiences and what the future holds for burlesque and its geeky sibling.
We started off by asking what doors have opened regarding new concepts for burlesque, and where these types of shows might go in the future…
Jo Jo: I wouldn’t say that what these shows are doing is exactly new to burlesque. It’s merely repackaging. I know that I’ve seen many acts that are heavy on the narrative or commentary on pop culture. So while I think Miss Indigo’s Wonder Woman act is brilliant for standard audiences…imagine her doing that act in front of an audience comprised with folks who are very well versed in the history of Wonder Woman. That audience will lose their minds.
Madeline: There is a line when creating fan art between impersonation or imitation, and parody or satire, and when creating these acts it’s important to address your underlying motives and ask yourself who you are creating for. Pop reference is a huge tool within burlesque but I think the same problem that exists in the non-nerdlesque world, exists in the nerdlesque world- that when I, as a producer, am charging people money to see my show, I am obligated to deliver them entertainment worth their dollar and that THAT takes work. At the same time as a newbie producer, creating within the nerdlesque genre was an incredibly safe and empowering experience because I was surrounded by people like me who got what I was aiming for. But like I said, with power comes responsibility.
Wiggy: I was worried about creating this show because even though it sounded FUN and potentially lucrative, I am really interested in projects that are socially engaged, and wasn’t sure if this project would fit the bill. Luckily, working with a similarly-minded co-producer and choosing some really awesome and thoughtful talent meant that those were conversations we had, and that we could parody pop culture instead of just reproducing it outright. And it is great to be working within the framework of a fantasy novel, because it attracts a different audience than other burlesque shows. You get people in the door that haven’t necessarily been to a burlesque show before, who are there because of the theme, and you can nerd out with them. It’s really exciting.
How well do these fan based cultures/themes and burlesque play together?
Vixen Valentine: Fans of a particular niche are very passionate about it and love being around people who feel the same way. Burlesque is also a wonderful voice of the audience, to bring to light the stories that might not have happened, but we all wish that did.
Jo Jo: Nerd culture and burlesque culture are excellent bedfellows. Fan culture, when you boil it down, is really about passion. Burlesque is about exploring passion in front of a live audience. Nerdlesque doesn’t need to only be about fan art. Some nerd acts have no “source material” in pop culture. Busty Keaton in Boston does an act in which she shows her own history of getting bullied and then transforms into a super hero. Also, the Wil Wheaton act that Scarlett O’Hairdye created for Whedonesque Burlesque, when you strip away the Wil Wheaton merkin and insignia pasties, is just an act about a kid that grows up to be cool. It’s the “It Gets Better” nerd act.
Wiggy: I think the two go together very well. Burlesque is all about constructing fantasy (even a straight glamour piece does that). When you combine the over-the-top elements of burlesque with the over-the-top elements of high fantasy (as in a fantasy novel), there is so much potential to use narrative and create little alternate worlds, realities, and character sketches. Fan fiction is already ridiculous and hilarious, and adding burlesque into the mix makes it sexy and opens the door for cultural critique.
Steve: These worlds mesh together excellently. Cos-Play itself is one of the original public odes to nerddom and nerdlesque is one of those branches that have been created from that. For years, nerds were told to hide their obsessions and were constantly ridiculed in one way or another for it. Nerdlesque challenges those cultural norms as well as the ones that burlesque on its own does. The challenge for the performer, however, is staying true to what they are representing. These cultures are built on staying true to canon. A performer’s lack of knowledge of a character can easily lead to a negative response from the audience.
Legendary NYC performer Tigger! once said of burlesque performance that as males, we are here by invitation. The originating subject matter of the 4 biggest nerdlesque shows this summer are mostly dominated by males (meaning the writers, creators, or ideas came from a somewhat male-centric foundation). We wanted to know the producers’ thoughts about bringing these male-based shows into the primarily female world of burlesque? Are fan-based shows providing a new playing field in which creative women and men can collaborate in burlesque?
Vixen Valentine: When you take these male-based shows and bring them into a female dominated art form like burlesque you change the voice and perspective. We can take the things we love and celebrate it or take something that didn’t sit well with us and satirize it. The entire subject is up for scrutiny and allows the performers to give their own take on it.
Wiggy: Madeline and I were hyper-conscious of the way that women are portrayed in the Song of Ice & Fire series. There are some moments in those novels where women are totally equal players, and others where sexism is the driving force, and we wanted to address that by encouraging those playing female characters to be strong and sexy, and have agency. I think it’s especially great for our female-dominated genre to be exploring some male-based narratives and characters, since in those books, males are often subjects while women are objects. The stories we (women) often hear do not have women as agents in their own lives, even if they are the main characters of the books, movies, or shows we watch. Writing and performing our own stories, even if they are based on characters from elsewhere, is a fantastic and potentially empowering exercise. Taking male and female characters out of those novels, giving them agency, and telling a story about them can recontextualize them, and that is really important for women to be doing in particular.
Madeline: Burlesque has historically provided a forum for the marginalized to be heard. Like Wiggy said, we are integrating burlesque performance within already established fan-culture and as women, an under-represented population within nerd culture, are given the opportunity to tell the stories the way we want to. I’m not sure if this is collaboration or cross-pollination since we have pulled our inspiration from the work of male mega-celebrity writers, directors, and creators but I think it could be should we decide to work personally with local opposite-gender authors or film-makers. Maybe that’s what’s next: Sustainable Nerdlesque.
Jo Jo: Hollywood is dominated by men. Gaming culture is dominated by men. Nerd culture is dominated by men. Comic book stores are dominated by men. Ah, but in burlesque, you’re right, the women control the space. It’s a space welcome to male collaboration, as you well put it. Burlesque needs more exploration of male influence…all expressions of “maleness”. But, also, burlesque needs more attention as being a feminist art form. The founders of GeekGirlCon seem to understand that. I think that’s pretty powerful on its own. A feminist geek convention has embraced burlesque. That says something about subverting the traditional male gaze associated with burlesque and male dominated nerd culture.
I’d argue that the Whedonverse is already a pretty feminist space. Yes, Joss is a man. But, frankly, he is one of the most feminist writers in Hollywood. And many of his important collaborators are women. Jane Espenson was a great role model and influencer of our show.
The summer of nerdlesque was feminist burlesque, without a doubt.
JOYStick! was a fundraiser for GeekGirlCon, a feminist geek convention. And, despite the completely insulting review from the Seattle Times that seemed to think this show was targeting fanboys and their boner potential, I believe these shows were created for a feminist geek audience. It’s about everyone’s boner potential.
Here are some things coming up from our producers:
Valentine Vixen has been hired to take Behind the Blue Door to Con-Volution 2012 in Burlingame, California the first weekend in November.
Wiggy and Madeline would love to take Stark Naked to Portland and incorporate some PDX burlesquers to the show. (This is definitely a real possibility since our dear Madeline has moved to Portland this summer).
Steve Stone will be hosting Geeklesque Unites! on October 19 at Re-Bar as Vanadium Silver. Steve and Kelly Clark of GeekGirlCon will be starting a production company known as Lost In Thought Productions; they are working with Lady Laycock (JOYstick!, Whedonesque) to produce An Evening at Merlotte’s in the winter. They’re also hoping to present JOYstick! Level 2 next summer.
Jo Jo’s next production is Geeklesque Unites! with Critical Hit Burlesque from Portland, Oregon. Next up she’ll be at BurlyCon, where she will host a “Nerdlesque Happy Hour” in hospitality. She will also be part of a panel on nerdlesque featuring speakers who’ve had firsthand experience performing, producing and researching nerdlesque. Her next big concept show will be the Burl-X-Files (an X-Files tribute show) in summer 2013.